Chapter One – Diana
Every eye seemed to be on Diana. Every person a possible threat. She walked quickly along the sidewalk. Even her wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses didn’t seem to be hiding her face well enough. The unease slithering down her spine that had caused her to buy new locks for the door and all the windows in her apartment made her want to vomit. She’d had the feeling for weeks.
At first, she had thought it was just paranoia, but when a dead dog showed up in her apartment, she knew the threat was real. She still shuddered as she thought of its lifeless eyes. Someone was after her, and she wasn’t going to stick around and find out what would happen. Not when there had been a string of murders in the news.
He'd been dubbed the Alphabet Killer. His first victim was Alicia Applebee in Atlanta. Next had been Brianna Beauchamp in Baltimore. The last one had been Christina Campbell in Chicago.
Diana Dobson from Dallas. The terror of potentially being the next victim was too great for her to take. The police had taken a look at her apartment and her past, deciding that it was unlikely that she was going to be the Alphabet Killer’s next target. He always went for women who were in new relationships, and she hadn’t dated for almost two years. He liked middle-aged blondes, she was a brunette in her late twenties. The dead dog, they said, must have been from somebody else.
But Diana wasn’t taking any chances – not when they weren’t taking her seriously.
And that was why she had traveled here, all the way to the California coast from Dallas. She was taking matters into her own hands. She needed a refuge, and she knew the perfect place. She didn’t have a lot of friends or family outside of Dallas that she could go to. But the four guys she’d been chatting with online had been saying that they’d like to meet her. That meant that she had a one in four chance that she could crash on the couch of one of them. They all lived on the same island off the coast. Even though part of her thought that it was entirely too coincidental and this had to be some sort of cult looking to lure in new members, she was heading out to them. She hadn’t had time to tell them of her arrival but hoped that they wouldn’t be mad that she showed up.
The problem was that no ferry service went there. So after signing a waiver at the dock, she took a boat and angled it toward the island. She had always been good with boats. It seemed to come naturally to her. She couldn’t see the island yet, but she wasn’t worried. She had spent a lot of time figuring out where it would be. She gunned the engine and left the feeling of being watched behind.
When land came into sight, she suddenly heard a great ripping noise from beneath her. The boat jerked to one side, the engine cut out, and water swamped her feet. Two huge holes had opened up on either side of the boat. Diana grabbed her hat off her head and started to bail water, but it was useless. Water was entering the boat at an alarming rate.
“Help!” she shouted as she jumped to her feet. The boat rocked. Her arms windmilled as she was going down. The boat had sunk.
Diana tried to keep her head cool. All she had to do was swim to the island. But that was easier said than done. There was a strong undercurrent that was dragging her down. The ocean water rushed into her mouth and lungs, causing her to choke and splutter. She resurfaced, but as she did so, her heart stopped. Paddling toward her was the biggest bear she had ever seen. Diana screamed and started swimming hard in the opposite direction, but within moments, the bear was beside her. She screamed again as its huge mouth opened. Teeth gleamed. A wave hit her, sending her tumbling beneath the waves.
And then two huge arms wrapped around her. She elbowed backward, thinking it was the bear, but then noticed how smooth the arms were. She surfaced again to find a blond god with sparkling blue eyes grinning at her. He seemed to have no trouble keeping the two of them above water.
“Hello, Diana,” the blond god said, his smile widening. “It’s okay. You’re okay now.”
Her eyes widened as she looked at him, recognizing him from the pictures. “Noel?”
If anybody had told Diana Dobson that morning that she would end up sitting on a plush white couch, staring at the four most gorgeous men she had ever seen, she would have laughed in their faces. Especially if they told her that each of those four men would gaze at her with such longing that it took her breath away.
And yet, here she was, her hair still damp and salty from the ocean. She was painfully aware of how she had no underwear or bra beneath the oversized t-shirt that she wore. She had a blanket tucked around her knees to make sure she didn’t accidentally flash any of these guys.
She hadn’t really thought about whether they would be as handsome in real life as their pictures suggested. All she wanted was a refuge. She hoped that one of them would be okay with a woman they hardly knew dropping in from the sky and staying with them. As friends, of course, even though that seemed slightly naïve now.
Now she was here, and they were offering her shelter. All four of them. They all wanted to protect her against the stalker, whoever it was. Plus, they were gazing at her in a way that made her want to yank the shirt up and over her head. She had had her share of passionate affairs, but she’d never considered having sex with people she barely knew. Until now.
Diana looked at each of them again, starting with the one on the farthest left. Noel Davis: easily the most muscular of the group. This was his home – a cottage on the beach. The shirt she wore belonged to him. Right now, he wore only a pair of jeans, his bounteous muscles on display. His golden hair and blue eyes made him look like some sort of movie star named Chris . . . only better.
Next was Cedric Forrester, known as Ricky. His face didn’t have the same chiseled look that Noel’s did, but he wasn’t any slouch in the looks department. Amply muscled, he had more of the ‘strong everywhere’ look about him rather than the toned bodybuilder look. His dirty t-shirt clung to his body like a second skin. His brown hair was buzzed short and his brown eyes held a keen interest in them.
Kurtis Felton lounged in an overstuffed chair. He was easily the shortest of the group, though she’d have to stand on her tiptoes to kiss — reach — him. No jeans for him. He was immaculately dressed in a suit, complete with a blue shirt and black cufflinks. He winked when she met his gaze and swept a strand of silky-looking black hair out of his green eyes. He was also the palest of the bunch, looking as though he spent more time indoors than any of the others.
Last was Robert Frazier, or Bobby, as he liked to be called. Thinner than any of the others, he had a lean physique. Not skinny, but not overly muscular, either. There was something calm about his presence. He had green eyes, too, although his were almost gray. His hair was a bleach-blond and he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees.
“I know this is a lot to take in,” Bobby said. “You can take as much time as you need.”
“Can you all . . . ” She gestured at Noel. “You know. Do that?”
Kurtis sprang to his feet and grasped the front of his pants. “Want to see?”
Diana’s face flared with heat — as did other parts of her body.
“Well?” Kurtis had already taken off his slacks. He wore tight blue briefs which showcased a very, very impressive package.
Diana’s breath caught in her throat and she was unable to tear her eyes away. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Noel’d stripped off his jeans. Her protests died in her throat. She had already seen what he had to display once he had gotten her to the shore. He had turned into a huge bear, she had climbed onto his back, and he had swum to the beach.
Noel’s golden happy trail was thick and curly. His whole body was muscular – thighs thick and meaty with good definition. And he was huge. Diana had had boyfriends she had thought were big before, but Noel put them all to shame. How could a man that size even fit inside a woman? He was bigger than the toys she had sitting in her underwear drawer at home.
Those thoughts all fled when his form rippled. Thick golden hair, darker than what was on his head, spread over his body. His chest widened, feet and hands becoming larger. Everything about him became thicker and bigger except for that one part of him, which disappeared into the thick coat of fur. Round ears and a blunt muzzle dominated his huge head. A bear.
Diana closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again and looked. Noel lowered himself on all fours. His bear lips pulled back, mouth gaping slightly. Tips of sharp teeth could be seen, but when he rolled his tongue out, she was so reminded of a golden retriever that she couldn’t be afraid.
“And you can all do that?” she glanced at the others.
Kurtis didn’t waste any time stripping off the rest of his clothes. He left them in a puddle on the floor and put his hands on his hips, thrusting his pelvis out as he posed. Heat rose in Diana’s cheeks but she didn’t look away. If she had been wearing panties, they would have felt damp. As it was, she clenched her thighs together. It was ridiculous to feel horny now, of all times, but that tight heat she was well familiar with knotted in her core.
Kurtis always did like sending her filthy messages. Maybe now that they had met face-to-face . . .
A growl broke into her thoughts. She saw that Bobby and Cedric — Ricky, she reminded herself — had both transformed into bears already. Ricky’s fur was a deep rich chocolate brown, much like his hair when he was in human form. Bobby was a honey color. When Kurtis shifted into a coal-black bear, the room felt so crowded that Diana felt almost claustrophobic.
“Wow,” she breathed as she looked at each one of them. She knew she ought to be questioning her sanity – either that or pinching herself to see if she was dreaming, but she didn’t do either. After the utter fear that she’d gone through the past few weeks, a little indulgence in fantasy wasn’t going to hurt. “Wow. That’s . . . amazing. You’re all magnificent.”
Noel shifted back to his human form and put his jeans on. “Thanks. We’re—”
“Bear shifters,” Ricky interrupted. “The four of us are alphas of our clans. Well, at least three of us are.”
All of them glanced at Bobby. His jaw clenched for a moment, but he didn’t respond to the obvious jab. Instead, he dressed and came to sit beside her. “When Ricky says we’re alphas, that means we lead the four clans here on the island. The Fjord Clan, the Flatland Clan, Ridgeline Clan and Black Beach Clan. Four clans, four alphas.”
Diana nodded. “Like wolf packs.”
“Like Bear clans,” Ricky muttered.
Kurtis, still naked, punched his shoulder. “Loosen up. Sheesh. Here we’ve got a beautiful woman in Noel’s parlor looking at us like we’re juicy steaks after a year of forced veganism and you’re going to squabble over semantics.” He turned a cocky grin full-force on her. “Look, Diana, these losers might not appreciate you, but trust me when I say I do.” He grinned and winked.
“Assuming that this isn’t a dream and I’m not crazy,” Diana said, her head spinning, “How is this . . . possible? I mean, how is it possible that I’ve never heard of any shifters or anything? And why did I end up chatting with all four of you?”
Noel was the one to answer. “You haven’t heard of us because we’re very careful to protect ourselves from the human world. As you can imagine, we don’t want to end up as laboratory experiments. That’s one of the reasons we live out here on the island rather than the mainland. People think we’re a cult and we’re fine with that because it keeps them away. And as for how we all ended up chatting with you . . . ”
He glanced at the others. Bobby put his hand on hers and squeezed gently. The feeling was comforting.
But it was Kurtis who spoke. “We need mates. There aren’t a lot of women on the island, and the ones that are here aren’t available. Online dating was the next best thing. As for why we all went for you? Well, we didn’t know we all did. But, hello! You put a bikini pic as your profile image. You’re smoking hot. What’s a man to do?” He smirked once more.
“Right.” Diana got to her feet. There was enough to think about without hormones confusing the process. She needed to get out of there before she did something she was going to regret. “I think I’d better lie down and try to process it all.”
“Of course.” Noel came forward, but instead of leading her away, he scooped her into his arms. Diana yelped as her hands pressed against his chest. The blond hairs on it were so fine that they were practically invisible. He pulled her tight and headed out of the room. “I have just the place where you can have some peace away from these idiots.”