Stone Bear: Sentinel (A BBW Paranormal Shape Shifter Romance) (Stone Bears Book 1) (7 page)

“Now you’re going to be in charge of organizing pickups as well as training the new guy,” he told Raph. “Think you can handle it?”

“I’ll give it everything I have,” came the answer, a mixture composed mostly of confidence, but still holding more than a few nerves.

“Good. You’ll also have to deal with Uri. He’s staying with you for now too.”

Both shifters complained loudly at that one, though there was no real malice in their voices. The Kedyns were meticulous about who they picked to go through the training to become a Stone Bear. Size, strength, and Alpha ability were all a necessity, but there was more to it than that. Some Alphas ruled through sheer strength alone. Others were leaders and could interact with their crews without worrying about losing stature.

It was those types of Alphas that were selected for the program, and they happened to be extremely rare. But it also meant that the trio of Stone Bears were all very good friends, able to be equals outside of their jobs, and work within the framework set in front of them while on the clock.

The trees parted and the ground leveled out in front of them as they arrived at the Whitepines main shaft. Because the Diamond crew had been established and running as a team for so long, they were also the largest crew, with well over a dozen bears mining. They expanded too, as shifters aged out, were ruled unfit for duty, or in a few rare cases, were killed in freak accidents. The sheer size of the crew meant that they actually had a secondary shaft as well. It was more to ensure that there weren’t too many bears in an enclosed space, rather than because the mine itself was too small. After several hundred years, even though they mined by hand with pickaxe and chisel, the shafts were still extensive.

That was why Michael, the Alpha of the Whitepines, had given him a location within the shaft.

“Okay boys, let’s do this, nice and easy by the book. Side Corridor 1-C Raph, lead us in,” Gabriel said as they dismounted, their trucks parked facing back the way they came, ready for a quick departure.

The directions meant that they were to take the first offshoot from the main trunk of the shaft, and then the third branch from there, and follow it to the end. The embedded rail system and strings of LED lights ensured high visibility, but the three Bears carried and used their high-powered flashlights regardless. If the power failed, it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the shafts that it had been used as a precursor for an attack.

Raphael led the way, followed by Uriel, with Gabriel watching their rear. They descended without issue, and Gabriel strode to the front when Raphael announced contact over their radio.

He almost didn’t see it in time. The shifter came lunging out of the shadows to his right, swinging his pickaxe for Gabriel’s head. The sharp metal edge glinted in the dim light seconds before it impacted with his head. Gabriel wasn’t a Stone Bear in name only, however, and his head was already moving with the direction of the weapon, blunting the attack. As his weight took him off balance, Gabriel launched himself forward into a roll and came up running, ignoring the searing pain that erupted in his head as the weapon’s tip gouged a huge furrow in his forehead. Hot sticky liquid erupted across his face, and Gabriel could taste the metallic tang of his blood as his wound wept furiously.

The angry roar of a bear sounded behind him, paws crunching as it came closer. The shifter must have abandoned his initial idea and shifted as he came after Gabriel. He turned, and through his working eye he could see his team shifting to come to his aid.

“No!” he yelled at them, a snarl appearing on his face as he stared down the rushing bear. The speed of Gabriel’s movement must have stunned the attacker, because there was still fifteen feet between the two of them.

Plenty of time.

Gabriel flexed his legs and launched himself at the animal. He changed on the move, his bear ripping from his skin while he was still mid-air. The massive beasts collided together with bone-snapping force. Gabriel felt something give in his chest, but he simply grunted and brushed aside the new source of pain, focusing on the loud snap he had heard from one of his opponent’s front legs.

The crazed bear didn’t even make a noise. It simply continued its wild, frenzied attack. Great tears opened in Gabriel’s skin as the massive paws continued to move underneath him. Rolling off his opponent, Gabriel waited for him to try and stand. As the other shifter rolled toward him, he swung a huge paw straight at the oncoming head of his attacker. Bone crunched. His claws dug into the side of its head and crushed its eye, blinding it from one side. Warmth flowed down Gabriel’s paw as he was coated in blood from the horrific wound he had just inflicted.

It was a cheap shot that he wouldn’t have taken in a normal brawl, but this was different, and he had no compunctions about doing what it took to win. A sliver of his brain spoke to him, saying something about taking him alive, but it was too late by then. Gabriel was in full battle-rage, his bear roaring its anger at being blindsided as his paws descended on the hapless shifter’s head again and again, until it finally let out a squeal and shivered before lying still.

Gabriel hauled back on his bear, pulling it back from the edge and containing its rage using his sheer mental strength to overwhelm it. Then he put it away, shifting back into his human form, his lungs heaving for breath as he grabbed the dead or unconscious shifter by the neck and hauled it after him, using his free hand to wipe away the blood running into his eye. Head wounds were the worst, and it would be another quarter hour or so before the blood fully stopped flowing, though it had already slowed substantially.

“What the fuck is this?” he yelled, throwing the sack of bones and skin ten feet in front of him to land in front of Michael, who was standing with the rest of his crew. “Since when do you greet us with a pickaxe to the fucking head?” he roared, his long legs carrying him right up to the Alpha.

He noticed one or two of the other shifters tremble as he yelled at their leader, and he picked out the most rambunctious looking one and pointed a finger at him. “Don’t make the same mistake as your friend here,” he said, his voice promising the same treatment.

“Now, explain,” he spat at Michael, uncaring that some of his blood flecked off and landed on the other shifter’s clothing. He had been
attacked,
dammit. There was going to be hell to pay for this!

The truth was, he was just glad that Caia wasn’t there. The attack had reminded him of how truly dangerous life could be in Genesis Valley. Part of his anger was encased in the fear of what might happen to her, and knowing that he could do nothing about it. She was a grown woman, and any attempt by him to shelter her from the realities of the world she had just stepped into would result in her becoming angry at him, at a minimum. He had to allow her to do what she wanted to do, no matter how much he hated it.

So he took his anger out on those assembled in front of him.

“Is this one of yours?” he asked Michael, watching him very carefully.

The Alpha didn’t flinch. “Yes. Or rather should I say, he
was
one of ours. If he’s still alive,” Michael looked down skeptically, “he won’t be for long.”

Gabriel noted one of the other assembled shifters from the Whitepines looking on. His face gave away nothing, but through his peripheral vision, Gabriel could see his hands slowly closing into a fist.

Interesting. Let’s see what happens if I push just a little further.

“He had better not. This is a disgrace,” he said venomously.

The other shifter had been standing behind and to the left of Michael. He had a clear line of attack at Gabriel, and he took it.

This time, however, it wasn’t Gabriel who stopped it. Michael must have sensed it was coming, because he spun on the spot, and a massive fist connected solidly just as the attacker began to shift. The force of the blow drove its head into the wall two feet away, where it snapped back suddenly, the noise echoing down the corridor. The body slid to the floor lifelessly.

Michael grabbed his hand and set two of the knuckles back in place, his eyes returning and meeting Gabriel’s evenly while he did so. There was no challenge in his stare, just a simple acceptance of what had happened, and his vow that he was Alpha of the Whitepines and wasn’t afraid to dispense justice if necessary.

“Explain,” he snapped. Although he and Michael got along well normally, Gabriel had also never been attacked while doing his job before either. This was business, and Michael was smart enough to realize the way he was being treated wasn’t personal.

“This one,” Michael said, gesturing at the first heap, “is new. Been here less than three weeks. I haven’t been overly impressed with him and he had been causing trouble. I made two mentions of him in my reports, which will corroborate my story that I had a feeling he would be trouble. He wanted money, and nothing but money. I suspect that was his motivator. He thought to take you out and keep the stone for himself.” Michael turned and gestured at the large, slightly egg-shaped object guarded by two other shifters.

Gabriel turned and motioned for his team to collect the stone. They set about opening the carrying container and placing it inside, and inflating the insulation to ensure it stayed protected on the return trip. He didn’t have to watch them; he trusted them fully.

“And this one?” Gabriel asked, pointing at the shifter Michael had ended.

“That was Jerrod. He’s just an idiot, and I think he was convinced by the idea of money and not having to work the mines anymore. Solid worker, but extremely dim-witted.”

Gabriel stared at the Alpha for another moment, then nodded unhappily.

“Package secure sir,” Uriel reported as he and Raphael walked back over to him, the box between them.

“I hate the mines,” Gabriel said by way of dismissal as he and his team left the others standing there with two bodies to dispose of.

Such was life in Genesis Valley.

Chapter Six

Caia

The mirror screamed at her, but she ignored its voiceless cry. It tried again and again to get through to her, but Caia tuned it out. She shouldn’t have, because it was speaking smartly when it told her that this was a bad idea.

Every time she looked at herself it told her that. When she had gotten out of the shower, freshly clean and fixed up in all the right places, it had told her she was making a mistake. When she had put on the slightly flimsy, but completely empowering lace underwear instead of her normal cottons, it had told that this was a terrible idea. And when she had draped the plunging blue dress over her head, it had hollered with all its might that she was being stupid.

But damn am I looking good while doing so!

She couldn’t wait to see Gabriel’s eyes when he first looked at her. The dress wasn’t form-fitting, but it wasn’t loose either. It hung perfectly from all the right places, showing off what she wanted to, and hiding a few things that were better saved for later. Except when it came to the neckline. That, she thought with an evil grin, showed off a little bit more than was necessary. But it looked oh so good when it did.

Gabriel wasn’t going to know what hit him, she thought with a smirk.

Now she just had to get herself to the restaurant itself. Which meant getting up, getting in her SUV, and actually sitting down to have dinner with the dreamiest coworker there would ever be. One who, in her fantasies the night before, had done more than just eat his steak when they got together. She shivered once more at the memories of her late night exploration. Part of her definitely hoped that reality might mimic fantasy, at least for one night.

“Okay, let’s do this. If you’re going to make this mistake, at least make it with confidence, woman,” she told her reflection. It mocked her sharp nod, but she didn’t care anymore.

Besides, I get steak tonight!
The last thought filled her with another sort of excitement. Shift on Main was well known for the quality of its steaks, and that happened to be Caia’s favorite meal, even if it was normally out of her budget. But since Gabriel had insisted on going
and
that he was going to pay, she had every intention of indulging herself just a little bit this evening.

You sure do, don’t you?
The sarcastic part of her brain didn’t seem to respect the off switch, constantly bombarding her with its innuendos. Which were partially true, she knew. After all, it was her brain.

Rolling her eyes, Caia strode out the front door of the little apartment she rented, fiddling with the keys, trying to find the one necessary to lock it.

“Hello wonderful.”

Caia straightened, then turned around.

“I thought you said to meet at the restaurant?”

“I didn’t want to wait any longer than I had to in order to see you,” he said. His voice was different, and it took her a moment to realize what it was. There was nothing more to it, but it was void of something that half the time she hadn’t even realized was there.

His professionalism was gone. Gabriel was off the clock, and he was able to tell her his thoughts now. There would be no more guarded replies from him tonight, she thought, descending the three steps from her front porch to the sidewalk carefully. Her eyes were focused on his face as he took in her outfit for the first time.

Her cheeks warmed slightly as she saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down when he swallowed, followed by his tongue flicking out to nervously lick his lips. There wasn’t an ounce of nervousness in his body language, and if she hadn’t been looking for it, it was likely she would have missed even that little slip. But she had seen it, and it made her smile to know that she wasn’t the only one with a few butterflies in her stomach tonight.

Caia opened her mouth to reply, but then she saw him in the light for the first time.

“Gabriel! Are you okay? What happened?” she exclaimed, rushing to close the last few feet between them.

Her fingers flew to his face, all sense of propriety and any façade that they were just coworkers completely ignored as she traced the outline of the huge red welt that started above his left eye and ran across his forehead and down his right temple, stopping at his cheekbone, as if whatever had hit him had glanced off the bone and been unable to hit him again.

“I’m okay. I’m okay, I promise!” he said, engulfing her searching hands within his, holding them against his face as he took a deep breath in. He pulled them down to his mouth, kissing her hands softly as they unblocked his eyes. The focused green gemstones looked down at her gently. She could sense the small smile hidden behind her hands as he kept them pinned to him while he stared at her.

“You look beautiful,” he whispered.

Caia ducked her head, blushing as she tried unsuccessfully to hold in a smile of delight. “Thank you,” she said. “But what happened? It looks so painful!”

“Head wound,” he said proudly, then ducked as she pulled back a hand to hit him. “I got jumped by a crazed shifter with a pickaxe today. He got a little close for comfort, but I promise I’m fine. Head wounds just take the longest to heal. If it had been anywhere else, you wouldn’t have even noticed that I had been hurt. It’d be just a white mark by now, instead of this,” he said, pointing up at his forehead to the thick red line.

“It looks so painful,” she said quietly, tracing the outline of it lightly with her fingers. Gabriel closed his eyes under her touch, shivering slightly as she reached his temple.

His eyes flicked back open as she paused, meeting her gaze once more as they stared at each other, the only light the pale yellow glow from the fixture above her porch. Caia found her mouth suddenly dry as she realized what was about to happen.

They were going to kiss. It was going to happen. She could see him leaning forward ever so slightly as his head tilted slowly to the side. Thunder hammered against her ribcage as her heart tried to escape its cage. The butterflies in her danced an intricate number, taking her stomach with it as they went, while blood flushed her cheeks with desire.

A bird
cawed
loudly at them from the roof of her garage, startling them and ruining the moment.

Caia ducked her head away, taking a slight step back, putting some space between them so they could breathe.

“So you came to pick me up, did you?” she said, trying to fill the silence.

“It seemed like the nice thing to do.”

“Oh really?” she said, eyebrows raised in disbelief. “No ulterior motive at all?”

“Nope. None. I mean, I didn’t want you to risk ruining that fabulous dress either, but that’s it.”

“So you didn’t think it through that picking me up also meant that you’d have to drop me off later?” she said, trying to act far sterner than she felt.

“I will? Hmm.” Gabriel put a fist under his chin and looked up at the sky, pretending to think. “Why, I never thought about it that way, but I think you’re right.”

She couldn’t keep her laughter contained any longer and she giggled, slipping her arm into his as easily as if she had done it a thousand times. It was, however, the first time she had ever experienced the size of his muscles up close. They were…
intimidating
was too scary of a word, but it almost summed it up. Gabriel was so large and powerful, wrapping her hand around his bicep—or at least, the small part of it her hand could cover—truly emphasized the power behind him in a way that made her feel both nervous and secure at the same time.

“Well, it’s too late now you careless oaf,” she teased, “so be a good gentleman and take me out for some highly priced food. I’m starving!”

Gabriel’s delighted laugh rang in her ears and sang to her soul for the entire—albeit quite short—drive to their destination.

“You know, if anybody we know from work is here, we’re going to get crucified by the Kedyns tomorrow,” she said, some of her nerves returning as they walked from the parking lot to the front doors.

There were two flights of stairs separated by a small landing that led up to the building. Its high peaked roofs and large shingles, combined with few windows, made it look like the building was straight out of another era.

Gabriel held her arm for balance as they ascended. “Perhaps,” he agreed. “But at the same time, we’re only out for dinner as work associates, are we not?”

Caia restrained her instinctual urge to snort at his words. They both knew that was a bunch of crap that nobody, not even themselves, believed. Not at this point. She wanted to deny her feelings for him and to continue on with things how they should have been, but Caia was mature enough to recognize a losing battle when presented with one.

“Of course. And we’re going to act like that all throughout dinner, while we both wear these ridiculous get-ups, right?”

Not that she thought for an instant Gabriel looked ridiculous in the pinstriped black suit with accompanying bowtie. In fact, with his freshly trimmed stubble, side-parted finger-length blond hair and blinding smile, she thought he looked stunningly handsome, a picture of modern masculinity, which she had seldom seen from the other bear shifters in Genesis Valley.

“You look the farthest thing from ridiculous,” he murmured in her ear, pulling the door open to allow her to enter.

“Well, I must admit, I like hearing that. But I think even you have to admit I went a bit overboard for a dinner,” she said, blushing at herself.

“I’m not complaining. Besides, it makes me look much better,” he teased, pulling her hand tight as she tried to remove it from the crook of his elbow. “Now now, don’t get your panties in a knot.” He looked over at her with an evil grin. “That is, assuming—”

This time she did pull her hand away and used it to punch him. “Don’t even say it, mister,” she told him.

Gabriel laughed, turning away from her to acknowledge the hostess.

“Reservations under Gabriel,” he told her.

“Right. Just this way please,” she said, guiding them through the restaurant, and pulling open an ornately decorated wooden door. “Here you are. Your server will be with you shortly.”

“Wow.” The word didn’t really do the room justice.

“Like I told you,” he said, “I got us the private room.”

She could hear his delight at her reaction. “I believed you. I didn’t realize it was quite so…elaborate.

“What? Just because it’s got a fireplace, two TVs, super-comfortable chairs, and exquisite woodwork panels covering the walls?”

Caia blinked, looking over at him and the shit-eating grin on his face. “Actually yes, Gabriel, that’s exactly what.”

His smile grew broader.

“Please,” he said, gesturing to the table.

She crossed to it, and he pulled out one of the chairs for her, settling it into place behind her as she sat.

“You’re right, this is extremely comfortable,” she said, sitting into the thickly padded chair, sighing softly as it adjusted to her.

“Only the best,” he said, seating himself opposite her.

“You know,” she said thoughtfully as the door closed behind their server as he went to get their drinks. “I was wondering something.”

“What was that?” he asked, looking at her, his eyes completely unguarded.

“You put the reservations under Gabriel. Everything I read references you as Gabriel. Do you have a last name?” she asked bluntly. It seemed like a ridiculous question, but nothing she had been able to come up with so far showed one.

“No,” he said, his voice deeper and more thoughtful than it had been all evening. “None of us do, in fact.”

“Us?” she asked softly when he didn’t immediately continue.

“The Stone Bears.”

“Why not?” she pressed, her curiosity driving her questions.

“I’m not sure, but I have my suspicions.” His eyes flicked downward as they filled with trouble.

“It’s easier that way,” she said, her lower lip curling up in disgust as she thought about his situation.

“Exactly.”

“That’s ridiculous though. You aren’t born in a tube, so you must have had a family and a last name at some point?”

Gabriel met her questioning glance for a moment before he looked away, shaking his head slightly. His chest rose as he took in a large breath. “I’m an orphan. I had parents, but my mom died giving birth to me, and my dad…I don’t know. I was registered without a last name. The Kedyns kept it that way. So, just Gabriel.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, her heart aching for him as she heard the unspoken pain that he had had to deal with. It was hidden deep within him, likely behind walls more impenetrable than she could begin to imagine, but the echoes of it were still there, audible at just the right moments.

“Thank you. It’s not something I talk about much anymore, so I’d forgotten how much it hurts.”

He let out the remainder of his breath with a big sigh. Expression brightening, he turned to her. “Well, that’s my life story in a nutshell. Orphan, taken in by the Kedyns at age eleven and trained until I was twenty-one. Been working for them the past eight years, first as a newbie Stone Bear, and now as the leader. That’s about all there is,” he said with a smile.

“I’m sure there’s more than that,” she chided, “but it’ll do for now.”

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