Free Novels Online Read Home Old Version

Bear Mountain Christmas: Shifter Romance (Bear Mountain Shifters Book 5) by Winters, Sky (1)

Copyright 2017 by Sky Winters- All rights reserved.

In no way is it legal to reproduce, duplicate, or transmit any part of this document in either electronic means or in printed format. Recording of this publication is strictly prohibited and any storage of this document is not allowed unless with written permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Respective authors own all copyrights not held by the publisher.


Bear Mountain Christmas

Bear Mountain Shifters

By: Sky Winters

Table of Contents

My paws crunched in the snow as I ran through the dense forests surrounding Bear Mountain. My breath shot out in hot snorts, and the freshly-fallen powder shook from the low-hanging branches. Nothing made me happier than Bear Mountain in the winter, especially after a heavy snow like the one last night. The grounds were a glittering white, porcelain sheet that stretched out in front of me, broken only by the angled shapes of the oak trees. The air was still and cool, though my thick fur kept me warm.

I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, taking in the quiet peace of the forest. But before I could get too comfortable, a stomping sound came from behind me. Seven massive bears stomped toward me, passing me by, a whoosh of cold air running through my fur.

They were my cousins, and we were out for a little holiday hunt.

One of them, who I recognized as Alexander by the white streaks in his fur across his face, stopped, turned toward me and let out a booming roar, as if to say "hurry up!"

He was right. The hunt was on, and I was wasting precious time.

The pack of deer that we'd tracked was on the move, and the more time I spent gawking at the picturesque winter scene around me, the more distance they could put between them and us. I looked up at the sky, which was a solid sheet of slate gray, the sun a white, glowing blotch behind it. I took in another breath, allowed a brief feeling of contentment to wash over me, the fresh scent of newly-fallen snow mingling with the pine in the air. I was happy to be back home with my family, if only for Christmas break.

Shaking my fur, I started off into a run. Soon, I caught up with the pack and took the lead that I'd lost. I couldn't believe that I was the fastest runner, though I suspected the boys might just be letting me think so.

Alexander held up a paw, directing us to stop. Alexander was the oldest, and despite being only a few minutes older than his twin, Henry, seemed to feel that he had seniority over all of us. Like always, he was taking point in this hunt, and that was fine with me. Along with Alexander, there was his twin, Henry, a big, stout bear who was easily the biggest. Grace, the daughter of Uncle Liam and Aunt Olivia, was her usual withdrawn self, hanging a bit away from the pack and taking everything in. William, the brains, and the son of Uncle Aaron and Aunt Adeline, was in the center of the pack, and knowing him he was already planning some strategy for taking down the deer in the most efficient way possible. But Alexander was the doer, and always ready to lead. The rest of the family was back home at the Swift compound, preferring to stay toasty and warm, sipping coffee by the roaring fire.

Not us; we were all eager to get out and hunt. None of us wanted this fresh snow to go to waste- that's when the deer were ripe for the picking.

We all stayed stone still, waiting for Alexander to give his command. Plumes of steam shot from our snouts, and my limbs felt tense and ready to pounce. We'd spent the previous evening talking big talk about the feast of venison that we'd be bringing home for dinner, and there's no way we were going to come home empty-handed.

The forest was completely quiet, and we were tense with anticipation. Alexander raised a paw as he sniffed the air. I knew that he was a capable leader, but sometimes I'd get the impression that he was a little too gung-ho about doing things his way. And as I turned my attention to Henry, who shifted in antsy preparation to move, I knew that I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

Then, a rustling sounded in the distance- it had to be the prey we sought. Alexander slammed his paw down into the snow, sending up a wild puff of white powder. That was the sign, and he was soon off. We followed behind him, tearing through the untouched snow, carving our way through it. I could smell deer, their meat in my mind already prepared and ready for it. It was strange to feel this way. Normally, I was just your average girl- I liked to party, shop, even liked to study sometimes. But when I was in my bear form the animal side came out, and I wanted to chase, kill, and eat. It was strange…but I liked it.

Soon, Alexander broke from the pack, pounding through the snow and disappearing off into the distance. I watched as Henry, never one to be shown up, picked up the pace of his run, but due to size, was only able to go so fast. Grace and I shared a look as we ran, seemingly both of the same mind about the twins and their endless competing. William, always shrewd, stayed with Grace and me. He was smart enough to know that burning through energy running for no reason other than to show off was a pointless waste.

So, the three of us trotted on, the twins just close enough where we could see them. But after a time, they disappeared. By the time we caught up to the twins I noticed that they were standing still, and no longer in their bear forms. William, Grace, and I all shared a look before picking up the pace and making our way to the twins. And once we caught up with them, we realized soon just why they'd stopped.

In front of Henry and Alexander, among a pool of blood-soaked snow, were two deer. The creatures were dead as could be, their guts were torn out of their bellies and strewn across the snow. A few bites had been taken out of their bodies, but that was it. They'd been slaughtered and left here to rot.

Grace, William and I shifted back to our human forms, the cold air like needles on my skin.

"What the hell happened here?" asked William, stepping close to the bodies.

William was a lean young man, unlike his strapping, well-built cousins. He had sharp features, short, sandy-blonde hair and blue eyes that twinkled with intelligence. He had a half-sister named Bethany, but shifter power hadn't yet presented to her, so she was back at the compound with the rest of the family.

"You know," said Alexander, "for someone so smart, you say some stupid shit every now and then."

William didn't respond; he wasn't exactly the confrontational type. Grace stepped closer to the deer's bodies. She was slim, with skin almost as white as snow around her. Her hair was a fire red, and she moved with silent, careful steps. Then, before any of us could say a word, she dipped her fingers into the red snow.

"Ah, gross!" I said, covering my mouth.

"Ha, gnarly," said Henry, letting out a laugh in that deep, full voice of his.

Henry had the same sandy-blond hair as the rest of the men in our family, his cut very short, and though he was only a fraternal twin to Alexander, they both shared the same well-proportioned, handsome features, their eyes the same hazel as mine. Henry, however, was all muscle, built like a lineman, but one without a drop of fat on his body.

"I don't think it's a good idea to touch that," said William, his voice hesitant.

"Blood's still warm," said Grace.

I looked over the bodies of the deer, their guts dark red and piled to the sides of the poor creatures.

"Whoever did this didn't kill these animals for sport," I said.

"Or food," said Alexander, holding his hand above his eyes and looking out into the distance.

William tensed up.

"There's something else in the woods," he said.

"Someone's hunting on our land?" asked Henry, slamming a fist into his hand. "Not o-"

But before he could finish, Alexander hissed a "shh," cutting him off. Henry silenced himself, but clearly didn't appreciate being told to hush up.

Then, in the distance, the low, mournful howl of a wolf sounded. My blood ran cold instinctively; wolves were the natural enemies of our kind, and if these wolves were shifters…

"There haven't been wolves in this area in decades," said William, fear creeping into his voice.

"Doesn't look like this pack gives a shit," said Henry.

Grace walked to Alexander's side, and the two of them started off into the distance.

"We need to find out more," said Alexander. "We need to know if these are shifters or just some pack that's wandered in the area."

"No way," said William. "You know how much trouble we'll be in if we go chasing after wolves without letting the rest of the clan know."

Henry scoffed. "Pussy."

William's head snapped in the direction of Henry's, anger in his eyes. But William wasn't exactly the type to stand up to someone like Henry. When he realized that William wasn't going to stick up for himself, he shook his head, as if to say "that's what I thought."

"He's right, though," said grace, tucking a stray strand of her brilliant, orange-red hair behind her ear. "We need to let the clan know. It might just be a pack of non-shifters, but we can't be too careful.

Alexander nodded.

"Emma," said Alexander, turning to me. "Go back to the compound and let the rest of the clan know that we're going after wolves."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," I said, holding up my hands. "You want me to go back there and tell them all that you guys did the one thing that we're not supposed to do?"

"We need to know if there are wolves in the woods," said Alexander, his voice calm and cool. "But the rest of the clan is going to worry if they don't hear from us."

"They're just going to come find us as soon as Emma tells them," said William. "Might as well stick together. Strength in numbers, you know?"

"No," said Grace. "If we get in over our heads then we might need the help of the rest of the clan."

She started toward Henry, and I could sense that they were about to get into it, like they usually did. William watched the two carefully from a distance, and Alexander thought to himself quietly.

"Emma, go," Alexander said after a few seconds.

His voice was stern, and knew that when he spoke in that tone it meant that he'd made his mind up. Alexander had always had a strong bearing to him. True, he was the oldest out of all of us, but he had a calm strength to him that made him seem older than his twenty-five years.

"Fine," I said, preparing to shift. "But don't do anything stupid."

"Naturally," said Grace.

Then, as we spoke, the sky opened up and flurries of snow began to fall. The wind kicked, the snow swirling in the air around us. The day's chill seemed to intensify.

"Guys," said William. "This snow's looking like it's gonna get worse. Whatever we're going to do, we need to do it now."

"Dweeb's right," said Henry. "Emma, get back to the compound and we'll figure out what's going on. And this is no job for girls; Grace, you should go back with Emma."

"I'm part wolf, remember?" she said, that slim mouth of hers forming into a sly smile. "We find wolves, I'm gonna need to be there."

Grace was…somewhat of a wild card due to her half-breed nature. While her shifter form was a bear like the rest of us, that wolf cunning came out every now and again. I always felt like I didn't know what to expect from her, despite her being family.

"She's right," said Alexander. "But we need to get a move on. Now."

I nodded in understanding. The snow meant the time for arguing had passed, and whatever we were going to do needed to just get done.

Still, I didn't like the idea of the four of them running off. Grace and William's mates were back at home with the rest of the clan waiting for us to return, and they were both the worrying sorts.

With one last nod toward the group, I shifted into my bear form and took off down the direction that'd we'd come. Looking back over my shoulder, I watched as the rest of them shifted and started off.

I didn't like this one bit. Just the thought of wolves made me nervous. Uncle Atticus had told all of us enough stories about clashes between our kind and wolves, and though Uncle Liam was a wolf shifter and a reminder that our kinds could get along, all it took was one wolf pack to have a chip on its collective shoulder for them to cause trouble.

I put all of this out of my head as I ran through the woods. Looking up, I could see the clouds beginning to swirl tight around the smooth peak of Bear Mountain; I'd spent enough winters here to know that this meant the blizzard that was supposed to come later today was ahead of schedule. I began to regret not talking my cousins into forgetting about this stupid plan and just coming back to the compound where it was safe and warm.

But as I ran, the snow picked up, and soon I was in an all-out blizzard. The winds whipped around me, and my visibility distance decreased by the minute. I stopped and tried to right myself, to make sure that I was on the right path. But as I tried to gather my bearings, I placed my back right paw on a patch of snow that crumbled beneath my foot. I lost my balance and slipped, my bulky, furry form falling on its side as I began to slide down the sloping hill where I'd been standing. I tumbled down, the white above and below consumed me.

When I finally stopped rolling I struggled to get up, the snow beneath me now yet packed hard enough for me to stand on. I looked around and realized with horror that I had no idea where I was. The trees around me all appeared to be the same, and there was no landmark that I could use to regain my sense of direction. Even Bear Mountain was totally obscured behind the wind-whipped snow.

My heart began to race, my fur now clotted with snow. Staying put wasn't an option, so I picked a direction and just started walking. Panic gripped me; this blizzard was already worse than anticipated, and if I didn't make my way back soon…who knows what would happen.

I continued on, having no clue if I was heading in the right direction. Then, through the snow, I caught sight of the strangest thing. I couldn't believe it, but there appeared to be a pair of eyes watching me.

The eyes were blood red, and easy to spot through the snow. I turned my body in their direction and, not knowing where else to go, started toward them. The snow picked up the intensity for a moment, the red eyes disappearing. Then, when the wind died just a bit, they returned. Now they were a little further off. I wanted to roar to get the attention of whoever was out there, but I knew I had just as good of a chance of scaring them off as I did having them come toward me.

So, apprehensively, I stepped toward the eyes, those blood red eyes that seemed to be floating in the heavy gusts of snow. As I approached them, I began to see a shape- sure enough, it was a person. But who would be standing out here in the middle of a damn blizzard? As far as I knew, the Swift clan was the only group of people on this part of the mountain. But with each step, I was more and more certain that this was a human. And as I cut the distance even further, I could spot the hard lines of a man's body.

I had to call out to him.

My fur was the only thing keeping me warm in this weather, but I couldn't exactly speak. So, closing my eyes to brace for the weather, I shifted back to my human form. The cold hit me hard and fast, the wind like knives on my skin.

"Hey!" I shouted. "Who are you?"

But the person to whom the eyes belonged didn't say a word. He stood stone-still, his eyes burning among the blizzard. If the weather affected him, then he wasn't showing it. I wrapped my arms around my body, every inch of me already shivering hard.

"What are you doing here?" I yelled.

No response.

I knew that I was going to have to shift back soon and find some kind of shelter. But before I could consider the matter for too long, the wind died down just enough to give me a closer look at the man in the snow. And despite the cold, all I could think was one thing.

Goddamn, he's gorgeous.

The man's skin was fair and flawless, his hair long and black as pitch and draped over his sturdy, broad shoulders. His torso looked cut from marble, and his face was so beautiful that it was almost angelic. His lips were full and a red that was almost as dark as the eyes that glowed among the rest of his features. He was like something out of a dream.

"Hey!" I shouted, my voice now strained from the cold. "Come here!"

But instead, he turned and walked away, the snow swirling around his lower half. I followed him through the blizzard, but he didn't even seem to acknowledge me other than looking in my general direction with a blank, impassive expression.

Something about him…he was so beautiful that I was almost unaware of the cold.

Speaking of which, I needed to go back to the compound before it was too late. The man walked further away, and I started to panic again due to not knowing just where the hell I was. My fingers and toes were starting to go cold, and I knew that if I didn't get somewhere warm I'd serious trouble. The man picked up his pace and I continued after him, something strange in me urging me on.

Soon, however, he disappeared into the depths of the blizzard. I couldn't be in my human form for a second longer, so I shifted into my bear form and kept on in the direction that he was headed. The white from the snow was blinding me, and I was losing strength despite my fur and fat. I kept glimpses of the man in the blizzard, and I almost felt as though he was leading me somewhere.

This was getting bad. Panic gripped me harder, but I had no option other than to follow that man.

How was he not just frozen as I was? How was he bearing the cold?

My thoughts started to blur in my mind as I continued on. Soon, my limbs began to go weak, and I knew that I didn't have much strength left in me. But still, I carried on, hoping that I might stumble upon some kind of shelter.

And just at the moment, I thought I was going to collapse into the snow, the man turned back to me and pointed in the direction that we were traveling.

I couldn't believe what he did next. He shifted into…something, I couldn't tell what, and ran off into the blizzard, disappearing into the dense white. I felt hopeless at first, but then went in the direction he told me to. Sure enough, after a little more time the familiar shape of the compound began to emerge in the distance. This gave me a little more energy, and my heart beat faster with relief. I stomped toward the compound, but my limbs were still going weak.

Soon, I reached the gate surrounding the compound property, and with my last but of energy, pressed down on the buzzer alerting anyone inside that there was someone at the gate. And as soon as I did, I shifted back into my human form and collapsed into an exhausted heap.

The roaring fire in front of me and the towering Christmas tree near it when I opened my eyes was the sweetest sight that I could've imagined. My vision was bleary, but the heat on my skin and the blurry, dancing flames made it clear that I was back in the compound. Looking down, I saw that I was wrapped in thick layers of blankets.

"She's coming to," said a familiar voice that I recognized right away as my Uncle Atticus.

"Thank God," said my Aunt Tessa.

"Take it easy, little lady," said my dad, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder as I slowly came back to it.

"I'm…I'm not dreaming, am I?" I said, my voice weak.

"You're not dreaming," said my dad. "You're damn lucky, is what you are."

"Oh, you poor thing," said my mother as she wrapped her arms around me and hugged me tightly.

A quick hiss sounded from lips; her touch made my arms tingle in that way they do when a foot starts to get blood back into it after falling asleep under you.

"Easy on her," said Uncle Atticus. "She's still sensitive from that cold."

"What…what happened?" I asked, my vision becoming clearer.

Ian, my father, stepped in front of me and squatted, looking me over. His features were as angular and handsome as ever, and his long, sandy-blond hair was tied into a ponytail.

"You were out in that damn blizzard too long," he said. "But you look OK."

"You should be thanking your lucky stars you managed to get back here in time," said Uncle Aaron behind me.

Finally fully coming to, I realized that just about every member of my family was here, all in the spacious living room of the compound, all watching me carefully. I felt the center of attention in a way that I really didn't like.

My parents, Ian and Olivia where there, along with Uncle Atticus and Aunt Tessa- Alexander and Henry's parents. In the back were Uncle Lucas and Aunt Isabella –Grace's parents- along with Uncle Aaron and Aunt Adeline- William's mom and dad. And sure enough, all of my cousins were there too, along with William and Grace's partners, Lana and Reddick. None of them looked to have been too affected by the cold that we'd all just escaped from.

"How'd you end up getting stuck in that blizzard, anyway?" asked Uncle Lucas in his gruff voice. "Weren't you all together out there?"

"We split up," said Alexander. "We sent Emma back to the compound to let you all know what we found out there."

"And what did you find out there?" asked my dad. "Something worth almost losing your cousin over?"

The faces of my cousins went red, and they shifted their weight from one foot to the other as they looked away. They knew my dad was right, and that I came pretty damn close to freezing to death out there. I have only luck and that strange man who led me back here to thank for still being alive.

That man . I remembered him for the first time since I'd come. And now that he was back in my thoughts and I couldn't get him out.

"We found deer out there," said Henry. "Deer that'd been ripped open!"

Uncle Atticus shook his head.

"We live in the woods, kiddo," he said. "Plenty of animals out here are killing other animals."

"But not like this, dad," said Alexander. "These deer were just gutted. Looked like whoever did it did it for fun."

My mom stayed at my side as dad stood back up. My limbs were starting to feel normal again. I was incredibly lucky that I hadn't spent too much time out there in the cold. If that man hadn't led me out…

"So, what're you saying?" asked dad. "Who do you think are out there?"

"Wolves," said Grace.

"No way," said Uncle Lucas, a wolf shifter. "I'd know if there were any of my kind out there."

I thought about the man that I saw, the moments before I passed out coming back to me. I remembered him shifting back into…something and disappearing into the blizzard. Was it a wolf? Or was I just imagining things? Maybe the man was just a figment of my imagination, something my brain came up with to coax me back to the compound rather than freezing to death in the woods.

"Wolves haven't been in these parts for over a decade," said Aunt Tessa, tucking her red hair behind her ears. "Why would they just come back like that?"

"Enough of this wolf crap," said Dad. "Why was Emma out in the cold by herself? She could've died out there. And if she weren't a shifter, she probably would've."

My eyes shot to Bethany, Uncle Aaron's daughter with a woman from a previous marriage. He didn't have any shifter powers of her own, and seemed to always feel out of place when discussing matters like this. Sure enough, she shifted uncomfortably where she stood before leaving the room.

Too human for her own good, I thought.

"We went off to investigate the deer," said William. "The blood was fresh and we figured that whoever did it couldn't have been far away. We sent Emma back to the house to let you know what we were doing. She must've gotten lost on the way back."

"And what did you find out?" asked Dad. "Something important, I hope."

"Nothing," said William, his typically assertive voice quieting. "When the blizzard came on we knew we had to get back."

Mom ran her hands over my arms throughout this, and the needling pain was starting to go away. I felt a little out of sorts, but I could sense that I was getting back to normal.

"Stupid decision after stupid decision," said Uncle Atticus. "Each one of you is damn lucky that you're all back here. Men die getting caught out in storms like that.

"But we're not men," said Henry, an arrogant smirk on his face. "We're better."

Dad shook his head. "That kind of attitude is exactly what gets shifters killed. Thinking they're goddamn invincible."

He put his hand on my shoulder.

"It's easy to talk tough like that, but when your arrogance gets someone close to you killed you'll change your tune real quick."

Now that I was feeling better I absolutely didn't want to be the center of attention. I stood up, my legs still a little weak underneath me.

"Whoa," Dad said. "Not so fast."

"I'm fine," I said. "Just need to stretch my legs."

"Don't go too crazy now," said Dad, looking at me with the kind of intense concern that you only get from a father.

"I won't," I said.

"Don't go outside," Mom said. "Blizzard's over but it's still terribly cold."

"Trust me," I said. "Not really in the mood for another winter expedition."

With that, the blankets still wrapped around me, I left the living room. The argument picked back up again as soon as I left, with the twins trying to stick up for themselves under the onslaught of the elders.

But now, I needed peace and quiet.

Peace and quiet, by the way, were a big part of the underlying tension in the Swift clan. Why? Well, there was too much peace and quiet. Meaning, there were no babies. Walking down the hallway away from the living room, I stopped at one of the empty bedrooms that'd been once used as a nursery. The room was dark and as I walked in and flicked the lights on the first thing I noticed was the layer of dust on just about everything in there. Two cribs were near the windows, and all sorts of other child-related toys and supplies were here and there. But nothing had been used in years.

See, something was going on with the Swift clan, something that was preventing us from having babies.

My cousins and I represented the next generation of Swifts, and the rest of the clan had been eager all through our childhoods for us to partner up with shifters from other parts of the country and have children of our own. Mom, Dad, Uncle Atticus and Aunt Tessa, and all the rest, were all eager to be grandparents. Their generation hadn't produced any more kids after us, and they all just chalked it up to getting up there in years.

But when Grace and William married and tried to produce children of their own, we all began to realize that something was wrong. And sure enough, when we learned from other members of the Swift clan who'd moved in with other clans in other parts of the country that they hadn't been able to have kids either, we started to become worried.

So, in spite of this Christmas together being an occasion for joy and togetherness, the knowledge that unless we figured out what was going wrong, we might very well be the last generation of Swifts. And the tension was pulling the clan apart at the seams.

I left the nursery and went to the bathroom attached to my bedroom. My body was feeling about back to normal, and a hot bath sounded just right. I filled the tub with steaming hot water and, when it was full, slid in. The hot water was heavenly, and I could feel the last traces of cold leaving my muscles and skin.

And as I lay in the hot water I closed my eyes and tried to relax. I was still shaken up by my near-death experience, but the tension slipped away by the second. As soon as my mind cleared, however, the image of…him, appeared in my thoughts.

Who was he? Well, he was totally gorgeous, for one. I thought about his incredible body, slim yet muscular, his shoulders wide, his chest sculpted. His dark hair was poured over his fair skin like oil and his eyes blazed red. He couldn't have been just a figment of my imagination; he was just too real. I considered saying something to my family about him, but they had enough to worry about. Besides, they'd just think that I imagined things due to the cold.

And maybe I was.

After a good hour-long soak, I stepped out of the tube and felt right as rain. Wrapping a towel around my slim body, I looked at myself in the mirror. My long, straight hair was the same sandy-blonde that seemed to run in the Swift line. My usually red lips seemed a little drained of color, but I chalked that up to recovery from the cold. My eyes were more of an emerald green than the hazel that was common in our clan, and I loved this feature about my face; it made me feel just a little unique.

Strangely, as I dried off, all I could think about was getting back out of the house. I looked out of the window of my bedroom and saw that the snow had stopped. Fresh powder glittered under the moonlight, and it all just seemed so inviting. I wasn't interested in going back out into the woods, however- no, no, no. But a glass of wine down at one of the bars down in Branlen, the town at the base of the mountain, sure sounded nice.

Once I was dressed, I sought out any potential company. William and Grace seemed to be busy with their partners, but Alexander and Henry were in their rooms, each sulking in the wake of the argument that'd finished while I was in the tub.

I approached Alexander first. He was lying on his bed, a book propped up on his belly as usual.

I suggested a little trip into town for drinks, and he was game. Henry was more than eager to get out of the house too.

"You think we should check in with the rest of the clan?" I asked as we made our way to the garage.

"No way," said Henry. "We're not kids anymore; they can't ground us."

"I think as long as we can slip out and be back before too long it shouldn't be a problem," said Alexander.

But was climbed into Henry's truck, I think we all knew that we should just stay at the house and keep the peace. But then again, going into town against the wishes of the elders, well, that just made it all the more fun.

And for some reason, I was in the mood to break some rules.

Smitty's, the bar that we decided on, was a packed, wild scene. The place was full of rowdy regulars, college kids back in town on break, and even some biker-looking guys. Rock music was playing on the speakers, and the dive bar aesthetic was awash in neon lights from the beer signs that hung here and there on the walls. Christmas lights decorated the place along with tacky, purposefully-ironic holiday décor like big, plastic deer and cheesy Santa pictures.

"Hell yeah," said Henry, slapping his hands together as we walked in. "This is my kind of scene."

"Just don't get too carried away," said Alexander, trying as always to be the voice of reason. "Some of these people look like they're the type who are just waiting for someone to pick a fight."

"What's wrong with that?" asked Henry. "Been a while since I've gotten into a brawl."

"Let's not give our parents anymore to worry about," I said, taking Alexander's side. "Nothing says ‘ruined holiday break' like finding out your kid took a beer bottle to the side of the head."

Henry scanned the bar as if sizing up the crowd for a worthy fighting opponent.

"I'd like to see one of these assholes try that," he said.

Alexander and I shared a knowing look.

"You guys drove, so I'll get the first round," I said, getting up. "Pitcher work?"

The boys nodded in agreement and I was off. Once at the bar, I took my own look at the crowd as I waited for the bartender to fill my pitcher. I knew that I should probably be back home under the covers, making sure that I got a good night's sleep in order to fully recover from my brush with death, but the liveliness of the place was already lifting my spirits, in spite of the seedy element that was here along with the college kids and townies. After all, I'd just finished college, graduating a semester early, and I was ready to cut loose. Too bad the rest of the clan didn't share these same sentiments.

Glasses and pitcher in hand, I made my way back to the table where my cousins sat. Both of them had graduated college a year earlier, and were in the midst of discussing what was next for them now that they were getting ready to leave the compound.

"Thinking of starting my own company," said Henry. "Shitload of money to be made in medical supplies."

"Always the trailblazing alpha," I said with a smirk as Henry poured my beer.

"Hey, nine-to-fives are for suckers. Besides, once I make my first few mil I can put my money to work for me and move back in with the clan. I think we are due for a little bit of expansion."

"You're thinking about making the clan bigger?" asked Alexander. "Little problem with that."

Henry's mood darkened as he remembered the situation with our clan.

"We'll…we'll figure something out," he said, pouring his beer and taking a sip. "I mean, us Swifts've been around for centuries; we've been through worse."

"Nothing like this," I said. "My parents said that we've never had an issue with infertility like this before."

"And that's not all," said Alexander.

Henry and I turned our attention to him. Alexander, in addition to being a natural leader, was also pretty damn brainy. He didn't have the raw, computational smarts that William did, but he was sharp as a tack.

"I did a little research into the subject, going through some of our clan archives. And…I found letters written a long time ago, back in the nineteenth century, between two other Swifts, some of the ones who cleared the land where the compound is."

Henry and I both leaned in close, eager to hear what Alexander had to say.

"And in some of the letters they talked about another bear clan, called the Stone Clan. Evidently, they had the same problem that we did- kids just stopped being born."

I racked my brain for any memory of this clan being mentioned. I couldn't remember ever hearing about them, and I knew this was a bad, bad sign.

"Well, how'd they fix the problem?" asked Henry, eagerness bracing his voice.

"They…didn't."

"What?" spat out Henry.

"They just, well, went away. If you're not having kids, then you're not continuing your line. Simple as that."

"And they had no idea what was going on with them?"

Alexander shook his head. "All they could come up with was that the clan was cursed, that them being unable to have kids was just a sign that their name was fated to die out. And that's exactly what happened."

I couldn't believe this. Was the Swift clan really marked in this way?

We drank our beers and sat in silence for a time. The holiday cheer around us was a painful contrast to how we all felt about this development. I couldn't help but wonder if all of this might drive our clan apart. Would this be the last Christmas that we'd spend together as a family?

Finally, Henry spoke up.

"Then we're just gonna have to figure something out," he said, nodding his head as he spoke, as though convincing himself as he talked. "I mean, there's gotta be some reason why both our clan and another clan in this same area both had the same thing happen to them. Right?"

"Aside from us both being bear clans, that's the one thing we both have in common."

"Then it," said Henry. "Nothing else matters until we're certain our clan is going to continue. I mean, without that, what's the point of anything?"

He was right, and I knew it. We all had our big plans for the future. While I still didn't know what path I wanted to take, I knew that a family was going to work in there somewhere. But what if I couldn't have a child? I saw how the inability to conceive was affecting Grace and William's families; they were both recently married, but I sometimes saw cracks in their relationship, as though the pain of not being able to have a child was slowly taking apart the foundation of their love.

Henry was right: we needed to solve this problem. But how?

But before I could consider the issue for too long, however, the doors of the bar slammed open, a cold gust of air rushing through the place. I shivered, reminded of the cold that had gripped my body only a few hours before.

Through the doors came a loud, rough-looking group of men in leather and denim.

Bikers.

There were other bikers in the bar, but these guys seemed…different. There was something strange about them, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. The men carried on as they piled in, and the group ended up being about ten strong. They swarmed the bar and called out for whiskey, shoving aside anyone who happened to be in the way.

"Now these assholes," said Henry. "They're just asking for an ass-kicking."

"What," said Alexander. "You're going to fight all of them at once?"

"Hoping you'd help me out," said Henry with a smile.

"Just as long as you leave me out of it," I said.

I couldn't take my eyes off of the group. Something about this gang of burly biker men just called out for my attention.

Then, as I looked through the dense knot of the bikers, I spotted something. Or, someone.

It was the man from the woods. The one who'd saved my life.

It was him, alright. Despite seeing him only briefly in the woods during a blizzard, his face and body had made an indelible mark on my mind. I recognized his lean, muscular physique, his broad shoulders, his long, ink-black hair, and his gorgeous features. The big difference now, however, was that he was actually clothed. He wore tight, denim jeans that hugged his muscular legs, a fitted, white V-neck that his arms were just bursting out of, and a leather vest adorned with patches.

And the more I looked at him, the more I realized that there were other differences. His arms were snaked in winding tattoos that I must not have noticed due to the snow, and instead of his eyes being flaming red rubies, they were now shimmering, striking sapphires. I couldn't make out his age, but he looked to me to be a good five or so years older than me. His look seemed to somehow walk the line perfectly between "hardass biker" and "New York City male model." He was easily the most gorgeous specimen that I'd ever seen in person.

I started at him, becoming totally oblivious to anything that was happening around me. The music and noise of the bar seemed to blend into a low hum, and everything around the man just vanished.

Then, right when I felt as though I couldn't have been any more enraptured by the man, he turned his head, tucking his hair behind his ear, and looked right at me. I felt my heart jump as his eyes landed on me. And the expression on his face…it was as though we'd met before, and I was an old friend that he's spotted from across the bar.

"Earth to Emma," said Henry, waving his hand in front of my face.

I snapped back to reality, the noises and sights around me coming back into normal focus.

"Huh?" I said, unable to utter an actual word.

"I said, you want another pitcher?"

"Um, yeah, sure," I said.

Henry gave me a funny look before taking the empty pitcher from the table and heading off to the bar.

"You OK?" asked Alexander. "Kinda lost you there for a second."

"Um, just still a little out of it from the blizzard," I lied.

"Sorry again about all that," said Alexander. "We all just figured that you were on the right track to the compound."

"It's not your fault," I said. "I just got disoriented."

"That blizzard just came out of nowhere," he said.

"Sure did," I replied.

But all I wanted to do was to look more at the man, to drink my fill of him with my eyes. Something about him was just irresistible. I couldn't risk gawking at him again, however; the last thing I wanted was my cousins knowing I was eyeballing some biker.

"Hey, hands off!" shouted a familiar voice from the other end of the bar.

"Goddamnit, Henry," said Alexander and I at the same time, already knowing what was likely going on.

Sure enough, when we turned to face the bar we saw Henry getting up in the face of one of the bikers from the group who'd just walked in.

"I was in line, and you assholes just cut right front of me," he said, attracting the attention of just about everyone in the place.

"How about you get the fuck out of my way, little man, and let me buy my goddamn drink."

"How about you fuck off and get back to the back of the line," said Henry in response.

"Oh no," said Alexander.

I shared the feeling. If Henry got into a fight with this guy, that'd mean he'd be fighting the whole gang. Which mean that he and Alexander would be fighting the whole gang. And as the biker who Henry'd been antagonizing pulled his fist back and prepared to punch, I knew that shit was about to go down in a big way.

The fist flew through the air, and Henry, seemingly realizing that he wasn't invincible, ducked out of the way of the punch. The blow instead connected with one of the bikers who'd been there before, the fist slamming hard into the back of his head.

"What the fuck!" the biker shouted as he tumbled out of his barstool and fell onto his hands and knees.

The biker, having apparently only been winged, scrambled to his feet and steadied himself. He locked eyes with the biker who hit him.

"You sucker punching motherf-"

With that, he stormed toward the man who hit him, jamming his fist into his stomach and sending the two of them crashing into a nearby table.

"Here we go," said Alexander.

The fight was on. The two gangs of bikers swarmed at each other, a flurry of punches flying through the air as soon as they reached one another. The college kids in town scrambled to the other side of the room and the locals bellied up to the bar all ordered a new drink in happy anticipation of the show about to break out. And Henry stepped back, watching the whole thing unfold.

"Goddamnit," Alexander, getting up and getting ready to come to the aid of his brother. "So much for a quiet night out. Stay here."

It was only a matter of time before the Henry and the biker he'd been quarreling with met each other once again. The two of them traded blows, each of them able to take punch after punch without being fazed.

Wait, I thought, no human would be able to take that much punishment without getting knocked flat on his ass.

But before I could give the matter too much consideration, I caught sight of the man who's saved me. He'd stepped away from the fight, a look on his gorgeous face that seemed to suggest that he was going to let his fellow gang members have their fun, but that he didn't want to be a part of it.

I knew the feeling. I watched as Henry traded blows with a nearby random, he and Alexander teaming up on anyone who wanted to take them on. Alexander was definitely the more cool-headed of the two, but at the end of the day he was still Henry's brother. As they scrapped, both of them had the same expression of excitement on their faces. All I could do was hope that they didn't end up really hurting themselves.

And right as I settled in to watch the show from a safe distance, the man who saved me looked right at me again. I felt frozen his stare, like there was nothing I could do. Then, he flicked his head back toward the far end of the bar, toward the doors leading out onto the back patio.

Wait, what? I thought. Is he asking me to follow him out back?

Before I could think about the situation for too long, he was off. My eyes drifted back to the fight, and by now I could see it was being broken up by the bartenders and a couple of burly regulars. Just as well- coming home with the twins beaten and bruised didn't sound like the best way to keep things copasetic with the rest of the family.

Looking around as though I were getting ready to commit a crime, I took one last sip of my drink and got out of my seat, heading toward the back of the bar where the man had gone. I felt as though I was being drawn by a power outside of myself, like I didn't have any say in the matter of following the man out there.

But out I went, and when I opened the door, he was standing on the patio by himself, his back facing me, a drink at his side. He didn't turn to acknowledge me as I came out, and I ended up just standing there, not having any idea what to do with myself.

"You gonna just stand there?" he asked.

His voice was…odd. It was low, sensual, and resonant, like a stage actor in the middle of a love scene.

Holding my drink close, I walked with careful steps over to him. As I approached, I felt something strange, like a sense of warning going off deep within me. I was compelled, but something like instinct told me to stay far back.

However, I walked over to him and place my drink on the railing that he was leaning on. Red and green Christmas lights were strung along the railing. The still-fresh snow stretched out into the black of the night behind the bar, and the air was chilly. The man was wearing nothing more than a leather biker's jacket, and I wondered how he wasn't freezing. He looked at me as I approached, his eyes a beautiful, crystalline blue. And as I looked him over, I knew without a doubt that he was the man who I'd seen in the woods.

I had so many questions, but before I could even being to formulate them, he spoke.

"Dumb thing to be out in the woods like that," he said before taking a sip of his drink. "That blizzard could've killed you."

"Um, yeah," I said. "I got lost."

He took another sip.

"No kidding," he said. "I woulda guessed that a bear would've had more sense than to go wandering out in a blizzard."

Wait, what? I thought. How did he know? And what did that mean about him?

"Wait a minute," I thought. "But you were out there wearing…um, nothing at all."

He flashed me a sly smile, and I just about melted right then and there. His lips were red, contrasting beautifully with his pale skin. I found my eyes flicking back and forth between him and the snow, noting how closely the white of the snow matched the pale of his skin. And his blue eyes, just like ice. It was almost as though he was winter in human form. Only his ink-black hair and the colors of his clothing broke the palate of pure cold that seemed to come from him.

"I'm a little more comfortable with the cold," he said.

"What," I asked, "are you one of those guys who gets naked and jumps into freezing lakes or something?"

"It's been a while, but I have been known to do that from time to time," he said.

His tone was dry, and that sly little smirk was still on his face. I couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

"But seriously," I said. "That was you out there; you're the one who saved my life."

"I am," he said. "You're lucky that I was in the area. Could've turned out pretty bad for you wandering around in that."

And something else struck me as he spoke: he didn't seem to make any note of the fact that I was in my bear form while I was out in the woods.

Wait a minute, I thought. Does that mean…

"You're a shifter," I said. "I thought I imagined you turning into something and running off, but now I know. I can sense it on you."

"You learn quick," he said.

"But…what are you? You can't be a bear; I'd know it."

"Take another guess," he said.

I knew right away.

"Wolf," I said.

He nodded slightly.

My blood ran cold. Aside from my uncle, I'd never meet a wolf before, and Uncle Lucas was always very mum about details of his life in the wolf packs, having left the, behind long ago to join us. Wolves had always represented danger to me, and I know the hushed tones with which my family spoke of their encounters with wolves meant that our two kinds didn't exactly live in perfect harmony. And here I was, mere feet away from one whose intentions I had no idea of.

"What…what are wolves doing in Bear Mountain?" I asked.

"Moving through," he said, as though that was as clear of an answer as I needed.

"Wait, does that mean that my cousins in there are fighting with wolves?" I asked, now more concerned than ever.

I looked through the window on the patio into the bar, seeing that the fight was now mostly winded down. I breathed a sigh of relief; if a species-against-species fight got deadly…I didn't want to even think about what might happen.

"It's under control," said the man in a calm voice, as if there wasn't a single thing to worry about, and that I was maybe even a little foolish for even think that there might be.

"But what do you mean ‘moving through'?" I asked, torn between my need for answers and the almost crippling attraction that I felt for this man.

"We're bikers" he said, turning around, resting his back on the railing and giving me a clear view of his leather vest, which was adorned with patches. "Call us the Longtooth Pack."

He was being so unforthcoming with information; it was maddening. Here was a wolf clan in the region for the first time in years and I was just supposed to not think anything of it.

I walked over to him, feeling something crackling between our bodies that reminded me of electricity. It was…distracting, to say the least. And as my eyes locked onto his body, I couldn't help but steal glances at the hard lines of his pecs that were visible in the V cut of his shirt.

"Are you the leader of the pack?" I asked. "The…Longtooth Pack?"

"That's…a complicated question to ask," he said.

"You know, when you brought me out here I thought you might actually be giving me answers about all this."

"Now's…not the time," he said, his voice in a low, manly purr.

"Then why did you ask me out here?"

"Because I wanted to make some connection with the local shifter clan. And, seeing as how we'd already…met, I decided that you'd be the right girl to reach out to."

"But I need more than this," I said. "I need more information."

He thought the matter over briefly.

"Why don't you and I meet somewhere away from," he gestured to the bar, "all of this."

He took a small notebook out of his back pocket, jotted something down on a piece of paper, and handed it to me.

"Meet me here, at that time."

Then he started off toward the bar.

"Until then, little bear," he said, throwing the words over his shoulder as he walked back inside.

And just like that, he was gone, leaving me alone, no company but the snow that now fell softly from the heavy clouds above.

The note seemed to burn in my pocket the entire drive back. As Henry, Alexander, and I made the drive back up the winding road leading to the compound, all I wanted to do was pull the note out and read it again. I'd already seen what it had to say when I was on the back bar patio –just a time and a place in town tomorrow night- but for some reason, I wanted to read it again and again.

It felt so silly and stupid, but I knew it was because it was given to me by that man, that wolf. I didn't even get his name, and here I was already looking forward to meeting up with him tomorrow. I felt as giddy as a teenager; it was ridiculous.

But I loved it.

The boys spent the drive back going over their greatest hits –literally- during the fight. I wanted to tell them that the gang that they'd tussled with wasn't just any gang of bikers, but I knew that relaying this bit of information now might not be the best idea. Telling the rest of the clan that there was a wolf pack in the area might send them all into a panic. Really, I didn't know how they might take it. So, I figured it was better to meet up with…him, tomorrow and find out just what was going on.

The elders of the family weren't too happy about our little outing. Mom and Dad were pretty upset that we'd sneak out without telling them, especially with my brush with death still so fresh in everyone's memory. I didn't want to deal with it, so I went off to my room at the first opportunity. And I couldn't help but notice that this year with the family was…tense. Sure, it was a great to be around one another, but I could sense that the issue with children was weighing heavily on everyone's minds. William and Grace, and their partners, all seemed to have a sort of sadness to them. And I couldn't blame them. They'd been trying for children for almost a year and a half now; this should've been the first Christmas that we'd had with new members of the clan. This Christmas should have been a celebration of the future, but instead, the fact that there were no children was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to address.

But what could we say? We were still at that strange point with a problem where it wasn't near enough to discuss but also not distant enough to ignore. So, instead, we all carried our anxiety silently.

Once back in my room, I shut the door and pulled out the note again.

Meet me at the intersection of Olive and Maple streets. Nine PM.

And that was it- no signature or anything. The note folded up on my nightstand, I slept restlessly.

The next day passed slowly- too slowly. By the time the hour to leave arrived I was almost shaking with anticipation. It was silly, but I'd gotten so into my studies at college that I only realized when I graduated that it'd been years since I'd so much as kissed a guy. And with the need for us to pair off and have kids a pressing concern, this caused me a little distress- I'd gotten to the point where even thinking about meeting a guy was enough to make me nervous, and in a situation like this, I felt hopeless.

We're just meeting to talk, I thought as I climbed out of my bedroom window and prepared to sneak out. It's not like it's a date or anything.

I ducked under the little patch of fence that was just big enough for me to sneak under and looked out into the woods. The evening air was still and cold, and the snow was still fresh and undisturbed from yesterday's blizzard. I shifted and began the run down into town, careful to not tip over my paws in excitement. After a time, I reached the outskirts of Branlen and shifted back. In the shadows, I changed into the clothes I'd brought with me. Driving would've definitely been less of a hassle, but I didn't want to risk getting the third degree from the clan. Plus, if Alexander or Henry knew I was going to be meeting with a wolf there was no way they'd let me go on my own.

No. This little outing was going to be my secret.

Once dressed, I trotted down into town, keeping an eye on the street names. But I didn't need to look far- standing in the center of a pool of light from the streetlight above, a massive, chrome-and-black motorcycle at his side, was…him. As I approached, I saw that he was again dressed in his jeans and leather outfit, and damn did he look good. I still had no idea how he was fine in the cold in just that, but I assumed he just wasn't very sensitive to temperature.

"There you are," he said in that sexy voice of his that was low, silky and masculine. "Been waiting."

"Sorry," I said, anxiety pooling in my stomach. "I had to sneak away."

His thick, black eyebrows raised a bit, a strand of hair hanging over his flawless forehead.

"Didn't know grown-ups had to ask for permission," he said.

"It's…complicated. I'm with my whole clan. I shouldn't even be meeting with you like this."

"Not too late to go back," he said, not missing a beat.

"No," I said, the word shooting out. "I mean, it's better to talk one-on-one. My clan would want a big sit-down with your people if they knew a wolf pack was in town."

He laughed dryly.

"That's…not gonna happen," he said. "One-on-one it is."

"So," I said. "Where to?"

He gestured to his bike.

"Get on," he said, throwing one leg over the bike and taking a seat, his hands on the handlebars.

"Um," I said, approaching the bike hesitantly.

"Problem?" he asked.

"Kind of," I said. "I've…never ridden on a motorcycle before."

"Well, have you ever sat in a chair?"

"Um, yeah."

"Riding on a bike is just like that. You don't have to drive the damn thing."

"Oh, yeah, sure," I said, getting ready to get on the bike.

He was right, but that only made me a tiny bit less nervous. I wasn't exactly the most daring girl in the world, and riding in a vehicle that didn't have four-point airbags made me unreasonably nervous. Taking a deep breath, I climbed on, and as soon as my ass touched the seat, the man gunned the engine.

"Wait!" I shouted out. "I don't even know your name!"

"Logan," he said, his voice effortlessly carrying over the roaring of the engine.

With that, we took off. The bike roared underneath me, and I wrapped my arms hard around Logan. His body was built as solidly as it looked, and despite my fear, I couldn't help but enjoy the feeling of him pressed against me. And his scent…it was unlike anything else I'd smelled. Now that I was this close I could detect his wolf nature, but there was something different about him, something I couldn't put my finger on.

A few minutes into the ride I was already loving it. Logan drove the bike up the curving roads that led out of town, the cone of light from the front of the bike cutting through the black around us. The snow had started again, but only occasional, light flurries this time, not anything close to the crazy blizzard of yesterday.

Soon, we reached the woods on the other side of Bear Mountain as the compound. I couldn't help but feel a slight twinge of fear as we went up. After all, I was going into the wilderness with a man I didn't even know. But something about Logan, something I couldn't put my finger on, made me feel that I could trust him.

Anyway, it was too late for second thoughts. We traveled up and up, moving further away from town. I couldn't figure out what Logan might need to tell me so far away from prying eyes, but before I could come up with any theories, we came to a stop at the end of the road. Logan killed the engine and stepped off.

"Where are we?" I asked.

"Somewhere where no one can find us," he said, the woods calm and quiet.

"And why do we need to be so far away from anyone?"

"Because, I need to show you something."

"And that is?"

Logan looked off into the distance.

"My people, the Longtooth Pack, aren't just your standard breed of wolf shifters," he said. "We're…different. Our kind had been scattered all over the country, and only recently, under the guide of our alpha, Grayson, have we been reunited."

I said nothing, listening carefully to his words. Logan reached into his bike's side compartment and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. He pulled the top off and took a swig. Then, he handed the bottle to me. I wouldn't normally go for anything straight like this, but I figured it'd take the edge off. Plus, this was all so strange that I felt like I needed something to drink.

"We were glad to be back together, of course. And at first, all seemed to be good. The pack was strong, and we all finally seemed to have found the purpose we were looking for. But recently, Grayson has been…more strident in his desire to make the pack stronger. He wants territory. But we're not strong enough to do anything like that yet. He doesn't care, however; and something's gotta give. So, we're in the area until we figure all this out."

He started into the woods, the moonlight above casting down silver light. Our boots crunched under the snow, and we passed the bottle back and forth as we walked.

"So…was that your men who killed the deer?"

He nodded.

"They're getting bold. Who knows what they would've done if the blizzard hadn't started and your clan had bumped into them in the woods. Could've been bloody."

"And you would've just gone along with it?"

"No," he said brusquely. "I was on recon. That's how I saw you out there."

"Why did you shift into your human form? Seems dangerous."

"I figured that a man in the woods would catch your attention more than seeing a wolf."

I thought about his bare upper body; he was more right than he knew.

"But you seemed to be fine in the snow," I said. "I was freezing to death out there when I was in my human form."

"I'm different than most wolves, like I said. Our whole pack is different. We're winter wolves."

I couldn't help but gasp. Winter wolves were rare, one of the rarest breeds of shifters. In fact, some didn't even believe that they existed. They were a breed suited for cold climates, though they could survive anywhere. If he really was a winter wolf, then it made perfect sense that he was able to effortlessly travel through the snow.

As we walked, I found myself moving closer to Logan. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was…something else. But I just felt compelled to be near him.

"Winter wolves," I said. "Not just a legend, then."

"I wouldn't be standing here if we were."

"I'd only heard stories about winter wolves…I never thought I'd meet one in person."

"Is it all you imagined it would be?" he asked, a sly smile on his face.

"Well, I don't know," I said. "Maybe I thought it'd be a little more…I don't know. Magical?"

"'Magica'?" he asked. "I'm a winter wolf, not a winter witch."

"But what was that glowing your eyes were doing when I saw you?"

"Oh, you mean this?" he asked.

And right at that moment, his brilliant blue eyes began to glow a deep, burning red. I'd already seen it during the blizzard, but up close the effect was…dramatic, to say the least. After another second or two, his eyes shifted back to their normal blue.

"It's a winter wolf thing," he said. "Our species is marked by certain traits that help us survive in the cold. The redness helps us with snowblindness."

"And you have higher cold tolerances too, right?"

"Exactly."

There was something strange about Logan, more than just his winter wolf nature. For one, he was a biker, and certainly had a roughness to him. But there was also a sly intelligence to his demeanor; he wasn't a thick-headed caveman like every biker who I'd seen in town. And his avoidance of the fight at the bar meant that he wasn't obsessed with violence and mayhem. It was…strangely intriguing. His killer looks didn't hurt either.

He took another pull on his bottle of whiskey before sticking it into his pants pocket.

"All this talk of shifting is getting me antsy," he said. "You up for a run?"

I nodded.

"Let's do it."

"You first," I said to Logan. "I've never seen a winter wolf in person."

Logan flashed me a smirk, took off his jacket, then his leather belt, and finally his t-shirt.

I had to do all I could to prevent my jaw from dropping. His body was about as close to perfect as I could imagine. His torso as lean and cut, his muscles were defined and taut, and tattoos covered his arms and shoulders. The waist of his jeans was low enough that I could see the notches of his hip- something that I always found particularly sexy.

"You're gonna let me get naked all by myself?" he asked as he went to work on his black, combat boots.

"No…" I said.

As much as I wanted to see Logan naked, I felt a majorly insecure about showing off my own body.

No way getting around it, I suppose, I thought to myself.

I slipped off my jacket and shirt, setting them near where Logan had paced clothes. Soon, I was in nothing but the skimpy blue lace bra and panties that I was wearing under my clothes. They were a little…sexier than I normally wore, and I'm not sure what compelled me to put them on today. But it was a good thing I did, as I was pretty sure that I caught Logan looking at me out of the corner of his eye.

"No peeking," I said, my face turning a deep red.

"Wouldn't dream of it," he said, stepping out of his torn jeans.

Then again, I was doing all the peeking I could, my eyes fastening onto his skin-tight black boxer-briefs. Part of me knew I should look away, but part of me wanted to see if I could spot the outline of his…you-know-what.

Soon I was naked, and before I could spend too much time in this state I shifted into my bear form. Logan was next, and changed to his wolf form soon after. I had to turn my head to spot him- he seemed to disappear.

But when I took sight of his winter wolf form, I couldn't help but be struck by how…beautiful it was. Logan was covered in fur as crisp and white as freshly-fallen snow. Only the black of his nose and the piercing blue of his eyes broke up the white. However, he wasn't all beauty; he still had the hard, muscular form of a wolf, and I could tell that his teeth were razor-sharp and not just for show. Just like his human form, his wolf form was a perfect blend of strength and beauty.

Before I could spend too much time taking in the sight of his beautiful form in the silver sheen of moonlight, he was off. I couldn't believe how fast he was able to run; in the blink of an eye he tore through the forest, his white body nimbly darting around the thick oak trunks around us, his paws silent on the snow. Barely able to keep track of him, I took off through the forest, using all my strength to keep up with him. I'd had some experience running through the forest during winter, but my bear form was more suited for strength, not speed. Soon, my limbs were hot with exhaustion, and I needed a quick break to regain my strength.

Damn, he's fast, I thought as I trundled through the woods, doing all I could to keep him in my sight.

We went up, and up, the incline growing stepper by the second.

Where's he going? I thought. We're going to lose the way back.

I sniffed the air, still able to detect the whiff of gasoline in the air from his bike. I was still close enough to follow it back, but I didn't know for how long I could keep it in my senses. Logan didn't want to stop, however, and I realized that I was going to have to trust that he'd know the way back.

After a time, he disappeared over the horizon, and I lost his scent.

Damn! I thought. I knew this was a bad idea.

I had no choice but to keep going in his direction. Just as my heart began to sink, I caught sight of him. Logan had made his way to a small clearing that looked out over the valley near Bear Mountain. As I moved closer, I could see why he picked this spot- from here I could see out for miles over the woods. Above us, the stars filled the sky, the moon hanging full and bright among them.

Logan was curled up in his wolf form, and as I approached he shifted back into his human shape. I did the same, the cold hitting my body immediately. I walked through the snow, my feet chilly as I made my way to the edge of the overlook.

"Nice view, huh?" he said, sitting as calmly and still as someone would sit in their living room watching TV.

"It's beautiful," I said, a low wind curled around my bare body. "But cold as hell."

"Come sit here," he said, placing his hand on the snow near him.

Logan's long, black hair was draped on his wide shoulders, and something about the glow of the moon made his eyes more stunning than usual. I took my place next to him, and noted right away a strange heat radiating off of his body.

"Is that you?" I asked.

"Yep," he said. "One of the perks of being a winter wolf."

"You just, radiate heat?"

"Our body temperature is better at regulating itself than most shifter breeds."

I wanted to move closer, to take in some of his heat. But I felt like it might be just a little too…forward to ask, as strange as that sounds.

"Come here," he said, slipping his hand around my bare waist and pulling me close.

The effect was instantaneous. It felt like I'd just plugged in a space heater and took a seat right next to it. The cold was removed from my body within seconds, and I actually felt somewhat toasty. After a minute, I was completely comfortable. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy being this close to Logan.

"You know," I said, "my clan tells me to stay away from wolves. Think they're trouble.

Logan flashed me that same sly smirk that I was beginning to go crazy over.

"Oh, yeah? And what do you think about that?"

"I dunno…you seem pretty safe so far. Haven't tried to bite me yet."

"True, but it is pretty early in the evening."

I couldn't believe the words coming out of my mouth. But before I had a chance to lay on thick any more barely-masked flirts, Logan got the hint. He pulled me even closer, the heat from his body overwhelming me with sensual delight. Then, slipping his hand into the hair on the back of my head, he pulled me close and hard. I stared into his piercing blue eyes for a long moment.

Then, he kissed me.

His lips were just as warm as the rest of his body, and as he pressed his lips to mine, a deeper, more passionate heat flowed through me. He kissed me with his mouth closed at first, his warm hands running over my bare back, but soon his mouth opened and his tongue began to explore my mouth, his kisses expert and intoxicating. I fell into his kiss fast, and my hands, almost without my control, began to move all along the hard lines of his torso.

Goddamn, he's got a sexy body, I thought, taking erotic delight in the tensing and flexing of his body under my hands. Logan's touch soon moved down the curves of my hips, coming to rest on the sensitive skin of my inner thigh. I let out a sigh as he touched me there, the feeling of his warm palm on this sexually-charged area almost too much at first. We continued to kiss, our tonging becoming more passionate and intense. I opened my eyes a bit, enough to see his member harden, his cock becoming more engorged with each beat of his heart. Soon, it was fully erect, and I couldn't help but feel my eyes go wide as I took in the sight of just how goddamn big it was.

I hadn't seen too many guys in person –I'm not really the most experienced girl- but looking at Logan's member I knew that it was something spectacular. I couldn't help myself; I reached down and wrapped my fingers around it, sighing softly as I felt its steely sturdiness. Like the rest of him, it was warm, and seemed to almost be throbbing. But then again, maybe that was me.

Logan returned the favor as we continued to kiss, his hand sliding closer and closer to my sex. Tingles spread over my boy as I anticipated his touch, and when I finally felt the sensation of his fingertips right where I wanted them, I couldn't help but let out a little moan of pleasure.

"Someone's eager," he said in his low, sensual voice.

"It just…feels really good," I said.

And as he slid his fingers into me, "pretty good" was putting it mildly. The warmth of his fingers made his flesh feel like velvet as he entered me, and as I began to stroke his cock, I, without thinking, found my other hand drifting down to his, guiding him deeper inside of me. I rested my head on his shoulder as he worked his fingers in and out of me, his movements smooth and at just the pace I wanted. And I did my best to work through the pleasure and give his cock the attention that it deserved. AS I moved my fingertips along the length of it, I wondered I was going to need to use both of my hands.

I sighed as Logan pleasured me, and had a hard time focusing on returning the favor. His body felt so good, from the solidness of his muscles to the heat that continued to radiate off of him. Below us the snow had melted around where we sat; it was as if a place had been carved out here just for us. His fingers still inside of me, Logan kissed me hard again. It seemed as though whatever gentleness he had was fading by the second; his kissed were intense, deep, and animalistic. I could feel the wolf inside of him as his human control gave way to primal desire.

Soon, Logan decided that foreplay was over. And considering just how wet he'd made me, I was inclined to agree with him. Logan placed his hand on the small of my back and moved me down until I was lying on the ground. I was anticipating a cold, wet ground, but Logan's heat had already dried and warmed it; it now felt like I was lying on a field in springtime. As I looked around me at the snow that was only feet away, I couldn't believe that this was actually happening. It was…magic.

Logan loomed over me, his broad, muscular shoulders blocking out the silver coin of the moon. He looked down at me with narrowed, sensual eyes, the blue still striking even in the shade. His long, black hair hung down, the ends touching my face. His hand still on my inner thigh, he spread my legs apart with a forceful push and moved his hips between them. Looking down, I saw that his long, thick cock was pointing right at where I wanted to be, and I couldn't help but bite on my lower lip in anticipation as his member hung so tantalizingly close to my sex.

Moving his hand from my thigh to his cock, Logan placed the head of his prick right on my opening and, with a slow, straight thrust, entered me.

I couldn't help but let out a little shriek as he filled me. There was just so much of him; it was unlike anything I'd felt before. Between his gorgeous looks, the heat radiating off of his body, and his incredible length that was now buried in me, I felt as though I might suffer from a sensory overload at any second.

"Go, ah, slow," I said, barely able to form the words.

But Logan didn't seem to be interested in hearing my suggestions. He moved at his own pace, thrusting deep inside of me, his body propped up on his palms. I grabbed hard onto his narrow, firm hips, both to enjoy the feeling of his body and to have something to hold on to for stability; he drove into me so hard that I was worried I might move backward into the snow behind me. But Logan knew what he was doing; the way he pounded me at a steady, deep rhythm made it clear that love-making was something at which he was more than a little skilled.

The pleasure arrived quickly and overwhelmingly. I could hardly stand the intensity of his cock moving in and out of me, and, overcome by the passion, I found my hands moving up along my own boy, grabbing firmly onto my breasts and squeezing them. Logan, as though I were giving him a suggestion, lowered his head as he screwed me, taking the nipple of my right breast into his mouth and licking it slowly.

"Oh, oh my God," I exclaimed, the twin feelings of his cock inside of me and my nipple into his mouth as he gently sucked upon it almost too much to bear.

Then, he moved his attention to the other breast, giving my left nipple the same treatment. He moved so skillfully, not breaking rhythm as he gave the rest of my body his sensual attention. Once he had his fun with my breasts, his lips moved along my collarbone, then my neck, then to the sensitive skin behind my right ear.

I could barely stand the ecstasy building in me, and I knew an orgasm was close. I placed my hands firmly on the curve of his ass, one hand on each cheek. He was thrusting into me at just the right pace, at just the right angle that I knew would bring about the orgasm that I desperately craved. Logan's pounding was relentless, and before I knew it, my body was in the throes of an unstoppable orgasm. My limbs tightened, my eyes winced shut, and stifled moans slipped from my lips. Logan's grunting became firmer, and just as my orgasm hit its peak, he came too. His pace didn't falter, however, and as he emptied himself into me I was able to ride the wave of my orgasm to its sweet conclusion, like a tide slowly pulling back to the ocean.

Once he was done, Logan collapsed to my side. We spent the next several minutes regaining our breath, Logan's large hand resting on my sweet-sheened belly. We lay like this for a time, a half an hour maybe, just watching the snow drift over the valley before us. As strange as it may sound, lying there with this man I barely met I felt a calm that I hadn't known for a long while. And something stirred in me, deep within my belly. Something that felt like an awakening. But I put that aside for now, instead focusing on the feeling of easy bliss that washed over me.

LOGAN

I hated to admit it, but I couldn't get her out of my damn mind. It was ridiculous. I mean, she wasn't the first girl I'd slept with after barely knowing her, but she was the first that I found myself thinking of when I woke up the next morning after we fucked. I dropped her off down at the base of the road leading her to the Swift Compound, met up with the rest of the pack, and gave my debriefing to Grayson.

"You fucked her?" he said, pacing back and forth behind the shitty little metal desk in the back office of Cruisers', the bar where we'd informally set up shop while we were in the area.

"Yep," I said.

The office at Cruiser's was a dingy little shitbox, just like the rest of the bar. But that's how the boys and I liked it. The Swifts can have their fancy compound up in the woods; us wolves don't need any of that.

"Good," said Grayson, taking a seat in his high-backed leather chair, the seat flanked by Gunner and Smith- Grayson's two body men. "So, she trusts you then, right?"

My meeting with Emma wasn't exactly a coincidence. Nothing about the Longtooth Pack being in this area was a coincidence. We'd been planning on moving into the region for over a year, and now the plan was finally coming to fruition. My role in all of this was to gain the trust of one of the women in the Swift Clan and use her to find a way to get the Swifts out of the region. Emma was the only woman still young and single, so she was natural selection. And it was easy to tell from the way she carried herself that she was the type to not really fit in; it would be easy pickings to seduce her.

But when I woke up that next morning and the image of Emma flashed into my thoughts, I knew that things weren't going to be so easy. Still, I had a job to do. Loyalty to my pack came before anything, and Grayson had an uncanny knack for sniffing out weakness among the men.

"Might take another date night or two, but she met me once and was already fine with going off to the woods with me, so it shouldn't be too much work to win her over."

"'Another date night or two'?" asked Gunner, scoffing. "Sounds like you just want another taste of that pussy."

Smith laughed, and Grayson held up a hand to indicate in clear terms that they were to shut the fuck up, right then and there.

Grayson was a hard-as-nails wolf who'd been in charge of the pack for going on five years. He had a thick, long mane of silver hair and a matching beard. His body was sturdy and tough, and he hardly looked the forty years he had. Since taking leadership of the pack in a bloody one-on-one with the previous Alpha, he'd taken us across the Northeast, laying claim to more territory as we went. And he didn't say a word about at the time, but the Swift Compound was the great prize in his eyes. Once we took hold of it, we'd be undisputed masters of the region. Even the state could be within our grasp.

Only one thing stood in the way of Grayson's ambitions: the Swift Clan.

"Can it, Gunner," said Grayson, his tone sharp. "This is serious shit; save your fuckin' around for later."

Grayson turned his attention back to me.

"Now, Logan, I don't need to tell you that we've had this plan to bump off the Swifts in the works for a long fuckin' time. But it's been just that –talk- up until now. What you got going on with that little piece of ass is where the rubber hits the fuckin' road. I put you on this operation because I trust you, and, well, I know you're a fuckin' pussy hound."

I shifted in my seat. I guess Grayson figured the fact that I'd had a girl in just about every port for the last few years meant I'd have no trouble getting this one to give up the goods. But something about the way he was talking…I don't know. Just didn't sit right for some reason.

"Now, tell me what's next on the docket," he said, leaning forward in his seat.

"Find out whatever I can about the clan. Any weakness, anything we can use to our advantage to get an edge on those bear fucks."

"I don't get why we don't just fight ‘em on the battlefield," said Smith, scratching the back of his head.

"Because, you dumb fuck," said Grayson, "we can't take on a pack of bears one-on-one. They'll rip us apart. And I've heard stories about the elders of the Swifts; they've had plenty of experience fighting wolves. Heard they even got one of them there, one with a little mixed-breed kid."

"Don't like this underhanded shit, though," said Smith.

I knew Grayson well enough to realize that he wasn't going to stand for anything like this. With lightning speed, he drove his fist right into Smith's gut, sending the man backward on his feet, the air blasted out of his lungs. He fell backward onto the floor, his ass hitting the ground with a thud.

"Listen, you dumb fuck," said Grayson. "Just because you're in my office, it doesn't mean I want your stupid fucking opinion about how I run this pack."

Smith struggled back to his feet and made his way back to Grayson's side.

"Sorry, boss," he said, having a hard time forming the words.

"Show how sorry you are by shutting the fuck up."

Gunner stifled a laugh, and all I could do was shake my head. Fucker was lucky Grayson didn't shift right then and there and carve his gut open. Grayson turned his attention back to me.

"So, you keep on getting this girl on our side. I want to hear good news; we're looking to move in before the month's out, and I want to be ringing in the new year at our new pad. Got it?"

"Got it," I said.

"Good boy."

I got up to leave, but before I could get too far, Grayson called out to me again.

"One more thing, Logan," said Grayson.

"Yeah?"

"Go check in with the fuckin' voodoo wolf. Wanna make sure he's still…happy, or whatever the fuck he wants."

Gunner and Smith shuddered at this.

"Fucker gives me the creeps," said Smith.

"Now, what the fuck did I say about keeping your goddamn mouth shut?" said Grayson.

"Sorry, boss."

"That all?" I asked.

Grayson snorted and gave a nod, and I knew that meant I was done.

I didn't want to show it, but I was creeped out about checking in with the voodoo wolf, as Grayson liked to call him. Making my way back to the main bar area, I saw that the place was packed full of members of my clan. Rock music blared on the speakers, and the air was full of the sounds of my brothers having a good night of drinking. There were even Christmas decorations –lights, cheap little Santa cutouts, and a tree- here and there. My pack was a group of good men, and seeing them enjoy themselves like this made me think twice about the war that Grayson was so keen on starting. Our numbers had been strong for the first time in years, and a battle with the Swifts could easily deplete our pack by half.

But war's what the boss wants, so that's what we're gonna get.

"There's the man!" shouted Oslo, the member of the pack who I was the tightest with.

He was a tall, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered man with a balding horseshoe of fire red hair and a handlebar mustache to match. We slapped hands together and he gave me a hard clap on my back.

"How'd the meeting with the big man go?" he asked, flagging down the bartender for a pair of drinks.

"About as well as I could hope," I said. "Gotta meet with the voodoo wolf."

Oslo shuddered- that seemed to be the standard reaction to any reference to this particular wolf. I didn't blame him.

"He still out back in that shitty little trailer of his?" Olso asked, looking over his shoulder as though the wolf might be listening in.

"He's not bellied up to the bar with the rest of us, so I'm guessing so."

Oslo barked a quick laugh at this. The idea that the voodoo wolf would be knocking back shots with the rest of us was ludicrous on its face.

"Man, you want me to head out there with you?" asked Oslo. "That little fucker creeps me out. Don't know if I could take him one-on-one."

Oslo took his shots from the bar and handed me one.

"Nah," I said. "It's fine. He's on our side, after all. Remember?"

Oslo shook his head. "I don't think that guy's on anyone's side but his own."

Oslo and I tapped the rims of our glasses together and tossed back our shots.

"OK, gotta go do this," I said, the whiskey burning my throat on the way down.

"Good luck," said Oslo, turning his attention back to the bar and ordering another drink.

The whiskey running through my system, I stepped out through the front door and started the trek around the bar.

The "voodoo wolf" was the name our pack had given to the "helper" that Grayson had enlisted to aid in our oncoming fight against the Swifts. He had some kind of powers that I didn't quite understand- allowed him to meddle with the forces of nature somehow. None of us had any idea where Grayson had found this wolf; just started following us one day in the run-down trailer that he called home, keeping to himself.

And Grayson was silent on just what the voodoo wolf was doing to help us. He was a scrawny guy, the type who I'd peg as a gamma member of any pack. But he was able to do…things, that none of us could quite understand. Somehow, he amplified our winter wolf abilities and gave our hunters sharper reflexes. The boys who'd gone out with me the other day when I saw Emma in the snow said that they were able to take down a pair of deer with incredible ease. And I'd noticed that I seemed even more resistant to the snow than I normally was. It was strange to know that my body was being affected like this, but if it helped the pack, then who was I to question it?

I trudged through the snow to the trailer, which sat near the woods on the outskirts the bar property. I gave the flimsy steel door a rap, and a thin, high voice spoke from inside.

I entered, and the smell of exotic fragrances hitting my nose instantly. My first instinct was to retch, but I held it back. The interior of the trailer was decorated with bizarre charms made from fabric and bits of bone. The lighting was low and weird, new-age music played from a stereo somewhere. And sitting on the bed was the voodoo wolf. He was a bony, middle-aged man with thin black hair and a crooked smile full of angled, yellow teeth. His eyes were beady, and his nose was like a small beak. He sat on his bed cross-legged, a computer open in front of him.

"Logan," he said. "Good to see you."

"Didn't know you remembered my name," I said, leaning against the kitchen counter.

"I know whatever needs knowing."

This guy gives me the bad vibe to end all bad vibes. Grayson said he'd make the difference between the Longtooth Pack's victory or defeat, but as I wondered what powers he must be fucking around with, I couldn't help but wonder if it was worth it. I'd take a stand-up fight any damn day over this voodoo shit.

"Don't remember your name," I said.

"What is it your pack calls me? The ‘Voodoo Wolf'?" he said, looking up from his computer. "That'll be just fine."

"Voodoo Wolf it is," I said, picking up one of his trinkets and looking it over.

"And what is it you wanted with me?"

"Grayson told me to come check in with you."

Voodoo Wolf flashed me a wicked smile, the kind that made every danger warning in my body go off simultaneously. This guy wasn't on the level, and I wanted to get this conversation over with as fast as humanly possible.

"Right," he said. "Are you familiar with our…ongoing strategy with the Swift Clan?"

"That we're planning on taking them out? Yeah, I know."

"No," he said.

Then he looked around, drumming his fingers on his computer as if he was trying to figure out how much to tell me.

"You know what? I think this is a matter that I'll leave to Grayson to decide when he wants to…bring you in the know."

"What?" I asked. "What're we doing to the Swifts that I don't know about?"

"Like I said, you want to know, you talk to your boss. I don't want to…overstep my boundaries."

"Fine," I said, making a mental note to ask Grayson just what the hell he was talking about.

Voodoo Wolf reached into a small pouch dangling off his bed and withdrew a small packet of animal bones floating in some kind of orange goop. He held it out to me and, with a little bit of hesitation, I took it. The packet was warm to the touch, and I could smell something sour, like old eggs or rotting milk.

"That's for the next time you travel to the Swift compound. There's a large tree stump behind the compound on the property. You'll find a small, freshly-dug plot. Uncover it and place that little package of mine in there. Then cover it back up."

I looked down at the package. Everything about it screamed "wrong" to me. I wanted to pitch it out of the window. That probably wouldn't go over too well with Grayson, I figured. So, I slipped it into my pocket.

"What'll this do?"

Voodoo Wolf waved his hand slowly in front of his face.

"Don't you worry about that. Just know that it's the key to your pack's victory over the Swifts. Now, if you'll leave me be."

He didn't have to ask me twice. I got the hell out of that creepy trailer and back out into the fresh air. Once out, I took another look at the packet. I wanted to know just what the hell this thing was, and what it was doing to the Swifts. But Grayson kept information like that locked down. If I asked him, he'd just tell me that I knew all I needed to know, and to do as I was told.

But deep down, I was starting to hate this. The Longtooth Pack wasn't about voodoo warfare or whatever magic this creepy fuck was working with. If we were going to take the region, I wanted to do it like wolves- in person, claw to claw, not this kind of shit.

Nothing I could do, though. But as I made my way back to the bar, the red and green lights strung along the outline of the building, I couldn't help but think about how I'd do things differently if I were the man on top.

I couldn't stop thinking about Logan. I spent the entire next day going over last night in my mind, replaying the events in exquisite detail. I knew that the way I felt was crazy –I'd only just met him, after all- but couldn't help the way I felt. We exchanged numbers at the end of the night, and I found myself checking my phone over and over for a message from him. I was acting like a teenager, but I couldn't help it.

The rest of the clan wasn't quite as chipper as I was about things, however. The news about the slain animals found in the woods was making everyone more paranoid, and Uncle Lucas was talking about leading some of the men of the clan out into the forest to investigate what was going on. And when I heard this, I realized that my evening with Logan wasn't just a fun little fling- it was a sign that wolves were in the region.

I couldn't just sit on this information; I had to tell the rest of my clan. But what to tell them? And how much? I couldn't very well just say "hey guys, I met a super-hot winter wolf and we hooked up."

But I had to say something. I couldn't just ignore the fact that wolves had moved into the region. So, after telling Uncle Atticus, who was the de facto leader of the Swifts, he called a meeting.

"Not too happy about you kids sneaking out of the house," he said.

I'm not a kid, I thought after I told him.

I understood where Atticus was coming from, but the rest of my cousins and I didn't care for how the elders looked at us like we were still in middle school. But I figured there were more important things to worry about. And who knows, maybe when I'm an elder I'll forever look at the next generation of Swifts as forever children.

If there was a next generation, I reminded myself.

So, we gathered in the living room to discuss this development. As always, the cheer of the Christmas tree and the rest of the decorations made an odd contrast to the serious matters being discussed.

"Wolves?" asked Aunt Tessa. "How do we know?"

"We figured it was the case when we found that animal carcass in the woods," said Alexander. "Then Emma said she saw something when she was lost out there."

"I thought it was a wolf at the time, but I didn't know for sure," I said, feeling small under the eyes of everyone in the family.

"Then at the bar," said Dad. "You all got into a scrap with wolves?"

Henry nodded.

"Fight broke out, and Alex and I had to defend ourselves, you know?"

I couldn't help but smirk at Henry's creative reimagining of the events of the evening. But then again, with me choosing to keep my evening with Logan a secret, it's not like I was any better.

"The fight didn't last very long," he continued, "but I knew there was something weird about the biker gang we got into it with."

"Lord in heaven," said Aunt Tessa. "My boys are fighting with biker gangs."

"We had to defend ourselves!" added Henry, his tone a little childish.

"Go on," said Dad.

"Anyway, we knew there was something weird about them. Something about their smell. It sounds weird, but when we talked about it later we said it reminded us of Uncle Lucas."

Uncle Lucas snorted and smirked. "Glad you know my scent so well," he said.

Henry and Alexander's faces turned red.

"Seriously, though," said Uncle Lucas. "You kids don't really know it because you've spent so much time sheltered from the rest of the shifter world, but your instincts aren't lying. Think about it, if you can pick up on your Uncle Roland and Clyde's scents when they come back from the other tribes they're staying with, then think about how different another species must smell."

He was referring to our other uncles who'd moved in with the tribes of their partners. As far as we knew, they were having the same issue having children as the rest of us were.

"And bikers…" said Uncle Atticus, looking away as if thinking of something. "Reminds me of the other scraps we've had with the wolves."

"What can I say," said Uncle Lucas. "Wolves like to ride."

He'd been a biker himself when he met Aunt Isabella. He liked to keep his sordid past to himself, especially since it nearly ended up in war between his pack and us. And he'd made an effort to become more domesticated since he had Grace. But he was always sneaking out for rides on his bike when he could. Guess you can only tame a wolf so much.

"Then what's the plan?" asked Uncle Aaron. "We just sit tight and hope that the wolves pass on through? I mean it can't be a coincidence that they're here in our territory."

"We need to find out more information," said Atticus. "We need to get in contact with the wolves somehow and find out just what the hell they're here for."

"Sounds like a job for the wolf of the family," said Lucas.

Atticus nodded.

"Until we figure out more, I want all of you kids to stay in the compound."

Groans sounded out from my cousins, and Atticus raised his palms.

"It's just too dangerous out there. Don't need you all picking fights with another group of damn bikers."

"So what," said Henry. "You want us to just stay cooped up here all winter?"

"It's not the best situation, but at least for the next few days until we get this all sorted out. We can't…we can't afford to lose any of you."

The insinuation that a loss of one of us could mean the loss of one of the last members of the Swift clan sunk in. Henry and Alexander were hot-headed at times, especially Henry, but even they knew just how difficult of a situation this was for all of us. My eyes drifted to the Christmas tree and the piles of presents underneath, and I realized that there was only one gift that any of us really wanted this year.

"That's all for now," said Uncle Atticus. "We'll let you all know anything when we know. Just…stay safe out there. And no bar fights."

With that, the family meeting was over. I wasn't too pleased about being stuck on the compound, but I knew I did the right thing by bringing the wolf situation to everyone's attention. Besides, this place was so big that it wasn't exactly easy to start feeling cooped-up here.

Looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the living room at the snow-trimmed branches of the trees outside, I decided that a little hot cocoa sounded good. I headed to the kitchen and set some milk to boil, and as soon as I leaned back against the kitchen counter to wait, my thoughts drifted to Logan.

I wanted to see him again. Bad. I knew that going out with a strange wolf was against everything that Uncle Atticus had said during the meeting, but I couldn't help it.

And as if he was able to read my mind, my I felt my phone buzz in my pocket right then and there. Eagerly, I pulled my phone out and checked it. Sure enough, it was a message from Logan.

Plans for tonight?

I paced back and forth. I was so bad at texting; I never felt like I knew the right thing to say. After typing, deleting, and typing, and deleting, and finally typing a little more, I settled on a message of pure brilliance and poetry.

Nope. You?

I paced a little more as I waited for his response.

Your place. I'll meet you there. Midnight.

My heart began to race as I tried to decide on a response.

Sounds good ; )

Well, I never said I was good at texting.

I shoved my phone back into my pocket, my heart singing. This feeling, however, was followed by a distinct sense of guilt. I mean, why did I get to have fun with a new guy while the rest of the clan was trying to hold things together for the holidays? And that's not even getting into the whole issue of the fact that the man I was going to see wasn't just a wolf, but a winter wolf.

Then, before I could consider the matter any further, a boiling white mess frothed out of the corner of my eye.

"Shit, shit," I said to myself, grabbing a washcloth and taking the boiling milk off of the stove, the liquid splashing here and there, some falling onto the bright orange burner with a hiss.

I set the pot on one of the turned off burners and started cleaning up the mess, scolding myself for letting my thoughts about Logan disconnect me from the real world.

I'll figure out what the pack has in mind for us, I thought to myself as I cleaned up the splashed milk. I won't make this just about hanging out with some dude.

But as I finished cleaning and poured the rest of the milk into a mug, I knew that I was just telling myself what I felt like I needed to in order to not feel guilty.

This is a rough time for the clan, I thought, dumping some cocoa powder into the mug of hot milk and stirring it with a spoon. I deserve a little fun. I'll go out, hang with Logan, and be back before anyone even knows I'm gone.

And just like that, I was convinced. I took a seat in one of the comfy chairs in the living room while I drank my cocoa, some of the other members of my family there watching a movie. The evening passed by terribly slowly, and when we all had dinner and cleaned up I felt like midnight was never going to come. But when ten finally rolled around, I started the process of picking out my outfit for tonight.

Starting with a pair of lacy boyshorts and a matching bra that I felt was my sexiest underwear, I decided on a pair of skin-tight black jeans and a light blue sweater that was both nice and tight and brought out my eyes. I went heavy on the red lipstick, making it clear what I was in the mood for. Finally, when midnight arrived, I was ready to go.

I bundled up for the cold and headed out, slipping through the area in the fence that I used the other night. Then, as I wandered into the woods, I realized that I had no idea where, exactly, I was supposed to meet Logan.

But before I could consider the matter for too long, I heard a voice cut through the still, cool air.

"Hey."

I turned, and leaning against one of the thick-trunked oaks that filled the woods was Logan. He dressed in his usual leather jacket and white V-neck, his muscular legs in his tight denim jeans, black combat boots completing the look.

"There you are," he said in that low, sensual voice that I was already going crazy over. "Wondering how long you'd keep me waiting."

"Sorry," I said, my face going red. "I had to sneak out; my clan's not too hot about the idea of us kids hanging out with wolves. Or going out at all, I guess."

"'Kids'?" asked Logan.

"We're still kids to them. Kind of. It's just tha-"

I found myself about to go into the whole issue of our clan not being able to have children, but caught myself at the last moment, figuring that this wasn't exactly good date conversation.

"Quite a place," said Logan, looking over my shoulder at the massive form of the compound.

"Yeah," I said. "Big enough for the whole clan, with plenty of room to spare."

"Doesn't look like anyone could break in, either."

"Nope," I said. "I mean, I've got my secrets, though."

Logan's eyebrows raised. "Girls like you usually do."

"I mean, this fence is as tough to get through as a brick wall, but there's an easy place to get in."

"I gotta see this," said Logan. "I can't believe a fortress like the Swift Compound would have an easy way in."

A smile on my face, I led him over to the fence and showed him the weak point where I could lift the fence a little, just enough to crawl under.

"Might be a tight fit for a big guy like you," I said. "But it's doable."

"Crafty girl," said Logan, his eyes on the compound.

"I have my moments."

"Shall we?" he said, gesturing toward the woods.

"We shall.

He then led me down into the woods where his bike was hidden among the shadows, far enough away where his engine wouldn't be heard by anyone in the family. We hopped on and he revved the engine, that full-body vibration running through me. I rested my head on his back and we were off.

Looking back, I should've seen the trouble coming, but at the time I was in, hook, line, and sinker. But who could blame me?

I decided to take Emma down to McDonnell's, one of the bars in town. We soon arrived, and I grabbed the first round of drinks while Emma found a table. Like every other bar that I'd come to since I arrived in the Bear Mountain region, Christmas decorations were all over the place. Christmas carols played rock style came out of the speakers, and one of the bartenders, a massive man in a t-shirt that barely covered his belly, was wearing a Santa hat.

"'Tis the season," I said, setting down a pair of beers on the table and taking a look around.

"You a, um, Christmas kind of guy?" Emma asked, bringing her beer closer to her and wrapping her slim fingers around it.

"Not usually, but the holiday spirit has a certain kind of magic."

My eyes drifted up along Emma's body, lingering on the swan-like curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts beneath her tight sweater, finally coming to a rest on her beautiful, almond-shaped hazel eyes.

Focus, I reminded myself. I'm here to gain her trust, not to ogle her.

But damn, she made it hard. I'd heard there were some lookers in the Swift clan, but I wasn't prepared for one as stunning as her.

"So, tell me about yourself," I said, wanting to get myself out of my own head.

"Um, not much to say," she said.

"The most interesting girls always say something like that."

Her slim, sandy-brown eyebrows raised up a bit.

"You hang out with a lot of interesting girls?"

"Don't have time for the boring ones."

She smirked. "Fair enough. Well, I just graduated from school in Michigan."

"Degree?"

"Psychology."

"Is this where I make a joke about you being able to read my mind?"

Another smile. "If you want to be a total cornball, then go right ahead."

A moment passed, both of us staring into the other's eyes.

"You go to school?" she asked.

"Do I look like the college-educated type?" I asked.

"Well, I mean, there are weirder things than bikers with college degrees."

"No," I said. "No college for me."

"Then what, um, kind of things are you into?"

"You're the subject of this particular line of conversation," I said.

Truth be told, I hated talking about myself. And I needed information on her clan, if I could get it. Not to mention I'd be lying if I said I wasn't more than a little interested in learning more about Emma.

"Right, right," she said with a smile before taking a sip of her beer. "Anyway, I spent most of my life moving around with my mom and dad, taking little breaks here and there to stay at the compound. Our clan has been through some…troubles, a lot of them before I was born. Lots of issues with your kind."

"Oh?" I asked.

"Yep. Wolves and bears don't really get along all that well, as I'm sure you've heard."

"There are exceptions here and there. Didn't you say your uncle was a wolf?"

"I did say that. But he had to all but cut himself off from his pack. I don't know if he could've done it without Grace. That's my cousin."

"Got it," I said. "How many you got living up there in that little forest castle of yours?"

"Um, let's see."

She counted off on her fingers, mouthing names as she did.

"Sixteen. Seventeen, including me."

I made a mental note of the number. The number of bears that we'd have to deal with is something that I'm sure Grayson would be interested to hear.

"Not many bears for such a big compound."

"I know," she said. "A couple of my uncles moved off with other clans, but you're right- number's small."

"I'd think that with a bunch of you young-uns around you'd be knee-deep in cubs."

"You'd think so…but…"

The way she trailed off made me realize right away that this was something worth investigating.

"But what?"

Emma looked around, like she was expecting to see a member of her clan standing nearby ready to chastise her.

"We…haven't been able to have kids."

"What?" I said, trying hard to hide my shock. "What do you mean?"

"I mean just what I said. My cousins have been pairing off, and none of them have been able to have kids."

"What about your aunts and uncles?"

"It's past time for most of them, but my uncles who'd recently moved away said that they've been having the same problem. But just with them; the other members of the clans that they're living with have been able to reproduce. Just not the Swifts."

I said nothing, letting this information to sink it. The Christmas music and the chatting of the other people in the bar sank into the silence between us.

"I've never heard anything like that before. How long has it been going on for?"

"A while. A year or so. None of us know what to do. I'm starting to wonder if we're cursed or something."

"Fucking crazy," I said.

And I meant it. I'd never heard of anything like this happened to a shifter clan.

I took another sip of my beer. Grayson definitely would want to hear about this.

"Then what the hell are you Swifts doing about it?"

"What can we do?" she asked. "Not like any of us have magic powers or anything."

Magic powers…

The words stuck in my head. What other explanation for this problem could there be?

"I mean, I never thought about having kids, but I just always assumed that it'd be something that I'd do at some point. But what if I can't? What if we are cursed?"

Emma stopped herself and looked away.

"Sorry," she said. "I'm burdening you with stupid family problems."

"Not stupid," I said, reaching across the table and putting my hand on hers. "I'd be going fucking crazy if my people might die out."

She nodded sadly.

"It's just hard to be in the holiday spirit when all this is going on."

"I can get that."

Before either of us could say anything else, Emma's phone buzzed on the table. She picked it up and looked at it.

"Shit," she said.

"Problem?"

"Kind of. My cousin just said my Dad's back from somewhere and's up and around. I need to get back before he figures out I'm not there."

"Shame about cutting things short," I said.

"Yeah," she said. "We'll just have to make it up some other time."

"Deal," I said, a smile forming on my lips

We finished our beers and I paid the tab. Minutes later, we were back on my bike and headed back up the road to the Swift compound. And as Emma rested her head on my back once again, I couldn't help but feel a little twinge of…something.

Was I falling for this girl?

Goddamn, I thought, my eyes on the triangle of headlight that cut through the darkness ahead. This was supposed to be an easy little assignment. I was supposed to seduce her and gain her trust, not fall for her.

I decided to figure this all out later. After all, I still had a job to do tonight.

Pulling into the woods near where I'd parked before, I came to a stop and killed the engine.

"Here we are," Emma said, stepping off of the bike.

"I'll walk you a little ways up," I said.

We walked together toward the lights of the compound, no sound around us but our feet crunching into the snow. After a little while, we came to a stop, and I turned toward Emma. Without even thinking about it, I took her by the chin, leaned in close, and kissed her.

It was weird- the kiss wasn't like the usual aggressive kissing that I did with girls, or like I did with Emma the other night. It was softer in a way that made me take notice of the feeling of her lips on mine.

"Night," I said.

"Good night," she replied.

Then hurried off toward the compound, my eyes on her the whole time.

When she left, I felt like I was shaking myself out of a trance. I had shit to do, and now was the time. I waited about thirty minutes, long enough for Emma to head into the compound and for her to get settled into her room. I watched the lights of the place as I waited. Eventually, nearly all of them turned off. Checking my watch, I saw that it was nearly two.

Not gonna have a better time than this, I thought.

Shifting into my wolf form, I moved quickly across the snow. I held the packet of orange liquid and bone in my mouth, the smell almost overwhelming. I reached the area in the fence that Emma had shown me and crawled underneath it. Moving as carefully as I could, I reached the area that the voodoo wolf had pointed out, the tree trunk on the other side of the property. Sure enough, under the snow were mounds of earth that looked recently moved.

After scanning the area and making sure it was clear, I turned up my heat and dug into the ground. Once I'd gone down a foot or so, I found other packets just like mine, except these weren't filled with orange liquid. Only the bones remained. I dropped the packet into the ground and covered it up, then put snow on top of that. Once the job was done, I hurried back out the way I came. But as I passed the far side of the property, I noticed that there was one window still lit. Looking up, I saw that Emma was sitting by the window, her eyes staring out into the distance. My eyes stayed on her for a little while.

Damn, she's fucking pretty, I thought.

I had to shake myself back to my senses. Moving back through the weak portion of the fence, I made my way back to my bike and shifted back. Once dressed again, I hopped on and started down back toward town.

But as I drove, all I could think about was how this didn't seem right. I made a mental note to talk to Grayson tomorrow. If I was going to be going in this deep, I needed to know exactly what I was getting myself into.

Just like before, woke up thinking about Logan. I couldn't get that damn face of his out of my mind. Thankfully, I'd gotten home before anyone noticed I was gone. But I wasn't able to get to sleep; my heart was racing from just being around him.

But then, right when that early-morning bliss of thinking of Logan disappeared from my thoughts, it was replaced by something else – a terrible sickness in my stomach. It came suddenly and intensely. I ran to my bathroom, dropping to my knees in front of the toilet, and let it rip. The vomit was thin and watery, which made sense, as dinner last night was the only thing I'd eaten in the previous twenty-four hours.

When the nausea passed, I struggled to my feet. I tried to figure out what was wrong with me. I wasn't hungover; I might be something of a lightweight, but it took more than one beer for anything like being sick to happen.

I took a shower, feeling a little better by the minute. By the time I got out, I was feeling about back to normal.

Then, as I wrapped my towel around my body, it hit me in a crashing wave of understanding.

Was I pregnant?

Morning sickness- that could account for my throwing up. I mean, the sex with Logan the other night had been unprotected. But surely this was too soon to be showing any signs of pregnancy. Not to mention the whole issue with none of us having been able to get pregnant.

But the idea stuck in my head. It was like I had some supernatural awareness of my own body, and that I knew there was a baby inside me that was just starting to develop. It sounded crazy, but like I said, I just knew.

I had to get another opinion on this, however. So, after breakfast, I cornered William. I knew there was a chance that he might blab about the whole thing to the rest of the family, but I had to take the chance. After all, he was the brains of the clan, and if anyone would know how to determine whether or not I was crazy, it was him.

"You think you're what?" he exclaimed after I took him aside and explained my situation.

"I don't know," I said. "I know it sounds crazy, but I think I might be pregnant."

"That means…" he said, trailing off.

Catching himself, he waved his hands in front of his face. "You know what? I don't need to know about…that."

I felt a little embarrassed at having to bring up my sex life with my dweeby cousin, but it had to be done.

"But," he said, getting back on track. "If you are pregnant…it would be incredible. Who, um, who would be the father?"

"It's…" I started, realizing that spilling the beans on this would reveal me as a liar regarding what I knew about the wolves, "one of the wolves. From the pack that just moved in."

He shook his head. "I'm not even going to get into that. But you need to tell me about this wolf, anything you think might be relevant."

"They're not just wolves," I said. "They're winter wolves."

"Winter wolves?" said William. "That's…hold on. Come with me."

He led me down one of the compound hallways to the set of tall, wooden doors that led to the study. Opening them, he revealed a tall-ceilinged space with walls lined with clean, modern bookshelves. Colorful spines of books were packed onto the shelves, and the whole place was lit with soft, clean lighting. Windows looked out onto the snowy forest outside.

"It's been a long time since I've read anything about winter wolves," he said, bee-lining toward one of the shelves and dragging his fingers along the spines of the books. "But…"

He stopped at one of the books and pulled it off.

"Here we are."

The book had some title in Latin, and William threw it open, eagerly scanning the table of contents. Once he found what he was looking for, he flipped to the page and began reading, mouthing the words silently as he did.

"Ah ha!" he said, slamming the tip of his finger down on a paragraph. "This says that winter wolves, do to their quasi-magical nature, can overcome curses."

I was confused. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Because," he said. "This whole…thing with none of the women of the clan being able to get pregnant, I've thought it was some kind of curse. It had to be; there was no way that all the women of a family could be rendered sterile all at the same time. Unless we all took a vacation to Chernobyl or something."

"And what does this have to do with Lo- I mean, the wolf?"

"Because, if this is all because of a curse, and you, um, had relations with a winter wolf, the, ah, joining of you two might've been enough to overcome the curse. Especially if the curse is the kind that needs to be, well, refreshed every now and then."

"So…it might be true?" I asked, placing my hand on my belly. "I might be pregnant?"

"You feel something, right?" he asked. "You feel like something's definitely different?"

"Without a doubt."

"Then it might be the case."

William's face brightened as he spoke. I felt unsure about all of this. What if we were all getting our hopes up? I know that William and his wife had been trying for a child ever since they got married, and it was taking a major toll on their relationship. I shuddered at the idea of them, along with Grace and her husband, thinking that there was a chance that they could have a child, only for it to be a false alarm. Part of me still wondered if this was nature's way of telling the Swifts that it was our time to go extinct.

"Is there any way we can know for sure?" I asked. "I mean, it's probably too soon for a pregnancy test, right?"

"It's too soon for an over-the-counter one, right, but…"

He found another book on the shelf and pulled it off. Flipping through it, he came to a stop at another chapter.

"Here…come with me."

Tucking the book under his arm, he dashed out of the room at a hurried pace. I followed him, and we soon arrived at the kitchen. William began taking different ingredients from here and there and dumping them into a pot of water he'd set to boil. After a time, the boiling water turned a deep orange color, and a tangy, astringent scent filled the kitchen. He dumped the pot's contents into a large mug and handed it to me.

"It's hot and it's disgusting, but you have to drink it really fast."

I brought the mug to my mouth and right as it moved under my nose I jerked my head back out of instinct. It smelled terrible, whatever it was.

"I know," said William. "But it's the closest thing to a sure-bet pregnancy test you're gonna get."

I blew on the liquid and let it cool just enough to be able to down it in a single swig. It tasted like old hot dogs and sour milk.

"Disgusting," I said, handing him back the mug. "Now what?"

"Now, you wait and go to the bathroom. If it's blue, then you're not pregnant. If it's orange, then you are."

Anxiety gripped me. I couldn't believe that we were talking about pregnancy. I think we'd all started to give up hope on children, and now that there was a shred of optimism about the future, I didn't quite know how to handle it.

"And d-"

"Don't tell anyone," I finished. "Yeah, I figured."

"I just don't want anyone to get their hopes up," said William, his eyes on his wife in the other room. "I don't know if we'd be able to handle disappointment about something like this."

"I don't know if I could, either," I said.

"Just…keep me posted," said William.

I agreed, and headed back to my room. I wanted to burst in excitement; I'd never been so eager to go to the bathroom in my life. Eventually, the need arose and I did, my body shaking with anticipation as I stood up and looked in to see…

Orange.

I was pregnant.

I staggered backward from the bowl, my vision going blurry. I couldn't believe that it was true, that I was with child. My steps unsteady as I walked toward the phone, I sent William a text. He was there within seconds. After double-checking, he walked out of the bathroom with the same stunned look on his face that I was sure I had.

"You're pregnant," he said.

"I am," I responded.

And now I had to tell the father.

"You don't need to know the goddam details. Not unless I say you do."

Grayson was mad. Actually, mad would be putting it pretty damn lightly. He couldn't believe that I was questioning his decisions about the Swift situation.

At least, "questioning" is what he considered me asking questions about what exactly he had planned for them. We were in the back office at Cruiser's bar,

"I'm telling you," I said, "I'll be more useful if I know exactly what the plan is."

"The plan is you keep fucking that little piece of yours until she gives up just about every detail that she knows about that place."

I'd already told him about the passage under the fence, but Grayson was already on top of that; it's how our boys had been getting into the compound in order to place the packets of…whatever that shit was, at the stump of that tree.

"Numbers?" I asked. "That doesn't help?"

Grayson sat forward.

"Numbers are good. But I need to know more. I want to wipe that clan out without losing so much as a single man. And you should be right there with me, Logan."

He narrowed his eyes and stared at me hard.

"Wait a minute," he said. "Are you getting' sweet on this girl? Is that what's going on here?"

Wry, shit-eating little smirks appeared on Gunner and Smith's ugly faces. Last thing I fucking needed was these assholes spreading the word that I was crushing on some bear. So, I had to come down hard.

"No, it ain't like that," I said. "She's just a fuckin' piece of pussy to me; I don't give a shit one way or the other. She can die like the rest of them."

But the words were hard to say. They felt like they were getting stuck in my mouth on the way out. God, I was fucking falling for this girl.

"Then why the fuck you want to know what's going on? Why can't you just follow orders."

"Because of this shit with the voodoo wolf…it doesn't sit right with me."

"That don't fucking matter. I'm the goddamn alpha in this pack, and if you want to keep your place, you'll do just what the fuck I say. That is, unless you want to challenge me."

Gunner and Smith's eyebrows raised. The suggestion of an alpha challenge was enough to get any wolf interested. And I'd be lying if I didn't find myself thinking more and more about taking Grayson on. He was getting weak and lazy, relying on curses and shit to do his dirty work. Hell, half the damn pack wasn't even all that interested in taking on the Swift clan. Aside from the fact that it'd be a brutal war, winter wolves like us weren't the type to stay in one place for very long. Plenty of the boys viewed occupying the Swift compound as less of a prize and more of a burden. But Grayson felt like he had something to prove, so all us lower-ranking wolves could do is fall into line.

"No fucking challenge," I said.

"Good," said Grayson. "Then do what I ask. Meet up with her one more time and see what you can get out of her. I don't have time for a fucking drawn-out courtship, so make it worth our time."

"Then what?" I said. "We're gonna move on them?"

"Sooner than later," said Grayson. "So, don't get too attached; your little bear cub's gonna end up in a ditch behind the compound right there with the rest of them."

I didn't want to hear any more of this shit.

"We done?"

"We're done."

I got up and stormed out of the office, the whole thing not sitting right with me. I needed to do something, but I had no idea what.

Maybe the voodoo wolf, I thought. Maybe he'd let me know just what the fuck Grayson had in mind with all this shit.

I stormed through the bar, grabbing a shot on the way out. Soon, I was knocking on the door to the voodoo wolf's trailer.

"Yes?" came the thin, creepy voice from inside.

"I've gone some questions."

"Then enter."

I stepped into the trailer and looked around. The voodoo wolf was right where he was before, fiddling with one thing or another on his computer.

"You might want to think about getting a new computer," I said. "Macbook's aren't exactly doing good things for your vibe in here."

The voodoo wolf looked at me with those beady little eyes of his, a smirk on his lips.

"Well, you find a better way to keep track of ingredients than Excel, please let me know."

He closed the computer.

"What can I help you with?"

"I need to know what Grayson's doing with the Swifts."

"Sudden change of heart?"

"I just don't like being kept in the dark."

The voodoo wolf looked around thoughtfully.

"Dead chick."

My brow furrowed.

"What?"

"Dead chick, a few toxic mushrooms, a few mystery ingredients. That's what was in the little packages that your men have been hiding in the Swift compound."

"But why?"

"You see, a shifter clan's territory is tied to them in a very significant, spiritual way. Us wolves don't really have the same connection, what with us being so…on the move. But bears? Absolutely. Their territory is almost a part of them, and it's no accident that the Swift clan's compound is where it is. And for people like me who know about these things, well, you can find ways to modify that energy."

"And what kind of ‘modifications' have you been making?"

"Grayson wanted something subtle, something that would demoralize the Swifts, take the fight right out of them. Poisoning them directly would be too difficult, and might taint the land. Plus, Grayson didn't want to miss out on a good fight."

"Get to the point."

"So, he had me prevent them from being able to have children."

Of course, I thought. Figures Grayson would come up with some sick shit like that. Toy with his prey, let them suffer, then take them out when they were weak. And I was right there helping him along.

"You look a little startled, winter wolf. You have a problem?"

I did. Right then and there I wanted to rip this little fucker limb-from-limb. But I knew he was just a mercenary, just some freak who Grayson had paid to do his dirty work.

I got the hell out of there before I did something I regretted. Anger overcame me; I couldn't believe that I'd been used for such a sick process. I'd already felt like shit doing what I'd been doing with Emma, gaining her trust just to get information from her, but this shit was going too far. I needed to do something, but I didn't know what.

So, of course, right then I got a text from Emma.

What are you doing?

I hesitated before responding. I knew that I needed to tell her, to warn her family, but that would mean going past a point of no return with Grayson. I'd either have to challenge him or leave the clan behind.

Nothing important, I replied.

We need to talk.

I couldn't help but make a little smile at this. I'd only know this chick for a few days and we were already having a "talk." But shit moves fast when you're in each in a shifter clan who're about to go to war.

Fine. Meet me in town. Same cross streets as before.

This was gonna be rough. And I got the impression by the short tone of Emma's texts that she had something that she needed to tell me, too. Getting on my bike and riding toward the meeting place, I thought about just what I'd gotten myself into. Grayson had been planning this war for over a year, and here I was having doubts about it right when it seemed like the exact moment that he wanted to strike.

The snow picked up as I drove, and the air soon became filled with white flurries. I arrived at the meeting point to see Emma waiting for me. She looked…beautiful. Her slim figure was lit from above by the street light, and the pale skin of her face was red with cold.

"There you are," she said.

"Let's go back to my place," I said. "No sense talking in the cold."

She nodded and hopped on my bike. I hated to admit it, but something warmed in me as soon as she wrapped her arms around my body. I…enjoyed having her close like this. God, what the hell was wrong with me. This was all supposed to be so simple; all I had to do was sleep with her, get information, and drop her like any other girl I'd slept with. But something about her just made all this so hard.

We arrived at the apartment I'd rented, which was a halfway-decent little one bedroom near the center of town.

And I could hardly wait a second after I shut the door behind us to kiss her.

Logan's kiss was hard, fast, and unexpected. But totally welcome. I'd hardly had a second to even look at his apartment before he set on me. And when he did, I gave him every bit of my attention. He held my face in his hands, his lips pressed to mine. My arms went slack at my sides for a moment before I placed them on his hips. A strange feeling ran through me, a feeling of heat and intensity. And not from the heat of Logan's body. It was a passion, a passion that I'd never before experienced. It was the kind of erotic intensity that blotted every thought out of my mind and compelled me to surrender to him right then and there. I'd my doubts about this situation with Logan, whether or not it was a good idea; but as he kissed me hard all of that was swept away.

We worked feverishly on each other's clothes, him pulling off my heavy winter coat and me getting him out of that sexy leather jacket of his. And as we disrobed each other, I took in the sweet pleasure of more and more of Logan's body being exposed by the second. Soon, I was in nothing but my jeans and bra. I could feel his cock already hard through his jeans.

"That didn't take long," I said, my voice breathy and low.

"No surprise with a girl like you," he said before kissing me again.

I rubbed his cock through his jeans as he kissed me, his lips moving along my jaw and neck in just that way I liked. His kiss was incredible, both rough and passionate. And that animal scent that hung on his body flooded my nose. Logan was a sensory delight, and I was eager to take it all in.

We moved back as we kissed, stepping further into the apartment, nearly knocking over the sparse furniture in the place. And when we reached the couch, I felt a sly smile form on my face as my eyes trailed up and down Logan's body.

"You look like you have something in mind," he said.

"Sit down."

He complied, dropping onto the couch behind us. I dropped to my knees between his legs, my hands on his strong, broad shoulders. I kissed Logan along his right leg, my lips moving along the tight denim of his jeans. Soon, my lips were over his cock through his pants, and all I could think about was seeing that magnificent cock up close and in person. I moved my hands down along his torso, taking in the incredible feeling of his body through his t-shirt. And when I reached his cock, my hands seemed to move of their own accord, undoing his zipper and reaching into his underwear and taking hold of that heavy, hard prick of his.

Once what I wanted was in my hands, I pulled his pants down just enough to get at it. His cock was now fully erect and pointing straight up, my fingers looking small around it. I worked my jaw, wondering just how to start with a massive member like this.

Guess from the top and work my way down, I thought.

So, that's how I began. First, I gave the tip of his head a few wet, soft kisses. The taste of his prick flooded my mouth instantly; it tasted just how he smelled, and I couldn't get enough. Kissing him in this way for a little while, I sized him up like a big steak that almost looked too big for its plate. My lips moved down further, kissing along the ridge of his head. Logan exhaled hard- my sign that I was moving in the right direction.

Then, after kissing and licking his head a little more, I decided to go right for it. Opening my mouth, I slipped his head inside, my lips forming a tight seal around him. I held him like this for a moment, letting him enjoy the warm, wetness of my mouth. Then, I descended, taking more and more of him into my mouth. I had no idea how I was able to do it, but soon he was half-sheathed in my mouth, and I felt like I could maybe even take a little more. Instead, I brought my lips back up toward the end of his cock, my tongue stroking his length as I did. Now confident that I was able to handle all that he was working with, I went down for another plunge.

I kept at him like this, taking more and more of him into my mouth as I bobbed on his prick. Logan's breath became deeper as the pleasure took hold of him, and he held my hair behind my head to give me a clear view.

He was…delicious. I just couldn't get enough of how his cock tasted, and the urge to please him had taken complete hold of me. I stroked him with my right hand as I sucked him, coordinating the movements to give him maximum pleasure. Soon, I was able to take nearly the entire length of his cock into my mouth. Opening my eye a bit, however, revealed to me that I still had a few more inches to go. Bringing him all into my mouth would be an incredible task…though one I'd be more than happy to practice.

Soon, I tasted a bit of saltiness, and I knew that he'd cum if I kept at him like this. Logan knew this too, and he gently guided me off of his cock, his prick leaving my mouth with a wet, popping sound. Logan stood up, towering over me as I sat there on my knees. I loved feeling so small before him, and I was eager to let him take charge.

And he did just that.

Guiding me up with his hand on the back of my head, Logan brought me up to my knees. He looked at me with those brilliant blue eyes, a hunger burning inside of him. I was eager to learn what he had in store, and he looked just as eager to show me. He put his hands on my hips, hard, and pushed me toward the window looking out onto the snowy woods. Logan bent me over and I grabbed onto the window ledge, my hair draped down over one shoulder. Then, he kissed me again along my neck, unfastening my bra as he did. The bra off, my breasts tumbled free. Logan grabbed onto them eagerly, rubbing my nipples in a manner that drove me so wild I felt I might not be able to stand.

But he wasn't done. Logan then unbuttoned my pants and pulled them and my panties down with one swift motion. I stepped out of the jeans that were now pooled at my ankles and was completely, nude. Then, placing one hand on my shoulder taking his cock with the other, Logan moved into me with a swift, deep thrust. I could barely hang on as he entered me. My knees felt like they might buckle, and the breath shot out of my lungs. It was just about the most incredible feeling I'd ever experienced. And I was excited to let Logan take complete control.

His thrusting was relentless right away. He pounded me hard, the sounds of his hips slapping against my ass filling the room. I held on hard, moans slipping past my lips as he drove into me over and over. Then, as I was completely overtaken by the pleasure, I felt the hard, stinging crack of his hand down on my right cheek.

It was incredible. Just the right mixture of pain and pleasure.

"Do it again," I said, the voice seeming to come from somewhere outside of myself

He was happy to comply.

He brought down his palm again, then again, then again, one hand taking hold of my hair and pulling it just hard enough to drive me wild. I had no idea that I had this side to me. But I loved having Logan to bring it out of me.

Logan grunts were harder, more forceful now. His hands grabbed hard onto my hips as he drove into me over and over, my eyes blurring in the corner from the ecstasy. Occasionally he'd reach up and take hold of one my breasts, kneading it at and rubbing my nipple just how I liked it. God, he was good.

I could tell that he was about ready to cum. And so was I. Logan thrusts were relentless, and I felt as though I were turning more and more to putty with each plunge.

Then, I came. A strange mixture of moans and screams flowed out of me, and the feeling of pleasure was so intense that it was almost an out-of-body experience. White-hot pleasure rushed from my sex and poured out all over my body. It took every last bit of concentration I had to not collapse into a heap right then and there. Logan was next, and with a deep bucking, he came hard. I felt him drain himself into, a feeling that only added to my pleasure. The spurting of his cum was delightful, and I imagined in my mind the sight of his cock shooting deep inside of me, though holding on to the image of this was difficult.

Soon, we were done. We both stood there for a time, me with my head resting on my arms crossed on the window sill and Logan with his hands still on my hips. Logan pulled his cock out of me, and I felt the hot drip of cum run down my leg. Soon, we were both on the couch and in each other's arms.

Well, I figured, this is as good of a time as any.

"Um, I'm pregnant."

I'll never forget his face after I told him. Those blue eyes sure went wide.

I had no idea just how to react.

"Pregnant?" I said. "But how do you know?"

"Pregnancy test," Emma said.

"But…we've only known each other for a few days. How can you take a test that soon?"

"My cousin found some…other test. Showed that I'm carrying your baby."

I felt…strange. On the one hand, I felt a connection to Emma right at that moment that I'd never felt before. Being with her there, knowing that she was carrying my kid…it was something that I didn't know I was capable of feeling.

But then there was everything else. Everything that I knew about her clan, everything that I knew about what Grayson had in mind for them.

And everything I knew about the fact that she wasn't supposed to be able to get pregnant.

I couldn't tell her about any of this without her knowing just what I was doing, that this whole thing was a set-up in order to get more information for an invasion, along with continuing the curse that had brought her people to the brink of extinction. How could she know that I'd actually fallen for her during all of this? She'd think it was another goddamn lie. And rightly so.

But there was no getting around it. If I wanted to keep her, her clan, and…our baby safe, then I was going to need to come clean.

"Are you happy?" she asked.

"I am," I said.

I was. I really was.

But that just made what I told her next even harder.

I did it. I came clean. I told her about Grayson, what I'd been ordered to do, that her clan was in danger, and that there was a reason why her people hadn't been able to have children. I don't think she believed me at first, but when it was clear that this wasn't some kind of sick joke, her expression changed to something like horror.

The way she looked at me after I finished…I wouldn't ever forget that. It was like she'd watched me shift into a demon right before her eyes. I saw whatever traces of connection and affection she had for me drain from her, replaced by fear. Fear that she was justified in feeling.

Silence fell over us as soon as I'd finished speaking. I could see her hands shaking, finally reaching over to grab her clothes. She picked them up without saying a word and them on. I did the same, slipping into my pants.

Finally, I had to break the silence.

"Emma…" I said, reaching toward her.

"Don't touch me," she said sharply. "I thought you were different. I thought you weren't like most wolves. Shows me for being this goddamn stupid."

Her tone had a knife's edge to it. Once she was fully dressed, she prepared to leave, her eyes fixed on the door.

"Wait," I said. "You can't just go. Your family's in danger, and I want to help."

"I don't want your help," she said. "I'll fix this mess that your clan created by myself. I don't need you, or anyone else."

She placed her hand on the front doorknob, but before she could pull it open the sound of engines cut through the silence of the night.

"What the hell?" I asked aloud.

Emma froze in place. I ran to the window and looked out.

It was Grayson. Him, Gunner, Smith, and a handful of other members of the Longtooth Pack. Why they were here, I had not the slightest goddamn idea.

"Stay put," I said.

I headed to the front door and opened it, moving Emma to the side. I walked out to Grayson dismounting from his bike and walking toward me, his stride cocky.

"There's the man," he said.

The rest of the pack got off their bikes and walked to Grayson's sides, steely, grim expressions on their faces.

"What the hell's going on here, Grayson?" I asked, stepping out into the cold winter air.

"You know, I had a feeling that you'd fuck us over, that you'd fall for that little number and get a little soft spot for her. I thought you'd be a little more loyal to the pack than that, but good thing I'm the cynical type. And I got a man on my side that's got an eye for these things."

He'd figured out that I was going to turn and tell Emma everything. I don't know how he did it, but he knew. Maybe the voodoo wolf had gotten a sneaking suspicion when I asked him about the curse.

Regardless, I was fucked.

"What're you gonna do, Grayson?" I asked, preparing for a fight.

"First, I'm gonna get that little lady off your hands; make sure she doesn't run back to her clan and spill the beans, maybe even keep her for myself. Then…well, then I gotta do something about you. Still haven't figured out that part of the plan yet. I'll take my time on that one. Maybe wait until we've got this situation with the Swifts taken care of."

So, he'd kill me and take Emma, all before killing the Swifts.

"Not gonna let that happen," I said.

"Figured you'd say as much," said Grayson.

He then raised his fist, the signal for the wolves to move in. It was me against my clan.

I turned to Emma who was now frozen in fear.

"Stay put," I said.

I didn't need to tell her twice. Shifting into my wolf form, I rushed toward the men. I was one of the strongest wolves in the pack, so taking them down was no trouble. I didn't want to kill any of my pack, so as we fought, I did my best to avoid injuring them in any major way.

But there were just too many of them. They overwhelmed me and held me down, and by the time I came to I saw that Grayson had seized Emma from inside the house and thrown her over his shoulder.

"Nice try, Logan," said Grayson. "But it looks like you're just gonna to accept things. You've been beat."

Emma screamed, her eyes wide as Grayson bound and tied her to the back of his bike.

"I'll have a lot of fun with this one- a little Christmas present for me," he said. "Nice of me to keep one Swift alive, isn't it?"

He looked at me one last time as he revved his engine. Turning his attention to the men, he spoke.

"Break him in for me," said Grayson. "But don't take too much out of him. I want to show him just what we do to betrayers."

With that, he took off, taking Emma with him. The boys around me got ready to move in, but I was prepared. Gunner had me in a hard grip, but I took advantage of his inattentiveness by sinking my teeth into his arm. He howled in pain and loosened his grip, giving me just enough wiggle room to get away from him.

"Fuck!" he shouted.

I didn't stick around to see how they'd react. I tore ass through the nearby woods, putting as much distance as possible between them and me. Turning and looking over my shoulder as I ran, I saw some of them shift and head after me. But I wasn't too worried; I knew that I was the fastest wolf in the pack and would have no trouble outrunning them. Sure enough, after a ten or so minutes of running I saw that I'd left them in the dust. I was running alone, my paws crunching over the untouched snow.

I had no idea what to do now. Emma was taken, the pack was against me, and as soon as I shifted back I'd be left butt-naked in the cold. Racking my brain for any idea what to do next, it occurred to me. I didn't like it, but it was the best option I had.

I needed to speak to the Swifts.

My gut turned hot as I considered this option. They'd probably rip me limb-from-limb as soon as I gave them the same information that I'd just told Emma. I'd probably be looking back on her heartbreak with fondness. But I corrected myself quickly. Nothing could be worse than that.

I was about twenty minutes from the Swift compound. Tearing through the woods, I knew that I'd be completely at their mercy. I didn't even have a hat to approach them hat-in-hand with. But I was tired of this shit. I was ready to come clean, to let the Swifts know about what kind danger they were in. Maybe they'd kill me on the spot, but at least they'd know the extent of their situation.

So, I went on, determination replacing my fear. Soon, I approached the familiar area where I'd met Emma before, the lights of the compound off in the distance. After a little more running, I was at the gate of the massive compound.

I shifted back to my human form and stood at the gate. I pressed the button on the speaker and waited.

"Who is it?" asked a voice from the speaker.

I closed my eyes and spoke.

"I'm a member of the Longtooth clan. Emma's in danger, and I need your help."

Nothing but silence came from the speaker for the next few, agonizing seconds.

Then, the gate opened.

Here goes nothing, I thought as the gate clattered open.

"We're here, toots,"

The gruff voice of Grayson was about the worst sound I could imagine hearing. We came to a stop in front of some gross-looking dive bar outside of town, the word "Cruiser's" written in red neon and hanging above the front door. He wrapped his arm around my hips and slung me over his shoulder again and started off toward the front door.

I spent the ride in shock. Everything about what had happened to me was beyond my comprehension. And I wasn't sure what was worse, the fact that I was being kidnapped, or the fact that Logan had betrayed me in just about the worst way I could've imagined.

Grayson snapped the fingers of his free hand as he approached the front door, and one of the other members of the pack ran up in front of him and opened it up for him. Soon we were inside the bar. The couple dozen men in the place all turned their attention to Grayson, their eyes going to him first, then lingering on my body. The place smelled like sweat and whiskey, and rock music played too loudly.

"Got ‘er, boys!" he said.

A cheer went up from the men as Grayson tossed me onto a free barstool. I considered shifting and taking out as many of them as I could, but there was no way I'd accomplish much before they killed me…or worse.

"We've been waiting for this for a long-ass time," said Grayson, speaking to the men as he stalked back and forth in front of the bar. "And now the time for waiting and planning is fuckin' over- tomorrow, bright and fuckin' early, we're gonna wipe out the goddamn Swift clan once and for all!"

Another cheer sounded.

"Now, we all know that Logan ended up being a fuckin' betrayer, but he'll get his in time. But he did what he needed to do, and best of all…"

Grayson gestured toward me with the sweeping motion of a game show host presenting a prize.

"We got this little piece of bear ass, ripe for the taking."

The men look at me hungrily. I felt sick, almost ready to pass out.

"So party your asses off tonight, because tomorrow night, we're partying in the woods!"

Another cheer. Once he was done with his little oration, Grayson grabbed me off the barstool and walked with me into a back hallway, then into some dingy little office. He set me down and made sure that my hands and leg were bound, and that I wasn't going anywhere.

"Why don't you cool your heels in here for a little while," said Grayson, looking me over with lecherous eyes. After all…"

He looked at his watch.

"It's officially Christmas Eve! Maybe think about getting into the holiday spirit. The very giving holiday spirit, that is."

He took one last long look at me before departing, leaving me alone in that dingy office. As soon as the door shut, a feeling of dread and hopelessness gripped me. I couldn't believe all that had happened to me over the last day, from finding out that I was pregnant to learning about Logan's betrayal.

I felt sick thinking about Logan. Was it really true that all he had done was just to gain my trust and betray me? All to help out his clan? But the baby…there was no way that this was part of the plan. This clan, these Longtooth fuckers, they'd been the ones responsible for all that my family had been through during this last year. All this suffering, all the heartache, all the fear that we'd be the last Swifts, it was all a scheme by Grayson and the pack to get us in just the right position to wipe us out, to make sure that we were demoralized, to have it in the back of our minds that maybe, just maybe, it was right that we were being wiped out.

And the time had finally come. The clan was going to be on the move in hours, the destruction of my family their goal.

On top of everything, there was a baby inside of me. It was stupid, so stupid and silly, but I couldn't help but feel like Logan wasn't entirely on board with his pack's plans. After all, why had he even bothered to tell me about what was going on? If he really wanted to betray me, he could've kept me in the dark, made sure that I didn't know anything until it was too late. And he'd fought against his own pack when they arrived. He'd tried to protect me. Was it possible that he'd had a change of heart, that he was intending to turn against his own pack?

I shook my head. Stupid to think about now, I thought.

Getting out had to be my priority. I looked up into the corner of the room and saw a small camera. If I shifted, that would certainly gain the attention of whoever was watching that thing. No, if I wanted to get out of my restraints, I'd have to do it carefully. Across the desk, I spotted a small letter opener, but there was no way for me to reach for it. But if I could get it in my hands, I could saw away at these restraints. It might take some time, but it was doable.

Then, I heard something from outside the bar, something like a crash, followed by a series of bangs.

What the hell was that? I thought, my eyes still on the letter opener.

A silence followed, and I felt myself calm again.

Then another crash sounded. Then I heard the revving of several motorcycles all at once. Then the crack of a gunshot rang out.

Something was going on.

I rocked the chair back and forth, moving closer and closer to the desk. Then, leaning in my chair and resting my weight on the edge of the desk, I tipped it enough for the letter opener to slide down the surface of the desk and land in my right hand. I let out a sigh of relief as it did, and once I had the handle of the thing in my hand, I began working on the restraints.

Now there was a rumbling that sounded through the floor and walls of the bar. More gunshots rang out. Something was definitely happening, but what, I had no idea. I didn't want to get my hopes up, so I figured that it was some kind of party that the wolves were throwing.

But part of me couldn't help but wonder someone, maybe Logan, had come to rescue me.

No, that's stupid, I thought as I awkwardly worked the blade of the letter opener against the restraints. Stupid to think might happen, and stupid of me to want it to happen. I need to get out of here, and not hope that the man who betrayed me might come rescue me.

Still, despite me knowing rationally how I shouldn't want it, I couldn't help myself. I couldn't control the tingling of my heart when I considered the possibility that Logan had come to rescue me.

I kept at the restraints, the noises outside now increasing to rumble that I couldn't ignore, interspersed with bangs and gunshots. I had to get out there. My sawing at the restraints grew faster, and I was nearly free.

But before I could hack all the way through the restraints, I heard the tromping of footsteps down the hallway, followed by the door opening.

It was one of the bikers from the gang, a wild-looking, bearded man in jeans and leather. He looked at me with an expression that was a curious mixture of anger and fear. I could see a cut on his arm, fresh blood weeping from it.

"You!" he shouted, pointing at me. "We got some shit going down, and you're staying put. I'm gonna make sure of it."

My eyes flicked down to my restraints; I wasn't close enough to cut them through. I could shift, but if this man wanted to overpower me first, he looked like he'd have no trouble.

"And maybe I'll have a little fun with you first…" he said, a narrow-eyed expression forming on his ugly face.

"Stay away!" I shouted, holding up the letter opener as if it were a fearsome weapon.

But that didn't deter him one bit. He moved toward me, that horrible look still on his face.

Before he could get too close, however, a figure appeared in the doorway.

A figure as white as snow.

Before I could lay eyes on it, the figure jumped, snarling at the man. I could now see it was a winter wolf.

He tore at the biker, sinking his teeth into his neck, his screams cutting short. Soon, he was dead, and when the wolf looked at me with those brilliant, blue eyes, I knew that it was Logan.

He shifted back into his human form.

"What's going on?" I shouted, the letter opener dropping onto the floor.

"War," he said, his voice grim. "We have to go. Now."

That was all I needed to hear. Logan cut through my restraints and soon I was freed. A strange mixture of emotions ran through me as I followed Logan out of the office and through the now-empty bar. I was scared, angered, and overwhelmed. And more than a little overjoyed to see Logan.

Once we arrived outside, the source of all the noise was made abundantly clear. There was a war alright. Over a dozen bears were storming the bar, all roars and claws. I recognized them immediately as my family, and my heart soared at the sight of them. They were engaged in pitched battle with Logan's pack, and the sleek, white forms of wolves darted here and there. I scanned the snowy battlefield in front of the bar and let out a sigh of relief when I realized that none of my family had yet been killed. But I knew that could change at any moment.

"We have to fight!" shouted Logan.

"But there's too many of them!" I said in response.

"Leave that to me. Just stay with your clan!"

With that, he shifted into his wolf form and dove into the fray. I followed suit, shifting to my bear form and taking up the fight with my clan. I recognized Uncle Atticus right away, along with Mom and Dad. Alexander and Henry rushed to my side, and together we formed a fearsome line against the pack of winter wolves that threatened us, the eyes of the wolves a blazing, hellish red against the pearl-white snow.

Then, they attacked. The air was thick with paws and teeth, and it was all we had to fight the wolves off. In the distance, I could see a pair of bikers in human form take aim with rifles, trying to take us out with conventional weapons. William and Grace took notice of them, and performing a flanking attack, snuck up on the bikers and made short work of them.

And as we fought, I watched as Logan zipped through the battlefield and found a wolf so large and fearsome that it could only have been Grayson. A challenge was offered and met, and the two wolves began to circle around one another.

Logan made the first move, lunging at Grayson. Grayson swiped a paw through the air, sending Logan back a bit. My heart tensed hard as I watched the two wolves fight, their snarls cutting through the air.

And the wolves stopped attacking. They formed up around the fight, leaving us alone. The rest of the bears and I shared a look, and we all seemed to realize that this fight was the only one that mattered.

More snarling, biting, and snapping sounded. Grayson finally lunged at Logan, pinning him to the snow-covered ground. It appeared he had the upper hand, and hot anxiety began to boil in my stomach.

But Logan wasn't done just yet.

In a desperate, last-ditch attack, he rolled out from under Grayson and lunged at him with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. His bite connecting, and Grayson froze in place, held still in Logan's grip. Blood began to form in his fur, and soon he dropped to the ground.

He was dead.

An eerie silence hung over the battlefield, and snow began to fall. Logan had killed the Alpha of his pack, making him the new Alpha. All of the winter wolves now waited for his first command.

Logan shifted back and addressed his pack.

"The Longtooth Pack will leave this place and go far away. Once there, a new Alpha will be decided. I hereby renounce the pack and give you all this single order."

The pack appeared to understand. Without saying a word, the pack shifted back to their human forms, gathered their things, mounted their motorcycles, and drove off.

Soon, it was just us and Logan, the wind blowing softly as snow whirled around us.

Logan slowly walked up to me and shifted back. I shifted as well.

"I know that I can't ask forgiveness for what I've done," he said. "All I can as is that you give me the chance to be a father to our child."

The rest of the Swift clan watched me carefully for my reaction.

But I couldn't even form the words. Tears in my eyes, I ran to Logan and threw my arms around him.

I hoped this made my answer as clear as could be.

One Year Later…

"Emma! Logan! Get on down here!"

The voice of Uncle Atticus cut through the quiet of the bedroom.

"Always bright and early on the holidays," I said, turning to Logan as he lay on his side, his beautiful blue eyes something I never grew tired of seeing in the morning.

"Man likes to run a tight ship," said Logan, sitting up.

Before I could respond, a cry sounded out from the crib near the bed. Without even thinking, I sprang out of my comfy position among the sheets and ran to the crib. I was still getting used to how my mothering instincts had a way of working without me even thinking about it.

"How's the big man?" asked Logan, putting his feet on the ground.

In the crib, swaddled in sheets, was Charlie, our three-month-old baby. He looked up at me with the same sparkling blue eyes as his father, his adorable face topped with a tuft of jet-black hair. I stared down at his smiling face for a long moment, my heart filling with joy.

"Good. And bigger by the day," I said, scooping the cooing baby up and holding him close to my chest.

Logan arrived at my side and poked at little Charlie's belly with his finger, the baby cooing and slowly swatting at Logan's finger.

"One of these days he's gonna turn into a little wolf and bite that finger of yours," I said with a smile.

"Wolf….or bear," said Logan.

The last year flew by at a pace that I could hardly believe. After Logan's extremely brief run as the Alpha of the Longtooth pack, he joined us here at the compound. Thankfully, Logan was able to kill Grayson and end the battle before even a single member of the Swift clan was even so much as seriously harmed. There were a few scratches here and there, but nothing grave.

The Longtooth Pack fled, and as far as we knew they were in California, recouping their losses and settling down somewhere along the coast. Logan kept in contact with a few of the members, and the general feeling was that they were glad to be rid of Grayson. He was a strong leader, but they all understood that his roaming, warring ways would eventually bring them into a fight they couldn't win. They were now led by Logan's friend Oslo, who proved to be a more stable, sensible leader.

As soon as the dust settled from the fight, the issue of my pregnancy stared us all right in the face. Logan managed to get the family on his side by telling them what the Longtooth Pack had been up to, though there was still some major distrust. And I couldn't blame them- a wolf showing up and telling them that the issue the clan being sterile was nothing more than a curse, a psychological warfare tactic meant to demoralize them? It all seemed too simple. But when Logan dug up what had been placed near the tree stump on the property and William confirmed his story, they knew they didn't have time to act.

That Christmas was a tense one. No one really knew how to deal with all that had happened. The news that the sterility curse was over, and that babies would likely be on the way soon was welcome, but our excitement was reserved. No one wanted to risk jinxing things. And with Logan's addition to the household, we all walked on uneasy steps.

But in the next few weeks when both Grace and William's wife became pregnant, the floodgates of emotion that we'd all been holding broke open. The house became a place of joy and warmth, the closeness of the family was rekindled, and we all looked forward to the new family members on the way. Logan had settled in by this point, and now that the future of the clan was assured, our wedding was set for the summer. The day arrived before I knew it, and the ceremony on the crest overlooking the valley near Bear Mountain, the place where Logan and I had our first date, was one I would never forget.

Alexander and Henry didn't waste any time either. During the summer they went off to join with other bear clans, and both came back with two beautiful brides- brides who were soon with child. The horror of the last year was long over, and only happiness seemed to await us.

Logan was more careful-minded, however. He noted that during the battle, the strange wolf who'd been providing the Longtooth Pack with their curses had disappeared. Logan was sure that he harbored no ill will toward them, but the idea of a shifter as powerful as him roaming around made all of us a little uneasy.

But that was something to be worried about at another time. Today was Christmas, and all of us were eager to celebrate the joys that we'd all been fortunate enough to experience this last year.

"Get that little bruiser ready and let's get some presents opened," said Logan, that sexy little wolf smile on his red lips.

Soon, we were all dressed and ready for the day. We arrived in the living room, where a towering Christmas tree adorned with colorful lights with piles of presents at the base dominated the room. A fire roared in the fireplace, and the cheesy classical Christmas music that my Dad loved was playing. The forests beyond the windows were white with fresh snow, and the sun was bright. And, of course, the whole family was gathered in the living room. Everyone was dressed in robes and comfy sleeping clothes, the adults sipping coffee and the newborn babies playing and cooing on the floor.

"There're the latecomers!" called out my Dad. "Get down here and let's get this started!"

We joined the family, and everyone handed one another a present.

"We ready to do this?" asked Logan, clearly eager to open his gift from me.

I looked around the room, my heart filled with happiness at the scene before me. I couldn't believe that I'd had all that I'd been gifted with, and as little baby Charlie sat cooing on my lap, I realized that there was nothing in the present that would make happier than I already was at that moment.

"Let's do it," I said.

The unwrapping started in a frenzy, and I let myself watch my family open their gifts, gratitude and joy filling my heart at each passing moment.

THE END

Chapter 1

“Going once? Going twice? Sold, to the gentleman in the double-breasted suit!”

The auctioneer gestured to the winner with the silver body of the mallet before slamming it against the gray stone of the podium.

“A fine choice, sir; I’m sure you’ll be more than pleased with this, ah, lovely specimen.”

The “specimen” he was referring to was the slim-bodied blonde in red silk bra and panties, and black manacles standing in the middle of the stage. She’s certainly a cute one . Kieran looked at her bare, slender legs, which she crossed as she stood in an attempt at modesty. She was a slip of a girl, her straw-colored hair tied back in a thick French braid and her arms crossed over her small, pert breasts.

But, just like all the others, not my type .

With a slow, sweeping gesture of his arm, the auctioneer beckoned the girl to leave the stage. She nodded. Her face was tight with fear; her blue eyes were wide and shimmering, which Kieran could see from his seat dozens of feet back from the stage.

Docile, timid, and willowy . He traced the circular rim of his drink with a long, graceful finger. I’ll leave those girls for the Ukrainians .

And, as though on cue, the buyer, a stocky man wearing a pin-striped double-breasted suit and with oil-black hair slicked into a tight sheen stood from a seat closer to the front.

I should’ve known when he said “double-breasted;” only the Ukrainians would be tacky enough to go for a look like that .

The Ukrainian walked toward the stage and extended his hand toward the woman he had just purchased. By polite instinct, the girl, who couldn’t have been far out of her teens, extended her own, but was abruptly stopped by the lack of length in her chains. A murmur of laughter swelled from the crowd.

“No matter,” said the Ukrainian in a thick accent, his low, bass voice tinged with a rich, Slavic accent echoing through the hall, “there will be plenty of time for formalities later.”

He then gestured toward one of the guards in slim-cut, tailored suits who stood on either end of the stage. They dashed over and undid the chains; the manacles fell to the stage with a heavy thunk. The girl stretched her now-free arms and legs.

“Come, child,” said the Ukrainian, pointing to the empty chair at his table.

She nodded with apprehension before stepping off the stage with the timid, shy steps of a baby deer and taking her seat next to her new owner, who put his heavy, burly arm around her and pulled her close.

Leave it to the Ukrainians to be unable to wait even a minute before getting their hands all over the fresh meat . Kieran shook his head and took a slow draw of his drink.

“And for our next item, please welcome this lovely young lady, new to our fair city by way of Des Moines,” said the auctioneer in his clear, buttery voice.

The next girl was brought onto stage by one of the suited guards. Where the previous girl was slim and fair, this girl was shapely, with a rich, olive-colored complexion. Her coal-black hair fell around her face in straight, symmetrical tresses, and her lips were full and painted with a shiny lacquer of dark red lipstick. And unlike the last girl, who seemed fragile and frightened on stage, this one seemed to enjoy the attention; she put her hands on her hips and shifted her weight from one foot to the other while winking and blowing kisses to the audience, the thick metal of her chains clanging together.

Does this girl not understand the nature of the predicament she’s in? She must think we’re some collection of rich dilettantes bidding on a companion for the weekend. She’ll learn.

Kieran then cast his gaze toward the Italians, who chatted in quiet but lively tones among each other, probably deciding who had bidding rights on the young Mediterranean beauty on stage.

Bored, Kieran threw back the last dregs of his drink, letting the bitter tang of blood mixed with rich, caramel-toned whiskey loll over his palate. As he scanned the room, he caught the gaze of Drugi, one of the vampires from the Polish society, and one of Kieran’s only friends outside of his own society of Irish. Drugi raised a slim, small glass of vodka; a crimson streak of blood looked like a small vein in the otherwise clear liquid. Kieran raised his own empty glass, which Drugi noted with a wry grin. Drugi tossed back his shot, and then gestured with sharp points to one of the serving staff, then to Kieran. Within seconds, another drink was in front of him.

Kieran gave a nod of thanks to Drugi, and took a sip. The time seemed to drag; none of these women appealed to him. They were the same collection of dull-eyed Midwestern cast-offs and prissy rich girls living on their father’s American Express cards as every other year.

“Eh? You gonna pick one or not?” Ian slapped Kieran on the side of his thigh with the back of his hand.

Ian was Kieran’s closest friend in the Irish society. They were turned at around the same time, and having someone just as new to the world of the undead as you could be all it took to create a bond like this.

“When I see one I want, I’ll bid,” said Kieran, his voice laced with traces of an Irish brogue.

“Yeah, the same thing you say every year, then you go home with nothing. Such a picky one, you are.” Ian waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.

The previous girl had been won and led off the stage; the nods and shoulder-slapping in the Italian group indicated that one of them was her new owner.

“Our next girl, well, she’s really something special.”

Kieran suppressed a yawn and checked his watch, not even bothering to register the time.

“Bring her out!”

The glass of whiskey was in front of Kieran’s face, blocking his vision, when the girl came on stage. When he lowered it, he was struck in his seat. His honey-colored eyes narrowed, and his slim, but full, lips curled up in one corner.

Something special, indeed . Kieran reached for the polished ivory handle of his bidding sign. There’s a first time for everything…


Chapter 2

Four Hours Earlier

The boy’s finger was cool to the touch as Nora moved it along the bumpy texture of the Braille text.

“And what does that part say, little man?” Nora asked, her voice low and sweet.

“The… zems… zeps…” The boy’s voice trailed off, confused.

“Try again,” said Nora, not a trace of impatience entering her tone. “I’ll give you a hint: It’s like a horsie, but all striped.”

The boy’s face flashed with recognition. “A zebra!” he said, speaking through a broad, silly smile.

“Very good! A zebra is absolutely right,” Nora said, tussling his thick, mustard-yellow hair. “Try again.” She moved his finger back to the beginning of the sentence.

“The zebra ,” he said, placing extra emphasis on that word, and looking up in the general direction of Nora’s face with a proud smile, “lived at the zoo with its friends, the hipa… hipi…”

“Hi ppo …”

“Hippopotamuses!”

Very good.”

“And the hippopotamuses were very big, and very—”

A low, warm bell tone chimed through the expanse of the dining room, accompanied by a slow dimming and brightening of the lights.

Fat !” he shouted, laughing at the idea of big, fat hippopotamuses.

“Good job, Jacen,” Nora said, “but you know what that sound means.”

“Awww,” he said, frustrated.

“I know, I know,” Nora said, closing the thick, flesh-colored pages of the Braille-typed book.

“And how did my boy do today?”

Surprised, Nora spun around where she stood behind Jacen and was face-to-face with the heavily-made-up face of Amanda Atherton, Jacen’s mother.

“Oh!” said Nora, in a sharp exclamation.

Amanda stepped back, her face marked with a small trace of shock.

“Mrs. Atherton, I’m so sorry,” said Nora, gathering herself.

Amanda’s look of surprised was replaced by one of knowing. “Oh, no, I’m sorry, Nora,” she said, holding up her palms. “I, of all people, should know to keep in mind people’s disabilities.”

“It’s just this thing,” said Nora, pointing to the clear, plastic tubing of the hearing aid in her left ear. “It works, except when it doesn’t want to.”

“It’s perfectly fine,” Amanda said, each syllable spoken in the crisp diction of the educated Manhattan upper-class.

Amanda then turned to Jacen, who looked up at her with milky-blue eyes and a beaming smile.

“And what did my little man learn about today?”

“Uhm, uhm, we learned about animals at the zoo, like zebras, and, uhm, birds, and hippo-uhm.”

“Hippopot…” said Nora, raising a slim, delicate finger.

“Hippopotamuses!” he said, smiling again, imagining what these strange animals must look like in person.

“Isn’t that exciting!” Amanda smoothed Jacen’s hair.

“Nora, I just want to tell you how impressed I’ve been with what you’ve been able to accomplish with Jacen these last few months.” Amanda’s brow lowered in earnestness. “We couldn’t get this little guy to sit still for five minutes before, but you’ve got him reading books for fun.” She shook her head in pleased disbelief. “So thanks, again.”

“Oh, it’s my pleasure,” said Nora, a florid blush spreading across her complexion of rich cream. “I’m happy to do what I can for the little man.”

Amanda gave her another warm smile.

“Well, I’ll see you out.”

“Bye, little man,” said Nora, giving Jacen’s shoulder a light squeeze. “I’ll see you next Tuesday.”

“Bye, Ms. O’Brien,” he said, before turning his attention back to the book.

With that, they strolled through the vast, open rooms of the Atherton’s Tribeca townhome. Although Nora had been in this home three times a week for the last two months, she was still floored by the opulence. The ceilings were vaulted and painted bone-white, the walls were made of rich, lacquered wood, and the living room was dominated by a massive fireplace that crackled with a warm, inviting fire. It was a far cry from the Harlem studio where she lived.

Amanda stopped when they reached the twin, glass-paneled front doors of the home.

“Nora, I just want to thank you again. I don’t know what you’ve been doing with Jacen, but things have been peaceful around here now that he isn’t just, you know, running around screaming his head off whenever he got frustrated. Which was, just, all the time.”

Nora’s face flashed with blooms of red, just as the previous blushing was beginning to fade. She turned her head down in slight embarrassment.

“I’m happy to help,” she said, turning her body toward the door, eager to step away from the compliments she felt undeserving of.

“And…” Amanda’s voice trailed a bit. “I know you’re new in the city, and I know how hard that is. Believe me,” she said, pressing her palm against her chest, “I’ve done it, too. It’s lonely and scary. So, if you ever want to stop by for dinner, or just to have a cup of coffee, you’re always welcome.”

A warm rush emanated from Nora’s chest and out to the tips of her limbs. She was never able to handle kindness very well.

“Oh, why thank yeh, Mrs. Atherton,” she said, immediately bringing her fingertips to her mouth in embarrassment. Nora was American by birth, but her mother and grandmother were as Irish as they come, and Nora found their accent slipping out of her mouth when she was angry, or in this case, flustered.

“Amanda!” she said, giving Nora a playful push on the shoulder.

“Amanda,” Nora stammered out.

With that, Amanda opened the door, causing the chill of the night air to slip in through the entryway.

“Have a good night, sweetheart. Get home safe.”

“Good night, Mrs… I mean, Amanda.”

Amanda held the door open while Nora slipped out, then down the gray granite steps, and out onto the sidewalk. Amanda gave a finger-wiggling wave and closed the door.

Nora pulled her pea coat tight against the cool breeze of the late-September air and fastened the buttons. Heading toward the subway, she found her eyes wandering, as usual, to the windows of the expensive townhomes, looking in to catch glimpses of the lives of people who could afford multi-million dollar homes. She sighed, envying the spacious interiors, exquisite, hand-crafted furniture, and expensive, original prints of art. Nora knew that there was money in New York, but seeing it on every street corner only made her more conscious of what she didn’t have.

Maybe someday . She passed one window through which she could see a family dining at a long, wooden table that would have a hard time fitting in her apartment.

Turning onto the main road from the quite street where the Athertons lived, Nora dialed her hearing aid down to its lowest level. The thing worked, but almost too well. The din of cars, with its constant horn-blaring, could be amplified loud enough to feel like a spike going through her head. And the less said about the ear-splitting wailing of the fire trucks and ambulances that raced down the street seemingly every few minutes, the better.

With the sound lowered, leaving her with only her sight, the city was almost peaceful. The air was calm and cold, and the towering, glittering buildings of the Financial District loomed overhead. The Empire State Building, its lights orange and red for fall, could be seen off in the distance.

Nora continued down the sidewalk, she stopped at the intersection. Only a couple more blocks before she was at her stop.

Oh, fuck yeah, that’s nice.

Nora snapped into alertness and looked around. To her left was a middle-aged man in a long, beige trench coat. It must’ve been him. But her hearing aid was off; how could she have heard him? Nora watched him suspiciously out of the corner of her eye, holding her purse close to her body and hoping the light would change soon. Between catcalls from passing cars and the occasional grope on the subway, the perverts in this city were almost too much for Nora.

Mmm, I gotta see her from the back now .

Again! Nora heard the man’s voice, but this time one eye was on him, and she saw that his mouth didn’t move. What was she hearing?

She then looked down at the phone the man was holding close and looking at, a wry smirk on his face. She leaned a bit, enough to see what was on the screen: It was a woman wearing nothing but white panties, her arm crossed over her very full breasts, a sly grin on her face.

Then the man caught Nora’s side-eye. He became flustered, turning the display off on his phone and shoving it in a clumsy, haphazard fashion into his front pocket, nearly dropping it onto the pavement.

Nora couldn’t make out what he was saying exactly, but given his flummoxed, wide-eyed expression, she was sure it wasn’t anything kind; one word was unmistakably the lips-behind-lower-teeth mouthing of the “F’ word. Nora looked away as fast as she could, though it was clear that she had seen something she shouldn’t have.

And what’s more, she sensed something from the man, a color emanating from him. Light red, almost a dark shade of pink, like the color of her cheeks when she became nervous or flustered. The color seemed to come from the man in waves, like the air over a street on a hot summer’s day.

Fortunately for Nora, the man was more concerned with the immediate shame, and once the crosswalk light changed, he traversed the intersection with quick, frantic steps.

Nora took a moment to collect herself before crossing the street. Her steps were slow and deliberate. She was trying to wrap her mind around what had just happened, that she had been able to hear the man’s thoughts.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened. It had begun a few years ago, after she turned eighteen. She started hearing the thoughts of those who stood close to her; just words here and there, like a radio tuned into a weak signal.

And the colors, too, began to appear; strange, shifting waves of color that were the general shape of the person. Nora wasn’t sure what they meant, why they were different, but she was noticing that certain colors seemed to match certain moods. Someone who was sad would be a shade of blue, depending on the exact nuance of their emotion. A person in a deep depression would be a deep, Prussian blue, almost a black. A person in an erratic, paranoid mood would be yellow. And someone in a strange melancholy would be a mixture of the two, resulting in an unsettling, sickly shade of green.

But these gifts, if she could call them that, only seemed to manifest under two conditions: One, being in close proximity to the person, and two, that her hearing aid was turned off.

The experience with the man was still running though her head as she stepped down the stairs of the Chambers Street station. As she walked into the station and its dirty stone walls and ceilings and harsh lighting, she noticed that something was off. No one else was there. Not even an MTA employee in the booth. Not wanting to miss the train, she swiped her card through the reader and stepped through the turnstile.

She reached the platform and the story was the same. No one was there. The low rumbling of a departing train vibrated through her body. Nervous, Nora reached for her hearing aid and turned the small, ridged knob.

“— an uptown, three train, approaching the station. Please step back from the yellow line,” said the pre-recorded announcement from the loudspeaker in its stilted, chipper voice.

“Hey, miss.”

Nora turned on her heels, shocked. Now there was someone, a homeless man in a tattered parka and dirty workpants, his face smeared with grime. Nora was shocked; either she hadn’t noticed the man when she arrived at the platform, or—

“Got anything you could spare?” he said in a ragged voice, shaking one of the ubiquitous blue-and-white coffee cups every vendor used in New York.

Nora reached into her purse. She knew that she couldn’t give change to every homeless person, but the Midwest courtesy had yet to be completely driven from her. Withdrawing a quarter, she approached the man and dropped it in his cup. It landed with a hollow thud against the bottom.

“Why, thank you, ma’am, God bless,” he said.

“Sure,” said Nora, noticing that the man was looking her over with hard, inspecting eyes.

He then pulled the collar of his parka up, and spoke into it. “We’ve got a positive,” he said. But now his voice was different. Clear and professional.

Then, with inhuman speed, he withdrew a small, silver item from his parka pocket and jabbed it into Nora’s hand. Shocked, she pulled her hand back and held it close.

“What did you do to me?” she asked, her voice frantic.

But then her vision began to blur; her limbs felt weak and wobbly.

Two pairs of heavy, firm hands grabbed her arms before the darkness swimming in from the borders of her vision consumed her completely.


Chapter 3

When Nora came to, the first thing she noticed was that she was restrained. Her wrists and ankles were clad in manacles of wrought-iron, and as her head began to clear, she noticed that the chains were extremely old. She pulled and yanked at them, but they were hooked into some kind of fastening in the wall behind her. She tried to scream, but her mouth was covered with cool, tight fabric.

Along the wall to her right and left were maybe two dozen other young women, all bound in chains, their mouths covered like hers with something that looked like a leather bandana, like an Old West bandit would wear, but bondage-style. The girls all searched the room with panic-stricken eyes, all, like Nora, trying to determine where exactly they were, and why. They all looked as if they had come out of their stupor at about the same time as Nora.

She was in a long, open room with high ceilings and wooden walls of dark oak. Farther down the room she saw racks of women’s underwear; lingerie, bra and panty sets, and leather kink-wear. Across the room were rows of vanity mirrors in front of chairs of soft-looking leather. The room was two-parts dungeon and one-part fashion show backstage.

Where the hell am I? A drip of nervous sweat darted down her forehead. Nora made eye contact with the girls to her immediate left and right, but bound the way they were, all they could do was share terrified expressions.

Nora then heard a loud thunk from the end of the room on her right. The massive, wooden door opened with a sharp, quick creak, and five men poured in, all clad in slim black-and-white suits, sunglasses, and short, cropped hair. They looked like Secret Service agents, but with one minor difference: Their skin was bone white.

The girls turned their heads to the men. Nora did the same, anxiety forming into a tight hot knot in her stomach. Whatever was going to happen, it was going to happen now.

The men looked over the women as though surveying merchandise. Then one turned to the other, nodded, and the five men split apart, each heading to different girls along the wall. But not Nora.

Nora looked at the man nearest to her, who went to the girl two spaces to Nora’s left. He regarded the woman, then kneeled and flicked off his sunglasses, revealing a pair of shimmering yellow eyes. He took the chin of the fearful, squirming girl into his hand in a gentle scoop and looked into her eyes, his own eyes wide and fixed. He stayed like this for a moment, mouthing something that Nora couldn’t hear. Then, the girl slackened, her body calm.

The man waited a few more seconds to confirm that whatever he had done worked, then reached behind her, unhooked her chains from the wall, and led her to one of the makeup chairs on the other side of the room. The girl went with him without protest, her steps smooth, but unnatural, her face still and calm as a doll’s. She took her place in the chair, her beautiful face illuminated by the bright bulbs of the vanity mirror. The four other girls the remaining men went to all did the same. It was then that Nora noticed that there were as many chairs as there were girls, and that whatever the men had done to the first girls would likely be done to her soon.

The men, after making sure their girls were still in their seats, then went to another set of girls and repeated the process. Again, Nora wasn’t one of them, though the girls to her immediate right and left were. She watched the process repeat itself: the men kneeled, looked deep into the girls’ eyes, said something in a low murmur, then led the now-docile girls to their chairs. Again, the girls were watched for a moment, then the men went off to a new set.

This time, Nora was one of them.

The suited man squatted in front of her, and looked into her eyes. His face was as slim and angled as his suit, and at this distance, his brilliant yellow eyes looked like tiny blazing suns, and Nora could’ve sworn that she saw the colors swirl and roil. He locked eyes with her in this fashion for several heartbeats and spoke.

“You’re going to get up and go over to that chair. You’re going to sit down and wait until we tell you what to do next.”

Then he reached behind her, undid the lock that connected the chains to the wall and then waited.

Judging by the way the other girls complied, Nora assumed that she would’ve felt some strange sort of compulsion to get up. But she felt nothing.

The eyes of the man narrowed in suspicion. “I said, you’re going to get up and go over to that chair. You’re going to sit down and wait until we tell you what to do next.”

Nora then realized that whatever he was trying to do, whatever sort of hypnosis he was trying, wasn’t taking hold. But unless she wanted to arouse suspicion, she knew that she needed to act like it did. So, she stood, making her face appear blank and compliant, walked past the man, and sank into the soft, cool leather of the chair in front of the mirror.

Nora wanted to turn and look around, to see if she could figure out where she was, and to try to figure out what was in store for her, but she knew that such behavior would be noticed. So instead, she regarded herself in the mirror.

Nora’s eyes were big, which was a source of insecurity for her; she always felt that they gave her a constant look of surprise. The irises were the watery green of a freshly-dewed Longford dale. Her nose was small and pointed a bit upward, and her lips were a deep red with a full shape and the subtle turns of cursive handwriting. Her hair, which was the color of a polished copper pot, was tied in a thick French braid, which she now had draped across her left shoulder. Her coat was missing, and today she was wearing a knitted, oatmeal-colored cardigan over a fitted V-neck t-shirt, and a pair of unassuming blue jeans. She was always told by friends and family that she dressed too plain, too drab, and that her slight, lissome frame seemed to always be lost in the folds of heavy fabric that she typically wore. But this was how she liked it. Her hearing always made her feel like she was disconnected from the world at large, and so she liked to dress the part, like someone who wouldn’t be noticed.

Keeping her head still, she looked to her right and left as best she could. As far as she could tell, all of the girls were in their seats.

Then the doors opened again, and a frenzy of feminine chatter filled the room. The pin-point clicking of high heels echoed through the open space. Nora allowed herself to turn just an inch to her right, to see what she could, which was a gaggle of coifed and made-up women in simple, form-fitting clothes; fashionable, but practical. Once the group reached the center of the row of girls, they looked the line up and down, made some counting-off gestures, and split off, one girl to each captive.

The one who came to Nora was tall, slim, and had a severe Slavic face of jutting cheekbones, ice-blue eyes narrowed to a laser point, and platinum-blond hair tied back into a tight ponytail. She looked Nora up and down, mouthing words to herself and making mental notes. Then she turned to the vanity, opened some drawers, and withdrew some items.

Makeup? Nora looked at the small cases lined along the edge of the vanity. What’s going on here?

The woman looked the items up and down one last time and went to work. She started by undoing Nora’s thick, simple braid and pinning it up above her head. Then, she applied the makeup in quick, precise movements—a little blush here, some eyeliner there, a little smokiness there. Nora stayed as still as death during the process, giving no indication that she wasn’t under the hypnotic spell that the rest of the girls were in. The woman was in front of the mirror, and Nora couldn’t see what kind of look she was giving her.

After a few minutes, she was done with the makeup, and set to work on Nora’s hair.

That was fast . Nora allowed a light-hearted thought to well up through the pool of anxiety in her stomach. I wouldn’t mind taking some notes from her; it would save a little time in my morning routine .

The woman went at Nora’s hair with stabbing motions, sticking pins here and tying braids there. Her face was lowered in concentration, and Nora could see that, like the men in the suits, her eyes were that same brilliant burnt orange.

“What you got over there, divchyna ?” said Nora’s girl in a voice tinged in a Slavic accent to the makeup girl next to her, her own eyes not leaving Nora’s hair for a second.

“Another cow from one of those shitholes in the middle.”

I take offense to that , thought Nora, still not armored against the “flyover state” jokes.

“This one here is pretty; doesn’t look like she is from here.”

There was a pause while, Nora presumed, the other makeup girl gave Nora a look-over.

Tak , yes, I see what you mean. Beautiful skin. And I am wondering if that hair is a natural color.”

“I think so,” said Nora’s girl. “I can spot a shitty red dye-job from a mile off.”

“Fair skin, red hair. I bet we get a nice little bag of coins for her.”

Bag of coins? What is she talking about? Where am I?

After a few minutes, the work was done, and the girl stepped back and around Nora, standing behind her in the chair to get a look from a few feet away. Nora could finally see what she had done. Her eyes had a slight wisp of smokiness, which set off their brilliant green; her fair skin was brushed with just enough blush to give her the appearance of being in a state of coquettish surprise, and her red hair was done up in twin braids that were twisted up and behind her head in an intricate pattern that reminded Nora of some kind of rolled and curled pastry. The look seemed to Nora like an innocent peasant girl with the smoky, sexy eyes of a girl in the city. Definitely not Nora’s style, but she liked how attractive she felt. She had always considered herself to be plain and unremarkable, but now she felt a little different about how she looked.

“You done over there? I think I am done with mine,” said Nora’s girl, looking her own work over in approval.

“Ohhh, very nice,” said the other girl, impressed. “Innocent but a little slutty. But the good kind of slutty,” she added after a beat.

“I am good at my job. What can I say?”

“Okay, I think it’s time to get these little chickies all dressed up and ready to go.”

Wait, what? Nora was still nervous, still scared, but also completely confused.

“Everyone to your feet!” shouted one of the women from a position toward the front of the room.

The girls complied, all standing in unison, their chains clinking and clanging together. Nora stood, too, though she was worried that the lag in her motions would be noticed by someone.

A moment passed, all of them standing stone-still and silent. Then Nora could hear the unfastening of chains farther down in the row. She gave silent thanks that these heavy metal things would soon be off her aching limbs. Sure enough, one of the suited men was moving down the line, undoing the chains with a quick turn of a key.

When the suited man got to Nora, he repeated the process, and the chains fell from Nora’s wrists and ankles, landing on the ground with a metallic thunk. She wanted badly to rub the now-free skin, but she could see that none of the girls were reacting to their chains being removed, so she didn’t either.

After a few more minutes, the man finished removing the chains from the line of girls.

“Now, undress!”


Chapter 4

What? Are they serious?

Nora realized that they were. The girls to her right and left complied without a single bit of protest, first stepping out of their shoes, then shimmying out of their jeans and skirts, followed by whatever tops they were wearing, until they stood in nothing but their underwear.

Though her internal sense of modesty screamed objections, Nora knew that she had no choice but to do the same, and now, if she didn’t want to get spotted. She kicked off her black Toms flats, slid out of her nondescript slim-cut jeans with quick wiggles of her hips, took off her cardigan, then pulled the men’s Hanes V-neck off and over her head. She spent a moment looking in the mirror at her slim frame clad in nothing but a black bra and sky blue boy shorts, feeling that she was too slight, that her breasts were too small, that her arms and legs were too stick-like. These were the same self-criticisms that she subjected herself to whenever she stood in front of the mirror, even in a context like this.

“And the rest!”

Nora felt a wave of hot anxiety wash over her. As she unfastened her bra and stepped out of her underwear, she was glad for the blush on her face. It would cover up the real blushing she could feel spreading across her cheeks.

As she stood completely unclothed in front of the mirror, she fought the strong urge to cross her arm in front of her breasts and put her hand over her sex, so that, at the very least, her small pink nipples and red tuft of public hair could be obscured. But she knew better, and stood as still as she could, her arms against the sides of her hips.

Another series of steps could be heard from down the line. It was a quick rapping of a few sets of feet, then stopping, then moving, and then stopping once more. As the noises grew closer, Nora could see that it was a tight cluster of women, two of the makeup girls with one woman, someone new, in between the two. Even from this far away, Nora understood that the taller woman was in an authority position. She stood with poise and grace, and the other girls surrounded and moved around her like little planets, their wide eyes scouring the taller woman’s face for her reaction to whatever she was judging.

The little procession moved then stopped, moved then stopped, until they were at the girl to the right of Nora. The girl was a slight, delicate thing, with eyes wide and innocent like Nora’s, and a body of comparable tone; though her breasts were even smaller than Nora’s, and her hips were narrow, like a boy’s.

“Christ, look at this girl,” said the tall woman in a rich voice, her words heavy with Slavic intonation. “Tiny tits, blond hair, eyes like scared deer; the Ukrainians will gobble her up like cow with steak necklace thrown into shark tank.”

A moment passed, and Nora could see that the woman was scanning the girl’s body with the keen, inspecting eyes of a salesman judging the value of merchandise.

“Put her in skimpy little red set; show off muscle tone. And tell her to up the coy routine; suits her.”

And with that, the girls raised the girl to her feet, pointed to the section of the room with the racks of clothing, and the seated girl walked with deliberate, obliging steps in that direction.

The woman then moved over to Nora, and began the same process of looking over her body, inch by inch. Now that the woman was closer, Nora could see the features of the woman’s face. She appeared to be in her late forties. Her eyes were a limpid pale blue, her nose was pointed and had a strange texture to it, almost like it were sculpted out of clay. Her mouth was a thin line painted into a glossy red, and her hair was a blond color of such vibrancy that it was like turning a corner and being blasted with a summer sun heretofore hidden behind buildings. She was dressed in slim black pants and a black, button-up dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, which exposed a tattoo of a rose that traveled up along the length of her right forearm.

Nora felt herself withering under the glare of the woman, the effort of trying to appear hypnotized beginning to wear on her. She felt a drop of sweat form near her ear before moving down her neck in erratic angles. Nora hoped the woman didn’t notice.

“My, what a pretty one, this girl,” the woman said, her features cold. “Winsome little face, slim body, but still with breasts. And that hair. Oh, and look at that little ass of hers.”

A moment passed.

“I turn to you, girls. Alla, what you think we dress this little tart up in?”

One of the blonde makeup girls at the woman’s flank stepped forward, her face nervous. “Well, Miss Serko, I think, for her, something simple,” said Alla, in an American accent, “to show off her body. Red thong, and maybe a, I think, see-through bra.”

“Hmm,” said Miss Serko. If she was impressed by this answer, she didn’t show it. “Alyona, your turn.”

“Something classic. She’s got body like a little boy, like other girl. Put her in a corset, maybe squeeze some curves out of her.”

A moment passed.

“Both stupid answers. First is stupid because this girl wholesome; you don’t put wholesome girl in whore’s get-up. Second is stupid because she does have body. Look at her. Alyona, you think any girl without your cottage-cheese ass is pile of sticks and hair.”

Both girls looked down, the one on the left pivoting her foot on the tips of her mirror-polished black heels.

Geez, some boss , Nora thought, letting a thought slip past the immense effort she was putting forth to stay still. Now that she was under the eyes of the women, she couldn’t let her eyes move a millimeter.

“This girl need something sexy, but classy. Put her in the black high-waisted panties. Black bra. Nothing see-through,” she said, pointing a finger at the first girl. “I can see that this one is going to get a high price. But you give too much away on the stage and the men aren’t wondering what they’re not seeing, no?”

The two girls nodded in eager agreement.

Stage?

“Okay, get her over there and let’s finish up with the rest of these little tarts.”

With that, the two girls moved to Nora’s flanks, placed their palms upward under her forearms, and pressed. Nora understood right away that she was being compelled to stand, so she did.

“Go to the clothing racks. Put on number… ah, shit; what is number?” said the girl with the accent.

“Forty-seven!” Miss Serko’s voice brimmed with impatience. “We do this every year, and you girls don’t even have the wardrobe memorized. You two are lucky your lords are who they are, you know.”

“Yes, Miss Serko,” the girls said, speaking at the same time.

One of the girls nudged Nora off in the direction of the racks. Nora committed the number to her memory, understanding that coming back to Miss Serko for a reminder wasn’t an option.

Once at the racks, she found the outfit. It was what Miss Serko described: A matching black bra and panty set, very simple, and with a little bit of see-through fabric running up the hip of the panties. Nora stepped into them and took her place in the line of girls that had formed at the door.

After a time, all the girls were waiting in line, all wearing some manner of lingerie. Miss Serko and the girls passed the line, giving the girls a final, hurried once-over.

“Get them out there,” said Miss Serko in a frustrated voice. “They’re starting now!”

And with that, one of the girls moved over to the door with hurried steps and swung it open. Nora couldn’t see beyond, but it seemed to lead into a long, dark hallway.

The girl at the front tapped the shoulder of the girl first in line, and the line began to move. The girls all walked at the same pace, which Nora matched. Knowing that whatever purpose she was here for was about to happen, her stomach began to tremble with anxiety, and she could feel a line of perspiration form at the top of her brow.

The hallway that they moved into was hardly lit; only a few lights casting a low, orange glow lined the length of it. They stopped at another door, this one smaller, metal; like a stage door. Nora then saw the girls split off; one moved to the front of the line, the other moved to the back. They were whispering something to the girls in line.

“Put on a wholesome act. Look sweet, but shy,” someone said to one of the girls in a low, rhythmic voice; that same hypnotic, insisting tone.

Then the door opened. The first girl went, then, after five minutes or so, the second. Then the third. Nora was next. She had no choice. She stepped through the door and was blinded by the beaming lights above the long, wooden stage.


Chapter 5

Kieran clasped the cool ivory of the antique bidding sign as he looked with approval at the girl on stage. She was beautiful, with innocent features and a lithe, graceful body. And her hair… strikingly red.

“What do we think, boys? Was I right, or was I right?” the auctioneer said, not a little impressed himself with the specimen on stage. “Like something from the old country.” He winked in the direction of the Irish group.

There was something else about her, thought Kieran, waiting with eager impatience for the bidding to begin; something different from the other girls. But he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Aye,” said Ian, his voice low and whispered, “you finally see something you like up there?”

Kieran said nothing, but his mouth curled into a slight smile.

“About damn time,” said Ian with a smile of his own before turning back toward the stage.

“Bidding for this lovely young thing will start at…” the auctioneer’s voice trailed off. It seemed that he had been given a number to start, but was doing mental calculations to determine a higher number now that he was seeing her in the flesh.

“Fifty thousand!”

A brief chattering spread through the crowd. They didn’t see numbers like this very often, but the auction house knew when they had something on their hands that could fetch such a high price. With a lackadaisical raise of his arm, Kieran placed his bid.

“We have fifty thousand to the Irish gentleman in the back. Do we have fifty-five thousand?”

Kieran spotted a flash of white out of the corner of his eye from the Ukrainians. It was Drugi.

“Fifty-five thousand to the Ukrainian gentleman!”

Kieran shot a look to Drugi, who responded with a shrugged shoulder look that seemed to say, “Can you blame me?”

Kieran’s expression softened. No, he couldn’t. He raised his sign once more.

Sixty thousand to the Irish gentleman!”

Kieran did some quick calculations, thinking how much money he could spend. He had yet to purchase a girl from any of the annual auctions, which gave him a substantial amount of cash to play with. And he knew he’d need it all.

“Do we have sixty-five thousand?”

Another sign shot up, and Kieran’s eyes tracked it. It belonged to someone in the Polish society, but he couldn’t see who.

“That is sixty-five thousand! Do we see seventy-five thousand?”

Drugi’s sign went up.

“Seventy-five thousand to the gentleman in the navy suit. Do we have eighty-five thousand?”

Kieran moved to raise his sign.

“One hundred thousand!” a voice called out in silken, allegro tones.

Murmuring erupted through the crowd of seated men. The six-digit ceiling was rarely cracked.

Kieran craned his neck and moved in his chair to see who the voice belonged to. Sure enough, it was Marcus Ricci, one of the newest members of the Italian society. Though he was only recently turned, his ostentatious, flamboyant nature was already making waves. He was bold, brash, and above all, impudent. Already wealthy from before his turning, Marcus had wasted no time in using the elevated levels of energy that came with being a vampire to increase his fortune even further. Kieran had heard rumors that Marcus had recently purchased one of the most expensive penthouses in the East Village, where the Italians lived, but it had to be merely rumors. Kieran knew there was no way the status-conscious Italians would allow an upstart to pull a move like that.

Kieran looked at Marcus, noting his curled and swept-back coal-colored hair, his aquiline nose with long nostrils, and scheming, scouring eyes. His lips were tomato-red and curled into what seemed like a permanent smug sneer.

“One hundred thousand!” called the auctioneer.

“One-ten,” called Drugi.

The auctions tended to move like this: Gentlemanly, incremental increases of five thousand until the hundred mark was hit, then it was a slug-fest.

Kieran looked again at the girl on stage, at her comely face and slender body, and asked himself if she was worth it.

Yes, she is .

“One-twenty-five,” he called.

Drugi shot him a surprised look, then waved his hand toward Kieran in a motion that seemed to say, fine, you want her? She’s all yours . He then tossed his sign onto the table and finished his vodka with a quick swig.

“One-fifty,” called Marcus.

“One-seventy-five,” said Kieran in response, not missing a beat.

“Hey, I know you’re sweet on this one, but you got the funds for this?” asked Ian, leaning in and talking in a low whisper.

Kieran said nothing in response.

“Two hundred,” said Marcus.

Now the room was in a mild commotion. Vampires from each society were talking amongst themselves, gesturing to Kieran and Marcus with hands holding drinks, trying to figure out who these two men were, exactly, and just what was so exceptional about this girl on stage beyond her obvious beauty. The rest of the vampires of the Irish society looked toward Kieran with worry; they were pleased that one of their own could throw money around like this, but the question of whether he had it to spend was another matter entirely.

Kieran thought for a moment, rubbing the tip of his index finger against the cool, polished ivory handle of the bidding sign. He knew that all the eyes of the room, the hundreds of men of the society of vampires, were on him.

“Two-twenty,” he said, his voice loud, but impassive.

More murmurs and chattering rippled through the crowd.

“Two-fifty,” said Marcus, his eyes flicking over to Kieran for a brief moment. He wanted to see how Kieran would react, but didn’t want him to see that he was looking. But Kieran saw.

The room was quiet and gripped with anticipation. The auctioneer maintained his professional demeanor, and awaited the next move from either of the two men. Kieran could see Drugi’s face painted with a wide-eyed expression of incredulity.

“The fuck’re ya doin’, man? You got this kind of money?” said Ian, keeping his voice to the same low whisper.

“Three hundred,” Kieran said.

Upon hearing these words, many men in the room dropped the cool façade and began to outright talk amongst themselves, wondering in confused, expletive-laced terms what was going on, who was this this Irish upstart and the redhead he was bidding on, where, exactly, did he get all this money, and so on.

Kieran waited for Marcus to react. He knew that he had the money, if he wanted to spend it. But was he acting with the same strange impulse to buy this girl that Kieran was?

His question was answered by Marcus tossing his bidding sign on the table and throwing up his hands in an exaggerated, open-palmed gesture of defeat.

“She’s all yours, my friend, for whatever good it does you,” he called out before taking a slow sip from his glass of bloodwine.

“Sold for three hundred thousand dollars to the Irish gentleman,” said the auctioneer in a grand, proclaiming voice, followed by a slamming of the mallet on the podium.

The girl was led off the stage, the soft tinkling of her chains audible in the silence of the hall. Despite the drama of the girl’s auction, there was no pause in the events of the evening. After she was taken from the stage, the next girl was brought on, bid on, and sold off… for a price much lower than three hundred thousand dollars.


Chapter 6

When Nora’s bidding was done, she was rushed from the stage and into a small, room appointed with elegant, Louis XIV-style furniture. She took a seat on the couch, and sat in silence, her head still swimming from what had just happened.

Some kind of bidding, that was? She could hear the Irish come out, even in her own head.

She realized that it was an auction of some kind, though for what, exactly, she didn’t know. Who were those strange men, all clad in expensive suits, and all seeming to wear the same expressions: Serious, but trimmed with the haughty arrogance of aristocrats.

The thought of what they were bidding for made her stomach tie into tense hot knots. She thought of the likely answers: Sex slave, live-in maid… organ harvesting. Her stomach became sick at the thought of that last option, and she crossed her delicate arms over her smooth, flat stomach.

No , if that’s what they wanted, they wouldn’t go to all the trouble of dressing us up like this .

But that just made her more certain that this was some kind of black market sex slave operation, which only made her a bit less fearful.

And the price that she’d fetched; why? She couldn’t understand what caused those men to bid such large amounts of money. She had always considered herself, at best, cute. And that was on a good day. Never would she have priced herself in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, were she told to do such a thing.

She stood up and began pacing back and forth, her heels landing on the carpet with thin thuds. There was a mirror in the room, and she caught a glimpse of herself as she paced. The high-waisted black panties hugged her hipbones, accentuating her curves. The bra pushed her modest bosom up, but not in the in-your-face, look-at-me way that Nora was used to seeing among the middle-aged housewives who were the mothers of her students.

That Mrs. Serko seemed like a bit of a bitch, but she knew what she was doing . Nora looked over her shoulder and admired the fullness of her rear end in the mirror.

Then she froze, remembering that she was supposed to be pretending to be in some kind of zombified state and wondering if there were cameras watching her every move. With the same slow, deliberate steps that she had been taking throughout the evening, she walked back to the couch, sat down, and folded her hands across the rosy-white skin of her thighs.

The door flung open, and two of the suited men entered and looked Nora over. She kept her eyes forward, her head as still as a stone.

“This the one?” said one of the men, his voice crisp and professional.

“Yeah, Miss Three Hundred K,” said the other.

“What do you think; worth it?” asked the first man.

“When I’ve got that much money to spend on fresh meat, I’ll let you know.”

Fresh meat?

“Okay, let’s get her to the buyer.”

The first man kneeled in front of Nora, removed his sunglasses, and spoke in the low, suggestive tone that she had been hearing all night. “Stand, and come with us. Follow three steps behind us.”

She complied, and rose.

The men filed out of the room, and Nora followed. She wondered who this buyer was. Just who was this man who saw her on stage for, at most, five minutes, and decided to spend what Nora would be lucky to make in half a decade? Her heels clicked on the stone floor of the hallway, and the air was damp with a strange, musky smell, like a wine cellar, or a cave. The hallway seemed to go on forever, just a thin hall with doors evenly-spaced and across from each other; green rooms for all the girls as they awaited their buyers.

After a time, they reached the end of the hallway, which was capped with a door of the same exquisite, crafted quality that Nora had grown used to seeing in this strange place. She wondered where she was, if she was even still in New York. If so, she wondered who, exactly, was paying for this massive establishment. There were clearly deep pockets behind this enterprise.

One of the men opened the door, and, with a quick, stabbing gesture, indicated for Nora to pass through. Once she entered, the door was shut with a low, slow creak.

The room she entered was large, with walls of mirrors, and lined with flowers that sat in pots atop golden pedestals of varying height. The room smelled of a swirl of floral scents, and strange warmth seemed to emanate from a source that Nora couldn’t determine. Aside from the large door that she entered from, another door, this one simpler in design, was on the other side. Above her, an ornate chandelier of dangling crystals hung from the vaulted ceiling.

Nora could see herself from every angle in this mirrored room, and the lighting was warm, soft, and flattering. Everything about the room seemed to be designed to appeal to the senses. Nora stood still among the opulence, wondering how much longer she would have to maintain this charade of hypnosis.

Then, the door on the opposite side she entered from clicked and opened in a slow sweep, and a man stepped through.

He was so strikingly beautiful that Nora’s knees weakened. He was tall, nearly a head taller than Nora, and his face was white, even paler than Nora’s skin, the color of a fresh sheet of snow. His nose was slim but strong, his jaw was wide and angled, and his lips were red, as though filled full with rich, pulsing blood. His hair was long, resting on his shoulders with the weight of crushed velvet curtains and capped his head in a deep, chestnut brown. He was dressed in a suit tailored with immaculate craftsmanship; it emphasized every angle of his lean, but muscular, body.

He strode over to Nora with imperious steps, his polished black dress shoes clicking on the smooth stone floor. As he closed in on Nora, her eyes were drawn to his. They weren’t the hot gold color of the other men. This man’s eyes were a brilliant shimmering green, lush, like thick rainforest leaves glistening with a morning rain.

The man walked around her in a slow lazy circle, one hand in a pants pocket and the other clasped-shut in front of his mouth, the tips of his thumb and index finger against his pillowy lips. He looked with the inspection and scrutiny of an art collector confirming the quality of his latest acquisition. And through this all, Nora stood still, though she could feel the tight knot of anxiety in her stomach unwinding and dissipating in a warm pool of strange, tight heat that radiated lower in her body. Much lower.

As he walked around her, a strange scent trailed behind him, a smell that was heavy with musk, but clean, like raw cloves. Nora found the smell to be irresistible and had to fight the urge to bring in a deep inhalation through her nose. He stepped close only once, to take a look at Nora’s hearing aid, which he regarded with an indifferent “hmm.”

After a time, he came to a stop behind her. Nora could feel his presence, and a wave of pinpricks traveled down her neck and back.

“You may be free, now,” he said in a low, sonorous voice, as he withdrew a small, bronze key from his suit jacket pocket and undid her chains, which clanked onto the ground in an irregular pile.

Nora tensed, unsure how to imitate the hypnosis dropping her from its grip. She decided to loosen her body, like a puppet whose wires had been snipped. But she caught herself before the feint would’ve required her to drop her body onto the ground in a heap. She then stood up in her normal posture. Then she allowed her panic to flash across her face.

“Who are you? Where am I? What the fuck is going on?” she said, turning to the man and speaking in frantic, hurried tones.

He responded by holding up one hand, his palm toward her. “Calm down,” he said, annoyed by her sudden turn from docile statue to panicked woman. “You’re in Brooklyn.”

“That doesn’t do me much good,” said Nora, scanning the man with frightened eyes. Even in the midst of her fear, her immediate attraction to this man occupied a not-insignificant portion of her conscious thoughts.

“The exact address isn’t important; we’ll be leaving in a few minutes, and you’ll never see this place again.”

“But—”

He raised his hand again, and with the other, reached into his suit jacket interior pocket, withdrew his phone, and dialed in a number.

“I’m ready,” he said, before hanging up and replacing his phone.

He looked over Nora once more, a look on his face that she couldn’t quite understand. It was that same expression of professional assessment, but now laced with something else. She took advantage of her freedom to not have her eyes locked forward to search him with her gaze, hoping to find something out about this man who had purchased her, but to no avail. His face was inscrutable.

“Please,” she said, a whimper escaping her throat, “just tell me what’s going on.”

“What is your name?”

“Nora,” she answered reluctantly.

“This is the assessment room, Nora,” he said, turning toward the door that he’d entered from. “It’s bad form to converse with the merchandise here.”

“The ‘merchandise?’” she said, feeling weak in the knees.

Then, the door opened again, and Mrs. Serko stepped through, her long, heel-clad leg slicing in through the darkness. She approached Nora and the man, and joined him in looking over Nora.

“Everything you thought she’d would be, Mr. O’Brien?”

“Yes. I’m pleased with my purchase,” he said, before adding a terse, “so far.”

“Well, good. Highest price of evening, this one. I trust your payment for this little number will be prompt and in full?” she said, a trace of uncertainty hanging from her words.

“Of course,” he said, not removing his eyes from Nora.

“Very good. I check the records and see that this girl your first purchase since, ah, joining our organization. So protocol is this: You have any problem, you let us know. But within twenty-four hours. After that, your problem.”

“Sure, sure,” he said, growing impatient with the formalities.

“Very well, then. The post-auction events are underway, if you’d like to partake.”

She then stepped around Nora, giving her a pleased once-over. “And do enjoy,” she added, before leaving through the door.

He said nothing to Nora, instead beckoning her to follow him with a flippant over-the-shoulder gesture that made her feel like a troublesome child. But, having no other options, she complied, following him into another long hallway, struggling to keep up with his long strides.


Chapter 7

After a time, they reached a set of massive, wood double doors with ornate gold handles and flanked by two of the men that, by now, Nora had grown accustomed to. A long tapestry of swirling red, black and gold patterns seemed to reach out to them before terminating at the door. The hallway was lit with hanging wall candles and lined with tall portraits of stern-faced patriarchs clad in clothing from various periods of history.

The men nodded to Mr. O’Brien as they approached, reached for the door handle on their respective sides, and pulled the doors open.

As they opened the doors, the hall that she recognized from the bidding was revealed to her. Though now, instead of being filled with tables of men in a strict arrangement, it was a scene of a lively cocktail party. As Nora and Mr. O’Brien entered, she looked up and around herself, feeling small and vulnerable amidst the vast expanse of the room.

Men clad in suits stood here and there in clusters beneath massive chandeliers, which hung from the seemingly endless height of the ceiling. The men were all engaged in conversation and taking sips from glasses that they all held. The mellow sounds of jazz flowed through the room and over the low din from a quartet of players on the same stage where Nora had recently stood. Waiters all in black darted here and there, removing empty glasses and placing fresh ones in the hands of the men, who didn’t deign to turn and acknowledge the help.

At the men’s sides, most of them, at least, were young women in various stages of undress, many of whom Nora recognized from the dressing room. Some of the girls looked wide-eyed and fearful, others remained statue-still and compliant, and others looked to be taking to their role of arm-décor for their purchasers. It seemed to Nora that it was the buyer’s choice whether to take the girls out of their hypnotized, entranced state. And something else struck Nora as well: The girls’ skin, in comparison to the men. The men, like Mr. O’Brien, were all of wan complexion, ranging from gray ash to ivory white. But the girls, like her, had radiant, healthy complexions. Normal, but a sharp contrast to the skin of these strange men.

Nora stayed close to Mr. O’Brien’s side. Though she barely knew him, it was still more familiarity than she had with any of these other men. As they moved into the room, a young-looking man in a crisp, dark suit hurried over to Mr. O’Brien, an eager, excited look on his face as he weaved through the crowd.

“Aye, this is her,” he said, his accent a lilting brogue that stood out to Nora immediately, “Mrs. Three-K, in the flesh.”

“This is her,” said Mr. O’Brien, the slightest hint of a smile drawing up one of the corners of his mouth. Though Nora was still desperate for any explanation of her current situation, she couldn’t help but feel herself drawn to this strange, handsome man. Sexual heat seemed to radiate from him like a roiling fire.

The other man looked her over. “Yeh, she’s a beauty; you don’t see many girls in this part of the world with this kinda look,” he said, extending his hand and taking one of the tight, coiled braids of Nora’s crimson-orange hair between his index and middle fingers.

Mr. O’Brien shot out his hand with what seemed to Nora to be inhuman speed, and took the other man’s hand away from her hair in a manner that was firm and insistent.

“Hands to yourself, Ian,” he said in a chiding tone.

“Aye, as ye like,” Ian said, raising his hands in a gesture of mock surrender. “By the by,” he said, leaning and speaking in hushed, conspiratorial tones, “did you, ah, can she hear us?”

“You could just ask me,” said Nora, growing irritated at being spoken around like she was a dog, or a child.

“That answer your question?” Mr. O’Brien looked away and held up three fingers to one of the serving staff, who nodded in acknowledgement.

“Aye, I supposed it does. To each his own,” Ian said, his eyes lingering on Nora’s curves in a manner that made her feel self-conscious, “though if I were paying what you did, I’d be sending her home with an armed guard.”

“I suppose I’m a little more trusting than most,” Mr. O’Brien said in a sardonic tone.

The waiter returned with three flutes of champagne, one of which Mr. O’Brien slipped into Nora’s hand without looking. Nora then watched something strange. From off the tray, Mr. O’Brien took two small capsules, both the same color of dark cherry red. With a pair of plops, he dropped one into his glass, then Ian’s. The capsules broke apart instantly upon touching the golden bubbly liquid, and spread into it, turning the color of their drinks from a sparkling, light yellow to a murky red.

“To new investments,” said Ian with a smirk as the two men touched their glasses. Nora wasn’t sure if she was invited to this toast, but Mr. O’Brien’s insistent, beckoning eyes let her know that she was.

The three clinked their glasses, though Nora did so with some apprehension.

“And not to mention Marcus scampering about here and there. You got him all cheesed off with that little out-bidding you did. You know how prideful the Booties can be.”

Mr. O’Brien responded with a small flick of his eyebrows as he took a small sip from his glass. Nora drank from her own, and the fresh sparkling wine flowed over her tongue, beginning with a subtle pear flavor and ending with the taste of rich baking apples and the lingering scent of summer grass. It was delicious.

But before the conversation could continue further, a trio of older, distinguished-looking men appeared from the nearby throng of party-goers, who parted like water around a stone as the men walked through.

The men looked strikingly different; one was tall, slim, with a pointed goat’s-beard, another was all brawny muscles under his suit, and the middle was trim, long-limbed and serious-eyed, but all had the same general aesthetic of class and sophistication amid their wrinkles and graying, balding hair. Like everyone else in the crowd, their skin was the same wan white color. They each held a small crystalline glass of the reddish liquid, and they looked over the three of them, paying special attention to Nora and Mr. O’Brien.

“Kieran O’Brien, is it?” asked the balding man in a light, melodic voice that flowed on an Irish accent.

Kieran! Finally, a first name.

“It is,” said Kieran. Nora noticed his body tense into a state that resembled readiness as the men spoke. Ian seemed to be shocked into silence.

“When we saw the events of the evening unfold, we made a little note amongst ourselves to stop by and speak to the man who could spend so very much money on one of the evening’s young ladies,” said the brawny man, looking over Nora as though she were a light snack.

“Manners, Simon,” said the middle man, his voice deeper but rich with those same dulcet, emerald tones. “Introductions first.”

A sly smile appeared on the red lips of the brawny man. “Of course,” he said.

“The tall gentleman is Mr. Murphy; the tough-looking fellow here is Mr. Kelly. And I’m Mr. Walsh,” he said, his hand moving in front of his chest in a swirling, formal gesture.

“Aye,” said Ian, his voice wavering with child-like excitement, “of course we know who yeh are.”

Kieran shot a quick, withering look to Ian, who noticed and responded with a look of embarrassment.

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet the three of you,” said Kieran. No handshakes were exchanged among the men.

Nora wanted to speak, to blurt out the questions that were racing through her mind, but something about these three and their bearing, their formality, everything, instilled in her a sense of menace and dread.

A silence hung in the air as the three men looked at Kieran and Nora, sizing the two of them up.

“Well,” said Mr. Walsh, after tipping the last bit of his drink back, “I’ll let you three get back to it.”

The three turned to leave, but just before disappearing into the crowd of pale-skinned, suited men, Mr. Walsh turned back, his eyes closed and finger in the air, as though remembering something.

“One last thing, Mr. O’Brien,” he said, “do be wary about spending such, well, exorbitant amounts of money in such a pubic venue. You might attract the wrong kind of attention. Not to mention the fact that some of us are… sticklers, for proper protocol.”

And with that, they vanished into the crowd.

“Who were those three?” asked Nora, still afraid, and now keenly aware of how exposed she was.

“Very important people,” said Kieran, his voice dry and grim.

“Why, the three most important men in the Irish society!” said Ian, his voice charged with adrenaline. “They don’t talk to just anyone, especially newcomers like us!”

Kieran shot Ian another silencing gaze. Ian cut himself off, now aware of just how loose his tongue had become.

“I think I’m ready to leave,” said Kieran, finishing his drink.

“Aye,” said Ian, “I’m sure you’re ready to get home with that little number.”

“I’ll see you at the next gathering,” said Kieran.

With that, Ian raised his glass and nodded in farewell. Kieran then took Nora by the hand, turned, and began to lead her toward the door that they entered from.

Nora and Kieran weaved through the tight knots of the crowd, but when they reached the door, they encountered another group of men who stood before them, blocking their path.

These men were different from the elegant older gentlemen who’d spoken with Kieran. They were younger, dressed in flashy suits of jackets with paisley inlays and shirts of bold reds and greens. They wore watches and necklaces of gleaming gold, and black loafers all polished to a mirror-shine. One of the men stood in front of the group, his curled hair slicked back, and his face wearing the same impudent smirk as the rest of them.

Nora, after a brief moment, recognized the man: He was the other man who’d bid on her.

“Three hundred thousand?” he said, walking toward them with a short-stepped strut. “I don’t know about that. But a fine little chickadee nonetheless.”

“I don’t have time for this, Marcus,” said Kieran, his voice low, nearly a growl.

“Hey, no need to get hostile on me,” he said, moving in a loop around Nora, looking her over in a way that made her feel exposed and uncomfortable. “I just wanted to make sure to congratulate the man who so completely outbid me.”

But when he moved behind Nora, he stopped, moved in, and took a closer look at the side of her head. At her hearing aid. “Ah, but what is this? It looks like this girl of the night is, ah, defective merchandise.”

Nora’s hand shot up, covering her hearing aid with a cupped palm.

“Maybe if you talk to the daddies in charge, they might, ah, let you swap her out for store credit.” His voice was muffled through Nora’s covered hearing aid.

He opened his mouth to say something else, but he didn’t have the chance. With blinding speed, Kieran moved to Marcus, stopping only when he was mere inches from his smirking face.

“Last chance to get out of the way,” said Kieran.

The two men stood like this for what seemed like hours.

Finally, Marcus stepped back, his hands raised in mock defeat. “Always so serious, Kieran. I say you come out with us some night, enjoy the city. Maybe bring this little one along before, well, you do with her what will need to be done.”

Nora looked at Kieran, shock on her face. He said nothing, still glaring at Marcus, his jaw tensing and releasing.

What does he mean by that?

Not saying another word, Kieran grabbed Nora by her slender wrist and led her through the throng of Italians. This was the first time that Kieran had touched her since the auction, and the sensation of his skin, cool and smooth, against hers sent a surge through her body like electricity as they strode down the amber lights of the hallway.


Chapter 8

Eventually, after turning a few corners, they reached a small, steel door. Nora could feel the air grow colder as they approached it and knew that they had reached the exit. Kieran leaned forward and pushed the door open, and a whoosh of chilly evening air rushing into the hallway. Nora braced against the cold, which Kieran noticed. A twinge of annoyance on his face, he slipped off his suit jacket and draped it over Nora’s shoulders. The silk lining felt luxurious on her cold skin, and that same musky scent rushed up and around her face. The scent was so overwhelming that the discomfort of the cold slipped her mind for a moment.

When the intoxication from his scent faded, Nora looked beyond the door and saw that a sleek black car was waiting for them, another one of the suited men standing in front of the passenger’s side door. They stepped out into the parking garage, which was lit with long lines of soft orange lights that lit the area without giving the feel of a dirty concrete parking area. This was clearly, to Nora, the luxury edition of parking garages.

The man gave a soft nod as he handed Kieran the keys. Kieran unlocked the doors with a button press on the fob, opened the driver’s door, and, with a gesture to Nora, got in. She slid into the soft, leather seats of the car, and noticed right away that they were heated. The car’s dashboard was crossed with various numbers in soft, blue LED lighting and made of polished dark wood. It was a luxury sports car, and Nora wondered what was worth more, it or her apartment.

Kieran revved the engine before proceeding. As they made their way to the exit, Nora noted the other cars in the garage. All were expensive, sleek, and dark-colored.

What’s going on here? What the hell is this society? she wondered as they passed the rows and rows of toys for wealthy, elite men.

They exited and pulled out into the cool New York evening.

Not wanting to wait another moment for answers, she turned to Kieran, his handsome face in a tight, focused glower as they turned down the city streets.

“Tell me what’s going on,” Nora said.

“I’ll explain when we’ve arrived,” he said, still looking forward, his voice terse.

“Explain now ,” she said, her voice a firm tone that she wasn’t used to hearing coming from her mouth.

Silence filled the air as Kieran drove down the Brooklyn streets. The orange lights of the city night went up and down the towering buildings on both sides of the road, and through the grid of the city Nora could occasionally see the twinkling waters of the East River as they reflected the light of the full moon above. The amber rows of the buildings around them were a soft blur as Kieran peeled through the lanes of Williamsburg.

“It’s a gentleman’s society,” he said, his voice calm atop buried frustration from the encounter with the Italians.

“Bullshit,” said Nora, “tell me what kind of society.”

Kieran said nothing, instead keeping his eyes forward as the sports car made the turn from the Williamsburg Bridge onto FDR drive. Now the East River was completely visible to Nora’s right, the Brooklyn skyline now fading into a mass of twinkling rows behind them. Driving was a luxury that she couldn’t afford in New York, and part of her wanted to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. But the need to know where she was, where she was going, and just who this man driving her was won out over any other desire.

“I’ll tell you when we get to my apartment,” he said, “but right now I need to focus.”

“Your apartment?” said Nora. “What makes you think that I want to go to your apartment? Or that you have any right to take me there?”

“Well,” he said, his voice lowering to a smooth honeyed tone, “in case the events of the last few hours were unclear to you, you’re now my property.”

“Well, in case what country you’re in is unclear to you, you can’t own someone as property. All I need to do is find the nearest NYPD officer and tell him that some psycho thinks he bought me and I’ll be back home, and you’ll be in jail.”

“Try that, see how far it gets you,” Kieran said, with a condescending tone, as though speaking to a stubborn child. “You’d be hand-delivered by the city’s finest to my apartment within an hour.”

“What are you talking about?” Nora asked as they peeled off FDR Drive and entered the maze of glistening skyscrapers of Midtown.

“This isn’t some gentlemen’s club you’ve gotten involved with; this is something bigger,” he said, whipping onto 42 nd Street and weaving around the slower-moving cars, who honked at him as he passed.

“Then tell me.”

“In time.”

Nora was brimming with frustration, but she sensed that continuing to press Kieran for more information before he was ready to give it would be like wringing water from a dry towel. Instead, she slumped back into her seat and crossed her arms over her breasts, feeling a combination of scared, angry, and ridiculous.

They went along 42 nd until they reached 8 th Avenue, which Nora recognized from the glittering marquee of the Majestic Theater.

Yeah, I could really go for a Broadway show right about now. Nora kept her thoughts dry in order to avoid sinking into the feeling of terror that bubbled like a swamp at the pit of her stomach.

“Can you at least tell me where we’re going?” she asked.

“Hell’s Kitchen.”

Nora didn’t know much about this part of town. She knew from stories her grandmother told her about the history of her Irish immigrant relatives that it was a hotbed for crime and violence back in the 18 th century. Gangs like The Gophers and The Parlor Mob kept a strict, if blood-soaked, order around the area back when the police didn’t have the manpower to be everywhere at once. Though make no mistake, she remembered her grandmother telling her, this kind of order had nothing to do with the justice system.

But Hell’s Kitchen was a different story now, and Nora could tell this by the clean manicured look of the streets as they made their way into the neighborhood. The area was a different sort of hotbed now: One of gentrification. The few times Nora had been here, she’d seen that the gangs of her grandmother’s stories had been replaced by attractive young couples pushing strollers. It was a prime spot for the gay community as well; Nora sometimes wondered if there were more French Bulldogs and Shih Tzus here than people.

Nora gazed out the window at the reflection of the amber lights of the city on the random puddles of water on the streets and sidewalks. Eventually, Kieran made a sharp turn into a small side street. Then they stopped, and before them was a massive, metal door. Kieran reached up, pressed a small button on the sun flap, and the door rumbled up and into the roof of the building.

Of course, this guy’s got a private parking garage . Nora realized that she’d seen more wealth up close in the last few hours than she’d probably seen over the course of her life up to that point.

Kieran slid into his parking spot, and they both exited the car. She followed him to the dark mahogany doors of a private elevator, which slid open as they approached. The elevator walls were lined with red satin that was soft against Nora’s still-bare shoulders. The doors slid shut, and the elevator began to rise with a hum that increased in volume. Nora looked over at Kieran as the elevator ascended; the tension that marked his face during the drive over seemed to be dissipating, though his brow remained tight and knitted.

The next seconds passed in silence as the elevator rose, and the questions that Nora had were roiling in her like crashing waves. Now that they were about to be alone, he had to explain to her what was going on, why she was kidnapped, why she was put in lingerie and made to walk a stage in chains, why this strange, handsome man leaning against the elevator wall spent so much money on her to… what? Have a live-in maid? Or a sex slave? But as those last words crossed her mind, as she spoke them in her mind’s voice, she felt that same hot, tight feeling, the words lolling in her mind as she looked at his outline out of the corner of her eye—the strong, jutting jaw, the piercing gaze that could melt steel, the body of dense, taut muscle obvious under his suit.

Then the elevator emitted a soft ding, and the doors slid open.

Nora’s apartment was small, cozy, and, though she had only been there for a time, was on the verge of feeling like home. But it wasn’t much, just a studio of a few hundred square feet, a simple bed, a small TV, and a handful of Ikea furniture that she was able to buy with the money she scraped together before moving here. It wasn’t much, but it was hers.

Nora’s cozy little apartment, however, could’ve easily been tucked away into a small corner of Kieran’s penthouse home and forgotten.

The first thing she noticed when the gold doors of the apartment slid open was the view. The walls to Kieran’s apartment were glass from top to bottom, and the glittering, golden skyline of lower Manhattan seemed to sprawl on forever against the deep black of the night sky. Then, when the automated lights of the apartment blinked on, the rest of the home became visible to her.

The apartment was a wide, open room, decorated in a clean, simple style. In the center of the room was a recessed middle wherein sat several couches of deep, black leather. The ceiling was high and flat, and traced with lines of soft, clear lighting fixtures, and when the lights turned on, the black marble fireplace crackled to life. There were a few pieces of minimalist art here and there, along with sculptures of designs of strange, hard angles, but beyond that, there was very little in the way of adornment, as though Kieran realized that nothing he could put on the walls would match the splendor of the view.

Kieran strode past her and into the open expanse of the apartment. He rolled his sleeves up, exposing his forearms, which were as white as cotton, but thick and toned. He turned to Nora and beckoned her with a flippant “come here” flick of his fingers.

Her eyes still wide from the view, she obliged, moving into the space with small steps.

“Welcome,” he said, his voice a low purr.

Nora said nothing, instead walking around, her mouth agape.

Who is this guy? Nora wondered, looking over Kieran as he fixed a pair of drinks. He can’t be any older than thirty; how could someone so young afford a place like this? Is he one of those finance guys? Or maybe just someone with a lot of family money .

“Please, have a seat,” he said, placing another one of those small, red capsules in his drink before gesturing to the longer of the couches in the recessed section of the room. Nora obeyed and slid into the soft leather, which was cool against her skin. Kieran came over and handed her a drink, which she took, against her better judgment.

She took a small sip; it was vodka and some kind of lime flavoring. She allowed the sweetness of the lime and the sharp astringency of the vodka to wash over her palate for a moment. But as soon as she drew it down with a heavy swallow, she snapped into awareness of her situation, and her eyes began to narrow.

“Okay,” she said, setting down the drink onto the glass coffee table with a clink, “tell me just what the fuck is going on.”

Kieran made a slight exhalation through his nostrils and took a sip of his drink. He reached over to the far end of the coffee table, took a pair of black coasters, and tossed them onto the table before setting his on top of one. He then looked at Nora with an insistent glare, and with a sigh, she placed her drink on the coaster closest to her.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I like my place to be in order.”

“Fine,” she said, “but tell me what’s going on.”

Kieran crossed his legs, exposing his socks, which were black with thin white stripes, and sat back into the couch. “You’re meat,” he said, a slight twinge of pain to his voice, as though admitting a long-kept secret.

Nora’s vision became blurry. She fell back into her seat, a feeling of lightheadedness overwhelming her. “M-meat?” she said, her voice weak. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Where to begin?” Kieran said, his voice trailing off.

Nora regained her bearings, and her eyes went immediately to Kieran’s glass, red-tinged, just like the drinks of everyone else at the gathering.

“Start with that; what’s that? Why is your drink red?”

Kieran leaned forward and traced the rim of his glass with the tip of his index finger. “It’s blood.”

Nora’s eyes widened. “Blood?”

“Yes. A blood extract, essentially.”

Nora leaned forward. “And why are you drinking blood? Is this some kind of fucked-up cult?”

“Something like that,” he said, taking another sip of his drink. “We’re what you humans know as vampires.”

Nora became even more dazed. This must be some kind of joke . “Stop this bullshit right now and tell me the truth.”

His eyebrows raised. “But I just did.”

Nora was unconvinced, but decided to not press the point. “And what was tonight? Why was I kidnapped? Why was I sold? Why am I here?”

Kieran stood up, took his drink, and walked over to the glass wall, the towering spires of the city glowing against his silhouette. “We have something of an arrangement with this city. As I’m sure you know through your movies and books, consuming humans is an important part of the vampire way of life.”

Nora tensed, wondering if running for the door was an option. But she decided to listen.

“We came here from the old world over a hundred years ago, when immigrating to America was the dream of every heart in Europe. And our people had power. We ruled the nights, and our wealth and influence affected the course of nations. But just as we had our lineage, so did the hunters. And their numbers grew with each generation as those who wished revenge for their slain kin joined their ranks.

“And then there were those of us who gave themselves over completely to the blood. They embraced the death, the destruction of life, the light of life draining out of their victims’ eyes as they drank the last drops of blood that coursed through their veins. They had no place in our society. But despite our total disavowal of them and their ways, we were still considered one and the same by the humans who knew of us.”

He took another drink and closed his eyes for a moment, his face cast in a ghostly orange pallor from the city lights.

“So, toward the end of the nineteenth century, many of us, from different nations, decided to start new societies in the New World, to leave the mistakes of the past in the nations of Europe.”

Nora sat back once again, taking a sip of her drink and letting what Kieran was telling her settle in her mind. “And you’re the Irish?”

“Yes,” he said, “the Irish settled in this part of the city, in Hell’s Kitchen. The Italians are in the East Village, the Ukrainians in the West, and the Polish across the river in Greenpoint.”

“And the city knows about you?”

“As much as we wanted to stay hidden, we could only lurk in the shadows for so long. Eventually, those we drained were found in large enough numbers for the police to notice a pattern, and we were discovered.”

“But… why didn’t they just make you leave the city? Or kill you?”

“By the time they learned of us, the wealth that we had brought to New York had already worked its way into the city. We owned property… and politicians. To leave would’ve sent the city into a tailspin. So, we came to an arrangement with humans. We would cease regular feedings. In their place, we would have a yearly auction in which hundreds of humans would be bid upon. And those humans would be the only feedings of the year.”

Nora knew that she should’ve been feeling fear at this revelation. After all, Kieran had just admitted that he’d purchased her for the purpose of killing her and drinking her blood. But something put her at ease. Something in the way he was openly offering this information gave her the impression that he had other plans for her.

“So, that’s what you’re going to do with me? Feed on me?”

He turned to face her, a look of mild uncertainty on his face. “No. At least, I think no.”

Nora took a long sip of her drink. “That’s not very reassuring.”

“It should be. If that other vampire, the Italian, had won the bid, well, let’s say that you wouldn’t be sitting comfortably and enjoying an evening drink.”

Nora was stunned. If it weren’t for Kieran, she would be dead by now.

“So, what is it about me?” said Nora. “Why aren’t you going to kill me? Why spend so much money on me?”

“I… don’t know,” he said, a pained look crossing his face that seemed to indicate that even he wasn’t sure of why he had done what he did. “I just knew that when I saw you up there, I had to have you. At any cost.”

“Sympathy for a fellow fair folk?” she asked, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Ha. Who knows,” he said, allowing himself a whisper of a smile.

Nora drummed on the side of her glass with her delicate fingertips. “So… does that mean you’re going to let me go?”

“No,” Kieran said, his face turning grim once again. “Buyers have one week to dispose of their… merchandise. After that, it’s a violation of society law to keep them. The punishment for such a violation is… severe, to say the least.”

“Then just let me leave,” she said, her voice a pleading tone, “I’ll leave the city; I won’t come back.”

He shook his head. “It’s not that simple.”

“Then what, I have to sit around and wait until you decide whether you’re going to kill me?”

He hesitated for a brief moment, finished his drink, and leaned against the glass behind him. “I’ll figure something out; I need to find out what it is about you. There’s something to you, something that neither of us know about, but can both sense.”

Does he mean my “gifts?” Nora considered telling him, but decided to wait until she could get a better sense of how he’d react.

“But in the meantime, you’re not to leave the apartment. I have several bedrooms; you’re more than welcome to any one you’d like. I’ll be… indisposed during the day. If you give me your word you won’t leave, I can refrain from restraining you.”

She hesitated

“Let me say this: If you left, you would be found. And if you’re found, that means a quick end for both of us, if we’re lucky.”

She realized that as strange and horrible as this situation was, there didn’t seem to be any way out of it. For the time being, at least.

“Fine,” she said, feeling frustrated, but less afraid. “Just as long as you can promise that nothing will happen to me while I’m here.”

His countenance softened at this. “I promise,” he said, his voice warm and comforting.

“Okay, then just tell me where I can sleep.”

At this, he rose and walked past her, gesturing for her to follow him. The walked down a long hallway off the main room, which was just as spare and neat as the rest of the apartment. They reached a door, which Kieran opened.

“This should be suitable for tonight,” he said, as the door opened and revealed a massive bedroom. It had the same glass walls as the rest of the apartment, and the east side of Manhattan and Long Island beyond were visible.

“Yeah, this should be okay,” Nora said, stepping into the room.

“If you need anything, please, help yourself,” he said, shutting the door behind him.

Nora, alone for the first time since this strange, terrifying evening began, wanted to sit, collect her thoughts, and formulate a plan for how to get out of this predicament. Part of her wanted to plot an escape, despite the warnings. And part of her just wanted to think, to figure out the best course of action to survive these next few days.

Instead, she collapsed face first on the soft white sheets of the bed, and fell into a restless slumber within seconds.


Chapter 9

When Nora awoke, she expected daylight. But when she opened her eyes it was still dark, the city beyond still twinkling with white and honey-colored lights. She reached for her phone, but remembered that it, along with whatever else she had on her when she was taken, was gone. She looked around for a clock, and found one, a simple, black-and-white clock inlayed with Roman numerals, hanging on the wall.

Four o’clock, it read; she had only been asleep for a few hours.

But she felt awake and alert, and her body was still tense from the events of the evening. She stood, placing her bare feet on the soft, plush carpet beneath her. Then, she sat on the edge of the bed and looked out the window. Under any other circumstance, being in a bedroom like this would be an unthinkable luxury for a girl like her, but now it only served to remind her of the situation she was in. Anxiety began to well in her, and any hope of sleep vanished.

She looked out the window, off into the distance, the twinkling oranges and whites of the city lights an endless, stellar sprawl. She thought about what Kieran had told her, about being a vampire. It then occurred to her that there was a very good chance he was making everything up, that he was just as in on it as the rest of them, and this was all some kind of elaborate plot to lull her into a false sense of security before moving into the next stage of his real plan.

But then she thought about the hypnosis that the men performed, about the pallid, corpse-like skin that everyone in the society had, and the red capsules that gave their drinks the color of faded gore. She didn’t know what to believe. She pushed the thoughts of what, exactly, was going on out of her mind as best she could as she stood up and looked around the room.

The bedroom was large, much bigger than her apartment, but like the rest of Kieran’s home, sparsely-appointed. There was a dresser made of white birch, and a walk-in closet that was completely empty.

What a waste . She imagined what it would look like filled with the types of luxurious and elegant clothes that a woman who could afford to live in an apartment like this would wear.

There was nothing in the room with which to occupy herself.

Well, Kieran did say that I could help myself to anything here…

With some trepidation, she left the bedroom and stepped into the hallway, then into the main room. Kieran was nowhere to be found. Though the lights were still on, the apartment was deathly silent. She raised her hand to her ear, to make sure her hearing aid was still in place. It was, and as she touched it, feeling the cool plastic with her fingertips. She wondered if her disability had anything to do with why the men at the auction were unable to hypnotize her.

She put aside these speculative thoughts as she walked toward the space near the window where Kieran had stood earlier. And when she reached the spot, she noticed something that had been blocked from her view before by one of the bookshelves. A small stairway led up, to a door in the ceiling. Deciding that some fresh air would do her good, she moved with quick steps to the liquor cabinet, made herself a small drink, and went back to the stairs, which seemed to me made of simple, clear plastic bordered above by a handrail no thicker than her wrist.

Undoing the latch of the door, she pushed it open, the cool air of the evening rushing in. Though there was a chill to the fall breeze, the cold didn’t bother her. She made her way up the rest of the stairs, and stepped out onto the roof. What she saw forced her to pull in a small, sharp gasp. There was a rooftop terrace, a wide, circular area with a 360-view of the city that was even more spectacular than the one from the apartment. Nora could see everything from here: The magnificent Art Deco spire of the Chrysler Building, the faraway skyscrapers of the Financial District, with the World Trade Center towering above them all with its jutting, angled form, and the endless expanse of lighted grids that was Brooklyn. Then she turned, and the long rectangle of Central Park stretched in front of her, its angled form contrasted by the smooth curves of the water and streets that existed within its sharply-defined space.

And standing with her back toward her, his figure set perfectly within the shape of the park, stood Kieran, his arms stretched outward, his hands clasped on the railing that outlined the terrace, the silver shape of the full moon visible in the sky beyond.

The wind was a low, hollow howl as she moved toward him. She wanted to find some way to get his attention, figuring that sneaking up on a vampire was probably an unwise thing to do.

“Couldn’t sleep?” he asked, turning his head just enough for Nora to see his profile backlit by the city lights.

“Not a chance,” she said, moving toward him with hesitant steps, the fingers of both hands wrapped around her drink.

He turned, seeing that she was still in the underwear that she had been wearing since he bid on her.

“You know, I have women’s clothes here,” he said, a sly smirk forming on his mouth.

Nora looked down at her mostly-exposed body, and immediately became self-conscious. It had been a while since she’d had to worry about waking up and a man being around. “It wasn’t exactly the first thing on my mind,” she said, feeling the skin on her face turn a light shade of red.

He slipped out of his jacket once again, walked toward her, and draped it over her shoulders. “As much as I like seeing you in my clothes, we’ll really need to do something about your outfit situation if you’re going to be staying here.”

Just like before, the warmth of the fine material of the jacket and the rich smell of his scent made Nora’s head swim. She took a sip from her drink, and walked with Kieran toward the railing where he had been standing.

“This is quite the place,” said Nora, the wind blowing around them in soft gusts.

“It is. A gift from someone close to me,” he said, looking off into the distance.

“I think I can see my apartment from here,” she said, pointing toward the north end of Central Park.

A moment passed. Nora took another sip of her drink and found her eyes following one of the orange veins of traffic as it moved along the side of the park. The faint sounds of the city—cars honking, sirens, the clanging of trucks along the road—wafted up to them in soft echoes. She found herself standing closer to Kieran. She couldn’t tell if it was from the chill in the air, or something else, but something pulled her toward him.

“This has been an unbelievable night,” said Nora, hoping to coax some conversation out of Kieran.

“Yes, a fitting introduction to our world.”

“But…” Nora hesitated, then blurted, “but…how much danger am I in? Who is that other vampire who wanted me so badly? I just need to know what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.” She could feel tears of fear and frustrating forming in her eyes.

“You’re safe, for now,” he said, putting his large, firm hand on Nora’s shoulder, “and I’m going to make sure you stay that way.”

He took in a short, shallow breath and measured his words carefully. “Marcus Ricci. From the Italian society. An arrogant, troublemaking fool. Our people live and die by our discretion, and vampires like him threaten that with their very nature. He was a wealthy man before he was brought into our fold, and has become even wealthier since. Our people are very conscious of things like status, and power, and having someone like him enter our world with so much influence has been… destabilizing, to say the least.”

“Then why was he even… turned?” she asked, the terminology of Kieran’s kind sounding strange to her as she spoke the words.

“Hard to say. When we bring in new members, it’s a measured, drawn-out process; some might say too drawn-out. We avoid bringing in new blood, so to speak, from those with established wealth, high status, fame for this specific purpose. Some suspect that Marcus found out about our world and paid one of us to turn him.”

“And what do you think?”

“It doesn’t matter. He’s here, and unless he breaks one of our cardinal rules, he’ll be here for a long while.”

Nora took another sip of her drink. And as she looked down at her glass, she saw that the distance between her body and Kieran’s had closed even further. She didn’t know what it was; she should be running in fear from this man. But there was something about him, something about his scent, the way he moved, the way he looked her, almost through her, with those eyes that seemed to glow with heat amidst his pallid, cool skin, like twin campfires in tundra.

“But I’ve seen his type before. Hot-blooded and thin-skinned; a dangerous combination. He must’ve seen the same thing in you that I saw. And it’s only because I hadn’t bid on anyone before that I had enough money to outspend him.”

Nora traced the rim of her glass with the tip of her finger. “And… what was it exactly that you saw in me?” she asked, her voice soft.

Kieran finally turned to face her. “It wasn’t a thing , it was a feeling ,” he said, again taking time to carefully choose his words. “When you see something, some one , and you know that you need them to be a part of your life.”

By now Nora was even closer to Kieran, the skin of their arms nearly touching. Whatever feeling she was experiencing that was drawing her closer to him, he seemed to be feeling it, too.

Kieran then turned, leaning his side on the railing; Nora did the same. Though he was facing her, he was looking away, off into the distance, his full lips pursed, appearing deep in thought. Nora found her eyes drifting down, staring at his firm, strong hands, up to his thick forearms, which were toned and covered in a smattering of dark hair against pale skin, then to his chest, where the top two buttons of his shirt were undone, revealing the outlines of hard pectoral muscles.

The feeling of hot tightness was returning, and she was becoming aware that this feeling was something that she wasn’t going to be able to resist for much longer. Part of her hoped that Kieran would bid her goodnight, and leave her here alone, not succumbing to the man who now owned her. But the greater part of her, the more insistent part, implored him to see, somehow, how she was feeling, and to make his move.

Kieran turned to her, looking upon her small, delicate frame draped in his suit jacket, her full lips in a glistening pout. Without thinking, he moved his hand up to her face, feeling the soft lines of her jaw against his palm. Nora closed her eyes and leaned in his touch, his skin cool, hers flushed and warm.

Protestations began to form on Nora’s lips, but before they could take form, Kieran leaned in, and took her mouth in a slow, lingering kiss. Nora was shocked, at first, her body tense. But a second of his touch was all it took her to loosen, to lean into the body that was now pressed against hers. At first, the kisses were light and chaste, but as he read her body, his mouth opened enough for his tongue to lick her bottom lip, sending hot, tingling shivers up the goose fleshed skin of Nora’s neck.


Chapter 10

Nora sensed the light, oak taste of whiskey on his breath, along with the strange, copper tang of the blood, and the heady scent that surrounded her when she wore his coat was now surrounding her, flowing up and around her like a thick, swirling mist. The scent went straight to her head, making the lights of the city in the corner of her eye blur into a glowing mass.

Nora responded to Kieran’s kiss, slipping her hands into his shirt, feeling the smooth, cool texture of his skin against her fingertips. Her hands moved farther back, until they were behind his shoulders, and she found herself pulling him into her. She hoped that he sensed what this meant, her need to have him close, against her, and wanting this without words. He understood. He matched her movements, slipping his own hands under the suit jacket as he continued to kiss her, and slipped it off her body, leaving her standing there in her bra and panties.

Kieran stood back for a moment, drinking in the sight of Nora standing before him. But only for a moment. Then, he moved toward her with deliberate speed, placed his hands on the curves of her hips, and leaned in. He began to kiss her, starting with the delicate incline of her shoulder, then moving up, along the side of her neck. Each kiss sent a charge down Nora’s body, and she could feel the skin of her legs prickle with gooseflesh. He continued, reaching the small divot behind her ear, kissing her, his tongue giving her skin gentle licks.

Nora took in air in soft gasps as he kissed her. Her hands began to work faster, undoing the buttons of his dress shirt and peeling it from his skin. She looked down as Kieran continued, admiring the sinewy tone of his lean, muscular back illuminated by the soft light of the moon. Her hands moved down farther, exploring his upper body. She ran her fingertips along the tight, clean muscles of his hips. And once they reached his belt, she hesitated.

“Do it,” he said, his breath hot against her ear.

Kieran moved back to her lips as she undid the buckle, then the zipper, before pulling his pants down in a swift motion. He stepped out of his shoes and stood before her wearing nothing but a watch, his necklace, and a pair of skin-tight boxer briefs. Nora’s breath began to draw quicker at the sight of his body, and as he moved toward her, taking her in his arms, she was gripped with the fear that he, his essence, would consume her.

Kieran reached around Nora’s back and unfastened her bra, letting it drop to the terrace floor. Nora’s now-bare breasts felt cold in the night air, and her nipples became small and hard. Kieran sensed this, and moved down to her chest, taking the flesh of her breasts into his mouth, one after another. Nora bristled with pleasure as his tongue danced across her nipples, the gentle, wet prodding of his tongue nearly sending her into spasms. As he kissed her breasts, his hands moved down along her body. And when they reached her waist, his fingers wrapped around her panties and pulled them down.

Nora shivered, her body now bare in the evening chill.

“You won’t be cold for long,” he said, rising, and placing his right hand on her inner thigh.

He then took her hand into his, and moved it down his stomach, across the fabric of his underwear, until it rested on the long shape of his now-hard cock.

“How does my cock feel?” he asked.

“So good,” said Nora, dragging the backs of her fingernails against the length of his penis.

“You make me so fucking hard,” he said, whispering into her ear. “From the moment I saw you, I knew I had to have you, to be inside you.”

Nora’s breath was sharp at his words, and she became wetter the farther he moved his hands up her thigh. He continued to kiss her, and when he reached her pussy, rubbed the length of her lips with the side of his finger.

“I can feel how much you want me,” he said, now rubbing her clit.

Pleasure began to seize Nora, blurring his words. “I... I do,” she said, her voice low and pleading.

At this, Kieran slid his fingers into Nora, first one, then two. At first, his movements were slow, and gentle. But over the next few seconds, he began to move faster inside of her, more rhythmically, massaging her clit with her thumb. The sensation was almost too much for Nora; her knees began to grow weak and her breathing grew sharper and faster, and she was forced to brace herself against the terrace railing just to stay standing.

“You’re so fucking beautiful,” he said in between kisses, still moving his fingers in and out of her. “I need to taste you, right now.

With that, he scooped Nora up by her legs and sat her on the outcropping wall of the barrier. A sly smile on his face, he moved down, spreading her legs apart as he descended. Nora felt self-conscious at first, but her mood changed as soon as she felt the first exhalations of hot breath against her pussy, followed by the first darting explorations of his tongue.

He started slow, teasing her lips with short, quick licks, letting the pressure build in her. Then, he slipped his finger into her, moving in and out of her as he kissed and licked along her inner thighs. After a time, he moved his face closer to her pussy once more, and spread her lips apart with his fingers.

The first touches of Kieran’s tongue against her clit nearly sent Nora into uncontrollable shocks of pleasure. Just like before, he started with gentle teases of the tip of his tongue. But as Nora became more turned on, he began placing the flat surface of his tongue against her clit, moving it up and along her in slow drags, so slow that she could sense the exact texture of his tongue as he moved. He kept this up, unceasing drags of his tongue against her, his fingers still moving in and out of her at a firm, constant rhythm. Nora’s gentle gasps turned into moans as he did his work on her, and her back began to arch. His licks began to grow faster, and greedier, and Nora could feel herself become wetter and wetter with each second. And as he pleasured her, he wrapped one burly arm around her waist. With the other, he reached up, cupping her right breast, kneading it with gentle presses of his fingers and making slow circles around her nipple. The pleasure was overwhelming, and the only thought she could hold in her mind was the screaming, burning need to have Kieran inside her, right now. But he sensed this, and continued to tease her, lapping at her clit, gliding his fingers into her, only taking breaks to lay more kisses upon her inner thighs.

At last, she couldn’t take any more. But she wanted to give something to him, first. She slid her fingers through his now-tussled hair, and beckoned him up. He rose, and in the light of the moon, Nora could see that his lips were glistening with her. He gazed at her with his narrowed, sly eyes, wondering what she had in mind. Placing her hands on his hipbones, she gave him a gentle push back, just enough room for her to move toward him.

Kieran stepped back, and Nora knelt in front of him. He grinned, knowing what was coming, and she returned his grin with hungry eyes. Nora’s face was directly across from the last bit of clothing Kieran was wearing, his tight, form-fitting boxer briefs. Even in the low light of the terrace, she could see the outline of his cock straining against the fabric. Wrapping her fingers around his waistband, she pulled down his underwear, and his long, smooth cock sprang out in front of her, already completely erect. She looked at his cock with anticipation. Nora knew she wasn’t the most sexually-experienced girl, and what she was about to do was something she had only done a few times before. But something about Kieran, something about his devious, piercing eyes, his flawless pale skin, and his hard muscular body made the idea of taking him in her mouth unbelievably appealing.

She licked her lips one last time, and, to her surprise, felt Kieran’s firm hand grip the back of her head. He pulled, just enough to send that strange, but intoxicating, mixture of pleasure and pain through her body.

“Suck my cock,” he said, his voice firm.

Nora was ready before, but something about his deep, commanding tone made her even more aroused than she was already. Wrapping her fingers around the base of his shaft, Nora began with quick kisses up and down the length of his penis. Kieran let out low moans as soon as her lips touched him, and she responded by darting her tongue around his cock, taking extra time with the curves of the head. After a minute of this gentle licking and kissing, Kieran could take no more. He took and even firmer hold on her hair, and guided her mouth to the end of his length. Nora then opened her mouth and, with slow, careful movement, took nearly the entire length of his hard, firm cock in her greedy mouth.


Chapter 11

“God, that feels so fucking good,” Kieran said, his voice wavering with pleasure.

She moved without haste at first, savoring the taste of him in her mouth. His cock was easily the biggest she’d ever seen, and at first, she didn’t know if she’d be able to properly service it. But after a time, she developed a slow, deep rhythm, moving her right hand up his cock as she sucked, her left hand on his balls, giving them gentle squeezes. She began to move faster and faster, and before too long, she could taste the salty flavor of a dew droplet of cum that formed at the end of his cock.

After a time, he pulled her up with a firm tug on the back of her hair.

“No way am I going to let you finish me like that, not before I’ve put my cock in you.”

Nora felt herself grow even wetter at this; something about his domineering nature was turning her on in ways she’d never thought possible. Putting his hands back on her hips, he pushed her back onto the railing as he had done before, but this time, he stayed standing. He leaned forward and licked her nipples while rubbing her clit with his other hand. She needed his cock in her more than anything she had ever needed, but the pleasure rushing through her body made her nearly mute. Nothing but moans could seem to find their way out from her throat.

“I’m not going to fuck you until you beg me for it,” he said, gazing into her eyes with his, his fingers moving in and out of her.

Nora took in a sharp breath, preparing herself to speak. “ Please ,” she said, her voice a soft whimper.

“I didn’t quite hear that,” he said, his voice a rich purr, the warmth of his touch bringing her in waves closer to orgasm.

Please, I need it ,” she said, her voice still weak.

“One more time.”

“Fuck me, fuck me right now!” she yelled, her voice propelled outward on a surge of ecstasy.

With that, he reached down, grabbed his cock by the base, and rubbed the head against her lips, feeling the wet slickness. He felt the flesh of her thighs quiver with anticipation as he began to guide himself into her. Breaking herself out of the expression of wincing, agonized pleasure that her face was locked in, she quieted herself, and looked deep into Kieran’s eyes as she felt the head of his cock against her pussy. He returned the gaze, looking deep into her now-wide eyes, her nodding, her expression one of girlish pleading.

He wanted to keep his cock here, to tease her more, but he couldn’t wait any longer. His hand holding himself into place, he shoved the length of his stiff, hard prick into her with a full-hipped thrust. Nora let out a long moan as he slid into her. At first, she nearly went limp-limbed, but she quickly acclimated to the feeling of his immense girth in her, and responded to his penetration by wrapping her legs around his waist, and grabbing onto his wide, strong shoulders with a firm grip.

His first pumps were slow, letting Nora feel him move in and out of her a millimeter at a time, letting her feel every last bit of him, from his thick shaft to the curves of his head. But he read her face, the hungry look, the need for more of him, faster, and harder. And he gave her what she wanted. Clasping the plush curves of her hips, he held her in place. Then he began to thrust harder and faster.

Nora felt his cock move in and out of her, over and over, a steady rhythm that began to make her body feel like jelly. His first thrusts were only the first few inches of his cock, but as she grew even wetter, he began to pound her, harder and harder, a constant hammering pace. Nora felt her eyes roll into the back of her head as the tempo of his fucking made it impossible to concentrate on anything beyond the feeling of his cock pounding her, over and over, driving into her, deep and hard.

But she took ahold of herself as he continued to fuck her, and saw something different in Kieran’s face, something besides the look of intensity that gripped his beautiful features, and the glistening sheen of sweat that covered his brow like a wet patina. Fangs, white as milk and glistening in the shallow light of the moon.

Nora hadn’t noticed them before. They must’ve been hidden, or pulled up. But something about the way he was pounding her, letting pleasure take hold of him, must’ve made him lose the control required to keep his fangs out of sight.

But as soon as Nora noticed them, she was wracked with the all-obliterating force of the waves of orgasm building and building. Each thrust, each pounding sent her closer and closer to the brink of ecstasy, and the constant tempo of his movement in her was exactly what she needed. But something else gripped her, beyond the crashing waves of pleasure. His fangs.

“Bite me,” she said, her voice a shaking whisper.

“What?” Kieran asked, his voice gripped with an oncoming orgasm of his own.

“Bite me, now.”

His eyes narrowed, and he lifted his torso from her while still fucking her. Now his magnificent, sculpted body was in plain view, and the sight of it brought Nora even closer to the brink. But orgasm remained just out of reach, teasing her and tantalizing her with its nearness, like a specter that flitted into mist as she swiped her hand through it, only to reform before her like a smirking phantasm.

“Are you sure?” he said, his voice barely raising at the end of the sentence.

“Yes,” she said, her own voice breathy, but firm.

With that, he pulled his teeth back into an animalistic snarl, cocked his head back, and snapped his teeth onto her neck as though drawn by magnets.

The feeling at first was that of a slight pinch, not to dissimilar from a shot at the doctor’s. But after that passed, Nora felt the penetration of the pair of warm fangs as they pierced through her skin.

Nora cried out, the feeling of Kieran being inside of her again taking her right to the precipice of release. She could feel his teeth do their work in her neck, drawing out blood by the swallow, his lips a wet, warm seal on the delicate skin. Then, there was a muffled moan from Kieran. His thrusts grew harder, more deliberate. He was just about to come, and so was she.

His release seemed to have the force of a levee breaking. Nora could feel his hot, thick cum shoot inside of her, deep into her, and this feeling was the push she needed to fall into the rich oblivion of orgasm. Her body rocked with quakes of pleasure, and she felt like she was being undone at each joint, as though she were being pulled apart by the forces of ecstasy that tugged at her like winds. Kieran continued his slow, heavy pumping, each thrust releasing more cum into her, each thrust punctuated by an animalistic grunt. Nora’s vision blurred again as the tight pressure at her pussy exploded like a small star going nova, pummeling her body with crashing waves of orgasm. Kieran pulled his head from her as he finished, and she could feel the warm trickle of blood trail down her sticky skin. Her own orgasm began to ebb and fade, her body now melting like soft, pliable putty.

The pace of Kieran’s thrusting slowed, and Nora could feel his cock soften inside of her. His grasp on her hips changed from an urgent hold to a soft rubbing of her curves. Their breath slowed from urgent grunts and pants to slow, steady exhalations. Nora loosened her hold on Kieran’s shoulders and began to drag the backs of her nails against the skin of his hard, taut shoulders. With one final breath, Kieran collapsed forward, resting his head on Nora’s shoulder; she responded by working her fingers through the wet tussles of his hair.

“That was… incredible,” he said, still catching his breath.

Nora smiled and scratched his scalp. “I’ve never been fucked like that before,” she said, “not even including, well, the other thing.”

Kieran looked up at her and smiled “I hope that wasn’t too painful,” he said, scooping the trickle of blood from her neck with the side of his finger and bringing it to his tongue.

“No,” she said, “it was just painful enough. “

Kieran sighed with contentment and nuzzled his head into the side of Nora’s neck. Nora looked beyond him, past the skyline of the city, at the first shades of azure-washed orange as the sun began to rise over the horizon.

“I don’t know everything about vampires,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure that’s not good for you.”

She pointed, and Kieran looked.

“Yeah, that’s my cue,” he said, his voice husky from exertion.

And with that, he stood, scooped Nora up into his arms, and walked back into the apartment, a slight smile playing on his lips.


Chapter 12

After depositing Nora in the bed, Kieran went off to his own quarters to sleep. She awoke first, and saw that it was well into the afternoon. It wasn’t like her to sleep so late, and it dawned on her that her students needed to know that she wasn’t going to be coming for their lessons. Not tonight, maybe not ever again. As happy as the idea of being here with Kieran made her, she was developing a sick feeling in her stomach from not attending to her responsibilities. But she accepted her situation. She had no other choice.

She passed the time in Kieran’s apartment, not knowing exactly when he would awaken. Without her phone, Nora felt disconnected from the outside world. She didn’t have much in New York yet, but not being able to leave, having to stay here, made her feel trapped. And the whirlwind of events from the previous night was still not fully processed.

Within a few hours, I go from being food on the auction block to being in the arms of a beautiful dead man. What could possibly be next?

The question was answered when the clock hit five o’clock. A deep, bass whirling sound began from somewhere in the depths of the building and continued for several seconds. Nora looked around with fear, wondering what was happening. Then, heavy, black shades began to descend from the tops of the windows, moving at a slow pace until they reached the bottom of the glass walls that looked out onto Manhattan and set into the bottom with a thick click. Nora was in complete darkness for several moments, until the lights of the apartment flicked on all at once, along with a roaring fire in the fireplace and the soft, lively sounds of classical music from a speaker system built into the ceiling.

Nora looked around, wondering what was going to happen next. But with the lights now on, she noticed something on the long, storm-colored granite countertop: A package, wrapped in a golden bow. Nora approached it, and saw that there was a note on top.

A little something to cover up with. – K

The handwriting was ornate and meticulous. Nora yanked the bow open and lifted the top of the box. Inside was something made of soft black fabric. She lifted it out by the shoulder straps and held it in front of her. It was a beautiful, black dress; simple, but well-made. Nora took another look in the package and saw that there was something more: A few sets of bras and panties, all of them lacy and luxurious. Her head swimming with anticipation, Nora snatched the box off the counter and dashed to her room, her gift tucked under her arm.

After a quick rinse in the three-head shower, she dried off and tried on her new clothes in the walk-in closet dressing area, a three-paneled mirror lined with soft, orange bulbs. The dress fit her perfectly, the expert craftsmanship obvious; every curve was emphasized, and the dark fabric of the dress accentuated her creamy-white skin tone. Kieran knew how to buy a dress.

When she returned to the main room of the apartment, Kieran was sitting at one of the barstools at the kitchen island, a cocktail in hand. Upon seeing her, he stood and walked toward her with pleased, admiring eyes.

“My people did well,” he said, “though I could dress you up in anything and you’d still be beyond gorgeous.”

Nora blushed. “It’s not necessary,” she said, her voice demure.

“I’d say it is, if you’re going to be staying here. As much as I’d like to see you in nothing but what you wore last night, I think there’d be some, ah, logistical issues with that arrangement.”

A small pang of worry hit her stomach. “So, I take it this means you’re not going to kill me?”

Kieran smirked, and nodded. “But, what are you going to do when they find out?”

His expression turned pained and pensive. “That’s… going to be tricky. The penalty for not, well, disposing of the bid-upon item is, severe, to say the least. But I believe it can be circumvented.”

“How?”

“There’s something in the vampire world known as a Drudge. It’s essentially a vampire slave. We charm humans and make them perform various functions, like live-in help, crimes that need doing… sometimes for sexual needs.”

Nora gulped, wondering where this was going.

“Now, I won’t perform the necessary rituals that would put you in this complaint state, but I can, well, say that I have, should anyone notice your presence.”

“Wait,” said Nora, incredulous, “does that mean that I’ll have to stay here… forever?”

“Not forever. Just… for a time.”

Nora was uncertain and worried. Without thinking, she moved her hands along the sides of her dress.

“I should warn you,” he said, his eyes on her hands moving up and down her curves, “you’re making it very hard to concentrate.”

Nora gave a slight smile. “Okay,” she said, uncertainly clear in her voice. “For now.”

“I should make it clear that the penalty for being caught would be a swift death for me, and a different kind of death for you,” he said, his tone dire.

Nora nodded, now understanding the nature of the circumstances that they were both in.

“Now,” said Kieran, closing the last few feet of space that remained between them, “as much as I like to see you in that dress, seeing you out of it sounds even better.”

Nora blushed and smiled, as Kieran moved his hand under the filmy fabric of the dress, and up, along her thigh.


Chapter 13

Several days passed as planned, with Nora staying in the apartment, and Kieran telling anyone who asked that yes, he enjoyed his purchase from the auction, and no, he wouldn’t be requiring the complimentary disposal services of the Hell’s Kitchen society. For a while, it seemed that the ruse would be successful. That was, however, before Ian showed up unannounced.

“Aye! You’ve still got this one, huh?” he said, perplexed, when Nora came into the room.

“Yes, she’s still here. And not another word about it,” said Kieran, his voice grim.

Ian ran his hand back through his spiky hair. “Jeez, you know what a no-no this is, right?

Kieran breathed in, barely masking his impatience. “Yes, I’m aware of what a ‘no-no’ it is.”

“And what about you, lady; what do you have to say about this? You talk him out of it at the last minute?” Ian gave Kieran a friendly swipe across the shoulder. “I always knew this one had a soft spot.”

“We’re keeping this secret, for now,” said Nora, her eyes shooting over to Kieran, who made a look that Nora interpreted as “the less said, the better.”

“I’ll say yeh are!” Ian said, shaking his head once again.

After Ian left, Kieran was pensive and dour. Nora tried to ignore it at first, but Kieran was the type of man who, when upset, had a black, dark cloud around him.

“What’s wrong?” Nora asked, running her hand through his hair.

“This was a mistake,” he said, not turning to look at her.

“But, I’m happy here with you.”

“And I’m happy with you here. But this was a foolish thing to do. It’s only a matter of time before someone else shows up and sees you here, or until Ian has a few too many and runs his mouth to the wrong person.”

“Like the Italian?”

“Yes, like Marcus. If he were to find out…” Kieran’s voice trailed off.

“So, are you saying you wish you would’ve just eaten me that first night? Just sucked my blood for real right in the middle of sex?”

That prompted a reaction.

Kieran blasted out of his chair and turned to face Nora, standing inches from her face. “No. I will never regret what I did.”

And with that, he stalked off, to some faraway corner of his vast apartment.

Kieran returned a time later, a grim look on his face.

“Ian was right,” he said, staring deep into Nora’s eyes. “I was foolish to think I could keep you here.”

Conflicted feelings danced in Nora’s stomach. On the one hand, she was happy at the prospect of freedom. On the other, she’d grown close to Kieran over these last few days. Not to mention the incredible sex.

“So, what are you going to do?” she asked, her voice wavering.

“Take you back to your apartment. You’ll have to lay low for a while, but you should be fine. I’ve heard rumors of vampires who’re, morally-opposed, you could say, to our traditions, and have purchased humans simply to release them. And gotten away with it.”

“So, you’re just going to drop me off back home, and I’m supposed to forget this whole thing ever happened?”

“I can leave you with some money, to compensate you for your time and… the inconvenience.”

Nora felt herself grow angry at Kieran’s heartless resolution to this problem. “You don’t get it,” she said, her voice a yell, “there’s more going on here than that!”

Kieran raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Such as?”

The anger mixed with sadness in Nora began to boil over. But as she forced it downward, feeling it heat her limbs, something strange happened. The glow that she could detect, the one that she hadn’t seen from any of the vampires, began to emanate from Kieran. It was a strange color, a soupy blue lightened with traces of yellow. It struck Nora as sadness, but a sadness laced with confusion. Nora stepped back, shocked at the appearance of her powers.

“What is it?” Kieran asked, the colors ebbing and flowing around him like an aurora borealis.

Nora stumbled backward.

“Nothing, nothing. I’m just not happy one bit about this, is all.”

That seemed to satisfy Kieran. “In that case, grab your things. I’m taking you to your apartment.”

She complied, snatching the few articles of clothing that Kieran had bought for her from her room, tossing them into a cloth bag, and storming into the main room. Kieran said nothing, simply gesturing her for her come with him. They made their way down to the car and drove out and into the Manhattan evening. Fuming, she typed her address into his phone, and said not a word as they made the drive from Hell’s Kitchen to Harlem. Eventually, they reached her apartment, a worn brick building.

Kieran looked over the building, displeased. “I don’t know how I feel about you living in a place like this.”

“What do you care? You’re just going to drop me off here and forget about me.”

“Some money is going to appear in your bank account in the next few days. Use some of it to find a safer place to live.”

It was no consolation. Money wasn’t what she wanted. Nora felt overcome with emotion. She didn’t want to say another word, for fear that she’d break down into a weeping mess. So instead, she opened the door of the car and prepared to step out.

“Wait,” said Kieran.

Nora stopped where she stood, but refused to turn to face him. A tear tickled down her face.

“I’m sorry it had to be like this.”

And with that, Nora slammed the door of her car, made her way to her apartment, and as soon as she shut the door of her tiny studio behind her, collapsed into wracking sobs.


Chapter 14

Over the next few days, Nora did her best to keep a low-profile. She wore baggy clothes and hid her face behind sunglasses and under hats. And sure enough, just as Kieran promised, when Nora checked her bank account a few days after being dropped off, she saw that the total was bigger than it had been before. A few zeros bigger. But the money was no consolation. Aside from getting a new phone and buying some takeout so she didn’t have to leave the apartment, she felt no desire to do anything with it. Despite the circumstances in which Nora and Kieran met, she still felt something with him, a closeness that she had never felt before.

After a few days of hiding out, Nora finally felt ready to at least begin the process of putting her life back together. When her new phone arrived in the mail, she set it up and, not knowing who else to call, dialed Carly, one of her few acquaintances in the city.

“Nora,” Carly said, her voice equal parts surprised and excited, “to what do I owe this honor?”

“Hey, Carly,” said Nora, her voice uncertain, as though trying to remember how to communicate with people who weren’t emotionally-distant bloodsuckers. “How’re you?”

“Me? Who cares about me? It’s been months since we talked; how are you?”

“I’m fine, I just…” Nora’s voice trailed off.

A moment passed.

“You don’t sound fine,” said Carly.

“It’s just that there was this guy, and he… he…” Nora couldn’t hold it in. She let out a series of whimpers before a flood of body-rocking sobs overwhelmed her.

“Lady, lady,” said Carly, “get over here right this minute. I’ve got some wine. Let’s split it and then go get something to eat. My friend works at this adorable wine bar in the village. You can tell me everything.”

“Okay,” said Nora, “but only if you let me treat.”

Carly laughed. “I won’t try to talk you out of that. Just call an Uber and get your little ginger butt over here.”

Nora felt the first bits of a smile spread across her face. “Okay. Thanks, Carly.”

“Love you, lady.”

Nora put down the phone, and realized that she was beginning to feel a little better. She got up, undressed, and went to the dresser to pick out something to wear. She considered something Kieran had bought her, but decided it was too soon for that. Hearing nothing but the typical sounds of the city beyond her window, she flicked off her hearing aid.

But when she opened the drawer and looked into it, she noticed something strange. There was another one of those small wavering color shapes. But this one wasn’t around anyone standing near her. It was coming from her belly.

Nora stumbled backward, her eyes fixed on the glowing waves emanating from her stomach.

That can’t possibly mean…

But now that she was looking at it, she sensed it. Just like she was able to sense the thoughts and emotions of people around her, she could now sense that there was a presence within her.

A baby. Kieran’s baby.

Her head began to swim.

But he’s a vampire! How could a vampire, a dead person, get a living woman pregnant?

She turned her hearing aid back up, bringing the sounds of traffic back to her ears and dissipating the whirling mass of colors from her stomach. Nora know this would need to be addressed, and soon, but for now she was just going to try and enjoy a night with her friend. She called an Uber, and waited. When it arrived, she clambered in and spent the drive staring out at the passing city lights, reminded of her drive that first night to Kieran’s place. She found herself thinking about him. His gorgeous face, his touch that was somehow warm and cool at the same time, his rich, musky smell…

A hard press on the brakes by the driver snapped her out of her reverie. “Here,” the driver said in a gruff voice.

Nora climbed out of the car and walked up to Carly’s building. Unlike her own simple walkup, it was a modern condo complex, with a sleek, modern lobby that more resembled a luxury hotel more than an apartment building. She approached the doorman, and he directed her toward the nearby elevators. A brief ride up later, she was on the tenth floor.

She only had to knock once before the door flew open, revealing Carly’s beaming face.

“Hey, girl!” she said, before screaming and throwing her arms around Nora.

Leading Nora inside, Carly gave her a look over. “You okay, lady? You look like you saw a ghost or something.”

You’re in the ballpark .

Pretty, blonde, and with a constant sunny disposition, Carly was everything that Nora felt she lacked. They’d met through a mutual friend from Omaha, who figured that since they were both moving to the city at the same time, they ought to get to know each other. They got along, but Nora couldn’t help but be a little envious of how, between her glitzy publishing gig, her great apartment, and constant cycle of handsome men, Carly managed to easily find all the things that seemed to remain out of Nora’s reach.

And I bet she hasn’t ever gotten abducted by a secret society of vampires .

Carly poured them a couple glasses of wine and, though Nora’s problems were the reason they were meeting, Carly seemed more interested in talking about the Financial District guys who’d been chasing her the last month or so. But Nora was fine with this; she barely wanted to talk about Kieran, let alone the fact that she was now carrying his child.

“You okay? You’ve barely touched your pinot,” said Carly, pointing to Nora’s glass with a manicured finger.

“I’m getting there,” Nora responded with a smirk. She knew that a girl not touching her wine was nearly the same thing as wearing a big sign that said I’M PREGNANT , and looked around for the sink where she could dump it out when Carly used the bathroom.

Carly went on about more about her boy troubles, and Nora, wanting to see just how dependable her powers were, tried something. As Carly talked, she reached up to her ear as though adjusting her hair, and dialed down her hearing aid. Sure enough, as soon as the sound of Carly’s chattering voice decreased, a swirling mass of color appeared around her; this time hot pink, which Nora decided was fitting. It was a good color for a girl talking about her boy-chasing. Her curiosity satiated, Nora turned her hearing aid back on.

“I’m going to hit the girl’s room; then let’s go get some tapas,” Carly said, drawing out the second ‘a’ in ‘tapas.’

“You do that, and I’m gonna kill this glass,” said Nora.

As soon as Nora heard the bathroom door shut, she went to the sink, glass in hand, and dumped the rose-colored liquid down the drain. And as she watched it swirl and disappear, she felt the day’s revelation weigh on her. She really did want to tell Carly about it, but where to begin? “Well, first it starts with a kidnapping, then an auction…” She decided to keep it a secret for now, at least until she could talk to Kieran again.

Carly returned after another minute, and one more Uber ride later, they were at a cute little tapas and wine bar in the village.

Settling into her seat, Nora’s appetite took complete hold of her as she looked over the menu.

“For you, miss?” asked the waiter, an olive-skinned man with black hair, a black moustache, and model-good looks.

“Hmm,” said Nora, looking things over, “I’ll have the bruschetta. And the croquetas. And the calamari. And you know what? I’ll have the cheese and olive plate, too.”

“Very good,” said the waiter with an impressed tone to his voice. “And for you?” He turned to Carly.

“Hey, sorry,” said Nora, getting his attention, “I’ll take the chorizo al vino, too.”

“Um, just a glass of rose and a couple of cheese empanadas,” said Carly, looking at Nora with a raised eyebrow.

The waiter nodded and headed off.

“Eating for two?” asked Carly.

“Huh? No. What are you talking about? I just haven’t eaten anything all day.”

“Sure,” said Carly. “Girls gotta eat.”

And with that, she went back into the laundry list of wealthy men. After a time, the waiter brought the food, and Nora tore into it with wild abandon. She hadn’t eaten all day, that was true, but there was a hunger deep within her, a ravenous hunger, that wasn’t going anywhere, no matter how much food she put away. After about ten minutes, Nora had polished off the entire plate of calamari, the bruschetta, and most of the cheese and olives.

“You’re not fucking around, lady,” said Carly, cutting into one of her empanadas.

Nora sat back, letting the food settle. But as full as she felt, she could’ve eaten even more. She was considering ordering a little more food when the waiter slid up to the table and placed two large glasses of blood-red wine on the table.

“Compliments of the gentleman at the bar,” said the waiter before departing.

Who would be buying them wine? Nora turned around to look, and saw only one man sitting at the bar. He wasn’t facing them, but Nora could see from behind that his hair was slicked-back, jet-black, and curly, his clothes were finely-tailored and made of fabrics of deep, flashy colors, and the polish of his shoes could be seen from across the restaurant.

Then he turned in a slow, deliberate movement, and Nora saw who it was: Marcus Ricci.

When he turned, he made deep eye-contact with Nora, it mouth still curled in that same sneer, his eyes narrowed, as if to say, “I caught you.”

He rose and sauntered over to the table. “My apologies to the two of you for intruding on your evening, but I couldn’t let two beautiful women sit in the same room as me without sending a little something to thank them for giving me the privilege of looking upon their beauty.”

“Oh, wow,” said Carly, flustered, “thank you.”

Nora said nothing.

“I won’t keep the two of you,” he said, “but do enjoy the wine. It’s one of my favorite selections.”

And with that, he turned, threw some cash on the bar, and left.

“I don’t normally go for the Euro-types, but, man, he was hot ,” said Carly, fanning herself with her hand.

“I don’t want to be weird, but we need to go, now,” said Nora, now gripped with fear.

“Lady, what’s gotten into you? We have two giant glasses of wine to finish!”

“Please, can we go now?”

Carly’s face flashed with a look of concern. “Sure, let’s pay and go back to my place.”

They settled with the waiter and walked out into the brisk evening air. Nora walked with quick steps, eager to make the walk back to Carly’s place.

“Hey, wait up,” said Carly, calling out, “what’s the rush?”

“It was that guy,” Nora said, the words blurting out of her.

“The Italian guy? What are you talking about?”

Nora kept pace, and whipped around another corner. But when she turned, she was face-to-face with Marcus Ricci.

“Yes,” he said, eyes narrowed like a predator’s, “what about that Italian guy?”

Then he waved his hand in front of Nora and Carly’s faces, and a great, dark black flooded her vision before she slipped into unconsciousness.


Chapter 15

Nora awoke in chains again. Yanking against her restraints, the heavy chains clanked and rattled, and she realized after moments that any struggling would be in vain. Looking around, she saw that she was in a windowless room with walls of dark cherry wood. At intervals of every few feet, there was another set of chains bolted into the wood. Classical music drifted into the room through invisible speakers.

Chained-up in another goddamn fancy room .

More time passed, and the moments before she was knocked-out began to come back to her.

This must be Marcus’s place , but where is he?

Then a voice cut in through the classical music. “Is my little guest awake?”

Nora looked around, but couldn’t find the source of the voice. “What do you want?” she asked, her voice braced with anger.

“What do I want? Well, you were there during the bidding; I think you can guess very easily what it is that I want.”

Nora grew cold at this statement.

“I knew there was something… fishy going on with you and Kieran. But I didn’t think he would be so stupid as to violate one of our most sacred laws over some piece of expensive human meat.”

“Let me go, now,” she said, demanding.

“And why would I want to do that?” he said. “Kieran forfeited his right to you when he sent you packing, and now I get what I was ready to bid so much money on, but for free! What’s not to like?”

Nora then heard a click from one of the panels, and saw a section of the wall move from its place and slide to the left. Marcus Ricci stepped into the room, wearing a green and black silk robe with gold trim, his face painted with a devilish sneer.

“Ah, it never grows old seeing you in person,” he said, moving toward her with slow, slinky steps.

When he reached Nora, he caressed her jaw with a slow drag of his fingers. Nora shivered at his touch, which felt like soft ice against her skin.

“No one knows you’re here, if you’re wondering. So, don’t bother anticipating a rescue, or any nonsense like that.”

“You better not even think of touching me again,” Nora said.

Marcus shook his head and made a ‘tsk tsk’ sound.

“Something about being tied up makes people make all sorts of pointless, empty threats. What, exactly, are you going to do to prevent me from doing whatever I want?”

His eyes then narrowed even further as he moved his gaze down to her exposed neck. “I assume that you know all about what our little auction is about? Feeding. Nothing more. I don’t know what sort of romantic notions our friend Kieran put in your head, but your kind is nothing but food to us. Right now, I’m looking at you the same way you might look at a nice juicy steak.”

He then placed his hand on the side of Nora’s hip, giving her a firm squeeze. “Well, maybe not exactly like that.”

He stepped away from her a bit, and looked Nora over, his eyes still hungry. “But I have talked enough. Let me give you a little taste of what I am talking about.”

With that, he flew toward Nora with the same inhuman speed that she had seen from Kieran. Marcus latched on to her neck, bit down into her flesh, and for several seconds, drew blood from her with greedy, full gulps.

When he was done, he pulled away, taking full breaths through a mouth dripping with blood, his skin an almost glowing color of white.

“Oh my,” he said, a giddy expression playing on his face, “I’m starting to get a bit of a sense of what the fuss is about.”

He stepped back, and looked Nora up and down. “It is going to be very hard not to drain you dry in one, long feed. And that might make things easier for you, to end it all just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But I am a man of restraint, if nothing else. Well, class, style, sophistication, yes, yes, those things. But restraint, too. And I can make a delicacy like you go a long, long way. But for now, sleep.”

And with that, he waved his hand in front of her face, and she was plunged into that same deep abyss of sleep.


Chapter 16

She came to in the same chains that she had been bound in.

I have to find some way to get out of here, but how?

It seemed hopeless. Marcus had seemingly designed this room for storage, keeping it clear of any tools, or anything else that anyone could use to make an escape.

Kieran , she thought, concentrating, as though he could hear her , I’d do anything for you to be here now. Please, know that I’m here, know that I need your help. Don’t let me and your child die in this place.

She began to whimper, knowing that her efforts were useless. She was stuck, chained up, to be fed on by Marcus until he bored of her taste and decided to drain her down to the last drop. Then she would be disposed of, like she was supposed to be when Kieran first bid on her.

“Ah, she’s up!” came Marcus’s voice from the speakers.

Nora’s felt sick as she began to think about the cycle of sleep and feeding that she was going to be spending the remainder of her life in.

The door clicked, slid out of place, and Marcus entered, now dressed in a glossy black tuxedo accented with a red and yellow cravat tied in a lackadaisical fashion around his long, slim neck.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take for me to get sick of coming in here and seeing you.”

The helplessness had already begun to set in, and Nora found herself wondering when Marcus was just going to end it. But it was sounding like that wasn’t going to happen for a long while.

“Just do it, you sick fucker,” said Nora, her voice worn and tinged with helplessness.

Marcus approached her with those same slinky steps, clucking his tongue as he walked, his black-and-white dress shoes clicking against the shiny, wooden floor.

“My darling bella ,” he said, looking her up and down, his lasciviousness toward Nora having not diminished a trace, “I think the sooner you drop this little princess attitude, the better. No one knows you’re here, except for me... but not for long.”

His golden eyes flashed with mischief. “That is, until I let everyone know what your adoring Irishman did… or didn’t do.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Nora, through her teeth.

“I would and I will. But before that, you’ll be getting a grand sendoff. Which is tonight, lucky for you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Marcus stepped back, smiled, and spin in a circle on his heels. “You like it? I don’t get to dress up as often as I like, so when I do, I like to go, as they say, ‘all out.’”

He walked back up to Nora, looking at her neck with pinprick eyes. Nora winced in anticipation of a bite.

“Ah, but not now. Later, though… absolutely.”

He then stopped in place, as if remembering something. “How could I forget the whole reason I came down here so early!”

With that, he darted from the room, returning a few minutes later with a beautiful red dress, holding it with delicate fingertips.

“You like? It’s Chanel. I took the liberty of taking your measurements while you were out; it should be a perfect fit,” he said, hanging the dress on one of the wall’s chain hooks.

“Now, I am going to unhook you. Do not try any funny business; I’m ten times as strong as you, and I’ve had this room looked over to make sure there’s nothing anyone could use to get the drop on me. And believe me, you’re not the first little snack that I’ve kept in here.”

Reaching behind Nora, he undid he chains. When he took off the last one, Nora collapsed onto the floor in a heap.

“So, take the dress and go to the bathroom down the hall and make yourself presentable,” Marcus said, starting for the door. “Be ready in no more than an hour. You’re the guest of honor tonight,” he said, slipping out of the door and leaving it open.

Nora heard another, heavier, door opening in the hallway, then closing with a heavy clank followed by the sound of a latch fastening into place.

Pressing her palms against the cool floor, Nora raised herself to her feet. As soon as she stood, she reached to her ear with a frantic hand and dialed down her hearing aid. Looking at her belly, that same colorful emanation was visible. She sighed with relief, knowing that her baby still lived, despite her trauma.

She cast an eye at the dress on the wall. It was beautiful, but Nora was hardly in the mood to play dress-up. Looking around the room, she saw that Marcus was right about there being nothing here to help her escape; it was bare walls aside from the chains. Even the lights were recessed into the ceiling.

With nothing else to do, she took the dress from the hook, draping the soft, fine fabric over her arm and leaving the room that she had been trapped in for however long.

The room led to a small hallway, with a heavy metal door on one end, and another room down the other end, the door opened a crack, spilling white lighting into the otherwise dark space. Nora approached the room and pushed open the door, revealing a simple, unadorned bathroom lit with hollow, thin light.

She hung the dress up on a small rack in the corner, and when she approached the sink, saw that there was a small note folded in half and propped up.

Makeup is in the drawer, and some perfume, and some unmentionables. Pretty yourself up like you mean it, because you won’t like what happens if you don’t!

The note was signed with an ‘M’ written in ostentatious and ornate style.

Nora stripped down and jumped into the shower, letting the hot water wash away some of the disgust from the events that she had been subjected to. After some time had passed, she turned off the water, got out and dried off. Pulling open the drawer, she saw that inside was a simple selection of makeup, a small bottle of perfume, and a lacy underwear set.

Not exactly in the mood, but not like I have any other options .

After putting on the underwear, she removed the dress from its place and dropped it over her body, the delicate fabric feeling heavenly and plush against her clean skin. Turning around to zip up the back, she couldn’t help but admire how it looked.

He’s a pretty tacky fucker, but I gotta give it to him on this one. He must’ve had someone else pick it out.

She spent a little time putting on the makeup, but found that no matter how subtle she tried to be with it, the deep red of the lipstick and deep blue of the eye shadow couldn’t help but make her look more like a prostitute than she wanted. Putting up her hair in a simple braid, she noticed a pair of coal-black stiletto pumps sitting near the door.

These were definitely a Marcus pick . She shook her head.

Otherwise all dressed, she stepped into the shoes, then out into the hallway. Through the floor, she could hear the creaking of many feet walking above her, as well as the gentle strains of a classical music quartet. Some kind of gathering was going on upstairs, and Nora figured that it’s where she was expected.

She approached the massive, metal door and raised her hand, preparing to knock, when a beep emitted and the door opened with a thunk. She stepped forward, unsure of what to expect beyond.

Chapter 17

A stairway was revealed, going straight up and leading to a visible square of the floor above, filled with warm light and groups of men in elegant suits holding drinks and chatting. But once they noticed Nora, their attention was shifted, and they began gesturing toward her as she approached and talking in lively tones.

She walked up the steps, a crowd of men now gathered around the entry. Then Marcus slid into view, and began beckoning her with lively scoops of his hands. “Come, child; we’re all waiting for you!” he said, his face bright with anticipation.

Nora made the last few steps with trepidation, her heels clicking against the wood. When she finally stepped into the expanse of the apartment, her eyes squinted in the bright light, and she felt overwhelmed by the dozens of men around her. Marcus extended his hand, and, out of polite instinct, Nora took it. Marcus responded by wrapping his cool, spindly fingers around the meat of her hand, and a wave of something like nausea rushed through her.

Nora came to her senses, and when she did, the first thing she noticed was how garish and over-the-top the styling of the apartment was, not to mention personal styles of the men gathered within. The room, like Kieran’s, was a wide-open space, but where Kieran’s place was a monument to minimalist class, Marcus’s apartment was more like Versailles if it were designed by interior decorators on Adderall. Gold abounded, along with mirrored walls and ornate molding and columns. Art of nude men and women was placed here and there, and portraits of foppish men in flamboyant clothing hung on the walls. The men, all with a cocktail glass or champagne flute in hand, were all in flashy, expensive-looking clothing, like Marcus, and their hair and beards were almost uniformly slicked and oiled. They looked at Nora with hungry eyes as she ascended the stairs.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, may I have your attention?” called out Marcus, flapping a hand at the string quartet, which resulted in their silence. “Our guest of the evening has arrived, and, ah, just look at her.”

Marcus extended a hand toward Nora, and the crowd erupted with ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs.’ Nora crossed her arms across her chest and lowered her head; she didn’t want a single bit of the attention that she was receiving.

“Oh, it appears our Irish lily is of the wilting sort,” he said, making an exaggerated frown. “That simply won’t do at all.”

He then snapped, and two men like those Nora saw at the auction house appeared from the crowd. They moved to her sides, and each of them grabbed an upper-arm with a firm, tight grasp.

“Into the honored guest’s chair with her,” Marcus said with another flick of his wrist.

A section of the crowd spread apart, revealing a massive, ornate throne set in front of a towering, roaring fireplace. The men dragged Nora toward it, shoving her down onto the plush seat. They each then removed scarves of red silk from their pockets and tied Nora’s arms and legs into the chair. Marcus then stepped forward, a scarf of gold and red in his hand and prepared to tie it around Nora’s mouth. But at the last moment, he hesitated.

“You know what? I am thinking your screams will provide a nice little counter-melody to our little quartet,” he said, stuffing the scarf back into his pocket.

He then turned to the crowd. “Gentlemen! Our buffet is nearly ready. But, I am trying to remember who had the special privilege of first feeding.” Marcus’s eyes searched the crowd.

“It was I, young man,” called out a deep, firm voice.

“Ah, Signore Moretti,” said Marcus to the white-haired, suited man who appeared, in human years, to be around sixty-five. “What an honor to have you and the rest of the elders here with us tonight.”

He swept his hand in toward Nora. “Then let the feast begin!” Marcus said, gesturing toward the quartet, who leaped into frenzied song.

Moretti moved toward Nora, who was now gripped with fear. His eyes burned with animal intensity, and his mouth, now wide open, two fangs springing from the top row of teeth, his fingers waggling at the ends of his outstretched arms. Nora winced her eyes shut as he grew closer, as she began to feel his hot breath against her neck. She prepared for the bite that was to come.

Then a loud crash sounded through the apartment.

Nora looked up, and saw that one of the massive, glass windows of the apartment had been shattered, and in the open space was Kieran, hovering in midair, the evening wind blowing his hair around his face, and the sliver of moon like a blade in the night sky behind him. Even from where Nora sat, she could see the expression of fury on his face, as though he were wreathed in fire.

The crowd burst into gasps and the quartet ceased their playing.

“Let her go. Now,” Kieran called out, his voice booming through the expanse of the apartment.

“Kieran!” said Marcus, walking toward him. “Welcome to my little partito ! I must say, I was not expecting you, nor was I expecting anyone to arrive using a manner of entry other than the door, but I suppose you are welcome nonetheless.”

Kieran swooped down and landed, the crowd spreading outward and away from him as he descended.

“Marcus! Who the hell is this man?” called out Mr. Moretti.

“No one,” he said, not appearing to be flustered, “just some Hell’s Kitchen trash.”

“Kieran,” Marcus said, yelling up to him, “come down from there and let’s have a little chat, no?”

Nora watched Kieran as he continued scanning the crowd. But before he could respond to Marcus’s request, Mr. Moretti spun back around to Nora, his face twisted with animal hunger. His mouth wide-open and fangs glistening like ivory-white blade points, he threw back his head to feast on Nora.

At least, he tried.

All Nora saw was a blur from where Kieran flew, appearing next to Mr. Moretti with incredible speed, grabbing his arm by the wrist and yanking the hand off with a twist followed by a sickening rip. Mr. Moretti’s face was still painted with hunger when he realized what had happened, but once he noticed that his hand was missing, his hunger was replaced by horror. He looked at the space where his hand once was, a look of shock on his face for a beat, then let out a low scream while clenching his wrist with the hand that remained.

Marcus dashed in and looked over the scene with wide eyes. “Kieran! What the hell have you done? Do you know who this man is?”

Kieran ignored both Marcus and the man he had just maimed, and moved in closer to Nora.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his tone deep and concerned.

“How… how did you know I was here?” she asked as he ripped apart the scarves that restrained her to the chair.

“I… don’t know. I heard you call out to me, in my mind. And I just knew, somehow, that I’d find you here,” he said, helping Nora to her feet.

“Kieran! You insane man!” shouted Marcus as two of the guards took Mr. Moretti from the room. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done here tonight!”

“Step aside, let us leave, and no one else has to get hurt,” said Kieran, with Nora leaning on him for support.

Marcus responded with a hysterical, wild-eyed cackle, the men of the party standing behind him, shocked, waiting for whatever was to happen next.

“You think you can just break into my home, steal my property, assault one of our society’s elders, and then just leave ? No, my friend, you are not going to be doing anything like leaving tonight.”

With that, he flicked his hand toward Kieran, and two of the suited men rushed toward them.

Kieran pushed Nora behind him, back into the chair, and readied himself for the guards. One attempted to grab his arms, while the other pulled a slim, silver stiletto-shaped blade from the inside of his coat pocket.

What is that? Nora’s thoughts were rushed and frantic as she watched the man lunge toward Kieran’s chest with the blade.

Kieran shook off the first guard and stepped to the side in a deft motion. The guard with the blade continued his thrust, but instead of stabbing Kieran, the blade penetrated the chest of the other guard. The guard only reacted for a moment, looking at the protruding blade with an expression of surprise before his entire body exploded into coal-black ash.

The other guard looked at his partner’s remains, then back at Kieran, then at Marcus. A sharp gasp arose from the crowd. The guard was still for a moment before rushing out of the room.

“You motherfucker!” shouted Marcus, darting for the blade that glimmered amidst the pile of ashes.

He snatched it up and pointed it toward Kieran, his stance awkward and his arm crooked at the wrist, as though the blade and his arm were a strange approximation of a scorpion’s tale.

“This is madness, Kieran! You think this bitch is worth killing your own kind?” he scoffed and tossed his hair from his face. “I always knew you had a soft spot for the cattle. But you should know that such sentimentality is a liability in our world. And now you will learn.”

With that, he lunged toward Kieran, who sided-stepped out of the way. Marcus stumbled for a moment before recomposing himself. He looked at Kieran, who stood like an immovable pillar across from him, and realized that he was outmatched. After shooting a brief, side-eyed look took toward Nora, he extended his hand, grabbed her by the hair, and pulled her into close to him. Wrapping his arm around her chest, he pressed the blade against the curve of her jugular.

“Okay, enough of this!” he shouted, moving backward through the crowd, toward the broken window of the balcony, still howling with wind. “I take the girl, we leave, and we figure this all out later. There is nothing here that can’t be looked past.”

Anger surged through Kieran. As Marcus stepped back, he closed the distance with each step.

“No. You let her go, we both leave, and I give you a quick death for what you’ve done to her,” said Kieran, his voice a growl.

“Ha! I am afraid that is not going to work,” Marcus said, stepping with Nora through the broken glass and onto the balcony, their feet crunching over the shattered window. “I will leave you to the crowd!” he said, yelling over the wind.

Kieran. Look at me if you can hear me. Nora focused her words in her mind.

Kieran heard Nora’s voice in his mind with perfect clarity, and looked toward Nora with surprise.

When I give the signal, kill him.

Kieran’s face steeled. He was perplexed by this, by hearing Nora’s voice in her head as he had before, but braced for the next move.

It came seconds later.

Nora clasped her hands together, extended them away from her body, and drove her elbows into Marcus’s stomach. He half-collapsed from the impact, the air rushing from his lungs with a deep “oof.” Nora took advantage of the distraction to break free from Marcus and run toward Kieran, who then dashed toward Marcus, struck him in the throat with a quick jab, and wrested the blade from his hand. Closing his fingers around it, he pressed the pointed end against the ivory flesh of Marcus’s throat.

Then, with a sharp, firm stab, he shoved the blade up, through Marcus’ skull.

Marcus had a split second to see what had happened, then looked at Kieran, a murderous fire burning in his eyes.

“You… you fucker!” he said, before exploding into ash.

Kieran stepped away from where the form of Marcus’ stood, and Nora ran to him. He wrapped her in his right arm as they watched the ash that was once Marcus swirl and dissipate into the cool, evening wind.

Kieran and Nora turned, and faced the crowd of men, all shocked into silence by what they had just witnessed.

“I think this is our cue to leave,” said Kieran, wrapping his arm even tighter around Nora’s waist.

“I’m ready when you are,” she said, grabbing onto this arms.

And with that, he lifted off, carrying Nora up and off, swooping through the air like a bird of prey.


Chapter 18

Kieran’s lips were wet and warm on her neck as he kissed her. His hands moved down, from her breasts to the soft curves of her hips, and she shuddered with pleasure as he moved inside of her. Nora let her body fall deep into the soft blankets that she lay upon, and moved her fingertips along the sweat-sheened skin of Kieran’s back.

“I’m so happy to see you again,” Nora said in between pleasured gasps.

“We don’t have to be apart ever again,” he said, thrusting his hips to a slow, deep rhythm.

Nora closed her eyes, feeling Kieran’s cock slide up and into her. She felt more sensitive to her touch than ever, and each press of his hard stomach against hers was like heaven.

The bedroom window was open, and as the soft wind blew the curtains would dance, letting in moonlight that glowed in slivers across their bodies. They moved together in unison, their palms seeking different parts of their bodies. Nora felt Kieran move in her at a faster pace and slid her hands down the small of his back until they came to a rest on his ass. Grabbing the bottoms of his cheeks she squeezed, the feel of his skin heating her with arousal. He responded in kind, moving his hands out from under her back and resting them on the bones of her hips, holding them in a firm grasp as he thrust harder and harder.

Nora felt the flower of orgasm make its first blossoming, and she closed her eyes and let her head sink farther into the pillow, happy to let Kieran do his work. She squeezed his ass again, his flesh warm and soft under the press of her fingertips. At this last squeeze, Kieran lifted up from her and flashed her a small smirk.

“Someone’s feeling extra spunky today,” he said before moving is head down and licking her nipples.

“Yeah,” she said, in between sharp intakes of breath, “I think I’m getting back into it.”

Kieran answered this by increasing the tempo of his thrusting. Instead of moving in and out of her inches at a time, he was now moving the full length of his cock in her, finishing each thrust with a firm slap of his hips against hers. Nora closed her eyes shut even tighter, letting herself get lost in the tempo of his pounding.

“Don’t stop, don’t stop,” she repeated over and over, feeling orgasm draw closer with each collision of his hips against hers, each full sheathing of his cock into her.

“You like when I fuck you like that?” he said, grunting with each thrust.

“Yeah, keep fucking me, just like that, like that,” she said, her voice trailing off.

Kieran took a firmer grip on her hips and thrust harder and harder, building up to a steady, firm pound. Nora’s face tightened more and more, her hand held in front of it, and pulled her legs open further, wrapping them tight around Kieran’s hips. His pounding was relentless, and Nora felt herself move closer and closer to orgasm the longer it went on. Kieran lifted himself above her, resting on his now-straightened arms, his muscles hard and tight with the stress of holding up his weight. In this position, he found a steadier rhythm and continued his pounding. Nora’s eyes were fully shut, only opening a bit in order to take in the sight of Kieran’s flawless, hard body doing its work on top of her. Her upper body felt cool from the soft night air, while her hips felt warm from Kieran’s skin against hers.

“Oh god,” she said, her voice breaking, “I’m almost there.”

He didn’t stop, he kept his pace, feeling himself move to the brink of his own orgasm. His cock began to feel consumed with pleasure inside of her, and he soon reached the point where he couldn’t stop himself from coming.

“Oh, baby, I’m gonna come in you,” he said, his voice gripped with pleasure.

“Do it,” she said, almost at her own orgasm.

Then, with a heavy grunt, Kieran let himself loose inside of her. His thrusting slowed down, and Nora felt his cock pump into her. Her own orgasm came soon after, and exploded through her, starting at her lower body and moving outward until the tips of her lips were boiling with ecstasy. Kieran’s pace slowed as he finished coming into her, and with one final thrust, he was done, having spent himself in her. He bent his arms and let himself drop onto Nora. She took his head into her arms and brought it next to her neck.

They lay like this for several minutes, their breath slowing from a frenzied pace to a slow and measured intake. Nora listened to the gentle sounds of the city wafting up along the length of their building and in through the window.

Nora finally broke the silence. “So, what now?”

“You live here now.”

Nora laughed. “I figured. But, I mean, what about your people? Won’t there be consequences to what you did. What you did for me?”

“Yes, there will be a price to pay. What that will be, who’s to say. Tensions between the Irish and the Italians have been brewing for a while, and this just might be the thing that sets them off.”

Nora looked at him with worried eyes. “And you’re okay with that?”

“Of course not. But maybe it will be for the best. Sometimes a conflict needs to be out in the open, so it can be dealt with. Besides, if it weren’t because of me, it would’ve been because of someone else. And maybe someone less deserving to die than Marcus would’ve paid the price.”

A moment passed.

“But it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep you safe; I promise you that.”

“You’ll keep both of us safe,” she said, her hand moving to her belly.

“Both of you?” he said.

There were no more words after that. The two lovers remained in each other’s arms through the night, their eyes holding softly on the curved shape of the moon as it hung over the amber lights and hard angles of the city beyond their window.

PROLOGUE:

“Ready for this?”

Antonio, the large wolf with black fur and green eyes, turned at the words.

Magda, shifted from her bear form to human, stood close by the edge of the pen where she was kept. “I guess it’s a moot question, really, but I thought I’d ask.”

Antonio shifted quickly, skin and bone forming and growing then transforming until he stood on two legs, his skin bare of the fur. The wind blew across his skin and goose pimples rose. “I’d say yes, but that would be a lie.”

Magda grinned. The dim light flashed off her large white teeth. “Are you ready enough?”

Antonio moved closer, but still stayed below the shelter, out of sight of the zookeepers, if any should happen along. “As ready as we can be.”

Magda nodded. Her long brown hair waved around her cunning face. “It won’t be easy.”

Antonio said, “Never expected it to be. How we’ve stood it this long is anyone’s guess.”

It was anyone’s guess. The zoo had captured them all at some point, bringing them into the zoo under the assumption that they were the animals whose forms they could shift into. High doses of tranquilizers kept them complacent, and the food they ate was always laced with those drugs.

Shifting was dangerous—for a lot of reasons. For one, all of them were in cages with actual non-shifting animals. Those animals harried them daily and forced the shifters to the edges of the pens. The keepers assumed that they were just not assimilating, and they weren’t, because they couldn’t.

Antonio had thought he was the only shifter caught in that hell until he had seen Magda one night. She had been enraged enough, and awake enough, to shift right there in her pen. She’d almost been killed because the bears had gone on the attack. She’d had to shift back and fight to stay alive. The keepers had come in with their sedation tools and their sprays, and Magda had ended up in a pen just for herself because she was deemed untrustworthy.

She was also marked as a zoo failure, and while the zoo, on the surface of things, did not kill its animals unless it was necessary, she had pretty well punched her own ticket that night.

It was just a matter of time before they took her down. That went for both the keepers and the actual bears pacing in their pens, which were connected to hers even if they were separated by a slim band of trees and glass.

Antonio said, “You shouldn’t be shifting yet. What if you are spotted? The whole thing could go up in flames. The cameras might spot you and then what? There’s no way to explain a naked woman in a pen where a bear was a moment before. You’re being foolish.”

Magda snorted. “I have to. I can’t stand not to.”

“I know.” He put his weight on the other foot, his eyes searching the pens.

“The keepers should stay where they are for a few more minutes,” Magda replied. “Now’s our best chance.”

“Yeah.” Antonio lifted a hand, raking his fingers through his thick hair as his nostrils spread and his head lifted. He sniffed the air, but the scent of humans lay too thick everywhere to know if any were nearby. “Just keep one eye out for anyone, will you?”

“I will.”

“Get going then.”

“I didn’t need your permission.”

The words made Antonio grit his teeth. “No, you don’t.”

Magda paused. “I’m not staying here anymore. If I have to die here tonight, I will. I would rather be dead than be here and alive.”

Antonio’s heart sped up. He scanned the surroundings again, seeing nothing but shadows sifting and crawling out there along the concrete pathways. “I’m with you, no matter how this pans out.”

Am I willing to die here tonight? Yes, he was. He understood that even as his mind scrawled past all the risks she was taking and resentment at her willingness to take those risks simmered up in his being.

Because Magda was in a position to pass things on, she had told him about the others. At night, when they were herded from their outside enclosures and into their pens, he had spotted a few other shifters, or thought he had. Magda had confirmed that there were others here, just as eager to escape as she and Antonio were.

Revealing themselves as shifters would be disastrous. They all knew that from experience. No way did any of them want to become the pet project at some lab, stuck full of needles and having their brains scanned while being forced to shift constantly for ‘research.’

By the law of nature, they were all enemies. Wolves, bears, and tigers were not meant to be friends. In the wild, they would have fought and killed each other. Here, they had to work together or die.

This was their only shot, and they all knew it.

The zoo had to cut power in the cages and pens tonight, and keepers would be standing guard to make damn sure no animal escaped while they did the routine maintenance that he, Magda, and Patel had all been waiting on for an entire year.

This was their chance, and they would have to take it.

They had a plan.

As soon as the power went out, Magda, who was alone in her pen and stood the best chance of being able to get out without being eaten by non-shifting bears for her troubles, was going to climb her enclosure in bear form, because she was more capable of scaling the great height of the tree in that form.

But the branch that stuck out from the enclosure would never hold her in bear form, so she would have to reach it and shift then drop onto the paved and concrete walkway.

It was going to hurt. Even with her mutated healing abilities, she was going to be wounded, and naked.

A naked woman toppling onto the path would be noticed, but since the power was going to be out, the cameras would be out, too, which would give her the perfect chance to get into the keepers’ lockers and grab clothing for them.

Antonio knew Magda was not all that keen on helping the other shifters escape. The only reason she was doing so was because if she did not, they had all threatened to not only shift and reveal their secret, but to tell hers as well.

No way would anyone let a shifter escape. The government really would track her down to the end of her days and that chip they all had implanted under their skin would certainly aid in her capture.

That was why she had agreed to help free Antonio and Patel. Patel was a surgeon and capable of removing the chips, and Antonio had contacts in LA, unlike Magda and Patel. He could get them into shelter for the next few days, and get them food and other things they needed.

Once dressed and in possession of the keys, Magda would unlock their pens. It was risky, because they could all go down in flames if she were caught.

Antonio chewed his lips as he watched her shift yet again.

This was it.

His heart picked up again, his pulse ticking away in his throat. His gaze moved across the landscape, his mouth opened as he tasted the air, trying to separate old scent from new.

The branch gave a low warning creak, making his head jerk upward. “Be careful, dammit.”

“I am being careful,” she snapped. “I don’t want to break my legs or something, you know. Even if they will heal, I’ll be in misery for days. What’s more, there’ll be no way I could run.”

Magda climbed the tree and when she reached the fork of the branch, she shifted again. She paused, looking down, and Antonio’s heart thumped painfully in his chest as he shifted back to wolf form.

What if she lost her nerve? What if she could not bring herself to jump from that branch, knowing how much pain she risked?

The branch creaked again, an alarming sound. The faint jingle of keys worn on a hip sounded out and a keeper strolled closer. Antonio could hear far better than Magda, and he was the lookout. She looked down at him, sniffing hard as she did so.

He ran closer to the edge, where she could see him, and placed a paw out, aiming it in the direction the keeper was coming from.

Magda stayed put. The bare strands of moonlight played over her body, all lean and high angles and rounded breasts and hips.

Lust stirred up in Antonio, and he forced it away.

Bears and wolves did not mix. It was against nature and even shifters had to play by those laws. His thoughts went back to the pups he had created with a non-shifting she-wolf.

The pups had just been born a few hours before. They were there, in the pen, and they were his. He would take them with him, because not to do so meant risking them being shifters trapped in this existence, and risking shifters with no ability to handle the shifts exposing him and every other shifter in the world.

There were plenty of shifters in LA, established packs out there in the neighborhoods. He would take his children and find a pack or forge a new one. If they could not shift, he would have to send them into the steep canyons to live, where they could be free and away from the humans who would kill them.

The keeper stepped out from a thick clot of shadows. It was the ruthless one, Barry. There were keepers who loved every animal in the zoo, and then there were keepers like Barry, who was known to hit, kick, and hurt.

Magda watched him, and Antonio saw the expression on her face. A warning growl rose in his throat, but she ignored it.

Dammit! His body shifted instinctively as Magda went down, right on top of Barry.

Magda landed on the keeper, already shifting to bear form. The heaviness of her body took Barry down and she landed right on his chest, forcing all the air from his lungs and preventing him from being able to scream.

The thick and rich tang of blood hit the air, driving Antonio into a near-frenzy, no matter how much he tried to stay level-headed. He was not the only one reacting. Howls and growls rose up all along the long path that ran in front of that section of pens. It was just a matter of time before the other keepers showed up and they were all fucked.

Magda, bloody and triumphant, grabbed the keys from Barry’s hip and came to his pen. She smiled at him. Blood covered the entire lower half of her face as she laughed, “Change of plans, Antonio. You have to come out now, and there’s no time to grab those pups.”

“Like hell.” He shifted again and then again. He needed to be in human form to snatch the pups from their protective mother and he knew it, but he was risking much and he knew that as well.

The howls rose in the air and the she-wolf, stunned and sleepy from childbirth, but alert because of the blood riding the air and the crisp scent of a human in her pen, fought him hard, forcing Antonio to kill her even though that was the last thing he wanted.

The other wolves backed off, but their howls rent the air as Antonio gathered the limp and shivering bodies of the pups and ran for the gate and the unlocked door.

Once he was out, Magda locked the gate again and they ran, naked and with the smell of blood and newborns all over them, toward Patel’s cage.

Patel had done the only thing he could. As an outcast from the tigers, he lived on the fringes and right then he was up high in a tree, trying to escape the frenzied fighting below.

Magda said, “For God’s sake, let’s just leave him.”

“Fuck you, we need him,” Antonio retorted. “And besides, if we leave him here, he dies, thanks to your stupidity and blood lust.”

He set the pups in a small basket meant to hold trash. Fear rippled through him. If the animal tigers escaped, they would kill his young, or if he died in that pen, the keepers might not find them in time to save their young lives. It was a risk he had to take.

He grabbed the keys from Magda’s blood-soaked hand and opened the pen, then charged in, changing again to wolf form.

Magda cursed a few times and followed. All hell broke loose, but Patel, able to escape the attention of the other tigers for a moment, slipped out the open gate.

Magda and Antonio turned to the gate in time to see Patel holding it with one hand, a considering look on his face.

Antonio’s heart sank. If Patel let them die there, he had nothing to fear. There would be no way the keepers would know for sure that they, or he, had been a shifter.

Antonio and Magda would shift to human form in death—and there would be one hell of a mystery around the reason two humans had been in that pen, but nobody would ever guess the truth, and Patel would owe them nothing.

Patel waved a hand. “Come on!”

Antonio’s legs pumped across the ground. He reached into the basket and gathered his pups. Four males and one female. The pups howled softly, their mouths nipping at his chest. They were hungry, and they were now motherless as well.

One of the pups, the female, bit down hard and began to fight him just as he made the gate and went through it.

She squirmed and bit, her little pup teeth sinking deep into his arm, bringing blood. The males were more docile, which angered Antonio for some reason.

He ran onward, ignoring the pain as they crossed between the pens and the tunnel that led to the employees’ work spaces.

The lockers were closed, but they were all strong. Antonio ripped one open. He pulled on clothes, his hands working quickly as he shifted the pups from side to side.

Magda said, “Maybe we should kill the rest of them. Or tie them down and force feed them.”

Patel, reaching for pants, added, “Make them breed with each other.”

Magda laughed. “They call it rape when they are forced. They call it necessary for us.” Her hand went to her belly. Antonio turned away. Magda’s cubs would be born soon, even if her human form didn’t show that fact.

Antonio said, “No. No time. Besides, there’s already one dead keeper and that is going to raise a huge hunt. They might have let us go far more peacefully, but now they’re going to be after blood.”

Magda tossed her head. “So?”

Antonio’s teeth showed. “So, they’re probably going to kill a bear and call it done. Now you’ve committed murder against your own kind with your foolishness.”

Magda’s eyes glittered. “When we’re done here, you’re my enemy.”

Antonio said, “I was your enemy before. So, nothing’s changed. Let’s go. No more death, Magda. I mean it.” He set the pups more carefully into the small jacket he had found, wrapping them securely to make sure the female would not continue to bite and scratch him.

Magda said, “Fine. Let’s go.”

CHAPTER 1:

Present Day, Los Angeles

Angelina hissed in a pained breath as the claw hit her calf. Her eyes went to the wolf crouching low in a playful posture and she laughed, then tickled him under the chin. Rough hair met her fingertips and love smote her heart.

She said, “Oh, Mario, I wish you’d be more careful.”

Mario whined softly, low in his throat, his white furred ears pricking forward. He bounded off, and Angelina watched him go, sorrow forming.

Why she could shift and Mario couldn’t was one of life’s mysteries.

She and her other brother, Sam, could shift. Mario alone was trapped forever in a wolf form, and because of that, they had to protect him.

Joaquin spoke from behind her. “You do know someone should just shoot that poor bastard and put him out of his misery.”

Her hackles rose and her teeth began to elongate at the words, but she was quick to hide those things. Sher turned. “He’s fine Joaquin.”

Joaquin, a dark-haired, olive-skinned shifter with light hazel eyes and a definite swagger in his walk, strolled farther into the room. “If you say so.”

“I do say so. I’m sure my brothers would also say so. Maybe you want to ask them?”

“That’s enough.” His smile was unpleasant, all teeth and smugness. Angelina knew the only thing standing between her and Mario being killed was her. That and the fact that she was promised to Joaquin, who had been named Alpha of the pack after her father, Antonio, and Joaquin’s uncle, the former leaders of the pack, had been killed in a car accident the year before.

Antonio was in line to be Alpha, and had deserved to be, too. But with him and Joaquin’s uncle both dead, Joaquin had been placed as leader instead.

What a mistake that had been.

Joaquin eyed her carefully. “I need you at Los Lobos tonight.”

Her teeth ground together. “I don’t want any part of your drug trafficking, Joaquin. I don’t want any part of any of the things you’re doing in this neighborhood. You’re fucking it up for everyone, shifter and human alike, with that garbage.”

He was an asshole, and unfit to be Alpha, but he was fast and he was ruthless.

His hands were around her throat and her feet had left the floor before she could even register the fact that he had moved.

Furious, Angelina kicked out with her feet. There was a satisfying meaty thump and her toes, inside the cute little sandals, tingled as her feet met his hard flesh. Joaquin’s fingers tightened though. Blackness danced on the edges of her vision. Her breath stopped in her throat.

“Let her go.”

Joaquin dropped her. Angelina gave his jaw a swift punch. Joaquin staggered, his head whipping around.

It wasn’t over. He’d never call it done, not if he could help it.

Sam, her brother, stepped closer, menace showing on his strong features. His eyes swept from Angelina to Joaquin. “Don’t touch her like that again. Alpha or no, I will kill you.”

Joaquin bristled. “She deserved it. She disobeyed. Nobody gets to disobey me.”

The churlish tone made Angelina’s shoulders tense, but Joaquin finally left.

Sam asked, “What was that about?”

Angelina threw her hands up in the air. “He said Mario would be better off if someone shot him, and I disagreed. He demanded I go to his drug den tonight, and I disagreed.”

Sam glowered at her. “You’ve got to learn your place.”

“Are you insane? Don’t you…it’s only been a year since he was named Alpha and everyone acts like they do not even remember what it was like before he came to power. I remember! I remember we used to look after the neighborhood. We didn’t try to tear it down. We didn’t deal drugs and we damn sure didn’t deal it to our neighbors! Joaquin’s power and money hungry, he’s destroying our homes and lives, and all you are going to do is tell me to learn my place!”

Sam said, “That’s what I’m saying.”

Anger flushed heat through her system. Shift came with it. Her teeth elongated and fur rippled into place along her spine and neck. Cool out , she told herself as her nails grew, becoming sharp and dangerous. Cool out. He is still your brother and Dad would be upset if we fought. Not that I won’t fight him if I have to, but now is not the time or place.

Her body shifted again, the teeth and claws no longer showing, the fur replaced by smooth and supple skin. Her forehead puckered into a deep frown as sorrow gathered in the place of the all-encompassing rage. “How can you do that? Dad would be ashamed of you.”

“Don’t tell me what Dad would feel. He isn’t here, and you don’t get to speak for him. Even if you were his favorite.” Sam’s teeth were showing, too, even if he had not shifted.

The old rivalries between them still stood. She had always been their father’s favorite. He had called her his little warrior, and with reason. She had always been the fiercest of her litter, and Antonio had often laughed as he talked about how, on the night he had escaped from the zoo with them, it had been her who had fought and drawn his blood.

Don’t say it. You’re on thin ice here and it’s obvious Sam will protect you, but only up to a point. Don’t set him off and make him mad enough to let Joaquin have his way. You need Sam as an ally here.

“Thanks for not letting him choke me to death,” she said in a tight and strained voice.

“I might not be nearby next time. Watch your mouth, Angelina, before it gets you killed. Learn your place in this pack and keep it. If you don’t, I might not interfere again, not even if it means you dying.”

The warning was clear, and vicious. It laid bare all his allegiances. He would protect her as long as she was necessary. She was necessary but only because Joaquin wanted her as a mate, and that gave Sam some leverage in the pack. If she didn’t mate with Joaquin, and learn her place, go docile like a pet dog, she would be killed. Sam would be disgraced and probably exiled as a result, and they both knew it.

At that moment, she understood something else, too. Sam would kill her himself if Joaquin ordered it. Her legs turned liquid. She was alone and on shaky ground and the alliances within the pack were equally shaky and subject to change. None would stand against Joaquin, either because they stood to gain too much or because they stood to lose too much.

Okay, then.

Angelina moved to walk past Sam, but he grabbed her arm and held it tightly. His voice was low and deadly. “You’ll do as you are told.”

All her inner warnings and cries for restraint washed off in a fog of anguish mingled with rage. “The hell I will. If you had your way, I would be out there slinging meth on the corner and sleeping in his bed tonight, and all in the name of giving Joaquin what he wants. It must be so easy for you, since it’s not you who has to mate with him.”

Angelina yanked her arm out of his grasp and headed out of the room. Mario appeared, slinking along the ground and whimpering softly. A single glance showed her a boot print near his ribs and a long torrent of swear words came from her mouth as she sank onto the floor on her knees and gathered Mario into her arms.

She whispered, “I am so sorry. It was me he was pissed off at. You were just the weakest target.”

Mario whined, his muzzle thrusting against her neck. His hot breath washed over her shoulder, racing across the strap of her tank top and Angelina held him, tears spilling down her face.

It was getting clearer all the time that she could not stay. There was no way that she wanted to live with Joaquin as her mate. She could not even stomach having him as Alpha, and she would never bear him a child if she could avoid it. She would avoid that in any way she could—even if it meant running away.

She leaned back and stared into Mario’s eyes. His ears came forward again. His eyes often held a human expression but, more and more since Antonio had died, he had gone off on his own—traveling way up in the hills and away from the pack and the house.

She sighed. “I have an idea. Let’s take a ride up to the big hills, what do you say? We could go scope out the canyons, way over in the spots you can’t get to without me because of the freeway. You want to do that?”

Mario panted and jumped; his eagerness showing. Angelina smiled in spite of the awfulness of her situation. “Let me grab my keys and purse, okay?”

She cupped his face in her hands and whispered, “I won’t ever let him kill you, Mario. You have to believe me on that one. I won’t.”

A rough tongue swiped across her face, licking away her salty tears. Angelina stood. Mario might not be human in form, but he was intelligent. How intelligent, nobody knew. He would never communicate, not even when they were all in wolf form, and even when they were all in wolf form, he was usually left out.

Exiled for being different.

Angelina knew her promise was hollow. Joaquin would kill Mario eventually. Joaquin hated the non-shifter.

Sam and her other brothers, Harold and Benny, would say nothing. They had been conditioned from infancy to accept the word of the Alpha who had led the pack that had taken them in after they and their father had escaped the clutches of the zoo.

Like Joaquin, they would feel like they were doing Mario a favor. He was neither wolf nor shifter. He was something in between and there was no place for him in the world.

CHAPTER 2;

“Drake, man. That riff was killer. What the hell chord did you use?”

Drake grinned at his band mate Peter. “No idea, man. I call it the Hendrix chord.”

Peter swung his bass off. “Well, figure it out, because I think you went off key. If you did, we have to find a key that works with that riff.”

Drake laughed. “Says the dude with the classical education in music to the self-taught guitar player. Here, I’ll show you, and you can tell me what key it is.”

His fingers moved to form the chord, way down low on the satiny rosewood neck of his guitar, but he paused, his head tilting to one side as a faint sound drifted to his ears.

“You forget it that fast?” Pete set his bass in the holder and stretched. “I can sort of tell you from ear what strings were in it.”

“No, I just thought I heard something.”

There was no thought to it. His ears were sharper and his hearing better than a human’s. He had heard an unmistakable sound and his body tensed as he caught it yet again. Not close, not yet, but coming.

Pete said, “I think it was a barre, or at least a partial and it sounded like it was a minor… Dude, you okay?”

“Yeah sure. Just frustrated maybe.” Drake unstrapped the guitar and swung it from free from his broad shoulder with some real relief. The thing was a custom beauty made of the finest wood and parts—and it weighed a goddamn ton, or felt like it anyway.

The roar of bikes outside halted the rest of whatever Drake had been about to say.

“Looks like you got some company, man,” Pete told him. “I have to get going anyway, but let me know about the chord, because I think we need to work that in on that song. It sounded good right there—except for being off the key.”

The clash of chromed and deep-throated engines rose higher yet, making Drake’s entire body feel rigid and tight. He forced that tension away and tried to focus on Pete. “Yeah, sure. Shit. I can’t believe we lost another bunch of folks. We have to do something about finding people who want to play.”

The bikes ground to a noisy halt in the driveway of the small and slightly rundown house.

Pete stuck his bass in its case. “I guess it’s time to put new ads up. I don’t know what the deal is with assholes joining a band one day and leaving the next, but we need some real players.”

Drake could not have agreed more. “Yeah.”

Pete said, “We’re getting gigs, man, and it makes no sense. It’s like they get all spooked or something. And it’s not because you’re a biker either; we’ve had some scabby bastards come in here. I just don’t know what it is.”

Drake knew. Some people could tell he was different. They weren’t sure how and maybe it didn’t register on the top of their brains, but they damn sure knew that he was dangerous. “I dunno. We’ll figure it out.”

Pete sighed. “We better figure it out before Friday or we can kiss our gig on Saturday goodbye.”

Pete walked out, holding the door open for Drake’s twin brother, Morgan.

Morgan and Drake were identical twins, but different as night and day. Morgan had always loved being a bear shifter, and he thrived on the politics of the shifting world. Drake hated the politics and the constant wars between the different species of shifters.

In truth, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with being a shifter either. In a world run by humans and where shifters were idolized in print and film but hunted down for hush-hush science experiments in reality, there was not much room to be who he was—and what he was.

There were days when Drake didn’t even know exactly who he was. He knew what he wanted to be, but his cursed DNA made everything else seem like a mere pipe dream.

Morgan ran a hand through his brown hair, ruffling it farther. He never wore a helmet, and so his hair was windblown even before that gesture; now it stuck up in small points all over his head, giving him a fierce look that didn’t unsettle Drake in the least.

He’d been whipping Morgan’s ass for years, and he was willing to do it again if it came to that.

Drake didn’t want to deal with Morgan just then. It was obviously not a friendly little visit. If it had been, the rest of the guys would have come in as well. Of the four bikes parked in the drive, only one other was under a shifter. The two humans in the MC were old-timers, long-haul criminals who had drifted in and out of every club up and down the West Coast and even up into Canada and across to Mexico over the years. They were too hard or too stupid to smell the difference between themselves and the others, or they did and just didn’t give a fuck. Drake had no idea which.

Drake rubbed at a sore spot near his neck. “What’s up, Morgan?”

“Just thought I would come by and tell you Mom’s a little pissed that you are not returning her calls.”

In other words, Magda had sent him to deliver that very message. “I’ll bet. You do know you could have brought me a pizza or something along with that news.”

Morgan didn’t take the joke well. “You can’t keep doing this.”

Drake tilted an eyebrow and leaned back against the arm of the sofa. “Doing what?”

Morgan yanked his hair again. “It’s nobody’s fault you didn’t become Alpha…”

Drake straightened up in a hurry. “I never said it was. In fact, I was relieved I couldn’t be Alpha. My sperm is useless—no babies for me. That means no Alpha status. Lucky for you, you have very potent sperm. I’m not pissed off, and I don’t want to argue. I just want to live my life without all the bullshit infighting and warring going on.”

“You owe a loyalty to your brothers…” Morgan began.

“Which ones? The ones out there on those bikes? The humans who have no idea what we are, or do you mean to you? Or do you mean to the pack brothers? The last time I checked, I hadn’t been disloyal. You better check yourself before you come at me with that kind of bullshit, bro.”

There was a serious amount of threat in Drake’s tone. He was really sick of the bullshit, all the way around. He really didn’t begrudge Morgan the dubious honor of being named Alpha. He didn’t give three hard damns about that or anything else—except his music.

Morgan stalked toward Drake, his eyes taking on a low orange shine. His finger came out and jabbed into Drake’s chest. Drake grabbed Morgan’s hand and opened his mouth just enough to let his fangs show while his claws shot from the ends of his fingers—all sharp edges and lethal strength.

“Goddammit, Drake!” Morgan twisted his hand away but didn’t step back. “People are starting to talk. Mom’s getting nervous.”

Drake stepped even closer, cutting off all the space between them. Their chests bumped in a really aggressive way, and Morgan was the first to take a step back.

Drake said, “I couldn’t give a damn what Mom is, or about Mom.”

Morgan’s mouth went flat. “That’s a fucked up thing to say.”

Drake sneered, “She’s a fairly fucked up individual in case you had not noticed. Magda’s a lot of things—and that’s the least of them.”

Controlling, cruel, unsatisfied, angry, and bitter—those were just a few words that described Magda well. Add in a serious thirst for power—which she had not slaked by killing off the Alpha of the bear shifter pack they’d landed in when she had made her escape from the zoo.

Magda had her eyes on the real prize—all of LA, and total control of every shifter and human who lived there. She would not stop until she accomplished that. Her latest goal was killing off the Nepali tiger pack headed by her former zoo mate Patel.

Drake had no doubt that Magda had had a hand in the deaths of the Alpha of the wolf pack and his second-in-command. The second had been a good man, by all accounts, and a decent one. It was no gossip that the hood he had helped run was now a den of drugs and other illegal shit. The new Alpha was pumping a literal metric ton of dope into the neighborhood now, all of it supplied by Drake’s motorcycle club brothers—and Magda.

Naturally, Joaquin, the new Alpha, was too stupid and greedy to see what Magda was doing. His pack would either be run out or one of them would kill him off. But the hood would stay fucked and the drugs would keep sending money right back in to Magda’s pockets—and she was using that money to grease some big wheels in the city.

Morgan grated out, “Just call her.”

“Don’t come into my den and take a stand, Morgan. Not unless you aim to fight it out with me.”

Morgan’s eyes went orange again. “You owe your life to the pack. That is the law and you know this. You don’t offer your life; your life’s worth exactly zero.”

“That’s Mom talking through your mouth. You want to run up on me?” Weariness seeped into his body. Drake settled his weight on the balls of his feet while Morgan considered his decision.

Morgan finally said, “No, but you are not going to leave me much choice.”

“You mean, she’s going to order me killed if I don’t bow down and kiss her ass like everyone else.” It was not a question.

Morgan looked away, telling Drake everything he needed to know.

That was the last thing that he wanted. He didn’t need a war with his own family, and he didn’t want a war with them either. He had thought his being named as a Beta due to his sperm issue would free him. He had been wrong.

Morgan looked back at him. “Drake, just call her and make nice. She just needs…”

“She needs her ego stroked constantly.” The disgust in Drake’s voice made Morgan stiffen in a visible way that Drake did not miss.

Morgan said, “Not gonna argue that with you, Drake, but she is the—”

“One who pulls all the strings. She named you Alpha but she holds all the power, Morgan. I’d think you’d want to cut her off at some point, but I can see that you don’t. I’ll call her, but I am warning you and her, back off me. I gave my life, and now I’m out. I got exiled, remember?”

“It was a hard decision, Drake. You had to be exiled because there could not be two bears who might be Alpha. There had to be a clear delineation of power.”

Drake laughed. The delineation of power was clear. Magda held it all and would until she died, maybe even longer, if she had her way. “Yeah, sure.”

Morgan glanced around the room. “How’s the music going?”

The abrupt shift in topic was meant to disarm him. It was an old trick, one of Magda’s best, in fact. “Good, got a gig this weekend down at the Whiskey.”

Morgan said, “Hey, that’s big.”

“Yeah.” And his band had fled again, so now he had big problems to go along with that big gig. Great. Just what he needed.

Morgan ran a hand along his face. “I got to get going. Call her, okay?”

“Yeah, sure.” He would, if for no other reason than just to get her off his ass while he figured out a way to get a band behind him in the next four days. Yeah, good luck with that one.

Morgan left. Drake, too restless to think or figure anything else out, made a hasty and obligatory call to Magda, who pretended that he was calling because he wanted to and not because she had just sent someone after him.

The call left Drake even more furious and out of sorts. He grabbed a pair of hiking boots and swapped them out with the sneakers he wore. Then he headed out, determined to go for a long hike and get his mind right.

CHAPTER 3:

Mario whined and danced nervously as he came out from behind the bushes he had been using to hide from a gaggle of hikers. Angelina patted his head and laughed at his expression. “I know, they suck. Come on.”

They headed up higher on the trail. It was late afternoon and the trails were clearing. Evening brought too many risks: snakes, coyotes, and timber wolves; all the warnings the group of hikers had thrown at her as she stood on the trail. She had assured them that she was coming back down soon, but she was not. She intended to climb for hours, or at least until she could breathe again without feeling the weight of the entire pack on her shoulders.

Mario took off down a deserted wash out and she let him go. He’d scent her out, or she’d scent him out eventually. Burning sensations ran through her strong upper thighs as she went higher yet. The afternoon sun faded, leaving a hint of coolness in the air. Her body tingled and loosened with each step.

She started singing. The clear air brought her voice back to her, making it rise higher in a trick that made her happier than she had been in a long time.

All she wanted out of life was to be a singer and to have some fun. She wanted to have a family, but one of her own choosing and making. The last thing she wanted was to give birth to a pup she could never love because of who its father was, and Joaquin would never let her have the music career she wanted unless he thought he could benefit from it in some way.

Joaquin . She had to do something about him and fast, too.

A man came down off the crest of a hill right ahead of her, his shadow running large and dark along the ground. Uneasiness and attraction hit at the same time. Her belly went loose at the sight of him. He was lean and muscular, his long legs set into jeans that were wrapped tautly around his narrow waist and flat hips. His shirt, a plain white tee, had gone transparent with sweat, showing off the broad sweep of his shoulders and the cut muscles of his enviable abs.

Heart pounding, and not just from exercise, Angelina halted. He did, too. They stood staring at each other. He finally said, “Was that you singing?”

She nodded. “Yeah, why?”

“I’m Drake Welsh.”

She blinked. “The guitarist? You’re in that band… I saw you guys like two weeks ago. You’re awesome.”

“Thanks.” His teeth flashed behind full lips. Recognition stirred, and she frowned. She’d felt something when she had seen him onstage, too—she just was not sure what it was. Maybe it was the familiarity of one musician to another?

Drake said, “So—I have a gig Saturday, but most of my band flaked. It’s at the Whiskey, so you can see why it matters that I get this fixed. I could use a singer. You know anything about Silver Lake? Wait, you looking for a gig? I guess that should be my next question. Or my first.”

He laughed then. His head went back and Angelina caught a whiff of his smell, musky and masculine and something else—something primal that sent a wave of heat down her body in such intensity that her panties went damp and her nipples went hard.

“Yes, to all of that.” Stupid. That was totally stupid . Joaquin would have her head on a plate if she didn’t do what he wanted, and what he wanted left no room for music or playing a gig. It damn sure did not leave room for this strange and sexy man with the body that was wreaking havoc on hers in some way she could not define but understood was very dangerous.

Drake came closer. “Cool. Look, could you come by for a practice?”

“Yeah. When?” No. Goddamnit, what am I doing? This is beyond dumb. This is suicidal!

He asked, “You got a phone on you?”

Angelina took it out of her back pocket. Drake gave her a number, firing the digits off fast. He added, “You headed back down? It’s getting dark.”

“Yeah, I have to find Mario first though. No worries, I ‘m fine up here.”

His eyes raked her head to toe. That heat came back, spreading a crimson blush all along her upper jaw. Her breath caught in her throat. Her legs shook a little. Jesus she was so turned on!

“Okay, well call me in the morning and we’ll set up a rehearsal, see if you fit in with us.”

“Great. Thanks.” Regret hit hard as she watched him walk off. No way could she call him, even if she did have his number in her phone and even if she did want him so badly.

She wanted him. Every particle of her body was attracted to him, and there was no denying that one.

After Drake was out of sight, Angelina whistled for Mario, but he didn’t call back. Frowning, she headed down the little wash out she had seen him go down. Long purple shadows chased each other along the trails and she saw a few hares and long desert rats running form one pool of shadow to the next.

“Mario!” Her voice bounced off the rocks and stunted brush. She walked a little farther down then stopped.

A white wolf, its front paw stained with blood, lay on the path, panting hard. Angelina took in the situation quickly. The wolf was an outcast, its color making it undesirable to the wild ones. The paw had been injured by a trap, most likely. The paw didn’t look mangled, just deeply cut, but the blood had clotted now. The wolf was tired and sick though. The paw had likely gotten infected.

A low familiar whine hit her ears. Angelina watched as Mario trotted up, a freshly killed rabbit in his teeth. He dropped it in front of the wolf—a she-wolf, Angelina noted.

The she-wolf raised her head. Mario nosed the rabbit closer, whining low in his throat. It hit Angelina hard.

He had just found an exile. He was an exile. That was what he had been doing all those days and nights when he had gone out alone and come home battered and sad. He had been looking for a mate!

Angelina had a large water bottle and the collapsible bowl she used for Mario. She poured the bowl full and set it near the she-wolf, who gave a low warning growl that stopped when the she-wolf realized that Angelina was not a threat to the meal.

Mario sat nearby, his tail swishing the dust as he watched the she-wolf demolish the rabbit. When it was gone, she drank the water then laid her head back down, whimpering low in her throat.

Angelina approached slowly. She had nothing for first aid and she knew the wolf needed immediate help. She knelt, speaking gently and chuffing and whimpering so the wolf would sense Angelina’s wolfness as well, and not attack.

Mario circled the she-wolf and laid one paw over her back in a protective gesture that hurt Angelina’s heart. Tears blurred her vision as she lifted the wounded paw and found a small pocket of infection.

She lanced it quickly with the little knife she kept in one hip pocket. Pus swelled and ran, a thick and putrid flow. The she-wolf whined but did not try to bite; she sensed she was being helped and was willing to take that aid.

When as much of the infection was out as Angelina could manage, she dipped the paw into the water bowl, washing it thoroughly. The scab had opened again with the lancing and blood flowed red and thick.

Angelina tore a strip of her tank top off and bound the paw. The she-wolf would gnaw that makeshift bandage off soon enough, but the cloth would keep her paw from getting dirty again until the scab could close.

Mario darted off and came back with a palm rat. The she-wolf ate it whole, barely swallowing. She staggered to her feet and Angelina backed away. Mario looked at Angelina and back to the she-wolf. His eyes held a question.

Angelina stood. Tears stung her eyes. Mario had to find a mate, had needed to find one. This exile was his best hope, but once he was gone…

She would have no reason to stay with the pack. She had considered running away quite often, but she had been unable to leave him. Mario had needed her.

But he didn’t need her anymore.

She spoke slowly, wondering just how much human was really in Mario now, in a way she never had before. “You learned to hunt and survive out here, didn’t you? That is what you were doing. You knew you could not stay with the pack. Maybe it was fate then, us coming here. I’ll come back here, to this spot tomorrow afternoon, okay? I’ll bring stuff you might need and check her foot again.”

Mario bounded over to her and leaned against her legs for a brief moment. The she-wolf turned away. Mario went to her and then he moved in front of her, taking his place at the head of their pack of two.

Angelina stumbled back to the trail, making sure to mark her way carefully so she could find her way back. She stood at the top of the trail, tears running down her face. She took her phone back out and hit the screen with shaking fingers.

Drake answered on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me, the girl you met on the trails?”

“Yeah, and you know what? I was so excited I forgot to ask your name.”

Angelina wiped a hand across her raw cheeks. The hills were empty; there was no sign of Mario or the she-wolf anywhere. “It’s Angelina. Listen, I’m not doing anything tonight if you want to …whatever.”

Drake said, “I’m not quite at my car yet. How far up are you?”

“I’m on my way down now.” She was. Her feet stirred up grit and dust, and she broke into a flat-out run. “I’ll probably see you at the bottom in about half an hour.”

“I’ll wait at the lot then.”

“Cool.” Angelina hung up and ran faster, heedless of the danger of the steep incline and the serious threat of falling.

CHAPTER 4:

Drake felt that rush of desire again as Angelina stepped out of the car she had parked behind his in the driveway. She was magnificent looking with that long dark hair and tight body with curves in all the right places, but that was not the whole of it.

There was something about her, something that pulled at him in a way that could only be described as primal. She was no bear; that he knew. He would have smelled that on her. That he could be so attracted to a human was shocking in its own way. He loved women, human and shifter, but there was something but Angelina that made him want to set aside all propriety and just push her against the nearest wall then kiss her hard before shucking her clothes off.

He could nearly feel her toes digging into his calves as she climbed the length of his body, feel her short nails on his skin, her teeth in his bottom lip.

His cock thickened and stiffened yet again, making his jeans—already tight, thanks to sweat and heat—grow tighter still. He turned to the side a little, praying she would not see his erection straining below the denim.

Angelina said, “Great place.”

He looked at the house and a grin crossed his lips. “It’s all right. It’s my… home anyway.” He’d nearly said den. He walked toward the door, letting her follow him.

**

God she could play!

Drake’s eyes tracked Angelina’s fingers as she raced through a series of fingerpicking and strums, her hands steady and sure. The song they’d been playing was nearly done, and hours had passed since she had followed him into his house.

He’d never had such a hard time concentrating in his entire life.

Angelina stood, the guitar strapped over a slender shoulder. Her body was perfect, all lean angles and soft curves of breast and hips. Her ass was a metronome. She bounced with the beat and every beat made her magnificent ass lift and fall, which made it harder for him to concentrate.

They’d clicked in an audible way. Her style of playing, her husky voice, and her sense of rhythm. It was all perfect.

Bedding her would be stupid. She was perfect for the band and mixing business with pleasure was a really bad idea.

His cock was so hard he was afraid to drop the guitar though.

Angelina unstrapped the Gibson Dove he’d given her to play and set it in its case gently. “That was amazing!”

Color lit her cheeks. Her ruby lips were parted, giving him a glimpse of her pink tongue and white teeth. Her body swayed toward his, her every movement graceful, and his cock gave off a powerful pulse.

“Yeah, it’s crazy.” It was. Everything about her called to him. He’d never met a woman, shifter or human, who made him want her so much and that triggered so many reactions in his body.

Angelina said, “Man, I’d love to play with you again.”

I’d love to play with you in a whole lot of ways, and if you don’t back away I might just forget how much I want you in my band. His cock was subsiding though, enough that he dared to take off the guitar.

Immediately, he wished he hadn’t, because she moved closer yet. His cock sensed her presence and renewed its throbbing, making his jeans too tight and downright uncomfortable.

He didn’t mean to kiss her, but his arms came out and he leaned toward her. Her ripe lips met his, and he reveled in the feel of them, soft and warm and firm. His tongue streaked past her lips and hers answered his; their tongues met and twined together.

Her breath rushed into his mouth. Her body met his. Her full breasts smashed flat against his broad chest, ratcheting up the sensations already pouring through him and making him forget about everything but her and the way she felt in his arms, the taste of her mouth and the scent of her hair as it swung around her face and his.

His hands traveled along her shoulders, feeling lean muscle and supple, satiny skin that begged to be touched yet again.

His animal urges and instincts kicked in, and he felt the shift trying to happen. He fought the shift back, but he could not stem the onslaught of desire washing over his body.

His cock thrust into her pelvis and she ground her hips closer, making his ass clench and his hips jerk forward.

He broke the kiss off and picked her up, no longer caring about anything but getting her to the nearest flat surface so he could fuck her hard and fast.

His bed met their bodies. His hands stripped away her clothes to reveal creamy flesh, golden brown in hue, and then he unhooked her cute little red lace bra and her tits bounced out and into his hands, her nipples rosy discs that he had to taste.

Those nipples tightened in his mouth. Her fingers tangled into his hair as he sucked hard, making her nipples stiffen and arch. Her tits were soft but heavy and he kneaded them expertly as he suckled at her breast.

His hands tugged loose her jeans and then she kicked her boots off. Her legs spread and the scent of her arousal met his nose, spurring him onward. His mouth moved lower, his tongue running over her belly and then his face was at the junction of her thighs.

His tongue slid along her pink outer lips, parting them. Heat and fragrant oils met his tongue. He moved higher, seeking out her clit. He found it and her nails tore into his scalp. Her ass lifted and a low groan broke from his lips.

Drake was lost in the taste and smell and heat of her body. He used his tongue to pleasure her, taking her right to the brink as he slowly circled her clit with his tongue and then alternated those circles with fast back and forth motions that had her crying out his name as more fluid fell from her inner folds. Those coral-and-pink walls drew his attention as he slid his fingers deeply into her, thrusting slowly at first but increasing the speed with each withdrawal and entry.

“Oh God.” Her cry was a beacon. He slid upward, one hand already on his swollen and throbbing cock. He thrust into her, hard. Her walls cradled him, sucked him deeper inside her as she began to come, her walls fluttering and closing as she milked his cock with her body. He gave in, driving harder and harder as she came and then rolled through a series of aftershocks that caused her folds to clench and loosen around his rigid and demanding flesh.

He came. His fingers curled around her shoulders and he groaned, his body arcing and tossing.

He felt the shift happening and he tried to stop it, withdrawing from her as his thick hot seed splashed out of his body and onto her flat belly.

His eyes went feral but he held the change back.

He looked at her face, hoping her eyes would be closed.

They weren’t.

He was looking into the eyes of a wolf!

CHAPTER 5:

I can’t even believe this! Oh, my God!

Angelina rolled off the bed, her instincts kicking in. Even naked and still caught in desire’s web, she was fast. She held a hand up, holding the shift back, but barely, as she faced Drake, who had also left the bed and now stood, naked and so goddamn sexy it hurt to look at him.

Judging by the look of his shock on his face, he was just as rattled as she was. Angelina said, “You’re… you’re a shifter.”

“So are you.” His words floated across the bed at her. Angelina grabbed for her clothes. She had to get out of there, and fast. “Yeah, well, yeah. What the fuck?”

“Beats the shit out of me. I never… I didn’t know.”

Angelina yanked on clothes. Her thoughts tangled and split into fragments. “I have to go.”

“I’d rather we at least talked this out first.”

“I just slept with a bear! Are you kidding me! You want to talk… how… I didn’t know.”

“I think we have determined that.” Drake was dressing, too, his movements fast and precise. He raked a hand through his hair, sticking it up on end, which just made him look even hotter. Pulses of desire still fired off in her belly and so she let her head drop low, her eyes zeroing in on her feet. “How did we not know right away?”

“Maybe we did.”

The answer was not the one she had been hoping for. She had hoped he would say something like he was a mutie—a person with one shifter parent and one human one. Muties were harder to scent out, harder to unmask. They didn’t give off scent like shifters and in fact, many of them shifted very rarely and usually that shifting was something that only happened under bouts of extreme stress.

Drake said, “So you’re from East LA, I take it?”

“Yeah, but I wanted to be here from the moment I saw this place.” Her face heated. “Not in your house. Jesus. I didn’t mean… I mean, I don’t think what happened makes us mates, if you’re tripping on that. I meant, I love Silver Lake, and always have. This is where the music is right now—and where my pack isn’t, at least for now.”

“You running from your pack or did they exile you?”

“Neither. Both. Fuck if I know.”

Drake approached. She snarled at him, but half-heartedly. He held his hands up. “Whoa. Truce. Let’s… let’s talk. I mean, this is unusual…”

“You think?”

He pulled a face. “Okay, it happened, right? No going back. But so what? I still want you in the band and… look, I’m an exile, sort of, so I get it if you’re running or if you’ve been put out.”

What the hell was he talking about? “Sort of?”

His lips canted up. “I’m a semi-exile, I guess you could say.”

“Now’s not the time to talk in riddles, okay? I have to go. Jesus Christ, if anyone finds out about this—you could get hurt and I don’t want that.”

He looked at her, no expression on his face. “How so?”

Goddammit. She had to be honest. If she wasn’t, he would get caught in some bullshit he had never signed on for. “Drake, my dad was second in the pack over in East LA. It’s the biggest and most powerful wolf pack, as you probably know. My dad died with our Alpha; now we have Joaquin, and he’s screwing the whole hood.”

“I know.”

He knew? Of course he knew. She sighed. “I got promised to Joaquin back when I was a kid. I never had any say in it. My dad was about to call that off—he knew Joaquin was no good. But he died before he could, so his promise stands. It doesn’t matter, not to them anyway, what I want or who I don’t.”

His fingers gripped her chin and lifted it. “You don’t want Joaquin.”

“Not in my bed, not in my life, and not as my Alpha. If that means I have to be exiled, I can take that, but I have to tell you now that I can’t stay—not in your band or anything else. Joaquin’s not just selling drugs; he’s got plans to take over the city and he means to do just that. He’s power crazed and hungry. He’s also vicious, and he won’t hesitate to kill me or anyone else who gets in his way. You see, he wants kids, fast, heirs to his kingdom. Sons would cement his position, according to him, and well, our culture. It’s the whole machismo thing.”

“I get it, but I don’t want you to leave the band. Hell I need you.”

Her breath caught in her throat. He needed her in the band, but not in his life, was that what he was saying? “I know you probably can’t find another singer fast enough, but you might have to. I mean, until last night, you had no idea you had a singer and so nothing has really changed. You still need a singer.”

“I need a whole band.” His words were hard and his voice fierce. “You are one hell of a rhythm player and there’s something about us, Angelina, we just click. Not just as people but as players in the same song. I can’t promise you he won’t find you, but I can promise you if he finds you here, he won’t take you back, not without a massive fight and some death.”

Her heart sank. “That is exactly what I am afraid of. I don’t want death and blood. That’s why I don’t want to go back to the pack. There’s bound to be blood and now—well, now I pretty much put you into the middle of it. As much as I love Silver Lake,” and as much as I feel drawn to you, too, “I can’t do it. I have to go somewhere else, somewhere that Joaquin can’t touch me, or you, or anyone else I might come into contact with.”

Drake asked, “Angelina, do you want to stay here? With me, I mean?”

Shit. He really went to the heart of the matter, didn’t he? Her chin came up. “I have to go back.” She didn’t want to, but she had to. There was no way she could stay here. She had just slept with a sworn enemy, and she had a feeling that there was even more to that than met the eye. Drake was a bear shifter in exile and a biker at the same time, which meant he still rode with the MC that had bear shifters at its head. So there was definitely something he was not telling her, and she was pretty sure she did not want to know exactly what that was.

There was already too much at stake, even with Mario gone.

Mario!

She stood. “Shit. I have to get to the trails.”

Drake looked confused. “What?”

Say nothing. For God’s sake, do not give him a weapon. You don’t know if you can trust him, and you know damn well you can’t trust yourself around him!

Despite her brain’s warning, her mouth opened. “He’s my brother. He can’t shift. He’s wolf, mostly. He has never shown any sign of going human. I have other brothers, of course, all from the same litter, but Mario is the only one who doesn’t shift.”

Loss settled in, making her heart ache. She had no idea which loss was the greater—the loss of Mario to the wild or the loss of what had been a wonderful and far too brief dream of being with Drake and having the normal life she had always dreamed of, a life filled with music and passionate love.

Drake pondered that for a second. “You came from the same birthing?”

She nodded. “We did, and he can understand everything but he doesn’t speak. I was the only one he would ever try to communicate with in any way. He’s the only reason I didn’t leave before.”

“I see.”

She shook her head, sending her silky dark hair flying. “No, you don’t. You see, I was up on the trails—he had been leaving and wandering for a few years now, but he found a she-wolf and she was hurt. They left together. I promised to go back and look at her paw again. I think it was stuck in a trap at one point or another.”

“Shit, that sucks. Was she okay?”

She smiled at the real concern in his voice. “Yeah, and I will be, too.”

Drake said, “Angelina, you don’t have to go back.”

Tears threatened. She held them back. “Yeah, I do.”

She stood and wiped a hand down her side. She ached all over and not all of it was unpleasant either. The bruises from their wild lovemaking were there, just below her skin, already healing but still lightly painful. That pain would ease fast and she knew it, but she was not sure about the other pains that were careening through her just then.

There was something about Drake that made her want to stay. It was not just how they played together, or the way their bodies and voices and musical tastes blended either. He made her feel safe, something she had not felt since her father died. That was dangerous as hell, that feeling, because he was a bear and her enemy, even if she did not want him to be.

“You know we can’t, Drake. We’re sworn enemies; our kinds always have been and with good reason. We aren’t friends in nature, and we can’t be friends or anything else in this world either. Even if we thought we could be, you know damn well nobody is going to let us be. They will all come for us. Your pack and mine, and every other shifter pack—just to keep two different kinds from being together. It is not natural, and they won’t accept it. We can’t even be in the same band and you know that. It goes against everything about the laws we all have to live by.”

“I don’t care about the laws. I’m outside the pack now. I was,” he paused then said, “I was in line to be Alpha but I am sterile, or something. I couldn’t produce children and that is a requirement for Alphas in our packs.”

Angelina sucked in a breath. Her eyes searched his face. “Ours, too.” Her brain reeled at his words. He was supposed to be Alpha? That meant he was Magda’s!

Her voice held desperation. “You’re Magda’s son.”

“Yes.”

“Oh my God!” Now she was desperate to go. And fast. The last thing she needed to do was get caught up in whatever bullshit Magda was about to bring down. Antonio, her father, had had plenty to say about Magda, and none of it was very flattering. He had admired her courage and her toughness, but he had disliked, intensely, her quest for power. Magda had a serious hate on for humans, too, and that bothered Antonio. He had said, a lot, that he would not trust her if there were just the two of them left in the world because Magda was so blinded by the need to rule she would kill him in a short-sighted bid to be the last creature standing—and Angelina believed him.

Drake grasped her upper arms in his warm and calloused fingers. His touch sent thrills spilling all along the base of her spine and those little shivers raced upward. That desire came back, pooling liquid into her panties and making her squirm away before her body could betray her yet again.

He didn’t try to hold her. He let her go, but the phantom warmth of his fingers stayed imprinted on her arms. Her nipples stiffened, growing first taut and then tighter still until the hard ridges stuck up under her shirt in noticeable peaks.

Drake’s eyes flicked downward then back up. Angelina’s emotions twisted between shame and lust, and she spoke sharply. “Look, I have to go. We can’t do this. I don’t know how we didn’t know. But we know now. I have to go.”

She stalked off, her head high as she aimed her body, which wanted nothing more than to turn around and run back to him as fast as it could manage, toward the front door. To her vast relief, he did not try to stop her.

**

Drake took a seat on the sofa. His brain reeled and his body ached with unmet need. The woman was a wolf, and she was right—it should have been impossible for them not to recognize each other, so, why hadn’t they?

Had he known in some small way and just overlooked it because he had been so eager to get her into first the band and then his bed? They should have called it off last night, as soon as they had figured it out, but they had not and now here he was—with no singer and no woman in his life.

Jesus Christ, it was a one-night stand. It was not like she was your life mate you fucking asshole.

The words did not help to clear his head. The smell of her lingered in the house. He sighed and stood, heading toward the kitchen to make some much-needed coffee but he paused before he got there.

She was going back to the trail, and that was all right—but what happened when she went back to East LA to join her pack? Joaquin would smell him on her and she would probably be killed.

He sagged against the doorframe as he considered that. Angelina had a death wish, maybe, or maybe she was just so desperate to get away from Joaquin and the cluster fuck her pack had become that she was willing to die for the right to be away from it. Either way, it would end with her death, and he cursed a few times then grabbed his keys from the coffee table.

She knew his car. The wolves of East LA would know his bike. It was a toss-up as to which was the worse choice to follow her in, but one thing was clear; he was going to follow her no matter what.

CHAPTER 6:

Angelina spent the night in a small and cheap motel, and then drove to the trails early the next morning. She was tired, confused and her thoughts were still chaotic as hell.

She hadn’t been able to go home, not with the smell of a bear still on her skin. That scent would linger. She had not been able to sleep, either, and she was glad to see Mario and the she-wolf had not gone far from where she had last seen them.

The she-wolf had a bloody trail near her muzzle, and Mario smelled of blood, so it was obvious he had been hunting to feed them again. Angelina set down the supplies she had bought at a local drugstore. “Hey, there. Um, so, Mario, can you let her know not to bite me?”

Mario gave one short bark and nosed the she-wolf closer. She limped and whimpered softly, and Angelina could see that the makeshift bandage was covered with clotted yellow stuff and thin strands of dried blood.

The she-wolf lay down. Angelina said, “Thanks,” and reached for the injured paw. The cloth came away slowly, and she winced as she looked at the cut. The infection seemed to be lessening but the cut was deeper than Angelina had imagined.

She cleaned it quickly and then took a deep breath. “Mario, I need to stitch it. I got these little glue stitches, but she has to be very still.”

Mario lay down beside the she-wolf, wrapping one arm over her in a gesture that many dogs, domesticated and street, used to show they were protecting another. Angelina said, “You two are a cute couple, did I tell you that yesterday?”

She had been worried that Drake’s smell might put the two wolves off, but it didn’t seem to. After she had applied the stitches, Angelina just sat there on the sun-warmed earth, waiting for the stuff to dry and looking at Mario.

He had changed, seemingly overnight. That human expression was still in his eyes, but there was a new wildness in there, too.

“It won’t be long, will it? You’ll go all the way wild, and you will either forget me or you will just not remember me on purpose. It’s okay, I understand.”

Mario regarded her. Angelina frowned. “Mario, I can’t come back. Those stitches will hold and they dissolve on their own after a while, so it’s no biggie there. I think your mate here is going to be fine, and so are you but I… well, I have to figure out what to do.”

She sighed. “I can’t stay in the pack, and I can’t run from them either. I am going to have to fight. I don’t want to, and I came up with a hundred schemes to stay out of a battle, but you know what? I can sense one coming, and I’m scared. I think the fight that is coming is way bigger than just the one between me and Joaquin. I think there’s a shifter war coming, and Joaquin is part of it. I think he is setting us up to be killed off so he can gain control. I have to stop him; I just do not know how.”

Oh, but Drake could help her with that, if she just let him—or could trust him. Not that she could do either. He was a bear and her enemy. Even if the two of them were able to get past that—he was Magda’s son, and Magda had a huge hard on for power. No way was she going to let any son of hers go rogue and outside the laws of nature and shifter.

The sun beat down on her head, and Angelina sat there for a long time. She poured water for the wolves and they drank. Then, slowly, Mario got up and made a low sound in his throat. He gave Angelina one last look and then he began to walk away. The she-wolf stood, also looking at Angelina for a moment. Her eyes held pain as she set her paw on the earth but she stepped down anyway and then turned to follow Mario.

“Goddammit. If I believed in omens, that would be one.” Angelina cleaned up the mess, burying the cloth and shifting sand and rocky soil over the remains of the bloody and gross water she had used to clean the paw. “I mean, she’s following him no matter how painful. Great. Good for her. They are both wolves so…”

She blinked. That was not true. Mario was not full wolf. He was something else, something outside nature. The she-wolf had let him choose her anyway, either because she was weak and needed him or because she was alone and any mate was better than none, or because the two of them were both outcasts and alone and a pack of two was still stronger than a solitary creature.

She started walking. She had choices and they were clear.

Drake wanted her—and she hated Joaquin. She knew she could not truly trust either of them, but could she trust Drake enough to try to have something with him? If she did, she would be able to at least indulge her love of music. Drake would not have her out on a corner acting as lookout or slinging dope. He would not tell her music was a waste of her time and life. He would never tell her to shut up and learn her place because if they were together, there were no rules for whatever they created. What they would be together was something that had never been done before.

She got in the car, cranking down the windows to release some of the heat that had gotten trapped within it. The sun baked the trails, sending long shimmers of heat mirages up. Angelina rested her head in her hands.

Everyone would be out of the house. Now was the perfect time to grab her stuff and run. She had friends in Silver Lake. She had some money set aside. She had a need to go. Exiling herself was the only option, but that would guarantee she was hunted. Joaquin would think nothing of crossing territory lines if she did. That would absolutely start a war, and she didn’t need that on her hands or conscience.

“So where the hell do I go?”

The question hung in the still air. Angelina cranked the car, muttering, “First, I go get my stuff. Then I go somewhere, anywhere. Not Silver Lake, and not into tiger territory. That leaves plenty of places. I hear Torrance is nice this time of year.”

She headed down the road, not noticing the motorcycle hanging back behind her, its rider carefully tailing her as she headed east.

**

The house was quiet. Angelina killed the engine and stepped out, her eyes scanning the front of the house. It was actually three houses that had connecting breezeways. The pack owned most of the street, and they had always taken pride in it and the neighborhood back before Joaquin had come to power. Now it looked seedy and sad, and there were broken bottles near the curbs. The old folks who lived a few streets over were overwhelmed by the new drug dealers and the addicts, by the heavy traffic of cruising cars whose passengers were looking to score and the unsavory element of pimps and hookers looking to be close to the illegal action.

Uneasiness swept over her as she walked toward the door. She scented the air but there were too many scents, both old and new, for her to be able to tell if Joaquin was there or not.

She paused, listening hard, still trying to smell him out, but there’d been a lot of traffic in and out of the house, as usual. She could smell him, and it was a strong fresh smell, but she could not tell if it was hours or minutes old due to the scents mingled with his.

Her eyes went back to the driveways and street. His car—a huge restored ’66 Caddy, was nowhere in sight. Joaquin didn’t allow anyone to drive his baby so he had to be gone.

Her fingers turned the key into the lock. Angelina didn’t close the door. She stood there, still listening and sniffing. Nothing. The smell of garlic and onions, eggs, and tomato hung in the air. Someone had cooked breakfast at some point then. Her belly rumbled at those scents, reminding her she had not eaten since yesterday afternoon.

She dashed to her bedroom. She closed the door and grabbed a bag. There was little she wanted beyond her clothes and the few photos she had of her and her family. It took all of about ten minutes to toss her shoes, the ones that were still in good shape, her clothes, and those pictures into the bag. She grabbed the old acoustic guitar. Its strings, stirred by the small breeze she created when she picked it up, chimed softly, a light whisper of sound that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up and goose bumps break out all over her skin.

She turned, her eyes going to the closed door. Was she imagining things or had she heard something out there, a creaking floor or a hasty step?

She hesitated but heard nothing for a few long seconds. Her eyes went to the door handle. She had locked it automatically, and her heart hammered hard in her chest as she saw the knob turn in a slow but deliberate way, one that she was most decidedly not imagining.

Joaquin’s scent came clear. Her pulse slid upward, and she moved fast. She went to the window, which she had left unlocked the night before, and looked out. The backyard was empty. The faint snick of the lock turning came again. Joaquin was trying to get in, and he was deliberately trying to do it very quietly. What was more—he had hidden his car so she would not know he was there.

The onions and garlic had been meant to mask his smell. She knew that now. Angelina tossed her bags out and went out behind them. She grabbed her stuff, slinging the bags over her shoulders and gripping the old neck of the guitar in one hand as she ran around the side of the house, her feet kicking up small pebbles.

The front door burst open just as she reached her car. Joaquin came roaring out. His face was contorted with rage and even from where she stood, Angelina knew he was two seconds away from shifting right there in the street and be damned to anyone who might see.

A loud roar from the exhaust of a motorcycle cut the air. The bike raced closer, cutting across curbs and the driveway, cutting Joaquin off just as he headed for her and her car.

Angelina wrenched her door open and slid inside, slamming the door hard as the rider, whose face was hidden below a large helmet with a dark face guard, kicked out one long leg. Joaquin, unable to run forward without running right into the back end of the spinning bike, halted, but his shout was long and loud. Angelina could hear that cry over the roar of her car’s engine.

She hit the gas and reversed quickly. The bike kept slewing in circles. She did not know who that was but she hoped whoever it was had the good sense to get the hell out of there and fast.

Damn! She paused, wavering with indecision. She should make sure whoever that was didn’t get killed by a ticked-off wolf. Before she had time to fully form that thought, a new one hit.

At first, she had thought that the biker had lost control of the chrome beast and was just spinning wildly, but now she realized that spinning was an act of utter and total skill, and the man on that bike was using that skill to get between her and Joaquin!

“Thanks,” she muttered, slammed the car into drive, and hauled ass.

The bike stopped spinning. The rider cut a wide arc and ended up on the other side of the street, going too fast for Joaquin to catch up even if he shifted and ran wolf-like after the bike.

Angelina knew all the shortcuts out of the hood and she took them. She kept an eye on her rearview and saw the biker fall in behind her, the sun gleaming off the helmet and the heavy black leather jacket.

Drake.

It had to be Drake!

They careened out of the neighborhood and ended up in a side street that would dump them off an exit and on the crowded freeways just beyond. There was no time to stop. She had to keep moving and make sure that Drake—and she was positive that it was Drake now—did not get caught by Joaquin, who had obviously been about to either rape her to force her to be his mate or kill her.

If she had to bet, she would guess the former. Joaquin would do anything to prove how powerful he was, and he knew she did not want him. As long as she refused to mate with him, he could do nothing but if he got her with child, it was a whole different ballgame.

The bike roared up beside her car. Drake flipped the visor up and he shouted, “Take the third!”

The third exit would lead them to Beverly Hills or beyond, out to Sherman Oaks. Scared and worried now, and knowing Silver Lake was not an option at the moment, she nodded. Drake fell into traffic just ahead of her. The traffic slowed. A snarl was up there somewhere. Sweat trickled down her face as she considered the situation.

Joaquin might be following them, but in her car her scent was too narrow. There was too much traffic and all its stink to make it possible for him to track her that way.

Silver Lake was dangerous because she would be a wolf in bear territory. Drake might have given off his scent, and if Joaquin knew that the man on the bike was a bear that would be the first place he headed. He wouldn’t be able to scent track Drake either, not unless he went to ground and sniffed Drake’s house out, but shifting to track in wolf form was too risky even for Joaquin.

He had contacts with Magda though. Angelina knew that. Joaquin’s major supplier of heroin and other dope was the bikers that Magda ran from her house over in Silver Lake. Would Magda turn on her own son?

Probably—especially since he was not Alpha and his twin brother was. Damn, how had she forgotten that? Her father had told her that, last year. That one of the twins had been displaced as Alpha for the other. He had not known why, but he had worried about it. Now Angelina found herself wondering, too.

They reached the hills. Angelina’s hands were slick with sweat as she turned the wheel to follow Drake down a long and winding road that raced along a steep gorge before dropping out to a flatter and more level stretch that he took at a surprisingly fast speed.

He pulled up at the gates of a small house and hit a button. The gates opened, and he pulled in with her right on his heels.

Angelina got out of the car. “What the hell was that?”

Drake lifted the helmet off. Sweat made his hair stick to his head and his face glisten. He unzipped the jacket, pulling it off to reveal his broad and fit upper body. The bike sat between his legs, held their by the sheer strength of his lower body and a wave of heat crashed over her yet again. Her mouth went dry. Goddamn, that was so sexy. Him, the bike, the sweat, the stubble on his jaw, the piercing gaze—all of it.

Drake leaned closer, cutting off all thought but not the lust. The lust just intensified. A little bead of sweat hung in the tiny little hollow of his throat, begging to be licked away. Her fists clenched, and her stomach filled with butterflies trying to wing their way out.

“That was me saving your ass. I saw him coming down that little hall between the houses, and I knew it was him. I decided to circle the block, see if you came back out. When you didn’t, I rode a little farther up and waited. I was going to give you a half a minute more when I saw you come running around the back with all your stuff and figured you must have outrun him. I also figured he was going to come out next, so I decided to stall him so you could bolt.”

“Thanks.” She rubbed her arms up and down her arms. Now that she was not in present danger, the adrenaline died out, leaving her tired and limp.

“You hungry?”

Her eyes went to the house they were parked in front of. “Are we breaking into this house?”

“Yeah, do you mind?”

“Only if we get caught.”

His lips canted upward. “There’s that.”

“I’d rather not go to prison. You know, all things considered.”

“I can see where you could disrupt the hell out of the general population.”

The joking made her relax, her muscles loosen and the tension ooze away from her neck and shoulders. “Ditto. For real, if we are about to engage in some B&E, you had better hope there’s food in there.”

“There is. It belongs to my bass player, Pete.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Oh?”

“Yeah, getting a rich kid in your band’s sort of the new trend.”

Just then, the door opened and a scrawny guy with dark brown hair and a sallow face appeared. “What’s up, dude?”

“Not much; just thought I’d check in with you and introduce you to someone. She’s a hell of a singer.”

Was he kidding? “I’m not. I mean I’m a singer but I’m not…” She glared at Drake, who just grinned back at her.

Pete said, “Okay then.”

Drake said, “Dude, we’re starving.”

“I got some steaks. I was about to toss one on the grill and it would be no biggie to add a couple more.” Pete jerked his head toward the door.

The house was a post and beam thing with long wide windows and designer furniture. The pool was right outside the back door, and Pete led them that way, making a brief stop at the kitchen to grab some steaks from the fridge.

They stepped out into an outdoor kitchen that would have made a gourmet chef green with envy, but Angelina was more interested in the thick and marbled meat that Pete laid on the gas grill than wondering if that counters were the granite they seemed to be.

Pete finished laying the steaks out and added a few potatoes to the grill then pointed the way to the fridge that held some really good wine and beer. Drake seemed to know the way pretty well. He took out a bottle of red, uncorked it and poured three glasses.

“Thanks.” Their fingers met as Angelina made to take the glass he offered to her. She turned her face down quickly so he wouldn’t see the naked desire playing out in her eyes. She needed him to not know how she felt. She had to figure out what to do next. She did not need the crazy emotions and physical attraction Drake kept bringing up in her.

“Welcome.” Pete stretched out on a chair and asked, “So you sing?”

“I do.” The words were reluctant. Her fingers curled around the stem of the glass. The sun lay thick and heavy on her head and shoulders, and she turned her face up to it.

Pete asked, “You any good?”

“Man, you should hear her. She can play rhythm, too.”

Drake sure was pushing hard—wasn’t he?

“We tried it, like me and him, but I don’t think it will work,” she said.

Pete said, “Oh. Shit. That is too damn bad. I don’t know what it is about Drake, but he seems to run people off left and right for some reason. No idea why—he’s a good dude but he scares folks or something.”

Her eyes met Drake’s. His held a troubled expression. The wine warmed as her fingers moved up to cup the glass. “I get that. Sometimes people are jerks.”

Or they sensed the difference and got scared—or mean. Sometimes both.

There was something Drake’s eyes that triggered a feeling of kinship. He was running away, too. He didn’t want to be a part of his pack. He wanted a life filled with music and normalcy. So did she. But they were different and always would be. They could never escape that, no matter how hard they tried.

The food was delicious, and she was starving. After the meal was over, they went inside. Pete had a whole room dedicated as a music space and Angelina took one look at all the gear and went to go get her guitar.

I’ll just play with them today, but that’s not a promise to be in the band . She settled onto a low sofa with the guitar over her legs.

Drake wrote down the lyrics and the chords to a song. “Can you just strum along? Don’t worry about trying to figure out a pattern just yet, just do the chords on the time and sing the words?”

“Sure.” Angelina looked down at the paper and nodded. “I need a capo though. I suck at the B minor chord.”

He laughed. “I hate that chord. I always capo the third and play it with the G, C, and so forth.”

“You could have just written that down,” she teased as she grabbed a pen and began to make the changes on the paper.

Drake said, “Well, I had to know if you’d try, anyway.”

“We had a guy who was a piano player turned guitarist, and he insisted on playing the hardest chords because he could. Drove us nuts,” Pete added.

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that with me.” Angelina blinked. What am I saying? This has to be the last time I play with Drake, in every way. I can’t be with him!

She shook that off. There was far too much uncertainty going on right now. Music was static, it was a good thing, and she needed it just then, and badly.

Her fingers met the frets and formed the chords. Notes rang out. The supple strings bent and she closed her eyes, getting the sense of the rhythm from Pete’s throbbing bass lines and Drake’s long string of melodies. She strummed along instinctively, putting some sixteenth note strums in, varying the pattern.

When they reached the end and started the song over, Angelina began to sing, her husky voice lingering over the melody and then wrapping around the words and sliding behind the beat.

The song ended. Pete let out a whoop and said, “Hell, yes! Man, you’re awesome!’

“You’re awesome,” Angelina said. “You can really play that bass!”

Pete grinned. “Now if we could just find a decent drummer before Saturday!”

Drake said, “I had a guy call me earlier. I could call him back and see what he says—if he wants to come jam or whatever.”

Now was the time to bow out. Now was the time to say she couldn’t stay.

Angelina knew that, and she knew she should speak up.

But all she said was, “That would be great.”

“Hey, man, do you mind if we stay here for a few days?” Drake asked Pete.

“No, why would I?” Pete replied.

Angelina caught Drake’s eye. She knew what he was thinking. If Joaquin dared to go to bear territory to find her, he’d find nothing. Her scent at Drake’s would have dissipated by now and a few days at Pete’s, high in the hills where shifters did not go, would be the perfect way to keep him off their trail.

But what would happen when they did get found and caught?

CHAPTER 7:

The Whiskey was packed. The band, with its new lineup that included Angelina, Drake, Pete, and Zeke, the new drummer—an eager and hyper guy fresh off the bus and from a tiny town somewhere in Idaho—stood in the miniscule dressing room located down a dingy hallway in the back of the Whiskey. The night’s headliners had the big dressing room and their entourage spilled down the musty concrete hallway, making one hell of a drunken racket.

Angelina took a long breath, trying to steady her nerves.

Drake put a hand on the back of her neck. “You okay?”

The warmth and weight of his hand on her nape helped a little. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

It was true. The last month between the day where she had fled Joaquin and her pack had gone by in a blur. She’d moved in with Drake and so far they had managed to keep everyone at bay, even his MC, but she knew that could not last long. The gigs they were playing had been all that she had allowed herself to think about.

She spent her days and nights in a haze of making music with the band and love with Drake. It was a special moment, a long and winding time where she could actually believe that everything was going to be okay even with all the obstacles in front of them.

Drake’s bear-ness didn’t show most of the time, and she kept her wolf-ness out of sight, too. There were times when that was harder than others but she was in full-on survivor mode, desperate to keep both her and Drake safe.

The emcee was speaking and the runner, an older man with a shock of gray hair and a heavily tattooed right arm, stuck his head into the dressing room. “Time, guys.”

Angelina grabbed her guitar and held it tightly. Drake gave her a wide smile. Pete, usually cool and collected, stumbled and nearly tripped over his own feet. Zeke gulped and jerked a few times, his eyes showing his nerves.

“Cool out, dude,” Pete said. “We’ve been here before.”

Zeke didn’t look too convinced. He just swallowed a few times and nodded. Drake whispered into her ear, “That guy’s nervous every time. I don’t know if he’s going to make it if we make it big.”

She chuckled. Once onstage, Zeke was a wonder. Drake knew it, too.

“I love it that you think we’re going to make it big,” she told him.

“I know we are.” His eyes held determination. “How could we not?”

It was their dream. To hit it big and play all the big arenas. It wasn’t the money. Drake didn’t care about money, and Pete didn’t need it. Zeke was about money and maybe even the fame. She and Drake were in it for something else, for the sheer pleasure of getting to play. The more people in the audience, the better, because both of them fed off that energy in a way that was both wonderful and wild. It often sent them straight to bed, their bodies and hearts eager to shed some of the crazy, electrically charged excitement that always filled them after a gig.

The audience was already hyped up. It was like walking into a party that had already started and as soon as they hit the stage, Angelina felt the charge of it all.

Her guitar was poised, and she looked at Drake, who nodded and called out a one, two, three count before they charged into their first song, rocking it out in a hard and fast groove.

Pete played tight in the pocket, and Zeke kept perfect time. They had gelled in a way that was inexplicable and magical. Drake, with his guitar slung across his body and hanging low, strode across the stage—beyond hot in a pair of black leather pants and a plain white tee that outlined every inch of his smoking body.

Just looking at him made her want to grab him and haul him off to a dark corner. He prowled closer, all drive and thrusting hips, flashing fingers and wailing strings. Her voice and his blended, their guitars making a perfect counterpoint and harmony to each other.

The set was short, just thirty minutes, but for those thirty minutes, Angelina forgot about everything but Drake and the music and the crowd.

She was soaring when they got off stage and headed back to their dressing room. Drake grabbed her hand and asked, “Should we go watch the other band?”

She nodded eagerly. They cased their gear and hauled it out the back door and into the van then dashed back inside and down the hallway, just in time to watch the headliners take the stage.

Drake caught her in his arms and they started to dance. Angelina let go.

Her body swayed to the beat and met his. The ever-present desire between them intensified with every note and heavy bass beat. His hands rested low on her hips and she laughed as she collided with his body, her crotch meeting his.

He grabbed her up in an embrace and hauled her off the floor, spinning her in a slow circle for good measure while she laughed, her fingers clutching his broad shoulders.

The small hallway was empty. The wall scratched at her back through her damp tank top. His fingers wound into her hair, fisting it, and her breath caught in her throat as his mouth slanted down on hers, claiming her mouth in a long and furious kiss.

Her body arced toward his, and his hands slid into the waistband of her skirt then out, his hand going up her thigh and leaving a trail of shivering flesh in its wake.

Her skirt bunched around her waist. Her panties were thrust to one side. Her fingers found the buttons on his jeans. This was going to be fast and hard, and she wanted that as much as she wanted to dance and sing and be alive.

His staff met her hand, pulsing and thick. Her shoulders dug into the wall as she climbed up his body, her legs twining around his waist while his hand positioned his cock at her opening and then he thrust upward into her, filling her so completely that it took her breath away.

Heat and friction exploded in her clenching core. His lips muffled her cries. Her body lifted and she slid downward again, impaling herself on his cock, taking it all in and then swinging her hips in a slow revolving circle before lifting again, reluctantly releasing him so she could plunge downward again.

His cock pressed against the sides of her inner folds. Heated oil, creamy and thick, spilled from her body and coated his rigid flesh, easing his passage into her as she continued to lift and drop, her hands braced on his shoulders now as she strained to reach the orgasm hurtling toward her at top speed.

Her walls clenched and tightened, sucking him into her. Her eyes rolled back in her head and her fingernails bit into his shoulders. His tongue met hers and his breath blew into her mouth. Her pants became faster and harder. The scent of their sex came to her nose, making her even hotter.

Crying out now, coming and shuddering, her inner walls closing and opening as thick spurts of cum poured out of her body, all she could do was hold on while he moved faster.

His groan was guttural and loud, echoing down the short hallway.

Angelina hung there, pinned against the wall on his cock, her body slowly cooling as he braced a forearm on the wall and tried to get his breath back.

When he could move again, he lowered her gently to the floor. She looked up at him and then burst into laughter.

Drake gave her a confused look. “What?”

“I was just wondering what we’d do if we were in a big arena with dozens of people around us and we couldn’t do this,” she teased.

Drake gave her a mischievous grin. “Baby, I swear to you those are going to be some shocked people.”

She laughed all the way back out and onto the dance floor.

CHAPTER 8:

Angelina sat up, her shoulders gleaming above the crumpled and messy sheets. “Bikes,” she said. The thread of fear in her voice caught Drake’s attention.

“I heard them.”

Her breath hissed in, hard. “Your guys, I take it.”

He nodded. They had to show up eventually. I’ve been too busy with her and the band and I haven’t been riding, and they want to know why . He threw the sheets aside and slid out of bed. Angelina was already up and out, too, grabbing for the clothes she had worn the night before, which now lay on the floor.

He was not afraid, not for himself, but he knew that if Morgan smelled her, he would react and fast. Morgan didn’t have the senses that Drake had—and he had managed to overlook her shifter, but Drake couldn’t guarantee that Morgan or one of the older bears riding in the MC would do that, too.

Angelina didn’t have to be told that. He could see on her face that she was scared. “Stay here. I’m going outside, okay?”

She nodded, but he saw her gaze dart around the room, either looking for a weapon or a way out.

He strode out, his thoughts churning as he wrenched open the door and stepped outside into the early morning sunshine.

Morgan swung a leg off his bike and came storming up. “Where the fuck were you last night? I kept trying to call you.”

“At a gig, a big one. One that was important to me.”

Morgan’s eyes narrowed. “Hell’s breaking loose, Drake, and you better get your shit and ride right now, because we have tigers in the hood, and what’s more—we got a few wolves upsetting the whole apple cart, so to speak. It seems that Joaquin’s sure that one of ours has his mate, and is calling for war.”

Shit. Drake didn’t let his eyes drift to the house. “You’re kidding.”

“Fuck, no, I’m not. Magda’s calling for order or death, and she doesn’t care which.”

“Of course, she doesn’t. She’s been itching for war for years.” Goddammit. “Let me grab my keys.”

He headed back into the house and grabbed a jacket and his keys. He went into the bedroom. Angelina stood near the door, a baseball bat in her hands. He held up his hands. “Don’t swing, I’m unarmed.”

Angelina’s eyes flicked over his shoulders. There was distrust in every line on her pretty face and in every rigid angle of her body. “What’s going on?”

“I need you to get somewhere safe and let me know where you are.”

“What’s happening?”

She was not going to let him off the hook then. “I don’t have time to explain it, but we have tigers in the hood and…”

“Joaquin.”

No use in lying. “That, too. I have about three seconds before Morgan crashes into the house. I have to go. Let me know where you are; promise me you will. In fact, I want you to go to Pete’s. He’ll let you hang, and he won’t try anything crazy. He won’t even ask for a reason—he’s that kind of dude.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

Not quite a promise, and he knew it. He wanted to press, but time was running out. He turned to go then paused and swept her into a quick embrace, pressing his lips to hers before heading back out.

His thoughts tangled and ran too fast for him to make any order of them. He had to protect her and right now the best way he could do that was to ride, and to get her out of the house and out of the way.

Drake swung a leg over his boke. Everyone else was waiting. He hit the switch and the engine roared into life, the powerful motor purring and rumbling below his body. His hands found the handlebars, and he let the idle ratchet up a little higher.

Morgan led the way, Drake falling in right behind him.

Resentment gnawed at him. He had never wanted to be Alpha, and that was the honest truth. He did not resent Morgan for being Alpha either, but he damn sure resented being ordered around and never being able to live his own life without the constant reminder of loyalty to a pack he didn’t really want to be a part of. He also resented the fact that he was a rider in a club comprised of criminal activity that could, and likely would, one day result in a prison sentence for him.

There was no doubt in Drake’s mind that if shit went wrong, he would be called upon to take the fall for Morgan, because Morgan was Alpha and they were twins and that was what Magda would demand.

His life was not his own, would never be his own.

The air ran across his body, and he kept the bike tooling along at a high speed. Morgan was careless and wild on the back of a bike, just like he was careless and wild in every other way.

Morgan thrived on the criminal element of his life. He loved it and the pack. He loved being Alpha, but unlike Joaquin and Magda, he was not power hungry, or willing to do whatever it took to get and keep power, which was probably his best and saving grace.

They hit the end of the hood, riding hard along the narrow and crooked streets. The houses, all middle-income and ranch style on that end, lay huddled under the splashes of sunlight and shade from the tall palm trees dotting the yards.

Morgan lifted a hand. Drake looked forward, and his senses lit up. There, sitting at an outside table at a little café, was a man they both knew all too well. The bikes turned and Drake leaned over his handlebars as he goosed the bike up higher, racing along behind Morgan as Morgan waved a hand again, telling the others to split off and go to the right, a move that would cut off the man if he tried to run and make sure that if he had anyone at his back, they would know it. Plus, that would give Morgan and Drake the ability to speak with the tiger shifter in private, a boon.

Drake and Morgan coasted to a halt near the curb. The man stood and walked toward them, a smile on his wrinkled face.

Drake said, “Patel, you’re in the wrong hood.”

“I knew you would scent me, and I am not running, now am I?”

Morgan cut off his bike. Drake did the same. They’d have to keep shouting otherwise, and this was not a conversation they wanted anyone else to hear. The rest of the café patrons were far enough from the actual curb and traffic was heavy enough to cover their words, as long as they spoke softly.

Drake eyed Patel, who was old now, a wizened man with weathered skin and dark eyes.

“What do you want and how dare you come into our territory?” Morgan asked.

“I was looking for something.” Patel lifted a hand and for a second long and sharp claws showed at the ends of his fingers. “Your mother is too busy trying to take over the world to see what is happening in her own backyard, so I came to see for myself.”

Drake’s body tightened. He shot Morgan a look. He wanted to tell Patel to talk, but Morgan was Alpha so that had to come from him. Drake’s toes tapped at the asphalt impatiently while he waited for Morgan to speak.

Finally he did. “What’re you talking about, Patel?”

The old Nepali tiger shifter lifted his chin. “The muties are rising. All over LA, they’re starting to get a little angry. They’re being accused, and there’s talk of burning out mutie hideouts.”

Shit . Patel had to be kidding! Who the hell was threatening to do that? Drake looked at Morgan again, trying to read his face. Morgan was not privy to all of Magda’s shady political stunts, but it was not exactly a well-kept secret that Joaquin and Magda were in business, if not in bed, together.

Morgan asked, “Who’d burn out the mutie hideouts and why?”

Patel rolled his head on his shoulders, a cunning look on his wrinkled face. “So, you really don’t know? I’ll tell you then. Joaquin swears his mate got taken by a bear mutie. It sounds to me like he’s picked a fight, and now we’re all in it, whether we want to be or not.”

Tension tightened up Drake’s shoulders. “Why’s this your reason to come here again? I mean, if he caught the scent of a bear mutie, what does that have to do with us? We have no muties in our ranks and if Joaquin picks a fight, how is it ours?”

Patel’s face showed impatience. “Joaquin knows the muties are dying to start a war. They are just looking for a reason. His mate being snatched by a mutie seems like a damn good reason to start a war with them, and he has already started to push at them. He’s sticking a sword into a hornet’s nest.”

She’s not his mate. She never made that promise, her father did. Drake blanked that thought out of his mind before his anger could show on his face.

Morgan frowned. “How so, and why is any of this your, or our, problem? We don’t suffer muties; we set them out as soon as they are born, just like we all do.”

Patel’s eyes swept across the twin brothers, a spark of rage in those dark orbs. “I don’t know where the girl is, and I would not care, except for the fact that Joaquin’s using her running off with what he swears is a bear mutie as an excuse to try to wage war.

“We all know that there’s a lot of muties with something against me and mine. We were the ones who outlawed their being in the packs originally, and we were the ones who ordered all muties be sent away at adulthood—left without a pack. Then we were the ones who decreed that the muties should be sent to fosters when they were children to avoid the heartache caused by sending them off later.

“The muties have a score to settle with the tigers. We know this. We watch them. Joaquin’s pushing at them will end in war, and when it does, the hatred the muties have for mine will result in bloodshed. Maybe enough bloodshed that Joaquin can swoop in and take over; he might have the numbers to quell the muties, and indebt us in doing so.”

Drake’s mind staggered at the possibilities. Patel was right. Joaquin was the only Alpha with a pack large enough to hold off the muties, who outnumbered the shifters to a large degree.

His blood ran cold as he considered all the angles. That’s his reason on the top of it all, but the truth is he wants the tiger’s hood for its assets, and Magda also wants that territory for the same reason so she won’t ally herself with the tigers if the muties break loose. Joaquin has enough numbers to back them off from East LA, but once the blood goes to spilling, the muties won’t stop. They hate us, and always have, and if they can’t get at Joaquin, they really will go after their first enemy, and the bears will be next.

“You don’t let in dope or crime,” Morgan said softly. “There’s not enough money in your territory for it to be attractive. Besides, if the muties come after the shifters—and that’s a fight that’s been brewing for decades—you know we will have no choice but to band together. Joaquin knows it, too.”

Patel’s eyes glittered dangerously. “But would he? Would Magda allow you to band with me and mine? Or would she and Joaquin just watch my territory burn before they stepped in? I think it’s the latter. You can adore your mother all you like, but I see her game plan. She wants legit businesses and we have them. If she controlled that, and the drug trade and whatever else you are into, she would have a good way to launder money and everything else.”

Morgan snarled, “Watch your tongue, old man, or you might just lose it.”

Drake’s hand met Morgan’s arm. “Chill out,” Drake said softly. “He’s speaking the truth and you know it. Magda’s desperate for legit businesses she can stash money into. I don’t know if she wants yours, Patel, but I’m willing to concede that but nothing else, so watch your tongue. I may have little love for Magda, but Morgan’s my brother and Alpha. I’ll back him up even if he chooses to kill you right here on the sidewalk.”

He would, too. He would have to.

The expression on Morgan’s face didn’t change. “Is the girl with a mutie?”

“I don’t know if she is with a bear or not.” Patel’s smile was thinly bladed as a knife edge. “But I’m quite sure there may be some truth to her having run off with… someone. If she did, she deserves to be brought to justice for breaking the laws that govern us all. No shifter may mate outside its species.”

Drake’s blood ran cold as Patel’s eyes met his. The old man seemed to be talking directly to him. Was he? Did Patel know about him and Angelina? The old bastard was a slick fucker, always sticking his nose into business best left be. Curiosity and cats and all that.

Patel went on, “What I do know is she isn’t planning on going back.”

“You think not?” Morgan’s body shifted slightly, his weight going to the balls of his feet. Drake dropped his hand. Morgan was listening now, and not so tense. Thank God. Drake wanted to hear whatever Patel had to say next.

Patel snorted. “I know she isn’t. The non-shifting wolf—it’s gone. The girl was apparently fond of it, as it was a litter mate. Again, I don’t know if there is any truth to the bear thing, mutie or otherwise, but I tend to believe it’s just a cause to come into my grounds.

“If Joaquin isn’t satisfied. If the girl’s not returned, and the muties are prodded into war that effects my territory, I’ll bring full war to you, Morgan, and all of yours—humans and shifters alike. That’s a promise.”

Morgan looked at Drake. “That’s only fair, but you have no proof that the girl’s with a mutie. You also have no proof that Magda and Joaquin are plotting to take your territory. Besides, Magda wouldn’t grant permission for Joaquin to take over your territory even if you did have to wage war with the muties and even if that war left your kind on the run and your hood open for that.”

Patel’s teeth showed sharp and pointed. “She does not have the power to grant permission, you mean. Remember that. Magda has no permission or power to run things in my territory, but she would absolutely turn her head and pretend she did not see Joaquin breaking the territory pacts if it gave her something she wanted. If she could manage to take over my ground after a war, she would set one in motion. Magda’s not the only problem right now though, and I came here to not only tell you what I see Joaquin and Magda attempting, but to tell you we all have a bigger problem at hand.”

Drake broke in, “The muties.”

Patel nodded. “It’s going to be a war. They hate us, and they hate humans. We’re all things they hate and they outnumber us. We need to band together right now, not fight, at least not until we solve this problem.”

Morgan said, “I’ll send you an answer on that. For now, I want you out of my territory. Don’t breach it again, Patel, not unless you’re given permission to do so.”

Goddammit. Morgan’s smarting and letting it show. He’s Alpha in name only and everyone knows that Magda still pulls all the strings. It’s eating at his pride, and Patel just cut his pride, too. This won’t stay chill unless Patel gets out of here .

Patel headed for the small compact car he had parked along the curb. He drove off. The bikes came roaring back down the road.

“You better get that girl out of your house, Drake. Like yesterday,” Morgan said under his breath.

What? Drake’s eyes jerked to Morgan’s.

Morgan gave him a weary smile. “You smell like wolf. Do you think Patel didn’t notice? For all his talk, he will switch sides in a heartbeat and you know it. Trusting him’s like trusting a busted engine to get you down the road.”

He did smell like Angelina. He’d been careless. His heart sank as he realized that. He might have just given her location up, especially if Patel decided to run to Joaquin and tell him in a bid to buy time.

Where did she go? Is she okay? Is she going to call me or just run?

The last thought made his heart crack. He could not stand the idea that she might not, that she might decide to cut her losses and just keep going.

She had to contact him. She had to. He needed her in his life and in the band—and in his bed and heart.

Shaken at the emotions spiraling all through him, Drake swung a leg over his bike then paused. “You think there’s any truth to the muties rising?”

Morgan sighed. “God, that’s one thing I hope to never see, but for real? Yeah, if it was serious enough for him to come here to talk about it, then I think it’s a real issue.”

Morgan’s eyes met Drake’s squarely. Drake could not tell what Morgan was thinking.

“You do know he isn’t wrong about Magda, or Joaquin, or them wanting his territory,” Drake said.

Morgan sighed. “You know what, Drake? You been away too long. We ride, and you ride with us today and tonight. Then you talk to me about that question you just asked.”

CHAPTER 9:

Angelina parked her car away from the usual entrance into the park. The lot was on the cliff’s side where the most serious hikers went so the lot was higher up, and it was far less visible. It was also deserted.

At least I only took a few things into his house and hiding the car was brilliant, and now—bonus—I have all my stuff with me.

Even the guitar, which was now in the case Pete had given her a few nights ago, when he had realized that she didn’t have one for the instrument.

She had a tent, a bunch of food and water, and other supplies. She needed time, and she needed to think. The car was not likely to get her caught. Even if someone scented her out at Drake’s, they were highly unlikely to be able to follow the scent of her car, unless they just happened to come to the trails in the sprawling and vast park.

The trails were steep, and she was tired. The equipment was heavy, and she had to make two trips to get it all where she wanted it.

She’d tossed her phone out earlier. Joaquin was no dummy, and why he had not already tracked the phone was anyone’s guess, but she knew if he had not thought of it yet, he would soon.

She had a new burner phone and the only number in it was Drake’s. The campsite she had picked out was off the beaten track, it was high on a small mesa, and she could see the city from there. Tears ran down her face as she gazed down at the teeming metropolis below.

How can I miss him so much when I barely know him? How can I want his so much when he is a bear and I am a wolf? How can I be so heartbroken over him when I didn’t even know that I love him?

I love him.

Oh.

My.

God.

She did love him. There was no rhyme or reason to it, but she loved him. She loved the way he rode that bike and the way he played guitar. She loved the way he was capable of putting all his emotions into a song and those same emotions from her when she sang those songs that he wrote.

She loved him.

Hoping to ease her heart, Angelina stood and began to walk, looking for Mario.

**

She didn’t find Mario that night or the next day. She sat at her little camp, drinking a bottle of water and staring at her cell phone. The sun was high, so she was in the tent, hoping to avoid the worst of the heat and the scorpions running around on the washed-out trails.

Where was Drake? Was he okay? Had he been found out? Had he forgotten all about her?

A low whine caught her ear and she listened, a smile lifting her mouth and her mood as she recognized Mario’s tone and smell.

She climbed out of the tent and stood, looking down at Mario. “Hey, you. How’s your mate?”

He lifted his head, and she followed the thrust of his snout. The she-wolf was nearby. She was standing fully on her foot, so she was healing. Mario barked once, and the she-wolf turned, heading down the steep ravine, obviously on the hunt for food.

Angelina said, “I got some food if you want it.”

Mario looked away, a clear no. Even through the heavy hiking shoes the heat of the ground was apparent. Angelina shifted her weight. “I’m scared, Mario.”

His eyes came back to hers and before she could stop herself, she poured out the whole story, of Drake and the band and how much she loved it and him, how she wanted to be his mate even though he was a bear and how lonely she was without him. How impossible it all seemed, and how frightened she was that Joaquin would run unchecked if she did not do something and soon, but how afraid she felt at the thought of standing against him.

Angelina collapsed into the small camp chair, staring at the remnants of the fire. “I don’t know what to do.”

Mario whined. She looked over at him, her mouth opening to speak. Instead, her jaw hung loose and slack and her eyes widened until her eyes were in real danger of bulging right out of her face.

“You…” she said, her voice choked and strangled. “You… you can shift.”

Mario grabbed a bush and held it in front of his crotch. Her eyes fastened on his face. He was handsome, swarthy and sharp-featured. Tall and broad, too. “Why? I mean how? I… what the literal fuck?”

“I chose.” His words were slurry and badly formed. It was obvious talking was not easy for him. “Long time ago. I remember. You don’t. I saw him kill our mother. She was like…” He made a sound, a short little howl followed by a click in his throat. His mate’s name, she realized.

Angelina grabbed the first thought that came into her head. “We knew Mom was wild and he had to escape the zoo. He couldn’t take her with him—and if he had, she wouldn’t have survived out here. She couldn’t shift.”

“Killed her.”

He’s confused. Or he doesn’t know what words he’s using. “No. Mario, that’s not the right word.”

“Yes.” He nodded. “I know. I saw. He wanted pups, not her.”

No. He had to be wrong! “Mario…”

“Saw it. Knew he did it because of us. Shifters.”

No. No Dad would never… Her throat went tight. “Mario, why don’t you shift? I mean, why… why choose…”

“Better for me. Like better. I’m wolf. Not human.”

He was human. Tears sent crystallized rainbows dancing into the field of her vision.

“You want bear, choose. You want no… Joaquin’s…” Mario’s brow wrinkled. “Nobody cares what they say when I’m near. They don’t think I understand. I hear, and understand. Sam’s with the muties. He’s going to try to take the pack from Joaquin with muties. Joaquin’s with bears and…”

“Stop. Wait. What? Muties?”

“I go now. Have to. She’s mine, abut only wolf mine,” Mario said.

Angelina heard a rattle of rock nearby. The she-wolf Mario had mated to was returning.

“Mario, are you sure about Sam?”

“If you had kids, he would kill them for Alpha spot. Says muties make him Alpha.”

Your pack. Not ours. “Sam’s betraying Joaquin?”

“Joaquin wants war. Says it will end tigers and bears but not wolves. Says many muties die. Then easier to take over. But Sam’s playing both sides. He’s weak, weaker even than Joaquin. Wanted to be Alpha. Sam said Dad made sure he’d never be. Pissed off.” He touched her shoulder lightly. “Goodbye. Don’t come here again. Too dangerous. The mate wants… not like us. Not… she sees food and weakness now when you come.”

The she-wolf wants to kill and eat me! And after I saved her paw too, the ungrateful bitch!

She whispered, “Don’t go.”

“I did already. I chose. You choose. Be… you.”

Then he shifted and raced away from the campsite. Angelina heard the yips of greeting between him and his mate. She collapsed, putting her head in her hands. What was happening? Mario could shift?

Could—and chose not to.

Because he didn’t want that life. He wanted a different life. He wanted a wild life, one he got to live the way he chose. He’d always been prone to vanishing and skulking through the neighborhood and she knew now that what he had really been doing, for years, was searching for a place he could be—and for a mate that would accept him.

The she-wolf obviously knew he was different. What was more, she was older, past the age of bearing litters. So, he would not have to worry about that, and she was an exile, too, for her strangely colored coat and her smaller size. They were both outsiders who had made something special.

Like what she could have with Drake, if she just decided to.

Chose to.

Angelina stood and reached for her phone again, her fingers hitting the screen.

CHAPTER 10:

Where is she? Drake stopped on the trail. Sweat ran down his face in rivulets and he checked the time on his phone, groaning when he saw that the signal was gone again.

He’d thought she would come up here but maybe he had been wrong, or he was in the wrong spot.

Or maybe she’s gone, totally. Maybe she ran to New York or somewhere else, somewhere she can sing and just live and be free.

A hawk soared overhead, its distinctive cry drawing his attention. The few days of freedom that they’d had, the too few days and nights of music and love, had reinforced his knowledge that he wanted more than just to be left out of the politics of the pack; he wanted a life beyond the pack.

But there was the rub. Being with Angelina meant he would have to get involved with those politics. Being with her meant defending her and not just from Joaquin, but from both their kinds. Morgan didn’t seem to care one way or another—but Magda would and unfortunately Morgan had yet to find his real footing.

He’s going to have to kill her one day. Or I am going to have to, just to set him free of her influence. The hell of it is that Morgan’s not a coward—he just can’t seem to shake her off. Magda’s always been good at making people feel like she is frail and afraid and then using their wanting to protect her against them.

He headed back the way he had come, his mind still wrestling with all the information. If he wanted to be with Angelina, and he did, then he was going to have to figure out a way to do it. That might mean leaving LA, striking out for a place where they weren’t known.

But anywhere they went, shifters would know them, and know they were unalike. Anywhere they went, they would have to fight to survive. There were plenty of places in LA not held by the shifters but many of them were held by other kinds: vamps and fey and so on. There was only one territory where no others were—and that was Beverly Hills, which had too many wards and other shit in place for a shifter to go unnoticed.

A scorpion scuttled over one of his boots. Drake shook it off, sending it flying off into the shifting sand. Goddammit! Where was Angelina and how long was he going to keep going around and around on these damn trails in the hopes of finding her?

He’d spent the last few days and nights taking care of business with his club. That meant running drugs and overseeing a few shipments headed out to East LA and to Joaquin, who was as angry as Patel had claimed, and still insisting that it was a mutie he had scented that day.

Magda had championed a war with the muties, much to Morgan’s dismay. Drake wanted to believe that Morgan would stand against slaughter but he also knew that if Morgan did he would be fighting off not just Magda and the humans at her beck and call but his own pack—and Joaquin’s.

I can’t do that to him.

No, he couldn’t. He also couldn’t stand the idea of Angelina going back to Joaquin. Or being without her.

He should leave it alone. On her own, she stood a chance.

She could get somewhere she could blend in and not be noticed. He knew there were smaller cities, like Austin, with crazy good music scenes. Angelina belonged somewhere like that, in a place where she could have a life that was solely hers and nobody else’s. If she went alone, a lone shifter with no allegiances and posing no threat, she’d be accepted if not tolerated.

His phone rang. He didn’t recognize the number, and he was tempted to ignore it. He decided at the last minute to answer and as soon as he did, his heart swelled with both joy and worry.

“Drake?” Angelina said softly.

“I’m here.” He stopped and stood there, his eyes closing and his heart filling. “No matter what, I’m here.”

CHAPTER 11:

Drake ditched the bike in a parking garage on the fringes of Hollywood. Angelina parked in a space not far from his and they stood there, looking at each other. Her face was wan and pale, and dirty, too. He had hugged her earlier but he did again. Her whole body shook as she leaned into him and whispered, “Drake, I’m scared.”

“I know.” Me, too. I’m scared I’m going to get you killed. “We have to move and fast. There’s muties around, and… and we need to avoid them as long as possible.”

“Why?”

He didn’t want to tell her just yet. She was shocked and scared and at the end of her strength, too. Being alone in the mountains had hit her hard, and he had a feeling there was more to it than even that.

“I just don’t want anyone who might think to tell Joaquin where you are to spot us.” He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile and took her hand. The only thing she took out of the car was the guitar, which he carried, and a small bag of clothes.

She tucked the keys into her pocket and they set off, walking down the sidewalk hastily. There was a sprawling motel not far and Drake said, “That’s where we are headed. It’s not fancy, but I think it might be clean. No promises, though.”

She chuckled. “I don’t really care right now. I just want some food, a shower and a bed.”

He wanted a bed, too, with her in it. His steps quickened, and they stepped into a musty and faded lobby where he paid cash and didn’t have to tender an ID, a good thing, but not a good sign.

The room was equally musty. The curtains had moth holes and the comforter and carpet smelled like stale cigarette smoke. The bathroom was reasonably clean however and as much as he wanted to join her in there, Drake had a feeling Angelina needed a minute alone. He called for pizza and sat down on the bed, his teeth worrying his bottom lip.

He’d left his phone on his bike, in a saddlebag. Safer that way. It also cut him off from any communication with anyone who might be able to help them.

Not that he had any idea of who might be willing to aid him in running away with a wolf shifter, and one promised to the Alpha of the pack.

Angelina came out of the bathroom and all of his thoughts vanished like dust. She held a towel, thin and threadbare, up over her breasts, but it did nothing to hide her lush and gorgeous body.

Her thick black hair hung in a wet sheet. Little beads of water ran off the strands, forming little wet trails that slid down the pert slope of her breasts and fired up his lust to an unimaginable height.

“Come here,” he said, and she came, dropping the towel as she did so. The sight of her tits, with the nipples already hardened and thrusting upward, the gleam of her skin, and the smile on her face as she sauntered into the bed, nearly did him in.

He undressed so fast he nearly tore his shirt and then he moved on top of her. His hands roamed her body and his tongue followed. He needed her too much to be slow or subtle. It had taken a toll on him, being separated from her, and he wanted her so badly he could scarcely breathe.

Her skin was smooth and tight, and he let his mouth find the flesh between her legs, his tongue going into her body to taste the fluids gathered there at the entrance to her snug sheath. Her fingers grabbed at his hair, and he let her hold on as he licked her clit, not bothering to go slow, driving her to an orgasm as fast as he could, because he knew the minute he started to fuck her he was going to erupt. His cock, swollen and throbbing, was ready and he wanted to be inside her tight depths more than he had ever wanted anything in his entire life.

Salty-sweet fluids spilled over his tongue, coated his chin. Drake moved upward and entered her all in one long smooth motion. His ass clenched as he plunged into her and withdrew, too eager to wait. The feel of her pussy pulsing around him as she rode the aftershocks of her orgasm was a pleasurable thing all in itself and he stayed inside her for a moment, grinding his hips hard before pulling out and entering her again.

Her legs wrapped around his waist, holding him there as his hips jerked and bucked and his breath got faster and faster still. His cock pounded, and he could feel his balls tightening and creeping upward as he got closer to coming.

His eyes closed. Her body writhed under his. His cock filled her wet and slippery passage and he withdrew, knowing that the next thrust would be the last one, the one that would send him over the edge.

It was. He came so hard his body shuddered and jerked. His hands gripped her shoulders tightly and she whimpered, a quick exclamation of pain that made him loosen that hold as his seed, thick and hot, poured out of his cock and splashed into her walls.

Angelina murmured, “Did you hear something?”

He did then. A tap on the door. He groaned out, “I think it’s the pizza. Fuck it. I’m staying right here.”

Angelina rolled him off her body and said, “Uh uh. Go get the food!”

CHAPTER 12:

Still glowing from the lovemaking, Angelina reclined on the pillows, a slice of sausage and mushroom pizza in one hand. The gooey melted cheese and thick crust was delicious, much better than the rough meals she had been making do with.

Drake was also eating, but in between bites, he was strumming chords on her guitar and singing snatches of songs to her.

Angelina finished her slice and asked, “Drake, what happens next?”

He set the guitar down. His eyes were troubled. “I don’t know. Honestly, I should let you go. I mean, you deserve a chance to be the great singer you are, but if you stay with me…”

He let the sentence dwindle off. He didn’t have to say the rest.

“I made up my mind, up there in the hills. I want you, Drake, and well…” She paused. “You know shifters have babies faster?”

He nodded. “Yeah, biologically speaking, sure. Why?”

“Because we’re having one.”

His mouth dropped open. “What?”

Well, at least he didn’t run as soon as the words were out. “I’m pregnant.”

Drake dropped the pizza. It hit the sheets, leaving a stain. Not that she figured that would matter that much. The sheets were pretty dingy anyway.

“You… you… I thought two different species… I… you see, I couldn’t… You know, that is why I was not named Alpha.”

“I know. I don’t know what happened.” Oh no. Was he doubting he was the father? It was possible. How could she blame him if he did? They were different and there had never been a child born of two species of shifter, as far as she knew. It was supposed to be genetically impossible and he had been denied the Alpha spot for his inability to produce kids.

“Wait. How did they know you couldn’t?” she asked.

He gave her a wary glance. “It’s not like I was a virgin when I met you.”

“I know that. But did you try to have kids?”

He shrugged. “Well, in my pack, monogamy isn’t exactly a thing. I mean, I had a few who were in heat and they never got pregnant so, well, it was just assumed.”

“But Morgan could have kids?”

Drake’s face darkened. “He had a mate he wanted to be with for life, but she died.”

“Oh.” There was something there, and she did not want to know what it was. It was personal and it was none of her business until he decided, if he decided, to make it her business.

Drake burst into laughter. “I guess I proved them all wrong, didn’t I?”

I’m going to have a heart attack. I am. Does this mean he’s okay with this?

Am I okay with this?

Drake paused. “Angelina, you do know we can’t… I mean, how will we know what it will shift as?”

She lifted her shoulders and dropped them. “I don’t know,” she admitted. Her chest gave off a powerful ache. “What if it’s something that is both wolf and bear? Is that even possible?”

“I guess we’ll see.”

“That sounds pretty nonchalant.”

He shrugged. “I guess. I just don’t know what to say to that one. I’ve never heard of it happening. If it has, nobody’s talking about it.”

He had a point. That didn’t halt the worry growing in her being. “I’m afraid that something will… that our child will be something they try to kill. They exile muties, you know. They send mutie kids away as soon as they know for sure they can’t shift at will, and I don’t know where they’d send a child like ours, but I know one thing.” Her hand curled protectively around her belly. Her fingertips grazed the still flat flesh there and her eyes lifted to his. “They’ll take my child over my dead body.”

Drake’s eyes glowed. His face wore an intent expression. “ Our dead bodies,” he corrected her. “No way am I letting them take our child.”

Her breath caught and held. He meant it. They were in this together, and he would stand with her and for their baby. Her voice was husky as she said, “Maybe we better run. I don’t know where. There has to be somewhere we could go.”

“I thought that, too, at first, but we can’t now. You have to know that, Angelina. We can’t run forever, and we can’t hide forever.”

No, they couldn’t. Their child would be something so different he or she would be bound to draw attention unless they hid that baby away from everyone and even if they succeeded in hiding the child from shifters, humans would sense the difference, just like some humans sensed the difference in her, and Drake.

“Then what do we do?”

His teeth gnawed at his bottom lip. “I didn’t want to talk about this tonight, but we have to. Joaquin’s started a war with the muties. He claims you are with a bear mutie and now the muties, outraged and being accused and having the wolf pack riding through their territory, are rebelling.”

Oh, my God! Her mouth hung open. Stunned and infuriated, and very frightened now, she said, “He thought you were a mutie?”

Drake shook his head. “No. I don’t believe that he did. Patel…”

“The tiger?”

“The same. He came into bear territory. He thinks Joaquin is deliberately stirring the pot so we have to fight the muties. Then, when the smoke clears, all the territory belonging to the tigers would be up for grabs.”

“The tigers were the ones who created mutie laws.” Angelina’s brow furrowed. “And they have the smallest pack. Their numbers have dwindled over the years—from what I hear, they barely have four or five dozen shifters in their ranks now.”

“That’s about right. Wolves, on the other hand, number in the hundreds in your pack alone and there’s wolf packs all over LA. There’s been peace for the most part, and all that, and if they had to band together for a common enemy, that would only reinforce their one-ness.”

“Joaquin has the biggest and strongest pack. The other packs are small, a dozen or so here and there. If they all banded together under Joaquin, he’d run the largest shifter pack in the city.” A vertical slash appeared between her eyes. “What about the bears?”

“We number in the hundreds, and we have an army of humans—criminals and psychopaths, for the most part. If they don’t know about the shifter thing, they will, and what’s more, they won’t care. Not if there’s blood, money, and territory up for grabs.”

“The tigers’ territory.”

“Exactly. It’s the one territory that’s run on legit money, and Magda wants it so she can launder the very large amounts of money we bring in. She’s using Joaquin, grooming him for this, if you want the truth.”

Her breath hissed in and out of her lungs. “She’ll kill him.”

“I’m sure.” Drake laid a hand on her shoulder. “She’s likely already got a replacement for him all lined up, too. Probably a wolf with ambition and not a lot of power, one she can manipulate.”

She had to tell him about Mario. She took a deep breath yet again. “My brother, Mario…”

“The non-shifter.”

A small laugh escaped her mouth. “That’s what we always thought. He can shift. He did shift when he came to see me up there. He told me that Sam’s working with the muties.”

“Then he’s Magda’s pigeon. She’s playing on both sides. She’s likely sent him in there to make a deal of some kind.”

Confusion surfaced. She leaned closer to him. The point of one of her shoulders met his, bringing warmth to her body, but it was not enough to dispel the chill creeping across her. “Why would she do that?”

“Because the muties are an army. If she controls them, she could control everything. The entire city.”

Her shoulder slumped. “She’s going to get Sam killed.”

“I know.”

“Why?” She got out of bed. “What is it about power that some have to have it? Would do anything for it?”

“I don’t know, but I only see one way for this to play out, Angelina. I want a life with you. I want our child safe, if not totally accepted. There’s only one way to do that.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I can’t kill Morgan. I can’t. First of all, he may be the strongest ally that we have, not just against the muties either, but against Magda.”

Okay. I get that. I just don’t get the rest of what he is trying to say here . “You’re going to have to break it down to me, Drake.”

He’d set the guitar aside earlier and now he clambered out of the bed carefully so as not to harm the delicate instrument. “There’s only one way to put an end to this that I can see. We have to take over Joaquin’s pack.”

Shock rippled through her. She swayed on her feet. “You can’t kill him, Drake. That would mean war.”

His eyes were steady. “I know I can’t.”

Her! He meant she had to kill Joaquin! Distrust raised its ugly head. How did she know that this, any of this, was not some elaborate plot cooked up by the bear pack? How did she know she could trust Drake?

Her heart spoke then. She did trust him. She did. She trusted him and she loved him and the child growing in her belly would need the protection only an Alpha could give. Morgan, as Alpha of the bear pack, could give that on Drake’s side, which was why Drake could not kill him—that and the pack would never accept Drake, even if their theory that he could not bear children had just been proven wrong.

I just said I would kill for my child. I meant that. Now I have to actually do it. There are no other options. She nodded her head. “That won’t solve the issue with the muties though. If they’re already spoiling for a fight, they will come anyway.”

“Magda has them whipped up with this. I don’t have any doubt she told Joaquin to say it was a mutie. I also have no doubt that she might have an idea, a damn good one, that it was me.”

Pain lanced through her. Drake was a pawn in a game his mother was playing, and he knew it. He was a powerful man and a powerful shifter and… and maybe Magda had deliberately set him aside for just that reason. Morgan was likely easier for her to control, and it would have been easy enough to level an accusation of sterility onto Drake and displace him.

She asked, “When?”

“I’d say tomorrow. We both need rest, and we need a plan. We need help, too.”

“Is there anyone we can trust?”

His face showed how conflicted he was. There were shadows in his eyes and his lips compressed into flat lines. “I want to say yes, but I think the best thing to say is that there might be a few who want the same things we want, and hope they are willing to work with us on that goal.”

“I’m with you,” she said softly. “No matter how this pans out.”

Drake swept her back into his arms. The steady thud of his heartbeat rang out in her ear. “And I’m with you.”

CHAPTER 13:

Morgan gawked at the two of them and at Patel and the woman with him. Drake studied Morgan’s face; seeing the strain on it caused an ache in his gut but there was not much he could do about it just then.

“You want our approval to battle your Alpha?” the woman asked.

Angelina nodded. “You know it’s an old law. It was redacted because of the infighting in the packs but… but we need to use it now.”

The woman, a beautiful creature with honey-colored skin and dark eyes and hair, leaned forward. Her scarlet dress floated around her slender body, giving her the impression of fragility but Angelina was not fooled. Aya was one of the most powerful shifters in LA, and maybe even the country. She was tiger, and it showed in the lithe and supple way she moved and her restlessness as she prowled along the room. “We’d be putting ourselves at risk for that. We will already bear the brunt of the muties wrath, and now you want us to bear the brunt of the wolf pack’s wrath as well.”

“My daughter is correct in that. We’d be opening ourselves to more retribution. You,” Patel pointed a finger at Morgan, “can afford it. Magda may even forgive you for it, since she can always deny she had any part in any of this, but us? We’d be overridden, and we have no guarantees that either pack, wolf or bear, would stand with us.”

Morgan shook his head. “I don’t want to believe that Magda had any part of this but… I can see it. I know what she is, and I also know she can’t be allowed to continue. That’s a matter for another day. You have my word there will be no retribution from my pack.”

Drake held his breath. The meaning of those words was clear enough. Morgan would have to either kill or depose their mother. There was no other way and the tension in Morgan’s face and body told Drake just how seriously he took what he had just said—and how much it hurt him to say so.

“I will kill him,” Angelina vowed. “Joaquin’s no fighter. He’s Alpha by blood and heritage, but he’s weak. He’s a bully. He will fight but only those he thinks are too weak to fight back. He won’t live, that I can attest to.”

Aya glared at her. “If you fail?”

“Then I will kill him.” Drake knew the words would bring shock. “I’m not asking for forgiveness in that either. With Joaquin dead, I’ll be the target for the wolves. I know that, but the only way Angelina’s going to fail is if Joaquin kills her, which I won’t let happen. Either way, he will die.”

“We can’t protect you if you kill him,“ Morgan pointed out. “Even if she lives and he dies, if you are the one who kills him, she may not become Alpha. Heritage aside, a battle like the one you are asking for means the Alpha’s place is up for grabs. Any wolf who’d challenge would be right there. You might have the bloodiest battle of all time on your hands, and you both stand a good chance of dying anyway.”

“The wolves who are against Joaquin would settle up, I think.” Angelina paused. “Not all the pack wanted to see things go in that direction. They were forced to it for the most part, because we follow our Alpha. There’s only one other who’d challenge and I plan to deal with him, too.”

Drake knew now was the time to press the point. The muties were gathering and making no secret of it if Patel was to be believed. Given the very real fear the old man was showing at that moment, Drake did believe him.

Magda had to be stopped. He had a baby and a woman to protect, and he would do whatever it took.

Patel said, “Aya, you will be the one to lead the tiger pack. This has to be your decision now.”

Drake looked at Aya and then at Morgan. Morgan stared at Aya, his eyes clinging to her stunning face with what could only be described as a real longing.

Drake blinked. I’ll be a sonofabitch. No wonder he shrugged off me and Angelina so easily! He’s hot for Aya, even if he would never admit it, not even to himself .

Aya lowered her head. Her dark hair swung forward like curtains, obscuring her face. Long moments passed. Sweat broke out on Drake’s skin.

Aya lifted her head. “The law of battle is allowed, in this instance. We shall call it into law now, and here.”

Drake’s body loosened. His muscles ached from the tautness he had been holding them with. Angelina stepped forward. Her hand came out. Morgan stepped forward as well.

Their hands met. Drake watched. Once upon a time, he had truly resented being displaced as Alpha. It had hurt, and he had never admitted that before. Seeing three people standing in the center of the room: bear, wolf, and tiger, all agreeing to an unholy pact, he understood something right then.

This was the way it was supposed to be. He had never been meant to be Alpha, because sometimes nature decided and sometimes fate took over. This was fate. This was right.

CHAPTER 14:

Wind stroked along Angelina’s face. Under her fingers, Drake’s belly, tight with muscles, was hard and comforting. Strong vibrations rolled through her body as Drake guided the motorcycle along the streets, its single headlight picking out shapes and illuminating them.

Her body moved with his easily as he guided the bike along. That rhythm, riding with him, was as natural as making love to him.

Her thighs tightened, clinging to him in a reaction to that thought and the erotic sensations coming from the vibrating bike and the nearness of his body.

When this is done, we’ll be free. That is what I have to remember and cling to. When this is over, I’ll hold the power of Alpha and I can decree us acceptable as a couple. We can play our music and raise our child.

But first I have to kill Joaquin.

Her fingers gripped him more tightly as the bike slid to a halt at the house. The other packs would not interfere, that was the law. They’d stand to one side and let it happen and accept whoever won as the wolf pack Alpha, but they would never go so far as to help.

Drake had been formally exiled, placed outside his pack. It had to be that way, but as he climbed off the bike and held out a hand to her, Angelina found herself wondering if he was really okay with that. It had to be that way, for obvious reasons, but that meant he was never going to be able to call himself part of the bear pack again.

How would I feel if that were me?

She took his hand and slid to the ground. The wolves stood silent, waiting. Joaquin would be inside. The neighborhood hung shrouded with dark and silence. From a few blocks away came a drift of music and the muted sounds of traffic. The other wolves would be out, keeping any humans who might decide to stroll past away from the streets held by the shifters. There’d be blood tonight and an entire neighborhood hung in the balance, even if the humans out there did not know it.

She moved along the sidewalk and into the yard. Drake followed silently. She heard a few warning growls and a small yip, but otherwise the wolves were silent.

Her hand met the door. The knob, slick and oily, turned in her sweating palm. The large main room was filled with wolves. The smell, musky and rank, of so many shifters in one space hit her nose. Her feet halted. Her head turned slowly as she sought out familiar faces, hoping to find an ally.

“You do know you’ve just fucked up?” Joaquin said aggressively as he approached. “Nobody challenges me and lives.”

Now that it was here, she was afraid. Of course, she was. Her head lifted higher, her chin pointing upward. “I was granted permission to battle you for Alpha. I have the right, because of birth, and because of what you have done to this territory.”

Joaquin’s lips twisted in a sneer, but he didn’t draw any closer. “I brought money in here. Look around you. You think people like living poor? You think we, as wolves, don’t deserve better?”

There were murmurs from the gathered wolves.

Joaquin continued, “And you bring a bear in here?”

“He’s exiled, and my mate.”

The disapproval was real. The cries of shock and horror and anger beat at her ears. Drake stood at her back, one hand on her shoulder, giving her strength.

She stepped forward, crowding Joaquin’s space, but he didn’t move. “What do you think we deserve, Joaquin? To bow down to the muties or to Magda? She’s used you. You’ve pissed off the humans here; most of them are grumbling whether you hear it or not. We have always taken care of them and in return, they took care of us. Now we destroy their homes and their safety with drugs and crime and rule them with money they can’t ever see or spend because you take it all—and put it right in Magda’s pockets. Do you think the humans of this territory are really going to keep helping us like that? When they are afraid and they don’t like us or this hood?”

More whispers and a few grumbles. Joaquin’s face went slick with sweat. “I have nothing but business with Magda.”

“She’s set you at war with the muties. You knew damn well Drake was no mutie. Magda’s been working you. Now all the shifters are going to have to fight the muties. The tigers will die, you know that. The muties will go after them first and then what? You get to unite the wolf packs and ride to the rescue. As Alpha of all. Is that what she promised you?”

Joaquin went pale. “How dare you?”

“How dare you send your pack, and all the packs, into war just so you can take power?”

She watched his face as he changed. He was too angry to think, and to angry to try to deny it. It’s true. It’s all true. That’s exactly what’s happening and I know it now, and so do they. Any that might have stood with him are not going to now.

Joaquin’s face contorted. He shifted, fast. She ran, shifting as she went. Her muscles gathered and her teeth burst from her gums, her muzzle opening wide as she jumped onto Joaquin’s back, her teeth sinking deep in the fur at the back of his neck.

Joaquin shook hard, and Angelina flew sideways. The air opened around her and then her back hit a wall, hard enough that all the breath left her lungs. Plaster sifted down, the rainy stuff sucking up into her nose and down her lungs as she fought for a long breath.

Coughing, sneezing, and in pain, she fought to stay in wolf form. Her body revolted. Her fur receded, leaving her flesh naked and bare, exposed. The air conditioner’s blast struck her, chilling her to the bone.

I have to win. I can’t lose. My child’s life, my life and Drake’s life are all at risk. Not only ours but all the lives of those the muties will kill for his grab at power. He’ll turn LA into a cesspool, him and Magda, and I can’t let that happen. That’s not what we stand for.

Joaquin stalked her, his stinking fur standing on end. Angelina let him come, her body moving in slow and steady paces as she circled him as well. Blood dripped from Joaquin’s muzzle; she was not sure whose it was—his or hers. There was pain in her body but she could not pinpoint the source and she couldn’t focus on that now.

None of the wolves moved to interfere. Their silence was profound. Her paws slid on the cool tile. Joaquin’s teeth flashed, his muzzle lifting to reveal his fangs. Those deadly sharp fangs that could tear her throat or soft belly out if she was not careful.

Joaquin lunged. She leaped out of the way, and his jaws snapped down on empty air. Angelina took advantage of that, sinking her teeth into his flank and yanking hard. Skin tore and veins ruptured, spilling blood down his side as he yanked away.

They rolled, their bodies thudding and teeth meeting flesh. Angelina’s claws sank deep into his belly but not deep enough. They separated.

More wolves filled the room. They stared at the battle going on and then they shifted, going human.

Drake!

He would have to fend for himself if they came at him. He could fend for himself. She had to worry about herself right then, and the precious cargo in her belly.

Joaquin clawed her. Her teeth met his muzzle, tore a chunk of flesh away. Pain slid through her nerve endings. She yelped as he tore a long strip of her flesh from her right side, just above the ribs. It didn’t stop her; she snapped her jaws down on his front leg, snarling and shaking her head as she tried her best to rip that leg right off.

His paw tore across her scalp. Long burning trails erupted on her head and she dropped his paw and backed away, dizzy and sick from the taste of blood in her mouth.

He came at her again.

Exhaustion and adrenaline flooded through her body, sending her heart beat into overdrive and making her body take on a fine trembling quiver.

Joaquin leaped high. Angelina made herself wait even though the urge to leap was strong. As he stretched out, flying toward her, Angelina dropped and slid forward, flipping over. Her claws tore his belly, ripping open his flesh and breaking ribs, piercing organs.

Joaquin hit the floor with a long scream. He shifted, cycling back and forth as agony took over.

Drake stepped forward. The other wolves did, too.

Angelina shifted. Naked, bloody, and sick, she staggered toward Drake. He opened his arms and she fell into them.

Sam shouted, “I claim the right to Alpha as a son of the second of the pack!”

“You coward,” Drake snarled, his body heading toward shift. He kept it back but his hands were paws now and the claws at the end were wickedly sharp. “You could have fought Joaquin for it, but you stood aside. Hell, I didn’t even see you here in the room until just now. Where were you hiding?”

Angelina peered at Sam. Her heart broke. She could feel it literally snapping in half right in her chest. “You cannot claim. There’s a new Alpha and the battle was for one. The law won’t allow you to fight me, but if you want to…”

“You won’t battle her. Not for Alpha. You will fight me, and for your very life.” Drake’s smile was grim, and Sam saw death written in Drake’s eyes. He backed away.

“I have the right of birth,” Sam yelled.

“You have no right,” Drake said softly.

“How dare you tell me what I have the right to, bear?”

“I’m an exile from my pack. I’m her mate. I stand with her and if you come at her I will kill you, no matter what your relationship is. You chose not to lay claim before and you don’t get to lay it now. The tigers rescinded the law but once. Fight her for it now and you fight outside the law, a law every shifter pack agreed to. If you chose to break the law, I have the right to enforce it, and I will, make no mistake.”

Joaquin screamed again. Blood bubbled out of his belly. Sam looked away and down. The others looked at everything but Joaquin.

“Is nobody going to stand with me against a bear?” Sam asked.

Silence.

Torn between loyalty to a brother who had shown her none and duty, Angelina made a decision. “Sam, you can live. I will let you—but you are not my family, not anymore. You proved that when you did not stand for me against him when he wanted to kill me. For that reason, I am exiling you. Because you interfered when he was choking me to death, I am letting you live.”

Sam gawked at her. His face, under its olive color, was white. “You can’t exile me. I won’t go. I won’t let you stand as Alpha, and not with a bear at your side.”

Sam shifted. Angelina’s body tensed. Don’t make me kill you , she begged silently. Please. I don’t want this but I will. You are going to give me no choice and I will kill you.

Sam shifted back. His eyes went to the rest of the pack, all standing silent now. “You’re going to accept a woman as Alpha, one with a bear mate?”

The wolves all nodded. Then a chorus of yeses broke out. Gratitude and hope flooded through Angelina. There were good people here, ones who wanted things to go back to the way they had been once, and she had their support now.

Angelina lifted her head. “I know who here fought back as best they could and who believed in what Joaquin offered. It’s your choice, but understand this now, I will kill anyone I have to in order to keep this hood from going back downhill. I will put it right, back to what it was before Joaquin made his bargain with Magda. If that is not for you, you can choose to walk right now. Go with Sam and make your own territory somewhere else if that’s how you want it.”

Drake added, “You should all know she’s telling the truth. The bear territory’s being overrun by muties, and Magda has zero control over them. It’s anarchy over there, and the tigers are fighting them, too. So far, this territory has held, but they’re coming for it. If you set up your own territory, if you choose exile, you’re choosing to be unprotected from the muties.”

Sam smiled, and it wasn’t a pleasant smile. “I have protection from them.”

“How can you be so blind?” Angelina asked. “They used you to try to get an in here and once you’re exiled, you’d be smart to get as far from here as possible. They don’t need you now, and they will kill you. You’re irrelevant. I did you a favor, exiling you. You have a chance. Go anywhere, but go, and stay far from the muties and from Magda, because if you don’t, you’re dead.”

It was true. Sam wouldn’t see that though. His arrogance wouldn’t let him see that, and Angelina knew it as she studied his face. He was too intent on doing what he had wanted to do from the first. He was too intent on trying to grab power, and that greedy need was going to be the death of him.

Sam asked, “Who’s with me?”

Nobody moved. Sam stared at their faces and one by one, the wolves turned away from him. Tears stung the back of Angelina’s eyelids. Her father was dead. Mario was gone, and Sam was also gone from her.

She was Alpha, and she was all alone with no family.

No, that was wrong.

Her eyes went to Drake.

He was her family now.

It shouldn’t be, but it was.

He was a bear, and she was a wolf and that was against the laws—but the laws were tumbling all over the shifting world. Since she was in charge of her pack, she got to make the rules. The first new law she would make was that they could mate as they choose and all the old arrangements would be null and void.

No female shifted should be forced to mate with a wolf she didn’t want simply because her parents made a promise that would benefit them in some way.

The second law she would create would say that no shifter was bound to the old law that said shifters could only mate with their own kind—and while she might never be able to change the minds of those who were outside her pack, in her pack, that law would hold and she would accept whatever species of shifter mated with her pack mates and members.

How could she not?

In her belly was a creature none had ever known, a shifter with a bear for a father and a wolf for a mother.

Trepidation set in. There’d be those who tried to kill her child, or children. There’d be questions of heritage and ability to lead. There was a massive war looming with the muties and a child such as hers would be all the fuel they needed—especially as the muties had been mating outside the law for a long time now with no success in birthing children who were capable of shifting at all.

What if my child cannot shift either? What if our shifter abilities somehow negate each other and they are simply human? They’d have no protection at all and where would that leave them?

“Fuck you,” Sam snarled. “If you ever want to apologize, you can do it from your knees and before the whole mutie army, which I will be riding near the head of. I can promise you that.”

He turned and stormed off. Drake lifted an eyebrow. Angelina turned to the wolves gathered there. “Make sure he takes nothing but what he needs, and that he gets past the territory lines. All those not gathered here now must be told that he’s he is a traitor. Make sure they also know that I have given him exile over death.”

They nodded. The room emptied.

Drake stood there, his magnificent body nude and shimmering. The stickiness of the blood coating her body hit her senses, and so did the rich coppery smell. The tangy, old copper scent made her throat clutch and acid float up over her teeth.

Drake caught her in his arms and held her. “You need a shower.”

“I do.”

Her voice held all her pain, and his finger tipped her head back. He stared into her eyes, his raking her face carefully. “Let’s get you in the shower.” His eyes went to Joaquin. “I’ll handle that.”

Angelina looked over. Joaquin lay there, shriveled and dead. His form had stopped in wolf and his fur was matted with clotted blood. She sighed. “Thanks. At least… say a few words, okay?”

“Sure.” He rested his hands on her shoulders, looking down into her eyes. “You do know what this means?”

“What?”

“I’m like the Alpha’s mate now.” He grinned at her.

She tried to laugh but everything hurt. She leaned into his body and closed her eyes. “I love you.”

“I love you more.” His arms pulled her in closer. His hands rested on the small of her back. ”It’s going to be all right. I swear to you it will.”

“As long as you’re with me, how could it not be?”

He kissed her, hard. His lower body pressed into her, bringing the feel of his member to her lower belly. That hard thrusting flesh ignited her passion. That she could want him even after the things that had just transpired didn’t surprise her at all.

She whispered, “You know what we’re facing, don’t you?”

“I do, but there’s nothing I can’t or won’t face with you, Angelina. You’re my mate for life, for as long as we live, and I intend to make sure we live for a very long time. I won’t let you go, and I won’t let you down. If anyone wants to come for you or our child, they’re going to have to come through me to do it.”

“I love you.” Salty tears ran into her mouth but they were tears of happiness. “I love you so very much.”

His thick cock stiffened yet again, prodding against her soft belly. Angelina backed away and took his hand. “Everything else can wait,” she said softly. “I need you now.”

Drake threw his head back and laughed. “I’ll follow you to the shower.”

Angelina’s smile was impish. “I have a better idea. I’ll race you to it.”

His eyes went dark with desire. “You have a five-second head start, but if I catch you…”

Angelina ran, knowing he would catch her, and knowing she wanted nothing more.

Goldie & the Two Bears

Chapter One

“I’m done with men. I just have no luck with them at all,” Goldie Dawson confided to her friend Greta over drinks at The Pavilion, a local watering hole that they frequented.

“You’re just a bit jaded for now. You’ll come around,” Greta laughed, sipping her martini and eyeing a hunky guy at a table across the room. No matter where they went, Greta was always on the lookout for someone to fill her bed. She never wanted them to hang around, never seemed to need them for more than getting laid. It was a trait that Goldie envied in some ways.

“No. I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll just become a lesbian or perhaps a nun,” she said dryly.

“First of all, you aren’t into women and secondly, you love sex way too much to become a nun. Unless you find a wayward priest to fool around with in the convent, you’d never survive a vow of chastity,” Greta told her, her attention returning to the table as a woman joined the brief object of her affection at his table.

“That’s probably true. I’m just so tired of getting screwed over,” she groaned. “I’m either too big or not big enough. When did everyone become a size zero or concave, if there is such a thing?”

“Blame fucking Twiggy. She started all this skinny bitch nonsense. It’s insane for men to expect women to be so thin. I’m a size eight and you’d think I were a whale according to some folks. Fuck them. I like to eat.”

“Me too. Of course, I’m a bit thicker than you, but still, a size sixteen isn’t a crime. Wasn’t Marilyn Monroe this size and she fucked a president!”

“You’re beautiful. I don’t know how anyone could look at you and not think so. You have curves in all the right places. There was a time when women would kill for your hourglass figure.”

“You’d be surprised. Of course, there are some out there that find it a huge turn on that I have some curves. I had one guy that wanted to coat me in butter and lick me from head to toe. They take it too far. It’s more of a fetish than a preference. Quite disturbing is what it is.”

“You are fucking kidding me?! Butter? Sounds like a real nut-job, if you ask me. What happened to the Roberts guy, the producer you were seeing?”

“He was a climber. When we met, he seemed to be really into me, but then I caught him with someone else, someone who could do more for his career.”

“What? No way? Who?”

“Well, you know he is a producer and script writer, but he hasn’t really had anything big. Even though I just do costume design for City in Siege, I know a lot of people. I introduced him to some of them, sort of got him in the loop and off the ground. He repaid me by hooking up with one of the producers on my TV series.”

“You’re kidding me! When did that happen?”

“Last weekend. I invited him to a wrap party we were having at the end of shooting. It’s a pretty popular show, so I knew there would be a lot of people there who could help him out and sort of get his foot in the door. I introduced him to Amelda Harmon, one of the primary producers of the show and they were chatting for a bit. Perhaps I should have seen what was happening between them but I didn’t. I stepped away to speak to someone and those two disappeared. I found them in a back room, making out pretty hot and heavy like two horny teens.”

“Oh, my fucking God! What did you do?”

“I shut the door and left him there with her. I wanted to throw things at him and call him names, but instead, I just felt horrified and ran.”

“That’s it? You didn’t say anything to him? No confrontation?”

“Nope. Nothing. He hasn’t even bothered to call and I haven’t bothered to try to contact him. I guess he got what he wanted. She will be able to introduce him to people I can’t and, at some point, he will probably meet someone with even more pull in the industry and abandon her for them. All I know is it isn’t my problem. Whatever he wanted, it wasn’t me, it was just what I could do to help him.”

“That sucks. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s disappointing, but I wasn’t that hung up on him. I mean, I thought we had a good thing. He’s gorgeous, hot as fuck in bed, motivated . . . you know, the total package. Turns out it was all for show though. He didn’t mean any of it. People like him know how to play the game to get what they want. I should have known better.”

“Men are pigs.”

“I know, right? I swear there is something wrong with all of them. They are too pushy or too wimpy. Great to look at, but shit in bed. Gorgeous, but unemployed or live with their mom. It’s always something. Then, there is Greg Roberts, who seems to have it all, but is only after what he can get from you. He’ll do the same to her and then be on to the next one that can help his career. Fuck him.”

“I’ll toast to that. Fuck him. Fuck them all!” Greta laughed raising her glass in salute.

“You know, I honestly think that is the answer.”

“What is the answer?” Greta asked, looking both amused and confused.

“To just fuck them all. Do what I want and have fun. If men can run around and just fuck indiscriminately, why can’t I?”

“Very true. Men do that and they are playboys. We do it and we are sluts. Here’s another toast to being a common whore!” Greta laughed, raising her glass once more.

“To whores! Fuck yeah!” Goldie cheered.

The two women giggled playfully and continued their drinking, chatting until it was closing time and things began to wind down around them. Catching a cab back to Goldie’s place, they sat in her living room and talked some more. It was one of those rare nights that they hadn’t had in a while. Goldie had missed their girl time.

“Maybe you just need a break. Why not get out of LA and take it easy for a bit while the show is on hiatus for the season? You could go up to Big Bear Lake. Ian and Randy still have a cabin up there. They have plenty of room and they love visitors.”

“Hmm. I don’t know. I don’t want to intrude.”

“Oh, please. You know how those two are. They live to entertain. Call them up and ask them if you can come up for a week or even a couple of weeks. You deserve a little down time.”

“It’s three a.m.,” Goldie laughed.

“Okay, perhaps wait until tomorrow, but you knew that I didn’t mean right this second,” she replied, rolling her eyes playfully.

“I’ll think about it.”

“You do that. In the meantime, I’m going to crash in your spare bedroom. I’m wiped!”

“Make yourself at home. I think I’m going to call it a day, as well.”

The two women hugged one another and headed to bed, where they fell fast asleep. When Goldie woke up the next morning, Greta was already gone, having an early call at the magazine where she worked as a photographer. Sitting at the kitchen table with a bit of a hangover, Goldie waited for her coffee and aspirin to kick in. An hour later, she found herself feeling more human, showered and wondering what she should do now that she was free for at least six weeks. She sighed and picked up the phone. Ian answered on the first ring with an inviting hello that instantly put her at ease.

Chapter Two

“You have no idea how much I appreciate you letting me stay on such short notice,” she told Ian and Randy over breakfast the following morning. It had been a long drive, but after talking to Ian, she had headed out as soon as she could pack, arriving late in the afternoon. They already had plans and were heading out upon her arrival, leaving her to her own devices for the evening.

Deciding to take Greta’s advice, she had taken the rest of the day to make arrangements for a house sitter and get packed for an extended visit to Big Bear Lake. The fresh air would hopefully be enough to clear her head and give her a fresh perspective on things. She had told Ian and Randy all about Greg Roberts over bacon, eggs, and toast.

“No problem, honey. We’re glad to have you. Now, listen, we’re having a party later and there will be loads of straight men there for you to meet. You just shake that piece of shit Greg Roberts off your mind and we’ll find you someone way better! We are geniuses at matching up like minds!”

“Oh, no, no, no. The last thing I want is a new man. I’m in for some “me” time. Let’s just let things be, shall we?” she said.

“Fair enough. You’re beautiful. They’ll flock to you anyway. It’s up to you whether you give them the time of day or send them away.”

Getting dressed for the party later, Goldie considered her options. Why not play this game the same way men did? Fuck relationships. She could stage her own sexual revolution. No games, no expectations, no disappointments. There had already been too many men that she had found herself settling for. From now on, she’d just do what she wanted and walk away like so many of them did with her. That was the key to future happiness, as far as she was concerned. It was time to just have fun and the rest of it be damned.

“Wow. That dress is stunning,” Ian told her as she stepped out of her room and into the kitchen where he and Randy were preparing food and drink for the masses they were expecting.

“You like it?” she asked, doing a mock twirl. The summer dress did suit her quite nicely. It clung in all the right places and flowed in a way that flattered the less flattering. A simple pair of wedges and a loose ponytail that hung in long curls down her back finished off what she felt was a casual but sexy look.

“Absolutely! And that color brings out the fantastic hazel specks in your eyes. Perfection!” Randy added.

“What can I help you with?”

“Oh, no, darling. You just go right over there and man the door. Guests will be arriving in a bit and we’re behind on the party dishes. We know you are just as charming as you are beautiful, so you just got nominated as the party greeter.”

“But it isn’t my party,” Goldie laughed.

“It is now. You are our guest, so it is your party too. Welcome to our world,” Ian joked.

“Help yourself to the wet bar. There is plenty of everything to be had over there,” Randy told her.

Goldie wandered to the living room and poured herself a glass of Merlot, flipping through a fashion magazine while she waited. Ian and Randy chatted brightly in the kitchen, sometimes feeding one another bites of the food they were making. It must be nice to find such a love, she marveled with a sigh. Too bad it just wasn’t in the cards for her. A few moments later, the doorbell rang and she went to answer it. After that, it began to get really crowded with people from all over the lakefront village where her friends lived.

Chapter Three

“What do you say we skip out on this party for a while and go down to my lake house? I’m only a little way down,” an attractive guy named Joshua asked her as he leaned into her on the sofa.

She had been talking to him earlier and found him quite intriguing. It seemed the feeling was mutual and she couldn’t be happier about that. He was certainly the best looking thing at the party.

“Sounds like fun. Let me just let Ian and Randy know I’m going,” she told him.

“I suppose I should say my goodbyes, as well,” he agreed, standing to help her up from the sofa.

Ian and Randy gave her a knowing look as she told them she was going to walk down to Joshua’s place with him. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t broadcast her naughty behavior, but she couldn’t let her libido get ahead of her good sense. Joshua was definitely a bad boy, tall and powerful looking with numerous tattoos. She had noticed the bear paw on the back on one hand almost instantly and he had told her it was a local brotherhood he belonged to, but didn’t seem to want to elaborate further.

Since Ian and Randy didn’t caution her in any way about him, she felt pretty good about going home with him. In fact, she felt even better about it once he got her alone. Not wasting any time on further formalities, he pushed her against a wall and began kissing her heatedly. Things quickly progressed as he peeled away her dress and kissed her breasts. Giving in to him, she leaned in, moaning against him.

Goldie caught her breath as he bit into her neck, sending shards of electricity through her veins. There was something about him that clouded her thoughts, she couldn’t think about anything but what he was doing to her. She could hear his heartbeat and her own, pounding loudly against one another as he bit into her flesh, holding her hands up against the wall behind her. His breath was heavy, sounding almost as if he were panting like some sort of wild animal. It only turned her on that much more.

“God, that feels good,” she moaned as his fingers dug into her ass cheeks hard enough to leave bruises behind. She felt her body being lifted, her back slipping roughly along the wall as he raised her upward, focusing on her full breasts. She let out a loud cry of ecstasy as his teeth sank into one nipple, pulling it outward and sucking at it fiercely. He was rough in all the best ways and she was loving every moment of it.

“You taste delicious. Good enough to eat,” he growled, suddenly wrapping her legs around his waist and walking with her toward his bedroom as if she weighed nothing.

Goldie found herself being tossed across the bed as he grabbed her feet and pulled her toward the edge, spreading her legs wide and kneeling by the edge of the bed. Shockwaves ran through her as he bit into her left thigh and then trailed upward toward her pussy. His bites weren’t quite as soft as nibbles, but not so much that they were unbearable. If anything, they were only making her want more of the delicious pains he was imparting across her skin.

“Yum,” he breathed as his lips found her center. His tongue slowly lapped back and forth across her clit for a moment before sucking it into his mouth, tugging at it with his teeth until she thought she might scream. Pushing his mouth further into her, he began sucking and licking at her wet folds as she moaned incoherently beneath him. She was already on the edge of climax when he slipped his fingers inside of her, using them to fuck her deeply as she writhed beneath him.

“Yes, yes, please,” she moaned, reaching downward to tangle her fingers in his hair and pull him further into her. It was crazy how much she wanted him, her desire seeming to be in hypermode as he ate her out like no one ever had. It was if he instinctively knew exactly what to do and how to do it. Before long, he had her in spasms beneath him, her hips bucking forward as she sprayed her ecstasy into his hot mouth.

“That a girl. Give me all you’ve got,” he breathed against her soaked cunt. He paused to breathe and then returned to lapping at her dripping pussy until she thought she might pass out. His fingers took over again as he moved downward to once again bite his way up and down her thighs. Goldie thought she had cum as much as she possibly could and was surprised to find it was only the tip of the iceberg, her body jerking with the force of another violent climax that left her feeling light headed.

“Jesus,” was all she managed to say.

“No, just me. I love the way you taste and watching you cum is beautiful,” he told her, his cum-slicked lips dragging upward through her tender folds and across her stomach as he moved on top of her.

She groaned loudly as he began biting his way upward, hesitating once more at her breasts. Pulling each nipple into his mouth one by one, he sucked at them as if attempting to nurse. To her surprise, she felt a tiny bit of moisture forming as he forced a tiny bit of fluid to be expelled. Pulling away, he used his finger to wipe it away from one nipple and rubbed it across her lips before leaning in to kiss her, the taste of her pussy on his lips.

“I’m going to fuck you like no one has ever fucked you in your life,” he told her, looking into her eyes.

Goldie didn’t have a chance to respond, though she had no idea what she would have said to that anyway. She felt the words more than hearing them. Though he had more than satisfied any longings with the extended oral session, she found that she only wanted more. She wanted him inside her desperately. There was something about him that she couldn’t put her finger on, but it was if she was drawn to him in some way she couldn’t resist.

A loud cry escaped her lips as he entered her, his enormous cock filling her, pushing her already tender pussy outward as he filled her with his incredible girth. He seemed to be insatiable as he fucked her with deep, hard strokes, sending her into a fit of involuntarily cries originating from a mix of pain and pleasure. Each stroke brought her closer to yet another orgasm that she couldn’t believe she still had in her until she was just a huge puddle of wetness beneath him.

“You feel fucking fantastic,” he breathed, suddenly pulling free of her long enough to flip her over and put her on all fours. She tangled her fingers into the sheets beneath them in an effort to brace herself against his heavy strokes as he entered her from behind, pounding into her fiercely.

“Yes, fuck me. God. Fuck me harder,” she found herself begging him.

He was only too happy to accommodate her, his body slamming against her rounded backside, pushing her forward with his powerful thrusts while his hands grasped her waist to pull her right back onto him again. She wasn’t sure how much more she could take and yet, didn’t want it to stop. It was pretty certain to her that she would be content for him to fuck her until she couldn’t move anymore. No one had ever been so rough with her and she loved every moment of it.

“You like that?” he breathed against her back, leaning forward as he slowed his strokes for a moment, pushing deep inside of her until she felt him all the way into what must certainly be her very center.

“Yes, don’t stop. I love the way you are fucking me,” she panted, no longer in control of herself.

“I don’t think I’d ever be able to get enough of you,” he groaned. Goldie could feel his rock hard cock pulsating inside of her, breathing a strange sort of life into her from the inside. She felt like she had been tenderized and thus, more sensitive to every stroke as he fucked her with wild abandon. He seemed to last forever, longer than she could have ever dreamed of.

Their bodies rocked back and forth as he continued fucking her, encouraging the way she cried out and begged him for more. Just when it seemed he might last forever, she felt his body begin to convulse, an odd sort of growl coming up from his core as he flooded her sore inner walls with hot, sticky cum. He collapsed against her for a moment before pulling free and falling over to one side of her.

“I can’t tell you how incredible that felt,” he said as he lay on the pillow beside her.

“You don’t have to. That was amazing,” she agreed, snuggling into the pillow beside him.

There was something odd about him. His eyes had looked very blue when they were at the party, but now, they appeared almost black, very dark and fierce looking. Thinking perhaps it was just the light, she dismissed it and settled into her pillow, a content smile on her face.

Moments later, he was asleep, sated and content. Goldie lay in the near darkness, looking at his outline on the bed beside her. So much for after sex cuddling or conversation. While the sex had been off the charts, it was always a letdown when the person you were with just rolled over and went to sleep. She guessed it had been too much to hope for that he might be the total package, but she supposed she could forgive him for his post-coital shortcomings considering how good he was at the act itself.

It took a while for her to come down from the high of such intense sex and fall asleep. Her mind raced with thoughts about where this might lead and she cautioned herself not to let it go there. It wasn’t in her nature to have one night stands, but she had decided that was what was best for her and she needed to stick with that attitude. Getting too attached to a man she would be leaving behind in less than a week was a bad idea. Even if he was interested in something beyond what they had just shared, long-distance relationships were too hard, especially for someone like her who didn’t seem to be able to even maintain one in the same town.

Goldie finally fell asleep after chiding herself for trying to make too much out of this and also for not being more careful. She wasn’t on the pill, as she hadn’t needed to be with Greg and had been on a streak of abstinence for a bit before he came along. It had been nice to give her body a break from the chemicals. Not only was there pregnancy to consider, but also other things that could be equally as devastating. She definitely needed to not repeat tonight and get back on birth control before she decided to have another one-night stand.

“Goodnight,” she said to the sleeping man beside her, knowing that he couldn’t hear her but somehow feeling like she should say something as she drifted off into a mostly peaceful sleep. She awoke later in the night, feeling out of breath, fresh from a dream in which she was running through the forest, but she hadn’t been human and neither had the others that had been running with her. There was no fear, just pure exhilaration.

“Bad dream?” Joshua said sleepily from beside her.

“No, just odd. Go back to sleep. I didn’t mean to wake you,” she told him.

“Who can sleep?” he replied, smiling at her as shadows fell across them on the bed. He reached for her pulling her to him and sinking his teeth into her neck provocatively. She whimpered as she felt his hard cock pressing into her and then he was inside of her again, fucking her until she shuddered with orgasm after orgasm. He pulled her back against him, pushing deeper inside her as she cried out. Then he came inside of her once again before kissing her softly on the shoulder and falling back asleep, on his own side of the bed.

This time, Goldie didn’t over think it all. Instead, she rolled over and fell back asleep, content and grateful for at least once incredible night with the fantastic creature that lay beside her. He might not be Mr. Right, but he certainly was someone she would remember fondly for years to come. A smile crossed her face as she drifted back off into dreamland for the few remaining hours until daylight. When she awoke, she got dressed quietly and made her way back to the lake house, slipping in and climbing into her bed there for a while longer.

Chapter Four

Still coming down from the incredible night of sex with hunky Joshua, Goldie reminded herself to keep it casual. He could be her boy toy while she was here at the lake and then she could put him behind her when she went home. It was just sex and she refused to even try to make it any more than that, though he seemed like a nice enough guy.

“So, you had a good night then?” Ian said with a smile as she walked into the kitchen the following morning.

“I did,” she said, blushing a little.

“Of course we want all the details, but we won’t ask,” Randy added, with a laugh. “Sit down and have some breakfast with us.”

“No thanks. I didn’t get much sleep. I’m going to go lie back down for a while I think,” she admitted, her face still flushed.

“I’ll bet,” Ian said as they both laughed and returned to their conversation. “Listen, we won’t lecture you. You’re a grown woman, after all, but be careful with Joshua. He belongs to a sort of gang. There are a lot of rumors about them.”

“What kind of rumors?” she asked.

“Now, Ian. Just let the girl have her fun. You know those are just wild stories,” Randy said, turning back to Goldie. “Don’t even worry about it. It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” she said, not so sure.

“Positive. We have to get going anyway. No time for fairy tales,” Randy said.

When Goldie awoke several hours later they were gone, leaving her a note that they were in the village doing a bit of shopping if she wanted to come in and join them. Goldie grabbed a quick shower and tossed on some jeans and a t-shirt, slipping into her sandals. Settling for another loose ponytail, a hint of mascara and lip gloss, she headed out the door and walked toward the main hub that began at the end of the street leading into the lakeside cabin area. She met them coming back just as she reached the corner.

“Oh, honey. You should have given us a ring and we’d have waited for you. Oh, never mind. We’ll just go back with you then for a bit,” Ian told her.

“No, no. Go on back. You both have your hands full of bags. I can roam around by myself. It’s not like it’s a very big place.”

“Not at all. It is a rather quaint little area, isn’t it? That’s why we love it so much!” he replied.

“I’ll check it out a bit and be back a little while later.”

“Sounds good. Don’t be too late. We’re making fajitas and margaritas for dinner!” Ian told her.

“That does sound delicious!” Goldie replied, realizing that she hadn’t eaten anything since last night. Perhaps she’d grab a bite to eat at one of the local places while she was out and about.

Instead, she found herself attracted to a place that advertised itself as a general store, but it wasn’t like the cheap dollar stores that usually referenced themselves with that name. This was more like an old style mercantile you’d find in a small town. Stepping inside was like going back in time. There was everything from fishing tackle to groceries to be had here.

“Wow, this is fantastic,” she said aloud, running her hand over a wooden rocker that sat among a section of furniture on one side of the large barnlike building.

“Thank you. I made it by hand. Solid oak,” a voice nearby replied, catching her off guard.

“Impressive,” she replied.

It was as much a statement about the appearance of the rocking chair as it was about the man claiming to have made it. He was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. His rugged good looks were punctuated by a shock of wavy black hair and neatly trimmed beard. His blue eyes flashed with mischief as he reached up to lean on a nearby counter. It was then that she noted the paw tattoo on his hand, the same one that last night’s lover had on his. Obviously, they were a part of the same group.

“Thank you, um, Miss . . .?”

“Miss Dawson, but you can call me Goldie.”

“Good to meet you, Goldie. I’m John Sebastian. You must be new in town. I haven’t seen you in before.”

“I’m just visiting friends over on the lake. Ian and Randy Keller,” she offered.

“Ah, yeah. I live just across the water from them. Good guys.”

“Yes, they’re the best. You weren’t at their party last night though. I thought the whole neighborhood was invited.”

“Ah, yeah. I was working on a piece and got pretty tied up with it. I can get into my work at times,” he told her. There was something that said he was not quite telling the truth, but she hardly knew him so had no reason to question it.

“Well, the dedication shows.”

“I like to think so.”

“Very much. Anyway, I have to get going. It’s past time to find a bite to eat somewhere. Any recommendations?”

“Well, I was actually about to go grab something myself. There is a little café not far from here. They have some amazing shrimp lime and cilantro tacos. I’ve been craving them all morning.”

“Oh, that does sound delicious. I don’t want to impose though.”

“No imposition at all. Come on and we’ll go. It’s just about three blocks up by the edge of the water.”

Goldie smiled at him, following him past the front counter, where he told the clerk there that he was out to lunch for a while. She nodded, barely even acknowledging him before resuming her texting. Goldie noticed an odd familiarity about the girl that she couldn’t quite put her finger on, but John seemed to read her mind as her gaze lingered on the girl.

“Kid sister,” he told her. “We favor quite a bit, huh?”

“Yes, you do,” Goldie laughed.

“Our folks left me this place when they died. It’s been in the family for generations. She’s a senior over at the local high school and itching to get as far away from the watchful eye of big brother as soon as possible. Got herself a scholarship to UCLA so she can be California dreamin’ by fall.”

“This place will be a handful by yourself.”

“Nah. I’ll just have to shell out a little more to hire someone to help and the guys in my group will help me out, if I need them.”

“Your group?” she asked, though she already had a good idea of who he was referring to.

“Yeah. We watch each other’s backs,” he said with a slow smile that just melted her.

“Always good to have people like that in your life,” she replied.

“It is. Here we are,” he told her, waving his hand toward the small grill to their right, along the edge of the water.

“Great. I’m looking forward to this already,” she said as they stepped inside.

Though he was handsome and flirtatious, Goldie had already made up her mind that this couldn’t go past a friendly lunch. She was just up for having fun, she really didn’t want to sleep with more than one guy at a time. It was best just to have her fun with Joshua while she was here and let that be the extent of it. Plus, it was a bad idea to see both of them with their being a part of the same brotherhood or whatever it was.

“You weren’t kidding! These are delicious!” she told him as they finished off the last of their shrimp tacos.

“I know. Best in town. Listen I’m going to have to get back to the store, but I’d really like to see you again if that’s okay.”

“I appreciate it, but I am only here for a short time and think that maybe it just would be best not to. I hope you understand,” she said.

“Come on. Call it a casual fling,” he said with a sultry smile.

“That sounds a bit forward,” she countered playfully.

“That is because it is a bit forward. I know what I like when I see it. Let me buy you a drink later.”

“Well, I suppose a drink can’t do any harm.”

“I suppose that is exactly right. I’ll swing by and pick you up around eight, if that’s good for you.”

“I’ll be waiting,” she told him as he paid their bill and dropped a tip on the table, walking her out.

Outside, they went their separate ways on the sidewalk. Visiting a few more shops before returning to Ian and Randy’s place, she found herself a sensational little skirt and top to wear on her night out with John. She still considered that it wasn’t really like her to sleep with two men at once and told herself that she would not cross that line with him, no matter how attracted to him she might be.

Chapter Five

“Well, now . . . where is our girl headed out to tonight?” Ian asked as she came out of her room later that night, dressed to go out.

“I got invited out for drinks while I was in town today. I thought I mentioned it at dinner.”

“You most certainly did not. We would have remembered. Who is the lucky guy?”

“Someone I met at the general store today. John Sebastian is his name.”

The two men exchanged smiles and looked at her knowingly. She wondered what secret they were keeping that caused their bemusement and whether it was good or bad.

“What? Spill it.”

“Nothing honey. Only one of the biggest hunks in town. Half the girls here would kill to be asked out by him and the other half just can’t hope because they settled for less,” Randy said.

“Oh, come on. He’s not all that.”

“Please. He’s gorgeous and a business owner. Down to earth, friendly. He’s the total package.”

“I guess he is kind of hot.”

“Yeah, you guess,” Ian laughed with Randy quickly joining in.

“Just be careful. There’s a full moon out tonight,” Randy joked.

Goldie was happy to be saved by a knock on the door. Randy waved her toward it as if to say it was for her and she walked over, opening it to the smiling face of John.

“You look gorgeous. Are you ready to go?” he asked.

“I am,” she told him, turning to say her goodbyes to Ian and Randy.

John stuck his head inside the door and greeted them as well before taking her arm and walking down the sidewalk toward a bar and grill called Dockside. It was well lit with strings of lights that hung along the wooden beams that made up the back patio that jutted slightly out onto the lake.

“Have you been here before?” he asked.

“No. I’ve only been in town for a couple of days now. This is my first trip up to visit Ian and Randy since they bought the lake house.”

“I see. So, what brought you up here now?”

“Just a vacation. I’m a costume designer and my show is on break until filming starts again in a few weeks. I thought I’d get out and enjoy a change of scenery.”

“Wow, a costume designer, huh? That sounds far more interesting than running a general store. Which show do you work on?”

“Stygian Stories,” she told him.

“Really? I love that show. You design those really creepy costumes they wear?”

“Not all of them, but quite a few, yes.”

“I’m fascinated,” he told her just as they made their way into the front of the restaurant.

It was hard to miss how the hostess fretted over him and the waitress wasn’t much better. Both of them flirted outrageously, despite his being there with an apparent date. Goldie couldn’t help but note how he was polite to them, but never took his eyes off of her, sending a clear message. He grabbed a seat for them outside on the deck where they could enjoy the water and the stars beginning to form in the darkening sky above them.

“I wish I had gone to college. I wanted to, but after mom and dad died, I had my sister to take care of and the business to run. Life takes you where it will, I suppose.”

“That it does, but it’s not too late. You could always go now that your sister is leaving the nest,” she replied.

“No. The general store does okay, but not well enough to pay two college tuitions. I do take a class here and there online. I’m almost a sophomore. Plus, I have obligation here,” he laughed.

“That’s progress. What are you studying?”

“Geology. I’ve always been fascinated with any kind of earth-based science.”

“Not something I know anything about, I’m afraid.”

Their conversation was briefly interrupted as the waitress brought their drinks and they sipped at them for a moment, regrouping the conversation. It wasn’t as if it was hard to talk to him. In fact, he might just be the easiest person to talk to on the planet. She wondered if he knew Joshua, though she didn’t dare bring up his name. Though they were a part of the same club, they seemed so different. Joshua was bold, sexual, but not a brilliant conversationalist. He did his talking with his body, for the most part.

John was more of the guy next door type. He liked to read and explore the land when he could. He gave her a warm, fuzzy feeling that didn’t make her want to ravage him across the table at which they sat, but it did make her long to go home with him and make love to him for hours on end. That was not a good thing considering her admonishments to herself to refrain from just that. As the hours flew by, she found herself only wanting him more.

“It’s getting pretty crowded here and late. It might be time to head back toward the house,” he said as the deck around them filled to an uncomfortable capacity.

“I think you’re right,” she said, disappointed to be ending the evening, but tipsy and knowing it was most likely for the best.

John paid their tab and they headed back the way they had come. Halfway around, he pulled her off to one side and in to him, holding her tightly against his broad chest as he kissed her. Though her brain told her to resist, her body told it to fuck off, returning his kiss feverishly.

“I don’t suppose you’d consider coming home with me?” he said.

“Wouldn’t that be awkward with your sister there?” she asked.

“She’s sleeping over at a friend’s house tonight,” he said with a smile.

“I could probably come over for a bit,” she said coyly, dismissing all the promises she had made to herself early this morning.

“Good enough. It’s not far from where you are staying,” he told her.

An awful thought occurred to her that perhaps he lived near, or even with, Joshua, but it fell away as he stopped at a house they had passed on their way to the bar. Whereas Joshua lived south of Ian and Randy, it appeared that John lived north. She breathed a silent sigh of relief and went inside with him. From there, all cautions fell away as she gave in to her own urges.

Unlike Joshua, John went for the lips rather than her neck, kissing her deeply as they lingered just inside the door. It wasn’t a quick kiss and move on either, he seemed to really enjoy kissing as much as she did, teasing her tongue with his own as he explored her with his hungry mouth. His hands roamed down her body, touching her softly, almost delicately with his big, rough hands. She felt like she might actually be floating slightly above the floor rather than planted firmly on it.

“You are so beautiful. I was watching you walk through the store long before you stopped to look at the chair,” he told her, pulling away to look into her eyes.

“You were not,” she said, flushing.

“I was. The chair only gave me an excuse to talk to you,” he said with a slow smile that made her feel weaker in the knees than the kiss had already made her.

“I’m glad I stopped to admire it then,” she told him, reaching up to touch his handsome face.

“I’m glad you did too,” he replied, pulling her hand from his face and softly kissing the palm.

Then his lips were on hers again, drinking her in as if they were connected in much more than just the physical sense. It was amazing how in tune to him she had felt since meeting him only at lunch today. Once again, she had to caution herself not to make any more of this than it was. Just fun, nothing but fun.

His hands found their ways to the buttons on her shirt, slowly opening them one by one and peeling it away from her shoulders to slip softly down her body. She stood there in the see-through lace bra and matching boy shorts she had been wearing beneath her skirt, her three-inch heels pushing her up almost to his height. She had always been a tall girl and gravitated toward men that were of above average height. His six-foot-four muscular frame was perfection.

“You’ve an amazing body, curves in all the perfect places,” he told her, kissing his way down her neck.

Goldie had always been a bit sensitive about her size, because the men she had encountered always made such a big deal of it. It was nice to find someone who seemed to not mind that she was a big taller and thicker, but didn’t seem to be fetishizing it into some form of freaky obsession. She’d had more than her fill of those types.

“Thank you. You aren’t so bad yourself,” she replied.

“I’m not very curvy. All hard angles,” he said playfully.

“Sounds just right to me,” she told him.

His lips fell on hers again, kissing her slowly and softly until her head began to spin. Pulling away, he took her hand and led her to his bedroom. He sat her on the bed to watch as he undressed. Her eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of his sizeable cock. What were they feeding the men in this area? She licked her lips seductively as he stood naked in front of her.

“See something you like then?” he asked.

“I certainly do,” she told him, leaning forward and slipping her tongue along the bulbous head. It jumped against her tongue as she made contact and he moaned a little, which she took as an encouragement to proceed.

Goldie took her time, enjoying the way his cock felt against her tongue and the way he tasted. Wrapping a single hand around his shaft, she began pumping up and down, meeting her lips as she slowly toured his hardness. His hands tangled in her hair, watching as the head of his dick disappeared in and out of her mouth. Moving her hand down toward the base, she began taking more of him in her mouth until she could feel him hitting the back of her throat, tickling her tonsils.

“Oh, God, that feels so good. You have an incredible mouth,” he moaned.

Goldie responded by picking up the pace, bobbing up and down the length of his cock as he whimpered with pleasure above her. She felt hungry for his cum, wanted to taste it running down the back of her throat, but her greed was circumvented as he pulled free of her, pushing her back on the bed and slipping her panties off.

“Mmmm,” she moaned as he softly kissed his way up her legs to her thighs, pushing them apart to access her already soaked pussy. He lapped gently at her juices, his large tongue dipping in and out of her folds and tangling around her clit as he took his time teasing her with his mouth. Her back arched upwards, pushing against his face, wanting more.

Then he was pulling away, moving upward, his fingers replacing his mouth as he explored her folds with his long, rough fingers. His mouth covered one of her nipples, causing her to gasp a little as she realized how sore it still was from the night before with Joshua. It felt soothing to have him take such care licking and sucking at it before moving to the other side. She could feel herself getting wetter, the more he fingered her and caressed her breasts with his mouth.

“God, you’re incredible,” he told her as he brought her face up to hers, watching her reactions as he fingerfucked her with longer strokes, simultaneously rubbing her clit with his thumb. She bit her lip as he smiled down at her, bringing her to an explosive orgasm with his talented hands before finally slipping his throbbing cock inside of her.

“Yes. Perfect,” she managed to say between panting and whimpering. Though he was extremely gentle, he was also massive. She felt like he might tear her apart slowly from the inside as he pulsated against her inner walls. Her fingers dug into his back as he drove into her with slow, heavy strokes, filling her in a way she had never felt before.

“You’re so tight. It feels like you are squeezing my cock. God, it feels amazing,” he whispered in her ear, taking his time to let her feel every inch of him as he sank in and out of her.

“Ahhh, I’m cumming,” she almost sighed, her body trembling with the force of the orgasm that seemed to overtake her entire frame. It was quickly followed by a series of equally powerful explosions that shook her to the very core. Feeling weak and shattered beneath him, she could see no signs of him stopping anytime soon. Instead, he bent forward to kiss her deeply. She felt overwhelmed with emotion, but refused to give into anything she might be feeling in a moment of passion.

“Beautiful,” he mumbled against her hair, pulling her legs upward and over his shoulders as he sank even deeper inside her. She gasped as he seemed to hit her very womb. It felt incredible to have someone so gentle inside of her. He felt like someone in love with her, though she knew that wasn’t true. Still, it made it all feel even more amazing.

To her surprise, something that sounded much like the growl of an animal seemed to come from him as his passion rose. When she looked up into his eyes, she could see that same darkness that she had noted in Joshua’s last night. Was it possible that there was something to the rumors? The thought fell away as the sounds began to give way to more of a groan.

His hands cupped the cheeks of her ass as he plunged into her very core until she wasn’t sure how much more she could handle. As if perfectly in tune with her, his fingers dug into her backside as he erupted into her center, filling her with a heavy load of cum before pulling free and slipping her legs away from his shoulders. Rather than dropping onto one side of the bed and falling asleep, he curled up next to her, wrapping one arm around her so that she could curl into the crook.

“I’m glad you came home with me. You’re truly amazing,” he told her, kissing her lightly on the forehead.

“Not nearly as glad as I am,” she told him.

“I hope so. I know you aren’t here for very long, but I really hope we can spend some more time together, get to know one another more than just sexually.”

Goldie smiled up at him, her emotions running the gamut. Ordinarily, she would be elated that someone like him wanted to spend more time with her, but that was not at all what she had intended when she came here to Bear Lake. There was no hope for a relationship and so why start something she couldn’t finish? Still, she couldn’t bring herself to just shoot him down.

“That would be nice,” she told him, knowing she didn’t mean it. She’d love to mean it if the circumstances were different, but it was what it was and she wouldn’t be here next week, so why bother?

“I think so,” he told her, kissing her on the cheek.

Goldie thought it might be best to change the subject to something that didn’t concern what they might or might not be come morning. This might be the only time in her life that she had ever felt awkward with after sex cuddling and she suddenly understood why men like Joshua didn’t like it. It was intimate. By cuddling, you were creating an intimate bond with someone you didn’t feel emotionally connected to and that was the very problem.

“So, you grew up here in Bear Lake?” she asked.

“Yes. I was born here, went to high school here. Between growing up here, school and the store, I know pretty much everyone in town. It’s like your friends, Ian and Randy, I meet them when they first came to town. Randy was fussing over everything in the store and Ian was just watching him fret, smiling and nodding. I could tell they were a couple and knew they were going to have a hard time fitting in with so many small town, small minded people.”

“I didn’t realize they ever had a problem with that,” Goldie said, feeling saddened that someone might take an unfortunate view of them based on their private preferences when they were such good guys.

“As it turned out, I was completely wrong. They are such great guys that people seemed to just accept them without issue. Between Ian’s quick wit and Randy’s sarcastic zingers, they always have people in stitches wherever they go. Plus, they are the first to jump in to help anyone who seems to be in need.”

“Yes. They have always been like that. They are one of the nicest couples I know. I’ve seen people take advantage of that and find it unfortunate, but they seem to just chalk incidents like that up to poor judgment and move on.”

“That sounds like them. What about you? Were you always a big city girl or did you move there later in life?”

“I have always lived in the city. We sometimes went on road trips to see how other people lived when I was growing up, but the city was home, still is. I don’t know if I could live in a place like this long term. It’s nice and quiet when you need that sort of downtime, but I think I would miss the lights and parties. There is always something to do there.”

“I’m sure there is. I think that would just make me tired after a while. I love the outdoors and just sitting under the moon and skies. Sometimes, the urge to just get out and run through the woods strikes me and I can do that freely here. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get by with how I live in a big city anywhere. Too many people, too many questions, too much noise.”

“I suppose we tend to grow into the places where we grow up. We become as much a part of it as it does us.”

“I can agree with that,” he said.

They talked into the wee hours, until she fell asleep, still in his arms. Another odd dream came to her. This time she was not running, but lying by a river in the sun, enjoying the way it felt beaming down on her face. Once again, she was startled awake, this time because she was dreaming a storm was afoot. A loud crack of lightening caused her to bolt upright and John to stir beside her, but he didn’t wake up. Looking out the window, the night was clear, but morning was breaking.

Chapter Six

Goldie crept into the house and tiptoed to her bedroom early the next morning. She had slipped out of John’s house with a kiss on the cheek and an excuse that she had an early day planned. Despite how incredible the night with him had been, she knew it was best to end it before it got to the whole “stay for breakfast” and then “let’s spend the day together” bits that might take it to a level she didn’t want to attempt. Climbing beneath the covers, she intended to just relax in bed for a while and then maybe get out and do some hiking.

“Oh, bad girl is up,” Ian said playfully as she stepped into the living room much later in the morning.

“Yes, she is. What are you doing at home? Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“I should be, but I took the day off. I’m about to head up to Walter’s Bluff to see the doctor.”

“Nothing serious, I hope.”

“No, nothing at all. Just a routine checkup and an opportunity to do some shopping. You want to come with me and take a browse about town?”

“I appreciate it, but I think I’m going to head out into the woods and roam around a bit.”

“It’s a lovely place to roam, but I don’t suggest you go too far alone. There are wild animals out there.”

“I’ll stick to the well-traveled trails.”

“Just be careful. Promise?”

“I do,” she said with a laugh, feeling a bit like she was talking to her father.

“Good enough then. I’m off to my appointment. I think Randy is working late, so you’ll be on your own for dinner.”

“I can probably manage,” she said with a laugh.

“I’m sure you’ll do fine. You don’t seem to have a shortage of pretty men to take you out for a bite. Perhaps you should call one of them up.”

“I’m pacing myself. I’ll most likely just grab a sandwich or something.”

“Oh, live a little. You’ll be gone at the end of the week. No sense not taking advantage of something that’s right in front of you.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” she said with a smile. Ian shrugged and walked out the door.

Goldie changed and threw a few things into her daypack for the impromptu hike. She was already halfway down the sidewalk when an overwhelming sense of nausea stopped her in her tracks. The sun suddenly felt unnaturally hot as it bore down upon her from above. A few more steps and she felt like she might pass out. Perhaps it was a result of having drank more than usual last night, but she still hadn’t consumed enough to be hungover, especially when she wasn’t this way when she had woken up either time today.

“Fuck this,” she muttered and turned around to return to the house.

Sitting on the sofa, she turned on the television to discover that someone had been attacked by bears only hours ago. She thought about Randy and Ian’s comments insinuating there were werewolves out and about at the full moon and laughed. At least it wasn’t a wolf attack! Then, she felt bad that she was making light of someone having been mauled, but the news continued to say that the man who was killed was a known sexual predator. Perhaps karma did exist, after all. Her body began to feel even worse and she decided to go lie down.

She spent the rest of the day alternately curled up in bed and in the bathroom being ill. Obviously, she had picked up a bug somewhere. By late afternoon, it seemed to have passed and she was starving. A sandwich wasn’t going to cut it. She got dressed again and walked into town to a diner she had seen yesterday. It advertised home cooking and that was just what she needed right now.

“That was delicious,” she told the waitress, having finished off a large plate of pork roast with potatoes, onions and carrots. It was a heavy meal, something she didn’t ordinarily allow herself, but even after having eaten the entire thing, she felt like she could still eat.

“Would you like a slice of pie?” the woman asked and Goldie looked at her as if she was an angel, a smile spreading across her face.

“Yes! Do you have peach?”

“We certainly do. Ala mode?”

“Absolutely. Thank you.”

Goldie took her time enjoying the warm gooey pie with the large dollop of vanilla bean ice cream on the side. She was pretty sure that it was the best thing she had ever tasted. What she wasn’t sure about was why she was so hungry. Then it occurred to her that she had eaten nothing today. Perhaps that was the simple explanation for her hunger. Her thoughts were disrupted as her cell phone rang.

“Did you make it home okay?” Ian asked.

“Oh, yes. Well, I never left really. I felt a little ill and went back to bed for a while.”

“You aren’t here now.”

“No. I was incredibly hungry when I woke up and decided to come up to the diner for dinner. I’m sorry. I should have left a note.”

“Oh, please. You don’t have to answer to us. Still, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t lost in the woods somewhere and unable to get back before night falls. We will see you when you get back.”

“See you soon,” she said, ending the call.

Goldie paid her bill and walked out. All the shops were beginning to close up. Bear Lake was one of those small town places that shut down before dark, for the most part. She ducked into a nearby package store to buy a couple of bottles of wine to take back with her. Purchase in hand, she headed back to the lake house.

“Would you like a hand with that?” a voice said from nearby.

“Oh, hello!” she said, spotting Joshua as he walked up to her from the sidewalk that joined the large porch of the store.

“Hello yourself. I wanted to call you, but you didn’t give me your number and I didn’t want to be like some stalker by just showing up at your friends’ house.”

“So, you decided to be a stalker here in town instead?” she said playfully.

“Something like that. I was actually on my way home from work and spotted you coming out,” he told her.

“I guess that is okay then,” she laughed.

“I hope so,” he replied, reaching for her bags even though she hadn’t answered his question.

They walked back to Ian and Randy’s place and he helped her inside with the bags. She wasn’t at all surprised to find that they knew him quite well, chatting him up like old friends. It was a very small community and everyone seemed to know everyone else. What did surprise her was that he owned the only bank in town. He hadn’t struck her as the banker type before, but seeing him today in a double breasted suit, it was easy to see it.

“Well, I guess I best be getting back to the house. Feel free to stop by for a drink later if you get bored hanging out with these two,” he told Goldie playfully, kissing her on the cheek as he left.

“Honey, if you aren’t out the door within the hour to go have drinks with that man, we’re evicting you,” Randy told her.

“Very funny,” she replied.

“I am dead serious,” he told her with a little smile.

“Yes, I can see that you are from the smirk.”

In the end, she decided to throw caution to the wind and wander over to Joshua’s for a drink. Knocking on the door, it was now she that felt a bit like a stalker just showing up rather than calling, but she realized that they still hadn’t exchanged phone numbers.

“Goldie! I’m glad you decided to come by,” he said as he opened the door.

“Well, you know, I didn’t have your number and thought I would stop by and get it from you,” she told him.

“Oh, of course. Come on in and I’ll write it down for you while I pour you a drink. I’m multitalented like that,” he said.

Inside, he did exactly that, handing her a scrap of paper with his phone number and a glass of wine. She took a sip of it, but found that it didn’t set well with her stomach after her recent illness. He didn’t seem to notice, as he clearly had other things on his mind. Ordinarily, a man pouncing on her without so much as a polite conversation would be a turn off, but her train of thought along those lines had changed since deciding to opt for fun instead of a relationship.

It was quite the change of pace after her night of slow lovemaking with John, as she quickly found herself pinned against Joshua’s sofa with his hand down her pants. His teeth sank into her shoulder as he massaged her clit, quickly getting her ready for him. Throwing all caution to the wind despite her lectures to herself, she allowed her body to respond, flooding his hand with the first of what would be numerous orgasms.

“That a girl,” he said, pulling free of her pants and beginning to get undressed.

“My God, what happened to your chest?” she exclaimed, noting the long jagged cut across it as he peeled away his shirt.

“Just a bit of a scrape this morning on my bike. Nothing that won’t heal in a day or so,” he told her.

“A day or so? That looks very bad. You might even need stitches,” she told him.

“I promise you, it will be just fine. I’ve had worse. Now let’s get back to getting you undressed, shall we?” he told her seductively.

She finished peeling off her clothes to stand naked before him. A lurid smile crossed his face as he whirled her around and pushed her forward across the back of the sofa, grabbing a handful of hair and pulling her head back as his other hand slid between her legs again, stroking her clit until she was moaning loudly. Her knees felt shaky as another orgasm sent streams of cum flowing across his fingers and down her thighs.

“Fuck me,” she demanded, feeling more assertive than she had ever felt.

“Tell me how,” he said firmly.

“How?” she replied, not following.

“How do you want to be fucked?” he asked.

“Hard, deep. I want you to fuck me so hard that the neighbors hear my screams,” she told him.

“You can depend on it,” he told her, spreading her legs further apart to enter her with one forceful stroke. His hands circled either side of her waist as he began ramming into her, causing her to cry out with each plunge. His hips rocked back and forth against her ass as he gave her every inch.

“Yes, yes, yes. That’s it. Fuck me harder,” she spurred him on.

One of his hands moved away from her waist and surrounded her neck, giving her a start, but also a charge of excitement. He squeezed lightly as he continued to fuck her wildly from behind, seeming to enjoy the way she cooed and squealed as much as she was enjoying being made to do so. Letting go of her neck, he grabbed the back of her hair, wrapping it around his hand and holding onto it as if it were some sort of rein.

“Your pussy is so sweet. I love having my cock buried inside you,” he told her, still plunging into her.

“Then don’t stop. Keep fucking me,” she demanded, pushing her hips backward to meet his thrusts.

“I bet you have a sweet little asshole too,” he said.

Goldie hesitated for a moment. She had never done anal, but had always wanted to try it. As much as men seemed to talk about it, she had never been with one that actually wanted to do it. She wasn’t sure she would enjoy it, especially with someone so well endowed, but she felt like some sort of animal in heat and saw no better time to give it a go.

“Why don’t you find out for yourself?” she breathed, looking back over her shoulder at him seductively.

“I will,” he said.

Goldie drew in her breath in anticipation as he slid free of her soaked pussy and slipped the head of his wet cock between her ass cheeks, teasing the rim of her anus with it. Slowly, he began to push more of the thick head inside her. It hurt for a moment, but began to ease as she told herself to relax. He rocked back and forth into her, each time forcing a bit more of his cock into her tiny orifice until he was finally completely inside her.

“Oh, God. That feels so good,” she groaned, feeling simultaneous pain and pleasure that only made her want it more.

“The best is yet to come,” he told her, pulling almost fully free of her before sliding fully back in.

“Umph,” she gasped as she felt the way his thickness filled her small hole.

“God, that’s tight,” he groaned as he pulled back again, this time slipping back in a bit harder and faster. His rhythm slowly picked back up until he was fucking her in the ass as enthusiastically as he had been fucking her pussy moments earlier.

To Goldie’s surprise, it wasn’t one of those things that she would endure and vow not to do again. Instead, she found herself enjoying it, responding to it. The more he fucked her, the more she wanted. She found herself wishing she could have him in both holes at once as her own fingers drifted between her legs to massage her clit while he continued to fuck her ass harder.

“I’m going to cum,” she squealed, her body quivering with a massive explosion that ran down her thighs, almost pushing his cock from her ass with the force with which it was expelled.

“Don’t stop. Keep it up. Cum some more for me,” he encouraged.

Goldie responded by increasing the friction of her fingers on her own clit while he bucked against her ass, sending her into a series of orgasms that caused her to pant and spasm beneath him.

“That’s it. That’s a good girl, Goldie. Keep going. Give me all you’ve got,” he told her, reaching between her legs to finger fuck her. It quickly sent her back over the edge as she made inarticulate noises, unable to form any actual words. She was reduced to a quivering, sticky mess by the time he finally shoved forward and flooded her asshole with cum.

“That was off the charts,” she panted as he pulled free of her.

Goldie couldn’t help but note that his eyes were dark again. She had known other men whose eyes got darker when they were turned on, but not like this. It was if they were a completely different color. Something about it was a bit unnerving, but also exciting. She couldn’t deny that she was drawn to him in a way she couldn’t explain. Though she knew it sounded campy, it was if some sort of primal scent intoxicated her. It was the same with John.

“Certainly was. How about we grab a shower and then watch a movie or something?” he said.

“Sounds good to me,” she replied, following him to the shower and waiting a bit awkwardly as he turned on the water.

He stepped inside and held a hand out to her, guiding her in under the steamy water. They made quick work of getting cleaned up before stepping back out to dry off and get dressed. Though it wasn’t quite cuddling, they settled into the sofa curled against one another and began streaming a movie. She wasn’t surprised to find that it was an action film rather than anything warm and fuzzy she would have picked out.

Goldie feigned interest in the movie as her thoughts drifted back to the events of the last few days. It was so unlike her to be having sex with two men in the same period of time. She enjoyed both of them immensely, but it was like they were two halves of a whole. Joshua was so commanding. It was a huge turn on to just be taken and fucked with wild abandon, but she knew that she couldn’t spend her life with someone who didn’t have much to say when he wasn’t inside her.

Then, there was the issue of intimacy. Contrary to what some people believe, sex is not intimacy. Sex is a physical event and it can be damned good, like it seemed to be between her and Joshua, but it wasn’t love and it wasn’t necessarily intimate. She could certainly appreciate the way he reduced her to her most primal elements and made her want to delve even further into the dark recesses that made up that part of her needs, but at the end of the day, she needed to know he thought about more than getting off with her.

“Are you going to sneak away from me again in the morning before I wake up?” he asked, interrupting her thoughts and catching her off guard.

She looked at him, a smile crossing her face. Normally, this is where she would make some excuse for such behavior, but she didn’t really feel it was necessary with him.

“Most likely,” she replied.

“Okay. I have to be at work early anyway, so I guess that will work,” he told her with a smirk.

Goldie looked at him with a single eyebrow raised. She wasn’t sure if she detected a note of hurt or relief in that statement. Perhaps he did feel offended by her sneaking off while he slept or perhaps he was grateful not to have to deal with any of the morning after awkward bullshit. She knew that when men had done that to her, she had been left feeling a bit cheap and perhaps even dirty in some way. It was a bit rude and selfish if you really got down to it, but she was beginning to understand the reality of relationships rather than the fairy tale she had always made them out to be.

“It’s no problem. I understand. We’re fuck buddies, right? I scratch your itch, you scratch mine?” he added, watching her face for clues it seemed.

“Exactly,” she replied.

Something told Goldie that there was a lot more to that statement than the words conveyed. Was he trying to figure out what she was thinking, feeling? Perhaps she was making too much of this. That had always been her problem, overthinking things. It was weird to be on the other side of the equation though, not knowing how she should respond.

“That’s cool,” he replied, returning to the movie playing on the screen, but something on his face said otherwise and it made her very curious to know what he was thinking. Still, she knew he wouldn’t ask.

Goldie didn’t reply further, letting the conversation lapse. Her mind continued to swirl with thoughts about what he might be thinking and whether there was more to him than what she was seeing, but she convinced herself that it didn’t matter. This was just sex, nothing more and she needed to stop trying to make it something more, especially when that wasn’t even something that she wanted from him or anyone at this point.

That is what she kept telling herself. Even as the movie ended and they climbed into bed together, Joshua stripping her of her clothes and fucking her once again across the bed before they climbed beneath the covers and settled in for a few hours sleep before morning. Fortunately, her mind stopped running around in circles trying to make sense of things and she fell asleep quickly. No dream came tonight. Instead, she was lost to an endless sea of darkness where she felt nothing and wondered nothing. It was nice.

At some point, she woke up, hungry for him and rather than turning over to force herself back to sleep like she would have under normal circumstances, she found herself boldly peeling back the covers and teasing his cock with her tongue. He stirred a bit in his sleep, not waking even as his body reacted to her touch. His dick grew hard and rose, the moonlight shining upon it from the window as if it was some sort of phallic statue. She snickered a bit as she raised her body over his and impaled herself upon it.

“Molesting me in my sleep?” he said as he fluttered awake.

“Yes,” she replied.

“You’re a naughty girl,” he told her, pushing her off of him and down onto the bed. Pulling her ass cheeks apart, he fucked her ass once again. This time, he wasn’t gentle, letting her cry out in ecstasy as he took her hard and fast until they both came again and collapsed back into the pillows to sleep.

Chapter Seven

Waking up in the wee hours of the morning, Goldie slipped on her clothes and out of Joshua’s house, making her way in the darkness back toward Ian and Randy’s where she climbed into her own bed. She felt oddly content with the situation. Perhaps men that just played the field were onto something that women couldn’t quite grasp unless they tried it themselves. She awoke later in the morning feeling a bit bloated and nauseous.

“Great. Way to preempt my fun, mother nature,” she muttered, thinking her period had decided to arrive early this month.

Making her way to the bathroom to shower, she was surprised to find that she was wrong. Perhaps it was just a warning that it was on the way. So much for sexy flings the rest of this mini vacation. Picking up her phone, she found that she had a message from Joshua telling her that he was disappointed to find her gone when he woke up. She smiled a little and clicked the next message, from John. He wanted to know if she could come in to town for lunch. She agreed.

“I didn’t even notice this was here,” she told him. “The food is delicious.”

“Yes, they still rent rooms here, though there aren’t many available. Mostly they provide rooms for functions and special events, plus run this restaurant,” he told her of the old hotel that sat in the center of town.

“It’s very quaint,” she told him.

“If you like, I can take you to see some more of it when we finish lunch. The owner is an old school friend.”

“Yes, I’d love that. How old is this place?”

“A bit over two hundred years old. It was in ruins when he bought it and renovated it, so a lot of the structure is redesigned, but most of the woodwork is the original carvings from when it was built.”

“I bet the rooms are fantastic,” she said offhandedly.

“Well, let’s give you a peek at them so you can see for yourself.”

After they paid for lunch, he excused himself for a moment and went into the kitchen, returning with a frail looking older man, introducing him as the owner. Goldie was momentarily confused. Hadn’t he said the owner was an old school friend? This man had to be at least in his seventies. Perhaps he had just meant that he had known the man since his school days rather than he was a classmate as she had thought.

“Here are the keys to one of the empty rooms. Most of the rooms are set up just like this one, so it will give you an idea of what they are like. The rest of the rooms are all openly available for you to look at. John knows the place pretty well. Make yourselves at home,” he told them.

John thanked him and took her on a tour of the place. It was all quite stunning with a lot of the original design still intact. Walking into the room they were given a key for was like walking back in time. The large wrought iron bed stood against one wall opposite a large bay window that looked out over the town and the lake beyond. She stood looking out over the landscape as John walked up behind her and put his arms around her waist, pulling her to him and kissing her softly on the neck.

“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Very much so. Thank you so much for bringing me here,” she told him.

“My pleasure,” he replied, turning her around to face him.

His lips met hers in a soft, sensual kiss and she found herself instantly responding to him, despite trying to hold back. What was it about him that she found so irresistible? Somewhere, in the back of her mind, a voice whispered back to her. “Everything,” it said, but she pulled away anyway.

“John, we can’t,” she said.

“Yes, we can,” he said.

“It’s not our room. We’re just supposed to be looking at it,” she said.

“Think again. Trust me, he doesn’t care. This room is ours until we give him the key back,” he breathed against her neck as he began kissing his way down the length of it.”

Goldie gave in to him, enjoying the way his hot mouth felt on her skin in the cool room. Under the circumstances, Goldie thought it would be more of a quickie, lest someone come up to see what was taking so long, but John seemed to have no intention of rushing things. He sat her up on the heavy oak table situated on one side of the room and slipped off her pants and panties, burying his face in her pussy.

“You taste magnificent,” he muttered, the vibrations of his voice causing her clit to throb with anticipation.

His mouth surrounded her clit, pulling it in and sucking at it eagerly as his fingers began to explore her rapidly moistening folds. There was no rushing him as he feasted on her slickness as if he were enjoying fine cuisine. Her moans filled the room. Tangling her hands in his hair, she pulled him in to her, enjoying the way he felt with his tongue and fingers inside of her.

Goldie became aware of the large mirror on the dresser on the opposite side of the room. The sight of his muscular back as it rippled with his movements and his head buried between her legs was a huge turn on, as she watched him eat her out.

“Yes, there,” she moaned as he hit just the right spot with his finger, rubbing along the inner wall of her wet hole perfectly. Her legs spasmed as her body gave in to the attention he was lavishing on her dripping pussy and shattered into what felt like an orgasm that might register on the Richter scale if there was such a thing for climaxes.

“Delicious,” he mumbled, standing up to face her as he began to get undressed.

Reaching for her hand, he helped her down from the table and guided her over to a nearby wooden chair that stood to one side of the bed. Sitting on it to face her, he pulled her down onto him so that she was facing him with his cock buried inside of her. At first, he didn’t move. His enormous cock filled her to the brim as he kissed her passionately, his hands buried in her hair. Moving downward, he turned his attention to her breasts, licking and sucking at her nipples softly as his hips began to grind into hers.

Goldie moaned loudly as his hands drifted down to her hips, lifting her up while still kissing and massaging her breasts with his mouth. He began to pull her up and down the length of his cock, letting her ride him very slowly. Wanting him deeper inside of her, Goldie reached out for his shoulders, pulling herself up and then dropping back down on him with a grunt as he seemed to hit bottom.

John let go of her, putting his hands down on the sides of the chair to brace himself as she slipped her body up and down his cock, using his throbbing member to pleasure herself in the most exquisitely slow fashion. Much to her surprise, she felt something that didn’t seem quite physical. It was an ache, a need that came from somewhere much different than her hungry pussy. She recognized it for exactly what it was, a misplaced feeling that she had to quickly squash.

“I love how your cock feels inside of me,” she said, attempting to break free of what she might be feeling and put her feelings back in perspective. This was sex, just sex. She needed to focus on the physical and forget the ache that stemmed from a place more north than her clit.

“My cock was made for you,” he told her softly, his eyes never leaving her own.

Damn him, he wasn’t making it easy to keep her perspective. She firmly believed that she could spend the rest of her life with his cock inside of her, but now there was a part of her that wanted more than just affection. While she adored his way of making love softly and sweetly, there was also a part of her that appreciated being fucked like Joshua preferred to do. If somehow she could find a guy that could do both, she might just be in heaven, but she just didn’t see that ever happening. How long could she really carry on with two different guys before it became an issue to someone?

Her thoughts drifted away again as he thrust upward into her deeply, causing her to cry out. Opening her eyes, she looked down at him and smiled. His expression softened as he looked back at her, their eyes locked together as she rode him with increasing enthusiasm. Their bodies were like one as they glided back and forth in perfect unison until she began to quake, flooding his cock with her juices.

“You look so beautiful when you cum. I love watching you,” he told her.

“You must, you keep making me do it,” she told him, leaning down to kiss him.

“Turn around,” he told her.

Goldie stood and faced the other direction. She felt his hands pulling her back downward on him, letting him ride her reverse cowgirl style as he ground his cock further and further into her wet recesses. His hands locked onto her waist as he guided her up and down, his big cock throbbing inside of her.

“You’re amazing,” she muttered, enjoying their lazy lovemaking. The fact that they were doing it in a place where there was the potential to be caught only made it that much more exciting to her.

John responded with a series of grunts as his hands faltered on her waist and he buried himself inside of her, sitting her firmly down on his lap as he came inside of her. They sat there like that for a moment, his hands drifting up to cup her breasts as he kissed her back, his cock still buried inside of her.

Finally, she pulled free of him, excusing herself to the bathroom to get cleaned up before departing the room. Goldie tried to pull herself together as much as possible, giggling a bit as they left the room to visit the rest of the hotel. When they were done, John returned the key to his friend and they left, parting ways for the afternoon so that John could get back to the general store and she could return to the lake house. Plus, she was beginning to not feel very well again. By the time she made it back, she had to lie down to keep the room from spinning around her. She felt exhausted on top of it and was grateful when sleep came so that she could just close out the discomfort she felt for a while.

Chapter Eight

“You don’t look well,” Ian said to her the following morning. “Do you want me to see if my doctor can see you?”

“I don’t know. It’s probably just a bug or something,” she replied, now discounting that it was an early period and figuring it was more of a stomach flu.

“Okay, if you are sure, but I don’t mind at all. Just give me a ring at the office if you start feeling worse,” he told her.

“I will. Thanks, Ian.”

She watched as he followed Randy out the door and then sat down on the sofa. She felt incredibly hungry, but wasn’t sure she could keep it down. After several hours, it hadn’t subsided at all. Her stomach was puffy and she felt horrid. Going to a strange doctor was the last thing she wanted to do, but she grew so weak that she felt she had to. A call to Ian garnered her a visit to his doctor.

While she waited for time to go to the doctor’s office, she sat down to watch the news. There had been another bear attack, it seemed. This time it was a man that was found on a trail not far from the lake. She was surprised to see that he worked at Joshua’s bank and was recently charged with embezzlement. A search warrant at his home had turned up a large collection of photos of women across the country that he was believed to also be blackmailing.

“Sounds like these bears are purging the area of scum,” she said aloud.

An odd thought suddenly occurred to her and she couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought about it before now. When she had spent the night with Joshua last night, he had quite a large wound across his chest. By the time they had gotten into the shower, it had somehow seemed a bit less pronounced. Then, this morning, when she had glanced at him as he slept, the light had shone on his chest to show that the wound hardly appeared visible at all. How was that possible?

“Don’t be ridiculous, Goldie. Men can’t become wolves or bears,” she said aloud with a laugh.

Obviously not feeling well was getting to her. Rather than dwelling on it further, she began to freshen up for her trip to the doctor. It was going to be a long drive into the next town feeling like this as it was.

Chapter Nine

“You’re pregnant,” the doctor told her as she sat waiting for a diagnosis after he had run some tests and done a physical exam.

“What?”

“Pregnant. About four weeks, I’d say.”

“No. That’s impossible.”

“Well, the tests do sometimes give a false positive, but my physical exam matches up with the findings. So, I’m afraid it isn’t impossible.”

“Is it possible that I’m not so far along?”

“Yes, I could be off by a week or so, but no more.”

“No way. I couldn’t possibly be more than a few days,” she said.

“I don’t know what to tell you. Time will tell a more accurate picture, but I feel pretty confident with my assessment.”

Goldie thanked him and left the office. There was no way she could be four weeks pregnant. Greg had not been able to have kids due to a childhood illness that had left him sterile. Admittedly, she had thrown caution to the wind with her two recent lovers and could have very well have gotten pregnant. It explained her recent nausea and weakness, but the doctor was way off with his timetable. It was just as simple as that.

“Fucking great. Pregnant and don’t know who the father is. Good job, Goldie,” she muttered to herself as she drove back to Randy and Ian’s.

There was no other answer for her but just to end it with both of them. Though she liked each one for different reasons, she had never intended for it to be a long-term relationship with either of them and she wasn’t about to go through holding one of them over the fire with paternity tests and the like. She would raise this baby by herself and neither would ever need to know about it.

“What did the doctor say?” Ian asked as he returned from work shortly after she got back to the lake house.

“Just the stomach flu, after all. I’ll be fine,” she lied, not ready to tell anyone about her condition until she sorted it all out for herself.

“Well, that sucks, but I suppose it could be worse,” he said.

“Yes, I imagine it could. If you don’t mind, I’m going to go lie down a while.”

“Sure honey. Get some rest. If you aren’t up for dinner, we’ll bring you some soup.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that,” she told him, excusing herself to her room.

Closing the door behind her, she lay down on the bed and cried. What did she know about raising a child? What was she going to tell her parents? They would be absolutely horrified that she was a single mother. For all their good points, they were hopeless society types who cared about what the neighbors thought and who would be whispering about their pregnant out of wedlock daughter. Even in today’s day and age, they still believed one should be married before having a child. This was going to be a nightmare.

“How are you feeling?” Randy asked her later on when he came to bring her soup, just as promised by Ian.

“Not very well,” she replied. “I hate to be such a downer.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. It happens to the best of us.”

“I’m headed home Friday morning anyway. Hopefully, I will feel better for the trip.”

“Well, if you don’t, you feel free to extend your stay. If not, maybe you will feel well enough tomorrow night for us to take you out on your last night here.”

“That would be nice. I will try to make it.”

“It is what it is. Enjoy your soup and just yell if you need anything else. I’ll come back and get your dishes in a bit.”

“Thanks, Randy. You’ve both been very good to me.”

“We’ve enjoyed having you. I only wish we hadn’t had to work most of the time and could have shown you around more.”

“You’ve done more than enough.”

By the following morning, Goldie found that she did feel quite a bit better, at least physically. Mentally, she felt incredibly out of sorts with the entire situation. Rather than dwell on it too much right now, she decided to enjoy her last night at Bear Lake with her friends. She would worry about how she as going to deal with this when she got back home. They made plans to go to a local restaurant and have a nice dinner out, along with some other acquaintances.

“This is the best seafood place in Westfall,” Ian told her of the sprawling upscale restaurant situated in the next town, just on the outskirts of Bear Lake.

“It might just be the best seafood anywhere,” Goldie replied enthusiastically as she took another bite of the fish cakes she had ordered.

“Good point. Certainly among the top ones in the world, I’d guess. A pity that not more people know about places like this in small towns,” Randy said.

“No, it’s not. If more people knew, we’d never get a table!” Ian told him.

“Another good point,” Randy laughed.

They finished their meal and were headed toward the door when Goldie spotted Joshua in a nearby corner talking to a group of guys. She tried to slip out without him seeing her, but failed.

“Goldie!” he said, crossing the room toward her. “You haven’t returned my messages. What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing. I just have been a bit under the weather is all,” she told him, it was at least half the truth.

“Are you feeling better now?” he asked, nodding his head toward Ian and Randy in recognition.

“A bit. The guys were nice enough to take me out for dinner once I made it past the rough part,” she said, antsy to get out of here. He looked just as delicious as ever and she didn’t want to end up in his bed again on her last night here.

“That is nice of them. You should come by the house for a drink later,” he offered.

“I appreciate it, but I’m still not one hundred percent. I think it best that I just call it a day.”

“Well, the offer stands if you change your mind. You know the way to my doorstep,” he said with a wink, excusing himself with a polite goodbye. Goldie watched him walk away for a moment before turning to head out the door again.

“Only a foolish woman wouldn’t get in a last night with that man,” Randy joked as he opened the door to exit the building.

“I agree, but here I am, foolish as can be.”

“Perhaps you will wise up before bedtime!” Ian added as he stepped outside.

Goldie laughed and followed them out, not really paying attention to her surroundings as she considered her options and then tried to dismiss them again. If she had been watching where she was going, she might not have run into someone without seeing them first. Looking up, she found herself looking into the eyes of John.

Fuck! ” she thought to herself.

Was there no getting away from them? She blushed and apologized, noting that he was alone and not with another woman. It seemed that Joshua had been too, with a group of guys rather than a date. Then it hit her. They were meeting here, meeting with the group of guys she had seen Joshua talking to. If there had been any doubt as to whether they knew one another, it was certainly put to rest now.

“Well, hello there. I was beginning to think you were avoiding me. Crashing into me isn’t exactly helping you hide from me, you know.”

“I wasn’t hiding from you. I’ve just been under the weather.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. You look well now. Was it a virus?” he asked, scrutinizing her closely.

“I suppose. Just a stomach bug. It seems to have passed.”

“That is good to hear,” he told her before turning toward Randy and Ian, who stood talking to one another at the bottom of the steps she had been headed for when she had run into him. “I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t mean to be rude. I didn’t even say hello.”

“Hello,” they both said, almost in unison, returning to their own conversation as another friend came by and joined them.

Goldie marveled at the small town meetings that seemed to take place all around here. You really couldn’t go anywhere in a place like this and not run into people you knew. Even knowing the limited number of people she had met since being here, she thought back on how often she had just run into them here and there. It was nice, but how long would it take to get bored in a place like this?

“Well, I guess I best get going,” she told him, trying to avoid making a situation that felt awkward even more so by lingering long enough for Joshua to wander out, as well.

“Yeah, people are waiting for me inside. I guess I’ll get to it. I’ll message you when I get home, perhaps you can drop by.”

“I’ve an early morning tomorrow, so I will probably be in bed fairly early.”

“I see,” he said, his face falling.

Goldie knew that he understood it was just an excuse and felt bad about that. It was odd having the shoe on the other foot, being the one who was doing the rejecting and it didn’t really give her a sense of power. It made her feel terrible. A part of her wondered if the men that had left her felt this way, even for a moment.

“Have a good night,” she said politely, moving quickly away from him toward Randy and Ian.

“You too,’ he called after her as she urged Randy and Ian down the walkway toward the lake house.

“You are a naughty girl!” Randy laughed.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean, you giving both of those gorgeous specimen the brush off like you are the Queen of the Universe.”

“Aren’t I?” she quipped, though she felt nothing at all like that.

The trio laughed as they made their way back home, where Goldie excused herself to pack for her return home tomorrow. She had thought this little vacation might help her catch her breath, find her bearings. Instead, she felt almost panic stricken as she anticipated her return. She would still have a couple of weeks of down time from work to sort things out, but she knew that wasn’t a lot of time under the circumstances.

Chapter Ten

“What was that?” Goldie said, wide eyed, as she made her way from her bedroom to the living room, where Ian and Randy were gathered in front of the news.

“Storm. I’m afraid you aren’t going anywhere today. None of us are. The bridges are already washed out from the rain and it’s not going to stop for quite a while according to the weather report,” Ian told her.

“Will it flood, like into the house?” she asked, fearing the worst.

“No, the house is high enough and the barriers around the lake will push it toward the overflow on the opposite side where there is no housing.”

“Well, at least there is that,” she said, relieved.

“Agreed. There is coffee and crumb cake in the kitchen if you want. Help yourself,” Randy told her, tapping away on his computer beside Ian, who was doing the same.

Goldie guessed that is what people out here did when they were stranded, work from home. A part of her was envious, as much of her job required she be present on set. It must be nice to have options like that. She had considered, at one point during her career, to just consult on design rather than embrace full creation. It would afford her the same luxury a large part of the time as consultation via webcam and emails would become the norm.

“Sounds good, but I’m not much up for coffee this morning. Do you have any green tea?” she asked.

“Green tea?” Ian laughed. “Are you starting a new healthy lifestyle? I’ve never known you to drink green tea in your life.”

“Just trying to steer clear of the caffeine a bit,” she told him.

The fact was that she knew nothing about being pregnant, but was already appalled that she had been drinking alcohol before finding out she was expecting. Surely, caffeine wasn’t good for the baby either. If she was stuck here today, she was going to have to at least do some research on what she should be eating and drinking. The doctor had given her some pamphlets and some instructions, but she had been in such a state of shock, she had left the papers behind and his words had not even begun to register at the time.

“Well, there is probably some in there somewhere. Check the cabinet to the left of the stove. If not, I think there is a jar of instant decaf that my mother bought last time she visited. It probably takes like pig swill, but you are more than welcome to try it,” Randy told her.

“Thanks,” she replied, heading to the kitchen to look for it. She was pleased to find a small box of green peppermint tea that would work just fine, though she wasn’t sure how it would pair with crumb cake. She opted for an apple and the tea, sitting down at the table and opening her phone to see what she could learn about her first trimester. Instead, she found a message from John that he had sent late last night.

“I’m not sure what I did or said wrong, but I felt really bad that you were in such a hurry to get away from me tonight. I really enjoyed our time together and would like to see you again.”

Below that was another, sent this morning, just saying he hoped she wasn’t out in the storm. Goldie sighed as she considered how much she really did like him. Then again, she also really liked Joshua. There were far too many reasons to stay clear of both of them. Choosing between the two of them was an impossibility. Each of them brought something to the table that really appealed to her. Both were gorgeous, successful and fantastic in bed, but Joshua was more serious in nature and primal in his sexual urges. John was fun, outgoing and more sensual.

Of course, the biggest problem is that she was expecting a child from one of them and had no idea which one. How do you start any relationship off like that? It wasn’t as if you could say, “Yes, I’d really like to be with you, but I also fucked your friend and one of you got me pregnant. I’ve no idea which one. Oops!”

Her thoughts were interrupted by loud groans from Ian and Randy in the living room, followed by a string of expletives from the former.

“That’s just fucking great! What the hell do we pay that lazy ass council for if not to make sure everything is working properly. What a bunch of fucking twats!”

“What’s going on?” Goldie asked, stepping back into the room and looking at the two of them.

“The overflow is backed up. Water is going to begin spilling over the lake barriers and there is a good chance we will flood, after all.”

“You’re kidding me!” she replied.

“Afraid not, dear,” he said.

“What will we do if that happens?” she asked.

“Oh, honey. We aren’t waiting for it to happen. I just booked us two rooms in the old hotel in town while the getting was still good. It’s out of the flood zone and we can hole up there until this passes. It’s a good thing you are already packed. Let us throw a few things in bags and then we will drive into town while we still can.”

“I thought the bridges were out,” she said.

“Only the ones leaving town. The one between here and there is still fine according to our neighbor that called to tell us that his place is already getting a little leakage. He’s on his way over to go into town with us.”

“Okay. I’ll get my things,” she said woefully. What a downturn this vacation was suddenly taking.

Thirty minutes later, the three of them, along with a neighbor named Hank, were on their way to the hotel. The roads were incredibly wet and, though not completely flooded, standing water was already visible in places. She found herself wondering if Joshua and John were okay where they were and if they were at home on the lake or had already left for work before it got too bad. She suspected that John would have the store open to those in need, but she wasn’t sure about Joshua.

“Get settled in however you like,” Randy told her after they had checked in and were headed to their rooms. “We are going to do some more work for a while and then we’ll come gather you back up for a nice lunch in the hotel. They have some amazing food here.”

“Yes. I ate here with John once. It was quite good.”

“Of course. He eats here quite often since it is close to the store and his friend owns it.”

“Yeah. I met him. It was odd, because I thought that he said the guy was a friend from school, so I assumed a classmate, but he seemed quite a bit older than John,” she replied.

Ian and Randy exchanged an odd look before changing the subject to announce that they were at her room. Goldie thought it odd, but turned toward the door Ian was pointing at to let herself in. She laughed a little as she realized it was the same room she and John had been in while they were here.

“What’s funny?” Ian asked.

“Nothing. Just a random thought. I’ll see you guys at lunch.”

“Yes, you will. We are just down the hall if you need us in the meantime.”

“Thanks. What a crazy day, huh?”

“Yeah. I’m not looking forward to going back to a house that is flooded. Let’s hope it stops before it gets to that point.”

“One can only hope.”

Once inside her room, Goldie opened her tablet and began doing some research on pregnancy, making notes about things she would need to do as hers progressed. It was her nature to plan everything out, especially with her career being affected by all this. Hopefully, the birth would fall around the next wrap of the TV show so that she would have the down time after the birth without it interfering with work too much. As sad as it was that she had to put work above the baby, it was a simple fact that she would have to support herself and the child alone.

For a moment, she considered ending the pregnancy. She had always been against that sort of thing, but things change a bit when you are the one with your feet squarely in those shoes. It was something she had to at least consider, though she was immediately certain she couldn’t go through with it. This baby might have an ambiguous father, but it was also a part of her and she was quickly finding herself in love with the tiny creature she carried.

“Are you moving around?” she asked it, aware of a stirring that seemed to be taking place inside of her. “Of course not,” she answered herself. “You aren’t big enough for me to feel you move just yet.”

Time seemed to fly as she jumped from site to site reading tips about pregnancy and parenting written by everyone from pediatricians to first time mothers. It seemed that everyone had a different opinion on absolutely everything and she wondered how women ever even sorted it all out. She suspected that, in the end, you just did the best you could and hoped you didn’t fuck your kid up too much.

She jumped at the sound of someone knocking on the door, having been completely lost in thought. Glancing at her phone, she noted that it was already lunchtime. No doubt that would be the guys coming to fetch her. Turning off her tablet, she set it aside and answered the door.

“Ready for a bit of lunch, girlie?” Randy said cheerfully. Ian was all smiles beside them and it was her guess that they had made better use of their room than just for work.

“I am,” she told him picking up her purse and key to the room from the table inside the door and walking down with the two of them.

The hotel restaurant was packed with people. Outside it was positively dreary, the rain poured down in buckets and the sky was an angry black streak, spouting lightning bolts and obnoxious claps of thunder. If would have been a beautiful storm under different circumstances, but it was getting ugly with the flooding and influx of people trying to escape it. They had to wait almost forty-five minutes just to be seated. They had barely finished ordering their lunch when a familiar voice spoke up from behind her.

“What are the odds that you three would take pity on me and let me sit in your extra chair rather than waiting an hour to eat?” Joshua asked.

Ian and Randy looked a bit awkwardly at Goldie. She feigned a smile despite feeling a bit trapped. Perhaps it was just an excuse for him to talk to her, but then again, there were a lot of people here so he probably did just need a place to sit. Of course, it could be that both were the case.

“Of course you can sit with us,” she told him, nodding toward the empty chair on her side of the table.

“Thank you so much! I am starving to death! I drove like a bat out of hell to try to get back and check on the house from work before it got too bad, but I was too late. The roads in are already flooded and the hotel is full. I’ll most likely be begging friends for a dry sofa before the night is out.”

Goldie supposed this would be an opportunity to invite him to stay with her, but she was really trying to avoid intimacy with anyone else before leaving this place, especially since she already was feeling like a beached whale. The way her stomach had already started to protrude was insane. She’d had to put on a dress that was a bit loose around the waist and toss a tissue thin jacket over it to hide the bulge. Obviously, she was going to be one of those that showed quickly, despite her larger size.

“Already? I was hoping it would subside rather than getting worse!” Ian shrieked. “Our poor house is going to be destroyed. All our houses are going to be soggy, musty messes!”

Goldie was almost grateful for the outburst, as it salvaged what might have otherwise been an awkward moment. The three men commiserated about their homes while the waiter began placing drinks and salads on the table, noting that someone extra had turned up and taking his order before leaving.

“Thank God for good insurance is all I can say,” Joshua continued.

“Yes, but insurance isn’t going to replace some of the precious items we’ve collected over the years. I’ve combed every thrift store and art fair in the country and some overseas locations for some of the things we have,” Randy groaned.

“It’ll be okay,” Ian told him, looking at him softly and patting his hand on the table.

Goldie sometimes envied their relationship. They were so close to one another, finishing each other’s sentences and always seeming like they were on the same page with just about everything. She had never seen them have a truly cross moment with one another in all the years since she’d known them. In fact, she had already decided that when the time came, they would be her child’s godparents. It might be unorthodox to have two godfathers and no godmother, but she doubted much about her being a mother would be normal.

“You look like you are positively glowing today,” Joshua told her, his eyes roaming across her face and dwelling for just a moment on her cleavage, which, like her stomach, was a bit swollen. In fact, she was currently wishing she had worn a different bra. Her nipples felt like they were on fire as they rubbed against the material of the one she had on.

“I’m feeling much better after being sick a few days. I was actually headed home today, but the storm held me up. I guess I am stuck here until things subside,” she admitted.

“There are worse places to be stuck, aren’t there?” he asked, his smile melting her like always.

“I suppose there are,” she said, determined not to fall under his spell.

The conversation drifted away as Joshua’s salad arrived and everyone began to eat, the rest of them having waited until he got his food rather than being rude and eating in front of him. Though they chatted lightly between bites, it seemed everyone was quite hungry and more devoted to eating their meals than being social. Salads were followed by entrees and a nice bottle of shiraz.

“Let’s order another bottle,” Randy said as they polished the first one off. “It’s not as if any of us are going to be driving anywhere.’

“How about we migrate to the bar instead?” Ian offered, nodding toward the line of people still waiting for tables. “It’s a full house and there is no need to hold a table hostage when we could settle in to a nice booth and drink.”

“Sounds good,” Joshua chimed in and Goldie realized that she might be stuck with him for a while this afternoon.

The four of them paid for their meals, Joshua insisting on picking up her bill, despite her protests that she would take care of it. The bus boys were already cleaning off their table before they walked the few feet to the entrance to the separate bar that adjoined the restaurant. It was not as crowded in there this time of day, though it was still pretty busy.

“You aren’t drinking?” Joshua asked as she ordered a glass of sparkling water for herself, something he hadn’t seemed to notice at the lunch table.

“I just still feel a bit dehydrated from being ill. I’d best stick with water for now,” she told him in an effort to come up with a plausible explanation for not drinking.

Though it had initially felt awkward to be here with him, it quickly faded into a familiar comfort as the four of them laughed and joked. Ian and Randy told him embarrassing stories about how awkward she was in high school and she returned the favor.

“So, the teacher, who had a bit of a speech impediment was talking about genetics and the probability of certain characteristics of fruit flies. Goldie kept mumbling to me and I would laugh. Finally, the teacher overheard her and completely stopped the class,” Randy told him.

“What was she saying?” Joshua laughed.

“She kept muttering “magenta” and making a face. He stopped and asked her if she was kin to Daniel Webster and she said no. He asked if she even knew who it was and she guessed that he wrote the dictionary,” Randy continued.

“Not a bad guess, given the name,” Joshua said.

“That’s what he said. He told her that it was close, but that the more accurate answer was that he was a great orator and expert on pronunciation. He asked if she was kin to him.”

“Awh, man,” Joshua remarked, smiling over at her.

“Oh, that’s not the end of it. She tells him no and he tells her that she’s probably not an expert on pronunciation then,” Randy said.

“That’s harsh,” Joshua laughed.

“That’s when it got really funny. Miss Snarky Pants over there looks at him indignantly and said, ‘ Maybe not, but even I know that the word is “magenta” and not “mangled” like you are saying. Calling them mangled eye fruit flies is ridiculous! ’ The entire class just lost it.”

“Oh My God! She didn’t!” Joshua said, laughing loudly. “What did he say to that?”

“He sent me to stand in the hallway until his class was over. He said he didn’t want to look at me anymore that day,” Goldie finished, now laughing herself at the memory of being put out of class for correcting her biology teacher.

They all laughed some more, sharing stories about their respective childhoods and some of the trouble they had gotten into over the years. Before they knew it, they had been there for hours and it was getting incredibly dark outside, the weather not letting up in the least. Randy and Ian excused themselves, leaving her there to try to excise herself from Joshua’s company. Though she was honestly enjoying it, she still knew she should remove herself soon. She was guessing he sensed it, as he did her work for her.

“Well, it’s been great seeing you, but I guess I better get going. I need to call up some of the guys and find a place to crash tonight. Hopefully, this will clear up and you can get out of here tomorrow at some point,” he told her, standing up and tossing some cash on the table with what Ian and Randy had left to cover their drinks.

Incredulously, Goldie heard a voice that she was quite certain couldn’t actually be coming from her asking him if he wanted to stay with her. He paused, narrowing his eyes at her for a moment before answering.

“Are you sure? I’ve gotten the impression lately that you were doing your best to avoid me,” he said, a note of sadness but no anger in his voice.

“I am just leaving soon and saw no reason to start anything,” she admitted. It was partially the truth, but what the hell. One more night of passion before she left couldn’t hurt. After all, he knew the score and was willing, so why should she turn down hot sex with a man that knew how to make her beg for more?

“Well, if you are sure, it would be a huge help today. I will even sleep on the floor or something if you prefer,” he offered.

“Nonsense. We are adults. We can both sleep in the bed . . . or not sleep in the bed,” she said, feeling a bit brazen,

“I’m guessing that not sleeping is more likely,” he smiled, reaching for her arm and leading her toward the stairs that led up toward the rooms.

She pointed him down the hallway toward the one she was staying in and they went inside, already losing their clothes no sooner than the door was shut behind them.

Chapter Eleven

Lying in the aftermath of a rousing session that left them both heaving for breath, Goldie and Joshua drifted off to sleep on their respective sides of the bed.

His phone, still in the pocket of his pants on the other side of the room, began to ring and he ignored it. After a moment, it began ringing again.

“Ugh. Who is that?” he muttered, climbing from the bed and crossing over to retrieve it. It had stopped ringing, but began to ring again in his hand. He clicked a key and spoke into the mouthpiece. “Hello?”

Goldie listened to his side of the conversation, which was obviously with someone else who had gotten stranded in the weather. She listened to him apologizing to them, telling them that he was staying with a friend and couldn’t really extend an invite. It was obvious that it was a guy from the way he was addressing him and Goldie felt bad about someone else being stranded out in this mess, so she interrupted.

“Joshua, if they need a place to go and need to stay here, they certainly can. It’s a big room and there is a roll away cot in the closet that we can set up for them.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to turn your room into some sort of refugee shelter,” he said.

“Of course, I’m sure. It’ll be fine.”

Joshua nodded at her and told the person on the phone to come on up, giving him the room number. He turned to her once he ended the call and smiled.

“This is very nice of you. I hate leaving friends out in the cold if I can help them at all, but I didn’t want to disrupt our evening together.”

“It’s a crisis. I wouldn’t leave a friend of mine out in the mess either,”

“He will be up in a moment. He was actually down in the lobby trying to get a room and they told him they were all booked up. Seems I wasn’t the only one who decided their only option was going to be to start calling people until I found a free sofa.”

“Oh, God. I need to get dressed!” she said, bounding out of bed, grabbing her clothes and running to the bathroom to make herself a little more presentable.

“I suppose I should too,” he said as she retreated. Someone knocked on the door just a moment later and when she came out, he had only managed to pull on his jeans, standing there shirtless to introduce her to his friend. Goldie froze in her tracks, her mind racing to consider such ridiculous things as whether she could hide under the rug by the bed.

“Goldie, this is my friend, John Sebastian. He owns the general store in town,” Joshua said, seemingly oblivious to the looks on both their faces.

“We’ve met,” John said evenly.

“Oh?” Joshua started to say, then looked back and forth between them, the situation seeming to register with him suddenly. “Oh, you mean you’ve met, as in MET.”

“Exactly what I mean,” John said. “I guess now I know why you couldn’t return my messages. You’ve been busy elsewhere.”

It was too much for Goldie. Though she had never fainted in her life, she suddenly found herself feeling incredibly dizzy. She reached for the bedpost to steady herself, but it was too late. Everything went black. When she came to, she was laying across the bed with both men looking down at her. She was awake, but she felt incredibly ill. This was definitely a nightmare.

“I thought we were going to have to try to find a doctor in this mess,” John said to her, stroking her hair softly.

“What happened?” she said in a raspy voice. Her mouth felt like it was full of cotton and she was grateful to see Joshua walking toward her with a glass of water.

“You blacked out or something. I guess it is to be expected considering your condition,” Joshua told her.

“My condition?”

“Yes, your condition. I’m guessing you realize you are pregnant by now?”

“Yes, but how do you know?”

“I’ve known since I saw you downstairs and you confirmed it by drinking just water, but I didn’t realize that it might not be mine.”

“What makes you think it is or isn’t yours?” she asked him wearily.

“Well, while we are nursing you back to wakefulness, John and I had a bit of a discussion and it seems you’ve been with both of us in the past week. I don’t mean to be indelicate, but are there any others?”

“Joshua, don’t,” John told him, though neither seemed angry about the situation. In fact, they were oddly calm about it. It was quite odd.

“I think I have to, John. I know you won’t ask, but we do need to know if there are other possibilities, don’t you think?” he said, giving John a very stern look. John dropped his head and nodded in agreement.

“Not that it is really any of your business, but it was definitely one of you two. Don’t worry, I don’t want anything from you. I had every intention of leaving here and never telling either of you, but the weather stopped me.”

“Yes, this would definitely explain the sudden onset of a flood,” John said.

“What? Now I am the cause of the flood?”

“Something like that,” John said with a little smile.

“Look. I feel better, but this is just awkward. I tell you what. You two can have this room and I will go sleep in Randy and Ian’s room for the night,” she said, trying to get up from the bed.

“Oh, no you won’t. We have a lot to discuss,” John told her, putting his large hand on her arm to stop her from getting out of bed.

“We have nothing to discuss. This is not your problem, either of you. I have no intention of you being involved in this child’s life. I don’t even know which of you is the father, for God’s sake!”

“It doesn’t matter. We don’t care,” Joshua told her.

“What? Are the two of you mental or something?”

“Well, you might think that after you hear what we have to tell you, but we really aren’t,” John laughed.

Goldie pulled herself up in the bed and sat there looking back and forth at the two of them as they stood on either side of the bed. Joshua nodded his head toward John and sat down on one side of the bed as John began to speak. After a moment, he sat down on the other side, holding her hand as he talked to her.

“First, you need to know what Joshua and I are to one another,” he said.

“Oh, Jesus. If you tell me you are lovers, I may just lose my own mind,” she told him.

“What? No. Of course not, but we are very close. More like brothers than friends. We belong to the same club, but it isn’t your ordinary organization. It’s more of a secret society sort of thing.”

“Like Freemasons?” she smirked.

“Older than that. This is going to sound crazy to you and you aren’t going to believe it, but we will show you if you need for us to do so. Joshua and I are bear shifters.”

“Okay. Now you guys are just fucking with me. I guess it’s fair to get in a laugh at my expense considering everything, but if you think I’m falling for something as far-fetched as shapeshifting, you’re sadly mistaken.”

“We aren’t joking and we can show you, but only if you tell us you are ready for us to do so. Given your condition, we won’t risk a shock to your system.”

“Yeah, right. Okay. Show me.”

“Are you sure?” John asked.

“Positive,” she replied sarcastically.

Joshua stood up and walked to the end of the bed and then took a few steps away from the bed. Goldie watched as his shape began to shift into something contorted, his nose pushing forward into a snout and hair sprouting out everywhere on his body. He dropped down on to his hands as his body quickly morphed into a four-legged animal. She found herself looking into the large green eyes of a sandy colored bear. It was much larger than any normal bear would be and she caught her breath as she realized that what she was seeing was real.

“Are you okay?” John asked.

She turned toward him, her eyes wide with amazement and nodded quietly. When she turned back toward the bear, he had begun to shift back into the man she knew as Joshua, his sandy blonde hair and green eyes shimmering just as they had in bear form.

“Neat trick, eh? Told you I was an animal,” he joked, causing her to blush and then feel awkward with John sitting there beside her.

“And you can do that too?” she asked him.

“Yes. My bear form is just better looking and stronger,” he replied, drawing a groan of disagreement from Joshua.

Goldie tried to wrap her head around what she was being told, but even having seen it, she was still having trouble believing it. Even worse, it occurred to her that this baby was going to be some sort of freak. Would it be a shifter? Was she going to be putting a diaper on a baby or putting down newspaper for a bear cub? She began to feel a bit sick again.

“I know it is a lot to absorb and we wouldn’t even tell you if we had time to break it to you gently, but you need to know something about this baby and it can’t wait.”

“Oh, Jesus. I won’t have like a whole litter of cubs will I?” Goldie gasped, the realization that it might be a possibility coming over her without warning.

Joshua laughed and then sat back down on the bed beside her, holding her other hand. It was unusual for him to come across as thoughtful as so it caught her off guard for a moment. She found herself wondering how much more awkward this could get. Two men she had slept with on either side of her, fawning over her at the same time and telling her fairy tales that it seemed might just be true was more than a little surreal.

“You won’t have a litter. You will have one child and it will be a boy. He will be a shifter like us, not human like you. We are more than willing to accept responsibility for the baby without haggling over which of us actually fathered him. In fact, Goldie, we don’t want you to run off and be some sort of single parent. You didn’t get pregnant alone and you shouldn’t try to raise him alone, especially given his special considerations that will unfold as he grows.

“I appreciate that, but neither of you know me very well. I came here to get away for a while and things just happened between us, each of us. I never intended for it to be permanent and I certainly didn’t intend for either of you to be chained to me because of an unwanted child.”

“That’s what you don’t understand, Goldie. It’s not unwanted. Neither are you. Bear shifters are much like normal wolves. We bond quickly and each of us fell for you immediately.”

“I just really can’t choose. I find you both interesting in different ways,” she admitted.

“Then don’t choose. We aren’t asking you to choose, at least not between the two of us. We would like for you to stay here rather than returning to the city. We will both sell our lake houses and buy something we can all share as one big family.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t see how that works. We all live together as some open relationship type situation and sleep in separate bedrooms? That’s going to really cut into your dating lives I think.”

“No, Goldie. We live together as a monogamous trio. It would be like having two husbands, both of us completely committed to you.”

“I just don’t really follow how that works. I just roam from one bedroom to the other depending on who I’m in the mood to be with? Do you realize how crazy all of this sounds?”

“It’s not crazy at all, Goldie,” Joshua said, finally speaking up though he had allowed John to do much of the talking so far.

“Then you have an odd sense of normal,” she replied.

“Well, that is true. Both of us do, but we’ve been out of sync with the rest of the world for a very long time. Our ancestors have always existed in the shadows, knowing that others wouldn’t accept us if they knew what we were. It’s important that our son be kept safe from those who might not understand him. It’s even more important that he not be made to feel like he is fucked up in any way. Living here with us will expose him to other children like himself and to two fathers who will make sure he learns to control how and when he shifts.”

“So, basically, this has nothing to do with me at all. The two of you just want to raise your baby bear and you’re willing to take me on in order to make that happen?”

“That isn’t what I said at all. Who did this to you, Goldie? Who made you feel like you aren’t worthwhile? Give me their names and I’ll go pay them a visit. It angers me that you are so down on yourself when you are such an incredible and beautiful woman,” Joshua said, his anger apparent.

Goldie looked at him, surprised. Not only was she caught off guard by his sentiments, but his anger was reflected in John’s face, as well. While she deemed herself just having fun with a couple of guys that wanted to get laid, it would seem she had misjudged their intentions completely. There seemed to be genuine emotion there, though it was hard to accept as being true. Rather than respond, tears fell down her face.

“Let it out if you need to, Goldie, but you don’t need to cry. You don’t ever have to cry again. We promise you that what we feel for you is the real thing and that it will never change. Not many women can say that she bonded with a bear shifter and I don’t know of any other that can claim she bonded with two in the way you have captured the two with you here in this room tonight,” Joshua finished.

Goldie blinked up at him as he pulled her into her arms and held her tightly to his chest. She was aware of John moving closer to rest his head against the back of hers, sandwiching her between the two of them and things suddenly didn’t seem awkward at all. In fact, they seemed quite perfect. Though she didn’t have everything quite sorted out in her head, she at least understood that this might just be exactly what she had needed all along.

Still, something nagged at her. In her experience, threesomes always ended with someone feeling left out and especially when one of them was the actual father of the child and the other wasn’t. This seemed doomed to just be another failed relationship episode in her life. She expressed her concerns to them, apologizing for her inability to just let things fall as they may.

“Don’t worry, Goldie. It will be just fine,” John told her in his soft way. Despite his apparent conviction, she wasn’t sure that she could quite believe that.

In the end, she decided she had nothing to lose. There was no guarantee that her next relationship would be any better, especially with a child now in the mix and what kind of mother would she be if she was subjecting her child to failed experiences with different men? If she was going to do this right, then they were perhaps right, this was the path she should take.

She nodded quietly as they kissed her tears away. Soon, she found herself being undressed by the both of them. Turning toward John, she curled up to his chest as he kissed her hungrily, drinking her in as if she were the last woman on earth. Behind her, Joshua reached between her legs, exploring her swollen pussy lips, already seeming to show signs of pregnancy. She wanted them, both of them. It had always been somewhat of a fantasy of hers to be with two men at once, but she had always thought it would be some sort of one-night stand.

In her wildest dreams, she had never considered that it could be a constant thing, having two men in her bed every night, taking care of her in very different ways. John’s lips drifted down to her tits, sucking at her aching nipples. Thought she was less than a week pregnant, they had already begun to show signs of swelling and had begun to produce drops of milk. She wasn’t sure if it was a result of the pregnancy alone or if Joshua had caused it with his excessive suckling, but as John’s mouth tugged at them, she could feel milk let down and flow into his mouth.

“Your milk is already coming in. It’s delicious,” he told her, breaking away from her nipple for a moment to smile up at her.

“I want to taste it,” Joshua said, pulling her toward him so that she now lay flat between the two of them. She found herself with either man sucking at a single nipple, drinking in her milk as if they were quenching an incredible thirst. Much to her surprise, she found that it was a huge turn on.

Having drank his fill, John moved up to her lips, letting her taste her milk on his lips as he kissed her with more passion than ever. Joshua drifted downward, pulling her legs apart and lapping at her dripping pussy. His tongue felt like velvet against her tender folds. A part of her was having trouble even grasping what was happening, but her body understood it perfectly and reacted to the attention with much anticipation.

John pulled her back to one side so that she faced him with Joshua moving in behind her, sandwiching her between the two of them once again. He continued to kiss her as Joshua spread her ass cheeks and began fingering her asshole, getting her ready for the swollen cock she could feel pressing into her backside. She let out her breath sharply as he wet the tip of his cock with her pussy juices and began slipping it inside her tiny hole.

“Oh yes, that is so tight. I love feeling your asshole close around my hard cock,” he told her. John moved into position in front of her, slipping his own hard cock into her pussy. It was pure ecstasy as they filled her from both sides and began to slowly slip in and out of her in unison.

“Oh, sweet Jesus!” she moaned loudly as they fucked her simultaneously. John’s motions were slow and deep, matching Joshua’s as she whimpered between the two of them. John resumed kissing her passionately as Joshua’s teeth sank into her back, making their way across her shoulders as he fucked her deeply in the ass. His hand found its way to her throat, pressing against it lightly as her sore nipples brushed against the chest hair of John.

Goldie found herself already nearing her first orgasm, her body shaking all over as she exploded over and over, fueled by the way their hard cocks felt inside of her. She felt like a rag doll between them as they began see sawing in and out of both holes, bouncing her up and down like a between them. It was the most incredible experience of her life and she knew without a doubt that this was something she could definitely get used to and spend the rest of her life doing with them.

“Yes, fuck me,” she begged as their passion drove them to fuck her harder, deeper, faster.

Joshua came first, filling her ass with his heavy load of cum before pulling free of her and moving to a chair by the bed to watch as John finished her off. He didn’t seem to mind at all as his friends filled her with yet another sticky load of come and then lay his head on her chest for a moment to catch his breath.

Afterwards, Joshua climbed back into the bed, falling asleep on his own side while she slept curled up in John’s arms. At some point during the night, he awoke and pulled her on top of him, watching her as she rode him like she was in heat. Her cries of delight awoke John, who leaned up on one elbow as he watched her take what she wanted from Joshua and then shake all over with a series of orgasms. He stroked his cock as he got more and more turned on and then pulled her downward to come in her mouth after Joshua was finished with her.

Exhausted, but content, Goldie fell back asleep with her head on John’s chest. Joshua rested against her back for a while, but eventually crept back to his pillow to sleep. She knew this was the difference in the two men and that was fine with her. She definitely had the best of both worlds.

Chapter Twelve

When the morning came, the weather had cleared. The sun was out and the water had begun to recede. She, John and Joshua made their way downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast, where they encountered the curious faces of Ian and Randy.

“Did everyone sleep well?” Randy asked suggestively.

“Best night of sleep we’ve had in a very long time,” John told them with a wink, causing Goldie to blush a bit, even though she felt happier than she had in a very long time.

“Well, that’s, um, fantastic,” Randy replied, looking unsure of what to say next.

“We’re headed to pick up a few things at the store. Is it open today, John?” Ian asked in an attempt to change the subject.

“Yes. My sister was going to open this morning. It should be up and running. If not, give me a call so I can coax her out of bed, but she’s usually pretty responsible.”

“Where did she stay last night?” Goldie asked, suddenly realizing she hadn’t even thought about where his sister might have been during the flood.

“She was with friends. She prefers to hang with them rather than be stuck with her straight-laced old brother,” he laughed.

Goldie laughed too. Randy and Ian said their goodbyes, telling Goldie to call them when she was heading out and taking their leave to see if they could get back to their house and assess the damage after their trip to the store.

Over breakfast, Joshua and John discussed things further with Goldie. Her eyes grew wide as they informed her of some things she wasn’t aware of. Things that made a lot of difference in how she handled things with her pregnancy.

“We will take you to one of our doctors. He understands about the unique nature of this child,” John told her.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, the most important thing you need to know is that bear shifters don’t develop at the same rate as human babies,” he told her.

“What’s the difference?”

“They have a much faster metabolism,” he said.

“How fast?”

“Well, watch this.”

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled a small knife from his pocket. Before she could comprehend what was happening, he reached across the table and sliced the back of Joshua’s hand.

“What the fuck, man?” Joshua snapped at him. He had been lost in checking his work email and hadn’t been paying attention until he was cut. His hand began to bleed on the table. Goldie looked horrified, but John just laughed and picked up a napkin, dabbing at the blood that flowed. Right before her eyes, the wound began to seal itself. Within mere seconds, it was completely healed with no evidence of even a scar.

“Oh, my God,” she muttered.

“You’re a dick,” Joshua told him, returning to his email.

“Now, don’t be upset. We’re going to be co-mates with this beautiful creature at the table. We will have to love to learn on another too,” John teased him.

“Fuck you,” Joshua retorted with a laugh.

“Anyway, the baby will grow fast. You aren’t looking at a nine-month gestation,” John continued.

“How long?” she asked, dreading the answer.

“Four weeks,” he told her.

“Four weeks? No way. I can’t have a baby in four weeks!” she said.

“You can. You will. It’s just the way it is,” he said.

Joshua lay his phone to one side and nodded at her as if to confirm it. He smiled at her in an almost apologetic fashion as if to say they were sorry they were completely fucking up her life. Goldie wondered if they truly were though. In one way, maybe they were, but in another, they were freeing her. This might just be the best thing that had ever happened to her.

“Okay. We have a lot to sort out in short time,” she said, trying to remain calm.

“Yes, we do,” Joshua nodded, leaning forward to look at her. His eyes grew very serious as he looked into hers and asked his next question. “But before we begin making formal plans, there is one question you need to answer to yourself, Goldie. Forget what John and I want. Is this what you want?”

Goldie looked at him for a moment before glancing over at John, who was looking at her with equal intensity, awaiting her answer. She thought back to last night, how wonderful it had felt to have them both. Her mind wandered to consider how nice it would be to live with two men who could provide her with such different emotional and physical experiences. She couldn’t imagine any single man ever coming along that could make her feel quite as complete as the two of them combined.

“Yes,” she replied simply.

“Are you sure?” Joshua asked, still studying her face.

“I’m very sure,” she replied, not feeling an ounce of reserve. She really did believe that this could work and she could be happy.

“Well, then I guess we should make plans to move forward then,” John said.

After a hardy breakfast, the trio convened to the back room of John’s store to hash out their plans. The hardest decision was for Goldie to quit her job on the TV series and relocate to Bear Lake, but the upside to that was it would force her to finally take a chance on becoming more of an entrepreneur and consulting on costume design in her own capacity. John and Joshua were perfectly willing to support her until after the baby was born and she could focus on setting up her own business. In fact, they weren’t really concerned with whether she worked at all.

A visit to the doctor the following week made things just a bit more interesting. John and Joshua had told her she would not have a litter, but they hadn’t counted on what the doctor had to say about her pregnancy.

“Well, Goldie. I’ve completed my exam and gotten the results back from the tests we did,” he told her on the phone. “Are you sitting down?”

“Yes. Why? What’s wrong?” she asked, feeling an impending sense of doom.

“It looks like you won’t be having just one baby,” he told her.

“What do you mean?” she replied, envisioning quadruplets or some such nonsense.

“Twins. You are carrying twins.” he told her.

“Really? Twins?” she repeated.

“Yes. Two boys,” he told her.

“Thank you doctor. I appreciate your calling,” she said, feeling a bit speechless. Even twins were more than she had banked on.

“No problem. I’ll see you next week for your checkup,” he told her.

Hanging up the phone, Goldie felt like she was in some sort of a daze. She made her way to the bedroom and lay down on the bed, trying to gather her thoughts. Before she knew it, she had drifted off to sleep and was being awakened by John as he came in from work. Because Joshua worked longer hours, she had been staying at his place while they sold their places and looked for one more suited to their rapidly growing family.

“How do you feel?” he asked, rubbing his large hands across her massively pregnant belly.

“The doctor says we are having twin boys,” she told him.

“Really? That’s fantastic news!” he replied.

“Is it? Maybe for you. You don’t look like you swallowed a beach ball,” she replied.

“Don’t be silly. You look beautiful. Joshua and I couldn’t be happier. We both love you so much,” he told her.

“I love you too, but twins? How are we ever going to manage that?” she said.

“Just like anyone else that has twins. Plus, you have two fathers to help you with them,” he reminded her.

“I suppose,” she said.

“Have you told Joshua?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I was going to call both of you, but I feel asleep.”

“You should call him. He’s going to be through the roof excited.”

“Are we talking about the same man? Joshua is the poster child for calm, cool and collected.”

“Trust me, when you get to know him better, you will see so much more of him. He might be reserved, but he feels just as deeply as the rest of us. Joshua was raised in an orphanage. He doesn’t express himself like we do, but he is full of a passion that is just as breathtaking as yours and mine,” John told her.

“You know him well,” Goldie replied, wondering how her two loves had become so close and feeling just a tad envious that, in some ways, they were closer to one another than they were to her.

“Yes. I do. One day, you will know him just as well. I’ve just had more time to see behind the walls he puts up. Don’t underestimate him, Goldie,” John told her, kissing her on the cheek and handing her the cell phone. “Call him and tell him the exciting news.”

Goldie hit speed dial and waited for Joshua to answer. He sounded a bit preoccupied with work at first, as if he had picked up his phone without looking at the caller ID, but then looked at it and realized it was her.

“Well, hello gorgeous. What’s up?” he said after an initial answer that had consisted simply of “Joshua here.”

“I was calling to tell you that we are having twins,” she told him.

“You’re shitting me!”

“I shit you not,” she replied with a laugh.

“That’s fantastic! I’m even more excited now. I would offer to bring home some champagne to celebrate the good news, but I know you can’t drink. I’ll buy a bottle for after the birth instead. Tell John that he and I are having celebratory beers at least,” he told her.

Two weeks later, Goldie gave birth to twins boys. They were fraternal. One had a full head of black wavy hair and the other was sandy haired. Both had the most incredible blue eyes just like their fathers. Goldie couldn’t help but wonder if it was possible for them to have two different fathers, but as it turned out, she didn’t have to ask.

“Fascinating,” the doctor said as he tended to their new sons.”

“What is fascinating?” she asked, Joshua and John both completely involved in fawning over the boys once they had determined that she was fine.

“It would seem that multiple births born to humans are just the same as those born to bears out in the wild, but I’d need to run tests to be certain,” he told her.

“I don’t understand,” she told him.

“Bears mate with different suitors when they are in heat. As a result, it is not unusual for them to bear cubs that are the offspring of multiple fathers. While I can’t be certain just from looking at them, their coloring and facial characteristics reflect that your sons are quite possibly of two different fathers. In other words, one looks exactly like Joshua and the other looks exactly like John. Do you care if I do DNA testing to be certain?” he asked

“I appreciate your curiosity, doctor and if you would like to put your theory to rest, then I will allow the testing, but I ask that you keep the results to yourself. As far as I am concerned, these children belong to both fathers and always will. I don’t want to differentiate between them in any way,” she said.

“That seems fair to me,” he said with a wink, turning to retrieve the babies from their doting fathers and finish checking up on them before leaving them to start their lives with their parents.

Joshua and John stood on either side of her bed, beaming down at her with pride.

“Aren’t they beautiful boys?” she asked.

“Almost as beautiful as their mother,” Joshua replied, a rare sentimentality from him. She smiled at him and then over at John before closing her eyes and resting for a while. This was the beginning of what would be a very long and interesting life with two of the most perfect men she could have ever hoped to find. Somewhere, her search for what felt good had ended in something that felt just right.

THE END

Back to the Bear

Chapter 1

Walking on her tiptoes, carrying her shoes and stepping over the squeaky spot on the floor, Joy moved slowly and cautiously towards the front door. One wrong move would wake up Aris, and she couldn’t risk waking him up again. Several giant beer bottles were strewn around the room and all of them seemed to be pointed at her, ready to tell Aris who had dared wake him up from his always light, fitful sleep.

In order to get to the door, she would have to walk right by him. Aris had insisted on moving the couch right next to the front door of their cabin style house. “In case you get any ideas,” he’d explained, and now going out often meant stepping over at least one corner of the couch. Luckily, some of his awful friends had come by last night so he’d had to move it about halfway out of the path to the outside world. If she was very careful, she might just be able to open the knob, slip out, and make a run for it.

She stepped over an overturned chair, and as her foot came down the floorboards squeaked just a bit. She froze. Aris shifted on the couch and turned towards her, but after a few moments he went back to snoring. She waited anyway, hesitant to keep going, but once she was sure he was asleep she continued walking as silently as possible.

The door was now within reach; all she had to do was squeeze between the end of the couch and the massive bag of empty cans sitting precariously on a pair of sneakers long abandoned by the door. Joy reached out to twist the doorknob and gave the door a little push, but it wouldn’t budge. She pushed again; nothing. Something was blocking her way out.

Carefully moving alongside, the couch, Joy was careful not to let the hem of her dress touch any part of Aris. Even though he snored on, she had a chilling sensation that he wasn’t really sleeping but rather allowing her to believe he was unconscious so that he could lure her closer. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

The large bay window was behind the couch, but Joy couldn’t see the porch with the couch in the way. She would have to lean over it to see what was going on. Very carefully, she put a hand on the back of the sofa and leaned like a plank directly over her snoozing husband, her skirt tucked between her knees. Through the window, she could see the enormous body of Joe Hatchet, Aris’ largest and drunkest friend. He had passed out right by the door and would be dead asleep for most of the day.

The sight of Joe’s mountain-shaped frame made Joy let out a little sigh and the sound of it immediately woke up Aris.

When he opened his eyes, he saw his barefoot wife Joy standing and smiling like a happy recruit to his army of anger. He rubbed his face, thinking he was dreaming, but no; she was there with a big smile on her face.

“Hi honey! I just came down to check and see if you wanted any coffee.”

Aris smiled back. “Hey, this is how I like to wake up.” He reached for her hand and held it gently, swinging it a little. “A happy wife, ready to make me coffee. You know how I like it. I think Joe’s around here somewhere.” He looked around, a little confused.

“I haven’t seen him hon.” She moved into the destroyed kitchen, started the coffee, and then desperately started washing the dishes. Dammit, dammit, dammit. Today had been her day to get out. She had been sure it would happen today. There was still a chance; if Aris and Joe went out fishing she could get out then. Assuming he would leave her behind, which he only did occasionally. She knew if she was extra chipper, his good little wife, he’d let his guard down. Maybe.

Aris stumbled around the living room, kicking things out of the way. “Joe! Joe, my man. Where’d you go?”

From outside came a “What?” and Aris headed to the door.

Through the door, Joy could hear the two of them laughing about how adorable they were; getting drunk, passing out—weren’t they crazy? They were always quick to congratulate one another any time they overdid it, sure that they had been hilarious and fun the whole time they were destroying the furniture, breaking the TV or the refrigerator, or whatever they got their hands on. Joy always wondered at how a person could be happy about waking up in a pile of refuse over and over again. She honestly didn’t get it.

The coffee finished brewing and she poured out two extra big mugs, adding a tablespoon and a half of sugar to Aris’ mug and keeping Joe’s black. For the finishing touch she gave Aris’ a tiny splash of heavy cream just at the top, no stirring. Then she rushed around the living room—sure the two party boys would be back in any moment—picking up furniture, bottles, and garbage. She shoved it all into garbage bags and suddenly realized, she would have to walk these out to the curb. She could dump them and make a run for it.

The two men stumbled in, arms around one another, talking about some girl that Joe had been flirting with the night before.

“She wants me, I know it and you know it.” The two of them sat at the counter on the restaurant-style stools and drank their coffee. “It won’t be long until she’ll be making me coffee the way your little Joy does. Lucky bastard.” Joy continued cleaning. There was no reason to wait for a thank you or an invitation to join them; it wasn’t coming.

Joe watched Joy whip around the house, picking up, getting the spilled beer off the floor, anything to put things back in order so that Aris wouldn’t have anything to fault her for. “How did you get this little angel to marry you, Aris? How come a jerk like you has such a great little woman and I’m still single?”

Aris watched his wife over his cup’s edge. “She knows I love her no matter what. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”

Joy stopped for a second to flash him her best smile. “That’s right.”

Joe just grunted and raised his eyebrows. “She sure works hard.”

“She likes it.” Aris put his cup down and watched his wife for a moment. “Hon, come over here for a minute.”

Oh no. She tilted her broom against the wall and walked over, the two pairs of eyes boring into her. “Your coffee okay?”

Without a word, Aris smacked her across the face. “I just thought you needed a little color. Seeing as you didn’t bother to put any makeup on.” He turned away from her and went back to his coffee. No one spoke. The only sound was that of Joe loudly slurping his coffee.

Joy stood, not quite sure what to do next, her face on fire from Ari’s slap. Finally, she shuffled back to her broom and quietly swept, the broom making a soft hush, hush on the wooden floor.

The two men focused on their mugs and their contents, neither looking at the other. Aris finally turned to Joe. “You going fishing today?”

“Can’t. My truck needs some work. Remember, I came here with Tully.”

“Oh yeah.” Aris picked up his cup and looked into it. The bottom of it was visible. “Joy, get over here and get me a second cup. Do not make me get it myself. I’m in no mood for your tricks.”

Walking fast, Joy swung around the two and into the kitchen, grabbing the pot and carefully pouring Aris his refill. She put it back and grabbed the cream, giving him a little dash in the top. Joe still had plenty so she moved around the counter again, but Aris grabbed her arm.

“None for Joe? What is this, national women’s lib day? Don’t be so rude.” He dropped her arm and she returned to her post by the coffee maker, settling in for a long wait. Joe glanced at her and she tried to send him a mental message. Help me. Be on my side, just once. Tell him to take it easy on me. Unfortunately for her, Joe’s alcohol and drug-soaked brain was unable to pick up pleas for help.

“It’s okay. I should mosey on home. Take a shower, give my own little cutie a call.” Turning to Joy, he added, “Sorry, doll. Be off the market soon. Hate to crush your dreams but a man’s gotta follow his heart.” At the word heart he thrust his pelvis at her and then laughed hysterically. He waited for Aris to laugh with him, but his friend was silent.

The long, awkward pause didn’t affect Joe in the least. He just chuckled to himself, put on his hat and went out the door. Aris turned to Joy, his eyes deader and blacker than she’d ever seen.

“What was that about?”

“What hon?”

“You’ve been waiting for Joe? Carrying a torch for him? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea why he said that.”

Aris picked up his mug and threw it at her hard and fast. She ducked and it shattered against the wall.

“Don’t lie to me! What is going on between the two of you? Why are my friend and my wife keeping secrets?”

Joy stayed crouched near the floor, her hands up in surrender and her eyes squeezed shut. “It was just one of his dumb jokes, I don’t know why he said it!”

“Come here.” Joy stood slowly, already sobbing. He always said if he ever caught her cheating, he’d kill her. She believed it and she felt confident today was the day. “Faster. Do it. You know better than to lie to me and then hide in the kitchen. Get your butt over here, Joy.”

Joy glanced up and saw her purse hanging on the coat rack. It was only a few feet from the door. Aris was still sitting down and she had a clear path to freedom. She moved slowly, trying to keep her face blank, but angled her feet to the living room.

She only had a millisecond to do it, so she just didn’t think. At the last possible moment, she faked Aris out and sprinted for the door. Her bare feet flew across the now-clear floor, her left hand grabbed her purse and she flew out the door.

Behind her was a screaming, irate husband breaking everything in his path. He was massively hungover but angry enough that he was like a hurricane coming after her. “I’ll kill you! You stupid bitch, you think I won’t? Get back here!” She didn’t look, just focused on jumping over the steps and then racing around to the car port behind the cabin, one hand digging in her purse for the extra set of keys Aris didn’t know about.

She threw herself into the car and started it up as fast as she could. The engine sputtered from the cold and now Aris was on the porch, throwing furniture and howling with fury. Splintered pieces of her grandfather’s rocking chair flew into the air off to one side of the porch as she tried and tried to get the engine to turn over. “Come on, come on.”

Then she saw him. He was right behind her, trapping the car between the big tree they parked under and his body. She would have to run him over.

“Joy, you steal this car and I won’t call the police. I’ll hunt you down myself. Don’t be stupid. Just turn it off and come out.”

Just then, the car started. Joy floored the gas pedal and reversed right into the spot where Aris was standing. He leapt out of the way, falling onto his back as he did, and she sped away in reverse. As she left, she had a clear view of him jumping to his feet and walking after the car, his stare drilling into her. He was still yelling, but she couldn’t hear him. She made it to their little dirt road, whipped the car around and sped away as fast as she could.

Commanding herself not to look back, she gripped the steering wheel hard and went far too fast for the first fifteen minutes. Only after she had about sixty miles between herself and her murderous husband did she relax and drive normally. After a few miles with the radio on, the window open and Aris far behind her, she allowed her shoulders to relax and took in the landscape of the surrounding forest. It was beautiful.

“I told you I’m not interested.”

Joy’s father stood in front of her at his door. The sight of his daughter in a wrinkled dress, messy hair and bare feet did nothing to jog his memory. She was desperate for him to recognize her, but she knew if she argued with him that he would just get angry.

“Yes, you did tell me that. Which is why today, I’m here to offer you something new; I’d like to be your roommate!” She smiled a chipper smile despite being bone tired. The thought of Aris finding her in a hotel room had kept her driving most of the night. She had pulled over for the night, but her car wasn’t that comfortable and she’d only slept a few hours.

“Well, a roommate might be nice.”

Joy stepped a little closer to him. “I’m clean, I’m a hard worker, and we already like all the same TV shows.”

At that, Drew Granger’s eyebrows gave a little wiggle of delight. “You like Judge Hunter? She’s a pistol.”

“Love her!” The two went in and Joy made a beeline for the bathroom. She cleaned up as much as she could while her dad settled down in front of the television. She left him to it and went to check out her old room. There she found some boxes full of old her clothes and got a new outfit, grateful for once that her dad hated to throw anything out. It was a little chilly so she pulled on an old black sweater she had always liked and then walked back out into the living room.

“Joy, honey.” She turned to see her father fully lucid, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “When did you get in? Gosh it’s nice to see you.”

“I flew in yesterday, Dad. Remember, I told you I’m leaving Aris.”

“I told you not to marry that son of a bitch. I always knew he was trouble.”

She smiled and rubbed his hand. “You did, Dad. Thanks for trying. I’ve always had a hard time seeing other people’s bad sides. I just…” She shook her head. “I just want everyone to be good, you know?”

He patted her hand and smiled at her. “That’s because you’re the most innocent little soul on earth. I always said so.”

Her dad’s words brought little pinpricks of tears to her eyes and she quickly wiped them away. “Thank you, Daddy.”

“Will you stay long?”

“I thought I would stay here a while and help you out with everything. Would you like that?”

He guffawed. “I don’t need any help. I’m fine.”

Her father turned to the TV as the theme music for Judge Hunter started. He snatched his hand away from Joy and scowled at her. “I don’t hold hands with anyone anymore. Except my daughter Joy. So please don’t do that anymore.”

Joy nodded and swallowed hard. “Sorry about that, Steve. I’ll be more careful.”

Chapter 2

“Joy? Joy!” The gum-smacking, bottle-blond cashier at the Swing Through Gas Station ran out from behind the counter and threw her arms around Joy. The smell of green apple shampoo and vanilla perfume jogged Joy’s memory—it was Coco.

“Coco, hi.” The two regarded each other for a second, Coco with a knowing smile and Joy with an awkward grimace. “So, you’re working here now?”

“Yeah.” Coco gave a little shrug with an eyebrow raise, her signature expression. “It’s okay I guess. I mean, you know, it’s easy. What about you? You here on a visit or are you finally coming back?”

“I moved back home.” Joy put her milk and bologna on the counter, praying the question and answer session was over.

“Oh.” Coco nodded knowingly. “Your dad.”

“Unfortunately. I just don’t feel like he can live alone anymore.”

“I get it.” Coco rang up Joy’s purchases and took her money. “Remember when your dad was our English Lit. teacher and everyone hated him? We were awful! Do you remember the stuff we used to do in his class? It must have taken all his strength not to kill us.”

Joy gritted her teeth but kept a smile on her face. “I remember.” She grabbed her stuff and walked out, not bothering with a goodbye. Behind her, Coco was trying to say something but she couldn’t quite hear it. The door dinged as someone else walked in and Coco quickly switched gears.

“Terry! Hi. How are the kids?”

Outside, Joy looked around at her little hometown of Stottard, Wisconsin. She could almost take in the whole place with a couple of glances. There was the auto shop full of trucks and tractors, the cafe with the same food they’d served for as long as she could remember, the two traffic lights. All the homes were scattered in different directions, the empty space a leftover from the days when Stottard had been a haven for farmers. There were still a few farms, but now they grew an ugly, hard corn that was ground up into a weird mush used by fast food places and food processing plants. To get actual vegetables a person had to drive about thirty minutes out of town to a big chain store just off the freeway.

A big sigh came out of Joy. She could hear her younger self on the phone with her friends. They’d all been so glamorous and beautiful back then. They could spend all day putting on makeup, dreaming of big city life, assigning each other future careers like impressionist painter and the next country music star. None of them had wanted to stay here, they’d all wanted to run away as quickly as possible, but only Joy had made it out and she’d only gone as far as the surrounding mountains.

What had happened to that confidence she’d had not so long ago? She looked back inside to see Coco in her gas station shirt and her over-treated hair. Coco had been a queen bee back in high school. Everyone wanted to be her, to be near her, to get an invite to her parties. Joy and her friends had never been in the popular group, but they’d created their own little universe full of books about other worlds. They’d spend all day dreaming about kings and queens, building castles in the air so that they could climb inside. She remembered feeling so special, so ill-suited for a town like this.

And yet, here she was, right here with all the people she’d sneered at for so long. Well, that’s what a body got for making plans. She turned and walked down the path to her father’s house, wondering if he would remember her this time.

Her dad was having a good day; for the most part he knew who Joy was and why she was there. She was arranging her old room and going through her stuff while he wandered in and out of her doorway, leaning in to ask the same three questions again.

“You’ve really left him?”

“Yes, Dad. Aris and I are through. I can’t take it anymore.”

“You have a lawyer yet?”

“No, not yet. I’ll find one in a couple of days. I just need to rest. And spend time with you.

“How long are you staying?”

“I really don’t know, Dad. I hope a long time.”

When she said that, he would smile and wander away, singing a little tune to himself. Joy found herself singing along as she made her bed.

Take my girl

And you’ll take my world

Wreck my heart and

You’ll tear my soul

You don’t know how hard

I’ve fallen...

She remembered listening to that song with her high school crush, Zak. What had ever happened to that guy? One day he just wasn’t at school. Joy could still recall how shocked all their teachers had been that he seemed to have just dropped out.

“Has anyone seen Zak? Anyone know if something happened?” They had all been genuinely concerned that such a sweet, smart student could just vanish without anyone knowing why or how. Joy had always lived with the guilt of inspiring him to disappear. She was sure she was the reason.

The two of them had gotten together and had a madly romantic couple of weeks kissing in the back of the movie theater, driving around the open country roads outside of town and telling each other their secrets. Then, suddenly, Aris had come into Joy’s life and something in her snapped. While Zak was gentle and genuine, Aris just had that bad boy edge that made Joy’s heart pound. In a few days she’d made her choice.

“Zak, you’re great. Really. But, I just want Aris. I can’t help it.”

“What?” The poor kid. He was so shocked he hadn’t said anything after that, just ran off into the night and left her on her porch. She’d felt awful, but she was sure she’d made the right decision. She couldn’t be with one guy if she was in love with someone else, right? It had seemed so clear to her at the time.

The next day, he was gone. Just like that.

Her room finished, she decided to make lunch for herself and her dad. He only ate bologna sandwiches these days. She didn’t mind, but she also really wanted to get some vegetables in his diet. She wondered how nurses went about sneaking carrots or greens into their patients’ food. It couldn’t be easy.

“Hey dad, you hungry?”

Her father walked into the kitchen with a scowl. “Why are you asking me? Aren’t you in charge around here, Brenda? If you’re hungry, make some food. Just leave some out for me and I’ll get to it.”

“Sure thing, Steve.”

“And let me know if my daughter calls. I’ve been waiting to talk to her.”

He stomped out and sat down in a huff. Joy wasn’t sure who Brenda was, but she was suspicious it was the name of a nurse dad had hired a while back. He would only be so short with a stranger.

She made herself a sandwich and then one for her father, then joined him in the living room for an episode of Judge Hunter . The show was a reality program about a small claims court where the judge would get fed up with the people who would come to see her. She often told people they were ridiculous or irresponsible, much to her father’s delight.

Just as she got settled, a noise started up outside. At first, it sounded like a weird buzzing, maybe a swarm of bees. After a moment, Joy realized it was the sound of motorcycles all revving and speeding down the street. She tried to ignore it but the noise filled the living room. Her father cranked up the volume on the TV but it was no use, the roar of the bikes speeding past was too much for even the loudest setting.

“Damn kids! I hate those biker sons of bitches. I’ve called the police a hundred times. Never does any good.”

“Bikers?” Joy stood and went to the window, too curious to let the moment pass. She pushed aside the curtain just as a gang of bikes turned the corner on their street. The big, gleaming motorcycles careened around the corner like a parade. The air throbbed with the power of their engines and the drivers made sure to rev their engines as much as possible, announcing to the whole town that they were present and powerful.

She stared at the man who led the group. His deep black hair and bright eyes were incredibly familiar, but she couldn’t place him. Had they gone to school together?

Her father joined her at the window, scowling again. “I just hate to see that nice boy throw his life away like that. His parents didn’t raise him that way.”

“Who?”

“What do you mean who? The leader! Your ex-boyfriend, Zak. That’s his gang and that’s him right there in the lead. I tell you, he is not the kid I remember. No, sir. For a long time, I hoped you’d marry him. Now I hope you never go near Zak Mansing again.”

Joy’s heart stopped. Zak? No, it couldn’t be. Zak had loved reading, had spent long afternoons in the woods watching the birds and keeping an eye out for deer. Zak had been a volunteer at the church, a good student, a nice son to his parents. Now he was in a gang? She could hardly wrap her head around it.

The gang came back around and Joy stared out the window to get another look at the man who, long ago, had been her first boyfriend. For just a moment, he turned and saw her in the window. Did he give her a little smile, or was that her imagination? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that her heart was going a million miles an hour. She couldn’t remember the last time a man had made her so excited.

Over the next few days, the mood of the town shifted. Apparently, the gang wasn’t there all the time, just once every few weeks. Everyone was a little more jumpy, a little less smiley when they were close by. Joy saw the difference instantly. Even Coco from the gas station seemed like a different person when she went in to buy some juice and eggs one morning.

“Hi Coco. How are you?”

“Good, thanks. That will be five dollars and eighty cents.”

Shocked at Coco’s poker face, she put the money down. Then, she heard them. The motorcycle engines revving like crazy as they drove straight for the station. She turned and hoped she’d have time to leave before they came in, but no such luck. By the time Coco had passed over her change, they were there. They parked so that they blocked the door and no one could leave. The group walked in with a tough swagger, throwing the door open and stationing one member in the doorway so no one could get in.

A bearded man in a black leather jacket approached the counter. “Hi Coco. How’re you?”

“You guys have to pay for your stuff. You don’t get to come in here and loot my store. It’s not okay.”

Joy backed up and tried to make herself as small as possible as the two had their stand-off, Coco demanding money while the bearded man insisted she worried too much. All around Joy, members of the gang were helping themselves to packaged cakes, bottles of soda, hot dogs from the spinning cooker and burritos from the fridge. All the food went right into their pockets or straight into their mouths. No one reached for their wallets.

Seeing a free corner, Joy made her way towards it, avoiding eye contact as much as possible. Without meaning to, she bumped into a shoulder and mumbled a “sorry.”

“That’s okay. Hey, wait a minute.” A hand grabbed hers and stopped her. “Joy? Is that you?”

Zak’s eyes looked just like she remembered, blue as a summer sky and just as clear. To her surprise, the sweetness she remembered was still evident in those eyes. She smiled back.

“It’s me. I just came back to town.”

“Wow. You know you look exactly the same.”

“No! You’re flattering me.”

“I’m not.” He smiled and squeezed her hand a little more. She didn’t pull away. The two stared at each other for a long moment, then started laughing. Joy wasn’t sure what about; although Zak and his friends robbing a store while they played catch up was kind of funny.

“Hey,” he said, still holding her hand. “What are you doing tonight? You want to get together and catch up?”

She looked around at his crew. All of them looked pretty rough. Even the pretty ladies in the group had a hardness in their eyes that made Joy very nervous. The ripped up jeans, the leather jackets, the shirts proclaiming their love of different brands of alcohol, all of it seemed to add up to a bad idea.

“I don’t know, Zak. My dad needs a lot of help. I better stay in tonight.”

“Alright, you’re playing hard to get. I understand.” He picked her hand up and looked at it, then looked her in the eye. “But you know you’ll go out with me one day. I don’t know when, I just know it’s going to happen. And so do you.”

He gave her hand a kiss, then gently lowered it back down to let it go. “Alright, troops! Let’s roll out.” He signaled for their exit by making a big circle around the top of his head with his hand and without protest the group filed out, got on their bikes, and roared off. Joy and Coco watched them leave, Coco with her arms crossed and red-faced. Joy’s eyes stayed on Zak. She couldn’t seem to look away. He looked back at her and they held eye contact for a long time, both of them smiling. She watched until he pulled away, and he and his crew disappeared into the distance.

Of course, she wasn’t going to go on a date with him; that would be massively stupid. Just the thought made her shake her head at the absurdity of the idea. But she couldn’t forget those beautiful eyes. They followed her everywhere she went for the rest of the day.

Chapter 3

Joy’s father had good days and bad. Sometimes, he wanted to dance in the living room, stay up late and eat chocolate ice cream or sing songs with his daughter. He seemed delighted to have her back in his life. Today, however, was not one of those days.

“Brenda, call my daughter, will you? I haven’t heard from her in ages. I’m worried.”

Orders to call herself were always given without eye contact. She hated it when she had to be Brenda. Brenda was unwanted, unrecognized. If Dad experienced any joy, he was loathe to share it with her when she became this other person to him. It made her heart sink down into her stomach.

Tonight, she thought she would try something. She walked over to the phone on the wall and picked up the receiver, covertly unplugging the connection so she could press the numbers without calling anyone.

“You remember her number?”

“Sure thing, Steve. I’ve got it memorized.” She waited a few seconds, then put on her little performance.

“Hello, is Joy there? Oh great, could I speak to her, please? Yes, I can wait.” In the next room, the volume on the TV got lower and she could hear her dad leaning so far back in his lounger that it gave a big creak. “Joy? Hi! It’s Brenda, your Dad’s helper. Oh, we’re fine. We just wanted to call and see if you could manage a visit sometime soon. Really? You don’t say! Well, that would be just wonderful. He will be thrilled. I’ll tell him right now. Bye, Joy.”

She hung up and saw that her father’s head was peeking around the doorway, anxious for news. “Well?” His eyebrows were almost all the way up his forehead. “What did she say?”

“She was missing you so much and so happy to hear that you were thinking of her that she’s coming to see you. She’ll be in first thing tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful.” He put his hand on his chest, warming the space around his heart. When he looked up, he had the beginnings of tears in his eyes. “She was the best thing that ever happened to me, you know? We didn’t plan her, we just went for it. Being parents. She was my one impulsive decision and I don’t regret it. Not for a minute.” He looked up at her and instantly got annoyed. “What are you crying for? She’s not your daughter!” He huffed and stormed out of the room like a little boy, leaving Joy to hold her own heart.

The next morning, she woke up excited to see if her father would be back in Dad mode or if he would be her cranky patient again. She jumped up to make his coffee and get his bagels in the toaster. Dad really needed to cut back on bread. Well, that was for another day; today she prayed he would be happy.

He shuffled out of his room and gave her a big smile. “Good morning, sweetheart. Did you sleep alright?”

She ran over and gave him a big hug. “I did, Daddy. Thanks.”

He hugged her back. “Aren’t you sweet? You know, I had a memory come back to me last night.”

“What was that?”

“Do you remember that time we missed each other so much that you just dropped everything and came out here for a visit? All it took was one quick phone call from that cow, Brenda and you ran out here like a shot.” He patted her cheek. “That’s what I always loved about you, dear. You’ve always known just when you’re needed.”

The rest of the day was a nice one. The weather was mild and great for puttering around in the garden, so she and her father tooled around outside. When he asked her if she would go and pick up some chocolate ice cream at the store outside of town, she went happily, checking to make sure nothing had been left on or locked before she went.

“Anything else you need, Dad?”

He handed her some cash. “Get something for yourself. You’re a sweetheart, you deserve it.”

She ran out to the car and flew down the street, hoping if she hurried that Dad’s memory would hold out for the rest of the night.

As soon as she pulled into the parking lot, she saw them. The line of motorcycles right at the entrance. She swallowed and parked as far back as she could, uncertain what to do next. Then she saw the gang’s guard posted outside the door. They looked at each other for a moment, then he turned to the inside of the store to talk to someone. When he turned back to her, he gave her a big, come-on-over wave. She pointed to herself; me ? He nodded. Gulping, she walked towards the big, carefully guarded doors and the big, bearded man standing with his hands in his pockets.

She could see herself reflected in his shades, the two women in his dark eyes looking pale and shaky as he stared at her, expressionless.

“Zak says come in and take what you want. You have the protection of The Beasts.” He stepped aside and let her through.

Inside, the small group of customers who had been cornered by the gang were standing in the back of the store near the pharmacy, doing everything they could to blend in with the wall. One of the women in the group of nervous shoppers looked at Joy and then quickly looked away. Joy recognized her, but wasn’t sure what her name was. She was about to join her and her silent cohort when she got a tap on the shoulder.

“Hey! Nice to see you again.” Zak opened his arms and gave her a big hug. She couldn’t help inhaling his warm, country-boy scent while they hugged. He smelled like dusty roads and pine trees, like old, beat-up trucks and barbecues. When he pulled away, he gave her his signature, bad boy smile. “So, you need something?”

“I’m just here to get some ice cream for my dad.” She pointed a finger into his chest. “And I intend to pay for it. I appreciate the invitation into the store with your… friends, but I’m here to buy, not take.”

He immediately put an innocent look on his face and his hand on his chest as if he were deeply offended. “Hey, we keep this town safe! Do you know how many rival gangs would be here if we weren’t? We’re unarmed and friendly, but the neighboring crews know better than to cross us. And hey.” He gestured to the store. “Everybody needs to eat.”

He took her by the arm and walked her by the vegetables and snacks, then around the corner to dairy section. “How have you been? You and Aris get married?”

“We’re divorced, actually.” She quickly crossed and uncrossed her fingers as she said it. After all, it wasn’t entirely untrue.

“Sorry to hear that.” He sighed and stared off into thedistance. “Aris was such a great guy. I mean, great enough for you to leave me for him.”

“Zak, I want you to know that I’ve never forgiven myself for—” The sight of his smile and the twinkle in his eye stopped her. She smacked his arm. “You really had me going! You big jerk.” She laughed as he feigned a seriously injured arm. “Alright, knock it off.”

He stopped her and turned her so she faced him directly. “Hey, don’t beat yourself up about something that happened in high school. You were just following your heart. Most people don’t have the courage, but you went for it. So what if he wasn’t the right guy? You still have time to meet someone.”

He turned and continued towards the freezer section before she could respond, still leading her by the arm as if they were walking down the red carpet. All around them were members of Zak’s gang, all of whom were careful to give them a wide berth as they walked past the glass doors filled with a rainbow of ice cream flavors. Joy noticed how reluctant everyone was to approach or even cross paths with Zak as they perused the flavors. What had he told them about her?

“So,” Zak asked, leaning against one of the freezers, “we’re looking for ice cream for your dad.”

“Yes.”

“And you insist on paying for it?”

“I do.”

He gave a little shrug. “I can’t remember the last time I passed up free food. But, if you insist on paying, you should at least get something good. What does he like?”

She smiled as he seriously considered all the different flavors. He was so incredibly good-looking, and his face looked so young. It was hard for her to believe they were the same age.

“He loves chocolate. Any kind of chocolate.”

Zak opened a glass door and took out a tub of Death by Chocolate. “Well, this is chocolate with about five other kinds of chocolate and chocolate crunchies swirled in. Will that do?”

“Perfect.” She held it and smiled at him for a moment and he smiled back. “Zak, I know you’ve got this whole motorcycle gang thing happening and I have no idea what your personal life is, but I just want you to know…” She cleared her throat, suddenly nervous. He took one of her hands and she let him hold it for a moment. “I want you to know that I always wonder what my life would have been like if I’d stayed with you. You know what I mean?”

He looked down at the ground, swinging her hand back and forth like a teenager. “Well, I don’t know that you would have been happy with me. My life took an interesting turn just after we broke up.”

Leading her by the hand, he pulled her away from the freezer and down towards the only operating cashier. Joy couldn’t help but note how gently he touched her. She didn’t feel nervous around him at all but rather trusted him immediately. Her nerves felt as if they had been smoothed down by a strong hand, allowing her to let Zak take control of the conversation without feeling as if he was bossing her around or threatening her. It was like learning to breathe again.

“So what was it that drove you away?”

“Joy…” Zak pulled her in for a hug as she pulled out her wallet to pay for the ice cream. “If I told you, I doubt you’d believe me.”

“What do you mean?”

He started to say something, but then stopped himself and just shook his head. Unsure what was happening, Joy handed her money over to the fuming cashier and didn’t say anything, just looked at Zak. There was something in his eyes, but she wasn’t sure how to define it. Who was this crazy guy she was looking at? The leader of a motorcycle gang, or something else?

The cashier, a scrawny teenager, bagged the ice cream and thrust it at Joy, glaring at Zak. “See? Your friend can pay for food and whatever. You and your lackies can do the same.”

He didn’t react, just stayed relaxed with his hands in his jean pockets. He blew a kiss to Joy and then chucked the cashier under the chin. “Bye ladies.” He went back into the depths of the store, leaving the both of them to watch him go back into the mayhem his crew was creating. Joy turned to leave, the doors only opening for her because the guard at the door reactivated the censor as she approached. Behind her, the door locked, holding in the gang and keeping the rest of the world out.

Joy drove back and focused on the scenery on the open road; the farms, the fruit stands, the small houses. She found herself unable to stop smiling as she remembered her romantic walk through the grocery store. The whole thing had felt like an elaborate set-up, as if she’d been on the set of a romantic movie and played the leading woman being seduced by the handsome young man.

Maybe one day they would go on a real date. Of course, she was technically still married and Aris could show up at any minute, and her father would string her up by her toes if she went out with a man who ran a motorcycle gang. Still… a date with Zak might just be worth risking her ex-husband’s wrath and the possibility of being disowned by her only remaining family member. It would be just perfect.

The next morning, Joy went out on a mission; she had the name and address of a small law office and she was shopping for a divorce. She drove to the small office, which turned out to be near the same grocery store where she’d last seen Zak. Her heart sped up for a moment; would she see him again? Today it was quiet; normal shoppers who felt no need to set up guards at the door streamed in and out of the automatic doors. The Law Offices of Bramble & Bramble sat quietly in the tall grass and when Joy walked in she was greeted by a receptionist who put her finger to her lips, asking her to respect the silence. She nodded her head in deference and then took a seat.

After being escorted in, she was greeted by a chubby lawyer with wild, curly hair and five o’clock shadow on his face. He wiped the sweat from his brow and regarded her for a moment. “So,” he started, tilting his head. “I’m guessing we’re drawing up some divorce papers today.”

“Yes, unfortunately.”

“Hmm…” He took out a couple of forms and started shooting questions at her.

“Did he cheat on you?”

“Yes, many times.”

“Ever hit you?”

“Constantly.”

“You ever call the police on him?”

“I tried a couple of times, but they’re all his drinking buddies. He’d just invite them out for a drink and they’d look the other way.”

This continued for a long while, Bramble asking questions and Joy answering yes to almost all of them. By the time they were done, they had an impressive list of reasons for Joy to leave Aris. Seeing all the boxes ticked yes made her marvel at the marriage she’d just left.

Bramble stared at it as well, not speaking. Finally, he cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Honey,” he said, his face falling. “How did you last one day in this marriage?”

Joy laughed at loud at the question; how indeed? Looking at this long list of reasons to leave and perfectly good causes for divorce really made her wonder what had kept her in Aris’ clutches.

She shrugged. “I guess I just loved him. That’s all.”

“Do you still?”

Joy shook her head no, slowly. “No. Not at all. Now that I’m away from him, I never want to see him again.”

Chapter 4

“Joy? Joy! Phone for you!” Joy’s dad let the receiver hang from the landline phone in the kitchen and shuffled away. Judge Hunter was on so his attention was devoted to the TV. Joy walked to the phone, heart pounding. Was this an old friend? Aris raging at the divorce papers that had arrived at his house? Or someone else? She lifted the phone to her ear, biting her lip in anticipation.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Joy. It’s Zak. Can you talk for a moment?”

“Zak!” There it was again, that thrum in her chest. How was he able to do her in with just a hello? “Hi. Yes, I can talk. How are you?”

“Good, good. Listen, we’re all getting together at a bonfire tonight. I thought I could take you out on my bike, introduce you to some friends and show you the stars. What do you think?”

She giggled like a teenager, then blushed at how silly she sounded. “You think I haven’t seen stars?”

“Well…” Now it was his turn to giggle. “I think you’ve seen some of those second-rate stars, but I know where the best, most beautiful stars are in the sky. You won’t believe it.”

Joy curled the phone wire around her fingers, already mentally out with Zak. “I guess I could go out for a while. As long as you don’t get me home too late. You know my dad can’t be on his own all night. He might, I don’t know, go for a random drive or something.”

“Oh, of course. I would never get in the way of that. Don’t worry.” He took a breath and calmed himself down. “I mean, I’ll have you home by eleven. Can I pick you up around seven thirty?”

Joy looked at her dad, thoroughly absorbed in his show and yelling at the screen. She’d have time to make him some sandwiches before she left and there was ice cream in the freezer. He would be okay. “Sure. Seven thirty. And you better deliver on those stars.”

He laughed, smiling so big she could almost see it through the phone. “You got it. I’ll pick you up at your place.”

Before Joy could ask him not to drive his bike to the house, he hung up. There was no way her dad would be okay with a loud motorcycle pulling up to the house and her jumping on the back. How was she going to play this? She bit her lip and moved to the living room to join her dad in the extra recliner.

He looked over at her with a scowl. “What’s eating you, Brenda?”

Her breath caught for a moment—he thought she was Brenda. Maybe she could swing the motorcycle chauffeur after all. “Oh, it’s my brother. He’s supposed to pick me up today, but he traded in his car for a motorcycle. I’m just a little nervous about riding on it.”

Steve dismissed the comment with a gesture. “Don’t be such a baby. Just take my leather jacket and wear a helmet.” He turned to look at her with a wicked smile. “That way, if you crash, at least your top half won’t get scattered all over the road.” He laughed loudly at his own joke, then turned back to the show.

Joy stood and walked to the closet. She remembered that old jacket; it was her dad’s favorite from the sixties. In the hall closet, she flipped through the winter coats and fall parkas, hopeful this beautiful old jacket really was in there. Just as she was about to give up, she found it. It was shoved into a corner on the top shelf. She took it down and shook it out. It was a little dusty and had some odd folds in it, but overall it was in great shape. She slipped it on and found that it fit pretty well; the style at the time was a slimmer fit, so the jacket didn’t have any bulk to it but rather hung well from her small shoulders. She went to the bathroom mirror and admired her reflection for a moment, turning from side to side. She grabbed a tube of red lipstick and dabbed on a bit of color, then fluffed her curly hair a bit to make it look like she’d just been out on the road.

“Hi Zak,” she said to the mirror. “Oh, this? It’s just an old jacket I found in the closet. No one was using it so…” She posed with an arched back, her legs apart. I look good , she thought. Like, biker chick good.

“Brenda! You find my jacket?”

“Yeah, I did. You sure you don’t mind if I wear it? It’s a classic.”

Harrumphing his way up from his chair, her father walked into the bathroom to see for himself. He looked at her for a long while, mouth open. “Brenda,” he whispered, his voice hoarse, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look so lovely.”

Joy fought the urge to throw her arms around her dad, hugging herself instead. “Thanks, Steve. I mean it.”

As promised, at seven thirty on the dot, a huge, gleaming motorcycle pulled into the driveway. Joy practically squealed at the sight; she hadn’t been on a date in years and now, here she was, living the dream. She could hardly believe what she was seeing.

There was Zak with his gleaming back hair, his shades propped up on the shock of hair so that she could see his blue eyes. She waved to him from the kitchen window and he waved back, all smiles.

“Bye, Steve! I’ll be back tomorrow!”

“Bye, Brenda. Be careful.”
Free from all responsibilities for the moment, she ran out to meet Zak and the two threw their arms around each other and held on tight. Joy marveled at how good and how natural it felt to hold him in her arms, as if they’d been specifically designed for the job.

“Hi,” she mumbled, still holding on.

“Hi. Good to see you.” Hi lips brushed her ear as he talked and she could smell that familiar, wild country boy scent again. Her knees turned to liquid for just a moment, then she collected herself. It was just a date, after all.

“Okay,” she said, swinging her leg up and over the seat, the wrapping her arms and legs around Zak. “Let’s get to this bonfire.”

He revved up the engine and tilted his head back, yelling something to her, but she couldn’t make out a word. She opened her mouth to ask what he’d said, but they tore off down the road and her “What?” turned into a “Woohoo!”

The fire was out in the foothills just between Stottard and the next town. They had a beautiful view of the woods below and all around them from the high vantage point on top of the boulder where they’d built the fire. The flames made the rock below them glow like a lantern and the smoke rose and twisted into the air as if it were a natural part of the scenery, as if this rock had just been waiting for a fire to come along. Below the boulder was a ring of motorcycles and some gang stragglers yelling up to the main group on the top as they grilled kabobs for the group. The smell of charred meat wafted all around the party and smelled even more tempting as it mingled with the scent of the woods. Joy sat and took it all in as she leaned against Zak who propped her up like a chair. The two of them listened to the raucous conversation around them, laughing at the crazy stories of the gang and their adventures and their bawdy jokes.

Joy turned to ask a man named Greg for another beer, and as she turned her head, she saw something. She wasn’t sure what she saw, but suddenly Greg seemed huge and hulking. His face didn’t look human, it seemed wild and vicious. Joy almost screamed, but then everything turned back to normal just as quickly. Greg looked like himself, but there was an odd glow to his eyes.

“Greg?” She reached out for him and he raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“What’s up, buttercup?”

“I, uh, I was just wondering if I could get another beer.”

Greg gave her an exaggerated bow. “It would be my honor.” He yelled down to the food crew below and a beer flew up towards him; he caught it mid-air. “Here you are.”

“Thank you, sir.” She nodded in appreciation, but as she cracked it open, she felt odd. What exactly was this motorcycle gang? Was there a reason they stayed so separate for everyone else? She couldn’t be sure.

She turned her attention back to the gathering and members Petunia and Lisa who were re-enacting a bad date one of them had been on recently.

“Hey baby. How about we find out if your clothes look this good on my floor?”

Gasping in shock, Lisa slapped Petunia away with a big show of melodrama. “Oh, you cad! You horrible man! Get away from me this instant.” She flounced away while her pursuer stood, mouth open in dumbfounded shock, much to the amusement of the group. While everyone was laughing, Zak leaned down to whisper something in her ear.

“Hey, I promised you some juicy stars. Want to go see them?”

Smiling, she nodded and let him take her by the hand over to the side of the boulder with a metal ladder going down the side. They went down carefully while the group let out a loud chorus of oohs and aahs as they went, teasing them for slipping away.

“Watch yourself, honey. He’s a heartbreaker!”

“And a pelvis breaker, if you know what I mean.”

They walked away giggling, leaving the group behind to speculate as to their actions.

Zak led Joy through a bramble of low-hanging branches, over a small brook, and then around a quick switch back in the path. They emerged into a small meadow tucked away in the trees. The ground was covered in soft, feathery grass and, as promised, the stars and the moon were clearly visible from here, even a little brighter.

“Wow!” She stepped out into the center of the opening, taking in the sky and the air around here. The space felt so magical. She felt as if a fairy would fly up to her face or an ancient god was about to pass through.

Her date hung back, watching her. She turned around and looked at him, her face animated with the moment. “Zak, this is so beautiful.”

He stepped in and took her hand. “Then it’s a good place for you.” He stared at her face for a long time, his soft eyes taking in every detail of her face. “You always were so lovely. Back in high school you were the prettiest thing I’d ever seen and you still are today. It’s amazing.”

She blushed and squeezed his hand. “Stop it.”

“I won’t.” He pulled her into to his side and pointed to the sky. “You see those three, extra bright stars over there that make kind of a stretched out triangle?”

“Yeah. That’s the tail of Ursa Major, the bear.”

He looked at her in surprise. “You know it?”

“Again, you act like I’ve never seen stars before.”

He raised his hands in a mock surrender. “Hey, I stand corrected. Anyway, I wanted to show you this place because it’s one of the best places to see this constellation. It’s always been my favorite.”

“It’s beautiful. I can see why this place and this constellation is your favorite.” She turned to him, remembering the moment back at the party when Greg had suddenly changed. “Hey, I need to ask you about something.”

He put his arms up on her shoulders, listening. “What’s up?”

“I don’t really know. I think you’re going to think I’m nuts.”

“Don’t worry about that. I’ve always believed you were crazy.”

She gave him a little punch in the chest, laughing. “Well, then I guess I’ll just tell you. I was talking to Greg and for a moment, he looked like a massive animal. Like, he seemed to change for a moment.”

Zak didn’t laugh, but rather got a serious expression on his face and focused on the grass below him. “Joy,” he said, not looking at her, “there’s a lot about me that I want to explain to you, but I don’t know if I can. Life really did change for me when I left town, in a lot of unexpected ways.” He looked at her and sighed. “I guess, I don’t really have the words to describe what’s up with me.”

Joy took in the moment, sure that Zak would tell her if he could. She looked into his pained face; what was he carrying inside him? “Maybe,” she said, stepping closer to him, “you can’t tell me because, we don’t entirely trust each other yet. It has been a long time.”

He moved his hands into her hair, sliding his fingers into her blond curls. “Maybe. Maybe, we could change that.” Pulling her head towards him, he brought her in for a deep, passionate kiss. She wrapped her arms around him, so excited that a loud moan escaped her.

Zak sank down to his knees, pulling her down with him. He covered her neck in kisses, making her tilt her head back and open the neck of her shirt so he could go lower. His hands slid up underneath her bra and cupped her breasts. She shrugged off her jacket and pulled her shirt up over her head, her bra following quickly behind.

His own jacket and shirt followed and he held her to his naked torso, his searing skin almost burning hers. The two of them kissed like they’d never felt the lips of another person before, both of them mad with the feel of the other’s mouth on them. Zak grabbed her hair and pulled, arching her back so that her breasts pointed out and she was looking up into the sky. Above her, Ursa Major glowed so brightly that she could see the bear in the sky, growling down at the earth, pawing the ground with a passion of its own.

When he released her hair, Joy was taken by how bright Zak’s eyes were. They appeared to be glowing just as brightly as the stars. She was about to ask him what was happening when he kissed her again, harder this time.

“Joy,” he whispered. “I want you right here, right now.”

“Here? In the meadow?”

“I can’t think of a better place.” His fingers traveled up her rib cage and then moved over to her breast. She thought of stopping him, of making him wait, but it felt too good to be touched like that. His other hand was in her hair, grabbing her long, blond locks at the roots and pulling back just a little. “Joy… Joy… I need you…”

Without a word, she jumped into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist. “Take me then.”

He quickly lowered her down onto the grass, pulling her onto his lap. “God, you look amazing,” They wrapped their arms around one another, pressed their chests together and just let the heat between them intensify. Gently setting Joy on the ground, Zak stood, pulling off the rest of his clothes. Joy sat up at the sight of him completely nude; his body was taught with square, defined muscles that made his shoulders extra wide and his arms round and hard. Zak’s waist was small and his butt was surprisingly round, almost as round as hers. Even his ankles and his toes looked extremely strong, as if he could scale huge boulders or tall oaks with just his firm digits.

“And you,” Joy reached out to his chest and touched it gently, “you look incredible. You’re so, I mean, you’re in such great shape.” She looked up and down his body without any sense of shame.

“Think so?” He stood in the moonlight and she propped herself up on one side to see him pose. He stood with authority in the space in front of her, flexing his arms and legs, every part of his body in full view. Even his cock was strong and tall. Joy couldn’t help noticing that it was so erect that it pointed straight up at the trees.

“Yeah. I do.” She stood and slipped off her shoes. Unbuckling her jeans, she let them fall to the ground so she could step out of them. Her panties were lacy white and glowed a little bit in the moonlight. She hooked her thumbs in the waistband and pulled them down, then stood naked in front of her former boyfriend so that he could take her in. It amazed her, how good it felt to be seen as a sexual creature, to be looked at with so much lust.

Looking at her, a low, animal growl came out of him. She stood there across from him without moving, spread her hands, and closed her eyes. She heard those powerful feet walk across the grass to her, then felt his big arms sweep her up and then float her down to the ground. Without opening her eyes, she opened her legs and felt him push himself into her.

She arched her back, snapped her eyes open and let out a big gasp as thrust into her. She took him in with the earth under her and the sky below her, moving her body with his as they rocked against both, him holding up the sky on his shoulders and her feeling the gently spinning earth below her. Zak lowered his head to hers and kissed her gently. They kept moving together, their love making shifting between gentle, loving union to wild, animalistic rutting. It took Joy a long time to feel herself start to climax, but when she felt it building she bit Zak’s ear.

“Let me get on all fours. I want you to take me from behind.”

He didn’t need to be told twice. He sat up on his knees and Joy turned so she was facing the earth. She looked at him over her shoulder with a hungry expression. “Come here,” she said. “I need you.”

He moved behind her and kissed the back of her neck, felt her rounded ass with his hands and gave her a little spanking. She froze. “Don’t do that. I don’t like that.”

“I won’t.” He kissed the small of her back and his mouth travelled down to her buttocks as if offering them an apology. She giggled and he straightened up to make love to her again, sliding his big, hard cock into the wet space between her legs.

“Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes.” He moved in and out of her and she moaned louder, her orgasm building up from deep inside her. She hadn’t experienced a true climax for a long time; not since her first year of marriage. She could feel how much Zak wanted her, how badly he wanted her to feel sexy and worshipped and that turned her on even more. The cock sliding in and out of her was rubbing against a particularly sensitive spot inside her, a little patch of skin that begged to be touched and now it was practically singing.

She felt her arms shake underneath her. Behind closed eyes, she could see little pings of light jumping and growing into small bursts, and then giant explosions. “I’m coming! I’m coming!”

He pumped his cock into her harder and deeper. “I want to feel you come, Joy. Come for me.”

Her voice built up into a high, wild scream that went up to the trees. She could feel Zak driving into her, his hips smacking her ass in a fast rhythm. Her voice came out in little cries as her climax took her over and then crashed through her body, lighting up all of her nerves from her toes to the top of her head.

“Yes! Yes! Oh, yes, yes, yes.” She laughed as the sensation of the orgasm took her out of her body. She’d forgotten how wonderful it was to just surrender to sex, to feel the amazing sensation of her whole body letting go of the entire world, even the one inside her in constant turmoil.

Zak grabbed her tightly, pressing her back into his chest. She felt his cock pump up and down inside her as he came and he let out a loud, savage growl. Then, he went slack against her and kissed the back of her neck and shoulders. They were both sweaty and spent and blissfully happy.

Joy turned her head back to look at Zak. “Lay down with me.” She turned around, laying down in the grass, and Zak fell on the ground beside her. They held hands and stared up at the stars. Each of them could hear the other one breathe, could see each other’s chests rising and falling. Joy closed her eyes and let go of everything she thought she’d known about herself. She wasn’t a wife or a battered woman or a little girl lost. She was a sexual being who took her pleasure in the woods and called up to the stars when she climaxed. She was an incredible creature and right at that moment she knew she’d never go back to being the woman she’d been before.

Chapter 5

Zak bit into Joy’s shoulder, making her gasp out loud. “Oh, yeah, bite me. Bite me!” He pulled back and grabbed her face with his hand, looking at her intensely for a moment. He went back in for a deep, passionate kiss, pulling her hair with his strong hand.

She moaned deeply and ran her fingers through his hair, loving the feel of his strength, his muscles shifting under his skin. He let her go and slipped out of his leather jacket and then whipped off his shirt, revealing his beautiful pectorals and biceps. Was it her imagination or did his eyes just light up for a moment? No, they couldn’t have. Joy laid back in the surrounding, feathery soft grass and reached up to stroke his chest. He smiled back at her, then slowly unbuttoned her blouse.

The two of them had been making love almost constantly since their first night out together. Joy couldn’t explain it; she was like a woman possessed when it came to Zak’s physical affections. He waited until she called him from the house, then roared up to get her on his bike and the two of them would take off to another little hideaway in the woods. He seemed to know where every clearing, every little creek and treasure trove of wild berries could be found. He appeared to be just as desperate to be with her as she was to be with him; the two of them ran to each other, tore one another clothes off and fell into one another’s arms without a moment’s hesitation.

Zak took a breath and laid down on top of Joy for a moment, their stomachs sticking to one another in the summer heat. They snuggled like that in the afternoon sun as it scattered through the leaves and across their faces. Zak kissed her cheek and then her eyelids.

“Joy,” he whispered, “I don’t know what’s happening to me. It’s like you’ve melted my brain. You’re all I think of all day long.”

“I know.” She pushed him off her and turned onto her side, tracing her fingers along his shoulders and neck, smiling warmly at him. “I’ve never been so…” She paused, watching his face. He raised his eyebrows and she quickly stole a little kiss before going on. “So, taken with someone. It’s like, when you’re away from me, I actually ache. I can’t stand it. I just need you to—” She kissed his neck all over. “—to keep—” She moved down to his chest, sliding her tongue all over it. “—making love to me. As much as you can. You’re my drug, Zak. I’m addicted to you.”

She kissed her way down the center of his torso, exploring his sculpted muscles with her fingers as she continued lower and lower. Zak rolled onto his back and put his hands behind his head, letting her unzip his pants and pull his cock out so that it stood tall and proud in the sunlight.

Zak had a lot of reasons to feel confident and sure of himself, but one of those reasons was definitely his large, perfectly shaped penis. Joy was a little embarrassed at how much time she spent thinking about it. She’d never seen anything like it. A porn star could only wish for the genital perfection that Zak had in his pants.

She stroked the shaft up and down for a moment, the tilted her head forward and took him into her mouth. Her head pumped in a steady rhythm, making Zak’s eyes roll back in pure ecstasy. He arched his back and grabbed one of her hands, squeezing it tight.

“Oh. Oh my god. Oh, Joy!” She went a little faster, the cock in her mouth as hard as the boulders around them. She knew he would maintain that erection for a long time, longer than she could hold out, but she liked doing this for him nonetheless. It had never appealed to her before, but with Zak she wanted to have every kind of sex she could imagine; she had no boundaries or inhibitions. She sucked harder and loved the sound of Zak groaning more, feeling his fingers in her hair as they struggled to get control.

“Joy, Joy, stop. I want you on top of me.”

She kissed her favorite penis in the world before sitting up to slide off her shirt and unhook her tiny, pink bra. Standing, she slid out of her shorts and threw them onto his face. Naked, she stood in the sunlight and the woods for a moment, enjoying the feel of the warm sunshine on her breasts and stomach, her shoulders and legs.

Zak stared at his naked paramour smiling down at him. She looked like a wood nymph standing on the grass, surrounded by dogwood trees and their soft, pink flowers. He laid back and smiled. She snapped and pointed down at him.

“Pants off. Now.”

“Yes, my love.” He slid his pants down and kicked them off. She stood with a foot on either side of his pelvis. She put her hands on her hips and looked down at him.

“Now,” she said. “Tell me I’m beautiful.”

“You’re so beautiful.”

She lowered down directly towards his cock, stopping just above it. “Tell me you want me.”

“I want you,” he complied, his heart pounding with the promise of sex being so unbearably close. “I want you more than you know.”

She gently guided his cock into her, still in a perfect squat above him. Gradually, he disappeared into her and their bodies met. She took a moment to grind her hips into his. “I want you, too. I want you to fuck me hard.”

“You want it hard?”

“Yeah.” She started moving up and down on Zak, loving the feel of his cock going in and out of her, the earth below them and the blue sky above them.

Below her, Zak surrendered to her, letting her bounce up and down on top of him and take over the situation. She grunted on top of him, her breasts jostling as she moved, her thighs slapping into him. After a moment, she swung a leg up and over him and turned around so that she was backwards on top of him.

The sight of her perfect ass put Zak over the edge. He stopped her with a hand on the small of her back and lifted her off of him, quickly getting into position behind her. With the both of them on their hands and knees, he took over, holding her by her hips and driving into her as hard as he could.

“You’re mine. You’re mine. I love you and I want you and I need you. Say you love me!”

“I love you! I love you, Zak!”

The both of them felt a huge climax building up inside them and then crested over it together. Joy leaned her head back into Zak and he tilted his head to the sky. She screamed with the orgasm that took over her body and he roared into the sky. Joy was too wrapped up in the moment to realize that he sounded exactly like a bear.

Done with their lovemaking, the two dressed and jumped on Zak’s bike. They never had more than few hours together as Zak constantly had to organize his crew; they needed goals to meet every day, plans for future travel and of course, food.

Joy was floored by how much the group ate. They seemed insatiable, constantly on the lookout for their next meal, their next big barbecue or party. Joy swore she could hear their stomachs grumbling on an almost constant basis. Once she was standing next to Clay, a younger member of the motorcycle crew, and she actually saw his stomach tremble with hunger.

“What is it with you guys and food?” she had asked once.

Zak just shrugged. “We’re out in the fresh air all day. You know how mother nature can build up an appetite. Don’t worry.” He had changed the subject right away, but Joy never forgot how reluctant he was to discuss the matter. She tried to push it out of her mind.

Other things tickled her mind every now and then. Why were they so nervous about winter? Didn’t they have a place to stay? As far as she knew, the group had a kind of break over the holidays. She’d assumed this was so they could be with their families, but no. None of them had any plans to be with parents, children, or anyone. The group went quiet and wandered off individually to wait until spring returned.

Zak’s motorcycle thrummed underneath her, making her excited all over again. Her long hair flew out behind her under her helmet and whipped around in the air. She gave Zak a tight squeeze as he rounded a corner and then yelled a loud “Woohoo!” when he sped up on the straightaway. She loved riding his motorcycle and thought about having her own on a daily basis. How much would her dad freak out if she brought home some old, second-hand bike and let the gang fix it up for her? They’d eat all the bologna in sight.

The two of them went back to Joy’s house, where her father was watching TV. He looked up briefly when she walked in, but then went back to his cop series.

“Hi. How are you?” She could never be sure if she was Joy or Brenda these days, so she always made sure to test the waters before giving him a kiss hello.

“Fine, Brenda.” He emptied his water glass and then held the empty cup out to her, a silent directive to go and clean it. “Don’t know why you need constant updates when I’m clearly fine.”

“Just wanted to make sure. Can’t hurt to check.” She took the glass and stood looking at him for a long time, missing the father who was right in front of her. “Any word from Joy?”

“Is that any of your business? She’s my daughter, not yours.” He shifted in his chair and let out a big sigh. She sighed too. Lately, she was Brenda more often than not. As much as she loved Zak, she missed being someone’s daughter.

Joy walked into the kitchen and started washing up. Dad had apparently made himself several sandwiches during the day. She checked the fridge to see if they had any more lunch meat. All out. That meant she needed to make a quick trip into town and it would be dark soon.

Her father was starting to forget if he’d eaten or not, a common side effect of Alzheimer’s. She worried he was going to have horrible stomach aches, but he never seemed uncomfortable. She decided to get some antacid too, just in case.

“Steve,” she said, putting on her jacket, “I see you’re low on food. If you don’t mind, I’ll take your car to the store and stock up.”

“Why do you need my car? Just go to the Quick ‘n Save. You can walk there.”

“Yes, I could but it’s nearly dark and there’s wolves out. If I drive, I can make it to the grocery store before it closes.” She picked up his keys. “You don’t mind, do you?”

He looked at her blankly. “Nearly dark, you say?”

She checked her watch. “Yes, it’s almost eight in the evening. Did you think it was earlier?”

His jaw fell open. “I… I swear it was noon just a minute ago. What happened to the day?” He looked at her with tears welling in his eyes. “I’ve always kept track of time. Why couldn’t I do it today?”

She ran over and kneeled next to him, brushing his hair back and smiling up at the father who didn’t know her. “You just had a bad day. I’m sorry, I should have stayed at the house longer. Helped you a little more.” Grabbing a nearby notebook, she jotted down a note, then wrote the current time at the bottom. “Here,” she said, handing it to him. “I’m going to leave you with this. I want you to consult this if you forget where I’ve gone or when I’ll be back, okay? It should take me about an hour to get there, shop, and then get back. I’ll go as quick as I can. Sound good?”

He nodded silently, looking down at the note. Two big tears stained the page. “I’ll wait for you.”

“Okay Steve. When I get back we’ll have some ice cream and then go to bed.” She gave him a quick hug and then ran out. He didn’t say anything as she shut the door behind her.

Joy sped down the road, slowing down as she passed the cop hideout the gang had showed her, then floored the gas pedal again to get to the store as quickly as possible. When she got there, it was only moderately busy and she parked and ran in without any holdups.

Keeping her shopping basic, she got up to the front and started unpacking. The cashier sent a glare in her direction and Joy just smiled back. What was her problem? She moved up with the others, but when she got to the front, the girl just crossed her arms and stared at her.

“So, your friends aren’t here with you today.”

Joy stepped back in surprise, friends? What did she mean? “Sorry, I think you have me confused with someone else.”

“No I don’t.” She leaned down on her elbows, not even looking at Joy’s loaf of bread or slowly melting ice cream. “I know exactly who I’m talking to. You’re dating that asshat Zak, the guy who thinks it’s fun to come in here, tear up my store, and leave without paying a dime.”

“I’m here to pay for all of this. I’ve never stolen from you.”

“No. You just watch while your man does it.”

The two women stared at each other, not moving. Joy struggled to find the words to turn the situation around. Yes, Zak was a hell-raiser and yes, they were together, but she was a paying customer. What was she supposed to do?

“Look,” she said, leaning in and lowering her voice, “I am dating Zak. Maybe I could talk to him about taking it easy on this place. You know, pay for the stuff and not block the door. He’ll listen to me.”

Her checkout foe looked doubtful, but she picked up the bread and scanned it anyway. “Yeah? You’d do that?”

“Sure.” Joy prayed she wouldn’t hear the doubt in her voice. She actually had no idea if Zak would hear her out on taking it easy at the stores.

The woman finished and then just shook her head at Joy. “What I don’t understand,” she said, “is what on earth a nice girl like you is doing with that awful man. Don’t you want someone a little more… you know, a little less…”

“Dangerous?” Joy bagged her own groceries while her counterpart scrutinized her, trying to figure her out. “You know,” she said, throwing the bread on top of her purchases, “I don’t think I do. As crazy as he is…” She picked up the bag and turned to go. “I think Zak is the only one for me.”

Chapter 6

The next three days were a bit slow and lonely for Joy. She still hadn’t received the divorce papers from Aris, though her attorney was calling him every day and demanding he sign. He’d also pleaded with Joy to press charges, but she explained that no cop in his town would pick him up. They were all too buddy buddy; he had the advantage.

On top of that, her father had fallen into a horrible depression. She had called several specialists, but none were less than an hour drive out of town and she couldn’t persuade him to get in the car.

He met her suggestions for a psychoanalysis with boiling rage. “I’m not going to some head-shrinker!”

“Dad, it’s to help you feel better. I’ve never seen you so down.”

At that he would stomp off into his room. “You try gettin’ old and let me know how you like it.” Then he’d slam the door and not speak to her for hours.

The only upside of the argument was that it somehow helped him remember that she was his daughter. She wasn’t sure how to take that, but she decided it was all she could ask for right now.

To make it all worse, she hadn’t seen or heard from Zak in a while. She wasn’t worried; he’d let her know the group was going on a run outside of town. “We want to go up to the lake,” he’d told her, stroking her hair. “We just want to get away from modern society for a while.” He kissed her forehead and then whispered in her ear, “You can come too. If you want.”

“I have to stay with my dad.” She smiled and gave him a kiss back. “Behave yourself. Don’t go falling in love with anyone up at the lake.”

“No promises.” She gave him a smack for that and then a big, deep kiss goodbye.

“I’ll miss you.”

“Not as much as I’ll miss you.” He climbed on his bike after that and signaled for everyone to get on and roll out. She stood and watched them go, waving goodbye to the whole group, most of whom were too excited to do more than a quick, behind the back wave to her as they roared off.

So, here she was: no boyfriend, a depressed father, and a town that would barely speak to her because everyone knew she was involved with Zak. Not her best weekend. To top it all off, she had nausea and felt a bit dizzy. What was wrong with her?

“You alright Brenda?” She looked up to see her father was out of his room and curious as to what was going on with her. She nodded.

“I’m fine, Steve. Thanks for checking on me.”

“You’re looking a little piqued. Go lie down if you need to.”

“I will. Don’t worry.” She eased herself into a kitchen chair and put her head in her hands. Did she have a bug? She checked the time and was mortified to see that it was only six. She was anxious to go to bed.

She forced herself up to fix a few sandwiches for her dad. His Alzheimer’s disease was now completely messing up his eating habits and made him forget he was full. She was making ten sandwiches a day because any withholding of food sent him into a rage that couldn’t be quelled. She’d quit fighting with him immediately. How could she deny her own parent food?

Once the sandwiches were prepared and wrapped up in the fridge, she checked on her dad. He was snoozing peacefully in his armchair, the remote wrapped up in his fingers. She gave him a little kiss on his forehead and then felt a horrible swoon as she stood again. Whoa. She did need to lie down.

Finally, she decided to throw the day out and headed into her room. As soon as her head hit the pillow she started to fall asleep. Her whole body seemed to be begging for rest and a soft, smooth mattress and the weight of her old, nubby blankets.

As soon as she was asleep, she dreamed. In her dream, she walked between ominous, black trees that towered above her. Pine cones fell from their branches, but not in a threatening way. They were like big, gentle raindrops plummeting to the ground. Under her feet was a soft layer of long, luxurious pine needles that almost felt like a springy mattress. The smell of wet bark and moss was everywhere and she felt a little drunk as she breathed it in.

Ahead of here were some dark, vague figures. Who were they? She squinted through the trees, but she couldn’t seem to get any closer to them. She ran a little bit, pushing the trees aside and knocking pine cones to the ground. She opened her mouth to call out a big, “Hey!” but found she had no voice at all. She ran faster, opened her mouth wider and wider, but nothing seemed to work. Her own body fought her and grew heavier with every step, her throat seemed to close as she tried again and again to scream out to the familiar figures ahead of her.

Finally, she made a big, heavy lunge forward and the motion sent her straight down into the earth. She fell past tree trunks, through webs of worms and beetles and down into darkness. When she hit the ground her eyes opened and she found herself gasping and sweating in her bed.

She sat up. Behind her, on the mattress was a pool of sweat and her pajamas were soaked through. She peeled the blankets back and got up. Her digital clock on the nightstand informed her that it was five in the morning, far too early to go out and make breakfast. Her dad would be furious if she woke him up now.

She pulled her sweaty clothes off and stood naked in the center of her room. The gray light of dawn hit her body and illuminated her for a moment with an eerie softness. She looked down and was startled at the sight of her breasts. They had grown overnight. She smoothed her hands down her now very tender chest and continued down to her stomach and hips; both were substantially bigger. Joy had always had a slim frame and an active metabolism so she usually maintained a rather skinny silhouette. This new, extra curvy figure she had felt completely alien. Whose body was this?

Joy pulled her sheets off the mattress and balled them. Even the mattress pad under her fitted sheet was ruined. She sighed and wondered how early she’d be able to do any laundry. Her stomach growled and she nearly slapped it. No eggs and bacon for you, pudgy, she thought. You’re going on a diet starting today.

After the mattress was stripped and her skin and hair grew chilly from her sweaty nightmare, she pulled on fresh pajamas, now much tighter over her big hips and ample chest, and laid on the bare mattress to close her eyes for another hour or so. If she dreamed again, she didn’t remember the details. All she knew was that when she woke up there was bacon frying and coffee brewing in the kitchen. Her dad was cooking? The smell made her mouth water so much she had to wipe the drool away.

She looked at herself in the mirror. Her new body didn’t look bad, it just looked different. Maybe Zak would be into it. Besides, she told herself as she ran into the kitchen, she could always start her diet tomorrow.

She’d been right about Zak’s enthusiasm for her new shape. He and his crew returned the next day and she greeted him in a tight pair of jeans, a white T-shirt, and her leather jacket. Now it was his mouth that was watering. He walked up to her with wide eyes, taking in every new, curvy inch of her.

“What happened to you?”

She feigned innocence. “What do you mean?”

“I mean.... your… and then your… You’ve got a whole new body.” He took her hand and stepped closer to her and she breathed in that familiar scent of his that she loved so much. He smelled extra wild today, now that he’d spent some time out at the lake.

She pulled him in a little closer so she could whisper in his ear. “I gained a little weight. Do you mind?”

He stepped back and looked her up and down one more time, then shook his head appreciatively. “You’ve never looked hotter. In fact…” He glanced over at his crew, all of whom were winding down and settling into the grass around their bikes. “Can we go somewhere? I need you right now.”

She pulled his hand and led him, giggling the whole way, off to a little spot she’d found while he’d been away. He ran after her, already pulling off his jacket. They quickly shed their clothes and threw them into the grass as soon as they reached the little patch of soft grass next to a grand old tree standing tall in the forest. The two of them stood together in the shade, Zak regarding Joy once again, but this time taking in every beautiful curve as she stood there, nude and lovely in the forest air. His heart raced as he took in the rise of her hips, her rounder and softer ass, and her heavy breasts.

He moved to her, his cock already standing straight up in the air as hard as ever, and wrapped his arms around her. He kissed her neck, gathered her long hair in his hand and twisted it into his fingers. She tilted her head back as he worked his way down to her big, round breast and took her nipple into his mouth. She gasped as he sucked on the little pink circle; it seemed to be attached somehow to her clitoris. She was instantly excited, pumping her hips back and forth as he took her hard nipple between his teeth for a quick love bite.

“You want it?” He moved to the next breast, giving it the same treatment and sending volts of electricity through her whole body.

“Oh my god. Yes, yes I need you. I need you right now.” He lifted up and she threw herself into his arms, wrapping her legs around his chest. He reached down to grab her big, curvy ass with one hand and the feel of it seemed to spark a fire in him. He felt more wild than he had ever been with her before. He gave it a loud smack and the sound rang out in the woods along with Joy’s loud, enthusiastic moan. She’d grown to enjoy his spanking over time.

“You just need it, don’t you?” He turned so that tree trunk was behind her and he could prop her up against its rough skin. “Tell me. Tell me to fuck you.”

Joy put one foot down and kept the other wrapped around him. She bucked against his hips and the biting tree bark. Her eyes were wide and desperate. He had never seen her pupils so big and the sight of them made his blood pump even harder.

“I want you to fuck me. I want you fuck me harder than you’ve ever fucked me. Do it right now. Take me right here. I can’t wait. I need it. I need you inside me. Do it. Fuck me, Zak. Fuck me!”

Zak shoved his hard, straight cock up and into her slick, wet pussy and the both of them cried out in relief. Then he worked his body up and down, driving himself deep into her as she balanced against the tree and on the gnarled ground at its roots. She grabbed onto his shoulders and let herself ride him like the animal he was, loving the friction and the heat and the sweat they created together.

Their bodies moved in a steady rhythm, building up to a faster speed. Zak’s eyes blazed a deep yellow and low, rumbling growl came up from his toes and out his open mouth. For a moment, Joy thought she saw a great, gaping jaw full of curved and dangerous teeth in front of her, but it was gone as soon as she saw it. She kissed him and bit his lip and their speed increased, the two of them melded together with the heat they created. Joy felt little sparks flying off her skin and briefly worried about the forest around them; surely no tree could stand against the force of their fire.

They hit their climax and the sky was suddenly filled with birds, flower buds opened and queen bees devoured their faithful bee servants deep inside their sticky palaces. Ripples of their lovemaking shook the earth so strongly that the rocks rattled and the rivers swelled. They rode the dark, undulating orgasm between them with their eyes closed. Joy had a brief vision of Ursa Major blazing in the sky and laughed at the memory. That had been back when they were so hesitant and gentle with one another. Look at us now , she thought. We’re so happy to tear each other to shreds.

A moment later, they laid in the grass and stared up at the sky. Both were still naked and still reeling from their lovemaking. She had ever been so hungry, so desperate for someone’s touch and the effect had left her both a little shaky. Zak propped himself up on one elbow and looked at Joy, sweaty and spent on the soft earth, and smiled.

“You look like a goddess. You know that?”

She snorted a little laugh. “Come on. I’m no goddess.” She picked a nearby flower and drew across his face with it, but he moved it away.

“I’m serious.” He touched his nose to hers and she could feel his eyelashes on her cheeks. “You represent life, love, sex. Everything. That’s what a goddess is; she’s an inspiration and a symbol. I’m using the right word.”

She turned to him and gave him a big, long kiss. His lips tasted like cold well water, something deep in the earth that was waiting to be released. The taste of it stirred her again and she pulled him on top of her. The two lay in the grass and just held one another, kissing in the warm sun. The scents of soft grass and black earth reached her nose and she could feel the variations in the earth beneath her. The rises and dips and the blades of long, soft grass made the perfect bed for them and she never wanted to get up from that little spot.

Zak sat up and cocked his head. “You hear that?”

She propped herself up on her elbows and listened as well. It sounded like an argument. “I think two of your guys are just having a disagreement.”

“One of those voices isn’t ours.” He jumped up and listened again. He walked over to find his clothes and quickly pulled them on without looking at Joy. She popped up to join him and found her pants on top of a thorny bush. She had to pull it off carefully so it wouldn’t rip and he got a bit of a head start. Dressed already, he walked off to see what could be happening and left Joy behind him.

“Hey,” she called out, “don’t leave! I’m right behind you.”

“I have to, babe. Stay here, I’ll come back for you.”
He left Joy naked to stand and wait at the trees. Gingerly, she peeled her jeans off of the thorns and then found her shirt just below it. She held them while she scoured the ground for her bra and panties and then something made her stop.

The voice that reached her was familiar. The calm tone that implied threats rather than issuing them; it made her hug her sides with her trembling arms. It couldn’t be. There was no way.

Please , she prayed, please don’t let it be who I think it is. Please don’t let it be Aris .

Chapter 7

After Zak left Joy in the clearing, he walked out of the woods to the road and immediately saw the strange, tall figure he had heard while he’d been with her. He stopped and watched the scene for a moment. His group was holding their own, as he expected them to do. Two of his men were standing with girls flanking them on either side while the rest of the group lounged on the ground, feigning disinterest while keeping a sharp eye on the situation.

The stranger, Zak realized, was Aris, his old enemy and Joy’s ex-husband. He wasn’t losing the love of his life to this loser again and he walked casually across the street to make sure Aris knew it.

Aris and Zak’s fellow biker Gary were having a stand-off. Aris had his hands balled up but down by his sides and was trying to stare Gary down. The biker, meanwhile, was standing in an almost floppy style. His knees were a little bent to keep his legs loose and his gaze was just barely on his challenger; he was making sure he had room to attack if necessary and that he had two points of backup close by. He and his gang got into the occasional fight, sure; but they were smart about it. They never fought in an enclosed space, always made sure to have at least two other people behind their target, and got it over with as quickly as possible. They weren’t scared of the police, they just saw no reason for them to be involved. To have the cops show up to break up a fight was considered highly embarrassing for this group.

“I know she’s here.” Aris ran his fingers roughly through his hair as he took in the lounging bikers in front of him. “You can all drop the act. Trust me, she’s trouble. Just give her up now and I won’t cause any problems.”

“I think you should,” Zak said, stepping forward. “Cause a problem, I mean.”

Aris did a surprised double-take at Zak, where had this guy come from? “What? What the hell are you saying?”

Zak stepped closer to his adversary. Aris was a half-head taller than Zak, but the short leader stood confidently and flipped his hair out of his face with a cocky head snap. “I’m saying we like problems. You think I got this crew to join my gang because they like things safe? No, you’ve got it all wrong.” All around him, gang members were standing slowly and positioning themselves at different points of attack about a foot away from Aris. “You see Petunia over there?”

Aris looked at the skinny blonde with faded purple in her hair. She was staring at him as if she wanted to know his face intimately, to know exactly how each of his cells lined up.

“I’ve seen that pretty little thing snap the necks of three different men. All of them former wife beaters and, to a man, much bigger than you. Now, I would love to see the famous Aris go hand to hand with Petunia here. So please,” he concluded, “make some problems.”

The circle of bikers advanced a few steps towards their target and Aris whipped around in every direction as the circle closed in on him slightly. “Or how about this,” Zak continued, his eyes bright as if he were offering a choice of ice cream flavor to a customer as opposed to ways his enemy could die. “Take on Greg. Greg here spent most of his life in and out of institutions. See, he killed his dad after he witnessed his father spitting in his mother’s face. He knew a beating was on the way and he decided there was no reason to wait until it happened. He just cut the possibility for more violence out as soon as he could.”

Aris turned slightly towards the tall, spiky-haired man on his left. Greg was flexing his fingers and grinning. He looked ready to take Aris out at the knees.

“Choose someone,” Zak said. “Heck, you can even choose to fight me. But if you don’t choose anyone, well then.” He shrugged as if highly disturbed. “You’ll just have to fight the whole group.”

Again, the circle closed in on Aris. He wordlessly opened and closed his mouth and looked from member to member. The stared right back, each prepared to be the one to do battle with this new enemy.

“Alright, I choose you.” Aris’ breathing was incredibly fast and he desperately tried to keep his composure, but his voice wavered and he had sweat all over his forehead. “Come on, tough guy. Let’s dance.”

The whole group laughed as soon as he said it. Each of them turned to one another in a mocking stance. “Let’s dance. Come on, dance with me!” Their laughter was so intense and disturbed Aris so much that he didn’t see the giant claw as it came in for a swipe at his face.

Aris fell to the ground and a huge, brown bear stood over him. It opened its giant maw and let out a huge roar. Aris opened his eyes to see a row of yellow, wet fangs rising from black gums and promptly wet his pants.

“Help! Help!” He scrambled back as the bear batted at him, destroying his pants and scraping a huge scoop of flesh from his leg. Blood began to stain the grass below him. “Someone help me, please!”

There was no one else there; all the other gang members had disappeared and left him to his fate. He turned onto his stomach and began to crawl away. The bear put his front legs on Aris’ back and pushed him down into the ground, then stood on him, pushing again so that his head bucked up a little.

In that moment, Aris thought he saw Joy standing just a short distance in front of him. He started to call her name when suddenly a horrible pain shot through his head and everything went black.

When he came to, he was on the sidewalk in front of a hospital. A nurse ran up to him and began asking questions, but Aris couldn’t focus. He had dried blood holding one of his eyes partially closed and his head was pounding. He was weak from blood loss and had to be carried into the emergency room.

“Sir, did someone attack you? Do you know what your name is? What’s the date today? Is there anything you can tell us?”

Question after question was thrown at him as he was rushed into an operating room. All he could say was one word over and over. “Bear. Bear. Bear.”

That night, at the weekly bonfire for the gang, Joy stood by herself. Zak was nowhere to be seen and the whole group was doing everything they could to keep her spirits up.

Petunia came over and patted her on a shoulder. “Look,” she said, “I know you’re worried, but you have to remember that Zak knows these woods better than anyone. He can read the wind, the stars, the tracks of any animal. He’s just hiding out so that bad old bear doesn’t come for him. He’ll be back.” Joy smiled at her and nodded, but didn’t say anything. Petunia handed her a bottle of whiskey and Joy took a swig.

Petunia scrutinized her for a moment, a hand on her hip as she looked Joy up and down. “I can understand why you’re so sad,” she said. “I would be too if I had to give up some quality dick.” Joy laughed and a little bit of whiskey came out her nose.

“Whoa. Careful. I know that stings.” The two friends laughed and stared into the flames. Joy imagined all the different places Zak could be: stuck up a tree with a bear beneath him, safe in a cave where he had fresh water for a few days, or off in some abandoned cabin fast asleep. Petunia, meanwhile, was wondering if Joy had guessed the truth about Zak or any of them. She assumed the answer was no.

After hours of sitting and staring at the fire, of politely accepting drinks and listening as the group told stories and sang songs, Joy was drunk and depressed. She lounged with her head on a rolled up jacket, her arms and legs splayed open. Greg walked over to see how she was doing.

“Take you home, Joy? I’m sure you need some sleep.”

She shook her head groggily. “Just leave me here. My boyfriend’s been eaten by a bear, my own father keeps forgetting who I am, and my ex is probably dead by now. Do yourself a big favor and leave me here. Keep your distance before you catch my curse. It’s fatal.”

“Come on.” Greg quickly reached down and flung her up onto his shoulder so that she hung down towards his butt. “I can’t let Zak’s girl freeze all night. He’ll kill me. Besides,” he said moving down the ladder back down to the bikes, “you’re my friend. Even if you are cursed.” He descended the side of the boulder and set Joy down. She was a bit wobbly, but she didn’t fall.

“Stay here. I’ll bring my bike around.”

Joy stood and felt the earth rock under her feet like a ship. She tilted her head back and yelled up to the stars, “Ursa, you have to find him! Come on, you big bear in the sky. Bring him back to me! Bring him back to me!”

As she yelled to the stars, she staggered around in a circle and watched them spin in the sky. Ursa Major shined the brightest and she could almost see the outline of a bear made of light walking through the sky.

Her spin was stopped abruptly when a hand grabbed her elbow. She was so dizzy and drunk that she couldn’t quite make out who it was; the form swam in front of her as it moved closer. The earth tipped again and she pitched forward, right into the mystery figure’s arms. After that, everything went black.

When she opened her eyes, Joy was back in her room at her father’s house. She was snuggled under the usual blankets and staring at the same ceiling she always had. She blinked her eyes open but promptly closed them again once the light hit her retinas; she was very hungover.

Joy listened for her father or anyone in the house, but everything was quiet. She could live with that. She pulled the covers over her head and settled in for a late sleep, thrilled to be able to relax for a morning.

She was just slipping back into sleep when a soft knock came at the door.

Joy meant to call out a greeting, but all she could manage was an annoyed groan. The door opened and her dad stood there, looking down at her.

“Hi Joy.” He leaned in the doorway. “Feeling a little rough?”

She nodded from under her blanket shelter.

“Well, from what Zak tells me, you had a tough night. You take it easy for today. I’m going to make you my guaranteed hangover cure, okay?”

From under the covers, Joy managed to produce a shaky thumbs up. He left and she quickly pulled the covers down and consulted her ceiling. Wait. Did he say Zak?

Slowly, gently placing one foot in front of the other, Joy made her way out of her room and into the kitchen where her father was cracking a raw egg on the edge of the blender. Just the sound of the egg shell breaking was unbearable and she stopped to lean against the wall for a moment. She tried again, straightened up, and took a few more wobbly steps until she could see the kitchen table. As soon as she did, she had to grab the door frame for a moment to keep from passing out.

There, sitting in the breakfast nook, was Zak. He was neat and clean, not a scratch on him, and had a new catalogue that had come in the mail on the table. He flipped through the pages slowly as if he were genuinely considering a new comforter or dust ruffle. A small noise came out of Joy’s throat and he looked up.

“Joy!” Zak ran over to help her to a chair, guiding her slowly. She eased into a seat and panted for breath. She couldn’t remember what all she had drank last night, but she silently vowed to never take so many liberties with alcohol again. Ever.

She propped her head up on her hand and smiled at Zak as he sat across from her. “You’re back.”

“Yeah. I couldn’t leave you alone.” They held hands across the table as the blender whirred for a few minutes. She had no idea what awful concoction her father was making for her, but Joy told herself to drink it down, no matter the taste. She had to get this hangover out of her system.

The blender stopped and Zak sent a soundless little kiss across the table to Joy. She made a kissy face back to him and the two of them laughed. She wanted to lean across the table and kiss him for real, but she wasn’t sure how it would affect her father. Would he even remember who the two of them were?

“Alright, my darling daughter who likes to drink,” Steve said in a sing-song voice, “this is just for you. Drink it all in one go; don’t sip.” He set down a tall, grey mixture flecked with red dots. Her stomach turned just at the sight of it. What on earth was this? Her dad stood waiting. “It’s this or be sick the rest of the day. Your choice.”

She took a deep breath, let it all out, then raised the glass to her lips. The thick, heavy grey liquid slid down her throat slowly. The feel of it brought to mind the way garbage slid down a chute or snot came out of a nose. She wretched a little as she drank it, but she didn’t stop until she got to the bottom.

“Oh my god, Dad!” Joy shoved the glass away from her and gasped for breath. “What the hell was that?”

“Hey, language. I’m not a fan of this new hard-living, biker chick persona you’re cultivating. I miss my sweet girl.” He picked up the glass and washed it. “Besides, it’s just eggs, tomato juice, tabasco, protein powder, and green tea. You’re fine.”

The list of ingredients and the feel of her father’s disgusting cocktail in her stomach was more than she could bear. Joy jumped up and ran to the bathroom, barely upright and bouncing off of the walls the whole way, then flung herself in front of the toilet to puke.

Back in the kitchen, Steve dried the clean glass and put it in the cupboard. He raised an eyebrow at Zak. “It’s my grandma’s recipe. Works every time.”

The rest of the day was a bizarre one for Joy as her father joined her and her boyfriend for a day at home. While they usually spent their time running off to, well, anywhere, that day they all stayed close to each other. Joy marveled at her father’s sharp mentality; he didn’t call her Brenda once. When Zak stepped away to use the bathroom, she moved closer to her dad.

“Dad, how are you feeling today?”

“Hm? Me? Oh fine, dear. Just fine. You know that nice boy Zak gave me some vitamins that really got me going today. I can’t remember the last time I felt this good.”

“Vitamins? What kind of vitamins?” She looked around the living room but didn’t see any new medications. Her dad was busy flipping through TV channels looking for his courtroom drama and couldn’t be bothered.

“I forget the name. I’ll have to ask; they’re great stuff. Oh, here’s Judge Hunter .” He settled into his chair, not intending to move for the next hour at least. Joy stood up and moved into the kitchen where she opened all the cupboards and checked every inch of counter space for any sign of any kind of vitamin. There was nothing. What had Zak done to help her dad?
“Hey beautiful.” Hands smoothed down the front of her dress and Zak’s head peeked over her shoulder. “What are you looking for?”

“The vitamins you gave my dad. Where are they?”

“They’re around here somewhere.” He kissed her neck and for a moment she gave into the familiar feel of his full lips and hungry touch, but snapped out of it just as quickly.

“Hey, I’m serious.” She turned around stepped back from him, out of kissing range.

“You think I’m not?” He moved in for another round and she stopped him with a finger to his chest.

“Stop it. I need to know what kind they are. I’ve never seen him with it. He’s usually confused most of the day. If you’ve found some miracle herbal supplement, I want to know what it is.”

“It’s my dad’s old recipe. He swore by it. Now come on, just give me one kiss before we go sit with your dad again…”

“One more thing.” Zak sighed and fell against her like a rag doll. “Come on,” she said, picking him up by his armpits. “I need to know.”

“Yes, of course. Whatever you want. Shoot.”

She smoothed his hair back out of his face. It was nice seeing him so combed and put together. She was used to the untamed, rumpled version of Zak she saw outdoors. She flashed back to the day he disappeared and all she saw was a bear standing on her ex-husband and tears came to her eyes.

“I just need to know,” she said, the tears falling onto her dress, “where did you go? When the bear came, where did you run to?”

“Hey.” Zak pulled her into a hug and smoothed her hair. “Why the tears, huh? I’m okay. I made it back. Don’t cry.”

She took a big, shuddering breath and closed her eyes. She breathed in the smell of Zak’s skin and told herself he was right, the important thing was that he was alive and here with her. “I know. I was just so scared I’d never see you again.”

“Never? Come on. That’s such a long time.” He kissed her head and squeezed her tight. “If you must know, I holed up in a little abandoned house for a day and a night, then I had to go and fish for something to eat or else I would have starved. As soon as I was strong enough, I headed back to town.”

She pulled back and looked at him in his gelled hair and church-appropriate clothes. Joy put her hand on Zak’s cheek and leaned in for a kiss, a real kiss, on his soft, welcoming lips. He tasted like wine late at night, like water from the creek, like a warm lover who had already waited for her a long time.

“I love you, Zak,” she whispered.

He pulled her in a little tighter. “I love you more.”

Chapter 8

The next few days were quiet, but a week after Zak had returned Joy was feeling particularly odd. “Oh no,” she thought, “I’m sick again.” She could feel that her stomach was extremely bloated and her breasts were so tender it hurt just to shift a bit under her blanket. What was going on?

She threw back the covers and flung her arm over her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so tired, and after going to bed early, too. She thought of what she wanted for breakfast, but as soon as she thought of actual, solid food she felt a rush of acid coming up from her stomach. Jumping up from the bed, she ran to the bathroom and stuck her head in the toilet just in time. She retched and heaved for a few minutes, not throwing up a lot but enough that it dripped out her nose and made her stomach jump up and down a bit.

“No more drinking for me. My system just can’t handle it.” Joy flushed her sick away and leaned her head on the toilet, grateful for it’s cool, smooth surface against her cheek. She took a deep breath. She’d have to go and make her dad some breakfast; he needed a cup of coffee less than five minutes after waking up. Shakily, she stood and turned to face her reflection in the mirror.

There, in the reflection, was a big pregnant belly hanging off Joy’s reflected frame. Her heart stopped. She couldn’t be pregnant, could she? She’d had her period at least two months ago. When she’d skipped one, she had just shrugged it off as stress. It was right around Zak’s disappearance, after all. This belly was big enough for a fully-formed baby, not a newly-made fetus.

Joy’s hand smoothed down the front of her body, feeling the tight stretch of skin over her abdomen and the lump underneath. What was going on?

Quickly, she dressed in a big, baggy sweater and loose jeans. Even the big, unbelted waistband was tight around her new frame and the middle of her top stretched over her belly. Would Dad notice?

She went out into the kitchen quickly and got the coffee machine started. She threw some bread in the toaster and set out the eggs. Still rushing, she penned a quick note.

Woke up ill. Ran off to see the doc. Be home soon. Joy. She put it on a plate where her dad would be sure to find it, grabbed her purse, and ran out the door.

Even though it had been about a week since she’d seen the gang, she had a feeling she knew where they were. Anytime they wanted to be outside of town, they liked to hang out at a little campground not far from where they had their late-night bonfires. Joy headed that direction; she wanted an explanation from Zak and she wanted it right that moment.

She pulled up to the campsite and saw that yes, she’d guessed correctly; the whole gang was there and sleeping soundly. Their feet were sticking out of randomly arranged tents and there were remnants of their latest party all over the place. Joy walked out into the grass, kicking aside empty beer cans and flattened chip bags until she reached the biggest tent. Zak’s bike was parked outside.

He was there, snoring blissfully away as if nothing in the world could affect him. She reached down and shook him rudely awake.

“Morning, Zak.”

“Huh? Wha—hey, Joy.” He smiled sleepily at the surprise, not fully awake. His hands reached up for her to pull her down into the sleeping bag with him but she yanked herself back. “Come on, sweetie, come lie down…” She could see him drifting off into a dream again and clapped her hands close to his face.

“Zak! You have to wake up right now.”

He snorted and shook his head in a big no from side to side. Joy shook him again. “Zak, come on! This is important!”

Finally, he blinked his eyes open and, through his blurred vision, looked at Joy as she slowly took shape in front of him. She looked weird; something about her was bigger. She had on big clothes and her face was panicked and pale. He rubbed the last of the grogginess from his eyes and looked at her again. This time, he put his hands on her belly.

“You’re pregnant.”

“Yeah, no kidding. You want to explain how I entered my third trimester in just a few months?” She started breathing quickly and pacing back and forth in the tent. “I mean, how is this even possible? I know it’s yours; it has to be, but, but, we’ve been dating for like, two months. Two months! And look at me!”

She lifted her shirt to show him her big belly and he took it in, smiling just a little. “What are you so happy about,” she demanded and his smile instantly disappeared.

“Joy,” he said, reaching out for her hands, “come here.” She sat down facing him and let him take both of her hands. He massaged her fingers and she breathed a little easier. He hung his head for a moment, then looked at her with a serious expression.

“There’s something I should have told you a long time ago,” he began. “Do you remember my father; how odd he was? He actually got kicked out of the three restaurants in town because he ate so much. And he had to be outdoors all the time, do you remember?”

Joy thought back. Zak’s father had been just like him: restless, an outdoorsman, a heavy drinker, and huge eater despite his medium build. There had always been something different about him, something in his eyes that set him apart from everyone else. She couldn’t quite recall the last time she’d seen him, either. Like Zak, he had just up and left one day.

“He was an outsider, your dad. Kind of like you.”

“An outsider,” Zak said, letting out a big breath, “yeah. That’s one way of describing him. You see Joy, the men in my family, they’re different. My dad, me, my uncles and grandfather; we’re not entirely human.”

“What?” Joy felt a strange, cold sensation creeping along her skin. “What are you, then?”

“Maybe,” Zak said, setting her hands down in her lap and standing up, “maybe it would be better if I just showed you.”

Zak stood above her and closed his eyes. Slowly, he began to work his jaw back and forth. His face seemed to extend while his nose shrank and his ears lifted to the top of his head. His shoulders became big and rounded and his hands changed to heavy circles with long claws. Joy didn’t move, she couldn’t have if she’d wanted to. She watched Zak sprout thick brown hair all over his body. His legs became heavy and his hips spread to a wide, round shape, making him stand on all fours.

Still sitting on the sleeping bag, Joy found herself face to face with the same, large brown bear that she had seen attack Aris. The bear breathed it’s heavy hot breath onto her with loud, labored breathing. The two of them watched each other, not moving.

Trembling, Joy reached up and touched the bear’s face as gently as she could. His eyes became soft and the bear’s massive head leaned into her touch, enjoying the feel of her hand. She barely breathed as she focused on her reflection in his big, glassy eyes. “Zak? Are you in there?”

The bear stared at her, then gave her a small, almost imperceptible nod. The air in her lungs came rushing out and tears came to her eyes. “Am I pregnant with someone like you? Is that why it happened so fast?” Again, he gave a small nod. With tears sliding down her face, she tilted her head forward to touch her forehead to his. They stayed like that for a moment, bear and human together, then Joy looked up.

“Can you turn back? I need to be able to talk to you.” The bear lay down and covered his head in his massive paws. She moved back, uncertain how another transformation was going to go. Starting with his feet, his hair began to retract and his shape slowly returned to that of a human male, but it took a long time. When his transformation had finally completed, the sun was high and other members of the gang were up and wandering around, grumbling about the lack of food.

When the last trace of bear was gone, Zak looked up at her. He was naked and lying on his stomach and his face was white with exhaustion. She lay next to him and kissed his cheek. “Shh. Don’t move. Get your strength back. I’ll tell the gang you need the morning off, okay?”

He shook his head no. “They. Need. Me.”

Joy got Zak dressed and then helped him up. He was horribly weak and could barely stand, but he insisted on leaving the tent. So Joy, pregnant and in shock, walked with her arm around Zak, her faint boyfriend who was not entirely human. They stepped out into the sunlight and found the gang waiting in a loose collection outside the tent. They didn’t look surprised or confused at the sight of their leader looking so rough. They just gave a little nod to Joy and glanced down at her big belly.

Carefully, Zak sat on a big rock and took in the group. Petunia brought him a bottle of orange juice and he gulped it down.

“Thanks.” He wiped his mouth and looked around. “As you can all see, Joy is pregnant. This means she’s going to need our protection until her babies are born. I want a security detail around her twenty-four seven. These babies are definitely part of the brown bear line. That means they’ll be very powerful,” he looked to Joy, “and very important. We can’t let anything happen to them.”

The group nodded, still unsurprised. Joy looked over at Petunia who gave her a big grin.

“Congratulations, mama bear. You’re definitely having at least two.”

Joy touched her stomach and felt a shift under her skin. She thought of two little forms inside her tumbling over one another, somersaulting around like bear cubs. Her shock set in as she realized that was essentially what she would be having: two baby bears.

“I want five of you out getting some food. I transitioned this morning but I didn’t get a chance to recover so I need some extra. Get back as soon as you can. Joy, you’ll have to stay here until we can organize protection for you.”

Five bikers roared off and the rest came up to hug Joy and tell her congratulations. She accepted it all graciously, but out of the corner of her eye she kept tabs on Zak. He looked extremely weak, like he might fall off of his perch at any moment. After a little bit of small talk, she joined him again and put her arm around him.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “I usually transition slowly. That’s why I went off into the woods, so I could stay in bear form for a couple of days and then take a few hours to go back to human. I’ll be okay.”

Joy gave him a kiss on the cheek and wrapped her arms around him. “You’ve worked really hard to hide this from me, haven’t you?”

He leaned his head into her. “I had to. I wanted you to be safe. This isn’t an easy life, Joy.”

She lifted up out of their hug and looked at him. “Why are you in so much danger?”

Zak looked up to see Petunia standing with fast food bags and a cup of coffee. She handed it all to the lovebirds. Zak took it gratefully and started ripping into the paper. “Petunia,” he said to her, “tell Joy what happened to you when that hunter saw you transition.”

Petunia sucked the air in through her teeth. “Oh, that’s a rough story. Let me get a cigarette.” She slipped a smoke out of her carton and then cupped her hands over it to get the flame. After she’d taken a long drag, she dove in.

“I was in the woods. We’d all transitioned together a few days before and everyone was going back to human one by one, but I was taking my time. I always love my time in the woods; I fish, I sleep, I walk forever. It’s the best. But, I knew I was lagging behind and I needed to move on. So, I found a little clearing and lay down. To shift back to human, we have to go inside ourselves and really focus. I’m on the ground, I’ve got my head covered, I’m about halfway through the change and then I felt something on my neck.

“It was the butt of a shotgun. A hunter had been just out of sight and I wasn’t as careful as I should have been. Now, I was caught. This guy didn’t want to shoot me, he wanted to keep me in one place. I heard him call out to someone that he’d found something crazy. He probably thought he could sell me to some lab or a TV studio, who knows. All I knew was, I had to get out of there. I stopped changing; uncovered my eyes, focused on keeping my bear form and, well…”

Joy leaned forward. “What did you do?”

She shrugged and let out a big cloud of smoke. “I had to kill them.” She turned and walked away to sit by herself for a moment. Behind her, Joy was frozen in panic.

“Zak!” She grabbed his shoulder. “What is this? Why did she have to kill them?”

He balled up the paper of the food he’d finished and took Joy’s hand. “Listen, we don’t want to kill anyone. She only took those guys out because they’d seen that she was something different. She’s not wholly human and she’s not entirely animal. People can’t deal with that.”

She moved closer to him and spoke in a whisper. “Have you ever killed someone?”

He shook his head. “No. Never. I specialize in scaring people away. I find it’s much more effective.”

“Like you did with Aris?”

“Exactly like that. He’s alive, but I’d be very surprised if he ever bothered us again.”

They spent the morning together, lazing around in the sun while Zak got his strength back. Joy relished the opportunity to relax in the grass. Pregnancy was surprisingly exhausting and she dozed for a couple of hours at least.

By the time she woke up it was late morning and Zak was back to his old self, joking around and play fighting with his crew. She propped herself up on her elbows and motioned to Greg to help her up. “Quick,” she said, “I have to pee like you wouldn’t believe.”

A little later, Zak and three other crew members were ready to escort Joy home. They explained to her that they would be camping out near her house and available to take her wherever she wanted to go, day or night. She wondered how her dad was going to like having a faction of bikers across the street from them. Maybe his memory problems would kick in and keep him from paying too much attention to them. A girl could dream, anyway.

They went down the street as a group, Joy sitting in the sidecar of Petunia’s bike. Her big belly made it impossible for her to hang on to Zak and she was a little sad to see the empty space behind him as he drove in the front. A kick to her insides reminded her why safety was tantamount. She put a hand where she felt the baby’s foot and rubbed it. It was probably her imagination, but she could have sworn she felt its toes wiggle under her hand.

At her dad’s house, everything looked quiet. She needed help getting up from the sidecar and once again she was desperate for a bathroom, but she was smiling. Zak took her by the arm and led her to the house, making her laugh.

“I’m not going to break! I can walk.”

“I know,” he said, leaning in to nibble her neck, “but I want to spoil you.”

They approached the front door and Zak’s face twisted up for a moment. He stopped Joy. “Something’s wrong in here.” He leaned forward and smelled the air. “Joy, we have to go.”

“No!” She quickly opened the door, still looking at Zak. “If something’s wrong that means we have to get my dad and—”

“And what, Joy?”

The sound of his voice made all of Joy’s happiness and confidence dissolve. There, sitting in her living room with a pistol aimed at her father, was Aris. He was banged up and bandaged, but otherwise still the same old Aris she remembered. He sat stock still and let his eyes do the talking. Joy took stock of the situation; both men were seated directly across from one another. Her father was clearly terrified but Aris was calm. He loved making other people scared; it was what he did best.

He pulled back the hammer of the gun and looked at Joy’s father. “Tell your daughter to stop being so rude and join us. Her boyfriend can go.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Zak stepped into the living room with his hands balled into fists. He was already breathing hard. “I won’t let you terrorize the mother of my child or anyone close to her.”

“Terrorize?” Aris sneered at the word. “Who on earth is terrorizing anyone? You think I want to shoot him? I can’t imagine a worse outcome. All I want,” he said, affecting an innocent tone, “is for everyone to come to their senses. And that means you, wifey.”

“You know I don’t want to be with you anymore.” Joy kept her hands on her belly as she spoke. Her babies had gone completely still, sensing how scared she was. “I’m with Zak. I’m pregnant with his baby. Just sign the papers and move on. There’s no reason for you to keep after me.”

Aris let out a sad sigh. “Well, I’m sorry to hear you say that, Joy.” He lifted the gun and pointed it at Steve’s head. “Cuz now your dad is going to die.”

A loud bang rang out. Joy screamed and Zak dove across the room straight at Aris. Steve fell out of his chair and onto the floor as a horrible fight broke out. Joy couldn’t look. Instead, she pushed herself against the wall and did everything she could to be invisible. She could hear the TV shatter, the lamp crash against the wall, and fists smack into skin. The wall began to bend and fold under her and the floor came up to meet her. As soon as it did, Joy’s vision went black and she drifted off into the void.

Chapter 9

It was several days before Joy would let Zak hold her again. The shock of seeing Aris, the shot in her dad’s shoulder, and their days visiting him in the hospital all kept her from his tent. He didn’t say anything, just waited patiently for his love to return to him. She could feel his eyes on her any time he was close, but she couldn’t return his gaze. It was just too much.

Finally, after a couple of weeks, Steve was back home and only a little worse for the wear. His shoulder was stiff but, as he put it: “What am I, some athlete? I can do everything I need to do.” A physical therapist came by every day to help him move his stiff joint and Joy sat with them, participating in all the same exercises.

One night they sat watching a trashy reality show and Steve suddenly clicked off the TV. “Joy,” he said, “how much longer are you going to keep this up?”

“Whuh?” She had a mouth full of popcorn. Her pregnancy was in its final stages and she was constantly starving.

“Don’t give me that.” Steve took the popcorn from her hands and pointed at the phone. “Go call that bear of yours and spend the evening together. The two of you will be parents soon and won’t have the strength. If you two want to go out ever again, now’s the time.”

Joy started to protest but her father just pointed at the phone. She heaved herself out of the chair and went over to call Zak. She knew the gang had a couple of phones they shared and she had both numbers memorized, but she was reluctant. She just wasn’t sure how she felt about her future as a mother. Couldn’t she just stare at the TV and forget about it for a night?

“Hello, Rick’s Roadkill Cafe. You kill ‘em we grill ‘em.”

Joy laughed. “Hi Greg. It’s Joy. Is Zak around?”

Greg called Zak over and told him who it was.

“Joy? Joy, sweetheart, are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here. I’m wondering if I can see you tonight.”

“Tonight. Yes. I’m coming to get you. Don’t move. I’ll bring the sidecar.”

A little while later, Joy was zipping down the road in the little car next to Zak’s bike. The trees and power lines whipped by and her hair streamed behind her. The air smelled incredible; it was full of pine, late summer, and rain on the horizon. She smiled over at Zak; she had missed him. She was glad her father had pushed her to go out. She’d really missed the craziness that came with being Zak’s partner.

They pulled up to the campground and everyone walked over to Joy.

“Oh, look how big you’ve gotten! Any day now.”

“I remember my first pregnancy. I couldn’t leave my partner alone. Remember, baby?”

“Joy, your boobs are enormous. Ow! Hey, sorry.” Zak shoved the last visitor away and yelled for someone to bring over the thermos of hot tea.

“She’s our guest of honor. I better see you all act like it.” Everyone grumbled and wandered away, back to their beer and their bonfire. Someone handed Joy a thermos but she didn’t see who it was; she was too busy looking at Zak.

Had his shoulders always been so muscular? And his jaw, was it always that square? He was absolutely stunning. When he turned to her with a smile she melted and leaned in to give him a kiss. “I missed you, Zak.”

He pulled her in tight, covering her head with kisses. “Joy, I felt like I was dying without you. I know you were upset about what happened, but Aris is in jail. No one touched him. And I want to tell you—”

“Shh. Tell me later. Can we go to your tent?”

Zak looked out at the group; they seemed sufficiently distracted. “Yeah, let’s go.”

The two headed off, Joy waddling a bit while Zak kept his arm around her shoulder. He kept checking to see how she felt, would it be soon? She just laughed at him and told him to stop worrying.

“Just get me to your tent, babe. I need to be with you.”

They ducked inside Zak’s little abode and zipped up the entrance behind them. Joy laid down carefully and Zak hovered above her, kissing her face and neck.

“Baby, will you take off my pants?”

He reached down and pulled off the black leggings she had on, revealing her high, rounded belly. “Oh, wow.” He touched it gently and lay his cheek against one side. “I can feel them in there.”

“So can I.” Joy laughed. She propped herself up on her elbows. “I hope they’re both as beautiful as you, Zak. You really are just,” she ran her hand up his arm, taking in his muscles, “so, so sexy.”

He looked at her a little surprised. “You think so? Check this out.” He pulled his T-shirt off, revealing his defined muscles. They were bigger than she remembered and she reached up to touch his pectorals. They were like carved wood.

“Oh my God. Sweetie, I’m really, really,” she twisted and squirmed underneath him, “horny. I need you right now.”

He didn’t respond, instead he pulled up her shirt and helped her get it off over her head. Then he unhooked her bra from her large, swollen breasts so that they could rest freely on top of her chest. Her dark nipples were hard and small and Zak gave them a little flick.

“Don’t tease me! I need you inside me, baby, please.”

He took off Joy’s panties and then stood to undress himself. She sat up to take in the view as he pulled off his clothes, smiling at the sight. “God, you look good naked.”

Lowering down to his hands and knees, he started kissing her again. “You remember when I called you a goddess?”

“I remember.”

“You’re even more of a goddess now. Carrying my children, full of love and magic.” He slipped his arm around her back and let her arch backwards a little, raising her chest for him to taste. “Let me worship you properly while you’re like this; at your most feminine. Your most magical.”

Gently, slowly, the two maneuvered into position on all fours. Joy was up on her hands and knees while Zak kneeled behind her. He entered her cautiously, a little scared he might hurt her, but she moaned as he moved inside, loving the way he felt.

“Oh yeah. Oh, keep going.”

“You’re okay?”

“Yes. I’m okay. Don’t worry. It feels so wonderful.”

He reached under her arms to feel her heavy breasts and played with her nipples as he slid in and out a few more times, still not rushing. Her pussy had taken on a new, softer texture and felt amazing against his hard, excited cock. He went a little faster.

“Oh! Oh yes. Yes, Zak. Like that.”

“You want it that way? Like this?” He slid into her hard, pausing between each penetration to torture her just for a moment. Each time he re-entered she let out a high-pitched cry of surprise. After a few minutes, she reached back for his hand.

“Stay inside me for just a moment. Let me just feel you.”

Zak didn’t move, just maintained his position deep inside Joy. Her wide, curvy hips went around in a little circle and started rocking up and down in a little tilt. The movement made her pubic bone rub up against his shaft and the sensation was one he’d never known he loved so much.

“Oh, Joy. Oh, babe.”

“Don’t move.” She looked over her shoulder. “Don’t do anything. Let me.” He nodded and she went back to her own pursuits against his hips. She slid herself along the length of his cock, then bucked against him, working harder and harder. Zak kept his hands behind his head while his eyes rolled with the insane pleasure she was giving him. He’d never had any sex like this before.

Joy was working harder and harder against him and he had to put his hands on her hips to keep from falling over. The two of them began to climax together, climbing up, up into the stars above them as they rode their orgasm higher and higher.

“Zak, I’m coming. I’m almost there.”

“Oh, me too. Don’t stop. I’m right here with you.”

She worked her hips harder and harder, squeezing her eyes shut as she began to crest. Inside her, she felt Zak pumping back and forth and then exploding just as she did. They rode through their intense pleasure together, Zak holding her tightly as she reached back and grabbed his neck.

“Yes! Yes, oh my god. Oh. Oh yes. Yes. Oh, wow.”

“Oh, Joy. My darling.” His breath came fast and hot into her ear. She turned so she could kiss him up on her knees but he insisted she lie down. He joined her on the sleeping bag, the two of them naked together in the tent and completely exhausted from their lovemaking. He stroked her face and stared at her, fascinated.

“My Joy. Mother of my children.”

“Damn straight.” They laughed and kissed again, then Joy had to lie back and caress her stomach. “They hear you. They’re tumbling around like crazy right now.”
“Really?” Zak reached over and put his hand on her stomach and, just as she’d promised, felt his babies moving under her skin. “Wow. Those are our kids.”

“Are you ready to be a father?” She looked at him seriously, her eyes wide. He propped himself up on one elbow and stroked her hair.

“As long as you’re with me,” he whispered, “there’s nothing else I’d rather be.”

Chapter 10

The day Joy’s babies were ready to come into the world, her eyes snapped open and she sat up straight. “It’s time.”

Zak carried her out of bed and into her father’s truck, which Greg drove. She had to be in the woods in order for the babies to be safe and Zak wanted the crew nearby to help. They were about to pull out into the road when Joy’s father ran out and stopped them.

“Wait! I’m coming with you.” He ran to the truck bed and jumped in with Joy. “You weren’t going to do this without me, were you?”

“Of course not.” Her words came out in little huffs as she kept breathing in a rhythm like she’d learned from the other girls in the gang. “Hold my hand, will you?” Steve took his daughter’s hand as they sped off towards the woods outside of town. It was early so the light was soft and traffic was minimal. It seemed like only minutes by the time they reached the spot Zak had picked out a few months earlier. They parked and several people eased Joy out of the back.

She had to walk with them to the base of the old oak and the walk was incredibly uncomfortable. She had to stop for contractions every few seconds and let out a horrible scream as the pain tore through her. Zak, Greg and a couple of the biker girls rubbed her back and encouraged her to go on, go into the woods.

Little by little, the group fell back until Zak was the only one left walking with her. They entered the clearing together, just like they had that first night, and he helped her lie down with her head pointed east.

“I want you to look up into the sky and focus on the colors there,” he said, pulling off his shirt. “All of my ancestors, all the shifters in my family, are there watching over us right now.” He wiggled out of his pants and then his underwear. He sprawled out on the grass with one hand on Joy’s belly and covered his face. She watched the sky as Zak’s form changed and he became an enormous brown bear lying on the ground.

He’d explained to her a few days before that changelings need to see both forms when they come into the world; the human female and the animal male. This way, no matter state they were born in, they had a parent to go to. He warned her that she may have two baby bears, which would be very intense and painful, but also a much faster birth. Now that the moment was at hand, she felt certain the two creatures inside her had claws and giant teeth.

The pain was so intense that her vision blurred and then left her entirely. Her bones softened and separated and she felt her hips spread across the ground. Bear Zak reached over with his hand and hooked a claw into her dress to rip it off. She’d worn it specifically to give birth in, but it felt good to have her skin on the grass.

Just as she started to catch her breath again, the pain inside her doubled down and took her over. She twisted and screamed, opening her legs in hopes that whatever was inside her would find its way out. Bear Zak stood and paced around in front of her. He came up and nuzzled her but she grabbed his ear and screamed with another contraction. He stayed away from her hands after that.

“Zak, the babies are coming!” She sat up halfway and pulled her knees in towards her chest. She bared down and felt the horrible sensation of her body ripping open, only to look down and see no baby below her. Daddy bear kept pacing, more agitated now that they were so close.

She went in for another round of pushing. She told herself to be strong. She thought back to several weeks before when she’d come home to find Aris sitting with a gun pointed at her dad. The crew hadn’t backed down that day; they’d bombarded the place from all sides, taking out Aris and protecting her and her dad. She had to be strong; this was her family now and weakness was not their style.

“Hrrrrreeemmmmmgaaahhh!” This time she felt a form slid through her. She looked down. It was a bear cub. Zak ran over and began to lick its fur. It was so beautiful to see him caring for a baby, but she couldn’t enjoy it; the second baby was right behind the first.

Another big push brought out number two. This one came out screaming in a little human voice. Shaking, Joy reached down to pick up her child and saw immediately that it was a girl. The sight of her little daughter made her heart jump up to her throat.

She’d had no idea she could love someone so profoundly. The level of her devotion to her bear cub and daughter shocked her. She would kill for them if she had to; nothing bad would ever happen to these children, not as long as she or their father was alive.

Zak picked up their bear cub by the skin on its neck and brought it over to her. The little baby curled up next to her on the grass. Zak touched his big, wet nose to her forehead and she reached up to feel his face.

“Our little bear is a boy?” He moved his head no. “A girl?” A big nod this time. “Oh, Zak! We’ve had two beautiful girls. Oh my goodness. As soon as you’re back to human we’re going to name them, okay?” Another touch to the forehead let her know that he was happy with whatever she wanted.

She kissed her little human daughter and smiled down at her bear baby. This was her family. Zak went up to a high point on a boulder and let out a loud bellow to announce that his children had been born. A little ways off they heard the human cheers of the crew. Zak looked back at her and then ambled off into the woods. He would stay out there the rest of the day and return the next morning so that he could be in his original form again. She took a deep breath and closed her eyes.

A while later, Petunia came and joined her with a bottle of baby formula for her bear baby. She showed Joy how to nurse the little cub.

“Now, she’ll be hungry most of the time. And she may keep this form for a long time. Some changeling babies don’t learn how to shift until they’re one year old and that first change can be traumatizing. You’re little pink baby on the other hand could just wake up in bear form one morning. Shifters will keep you on your toes. But,” she added, tickling the little bear as she pulled on the bottle, “we’ll help with all of that. We’ll show you how to help them sleep outside and in, what foods are good for them, all that.”

“Thank you so much.” Joy fell back onto the ground, completely spent. “I don’t know what I would do without all of you. I could never raise these little hellians all alone.”

“And I wouldn’t want you to.” Petunia watched the human baby on Joy’s stomach let out a big, squeaky yawn. “She’s so beautiful. You know what you’re going to name her?”

“I’m waiting until Zak’s back. I’m sure he has some ideas.” She kissed her little daughter and shifted her over to one side so she could nurse. The baby went right for her nipple. Her little lips latched onto Joy and began sucking all the milk it could out of her breast.

“Oh, wow.” Joy’s eyes popped open at the feel of her milk flowing out of her so fast. “She’s starving.”

Petunia nodded. “Yeah, they’ll both be big eaters, I’m sorry to say. You’ll want to get them on formula. Otherwise, you’ll have to breastfeed constantly.”

Without looking Joy could feel the little bear teeth extending from her daughter’s human mouth. Maybe she would transition overnight. The clamp of her bite got to be too much and Petunia helped her transition the little one to her bottle before she tore Joy’s nipple off.

Joy held human baby and Petunia took the little bear baby. The poor thing was so sleepy all it could manage to do was curl up on her stomach. Her silky fur was deep brown and reflected the bright sunlight beautifully. Joy hoped Zak would hurry back. She didn’t want him to miss any of this.

After a day and a night in the woods, Joy was led back out with Petunia’s help. The crew came up to help carry the babies and sang an old song as they led her and her family back into the world.

And with the rising sun

We shall walk this world as one

Like my father and my mother

We will live beside each other

With strength and pride…

Joy showed her children to her father who held his human granddaughter proudly. “Oh, you’ve got a little pistol on your hands, here. And as to this other one,” he looked down at the bear baby who was chewing on his pant leg, “well, I just hope she’s smart.”

Steve had gotten the whole story after the crew had saved him. Joy was passed out during the conversation, but Zak told her he’d taken the news of their true state very well.

“I remember your father,” he’d said, pointing at Zak. “He was always wild, always making it impossible for me to teach my kids. One day he ran out of school and a few minutes later this big grizzly bear was seen walking across the school baseball field. Everyone else was shocked but I knew. I knew it was Chet, my class clown, playing the ultimate prank.”

Zak had pressed him with a million more questions about what his father had been like in school, but Steve refused to continue. “It doesn’t matter, boy. You’re the father now. I just hope you know what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

By the next evening, Zak had wandered back, naked and sweaty. They had his clothes waiting for him at the camp and everyone jeered at him and teased as he pulled them on in front of everyone.

“There’s the daddy! And there’s his favorite toy. Put that thing away!”

Laughing, he got himself dressed and went into his tent where his family was settling down for the night. He snuggled up to Joy and gave her a kiss, then took his human baby in his arms. Their little bear baby walked up to him with her tiny tail wagging behind her. She pulled herself up on his knee to better see her sister.

“Well,” Zak said, cradling one baby and petting the other, “what are we naming these two troublemakers?”

Joy snuggled into her sleeping bag and considered the two babies in front of her. “I was thinking Clementine for our little human,” she said, “and maybe Jasmine for her bear sister. What do you think?”

He looked down at his baby girl. “Clementine. Is that your name? Is it?” As he spoke, she reached up a tiny, shell-pink hand and he caught it and gave it a kiss. Her tiny fingers wrapped around his giant one and squeezed mightily.

“Okay, I think she likes it.”

He turned to the baby bear. “Jasmine. You like that name? You have to have it for the rest of your life.” She sniffed his face and jumped up and down on her front paws. He put a hand over her muzzle and let her gnaw on him for a moment. “Okay. Oh, ow!” He took his hand away and baby Jasmine was quick to put an innocent expression on her face. “Careful baby girl.”

“She’s her father’s daughter.” Joy put a hand on Zak’s leg. “So, you like their names?”

“I love them. I knew you would give our daughters the perfect names.” He leaned down to kiss her and she managed to raise herself up slightly to receive it.

“You look exhausted, babe. Let me get us a babysitter so you can sleep.”

He stepped out of the tent, Jasmine right behind him, and Joy tried to protest but even yelling out for him to wait a moment was far more than she could manage. Every single one of her muscles was exhausted and refused to move.

That night, she and Zak slept with their limbs entangled in a sleeping bag. Their babies slept with Petunia and Greg under the stars. In his sleep, Zak reached out for Joy’s face, turning her towards him. She looked at him while he slept; her wild, strange lover and now the father of her children. She couldn’t imagine a more perfect being existing anywhere in the world. That night, Joy slept soundly and deeply knowing that she was loved and not wanting for anything other than the life she had.

Summary: Joy wanted to believe her difficulties were behind her, but the day she saw her old high school boyfriend Zak pull up on a motorcycle she knew they had just begun. Back together after decades apart, the two pick up right where they left off as teenagers, but something is off about Zak. His motorcycle gang seems a little different, too, but she can’t be sure what exactly it is that sets them apart. Her father doesn’t know who she is half the time but, even when he isn’t sure if he’s talking to his daughter or his nurse, he always knows Zak is trouble. The rest of the town seems to agree with him and everyone she meets assures her she’s made the wrong choice. Joy tries to resist, but she’s drawn to his beautiful face and wild lifestyle over and over again.

After a beautiful romance with Zak, Joy’s ex-husband Aris closes in to let Zak know that he doesn’t like seeing his wife in the arms of another man. The two have a stand-off that ends with Aris in the hospital and Zak vanishing. Joy sees a bear running off into the woods and her ex beaten and bloody. Sure that Zak has fallen victim to a bear attack as well, she falls into a deep depression and pines for the man she loves.

Just as Zak returns, Joy’s body begins to change and she’s worried she may be pregnant with Zak’s baby. It’s time for him to tell her his secrets so that she can finally know; what is it that makes Zak so different?

Biker Bear’s Baby

we get another round down here, doll?” Harlan Simmons called out from the table where he sat with his fellow bikers.

“Sure. On the way,” she called back, turning to grab a tray and start pouring their drinks. It was a typical Saturday night in As the Crow Flies, a dive bar she had just started working in for the summer. The Crow, as the locals called it, was usually full of bikers and truckers that called her pet names and touched her inappropriately. It wasn’t exactly her dream job, but it would net her some extra cash over the summer before she returned to college in the fall.

“Thanks, cutie,” Harlan told her as she balanced her tray on the table and passed out the drinks.

Her large breasts brushed the arm of one of the bikers sitting by Harlan and he smiled at her, but said nothing. She was used to it. Different men reacted differently to her due to her size. She wasn’t slender, athletic, like many of the girls that worked here. Unlike their more stickish figures, she had curves that flowed wickedly in a true hourglass fashion. She was more Anna Nicole Smith than Kate Moss, not everyone’s cup of tea. She could never be sure if the smiles like his were interest or a nonverbal declination. It didn’t really matter much either way to her.

In her high school years, she had been sensitive about her size, but college had opened up a new world to her. College guys seemed to take much more interest in her than high school boys ever had. Of course, she had quickly learned that many of them were more interested in a physical relationship than anything more meaningful. It had led to a general disinterest in dating after a couple of years. Now, entering her junior year, she was fairly impervious to the advances of the opposite sex. Her disdain was only accented by Harlan’s usual slap on her backside as she walked away.

“Harlan, cool it,” she heard one of the guys tell him. It was the same one she had inadvertently brushed against as she had served their drinks.

“What? You can’t just ignore an ass like that, man,” Harlan replied with a laugh.

“If she had wanted your hands on her ass, she would have asked you to put them there. Did she see her flirting with you? No. She is just doing her job and has to put up with jerks like you touching her. Keep your hands to yourself when you are out with me,” the other man growled at him.

“Alright, man. Fine,” Harlan said sullenly.

“Glad we got that straight,” the other man replied, taking a drink of his beer.

Dixie pretended she hadn’t overheard, continuing her walk toward the bar as if nothing had happened. The next several rounds of beer served during her shift went by without further manhandling, at least not from that table. She was vaguely aware of the reputation of the men that sat there, members of a local motorcycle gang known as the Thunder Bears. She assumed it was a nod to the loud sound of their Harleys and the overabundance of bears in this neck of the woods.

“Dixie?” a man said from behind her, disrupting her thoughts as she cleaned the bar back in preparation to leave for the night. She turned around to find herself looking at the man who had called Harlan out for touching her inappropriately.

“What can I get for you? Another beer?” she asked.

“No. I’m good. I just need to take care of our tab and we’re going to get going,” he replied.

“Okay. Let me get that for you,” she replied, taking in his deep brown eyes and dark lashes for what was probably a few seconds too long.

It had been hard to see him well in the dimly lit corner where he and his guys had been sitting, but standing here by the bar shed new light on him. He was tall and muscular, easily six four. She guessed he was in his late twenties, no more than seven or eight years older than her. His jet black hair hung in loose curls to his shoulders. A chiseled jawline set off high cheekbones and full lips. He was insanely attractive and rugged looking.

“Thanks,” he replied, pulling some cash from his pocket and waiting for her to bring him a total. She could see his friends already filing out of the bar behind him.

“Here you go,” she said, laying the check down in front of him and waiting while he shelled out several hundreds to cover their bar tab.

“That should do it,” he told her with a smile.

“I’ll get your change,” she replied, noting the large amount of overage.

“No. The rest is yours,” he replied.

“I appreciate it, but that is too much,” she replied, unsure of accepting an almost eighty dollar tip from the likes of him.

“Consider it an apology for Harlan’s poor behavior, not just for tonight, but for whatever other nights he has been a jackass,” he told her.

“That is not necessary. I’m used to it,” she replied.

“You shouldn’t be. Just because you work in a bar doesn’t make you the property of a bunch of miscreants. If you have any trouble from anyone here, you just let me know. The name is Luke Roberts,” he said.

Dixie knew the name. He wasn’t just a member of the Thunder Bears, he was the leader, and well known in the community as the best mechanic for miles. She had heard of him, but they had never met before now. If his reputation was true, he was a real badass. He might be pretty, but definitely someone she should steer clear of if even half of what she heard was true.

“I really appreciate it, but still, it is too much. Let me get you some change,” she repeated.

“How about you keep it and give me your number instead,” he replied.

“I rather give you your change,” she replied with a polite smile, feeling uncomfortable with the way his eyes drew her in and made her want to do unmentionable things with him.

“Playing hard to get. Okay. Just know that I don’t give up that easily,” he replied, walking out of the bar.

“Wait. Your change . . . .” she called after him, but he only laughed and tossed up a hand in a backwards wave as he disappeared out the door. She heard the roar of motorcycles cranking up as she made change and tucked it in her tip stash. Finishing her work cleaning up the bar, she cashed out and left work, digging in her purse for her keys.

“I knew you would come out eventually,” a voice said as she stepped out the front door and began walking toward her car. She jumped, startled, as she found herself looking up at Luke Roberts towering over her. Looking around, she saw that the parking lot was empty except for the two of them. Her heart beat wildly in her chest as she stood facing him in the near darkness outside the bar.

“What do you want?” she asked, fiddling with the keys in her hand so that several of them protruded from between her fingers in case she needed to defend herself with what she had at hand.

“You aren’t going to have to stab me with your car keys,” he laughed.

“That’s what all the stalkers say,” she said, trying to make light of it, despite her continued nervousness.

“Listen, we’re going for a ride down Bayou Bluffs tomorrow. How would you like to ride with me?” he asked.

“Me? On a motorcycle? I don’t think so,” she replied.

“Come on. I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” he said.

“I appreciate the offer, but I really just don’t know you that well,” she replied.

“Isn’t that the whole idea behind going out somewhere with someone? Getting to know them?” he asked.

“I hardly think I’m going to be able to get to know you roaring down some winding highway on the back of your bike,” she replied.

“Well, you’ve got me there. It is a bit difficult to carry on a conversation. I tell you what. How about I meet you at Mabel’s Diner for a nice breakfast for starters. We can talk a bit, get to know one another and then, if you feel comfortable with it, you can ride with me down to the bluffs. The boys are going to be grilling up some food and tossing back a few beers, maybe kick up a bonfire later. You’ll have fun,” he said.

“Okay. I will agree to breakfast and we’ll see how that goes first,” she replied.

“Good enough. You drive a hard bargain, Dixie Andrews,” he replied.

“I don’t recall giving you my last name,” she quizzically said.

“You didn’t have to,” he replied with a wink before slipping a black half helmet on his head. “I’ll see you in the morning, say about seven?”

“I’ll see you at seven,” she replied.

“You bet that sweet ass of yours you will,” he replied.

Dixie watched as he cranked his bike and roared out of the parking lot. He was a striking figure, even more foreboding in the near darkness of the parking lot where the little lighting that existed cast his shadow across her shorter frame. She wasn’t sure why she had agreed to go to breakfast with him. He and his sort were the last thing she needed in her life. She was the only girl in her family to make it to college rather than getting knocked up by some local nobody and she wasn’t about to give it up for a small town mentality now.

Heading home, she still found herself thinking about him. His good looks and chiseled physique were hard to resist. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, though she would be the first to admit her experience with men was limited. She was a smart girl who knew how to take care of herself. Why couldn’t she have a little fun with a local while she was home for the summer? No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than so did the answer. He was bad news and somehow, she knew that it would end with more chaos than fun.

“Good morning, gorgeous,” he said as she entered the diner the next morning.

“Good morning,” she replied in a much cooler tone. “I’m sorry, but I just came by to tell you I couldn’t have breakfast with you. I would have called, but I didn’t have your number.”

“So, you drove all the way across town from your mama’s house on Eldorado Parrish Lane to tell me you won’t eat with me?” he said with a half grin.

“Pretty much. I didn’t want to be rude and just not show up,” she replied, not really surprised that a man with his contacts knew where she lived.

“I believe they have a phone here at the diner,” he told her, an eyebrow raised in her direction.

Dixie blushed a crimson red color. It seemed that the fact that she could have called the diner and had a message given to him rather than coming down here didn’t escape him at all. He might just be some sort of biker gang leader, but he was a smart one. She tried to think of a reason she chose to come down here instead of calling and finally stammered out an explanation.

“I had to come into town to pick up something for my mother, so I thought I would just stop by,” she told him.

“Your mother is in Mississippi with her sister. I believe she is attending an old friend’s funeral,” he said.

“What? How do you know that?” she replied, looking at him with large eyes. Now, she was a bit surprised and a little frightened.

“I know everything. Just like I know you are here because you want to eat breakfast with me. You are just scared that you might actually like someone like me,” he replied.

“That is ridiculous,” she replied, trying unsuccessfully to will her feet to turn and walk out of here to prove her point.

“Then why are you still here? Just have a seat and eat breakfast with me, Dixie. I won’t bite you . . . right now,” he said with a smile. His teeth were nearly perfect, not at all what you would expect from some big biker thug. Then again, when you really looked at him, he didn’t look much the part other than the jacket and riding boots. Put Luke Roberts in a suit and he could pass for any professional you could name.

Dixie didn’t bother to argue. Instead, she sat down at his table and looked at him. The waitress came over and took her order before returning behind the counter to bark orders at a cook that looked like he had been out all night and rather be anywhere else but here cooking on a flat top diner grill. Luke never took his eyes off of her as she waited for her orange juice to arrive. She shifted in her seat a little, beginning to feel uncomfortable. The arrival of her drink was a welcome distraction.

“So, Dixie Andrews, tell me what it is you are studying in college,” he asked.

“Mechanical Design,” she replied.

“Wow, very impressive. You are just the sort of girl I need to know,” he replied.

“How’s that?” she asked, momentarily turning to thank the waitress as she brought their food. The way the young lady looked at Luke didn’t go unnoticed by her, but he seemed completely oblivious. No doubt he was used to women looking at him appreciatively. Dixie found herself wondering how many of them he had taken home with him.

“Well, I own a mechanical shop here locally and I have a few idea that I’ve been toying with but some issues with working out the designs. It might be something you could help me out with, if you were so inclined,” he said.

“Why would I do that?” she asked.

“Because you find me interesting and want to spend more time with me in close quarters,” he responded bluntly.

“Very sure of yourself, aren’t you?” she said a bit sarcastically.

“Usually, I am. You are a little hard on a man’s ego, though,” he replied.

“I don’t mean to be,” she told him. “It isn’t about you. You seem like a pretty decent guy, really. I’m just not interested in getting into a relationship when I’m going to be returning to school in a couple of months.”

“I guess I will just have to settle for a couple of months of mind blowing sex, then,” he told her, his eyes locked on hers. The intensity of them was almost too much. Not only did she find herself unable to look away, she felt herself becoming highly aroused merely by his presence.

“How about we just stick with breakfast for now?” she replied, having a hard time breathing evenly while speaking.

“That will be fine, at least until breakfast has ended,” he replied.

Their conversation settled into the innovations he was trying to work out in his garage and her studies. Somehow, their two different worlds seemed to find a lot of common ground in that they knew the same people and places. They laughed about some of the local drama and recalled their childhoods growing up here in the bayou. By the time breakfast was over, Dixie found that she was drawn to him in a way that she couldn’t deny.

“So, how about a ride down to Bayou Bluffs?” he asked as he took care of the check, still barely registering the rather attractive waitress that was ogling him.

“You talked me into it,” she replied. “Just let me step out to my car a moment.”

“Perfect. I’ll meet you out there in just a few minutes,” he told her. “I need to hit the head and make a couple of quick phone calls before we take off.”

Dixie nodded and made her way to the car. Dropping her sandals in the trunk, she slipped on the socks and boots she kept there for hiking at the state park nearby before dropping her entire purse into the empty backpack that also resided there. She grabbed an elastic band from the front of the car and twisted her long hair into a low ponytail and dabbed on some lip balm to combat the wind that would hit her on the back of the bike.

“You’re pretty prepared for a girl who had no intention of riding with me today,” Luke said with a smirk as he approached the back of her car.

“Don’t flatter yourself Luke Roberts. I always have this stuff for when I decide to stop by the park and go for a hike,” she told him.

“A likely story,” he teased. “The sooner you admit you want me, the sooner we can get to that whole unbridled passion I mentioned earlier.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?” she replied, blowing him off as she closed the trunk of her car. While she might have appeared calm and collected, her heart beat wildly and her nerves tingled along every extremity.

“Get on,” he replied, straddling his bike and waiting for her to get on behind him. The way he said it was extremely suggestive, but she pretended she didn’t notice. Instead, putting on the helmet he held out toward her and waiting while he fastened the straps for her. Once she was helmeted up, she climbed on the bike behind him and sat with her hands resting on her legs.

“Alright. I’m ready,” she said.

“I know you don’t think you can ride like that,” he laughed, reaching back for her hands and wrapped them around his waist. “Hold on tight. I wouldn’t want you falling off.”

Dixie did as she was told, feeling a little more unsettled between being wrapped so closely around him and on this death machine of his. The loud roar of the chrome pipes was a little frightening, to say the least. How in the world had she let herself get talked into this insanity? Her heart pounded loudly as Luke pulled away from the curb and began making his way down the side street that led away from the restaurant. She held on to him for dear life as they turned onto the main highway and picked up speed.

Her fear slowly faded into contentment as she watched the passing trees and lakes scattered on either side of the highway. The wind blowing across her body felt oddly liberating. She could see why people enjoyed riding so much, something that she had never understood before. A moment later, she became aware of Luke’s hand on hers. He had taken it off the handle long enough to squeeze her on as if to silently ask if she was okay. She returned the favor in order to let him know that she was doing fine. The truth was that she felt much more than okay. She had to admit that this day was turning out far better than she had anticipated. She found the feeling of Luke’s boy pressed against hers exhilarating.

Before she knew it they had been riding for hours and she was starving, her breakfast long worn off. Luke must have been feeling the same way as he pulled into a combination diner and gas station a few minutes later. Parking at the pumps, he motioned for her to step off. He stepped off behind her, putting the kickstand out and removing his helmet. She watched as his rough hands tussled his thick hair before smiling down at her.

“Surviving so far?” he asked.

“Yes, so far,” she replied. She wasn’t ready to commit to telling him she was actually enjoying the ride.

“There is a little place down by the river I want to eat dinner, but I thought we could grab a little snack here to hold us over. I just need to fill up the tank while we are stopped. If you want to grab us a table in the diner, I’ll take care of the bike and be right behind you,” he said, pulling the nozzle out of the pump.

“You aren’t planning on dumping me in the middle of nowhere, are you?” she joked.

“Depends on how the snack goes,” he said with a wink. Dixie laughed and headed into the diner to find them a table. By the time Luke joined her, she had ordered them a sampler plate and a couple of waters.

“I didn’t know what you like, so I just ordered one of the mixed appetizers,” she told him.

“Sounds perfect. Should be enough to take the edge off while we finish the trip,” he said.

They sat enjoying their food over a conversation about Luke’s innovations he was working on in his shop. Before Dixie knew it, she was agreeing to come to the shop on her day off the following week so that she could look at what he was doing and see what she could do to help him work out some of the kinks. It was hard to believe how quickly she was warming up the him, but she didn’t seem to be able to stop herself. He had a certain animalistic charm to him that spoke to her basic instincts in all the right ways.

“Alright, we best get back on the road,” he told her once they had finished.

“Alright,” she replied. The two of them headed back out to where he had moved the bike after his fill up and climbed back on. This time, she didn’t hesitate to wrap her arms tightly around him before he took off down the highway toward their destination.

“Here we are,” Luke told her hours later as he pulled into the parking lot of what looked a bit like a dive to her. The rustic posts that surrounded an outer deck looked like they had been harvested off some old, rotten ship. Everything looked dank and dusty from out here. He helped her from the bike and hung their helmets on the side.

“Aren’t you worried that someone will take those?” she asked. It didn’t seem like a particularly good spot to leave anything.

“Not if they know what is good for them,” he laughed. Dixie could only imagine what Luke Roberts would do to someone that had the audacity to steal from him. They walked into the dockside place, named unimaginatively, “The Wharf”. She was surprised to find that it was much cleaner and more modern inside, though still a fairly simple home-style type restaurant. The server greeted Luke by name, looking appreciatively over the muscles that rippled beneath his leather riding jacket before casting a look of disdain in Dixie’s direction.

“Your usual table?” she asked him.

“If it is available,” he replied. Moments later, they were settled into a couple of beers and a large basket of fried oysters. It wasn’t exactly haute cuisine, but it was apparent that it was a delicacy at this locale and Luke was the resident food critic.

“How is everything, Luke?” an elderly man asked as he approached the table.

“My compliments to the chef,” Luke replied with a nod. The old man tipped his head toward him and moved on to another table. Luke turned his attention back toward her. “That’s Arnie Compton, his family has owned this place for as long as I can remember.

“It’s very cozy,” she replied, finding that she actually meant it. This place actually did have a sort of comforting feel to it. You could come in here and just relax. She could get used to it. They finished their meal over chatter about how he came to own a mechanic shop and how she came to pursue mechanical design. They had covered a lot of territory as far as sharing their stories during the course of the day and the sparks between them glowed the deep red of desire that was common between those that found a passion for one another so quickly.

“Let’s get out of here,” he offered, leaving cash on the table and slipping free of the booth in which they sat. She nodded and stood up, once again marveling at his size compared to her own. Though she was not a thin girl, Luke towered over her and was broad and muscular. He even made her feel petite. A tingle ran through her as she started in the direction of the bike, thinking about being curled up against him again as they rode again.

“What are you doing?” she asked, suddenly aware that he was walking past the bike.

“I thought we were going for a stroll along the river?” he said with a slow smile. The restaurant was set up on a cliff overlooking the water. No way could they get down to it from up here.

“Is there a lift or something?” she asked, confused.

“A lift? To the river? This isn’t snow skiing, babe,” he replied. Whether she was thrilled about being referred to by such a sweet term of endearment or just liked the way his mouth moved when he said the words was unclear, but she was quite certain she would follow him down the steepest slope in that moment. Of course, she had no idea that climbing down a rock face was exactly what they would be doing and in the dark, to boot.

“Are we going to be able to get back up this thing?” she said, looking back up the steep incline after they had dropped onto the small bank area below.

“I don’t know. I guess if we can’t, we’ll just have to sleep together on the river bank,” he replied with his sly smile. He was looking up at the rock facing as if he, too, were concerned, but she suspected that he had done this many times over.

“I guess so,” she replied, refusing to let him get anything over on her. He reached for her hand and led her down the bank, dimly lit with the lights that spilled over from the nearby restaurant parking and the houses built along the cliffs overhead.

“Did you ever imagine that you’d be spending your evening with a backwards biker when you met me last night at work?” he asked.

“Not in a million years,” she replied, not bothering to correct his self-assessment.

They walked quietly for a while, just holding hands and enjoying the night air along the water. A large fish jumped nearby, causing Dixie to startle a bit and stop in her tracks. Luke laughed and pulled her toward him. “It’s just a fish, babe.”

His own words were cut off by his mouth on hers, dancing a slow tango to a tune unique to the two of them as they clung to each other beneath the stars. The rest of the world faded away while she was in his arms. She was quite content with the thought that it might never return. As long as she was lost in him like this, there was nothing else she needed. Everything about him felt so right. If there was such a thing as love at first sight, then this was it.

“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered against her ear as he pulled away from the kiss and held her closely to his chest. She cooed against him, allowing herself to just enjoy the moment while it lasted. They stood there for what seemed like only moments, though it was probably much longer. This all felt so right and yet, she was scared out of her mind. Finally mustering the gumption to break away, she pulled back and looked up at him.

“I need to go home now,” she said, willing her voice not to falter.

“Are you sure?” he asked, brushing some loose hairs caught by the wind away from her face.

“Yes, I’m sure,” she replied.

“I guess all good things have to come to an end,” he said quietly, leading her around a corner where she found a long wooden ramp that led back up to the restaurant.

“You knew this was here and you made me climb down those rocks?” she blurted out as they made their way up the sloped wooden dock.

“I’m sorry. The view from the rocks was better,” he told her.

“How could you tell? We were looking down, not up toward the sky,” she replied.

“You were looking down. I was looking up at you climbing down the rocks,” he replied with a cocky grin.

“You are awful!” she replied, laughing as they topped the path and made their way back to the bike.

“I know. What can I say?” he laughed, helping her into her helmet and onto the bike. The cool night air felt even more amazing than the warm summer day had on their way up. Dixie couldn’t imagine feeling more content than she did in the time it took to arrive there. Pulling into a strange driveway, however, shattered every bit of peace she had claimed on the ride home.

“What are we doing here?” she asked, thinking it must be his house and wondering how he could be so presumptuous as to assume she’d just come home with him.

“Don’t panic. I just need to grab something and I’ll be right back. It’ll give you a chance to stretch your legs,” he replied.

“Actually, do you mind if I use your bathroom for a moment?” she asked as he helped her out of her helmet again. She knew she should probably just stay outside, but she really did have to go and the restaurant would be closed by the time they got back there.

“Of course you can. It’s right down there on the right,” he told her, pointing down a hallway on one side of the house. He turned and walked into another room on the other side, leaving her to find her way.

It was apparent to her that whatever this chemistry was between them was only going to get stronger the moment they stepped inside. There was a good chance that she might not be able to say no to this man and sleeping with someone on the first date was something she had never done. A small voice inside her head responded to her thoughts, asking if she really minded so much if she lost control with him. Making her way back to the living room, she waited for him to return. He did a few minutes later with a small leather case in one hand.

“Ready to go?” he asked. Dixie looked at him, how gorgeous he was standing in his dimly lit living room. His dark hair and eyes were calling to her in a way she could explain.

Then, it was if the flood gates opened and every bit of what she was feeling, all the longing, the hunger, the passion . . . it all spilled forth and she refused to try to hold it back. She moved in closer to him and began nibbling at his neck softly. He feigned being non-responsive but quickly gave it up as her hands began to roam across his leather clad arms and her kisses grew more urgent. Sliding onto his lap, she kissed him hungrily, aching to have him inside of her. Something that sounded oddly like a growl escaped his lips.

“What are you doing?” he whispered. “What makes you think I’m this kind of guy?”

“If you aren’t, I think I am getting to you,” she whispered in his ear.

“Nope. I’m a rock,” he replied.

“Perhaps you are as hard as a rock,” she replied provocatively, sliding her hand across the rapidly rising bulge in his jeans.

“You are a very bad girl,” he told her.

“Guilty as charged,” she responded playfully, massaging him through the course denim that covered his zipper.

“Well, I guess we are just going to have to cart you off for your crimes of passion then,” he told her, suddenly pulling her upward with his strong arms and tossing her over his shoulder. He walked to the bedroom with her, as she giggled loudly.

“Now, let’s just see who is in charge here,” he told her, pinning her down across the bed and kissing her. His body hovered over her own, taking his time with her. Their passion got the best of them as they tugged at each other’s clothes, eager to feel skin against skin. It had been an eventful day and tomorrow looked even brighter as they lost themselves in each other’s arms.

Dixie’s body arched gently forward as Luke expertly found his way to her clit with a talented tongue. He knew exactly what to do to bring her to a series of orgasms like she had not experienced for quite some time. She moaned loudly as he licked and tickled her most private places, leaving her squirming and moaning beneath him in complete ecstasy. His abilities far exceeded even what she could have imagined. He was like an animal with a treat as he lapped furiously at her dripping pussy, eagerly teasing her until she was squirting wildly into his hungry mouth.

Having satisfied her needs for the moment, he began to slowly drag his magnificent lips across her bare skin, traveling her body with feather light butterflies of lust. By the time he had completed his circuit and made his way back up to her lips, she was ready for more and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Their moans were almost simultaneous as he entered her, pushing his erection deep inside of her, stretching her until she felt full. Full of him. Full of lust. Full of contentment. It was beautiful being with him and she hoped it would never end.

They made love slowly as the moon rose outside, shining through the window of the otherwise dimly lit room. There was no doubt that she had made the right choice as he traveled endless highways along the curves of her body, taking his time with every nuance of her flesh. Her hips rose to meet his again and again, a perfectly time waltz between two new lovers. This could very well be her destiny if she allowed it. It was too soon to think in those terms, she knew, but she had never experienced chemistry like this with anyone. Her moans filled the room as he brought her to yet another intense orgasm and then followed her into bliss with his own.

Afterwards, they lay there in the darkness, just listening to one another breathe. Dixie was sure that this was just about as close to heaven as a girl could ever hope to be. She reached for him, laying her head on his shoulder as she fell asleep in his arms. Whatever tomorrow might bring, it would be nothing she could not handle with this man by her side. Once again, the world outside of him faded away and she was content to just let it all wash away.

She awoke the next morning to find herself alone in the bed. It was just before twilight and, for a moment, she wasn’t sure where she was. Her body felt stiff all over, like she had been ravaged by a wild beast. A smile crossed her lips as she remembered the way he had awoken her after their first encounter with a repeat performance that had made the first one look tame. He had fucked her with such force that it had felt like he might tear her apart and she had loved every moment of it. His skin felt like he was on fire as he sank into her again and again, scratching her skin with his nails and biting her back as he plunged deep inside of her.

“You’re awake,” he said from the doorway.

“I am,” she replied, looking at him sheepishly. She pulled the sheet up over her body and smiled at him, noting the scratch across her breast as she did so.

“Don’t cover up. I love looking at you,” he replied.

Dixie smiled, letting the sheet drop. Her nipples stood erect in the cool air conditioned bedroom as she tried not to be self-conscious while he studied her intently.

“I’ve got to get to the shop. Do you want to stay here or should I take you back to your car?” he said suddenly.

“I have to go to work later, so my car would be good,” she replied, getting out of bed and beginning to get dressed. He stood watching her with a smile. Finally walking over and kissing her in a way that just made her want to get back into bed.

“I’ll be in later for a drink. Maybe we can find a quiet place to make your break a little more exciting,” he told her.

“You’re an animal,” she said.

“Oh, you have no idea,” he told her, slapping her playfully on the backside as she bent to retrieve her boots from the floor by the bed. She slipped them on and then followed him out to the bike. Fifteen minutes later, they were pulling into the restaurant where she had left her car. He kissed her, squeezing one of her breasts lightly as he leaned in.

“Get out of here before we get arrested for public indecency and lewd behavior out here in the parking lot,” she replied.

“It would be completely worth it. I’ll see you tonight,” he told her, getting back on his bike.

She watched him drive off before slipping behind the wheel of her car and heading home to shower and change for work. All she could think about beneath the steam of the shower is how he had felt. Her fingers drifted lightly over the scratches he had left behind and she wondered how he had managed them. His nails had seemed pretty clean cut when they were eating dinner and she had noted them, but she had numerous scratches nonetheless. Shrugging it off, she finished dressing and left for work. The bar wouldn’t open until two, but they had inventory this morning before the usual clean up and restocking they did before opening.

Weeks went by during which she and Luke spent every possible moment together. There was no doubt that she was head over heels for him, though there seemed to be a bit of problem with some of his club members, namely Harlan Simmons. Dixie wasn’t sure if she had rubbed him the wrong way due to how Luke had shut him down about his behavior toward her or if it was a personal issue between him and Luke, but they always seemed to be butting heads.

“What is she doing here?” Harlan asked one day when Dixie appeared at the garage while several of the members were hanging out there and discussing club business.

“Dixie is always welcome here,” Luke replied coolly.

“I don’t recall issuing her a patch,” Harlan replied. “This is a members only gathering.”

“I’m sorry, Luke. I didn’t realize I was interrupting anything. I will come back later when you aren’t busy,” Dixie told him, not wanting to cause trouble between him.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Harlan is just being an asshole. Just wait for me in my office. We’re almost done here anyway,” Luke told her, never taking his eyes off of Harlan.

Dixie nodded and walked to the front of the garage. She could hear him and Harlan exchanging angry words, but couldn’t make our exactly what they were saying. It was bad enough that she had to come here to have the conversation with him that she had planned. No doubt it wasn’t going to be received well if he was already in a bad mood. She sat nervously waiting on him.

“What’s wrong?” he said immediately when he came in a short time later.

“How do you know something is wrong?” she asked, surprised he could pick up on it so quickly.

“I have a good sense for these things. I can smell fear and you are covered in it,” he said.

“I’m pregnant,” she blurted out.

His physical reaction was much the same as if she had slapped him. She sat waiting for him to say something. She had known for a week, but had been trying to accept it herself before coming to him. Instead, she had made excuses not to see him while she sorted it out in her head. This had not been a part of her plan and she knew it changed everything with her life, with school, and with him.

“How far along are you?” he asked.

“It’s yours if that is what you are trying to figure out,” she snarled back, upset that he might even think otherwise.

“No, Dixie. I know it is mine. How far along?” he asked again.

“No more than a few weeks,” she replied. “I took two tests and both were positive. I have an appointment with the doctor in the morning to confirm.”

“No. I’ll make you an appointment elsewhere. You can’t see a regular doctor,” he replied.

“What? Of course I can see a regular doctor. Wait, are you telling me you want me to take care of it? You don’t want anyone to know that you made me end the pregnancy?” she suddenly shrieked.

“I am not telling you that. I am telling you that you need a very special doctor and that I need for you to go to who I tell you to see,” he said firmly.

“You aren’t making any sense. Why?” she asked.

“Dixie, listen to me. I can’t explain to you right now, but I will tonight. Just know that I love you and that I want this baby. I want our baby. Do you?” he asked.

“Of course I do,” she told him, knowing that she meant it now that she was saying the words out loud. It didn’t matter how it changed things for her to be pregnant. She wanted this baby more than anything.

“Then, we need to sit down and talk about some things. Let me get a couple of things finished up here at the garage and then I’ll come get you. We’ll go to the house where we can be alone and talk,” he said.

“You are scaring me,” Dixie told him.

“I know I am, but it will be okay. I promise,” he told her.

“Okay. Just call me when you are on your way over,” she told him.

“Dixie?” he called after her as she started to leave.

“Yes?” she said, stopping to look back at him.

“I love you. I love you and I love our baby,” he said

“I love you, too,” she replied before leaving the garage.

Harlan stood just outside the garage opening, looking her up and down in his usual lewd way. There was a smirk on his face that made her just want to walk over and slap him, but she knew that would only cause more trouble between him and Luke. The last thing she needed to do was stir crap between them. Instead, she walked quietly to her car, avoiding any further eye contact with him. She saw him go into the garage after she left and wondered what he was up to.

“I’m on my way to get you,” Luke told her on the phone less than an hour later. “I need you to pack some things and plan on staying at my house for a while.”

“What? Why? I’ll be fine here at home,” she replied.

“No, you won’t. Just please do as I ask and I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes,” he told her, hanging up before she could protest further.

“Luke, what is going on?” she asked when he came to the door.

“Let’s get your things in the car. I need you to follow me to my house, Dixie. Don’t stop for anyone or anything,” he told her.

“What is going on, Luke?” she asked again, more frightened than ever.

“I need you to trust me,” he said. “Can you just trust me until I get you home?”

“Okay, Luke,” she replied quietly. They packed her things into her car and she followed him to his house, parking around back as he instructed her to do. Things were getting really weird and she wasn’t sure that she still felt so good about her condition under these circumstances. What had happened that was making him act this way.

“Come outside with me,” he told her once they had her things inside. “I need to show you something.”

Dixie followed him out, noting how bright it was despite the lack of lighting around his house. Luke lived on a side road with no other houses. It was completely secluded, so there was no lighting from other houses either. Instead, the large full moon overhead cast shadows across the yard. She looked up at it and then back down at Luke.

“I’m going to show you something. I could tell you, but you wouldn’t believe me or understand, so I am just going to show you. Don’t be frightened. I have complete control over it,” he said.

“What are you talking about, Luke?” she said, but before she even finished saying the words, she saw something happening.

It was if he was getting taller and his muscles seemed to expand, ripping open his clothes until they were merely threads. His skin was rapidly covering with dark brown fur and his face was contorting, forming a snout. Large jagged teeth flashed in the moonlight as he let out a loud growl and fell down onto all fours. Dixie stood there in disbelief. Her heart hammered against her chest and she took a step back. She watched as the huge bear took a step toward her and then everything went black.

“Dixie? Dixie? Are you okay?” she heard Luke’s voice saying to her. She came too lying in his bed. It must have been a dreamed. She struggled to recount the time leading up to this moment. There didn’t seem to be any missing pieces where she might have gone from being in the backyard to being in bed, asleep and having weird dreams about the man she loved shifting into some sort of bear. Still, that had to be the answer. Things like that didn’t happen. They didn’t exist.

“I dreamed you were a bear,” she replied with a smile.

“It wasn’t a dream, Dixie. It was real. You passed out and I carried you in here to lay down,” he said.

“No. That is impossible,” she replied.

“It isn’t impossible. I was born this way, as my father was before me and my grandfather before that. Our child will be one, as well. There will be anomalies on your ultrasound. That is why I need for you to go to a specific doctor,” he replied.

Dixie’s eyes grew wide. Her hands shot down to her stomach, clutching it as if she expected whatever she was carrying to claw its way out right this moment. She was suddenly more frightened than she was a short time ago watching Luke turn into some sort of were bear. Knowing she had one inside of her was well more than a bit more than she had bargained for in this whole thing.

“It’s okay. You won’t be hurt by the baby, Dixie. He will develop like a normal child and he will appear to be a normal child. Not even he will know any different until he begins to shift in his teens. I will have prepared him for that well before it happens to him. He’ll need to know how to cope, how to conceal it and how to control it. The only thing that will need to be addressed is any doctor’s visits. He can’t go to normal doctors and he can’t go to normal hospitals,” he told her.

“What if something more than a scrape happens to him?” she said.

“Most anything that happens to him will heal rapidly on its own. Anything beyond that will be taken care of by the club physician,” he said.

“The bike club? All were bears?” she said, suddenly understanding a lot more about the close bond between most of them and the animosity from the second in command toward Luke.

“Yes, all of them. There are many of us here and we’ve coexisted peacefully for centuries,” he said.

“Centuries?” she repeated. “How old are you?”

“I am not immortal, Dixie. I will live for several centuries, but I was born here just like you were and am very young compared to some of the others,” he said. “It is the reason I am having issues with Harlan. He is much older and feels he should be the leader.”

“Why isn’t he?” she asked.

“Because it was decided long ago who would be leader. Each generation, a new boy is born to the leader of the pack and that boy replaces his father when the time comes. I replaced my father and our son will replace me one day,” he said.

“That is why Harlan is angry? Doesn’t he know that he can’t ever be leader and it is useless to cause problems because of it,” she said.

“Listen closely to me, Dixie. I have to keep you here, out of sight. Harlan is dangerous. I know he has intentions of trying to take me down so that he can take over as leader. If I am out of the way, it falls to a vote and that is usually who is considered to be the strongest of the pack. The one that took down the previous leader is the most likely successor,” he said.

“You mean he would try to kill you? Oh my God, Luke. What about me? Why do I have to hide?” she asked, still not completely grasping the situation.

“Because if Harlan kills me, our child becomes next in line. An elder would be appointed by the council to hold his place and teach him what he needs to know until such time as he can step into my shoes. Do you understand what I am saying?” he said.

“Harlan would have to kill all of us,” she replied.

“I’m sorry, Dixie. I had no intention of this happening anytime soon. I have some other ways of dealing with Harlan that I was working on, but things have escalated and I’m afraid that if he finds out about the baby, it will set him off completely. I can’t risk him harming you,” he replied.

Dixie sat crying on the bed. This was too much, way too much. How had she gotten herself into this mess? She had tried so hard to do better than her sisters and had only landed in more of a bad situation than any of them could have ever gotten themselves into. Luke held her close, trying to sooth her, but she couldn’t seem to get a grip on herself. A knock on the door disrupted them.

“I’ll be right back,” Luke told her, stepping out of the bedroom and closing the door.

She heard the front door swing open and angry voices coming from the living room. It was Harlan, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Creeping out of the bed, she put her ear against the door so that she could hear better.

“How long did you think you could hide that you knocked up your little college girl?” she heard Harlan saying.

“Who told you a tale like that, Harlan?” Luke asked.

“I could smell the hormonal stink on her when she left the garage earlier. Seems I’ve acquired a few skills you haven’t. Only more reason for me to be leader,” Harlan said.

“You aren’t fit to be leader. You have too many anger issues and a nasty streak. Have you forgotten what you did to those guys down at the river house last year? You almost got us all hunted down and killed for that. The council was furious,” Luke told him.

Dixie had some vague memory of an incident at the river while she was away last fall. It was chalked up to wild animals but no one was sure what kind or why they had attacked the men while they slept. Hunters had spent weeks in the woods looking for anything rabid or large, bringing in hundreds of large game trophies as a part of their excused killing of normally protected animals.

“They had it coming, man. They ripped me off in that card game,” Harlan spat back at him.

“I don’t think that should have been a death sentence.” Then, “Don’t do that, Harlan. I’m warning you,” Dixie heard Luke say.

She heard the low growl, the same one she had heard earlier when Luke had changed. It grew louder and was joined by a second. Panic set in as she realized they were changing. Harlan was challenging him, here and now. This was really happening. Right now, in the middle of his living room. The sound of things breaking and large bodies colliding shook the house. Dixie began looking around for something, anything to protect herself and their baby if she had to.

The terrifying noises coming from the living room sent her scurrying to the closet. She cowered there listening to the fight that was happening in the next room. She had never been near two wild animals fighting, much less something like this. Her heart felt like it was going to leap out of her chest and tears fell down her face as it seemed to go on endlessly. Finally, there was the horrible sound of an animal in pain. Everything stopped for a moment except for that sound.

Dixie reached for the wall beside her to steady herself and prepare to run if needed. Her hands landed squarely on something hard. She felt quietly along it to discover it was in fact a double barrel shotgun, something she was very familiar with thanks to her father teaching her at least a little about guns when she was younger. Before she could check to see if it was loaded, she heard the sound of the bedroom door being ripped open and crashing noises of what sounded like the bed being broken. Cocking the gun, she waited, terrified.

The door shook as it was ripped off its hinges. Dixie couldn’t see anything as the dark shadow of the were bear blocked out the light behind it. Without thinking, she pulled the trigger on the shotgun, hoping it hit somewhere that would do enough damage for her to escape. The sound was deafening in the small closet as the gun went off and the bear fell backwards toward the broken remains of the bed. He attempted to get up, but she cocked the shotgun again, unloading another round squarely in its chest. It fell still and she watched as it slowly reshaped into the figure of a man . . . Harlan.

She gagged at the sight of him, falling forward from the closet and holding on to the wall for balance. Fear immobilized her for quite some time before she could bring herself to make it to the living room. There, she found Luke, lying on the floor. He was naked, covered with blood, bruises and scratches. Tears fell down her face as she knelt over him, crying. Holding him close to her, she could feel him still breathing.

“Hold on, Luke. Don’t leave me,” she cried, reaching into her pocket for her cell phone.

Dixie called the bar and asked them to get anyone that was there from his gang to the phone. She wasn’t sure if they could even comprehend what she was saying due to her near hysteria, but a short time later, bikes arrived in droves. An older man she recognized as a frequent visitor instructed someone to calm her while he tended to Luke. She found herself escorted to the back porch and given a glass of water while one of the other club wives let her lean on her shoulder.

A few days later, Dixie stood looking at the mess that had once been Luke Robert’s house. There was very little in the living room, kitchen or bedroom that hadn’t been shattered or crushed from the fight between the two alpha bears. In the bedroom was a stain where the body of Harlan Simmons had once lay. There was now a missing person’s report for him, but the club assured her he would never be found. She placed her hand on her stomach and smiled at the child the doctor had confirmed she was carrying and walked out of the house with the bags she had brought over days ago.

“You ready?” Luke asked as she stepped out.

“I’m ready,” she replied.

Luke nodded at a few of the club members and tossed Dixie’s bags in her car before kissing her softly on the cheek. She followed him down the road, glancing into her rear view mirror just in time to see the house go up in flames and bikes coming into view behind her. Twenty minutes later, she pressed the button on a garage door opener and watched Luke’s bike disappear inside the opening before pulling in beside him.

“Welcome to your new home,” Luke told her.

“It’s beautiful,” she replied, looking around the refurbished plantation home set far back off the road where no one would bother them.

“I’m glad you like it. I had planned on a much less dramatic transition from the old house to this one, but things didn’t work out quite like I planned them. There is just one thing lacking,” he told her.

“What is that?” she said.

“The other half of my plans when I bought this house for us,” he said.

Dixie watched as he fished something from his pocket and took her hand, slipping an antique black diamond onto her finger. She looked at it in surprise and then back at him.

“That ring has been passed down from generation to generation in my family. Now, it is yours and someday, our son will give it to the woman he loves. Will you marry me, Dixie?” he asked.

“Yes! Yes, I will!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms around him and kissing him passionately. Luke picked her up and carried her upstairs to their new bedroom. She was amazed at how quickly his body had healed from the fight with Harlan, a fight which she later learned he was ill equipped to fight after having changed so recently before it. At the end of the day, it seemed they had saved one another and could now spend their lives in peace, as could their unborn son. That was all that mattered.

*****

THE END

Brother’s Bear

"I work in the morning."

How Anna had both loved and loathed those words at the same time. When Gabriel Kempton had called her back, she'd been floored. After the lackluster reception of her final academic exhibition had stolen her chance at graduate school, she knew the only way into higher education was through completing an apprenticeship to garner real world experience. No opportunity had been beneath her, and Anna had launched her resume off to dozens of apprenticeship positions. That Gabriel Kempton of all people had been the only one to call her back had to be proof that she was meant to succeed. Working beneath his direction would not only look good on her future applications, but it would draw the eyes of the art world in her direction. Even if Gabriel was unsatisfied with her work, the fact that they would be associated would work in her favor.

But he worked in the mornings.

Anna couldn't remember the last time she'd willingly gotten out of bed before noon. Given the choice, she preferred to sleep through the afternoon. Mornings had never been her friend, and anyone who knew her had always planned around that fact accordingly. Anna Nightingale, her mother had sung to her in her teenage years, little lark, despises the light, favors the dark. But now the nightingale stood before the private art studios of Southview University, cup of bitterly black coffee in hand, while the sun rose on the horizon.

"This is your future, Anna," she whispered to herself, the words catching in the thick yarn of her maroon infinity scarf. She slipped her car keys into the small purse slung from her shoulder. "Just a year of early mornings, and then you'll be set for life. Suck it up."

Studio C3 was already lit up on the inside. In the early hour of the day little traffic passed, and the street lights had begun to fade to orange. It seemed like everyone else on the planet slept except for the man she knew lurked beyond the studio walls. And herself, of course. She hesitated before the door, wondering if she should knock or not. Better to be overly polite, she thought, than to be rude. Anna rapped upon the door.

"Come in," a voice called from inside. Although she could tell there was great volume behind it, the words barely bled through the door and she'd almost missed them. Had the morning not been so quiet, Anna was sure she never would have heard the invitation. Without wasting any more time, Anna entered the studio.

Had she to guess, Anna would have said that Gabriel Kempton had already been at work for hours. The largest block of marble she'd ever seen sat in the center of the studio upon a raised platform, its corners and sides already carved off. The pitched pieces lay haphazardly on the floor around the platform. Apart from a few messy tables pressed against the wall and two folding metal chairs tucked into them, the room was empty.

"I need you to start tidying the pieces that have fallen," Gabriel's voice instructed. He was behind the block of marble, out of her field of view. The end of the sentence was punctuated with the bright clang of a mallet striking down upon metal. A new piece of marble knocked loose and toppled to the ground. "Stack them all on one of the tables. We might be able to recycle the scrap for small projects."

No hellos, no good mornings. Had she not been so exhausted, Anna might have bristled at his lack of respect. A hasty sip of coffee silenced any sass. She set the cup down on one of the tables and made her way towards the marble.

"And when you're done that, then you can start to sweep." Gabriel stepped out from behind the marble, and Anna stopped in her tracks. Gabriel Kempton was the talk of the art world and the pride of Southview's Master of Fine Arts program, but every article she'd read about him and his accomplishments had only shown his face, focusing more upon his creations. While his facial features had been handsome, Anna had always assumed he'd look like a scrawny artist in person. The body she'd pictured and the man who stood before her were not one in the same.

Instead of narrow and lanky, Gabriel was cut and svelte. The grey t-shirt he wore stretched across his chest and filled out in the shoulders and arms, and although his muscles were not excessive, there was no question that they were visible. Toned arms, a firm chest, and a body that tapered into his hips, Gabriel looked more like a swimmer than a sculptor. Momentarily Anna wondered if she had nodded off to sleep and was imagining the whole thing. There was no way someone could look as handsome as he did while toiling away in a studio for fourteen hours a day.

The prolonged pause attracted Gabriel's attention, and he looked towards her for the first time. Anna glanced up into his dark eyes and noticed how they stared. Low self-confidence reared inside of her, allowing an uneasy feeling to bloom in the pit of her stomach. Most of the time she ignored the stares, but Gabriel was the only one in the room and he made no effort to hide that he was looking at her. Anna knew that she was curvy, too curvy to be considered conventionally beautiful by men like Gabriel, but she'd always considered herself pretty. Between a great wardrobe and the care she invested to keep her light auburn hair shimmering and styled, Anna had never let her size stop her. Yet here she was, arrested by Gabriel's gaze.

"Anna Nightingale?" Gabriel asked after a long silence. His eyes swept her down and then up, absorbing her every detail. The critical eyes of an artist ripped her apart, and Anna felt both exposed and breathless. There was something silently dominating about Gabriel's presence that let her on edge, uncomfortable and yet intrigued.

"That's me," Anna replied, voice smaller than she would have liked.

"It's nice to meet you," Gabriel said after a pause. His eyes lingered on her for a moment longer, and then he turned back to his work. "I look forward to working with you this year."

"Yeah," Anna whispered, the word little more than a squeak, "me too."

When his eyes darted away from her and back to the marble, the spell was broken. Pressure lifted from Anna's lungs, and she realized that she'd been holding her breath. She inhaled deeply and shook her head, freeing herself further from his spell, then set to work collecting the fallen pieces of stone.

By the end of the day, all Anna had done was collect discarded marble and sweep. Typically she would have complained, but watching Gabriel work was well worth the menial labor. Every time he struck at the block his biceps tensed and she could see how corded and strong they were. The sweat that lined his brow glistened, and the scent of pine and masculine undertones had leeched slowly through the room. Anna didn't consider herself boy crazy, but something about Gabriel grabbed her attention in a way no other guy had.

From time to time he'd engaged her in conversation. They'd spoken about her plans for school and the kind of media she liked to work with. Gabriel had told her a little bit about the marble sculpture exhibit he was preparing for, and invited her to sculpt some of her own statues from the leftover marble. By the end of the day, blissfully over by noon, Anna exited into the brisk fall air entirely smitten. Gabriel was like the marble he sculpted: smooth, classic, and flawless. Thoughts of him clouded her mind, and it wasn't until a hand clamped down upon her wrist that she realized someone had been trying to get her attention.

Gabriel Kempton stood at her side, his calloused hand holding her in place.

"Anna," he said, catching her eyes with his own. Up close Anna could see how dark they truly were, his stunning irises a shade of brown she'd never seen in eyes before. Their eyes locked, and once more she found herself breathless. Even after six hours working together, Gabriel still held her prisoner.

"I'm sorry, my head was uh, somewhere else." She couldn't part from his eyes, and it looked like Gabriel was having difficulty doing the same. He, however, spoke as though he was unaffected.

"Elsewhere is right. You forgot your phone," he said, extending her cellphone towards her with his free hand. The other still gripped her wrist, unwilling to let go. Anna blinked, eyelids remaining closed for a prolonged moment. Gabriel was as close to a celebrity as she'd ever met, and here he was holding onto her and returning her forgotten belongings.

"Thanks."

The hand at her wrist dropped as she accepted the device. Anna looked towards the pavement, moderately embarrassed. That time she hadn't tried to hide her stare; Gabriel had to know she was interested.

"I saw you didn't have my number in your contact list," Gabriel continued casually. "So I put it in for you. And according to your calendar, you’re free tomorrow night after your haircut. Now you're not."

The meaning of what he said didn't register. Anna lifted her gaze and stared at him blankly, feeling her hands began to tremble.

"What?"

"I put the details in, so make sure you're not late. Seven at Cosgrove Cafe. I'll be waiting."

Those dark eyes bored into her a final time before he offered her a playful smirk and turned away, sequestering himself back into Studio C3. When the doors had closed Anna blinked hard, took a stabilizing breath, then looked down at the phone in her hand. How had he gotten past the lock screen? He must have been watching her throughout the day as she texted, and then...

Her fingers flew over the screen and the phone unlocked. There, amongst her upcoming events, was a four hour chunk of time at Cosgrove Cafe. The address had been entered as event information, as had another telling detail. Recorded under the event's notes was another message.

"Date with Gabriel — wear something nice, but not too fancy."

Anna almost dropped the phone. How a man like Gabriel could be interested in someone like her she wasn't sure, but that didn't matter. What did matter was that they were going out tomorrow, and she had no idea what she was going to wear.

A burst of energy coursed through her, and Anna grabbed at the plush scarf that hung from her neck to choke the cry of glee it brought. It was as though she were in high school again, and the cool, popular boy had just winked at her from across the cafeteria. Well, not quite. Gabriel was much more handsome and talented than any boy in her high school had ever been, and he didn't call her chubs at every chance he got.

Every inch of her body energized and alive, Anna ran for her rusted out Camry and sank into the driver seat. Once behind closed doors she let her head fall back against the rest and laughed, wild and free. Feeling wanted was a luxury she wasn't often afforded, and God, did Gabriel make her feel wanted.

A new internship, a new shot at the future, and now a new shot at love. Everything was falling into place all at once, and Anna felt like these were the first happenings in a series of events that would leave her forever changed.

Chapter Two

Piles of clean clothes littered her bedroom floor, and shoes were scattered here and there in clusters. The battle had been waged, and she'd won. From the mess she'd found an outfit she thought was nice, but not too formal. A simple teal dress was her prize. It cinched beneath the waist to draw attention to the best of her curves, its shoulder straps wide enough that they didn't look out of place on her bigger shoulders. What Anna liked the best about the dress was the neckline; it plunged into a V just low enough to draw attention to the plump curve of her breasts without being too overt. The skirt fell just above the knee, flirty and yet simple. Anna knew it made her look amazing.

Paired with a set of black flats she was good to go. Now the outfit hung pristine from the back of her closet door while the rest of her sizeable wardrobe lay in disarray across the room, and it would stay there until the weekend. Getting up early had already taken its toll on her, and Anna had little energy to devote to cleaning.

The second day of her internship would have been the same as the first had Gabriel not already made his interest clear. Anna was told to tidy up and sweep, and from time to time Gabriel asked her to fetch a different kind of chisel, but now Anna also watched for how he looked at her. From time to time she caught his dark eyes drinking her in when he thought she wasn't looking, and each time her cheeks flushed red in delight. Of course, he caught her looking at him as well. Each time he shot her a devious grin that disarmed her entirely, and the work day both seemed to crawl and fly by when knowing that later that evening they'd be seeing each other as more than professionals.

"Don't forget," Gabriel bade her at the end of the day, "Cosgrove Cafe, seven. Don't be late. I don't want you to miss it."

"It?" Anna asked. They were packing up for the day, Gabriel rinsing his hands and arms in the studio's sink.

"You'll see tonight if you're not late," he promised, but said no more. "It was good working with you again today."

"And you." This time she was prepared. Anna smiled at him even as her heart fluttered and then made her exit. There were only about five hours left after her haircut until she'd have to head out, and she intended to make the most of them.

A long, thorough shower. Anna scrubbed herself pink and shaved carefully, not willing to miss a single hair. Once the blank canvas was prepared, she dried and styled her freshly cut hair and agonized over her makeup. A modestly colored lip and a touch of drama to the eye was her signature, and by the time Anna was done she knew she looked amazing. Chubby or not, she was worth looking at.

Prim and proper, she took the dress down from the back of her closet door and slipped into it. There was just enough time left to move one of the piles of clothes back into her closet when the alarm on her cellphone went off — it was time to hit the road.

"Act normal," she whispered to herself as she descended her apartment stairs and towards the parking lot. "He's just a normal person interested in normal people things, and there's no reason to do weird things. If he asked you out, it means he likes you, so don't try too hard."

The front doors opened following a heavy push, and Anna emerged into the chilly fall evening. She'd brought along a light jacket and was grateful for it. Just the walk between the building and the car was brisk, and goose flesh rose along her arms.

Cosgrove Cafe was a good half hour drive from where she lived, clear on the other side of the city, but close enough to Southview's campus that it made sense that Gabriel would know of it. With fifteen minutes to spare, Anna parked a few blocks away and walked her way over. The neighborhood was a blend of residential and retail, indie shops popping up down the main street while the off-streets housed middle class families. It was on one of those off-streets that she found Cosgrove Cafe. Renovated from residential house to coffee shop, the establishment flirted with the corner of the main street. Cheery bay windows glowed with warm light, and through them Anna could see the place was busy. People clustered near the windows, all standing. For a coffee house, so many standing patrons seemed strange.

Anna entered through the front doors to find it crowded there, too. The walls dividing the original rooms of the house had been taken down, the remaining support beams done up with a wood trimming that served as table space. Tall stools were drawn up to them, but tonight no one was sitting, and even the loose tables and chairs had been pushed to the side. Anna picked her way through the crowd, searching for Gabriel. It was ten minutes to seven and he had been insistent she be on time, so where was he?

It wasn't long before Anna found her answer.

At the back of the cafe was a small stage area, barely elevated from the normal floor. Everyone in the place had gathered to face it, and a band was setting up for a performance. Three members fiddled with microphones and stools, and amongst them Anna recognized Gabriel. An acoustic guitar hung from a strap secured across his shoulder. His insistence she arrive on time made sense; he was going to play the show, and he didn't want her to miss it.

Tonight he was dressed in simple dark jeans and a fitted white dress shirt. A thick, woven hemp bracelet hung from his left wrist, but instead of lend him femininity, it lent his masculinity a softer edge. Anna pushed her way through the crowd to stand towards the front, watching as they set up. In all of her research she'd never heard mention that Gabriel was musically inclined, and the surprise was welcome. Gabriel had been handsome with a chisel in his hand, the muscles in his arms hardening as he worked over the block of marble, but now she saw a softer side to his creativity and found herself just as hooked. There was something about a man with a guitar that was irresistible, and Anna couldn't wait until he played.

Before long the three of them had taken their places on stage. Gabriel sat center, guitar placed comfortably on his lap. The two others settled just a little behind him, one of them standing behind an upright bass, the other seated with a cello. All three of them had microphones positioned for use, and Anna wondered what kind of a show she was in for.

"Hey," Gabriel greeted the crowd, leaning forward just a little bit to speak into the microphone. The sound of his voice struck her deep, and Anna's eyes found their way to his. Gabriel hadn't found her yet through the crowd, but she saw him looking. "A big thanks to the Cosgrove Cafe for hosting us tonight, and a huge thank you to all of you who made your way out to see us. We're Dreams of the Wild. I'm Gabriel. The good looking guy on bass is Michael, and our talented cellist is Luke. I won't tell you about how attractive he is, because he's off the market; sorry ladies."

There were some cheers and some laughter, and Anna couldn't help but smile. Gabriel's dominance translated well into charisma; he had the whole room hanging on his words.

"We've got an hour and a half to entertain you, and we hope you enjoy the music. If not, well, we're getting paid for this anyway, so that's okay."

More laughter. Gabriel grinned as well, and Anna watched as the tension eased from his shoulders.

"Let's get this show on the road. This first one's called 'Conversations of Solitude'. Enjoy."

The music began. The deep melody of the cello paired with the strumming of the guitar, and both instruments rode upon the grounding beat of the bass. Anna had never heard anything quite like it. It wasn't classical, but it wasn't quite pop, either. There was a poetic way the music flowed that suggested more technical prowess than simple pop beats, but a concurrent simplicity made it easy to listen to. Within the first handful of seconds Anna found herself enamored. When Gabriel began to sing there was no escape.

Low, crooning words. His vocals flowed smoothly, like running water around pebbles. Those in the audience swayed and bobbed their heads, and many began to engage in quiet conversations as the soulful tunes united each of Cosgrove's clients. Anna did not speak with anyone — her attention was undivided, and it was focused on Gabriel.

An artist, a musician, what other beautiful talents did the man possess? The thick, rough fingers that chiseled into tough marble now strummed effortlessly at the guitar, and the voice she made small talk with navigated its way seamlessly through mellow notes.

Gabriel spotted her, and then his eyes did not stray. The words he sang, strung like pearls in early morning light, were for her and her alone. They hadn't spoken, they hadn't acknowledged one another, but the way he held her attention told Anna that this had been his plan all along. Warmth spread through her chest like a bird stretching its wings to soar, and Anna knew she was hooked. Gabriel was doing everything in his power to impress her, but she'd already fallen under his spell.

Song by song they moved along. The crowd came and went, some settling at tables by the outskirts of the swarm to enjoy cups of coffee or baked goods. Sometimes Gabriel and his friends joked with the crowd between songs, and sometimes they launched into the next piece seamlessly. When it came time to play the last song it seemed like only minutes had passed. Time had passed unpredictably around him, as though he played it just like the strings of a guitar. At this point, it wouldn't surprise Anna if he were magical. No mortal creature could be so good at so many things.

"And that was it from Dreams of the Wild. I hope you guys enjoyed." Gabriel picked up a water bottle from the floor near his stool and slugged some back. "See you around. Don't forget to tip your baristas."

There was not enough applause for Anna's taste. People clapped politely, then the crowd began to break. Some people went to the counter to order while others flowed out through the front door. Anna lingered by the stage, watching as the band cleared away their instruments and microphones. The cleanup was quick, and it wasn't long before Gabriel hopped down from the small platform to stand beside her. Their eyes met, and he smiled at her.

"So," he said, "worth showing up for?"

"Yes!" Caught off guard, Anna didn't have to worry about being awkward. He had disarmed her and opened her up, and now things felt natural and easy. "I had no idea that you could play music. Or sing. Your voice is beautiful. How long have you been in the band?"

Gabriel laughed. He gestured towards an empty table, but even as he did, his eyes did not stray from her. There was no doubt he had noticed just how much work she'd put into her appearance tonight, and Anna was glad that the time she spent was paying off.

"Why don't we sit and talk? I've got you scheduled for at least another two hours, after all."

Another two hours didn't feel like long enough. Anna grinned at him, then boldly took his hand and led him to the table he'd gestured towards. Tonight had already passed her expectations, and she was sure it was only going to get better.

Chapter Three

Two hours came and went, and still they talked. Anna learned about Dreams of the Wild and of Gabriel's childhood. They spoke of sculpture and Gabriel's ambitions to take on an apprenticeship beneath one of the Italian masters after he'd finished his Masters in Dimensional Studies. They spoke of her experience with exhibitions and her own dreams to work in an animation studio. Often times students of sculpture and three dimensional design scoffed at illustration majors, but Gabriel was nothing but kind and helpful. The man was flawless in talent, manners, and charm, and he wasn't hard to look at, either. Anna had no idea how he could still be single.

It was nearing eleven when Gabriel finally excused himself.

"We're back in the studio tomorrow morning," he reminded her, rising from the table. "I'm already up later than normal, but I'd do it all again as long as I had you for company."

Anna blushed, standing as he did.

"I had a really good time tonight."

"As did I." Gabriel took her gently by the arm and led her from the cafe and into the night. The moon, full and bright, shone overhead. The street was surprisingly lonely.

"I hope to see you outside of work again, Anna," Gabriel said, voice little more than a whisper. The words were meant for her ears, and her ears alone. Anna turned to face him in full, feeling the moment between them start to heat with desire. Gabriel had a way of asserting himself that was quiet, surprising, and totally inescapable. She was caught up in him.

"I'd like that," she replied. Gabriel smiled and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. Talented fingers now treated her to their touch; Gabriel traced along her jaw line until his index finger rested at the tip of her chin to make sure her gaze remained locked on him.

"You're a sweet girl," he told her. "I don't want to hurt you, so I'm going to be upfront. I don't want commitment. I like having fun with you, Anna, but for now that's all it is. I understand if you can't keep seeing me for it, but I can't let myself be tied down. Not yet. Not with Italy in my future."

She hadn't seen the imperfection because the fault lay inside of him, wrapped up behind blinding talent and a stunning physique. The hope she'd had and the excitement she felt cracked and fell to pieces, broken and useless. What had once been weightless glee now felt like bricks of lead dragging her spirits down. Anna did not let her disappointment show on her face.

"Yeah," she whispered back, trying to hard not to let her voice waver. "We can keep seeing each other like that.”

Why had she agreed when her heart mourned already? If she had emotionally invested in Gabriel now, over time the bonds would intensify. If she were smart, she'd end things now and maintain their professional relationship, but the smile that spread his lips was worth the pain. He was so handsome when he smiled, and she knew he smiled for her.

"On Thursday there is a poetry reading at Java Lav, another seven o'clock affair. Come with me?"

It was the first time in years she'd been asked on a second date, but Gabriel's reluctance to commit made it feel useless. Anna's lips moved as though on autopilot.

"I'll be there."

Gabriel smiled at her once more. The finger dropped from her chin, and instead he leaned forward and brought their lips together. The kiss was short and sweet, and had Anna not felt like garbage she would have melted beneath it.

"Goodnight, Anna," Gabriel whispered, his lips brushing against hers. Then he pulled away and started down the street towards where he'd parked.

Alone and wounded, Anna made her way back to her car and sank down into the driver's seat. What had started as a fantasy had soured and lost its sparkle. The reality was that Gabriel was just like any other man — interested in sex and not anything more.

"Ugh," she breathed in frustration, letting her head flop back against the headrest. "Figures."

And yet she'd agreed to keep seeing him. The misery she'd suffer was misery she'd invited. There was no one to blame for any bruised feelings but herself; Gabriel had been very respectful and communicative about his motives.

There was no use dwelling on it. Anna jammed the keys into the ignition and turned them. The engine failed to catch.

"Not now," she muttered, turning the keys again to the same results. Over and over the keys turned, until at last the engine caught. Anna breathed out a sigh of relief and started on her way home.

Her luck only lasted another fifteen minutes. Freshly turned off of the highway, the Camry's engine misfired and died. Had she not been on a quiet street, Anna was sure she would have been hit. There was enough juice in it to coast down the street and turn into a small parking lot before the car stopped. Anna clenched her fists around the steering wheel and set her forehead against the top, breathing hard. It was the first time her ride had ever misfired, and the fear of losing control still coursed through her veins. The night really had taken a turn for the worst.

Light rose across the rusted hood of her car and cut through her windshield to bath her dash in light. Anna lifted her head to find the garage door in front of her opening. She looked towards the commercial building next to it and read the name above the doors.

"JJK Auto Repair".

When she looked back towards the garage door, a man stood there. A pair of loose jeans, ripped around the knees and at the sides, clung to his hips. A t-shirt streaked with grease stretched across his toned chest, the arms rolled up to reveal just how muscular the mechanic was. Big biceps rolled and bulged, and Anna could see that his thighs and chest were just as impressive. A white rag hung from his back pocket, but his hands were covered in grime regardless. The dark hair atop his head was untameable, and the gruff expression on his face suggested that the man was equally as wild. One arm was covered in tattoos, decorated from his palm to his shoulder.

"Hey," he called out to her through the night. It had to be close to midnight, so what was he still doing in the shop? "You know we're closed, right?"

Anna's hands remained clenched around the steering wheel, but no longer from fear. The chances that she'd glide right into a mechanic's shop were slim, but the chances that the mechanic would be there well after conventional working hours was so much less likely. That the man who stood a short distance from her gave Gabriel a run for his money in the looks department and left her feeling confident that what had just happened had happened for a reason. He was a reason to forget her bad night and discard the idea of Gabriel. Anna took a deep breath, then exited the car.

"Yeah. I just managed to guide her in before she died on me. I was just looking for a safe place to stop; I wasn't planning on finding someone to service my car."

"Yeah, well," he took a few steps forward, entering the night from the light of the garage. Anna could see his eyes on her, glued to her breasts and the curve of her hips. There was hunger there, primitive and feral. "You coasted to the right place. I'm probably the only mechanic in the city who works through the night so self-important jack-offs can pick up their rides for work the next morning. Maybe I can fit you in."

Anna had considered Gabriel dominant, but the control he had over her did not compare to this man. Just a little bit older, likely somewhere in his early thirties, the very way he moved commanded respect. Anna found she could not look away.

"She wouldn't start the first four or five times, and then the engine misfired and died after it started." The stranger continued to approach until he stood within arm's reach, eyes lifting from her breasts to look into her eyes.

"Sounds like you've got some faulty spark plugs," he uttered. There was nothing faulty with the sparks that flew between them. Anna felt her lower lip trembling just slightly, the air between them thick with an unspoken desire. She knew nothing of this man, not even his name, and yet heat spread through her deep and low. When he reached out to run a hand down her waist and pull her close, Anna wasn't alarmed. It was only natural that such a dominant man would lay his marks on her. "When's the last time you got her serviced?"

"I don't remember," she mumbled, gazing up into his eyes. They reminded her of Gabriel's as dark as they were, but the mechanic's eyes were flaked with warm amber undertones.

"Well, if you've got time, I'll look her over for you."

Why was she so okay with this? Anna lifted a hand and ran it across the mechanic's cheek, careful of the streaked grease on his skin. His skin was rough and leathered by time, his stubble catching against her soft fingers. The touch was all the invitation the mechanic needed. He caught her lips with his own, the kiss crushing. Anna moaned in the back of her throat and wrapped her arms loosely around his neck, letting herself sink into it. There was an undeniable attraction between them she could not hope to explain away that would only be sated with physical contact. In that moment even the big details didn't matter; all she wanted was to feel him dominate her and show her what a real man was.

His hard lips broke from her long enough to say, "Name's Nate. I want to hear you cry it out before the night is through," before they claimed hers again.

The kiss did not degenerate. From time to time it broke so one of them could gasp for breath, but Nate did not want to give her up. His mouth tasted like smoke, so contrary to the lingering menthol that tingled on her tongue. Anna didn't like smokers, but in Nate it was right. Edgy, masculine, and so bad . Gabriel, the talented, sculpted artist, was too righteous to do something like smoke. Nate was the distraction she needed from the hurt Gabriel had inflicted, even if he hadn't meant it.

He drew her from the parking lot to the garage, the door closing behind them. Several vehicles were parked inside in varying stages of repair, but Nate paid them no attention. Instead he pulled Anna towards one and tossed her upon the hood, pinning her hands above her head as he lowered himself upon her and ravaged her lips with his own. Pressed as close as they were, Anna could feel the hardened bulge beneath his jeans. There was no question that he found her attractive despite her weight. Anna found herself wanting him just as much.

Nate let their lips part.

"I'm Anna," she breathed in reply. Nate's chest was heaving, although he did he best to keep his appearance cool and unaffected.

"I want you, Anna," he told her. The words were plain and uncomplicated. They'd known each other for such a short time, but already Anna felt as though she understood him. Black and white, right and wrong, a man of wants and needs and nothing more. To Nate she was an object he desired, and when he wanted something, he went for it. She could respect that. Such a simple way to operate, free of the pretenses and politeness most society cherished. Nate trusted his instincts, and right now his instincts told him to take her as his own. Anna's instincts told her to let him.

"I want you, too."

Even in her wilder years during college, Anna had never done something so reckless. Nate was wild, and he brought the animal out from inside of her. Before she realized what was happening one of his hands had left her wrists to cup her breast, squeezing and exploring. Anna gasped, eyes closing.

"Tonight," Nate told her, voice heavy with his arousal, "I'm going to show you a real good time, and in the morning, when I'm done fixing your car, then if you want to you can go. I'm not convinced you'll ever want to part ways, though. Not when you see what I can do to you."

A whole night spent chasing orgasms with a stranger. Anna's heart throbbed just a little harder to send desire rushing through her. If Gabriel didn't want to be exclusive, she didn't have to be, either.

Nate's hand moved from her breast to her thigh. Rounded fingernails sank into the nylons she wore and tore them down. His calloused palms traced across the soft skin beneath them and moved slowly inward. Anna turned her head to the side and moaned as his fingers dipped against her sex, teasing. She was drenched from the prospect of such a careless coupling.

"Naughty little vixen," he purred, the sound deep and rumbling. Anna's hips rose just slightly to meet his fingers, and Nate obliged her. His index finger traced along her and teased her clit, sending pulsing pleasure through her core. More than ever she wanted to explore the bulge beneath his jeans.

The finger moved in skillful circles, grazing against her with varying pressures. Thoughts of Gabriel faded from her mind as Nate worked her body over, drowning her in sensation. Soon Anna couldn't keep still, and she twisted against the hood of the car with need. Had Nate not been holding her wrists down with one hand, she would have tried to pull him atop her.

"I can't take it," Anna breathed. Nate's fingers played with her, driving her past desire and into need. "I need you. I want it so badly."

Nate smirked and drew her up by her wrists until she stood on both feet. The shredded nylon's he'd pulled down to her knees bound her, and the skirt of her dress fell back into place to preserve her modesty. Anna felt dizzy and weightless, but more than anything she felt alive.

"When I'm through with you," Nate boasted, "you're not going to be able to walk."

He turned her around and laid her back against the hood of the car again, this time so that she was on her stomach. His hands pulled back her skirt, and she felt the heavier ruffling of jeans and the clack of a descending zipper. Moments later Nate's thick shaft trailed across her slick sex, coating itself in her secretions. All Anna could do was tense and lift her ass for him, desperate for it.

Nate didn't waste time. He took her rough, the swollen head of his cock burying itself inside of her and pushing deep. Anna cried out, both hands flat against the hood of the car. Nate's thick member was too big for her tight slit, and it felt like he was tearing her in two.

"Oh my god," Anna cried, too stuffed to try to move back against him.

"You're tight," Nate grunted, his hips pulling back for the first time. The traction between their bodies forced a moan from Anna's lips. Nate felt fantastic; with a cock as big as his, he didn't have to try very hard to hit her in the right spot.

The rhythm increased in speed until he was driving himself into her with abandon. Anna breathed hard, letting her cheek press against the painted hood. Behind her she heard Nate's uneven inhalations and the occasional grunt. The smell of grease and sweat and sex filled the garage.

"I'm going to cum inside of you, Anna," Nate warned her. His thrusts were wild and insistent, each one burying him deep inside of her to flirt with her cervix. "I want to make your sweet little body mine."

So many rules were being broken tonight. Anna had never been boy crazy, and had never had sex for the thrill of it. Now here she was, in a garage she'd happened to coast into, bent over the hood of a car by a complete stranger. Granted, he was one of the most handsome men she'd ever seen, but it was no excuse. She used to be so much more dependable than this.

And now she was going to let him cum inside of her, unprotected. Anna hadn't been on birth control since she'd broken up with her last boyfriend several years back, and she knew her womb was fertile for him. If she let him cum the consequences could be dire, but she couldn't refuse Nate and found her wanting it just as much as he did.

"Cum deep," she pleaded, grinding her ass back against him. Jittering, addicting pleasure shot up her spine and heated her sex as she gave into him, begging him to breed her. Orgasm was so close, and if he just gave her that much more, if he just delivered on his promise and came inside of her recklessly...

"Here it is," he said through gritted teeth. The thrusts had grown shallower, but they were still forceful. Each one of them pushed the head of his cock deep inside her, seeking to invade her as thoroughly as it could. "Oh fuck, here it is. You'd better take it all."

Nate's hands gripped at her waist and pinned her down as he thrust one final time. The thick cock that had threatened to split her apart bottomed out inside of her, and Anna felt his hot seed fill her. Nate grunted and rutted, pushing what he'd already given her deeper while adding more to join it. Each pulse delivered a fresh strand of seed, and Anna felt every twitch. It brought her over the edge.

With a prolonged moan and a shudder, Anna found her release. Her sex trembled, walls tightening and fluttering against his cock as she milked him. The pleasure was outstanding, and Anna lost herself to it. She'd needed this to get over Gabriel. She'd needed this to let go of her inhibitions.

Nate lowered himself across her back and breathed in the scent of her skin deeply as she calmed. Then, after a moment's pause, he drew out from her and pulled his pants back up.

"Well," he announced, "I think I can take a quick look at what's wrong with your vehicle. Might cost you a little extra if I need to do any work on it."

Anna looked over her shoulder at him, unable to hold back a smirk.

"I think we might be able to arrange payment," she replied.

He lifted a brow, tore the white rag from his back pocket to wipe his hands, then got to work.

Chapter Four

That night Nate took her three more times, and it wasn't until early morning when he finished the car repairs. With little time to spare before work, Anna left the garage and sped home. A quick shower and a change of clothes was all she had time for, and she arrived at the studio only five minutes late. As always, it looked as though Gabriel had been working for hours. The block of marble had started to take shape, and she could make out the rough outline of a figure from amongst the stone.

"Anna," he greeted her when she entered, "you must be tired after last night. I can't say I blame you, but don't make coming in late a habit. I am still your boss."

Gabriel didn't know the half of it. Half of her felt guilty, but the other half felt satisfied. Anna grinned and shook off a laugh, starting to tend to the discarded marble as had become routine. And yet, as the day wore on, Gabriel started to slip under her skin again. The smooth timbre of his voice, his impressive physique, and his talent wooed her. She knew he wasn't looking for anything serious, but Anna found herself fostering feelings for him all over again.

By the time Thursday rolled around, it was as though she'd never liberated herself that night with Nate at all. Anna was caught back up in Gabriel's web, impressed by everything he did and blushing at his compliments. Where Nate was animalistic and brash, Gabriel was subtle and sweet, and he knew exactly what to say to make her laugh and smile.

When the poetry reading was over, she found herself leaving her car behind to sit beside Gabriel in the passenger seat of his ride, and in the advanced hours of the night they rose together up a flight of apartment stairs and into his small dwelling.

The place was clean and well decorated, the artwork likely of Gabriel's own make — not that she was able to see much of it. When the door closed behind them Gabriel turned to face her, and Anna found herself very close to the tall, breathtaking artist.

"Every time I'm out with you," Gabriel whispered, his words only for her once more. Anna's lungs tightened, and she struggled to catch her breath, "you glow. I've never seen a woman so beautiful."

From any other man's lips, Anna would have doubted it. From Gabriel's lips the words were embodiments of truth. Her cheeks lit and her eyes dropped. Guilt over Nate still clouded her conscious, but Gabriel hadn't asked her to stay faithful. As her gaze dropped, Gabriel lifted her chin with a curled finger and looked into her eyes. They looked at each other in silence for a few seconds, the atmosphere thickening between them, before Gabriel leaned in and kissed her again. This time Anna was able to appreciate his touch. His lips were soft and thoughtful, directing their pleasure to leave her hungry for more.

"Why don't we get more comfortable?" Gabriel asked, taking her hand in his. They walked down the short entranceway and passed through a doorway on the left. Within was a bedroom, small but cozy enough for two. One moment Anna stood before the foot of the bed, and the next she lay upon it. With gentle dominance Gabriel had pushed her down, and now he straddled her hips, his dark eyes gazing down into hers.

"Come with me to my exhibition at the end of the semester," he said. Their noses were so close they nearly brushed. Anna felt heat stir inside of her. "I want to display some of your art there. I want the world to see your brilliance like I do."

It was a lot to take in. Anna's eyes widened just slightly, but before she could reply Gabriel had claimed her lips again. The kiss was harder now, his lust transparent in it. Not only did he think she was attractive, but he also thought she was talented. One of the most talented artists in the state thought she had a chance and wanted to display her work alongside his own. Anna closed her eyes and kissed back with enthusiasm.

Gabriel's hand traced her side, savoring her curves. There was tender affection in the way he moved that Nate had never shown her. When the hand arrived near her breast, Gabriel stopped.

"Do you want to share this with me?" he asked. Anna knew that if she said yes that nothing would change, that Italy was still in his future. Gabriel had bigger ambitions than a cute, curvy artist who was a little more than okay. Nothing she did could change the fame that waited for him, and even had she been able to hold him back, Anna never would have wanted to. Given the chance, Gabriel would have the world eating out of his hand. She wouldn't ever take that away from him. But even though Gabriel couldn't give her a forever, she knew she'd never forgive herself if she stopped now.

"I do," she whispered back. He smiled, and then his hands were upon her. Each touch was electric, and for as much as she had lusted after Nate, now she pined for Gabriel. Thoughtful and affectionate, he roused her passion before he continued. The buildup was slow, but it was worth it. Almost an hour passed between the time he'd laid her upon the bed and the time all of their clothes lay on the floor, but by then Anna had never wanted anyone as much as she wanted Gabriel.

"Take me," she bade him. Nestled amongst his sheets, breathing in his woodsy scent, in that moment Anna could pretend that she was his. What a beautiful dream it was. When Gabriel did part her thighs and his sizable shaft plunged deep into her, the dream felt more real than ever.

Hours felt like minutes. Just like in the studio and while he performed on stage, time warped around Gabriel and left Anna without her bearings. The first time he came inside of her they were both too caught up in the other's body to care. The second time Gabriel had enough sense to ask her permission, which Anna gladly gave him. Gabriel bred her womb full of his seed until the early hours of the morning when both of them were too exhausted to stay awake, and then again when they both awoke. By the time Anna left that afternoon, she'd never felt more whole and complete.

Only the man who made her feel that way wasn't hers to keep.

The rest of the semester progressed in a similar fashion. Gabriel wouldn't commit, and at times the thought drew Anna into Nate's arms for comfort. When she was strong and Gabriel enchanted her, she would spend the night in his apartment making love. As Gabriel's exhibition loomed near, Anna distanced herself from Nate and focused on Gabriel and the art to be arranged. He'd carved a series of breathtaking sculptures for display, and it was her job to make sure transport and set up was done correctly. If only she wasn't feeling so sick.

Two weeks of nausea left Anna crippled, and it was only when the tracking app she used reminded her the night before the exhibition that her period should have started that Anna realized it hadn't. A panicked trip to the pharmacy followed by the most gut wrenching trip to the bathroom she'd had to date followed, and when the three minutes it took for the test to display results was over, Anna couldn't believe what she saw.

Two bright pink lines. Pregnant.

Neither Nate nor Gabriel had used protection, as caught up in the moment as they always were. Now Anna had no idea who had fathered the life she carried.

It was hard to sleep that night, and when Anna arrived on scene at the studio to pack the sculptures for the exhibition, she couldn't bring herself to look or speak to Gabriel. The chance that she might have ruined his life by getting pregnant weighed heavily upon her, and even when he pestered her about her unusual silence, Anna couldn't bring herself to tell him. When the time was right he would know, but that time was not now. Not right before his big show.

Almost a hundred guests had gathered at the venue. Anna, clad in a sparkling black gown, had seen each sculpture set up and had occupied a corner of the room with her own art. Influential art critics and bloggers wandered piece to piece, and Gabriel's professors were on scene to assess his progress. Every face was distinguished, either young and haughty, or old and wizened. Then, amongst a sea of refined artists, a face she'd never thought she'd see at an upscale event appeared.

Nate.

He looked uncomfortable in his suit and tie; higher class did not suit him. Black grime still stuck beneath his fingernails, and Anna remarked a streak of it near his ear. He navigated the salon with purpose, and struck Gabriel upon the back with playful affection. Gabriel turned to look at him and grinned, and the two embraced.

What was happening?

Anna watched them from across the room as they chatted, then Gabriel gestured in her direction, and both men turned to face her. Nate's eyes flashed with recognition as he took her in, and he turned sharply towards Gabriel and grabbed him by the lapel. There was no mistaking the hostility in his gesture, and the breath caught in Anna's throat. She'd been found out.

The floor was swarming with men in suits and women in beautiful gowns, but through the masses Anna could see Gabriel shove Nate away, his eyes narrowing in anger. How did someone as refined as Gabriel know someone as crass and unsophisticated as Nate? As Anna pushed her way through the crowd, determined to break them up, she tried to piece it together.

Nate swung his fist right at Gabriel's face, but Gabriel caught his hand with his palm and clenched down, drawing Nate through the crowd and towards the back doors. They were going outside. They were going to fight in earnest. Anna's heart raced, every part of her trembling as she tore through the guests she had been tasked with directing. Gabriel and Nate were fighting over her, and neither of them knew her secret.

Both men burst through the back doors, Nate shoving Gabriel from behind so that he stumbled across the pavement. Then the doors closed, and Anna could no longer track them. The stretch she ran between where she stood and the back doors took an eternity, and when she finally followed them into the deserted back space behind the venue, Nate and Gabriel were gone. Instead, Anna found herself standing not even ten feet away from two towering, snarling brown bears.

At nearly seven feet tall, they were formidable creatures. Each had risen upon his back feet. One of the bears had grappled the other, his mighty paws sunk into his opponent's back. The victim's head was locked between the aggressor's arms, but he had not given up. The throaty sounds he made were aggressive and fearful, and Anna stopped dead in her tracks. Bears? Where had bears come from? A terrified squeak escaped her lips, and she clasped her hand over her mouth to quell it. It was enough to catch the bears' attention.

Everything grew still, both beasts frozen. The bear who had the advantage on his opponent fixed his eyes on her, and Anna noticed the warm amber flecked across them. She'd seen those eyes before.

"Nate?" she asked as the hand dropped from her mouth. She swallowed hard. "Oh my god, is that you, Nate? And... And Gabriel? Please don't fight. Not over me. I'm not worth it."

The bear with the amber flecked eyes loosened his grip, and the bear beneath him reared away. Both of them dropped to all fours, and both turned to look at her. There was silence. If these bears really were the men she had involved herself with, Anna needed to come clean. Maybe this way they could back out and fade out of her life without having to commit to a break up — not that she was official with either of them. Neither man wanted commitment, only a good time.

"I slept with both of you," she told them. Dark, unblinking eyes watched her, neither bear making a move. "Neither of you ever wanted anything serious, and I... I didn't think it was wrong. I didn't think that you knew each other. If I knew you were friends I wouldn't have done it. But now we have bigger problems."

A sob had been building up, and as she inhaled deeply to ground herself it rattled her breath. The darker eyed bear took a small step towards her, and she could see concern in his eyes.

"It's so stupid," she whispered in sorrow, "talking to bears like they could actually be people. Maybe you'll just maul me and that'll be the end of it. Neither of you deserve this. Neither of you asked for this. I'm pregnant. I'm pregnant, and I don't know which one of you is the father."

The sobs could be held back no longer. Anna started to cry, each heavy outburst ugly. The makeup ran from her eyes, and she knew shameful red blotched her cheeks. The darker eyed bear disappeared, and Gabriel stood in his place. He was naked and disheveled, but otherwise intact. Without wasting a second he crossed the distance between them and pulled Anna into his arms, setting one hand on the back of her head to comfort her. The bear with amber eyes lingered where he had been, watching the two of them.

"You're okay," Gabriel whispered into her hair as she sobbed. At that moment, learning that Gabriel was also a bear didn't matter. All Anna cared for was the feel of his skin against hers, and how soothing it felt to be with him. "We're okay. I'm here for you. We're going to get through this together."

Together. Together was all she'd ever wanted. Anna sobbed against his bare chest, arms wrapped around his neck.

"I'm not leaving you to raise a bear shifter baby on your own. No matter who fathered that baby, Kempton blood runs through his veins. I'm ready to step up."

Kempton blood. Even as she sobbed, the pieces started to lock into place. Nate was at the art show because he knew Gabriel, and he was obliged to come because they were brothers. They had to be. United by a last name, sharing the same strange shifter genes, somehow she'd stumbled into both of their lives without realizing the bond that linked them.

Behind them Nate had shifted back into his human form. The suits they'd worn had been discarded in haste to the side of the door, and he moved to the mess to dress slowly.

"I don't do relationships," Nate said, voice like stone, "I don't do babies. If you leave me out of this, I'll do my part and end contact. If you need financial support I'll man up, but I'm not ready to commit. This one's on you, Gabe."

Gabriel shot Nate a look over his shoulder, eyes narrowed. Still, he ran his fingers through Anna's hair and held her as the sobs simmered into nothing.

"She's mine now," Gabriel warned his brother, something near a growl in his voice. "The mother of my child, and the children to come. If you touch her, I won't hesitate to take you on again. I will fight to the death to defend my family, Nate. No more games."

The thought occurred to her, no matter how brief, that the first night she'd coasted into the garage and met Nate that he might have been able to smell Gabriel on her with his bear senses. Had his involvement with her all been a game? Anna didn't let herself consider it too deeply; what Gabriel had said was much more important.

"Mate?" she asked. "Children to come? What about Italy? You have so much potential, and I can't ask you to give it up for me."

"We will figure it out together," Gabriel assured her, pressing a soft kiss to her temple. Nate had dressed, and now that he was fully clothed, he ducked by them and entered the venue as if nothing had ever happened. "Maybe we'll go together, as a family. You, me, and the baby in a vineyard in the country. What do you think of that?"

Sunshine and simple living. Laughter and love. Anna blinked away the last tears and managed to smile at him.

"You mean it?”

"With all my heart," Gabriel assured her, and Anna had always known his words to be true.

Italy wasn't his future anymore — it was their future. And there in Gabriel's arms, adored and valued, Anna knew that all of the poor choices she'd made had turned out for the best. The heart of the talented bear shifter was hers and hers alone. She'd walked into Gabriel's life expecting an internship, and instead she'd found the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

Despite the hardships suffered, she wouldn't trade him for anything.

*****

THE END

Weekend with the Bear

You had plenty money in 1922…You let other women make a fool of you. Why don’t you do right? Like some other men do? ” Ursula Blake sang her heart out night after night at the Big Dipper nightclub in Silver Lake. She was five foot six with long, red hair that was curled like a ‘70s TV starlet. Her eyes were a purplish blue. At twenty-six years old, she was well on her way to gaining a loyal following at the club. She was hoping to really make a name for herself and make it big as a jazz and soul singer, but so far the only thing big about her was her size.

Ursula weighed two hundred and forty pounds. This usually did not get to her, because she didn’t allow it to, but it was hard to ignore some of the looks she received from people as she came onto the stage. People in LA were varying levels of rude, but they were all judgmental in some way towards her.

It wasn’t all bad, though. She had the support of her boyfriend Wesley, who came to see her performances and sat at a table in the front row, smiling up at her every night. He was tall and handsome, with sandy hair and hazel eyes. As long as she had him, she would be okay.

After the light applause at the end of her set, she stepped down off the stage and joined him at the table. He gave her a kiss and helped her into her seat, but he did not sit beside her. Something was amiss. She could feel it in the way he was looking at her.

“I have to go,” he told her. “This… This isn’t going to work out.”

Ursula felt like something was breaking inside of her. “What? What are you talking about?”

He sighed, looking down at her now instead of up when she was in the spotlight. “I’ve met someone. It’s not you, it’s me… I feel like we’ve been moving in different directions for a while now.”

Her head was reeling. How could he be doing this to her now? Right there where she worked and everything? She felt like everyone was staring at them and listening in.

“I’m sorry, Ursula,” Wesley said.

Shaking his head, he walked away from her and was gone. Ursula could feel the pounding of her heartbeat in her ears. She felt like she could faint at any moment. She could not be there anymore.

The table was prepared for a meal for two. When the waiter came and asked what she wanted, she stared at him numbly. “I’m sorry,” she said shakily. “I’m not staying, actually.”

Doing her best to stay upright, Ursula removed her silver high-heeled shoes and walked back to her dressing room. Once inside, she closed the door and allowed the waterworks to start.

The icing on the rotten cake for her was that Wesley had chosen to dump her at the Big Dipper and not at their apartment or something. Sure, it still would have hurt anywhere, but the Big Dipper club was her home . He was moved out of the apartment that they’d shared for four years by the time she got home that night, and she was somewhat relieved that she hadn’t been sent out on her ass. Now that her hurt and sadness had passed, she was mad at Wesley. He had given up on her and had found someone else. After everything they’d been through, all of the love and support he’d claimed to have for her…That liar. That untrustworthy, two-timing bastard!

Ursula lay on her bed and cried, hugging a plush cat to her face. Then she realized that Wesley had given her that cat and threw it across the room in angry frustration.

She was not going to give up just because of him. She was going to go right back to the club tomorrow and belt out her soul like she always did. She didn’t need Wesley King. She didn’t need anybody .

Walking onto the stage the following evening, her shimmering purple dress catching the light in all of the right places, Ursula felt beautiful in her own skin for the first time in a while. A weight had been lifted. She could do this on her own. She could be her own support.

They say I’m crazy, got no sense… but I don’t care…

As she sang, she paced around the stage like a tiger on the prowl. She caught the eye of a mysterious young man that she hadn’t seen at the club before. He winked at her and she blushed a little but did not otherwise skip a beat.

Her song was met with loud applause at the end. Ursula looked out at the small crowd of people sitting down at the tables, surprised and delighted at their response. Then she realized that the loudest and biggest amount of applause was coming from the new fan of hers.

At the end of her set, she went back into her dressing room and touched up her hair and makeup, preparing herself to go out and try and talk to the young man who had aroused her curiosity. However, when she went back out, he was no longer at his table.

Disappointed at that missed opportunity, she went to the bar and ordered herself a gin and tonic. “That young man who was here,” she asked the bartender. “Who was he?”

She suspected that he was perhaps a talent scout. Then again, she always suspected new people like that were talent scouts. She supposed she was just optimistic that way.

The bartender shrugged his shoulders. “Probably just the usual Silver Lake hipster type,” he said. “We get a lot of those on Saturday nights. He didn’t even order himself a drink.”

Odd. “Huh,” she said. “Maybe he saw my flyer or something.”

Ursula promoted herself well by tacking and taping flyers about her performances all over town. Anyone who was interested in listening to old timey jazz standards while drinking cheap beer and eating burgers could definitely be happy at the Big Dipper on Saturdays.

On Saturdays, beer was half off.

When she went back to her dressing room to change out of her sparkly costume, Ursula saw that an envelope had been placed on her dressing table. “Weird,” she said under her breath, stepping out of her dress. “I don’t usually get mail at work.”

She tossed the dress into the laundry bin and walked to her dresser, wearing only her bra, panties and tights. She picked up the envelope. It was kind of big, but thin and it was manila which made her think it was important. Upon opening it, she found a letter proclaiming her a winner.

“Congratulations!” the letter said in a big, red font. “You have won the Black Bear Inn Sweepstakes! Enclosed is your ticket for one week’s all-paid vacation at the Black Bear Inn, located beside Lake Tahoe. Enjoy boating on the water, hiking the wondrous mountain trails, or gambling at our world-renowned casinos.”

Ursula checked the date on the plane ticket. The flight would take her there in two days! Whoever was in charge of this sweepstakes didn’t waste time. The problem was that Ursula hadn’t entered any sweepstakes. There must have been some mistake.

But that was her name on the envelope. Ursula Blake. That was the address of the Big Dipper club. Someone had clearly entered the sweepstakes on her