Authors: Belinda Meyers
“There’s a reason for that.”
“Then …” She blinked and shook herself,
slowly warming to the hilarious reality of it. “Why are a bunch of werebears
who can’t ski running a ski resort?”
He blew out a blast of air in a
gesture that was half amused, half frustrated. “Like I told you: P. R.”
She tapped her chin. “What did your
crew do before you took over the resort?”
“Yeah. It’s a pretty common job for
bear shifters. We were good at it. My crew always met our quota. Sometimes
exceeded it. Guess that’s why the Great Alpha picked us for this gig. Connor
runs a tight crew.” In a lower voice, he added, half to himself, “Or he did.”
Mike hardly seemed to be aware of
adding this last part, and Jess thought that following up on it would only
upset him, so she changed the subject. What she was most interested about was
him. Not his job, not his crew. She realized that with all the excitement of
last night she’d never really gotten to know him. She’d unburdened herself to
him, revealed her deepest fears and weaknesses, but she’d never asked him about
, she thought.
Stupid and selfish.
I deserve it if he clams up.
Swallowing, half afraid of his
response, she said, “What did you do, you know, before you joined your crew? Or
were you raised in it?’
He cast her a sideways glance, then
switched his eyes back to the road. Beautiful mountains soared in the distance
between puffs of cloud, then were replaced by ancient thickets of pine and
cedar still encrusted with snow. It was gorgeous scenery, but Jess had eyes
only for Mike.
“I don’t talk about that much,” he
She chewed her lip.
I knew it. I blew my chance
. She glanced
down at her fidgeting hands. Sudden sadness rose up in her, and she wanted to
Damn it all, I missed my chance!
She almost leapt out of her seat
when he reached over with one huge hand and wrapped it around both of hers,
stilling them. His fingers were rough but warm, and his hand strong. He
squeezed her gently, never taking his eyes off the road, then returned the hand
to the wheel. A thrill ran through her, and she relished the memory of his
“What was that for?” she said,
hearing the quaver in her voice.
“You looked nervous. I could smell
you were upset.”
it,” he said, and from the tone of his voice she knew there
could be no arguing with that.
“That could get annoying,” she
said. “You knowing what I’m thinking all the time.”
“Not thinking. Feeling.” He quickly
glanced at her again. “And what does that mean—‘all the time’.”
“Nothing,” she said. “I mean …”
she mean? “Talking with you
He grinned his cocky grin. “So
you’re mad for me now, is that it?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself.” But
she was starting to smile. Damn him. She’d been on the verge of tears just
seconds ago, and now a giddy joy was permeating her like a latte soaking into a
He seemed to reach a decision. “I
lived in the woods,” he said.
Her heart hammered in her chest. He
was about to open up to her. “You mean, before you joined the crew?”
“That’s right. My ma and pa were
both shifters, and they lived in the woods and raised me and my siblings there.
We hunted and fished and Shifted when we liked.”
“That sounds lovely.”
He inclined his huge head. “It was.
But it was a hard life, and then man’s civilization drew closer, and closer. We
could smell smoke in the air sometimes, and noise from the roads. We moved
deeper into the woods, but there was a bear clan there. A vicious one.”
“That’s right, you said some clans
fought against others.”
“Well, this is one of the worst.
The Black Valley bears. And my family wasn’t a clan. I mean, we were all alone,
without a tribe or a people. It was just us, and we’d stumbled into the wrong
territory. The Black Valley bear shifters killed my ma first, then my pa. I was
the oldest of six kids, so I took care of us after that. Tried to raise them
right. One was shot by hunters. One was snake-bit and died. Two, Sam and
Taggart, defected to Black Valley. They were very young, and they said some
protection was better than none.”
Jess realized she was holding her
breath. “What then?”
“It was just me and my sister.
I—look, we’re there.”
Indeed, they were just passing
beneath a high wooden archway wrought in frontier style. Jess had seen it
before, but she took a moment to admire it again. The words above it said PINE
“Well?” said Jess, hoping Mike
would go on.
He smiled, but it was a sad smile.
“Later,” he said, and she could hear the promise in his voice. “I’ll tell you
later.” He looked her in the eye. “Alone.”
Jess marveled at the town of Pine Ridge as they passed into
it. Spread out along a shelf of the mountain was the quaintest little mountain
town she’d ever seen. Tudor style houses with snow-covered roofs lined the
cobbled main road, with faceted glass windows catching the light of streetlamps.
Cute little antique shops, coffee houses, bakeries and restaurants with
second-floor balconies overlooking the scenic vistas. And above skiers on chair
lifts soared up bright white slopes toward the peak high above, like some god
up high looking down over the town.
Also looking over the town: the
great castle-like Pine Ridge Ski Resort, abutting the rise of the slope and
responsible for running all skiing operations. Jess had only caught a fleeting
glimpse of it before, but she found herself smiling like a little girl as Mike
drove her up to it. Thick stone walls, gargoyles, and belching chimneys were
just the start.
“It’s like something out of a
storybook,” Jess said. “And this is where your clan is based out of?”
“It’s our main business office,”
Mike said, “but our den is up above. On the mountain. The Lodge.”
Mike parked in the large parking
lot, and Suzy did likewise. Together the three made their way to the resort and
inside, passing skiers and vacationers, some just arriving at the resort, some
leaving. Far overhead arched aged wood rafters, giving the massive lounge area
an almost cathedral-like atmosphere. A great fire blazed in a grandiose stone
fireplace taller than a man, and before it …
“Oh my God!” she said. “Bear!”
Indeed, a massive, shaggy reddish
grizzly bear stood on its rear paws before the fireplace, looming ominously
over a family of five, a man and wife and their three kids. They faced a curvy
young woman taking a snapshot of them grinning like fools at the camera. That
done, they accepted their camera back and made their way into a room at the
corner of the great lounge, and Jess had to stop herself from laughing. It was
a tourist shop—not surprising at a ski resort, sure, but what was surprising
were the ranks of toy bears on display, and the bear T-shirts, bear coffee
mugs, bear postcards …
“Werebears gone commercial,” she
Suzy sniffed. “Never thought bear
shifters could be tacky. Guess I was wrong. I haven’t been in here since they
finished restoring the place, or at least this part of it, a few months ago. I
could have skipped it.”
“Well, I think it’s amazing,” Jess
“I’m glad you like it,” Mike said.
She appraised him with new eyes.
“Hard to believe bear shifters run an inn.”
“Oh, we hire a service company to
change the sheets and so on. But yeah, we’ve been learning how to keep records,
manage books … not tear annoying tourists in half …”
As he was saying this, a child was
pulling on the tail of the great grizzly before the fireplace while his mom
took selfies of herself posing by the bear’s head. The great beast was
obviously growing irritated, and a growl was working its way up the animal’s
“Let’s just get this over with,” Suzy
said. “Time to meet your alpha, Mike.”
He inclined his head and led the way
over to the grizzly, who was just finishing up with the selfie-taker and her
brat, fortunately without any loss of life or limb. Jess sensed it had been a
near thing, though. Furthermore, she sensed that the selfie-woman
had no idea
it had been a near thing.
She was chatting happily on her smart phone, probably after sending the pics to
some friend or family member.
Mike gave the grizzly a small bow
and with exaggerated formality said, “Boss, this is Jessica Quinn and Suzanne
Mayhew.” In a lower voice, he said, “We need to talk to you, Connor.”
The bear studied Jess and Suzy with
burning silver eyes, and Jess almost flinched at its intensity and power. It
was almost painful to endure the alpha’s scrutiny. At last the bear grunted and
ambled off behind an ornate screen. Jess heard snapping sounds, like the noise
of bones breaking, and grunts. Shortly a tall, broad-shouldered man with
flaming red hair and short red beard emerged, buttoning a flannel shirt. He’d
already donned his jeans and boots. He still looked winded from the
transformation, and for the first time Jess wondered if it hurt. It had to,
surely, and yet Mike had made no mention of it at all when he’d Shifted to keep
her warm—and later, to move unseen in the forest. It made her appreciate him all
over again. He had endured what must be agony to keep her from getting
frostbite, and to protect her. She wanted to throw her arms around his thick
chest, what little of it she could lasso, anyway, and squeeze.
“Come with me,” Connor said. Sweat
gleamed on his skin and in his flaming red hair as he showed the three up a
grand set of stone stairs and down a hallway lined and floored with aged wood.
“This place is over a hundred years old,” he said, and Jess could hear the
rehearsed quality of the words. “Built in 1912 by Benjamin LeVeux. He was a
hunter in Alaska and Canada who struck oil on a joint venture. Used the
proceeds to move here and build this place. His own private mansion in the
mountains. Back then there weren’t many people in town, but he saw opportunity
here. Opened up nature trails and small inns. People started to come, and when
they did they tended to stay. He put Pine Ridge on the map. Literally. Before
he did all that, it wasn’t even listed. Some say he came here for the Fae.
They entered an enormous corner
study, and Connor perched himself in a grand wooden armchair before an even
grander desk piled high with loose papers in what appeared to be a disorganized
mess. His gaze landing on it, Connor gave a deep sigh and ran a thick-fingered
hand through his red beard. He looked like a Viking warrior confronted with
paperwork, and for a moment Jess’s heart went out to him. The bears were men of
action, of hard physical labor and endurance, not this. She wondered what it
was really all about. Surely their Council hadn’t instructed them to do this
simply to sell some trinkets.
Connor’s gaze swung back to Mike.
In a commanding, wary voice, he said, “Tell me.”
Mike told him of Bryce and his
pride, and of the lions’ intentions toward Jess and Suzy. He told his alpha of
how the three had had to go on the run from the pride, but Jess was glad he
omitted the part about the cuddling.
“What does it all mean?” Mike said
when he’d finished. “Was it just a random asshat and his buddies, or is there
something more going on here?”
Connor was silent for a long
moment. He looked out his window at the driving snow and the mountain, then
turned back. Jess waited breathlessly. Now, finally, she would get to learn
what was really happening to her.
“I’ve heard rumors,” Connor said. “I
didn’t realize they were true, but …” He ran a hand through his flaming beard
again, and Jess realized it was a nervous gesture of his. Hard to imagine such
a grizzled warrior nervous, but that’s what he seemed to be.
“Well?” Suzy pressed. “Rumors of
what? I’m tired of all this mystery.”
Connor scowled at her, but she
matched his look with one of her own.
“I don’t scare off,” she said.
“Easy,” Mike cautioned her.
After a moment, to Jess’s surprise,
Suzy seemed to shudder, and the harshness went out of her face.
“Just tell us,” she said, more
“Mike wouldn’t know this, but it’s
something we alphas have to be aware of,” Connor said. “The different shifter
types don’t always get along. Lions and bears have always been enemies. It goes
back hundreds of years, maybe longer. Bryce was likely raised hating bear
shifters, and now here we are, come to the forefront of the nation’s awareness
of shifters. They don’t talk about lions. They talk about bears. Can’t be easy
for a proud lion shifter to bear, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
“But why pick on us?” Jess said.
Connor fixed her with his eyes. He
had green eyes, but they were not the light, lively green eyes of Bryce. These
were deep and dark, full of odd glints and mysterious eddies. “I’ve heard, and
I don’t know this for a fact, that some lion shifters have taken it upon
themselves to strike back at bear shifters by … taking their mates.”
“Taking. Their. Mates.” Jess said
the words again to herself, but again they didn’t make any sense. “I don’t
understand. I thought … I mean, don’t bear shifters mate for life? You only get
one of those. I just met Mike. I can’t … possibly … be …” Her eyes flicked to
Mike, who was suddenly looking uncomfortable. Horror dawned on Jess, but also something
else, something akin to the purest joy. “Don’t tell me … I can’t be your mate!”
Mike looked like he wished he could
be anywhere else. “I, uh … I mean …” He cleared his throat. “Let’s talk about
this later, Jess. Alright?”
like the rest of his story,
she thought. He certainly was one mysterious
“Okaaay,” Suzy said. “So Bryce and
his cronies want to take us as mates to, what, prevent Mike from getting a
mate? And I guess I just got caught up in the crossfire?”
“Something like that,” Connor said.
“At least, that’s what I would guess. You two ladies will need to stay with us
until we can end this threat.”
Hairs lifted along the nape of Jess’s
neck. “How are you going to do that?”
Mike smacked a fist into a meaty
palm. “The only way.”
Connor raised a hand. “Wait a
minute, Mike. It doesn’t have to be like that. There might be another way. As
alpha, it’s my duty to end this matter without getting anyone killed if I can.
, well—but if I can, I
must.” He snorted. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to rip off this Bryce’s head,
stuff it and mount it over the fireplace downstairs, but for now …” His voice
lowered. “Mike, I would love to put the girls up here, but I can't risk any
violence coming to the inn. I doubt it will come to that, though. No, I want
you to take them somewhere safe and remote. Take the girls to the Lodge.”