After one hell of a week dealing with cranky tourists, rained out tours, and my damn brother who went and got himself mated, leaving me alone to run everything, all I want to do is let my bear loose. I need to free my mind of the hundred and one things I need to accomplish to keep the family business afloat, and Bear Valley safe from the damn grizzlies who keep invading Kodiak land.
I strip out of my t-shirt and toss it into the back of my truck, along with my jeans, and stretch under the hot sun of the late summer. I run my hand over my thick beard and look upward. Finally the rain has stopped. I’m going to enjoy every last sunny day offered in this valley.
In the woods, I’m liberated. I take off, running like the untamed man I am, allowing my bear free. When my animal is loose, my inhibitions are gone.
Most of my kind believe that the bear is our second nature, but I know the truth - it’s the primal part of me that rules the man.
This is who I am.
But the responsibility of being the oldest Koleman brother, especially since my father was killed, has weighed heavily on me. That, and my mother’s constant pestering about me settling down and finding a mate.
Not going to happen. At least not anytime soon. I like my freedom. No, scratch that, I love my freedom. I’ve watched other bears get shackled down with a mate, seen their lives turn into a warped, Alaskan version of Dog with a Blog.
And yes, I know every episode of that damn show, since my niece Finley forces me to watch it on repeat every time I babysit her. I love the kid, may even want one of my own one day in the far, far future, but I’m nowhere near ready to trade in my Silverado for a minivan.
As I reach into the rushing river for the salmon, I pause. A new scent, one that doesn’t belong out here, fills my nostrils. Inhaling, I use my senses to find the intruder.
Long blonde hair is tied back in a messy bun on top of her head, the hot pink streak adding a burst of color. But the woman doesn’t need anything more than her perfect heart-shaped face and luscious curves to draw a man’s attention.
I recognize the woman immediately. Harley MacBeth, one of the four women who moved to Bear Valley a little over a month ago, and whose best friend just happens to be my brother’s mate. She stands forty feet away, knee deep in the rushing river, with a large sketchbook propped on her hip, and a pencil in her hand. Her fingers move rapidly over the page, and she doesn’t seem to have any clue the danger she’s in.
What the hell is she doing up here alone?
The woman is fearless and stubborn...and obviously not as bright as I’d originally given her credit for.
We’ve met multiple times. Each time usually resulting in her telling me off for some asshole comment I made. It’s gotten to the point that I enjoy watching her get riled up. Watching her cheeks turn crimson, and those honey brown eyes flicker with anger directed at me, it’s become a game that I enjoy immensely. The sight of her perfect ass as she walks away from me the best prize of all.
Because that’s exactly what she needs to do when it comes to me - walk away.
It’s not that I haven’t thought about ravishing the woman a hundred different ways. I’d probably have already had her in my bed more than a few times if it wasn’t for her connection to my brother’s mate.
Last thing I need is to get messed up with a woman who’ll be invited to family dinners.
And besides, the woman is too much of a spitfire for my tastes. She’s loud, opinionated, overly flirtatious and not my type in a thousand ways, but right now, she looks different. She’s poised, focused, and there’s a glint of awe in her eyes as she continues to sketch.
Or maybe it’s just that I’ve never let myself really look at her.
You shouldn’t be looking now, my brain reminds me.
A salmon jumps in the water a few feet from Harley and she lets out a small laugh.
The woman has the best laugh.
Shit, not what I should be thinking. On paper, she is all wrong for me. Usually, my bear would have me running off into the woods, but for some reason, I can’t seem to move. Her damn scent fills my nostrils and a growing awareness of her spirals like a vortex around me. It pulls me toward her, my gaze fixed firmly on her.
Even if I wanted to go, I wouldn't. No way in hell am I’m leaving her alone out here. The recent bear attacks are too fresh in my mind. Someone like Harley has no business being out here alone.
She still hasn’t seen me. She’s lost in her own world sketching under the heat of the August sun.
I start to turn to head back to my truck and grab my clothes. I need to check and make sure she is safe, it is my duty as a Kodiak after all.
But before I can turn to go, I feel her eyes on my thick brown fur. On my massive Kodiak stature. I’m standing on all fours, a salmon in my goddamn mouth.
And I can tell it’s freaking her the hell out.
Her eyes widen, and her chest rises like she’s taken in a lungful of air. I see the trace of a word on her lips, Help.
I sense her fear, see it in her eyes, but before I can take off, she steps back, and slips. She screams, both at seeing a bear so close and at falling into a rushing river.
Her head hits a rock and in less than a second her small frame is pulled under the water. Every bone in my body shifts into overdrive. No way in hell will I let her die on my watch. My blood pulses and my heart races as I move toward her.
Keeping the truth of what I am - that I am more than a man, a shifter - is a priority but keeping Harley alive takes precedence.
I can’t worry about being seen or found out. All that matters is saving her. I rush to Harley’s body, changing form as I move through the strong current. I pull her body from the icy water and my heart falls.
Her eyes are closed, her body is limp in my arms, and I know she won’t remember that I shifted in her presence.
As I rush her to the shore, I fear she won’t remember anything at all.