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Her Alaska Bears (An MFM Shifter Winter Romance) (Seven Nights of Shifters Book 2) by Keira Flynn, Morgan Rae (1)

1

Talia Tuesday stared at her reflection in the mirror, cringing at the sight of the smudged makeup beneath her red-rimmed eyes. Sighing with exhaustion and so many other things, she splashed cold water on her face and did what she could to wipe away the mess, but honestly, what did it matter? It’s not like she knew any of the hundreds of people out there, not even a little.

The only person she knew in this damn town was the very one all these strangers had shown up for.

Matty.

Matt was the only person she knew here, and he was dead.

Even though she’d had over twenty-four hours of travel to think about it, for the blood-chilling thought to twist around in her head and tear at her heart, it still brought bile to her throat. It was only five hours ago that she’d arrived at the funeral home and laid eyes upon him for the first time since hearing the devastating news.

Tali wasn’t sure she’d ever get the image of her Matty, lying still and cold in that coffin, out of her head.

Her big brother. The man who’d been her protector, her anchor, her hero, her friend. Gone. There’d never been a person more lively, more vibrant and jovial and kind. Her earliest memories were of his dancing brown eyes, sparkling as he chased her through their backyard.

It still didn’t seem real. She’d been on the phone to him just a few days prior. He always called before he went out on the boat. He’d been as animated and warm and funny as ever, teasing her about every little thing like always, chastising her about working too hard, telling stories about his Alaskan life.

And now he was gone. There’d be no more teasing, no more chastising, no more stories. Not ever.

The deep exhaustion and sorrow in every bit of her body made Tali want to hide here in the bathroom for the rest of the day; she considered sitting on a toilet seat and passing out with her head against the stall until every last stranger cleared out.

But that wouldn’t do. She had to face it.

Wearily, she stepped out into the lobby of the funeral home.

She made her way toward the doors that would lead her back to the still body of her brother and the grating voices of a few hundred well-meaning strangers. Each step was agonizing, as though an invisible force were holding her back.

“Tali,” came a low voice to her right, startling her. She turned and looked up, blinking at the man who was standing tall at her side.

Hudson Quinlan. Her brother’s best friend. A constant figure in his life since he moved up to Alaska thirteen years ago.

She’d heard about him constantly over the years when she and Matty Skyped and chatted from across the distance. She’d even seen him through her laptop screen once or twice, when he was at their house during one of their video chats and Matty forced him to say hello to his “baby sister.” But she’d only met him in person for the first time a few hours ago, upon her arrival at the funeral home.

He was different in person than he’d appeared when grunting an awkward hello and waving at her through grainy, lagging video at Matty’s urging. He’d been kind, welcoming, almost desperate to be accommodating, although she got the impression he was working hard to maintain a brave face. She’d seen the deep sorrow in his eyes the moment she met him, a mirror to her own.

“Hudson. Hey,” she said tiredly.

“How...how’s it going?” he asked in that low, smooth voice of his.

Tali imagined that the deep baritone might produce calming effects on people who actually knew him, but nothing in her had a hope of being soothed at the moment. It was taking all the strength she possessed not to fall apart completely. She was held together by a thread right now, and there was no stitching this nightmare of a life back together.

She shrugged. “It’s going,” she said, sounding hollow.

Perhaps not the most gracious response to his obviously genuine concern, but she had never felt more alone in a crowd in all her life and the fact that he was mourning as deeply as she was at the moment did little to make her feel a connection to this stranger.

“Right,” he muttered, not quite meeting her eyes with his light green ones. “Stupid question. I’m sorry. I just…well, look. Things are wrapping up here and I know you’re obviously exhausted from traveling and everything else, but…well, we’ve got sort of a tradition here, and I thought maybe you’d like to be a part of it.”

She blinked at him slowly. Her brain had been unable to process anything at a normal speed since she’d got the call about Matty back in Los Angeles and the lack of sleep and complex travel since had done nothing to improve upon it. “Um...what?”

“Well, generally, after a wake, we all get together after at the Foxhole Tavern, right in the middle of town. You probably passed it on your way in from the airport. It’d be great if you could join us. I mean, everyone will be there. All his friends. Whole families. It’s just what’s done whenever there’s a loss. We celebrate the person who’s gone. Tell stories. Talk about the best of our memories,” Hudson said, voice cracking slightly.

He looked uncomfortable, like the effort of holding himself together was a monumental task. His green eyes were bright. Tali felt herself wanting to speak up, but she was unable to find her voice.

So he continued, “And, well, you know Matty only moved here when he was eighteen. We sure would love to hear all about Matt as a kid. We’ve heard from him about how he was a real troublemaker back in the day, but I’m sure you’ve got lots of-of things you could share. I bet it would give folks a much-needed laugh, to think of him as a kid, getting up to mischief and all.” He paused briefly, giving her a chance to cut in, but she still couldn’t bring herself to articulate how much she didn’t want to go.

Apparently, Hudson was prepared to talk at her until she gave an answer one way or another. When she hesitated, trying to get her muddled brain to think of a way to politely decline, he soldiered on.

“It would mean a lot to us all. Even with the huge distance between the two of you, Matty obviously loved you with all his heart and we… The whole town would love a chance get to know you a little better.”

God, he was sweet.

But there was just no way.

Tali knew how much Matty loved him, that they’d spent the past decade attached at the hip, and it was hard to say no to eyes that soft, that pleading, but there was just no way.

She’d already fielded the condolences of hundreds of people whose faces all blurred together. Knowing how universally adored her brother was hadn’t brought her anything close to comfort.

All it did was remind her of how little time she’d spent with him in recent years, how little of his warmth and mirth and kindness she’d been able to share in.

How many times had she promised she’d make a trip up here to the ass-end of the world to spend time with him, the last of her family? It was always one thing or another that held her back. Stupid, pointless things.

She’d put it off, and put if off, and now she was out of time and out of chances. She would never hear his rich laughter again, or cry with her own laughter at his terrible celebrity impressions or dad jokes. She’d never be able to call him up at the end of a bad day, knowing that unless he was out on the ocean with no signal, he’d pick up her call any time day or night.

She couldn’t stand to be around all these people who’d gotten to enjoy him day after day for the last thirteen years, when she’d seen him in person maybe ten times in that whole stretch.

She wanted to go home. Home to LA, where her friends would be waiting to give her all the comfort there hadn’t been time for before she had to bolt onto plane number one of four to get to the Middle of Nowhere, Alaska, to bury her brother.

Hell, not even bury. It was only the end of September but already the ground in this miserable place was too cold for burials. That would have to wait for the thaw, months from now.

She couldn’t go home. Not yet. But she could go away, away from all these grieving strangers. That was the only thing she wanted.

At long last, she found her voice. “No,” she said. It was raw and scratchy, but firm.

She saw Hudson react subtly to her blunt response, just a brief flicker of a frown. “I’m sorry,” she went on. “I just... I haven’t stopped moving for at least twenty-four hours and I have barely had a chance to think about any of this. To process it. I just…I need to go back to his place and…breathe for a bit.”

Hudson gazed down at her and chewed his lip for a moment.

It was a good look on him.

In any other circumstances, it might make her knees buckle a little, might make her start to perspire, make her face go hot or her tongue get tied up. But just now, any knee-buckling would be solely due to her deep exhaustion.

“I understand. Completely. But…well. It wouldn’t be right away. Folks should start arriving around six. You’d have some time to go back and rest for a few hours, if you wanted. And…well. We’d love to have you there. People shouldn’t spend too much time alone in times like this.”

Tali stared at him.

He was obviously sweet-natured and his intentions were good, but she lacked the patience to deal with his insistence at the moment. “Yeah, well. I don’t know any of you. I’d still feel alone. And I-I just don’t see it happening, okay? I’m sorry, Hudson. I appreciate the invitation, but...no. No thank you.”

She saw a look of disappointment cross his handsome features, but he quickly masked it.

“All right. I understand,” he said again, nodding. A large hand came up to scratch at his stubbled chin, and he added, “But listen. Would you mind if I came by to bring Ella along? I know the two of you probably need time together, but I think she’d like to be there too. All her friends will be there, and their families. She wasn’t able to bring herself to make a speech today, but I know there are things she’d like to say. Things she might like the chance to talk about in a less stifling setting—”

“Yeah. Sure. That’s fine. What…whatever she wants,” Tali choked out. “Sure.”

“Thanks, Tali. I’ll be by around quarter to six if that’s…” Hudson trailed off because she’d already turned her back on him, heading straight back into the bathroom she’d just left. She kicked open the stall, put down the lid of the toilet seat and sat on it, breathing hard, her heart pounding in her chest.

Ella.

God, she’d started shaking the moment he’d said the name.

Because that thought that had been going through her head all day, the thought that she didn’t know anyone here was a lie.

There was one other person here she knew. Technically.

Ella. Matt’s daughter. Of course, Tali hadn’t actually seen the kid in person since Ella was eight years old and Matt’s attempts to bring her in on their Skype sessions had become increasingly futile as Ella entered her preteens.

Tali’s awkward questions along the lines of “How’s school?” and “Do you still play soccer?” tended to get one-word responses, and she had no idea how to make their small talk flourish into anything meaningful.

Ella was a twelve-year-old kid living in a shitty little Alaskan fishing town. Nothing in Tali’s skillset prepared her for making conversation related to...any of that.

So, no. Not everyone here was a stranger. But her niece was as good as one. Tali had hugged her hard upon arriving at Matt’s place just a couple of hours before the funeral. She’d whispered how sorry she was, and Ella hugged back. But it had still been hard to find anything to say to her.

And now you’re her guardian.

She hadn’t even thought about it until she got a message from Matt’s lawyer during her frantic, short layover in Seattle. Delays had almost made her miss her connecting flight, but once they’d boarded and she was stuck on the runway for another hour, she’d had plenty of time to check her messages.

Matt made her Ella’s guardian.

It made all the sense in the world...and none at all.

Sure, she was Matt’s only living family, save for relatives on her father’s side they never saw.

Sure, they adored each other and never missed their weekly phone calls unless Matt was out fishing on a long stint. Sure, he was the first person she wanted to tell whenever something amazing—or awful—happened in her life.

But all that meant Matt also knew her and knew her well. How did he not know her well enough to know what an insane idea this was?

How many times had he called her and mentioned some challenging situation with Ella (“She wants to go on a date, Tali. A date! She’s not even thirteen and the kid who asked her, he’s a real little shit, I’m tellin’ you—") only to have Tali make some dry, unsympathetic comment like “Eeesh. You should have used a rubber, buddy” or “Thank you for reminding me why I will never procreate?”

Tali had never shown the slightest indication of maternal instincts.

Hell, she’d gone through a phase in her late teens that was downright irresponsible. She had turned it around in the past few years, got on her feet, and built a life for herself, yes, but surely Matt must have known it was a life that was not at all compatible with taking care of young humans.

Even when Ella was little and adorable and they’d see each other in person, Matt had always teased Tali about her lack of natural ability with children, the way she asked weirdly grown-up questions to a five-year-old child who was desperately trying to show off her miniature doggy day care.

He knew. He knew how little sense it made.

But still, he’d named her guardian.

How in the world was she going to be able to pull this off? Her overpriced Los Angeles apartment was barely big enough to fit her and all her stuff.

How was she going to make room for Ella in there? Would her roommate even be okay with having a twelve-year-old child invade their lives? Cassia had a heart of gold, but that was a lot to ask of anyone.

Could she afford to move? Maybe, with what Matty had left for Ella, but that was a whole other mess, too. He was part-owner of a fishing boat, he had a house here—which she’d have to sell—though who the hell would even want to buy real estate in this freezing, miserable corner of the world?

The thoughts raced through her head so fast she could hardly breathe. Was this a panic attack? She wouldn’t know—she’d never had one before, but it definitely felt like the beginnings of one.

If it was one, she had a feeling they might get a lot more common from here on.

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