Marius grimaced as he loaded the final pack of camping supplies into the back of the Washington Mountain Adventures pick-up. It was getting dark already, and cold in the early November air. Phil, Marius’s boss, had been texting him, nagging him to hurry up so Phil could leave work early. Of course, Phil’s justification was that he wanted Marius to “stop trying to get overtime,” but the real reason was that Phil was cheating on his live-in girlfriend and wanted extra time to see the other girlfriend before heading home.
Marius wanted to punch the guy fairly regularly, but he needed the work. It was outdoors, kept the grizzly bear part of Marius calm, and paid the rent.
He closed the camper shell and came around the side of the pick-up and climbed in next to the one remaining client, Anna. The bride’s sister. She’d hung back while the rest of the bachelorette party had gone ahead in the SUV.
Anna faced him. “You know,” she said, in a high-pitched voice that made Marius want to clap his hands over his ears, “I get why you didn’t want to hook up while you were working. But now that work time’s over, what do you say…?”
She reached out and grabbed his thigh, so close her pinky nearly brushed against his cock.
He firmly removed her hand and put it back on her own thigh. “You’re a beautiful woman,” he said, “but I’m just not interested.”
She looked surprised. Likely, she wasn’t used to being told no. She opened her mouth once to say something, but her gaze found Marius’s. He looked straight at her, telling her with his eyes that this wasn’t going to work.
Her mouth snapped shut, and she turned to stare out the window.
He hadn’t been blowing smoke up her ass. She was a beautiful woman. Usually that would be enough for Marius to have a quick fling during an expedition, as he thought there was nothing hotter than having sex in the woods. But beauty wasn’t enough this time. He wanted something more, although he didn’t know what.
They drove back to the Washington Mountain Adventures headquarters in silence. A text popped up on Marius’s phone, and he glanced at it. From Phil. Hurry up, son.
Marius bit back a swear word. He wasn’t Phil’s son. He didn’t feel like anyone’s son, if he were honest. His mom had died when Marius was a kid, and he and his dad weren’t on speaking terms. Last Marius heard, his dad was running a gas station in Idaho.
As soon as Marius pulled into the tiny dirt lot of WMA, Anna bolted from the cab and hurried to join her friends. The frown was still on her face.
Marius sighed. He hated rejecting women, but if he wasn’t feeling it, then he just wasn’t fucking feeling it. And the truth was, he hadn’t been feeling it for a few months now. Maybe it was mostly disgust at stupid Phil, the asshole boss who was cheating on his girlfriend. Or maybe it was disgust at himself. Marius still couldn’t forgive himself for the way he’d terrorized a human woman last month. He hadn’t understood the full scope of the issue, but still. Summer Grieb was human, and he should’ve stayed the hell away from her and her mountain lion mate.
Phil was already coming out of the office and locking the door behind him.
“I’ve still gotta put things away,” Marius said.
“Leave it,” Phil said shortly. “Lock the camper, the gear will be fine overnight.” Wiping the sour expression from his face, Phil adopted a more cheerful tone and went to shake hands with the bachelorette party as they climbed into their cars to drive back to Tacoma.
Marius did as he was told after grabbing his phone and gear out of the pickup. He transferred his things into the back of his old, beat-up Ford and sped down the highway, back toward Huntwood.
As he was pulling into the driveway of the little one-room house he rented, his phone buzzed. He glared down at it. If Phil had changed his mind and was calling Marius back, Marius was going to kick his ass…oh. It was Jackson Jaynes. Mountain lion mate of Summer Grieb, the human Marius had tormented.
Guilt washed through him, and it took a moment before he could bring himself to read the text. The three of them had parted on okay terms, and Summer and Jackson had even invited Marius out for drinks last weekend. He’d bowed out, not feeling able to face them.
When he glanced at the text message, he saw this was another invitation.
Jackson: Come get drinks with us tonight. Don’t tell me you have plans—I already know you don’t have any friends.
Marius growled under his breath. He wanted to lie about having plans, but Jackson would pester him every weekend until he capitulated, so he may as well go tonight.
If it were anyone else, he’d have dished out insults just like Jackson was doing. But guilt prevented it, so instead he typed, Fine. I’ll be there. At The A-Hole?
Jackson: You got it. My baby sis will be there, too.
Marius: I didn’t think babies were allowed in bars.
Jackson: She’s 21. Don’t even try—you’re still a douche and not good enough for her.
Marius ignored the jab, even though it stung. What time?
The clock on the dash read six o’clock, so there was just enough time to shower, take a quick nap, and fix some dinner.
Marius: See you then.
The A-Hole was too warm when Marius stepped in. The afternoon’s rain had turned to a powdery snow, and the bar was overcompensating. He shrugged off his coat in irritation and hung it on one of the racks near the door. Jackson better appreciate him for coming out in the damn snow.
Summer and Jackson were seated at the bar off to the right side of the room, so Marius headed over there. They both smiled at him and Jackson ordered him a beer.
“What’s up, asshole?” Jackson said affectionately. “You shaved your beard—didn’t know you had a face under there.”
Other than the insults, they were being nice to him. Marius was instantly suspicious. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Jackson said.
“We’re just trying to be friendly,” Summer said, her brown eyes earnestly watching Marius. “Really. I think it’s time you got over feeling guilty about last month. I don’t blame you, and neither does Jackson—”
“I might blame him a little,” Jackson said.
She swatted his arm. “Shut up, honey.” Turning to Marius again, she said, “It’s okay, and we want you to know that. It’s better if we’re all friends, and we can’t do that if you’re sulking on the other side of town.”
The bartender set Marius’s beer down on the counter, and he grabbed it, grateful for something else to focus on. The first sip was hoppy and perfect.
“Well, then,” Marius said, “thanks.” He held up his pint glass, and Summer and Jackson each knocked their drinks lightly against his.
Marius took a second sip and leaned against the bar. The scent of another shifter was in the air, and he lifted his nose, trying to narrow in on it. “Is your sister here yet?” he asked Jackson.
“Not yet. She texted a while ago, should be here any minute.”
“How’s the new place coming along?”
Summer grinned. “Slowly, but we’ll get there. We won’t be able to start until spring, other than demo. The good news is we’ll be able to salvage a few parts of the old place and incorporate them in the new houses.”
“Let me know if you need an extra set of hands.”
Summer’s grateful expression made Marius feel uncomfortable. He didn’t deserve gratitude. Scorn and insults, he could live with. But someone being nice to him? That wasn’t what he’d signed up for tonight. He ran a hand through his hair and turned his gaze to the rest of The A-Hole, searching for something distracting.
Just then, the door opened and a woman walked in. She had long, golden-brown hair. Her blue eyes were bright like lightning. She barely looked old enough to drive, much less enter a bar. Marius glanced around to see if anyone else was watching her. Surely Ross, the owner and bartender, would toss her out on her can because she was underage.
Her gaze moved around the bar, as if she were looking for someone, and then her attention zeroed in on Marius. She stepped forward, her hips swaying. Her legs were showcased in a pair of jeans that looked painted on, and she wore a leather jacket over a light blue t-shirt with some kind of text on it. He couldn’t read the message because he was too distracted. Her path was aimed right for Marius.
He held his breath. Him? Why would she be coming over to talk to him? Worse, his reaction of instant lust made him feel like a nasty old man.
Then he realized—she was walking straight over to Jackson.
Shit. This was Hayley, Jackson’s “baby sister.”
The “baby sister” was fucking hot.
Before she could reach them, a tall guy stepped in front of her, blocking her from view, and Marius swallowed a growl.