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Excerpt for Broken Bear by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Stormy is lost. Her grandmother died a few weeks ago and she’s been driving ever since. Always in the same direction: south-west. That is until she comes to the town of Cedar Falls. Picking up a seemingly harmless old woman at the city limits, she finds herself plunked down in the middle of a shifter town—one brimming with werebears.

What can a werepuma do?

And then there’s the sexy, scary-as-hell werebear Maddox. His bear is broken and ready to claw his way out any minute, and that would be bad… like dead bodies littering the streets bad.

Can Stormy save Maddox from himself, and from the dark thing waiting for him in the forest?


Broken Bear: Ferro Mountain Shifters

Alice Bello

Smashwords Edition


Chapter 1


Stormy


I was a long, long way from home: five states and fifteen hundred miles… give or take.

Gram died three weeks ago, and I hit the road the next day, after standing at her grave through the night until the sun rose again. My old Chevy truck ate up the highway, taking me farther away by the second.

I missed her desperately. I could still hear her voice, the warmth of her hand on mine, how she always smelled of cloves and honey.

I missed my family too: mom, my brother Bly and my sister Roxy.

But Gram was gone, and I needed some time to myself.

She would’ve understood. She always told us tales of spirit quests and the journeys of our Native American ancestors.

She would have called my story Runaway Were-Puma Looking for…

Looking for…

What the hell was I looking for?

I wiped my dry eyes with my forearm.

I’d run out of tears by Oklahoma City. Now I was—

Where was I?

Oh, I saw a sign in the distance.

Cedar Falls, Alabama. Five miles.

Hmmm…

I hadn’t stayed more than a day anywhere so far. I just kept driving south-east—because that’s the way my truck seemed to want to go—stopping long enough to eat and sleep and shower, and then driving south-east again.

Day, after day, after day.

Not really the most scenic way to tour America.

Not the best way to forget your troubles and get happy again either.

All I did was drive and think. Think about Gram, about mama and Roxy and Bly.

And why the hell I hadn’t been there when Gram’s heart had failed her.

Why I hadn’t been there to pound on the old woman’s chest, and to blow life back into her lungs.

She’d practically raised us three while Mama was working double shifts at the family bar and grill.

Daddy had been committed—well, obsessed with making a baby werewolf with my mother. So we had him for five years. But once Bly was born, and smelled of wolf instead of puma, the call of the rodeo took him away. He sent postcards, sometimes. But they were years apart.

I hit the brakes and stopped, clenching my teeth so hard my jaw cracked.

The only sounds were of the Chevy’s engine running—a slight miss in the timing, something Bly would have had fixed the instant he’d heard it—and my own pathetic, near hysterical breathing.

Steady…

I opened my eyes and blew out all the air in my lungs.

I needed to eat and sleep again.

You need to quit blaming yourself, I heard my Gram say.

I looked up into the sky, at the pink and orange sunset that had only an hour ago been as blue as a cornflower. It was summer, so there was still time before it got dark. There were some fluffy white clouds… and one very determined dark gray one that looked to be headed right toward me.

I bit my lip, took my foot off the brake and hit the gas, making my old blue Chevy roar gamely as it rolled down the road toward Cedar Falls.


Chapter 2


About two minutes later I saw two things at the same time. One was a sign that read, “Welcome to Cedar Falls, population 5042”

The other was a thin older woman with a spine of steel, gunmetal gray hair that was pulled up into a neat as a pin bun, and a lethal stare.

She also had her hand up.

Not a wave, but a command to stop.

She didn’t look like Gram, but she certainly had the same You damn well better stop for me glower.

I stopped, pulling up alongside where she stood.

“How are you today?” I asked. I may have been raised with fangs and claws, but I’d been raised with manners too.

“I’m just fine, thank you.” She gave my old blue Chevy a long look over. “Could I bother you for a lift? My grandson works a short ways into town.” She smiled. It was dazzling.

“Sure,” I said right off and started to get out of the truck. I didn’t think she had a gun in her purse. I hopped out of the Chevy and ran around to open the door for her. She was a spry old gal, grabbing hold of the door and stepping up into the cab of my Chevy with an ease far more youthful than her appearance.

Maybe she did yoga?

She smelled strongly of chamomile tea and black licorice.

Maybe she liked Galliano in her tea?

Once she was seated and had pulled the seat belt about her, laughing lightly as it clicked, I slammed the door shut—it’s an old truck, and you have to slam the door to get them shut right—and jogged back over to the driver’s seat.

As I rolled down the road she hummed a sweet, familiar tune. But I couldn’t put my finger on the title. Just that I’d heard it before.

“I’m Stormy, by the way,” I said crossing over a small, narrow bridge.

“My name is Ester, but my grandson calls me Nonna.”

Oh, yes, the grandson she was going to visit.

“My grandson’s single, by the way,” she said, opening her purse and pulling out a small foil wrapped piece of candy. She offered the candy to me.

I didn’t want to be rude—I d been taught to be polite, and to accept things offered to me. But I shook my head when I caught a whiff of it. That was the source of the chamomile/black licorice smell.

“That’s nice,” I said noncommittally.

“He’s a good looking young man, my Maddox. A real catch.”

Good lord, she was trying to set me, a perfect stranger, up with her grandson.

I rolled my eyes to the heavens and bit the inside of my mouth. The spirits were having fun with me today.

“A Lone Bear, like his daddy and his brothers—makes for a lonely road until they finally find their mate.”

Jesus Christ Superstar! She’d just outed her grandson to a total stranger.

I gave her another sniff. Under the Chamomile and black licorice… she smelled of bear. A little stale smelling, but…

I bit my lip, suddenly very nervous.

It wasn’t everyday you gave a lift to an apex predator.

But I still couldn’t get over her telling me about her grandson.

Maybe she just didn’t realize that being a shifter was a dangerous thing in this day and age. Even if shifters were out of the closet, you didn’t go around telling everyone about it.

The old woman looked at me, her gray eyes sparkling, reflecting a little of the blue of the afternoon sky. “I think a nice girl like you would be wonderful for him. You’re a cat, right? A panther?”

Cripes…

“Puma,” I said miserably.

How in blazes did she know all this? Sure, she could smell as well as I could, but to be able to narrow it down to panther—which is just another name for puma.

Unless…

“Are you a witch?”

How on earth had I let a witch into my truck?

Witches came in many variations, but the most common one was the black witch, and they were a terrible, menacing thing, gaining their power from the pain and suffering—and deaths—of others.

“Yes, dear… I am.”

Fudge, sugar… argh!

“Black?” I ground out. This little ride had just gone colossally sideways.

“Do I smell like a black witch to you?” she asked with a little placating grin and a touch of her withered finger to her nose.

I sighed. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve never met a witch before.”

“I’m no black witch. They reek of death and rot. I’m a white witch with a bit of the sight, that’s all. Drives people crazy sometimes, but that was back when I was alive.”

“What?” I about hit the brakes. Did she say when I was alive?

She blinked at me innocently. “What?” she asked back.

“What did you say?”

She pursed her lips. “Just now? Well, I said I have a touch of the sight, and it drives people crazy sometimes.”

“And after that?” I didn’t know whether I was scared or getting pissed at the old woman.

“Oh, I said especially when I lived in the city.”

Is that what she’d said?

“Folks are fine with a seer if she lives out in the middle of nowhere. But put one right beside you and you start getting paranoid.”

Oh…

“That sounds reasonable enough.”

But I still didn’t think that was what she’d said.

We were in town now, and going down the main street.

“There it is on the right… the one with the Stone Herbs Shop sign.”

I saw it. And low and behold, there was a nice wide parking space right up front.

I pulled into the spot but didn’t turn off the engine. I just sat there.

Was I that scared of the little old woman sitting in the passenger seat?

The little old lady that was a werebear and a witch?

A little old lady that could explode into an apex predator…

Or the little old lady able to kill me with a thought…

Yeah, I admit it. She scared the crap right out of me.

“I’m not going to harm you,” she said, teasing in her crinkled, singsong voice. “I need you.”

I turned and looked at her, her eyes met mine and I felt this little jolt—there was more to this old girl than being a shifter and a witch. I could feel it.

It had something to do with her smell too. That staleness…

“Need me for what?” I asked.

“I need someone magically inclined, little medicine woman.” She turned and tried to open the door to the truck, but it was sticking.

It did that sometimes.

I shook my head, reluctantly switched off the ignition, and then jumped out of the truck. A few steps and I was at the passenger side door, opening it for her.

“Thank you, dear. This truck of yours isn’t as old as me, but it has just as many stiff parts.”

I smiled. “Funny.”

She hopped down out of the truck with agility. Not so impressive now that I knew she was a shifter.

I closed the door and stared at her.

Medicine woman?

“You’ve got the wrong girl, lady. My Gram is…” I closed my eyes and pushed through the pain that still flooded me whenever I thought of her… and remembered she was dead. “She was the medicine woman of our tribe. But she’s gone now.”

She nodded and started toward the open door to the shop. It was propped open so the wonderful fresh air could waft into the enclosed space. She disappeared into the darkened doorway.

“I’m not sure who will take her place,” I said, following after her into the store. “She once told me it was passed down, but I’m not sure how.”

It was darker in the store. They must be trying to save on the electric bill. But moments later my shifter eyes adjusted just fine.

And that’s when I realized I was standing in the little shop all by myself.

I blinked and looked around.

What the…

The most gorgeous man I’d ever seen—or imagined (thick amber colored hair, a beautiful face with a lush, kissable mouth, and a strong, broad-shouldered body—walked out from a backroom and gave me a smile. It didn’t make it to his eyes, so I knew it was just for show, but he did have lovely straight white teeth.

Teeth…

Was this her grandson… the lone bear… and apex predator?

My puma shivered inside me. She was usually fearless, but something about this man was making her want to run.

Stupidly I didn’t.

Instead, I stood there and tried to return the smile. I’m sure it was as fake as his was.

His fake smile slid from his face as if it had never been there. “Can I help you?”

I saw his nostrils flare as he took in my scent.

His eyes got really big, then.

He surely couldn’t be afraid of a little old puma.

“You smell like…” He just stood there and stared at me, his chest rising and falling with the quickening of his breathing.

Oh, crap…

“I’m a puma, garden variety, so that’s… what… you’re… smelling.”

He took two big strides forward and was suddenly standing not a foot away from me.

Double crap, that was fast…

“You smell like Nonna.” His voice had hardened and was intensified with a deep, vibrating growl.

I took a step back. This wasn’t good.

“Yeah, I gave your… your Nonna a ride into town.”

He stepped closer to me, his eyes darkening.

Gulp…

I started rambling. “She wanted me to help her with something—chatty little thing. A little too chatty.”

His eyes blazed gold. “What kind of sick joke is this?”

I tried to back away again but hit the wall.

I put my hands up in surrender. But my eyes were trying to steer me back toward that open front door.

“Her scent’s all over you!” he shouted, his voice booming like thunder in the small enclosed space. “Do you have something of hers on you?”

I shook my head and licked my very dry lips. “As I said, I gave her a ride into town. She was out by the city limits, by that ‘Welcome to Cedar Falls sign’.”

When he opened his mouth I saw his teeth were elongated. Fur had started to sprout on his face and down his arms, and his fingernails had turned to black claws.

He was going to shift right here and now.

And just like that the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen happened.

This man stopped his change.

Literally just stopped it right then and there. I saw the moment he stopped himself from losing control. The fur melted back into his flesh and his eyes turned back to their normal deep dark brown—but there were cracks in his irises where the gold of his bear was seeping through.

Holy cow!

I watched just long enough to see his teeth sink back into his gums—that was when I turned and ran for the door.

Once outside I scrambled around my old Chevy and fumbled with my keys, dropping them on the street, and crouched down to grab them.

The werebear wasn’t following me, but I still jerked myself into the cab of my truck and hit the gas the instant the engine caught.

Luckily, no one was driving by just then, or I would’ve crashed right into them.

I kept looking in my rearview mirror, relieved to see the werebear wasn’t coming after me.

Maddox…

That’s what the old woman had called him.

Sweet spirits in the sky, that was horrifying. I’d never seen anyone stop themselves from changing, not once they’d actually started.

And the way the bear was still leaking through, those cracks in the irises of his eyes. What in the world did that mean?

I shook that question out of my head.

First things first… I needed to get the heck out of this town.

Pronto.

I looked at my truck’s gas gauge. It was teetering on empty.

Who knew when I’d hit another town? This was pretty far out in the middle of nowhere.

I started scanning the city blocks as I careened down the street.

There, on the left: Terry’s Gas Station.

Perfect.

I pulled into a pump and looked around, checking to make sure that werebear wasn’t coming after me.

But would he really do that in the light of day?

I shivered. I didn’t want to know.

The credit card slot on the gas pump was taped-over. A post-it said to pay the cashier inside.

Rock, hard place.

I jogged across the parking lot and pulled open the door to the station, making the bell taped to the top of the door clamor.

A tall, thin man stood behind the counter, and he smiled at me. “Hi, can I help you?”

Déjà vu…

I took a deep lungful of air and smelled human. Good, that was good.

Plus his smile was real. Just a happy guy.

I looked at his name tag: Terry.

Must be the owner.

“I need to fill up.”

He nodded. “Cash or credit?”

“Credit.” I glanced nervously out the window. Still no sign of Mr. Werebear.

Good…

He took my card and slid it through his cash register. “Sorry about that. I’ve got a guy coming to fix the credit card readers this afternoon.”

“No problem,” I said, and then my stomach growled.

Loud enough that Terry gave me a look.

“There’s a good place to eat down the street. Hannah’s Burgers. Get The Contender. You won’t be hungry for days.”

He handed me my card back. “Your receipt will print when you finish filling.”

“Thanks,” I said and turned to leave.

“You’re welcome.”

I filled up my truck, snagged my receipt, and got back in my truck.

Still no sign of Maddox the werebear.

I slid out into traffic and immediately saw Hannah’s Burgers.

My stomach roared this time.

Okay, a quick bite and I’d get my ass back on the road. If anything I’d sleep in my truck when I absolutely had to sleep.


Chapter 3


I parked, slid out of my Chevy and headed toward the restaurant. There were some umbrella-topped metal tables out front. I walked in the front door and the smell of delicious, greasy food greeted me. I walked up to the counter and a beautiful woman with blue eyes, blonde curls, and dangerous curves swept over to me. “What can I get for you?” Her smile was real too. And I could smell, over the succulent smell of the cooking food and fresh coffee, that she was human.

Her nametag read Cinda.

I looked up at the menu sign. It was a smorgasbord of yummy.

What had the guy at the gas station said?

Oh, yeah!

“I’ll have a Contender.”

“For here or to-go?”

I thought about the werebear…

“To-go.”

“Fries with that?” she asked.

“Yes, with cheddar and chili…”

“Gotcha”

“And…” Everything looked so good. “Five cheddar chili dogs, onion rings and a large cherry pop.”

Oops…

I forgot humans didn’t eat like that.

Shifters ate like, well, like pigs. I can scarf down an extra large pizza with everything on it and be hungry an hour later. Maybe sooner.

“I like a gal that knows how to eat,” Cinda said and gave me a wink. “It’ll be about five minutes. Take a seat and I’ll ring you up when it’s ready.”

I tried to relax. I sat, crossed my legs, got back up, walked around counting the tiles on the floor, straightened a display of take-out menus… but I couldn’t stop checking the front window for signs of Maddox the crazed werebear.

I started looking at some of the photos on the walls, each one in its own dark wood frame.

The third one I looked at made my jaw drop.

There was the old woman I’d given a lift into town—Nonna, the werebear and witch—and she was standing in front of Stone Herbs Shop, the sign barely in the photo with her short little self, a lovely smile on her face.

This was making less and less sense.

She was obviously the owner of the little herb shop. Why would her grandson react like that to her scent?

“Hey there, pretty lady,” I heard. I turned and saw a towering man in a sheriff’s uniform sidle up to the counter, lean over it and plant a sweet, unhurried kiss on Cinda’s lips.

I smiled.

He had short cropped brown hair and…

One sniff and my smile melted right off my face.

Bear.

This had to be a joke.

Three werebears in the same town?

This was crazy.

I watched as they kissed again, and she ran her hand down his handsome, angular face.

“I’m going to be late tonight, baby.”

She sighed. “Ryan…”

“Pack business. You know how Dax is when there are too many new shifters in his territory.”

Cripes…

I was in a town with a pack.

How screwed up could this day get?

Okay, I was just going to…

Just then the radio that hung on the police officer’s belt squawked. He winced and pulled it off his belt, then spoke into it.

It squawked again, kind of like the teacher's voice in The Peanuts cartoons.

“Gotcha,” he said into the radio and holstered it again.

“Sorry, baby. I have to go. Got a couple cows loitering out on route 6.”

Cinda had slid out from behind the counter while he was talking into his radio. She pressed herself against him, sliding her arms around his tight waist and popping up on her toes to snag a kiss from her lawman.

I leaned against the wall and tried to blend into the wood paneling.

When they finally came up for air, she gazed into the man’s eyes with utter adoration.

“Be careful. Those cows on route 6 can be dangerous.”

A slow smile spread across the lawman’s face. But his eyes were dark and intense.

Pure desire…

“I’ll do my best, ma’am.”

She popped up and kissed him one more chaste time.

“Then get going, Mr. Wheeler.”

If I hadn’t already known he was a bear, I’d swear from the sexy grin that he was a werewolf.

She swatted his butt as he left, and smiled wickedly as she watched him leave.

I breathed easier when she turned and headed back behind the counter. That meant the werebear Sheriff was gone.

I was tempted to take off.

I really needed to leave.

If this was a pack town, then there were rules, and one of the most important rules was usually you had to get permission to stay even a day in a pack town.

“Your order’s up,” Cinda said from the cash register at the end of the counter.

I jumped, just a little. But she was too busy tossing plastic silverware and napkins into my big bag of grub to notice.

I walked over, forcing myself to keep calm. I paid her, gave her a nice tip, and said goodbye and thanks.

“You come back again.” She gave me a little wave as I left.

Okay. I looked all around and didn’t see the werebear or the Sheriff werebear.

I had a lot of food to eat, and I was sure that I’d make a complete mess of myself if I tried to eat and drive.

But I so wanted to get out of this town.

Argh!

I’m a shifter and can eat with the best of them.

I’d have this bag of food polished off in no time.

I sat at one of the metal tables with the umbrellas, popped the straw in my cherry pop and started emptying the to-go bag.

Ah… it tasted so good.

The Contender was a triple cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo, ketchup, mustard and a beguiling mixture of spices rubbed into the meat of the burger.

Yum…

I dispatched that in about two minutes, taking little sips of my drink.

Don’t look at me like that… I’m a shifter. We have really high metabolisms.

Next came the chili cheese fries and my five chili cheese dogs.

The onion rings I could snack on in the car as I drove. I liked them best without ketchup anyways.

I smelled her—chamomile and licorice—a moment before I looked up to see her.

“I didn’t think you’d scare so easily, little medicine woman.”

I glared at her, chewing on a mouthful of chili cheese fries.

She sat down opposite me, holding her little purse in her lap. The breeze didn’t even touch her tidy hairdo.

Neat trick…

She sighed. “I should have told you his bear was broken. I apologize.”

I swallowed the chili cheese fries and sat forward, glaring at her with all the menace I could muster.

“His bear is more than broken,” I pushed myself back in my chair. “Have you seen his eyes?”

She nodded sadly. “He hasn’t shifted since his parents were murdered.”

My stomach dropped.

Dear lord…

“Did…did he…”

Her gaze snapped on me with fury. “Of course he didn’t kill them.” Her voice was like a whip. Add dominant to her list of powers.

I looked away. I didn’t want to see the pain that was in her eyes.

I knew it too.

“My son and daughter-in-law were killed by a pack of loupes.”

No…

Loupes were shifters that had let the animal inside them take over. They were vile, often psychotic, and raped and murdered and ate anyone that got in their path.

“My Maddox hid his two younger brothers in the forest. But the loupes found them.”

I felt my jaw shake just imagining it. How on earth had he survived?

“He was sixteen,” she continued. “And when they came after him and his brothers… well, he went berserker. Not much was left when I got there. He’d called me, barely able to speak, and I got there as soon as I could.

“I took them home with me and raised them. But Maddox didn’t want that from me. He got a part-time job while he finished high school, and then he just worked and worked. Finally, he left and just wandered. A lone bear like his father had been.”

That was so… awful.

“So he hasn’t shifted since?”

She shook her head. “No.”

He looked to be in his late twenties now, but he was a shifter. He could be as old as fifty and still look that young.

“How old is he?”

“Maddox is twenty-five now.”

Ye gods and little fishes!

He hadn’t shifted in nine years.

“So when that bear of his finally rips its way out, it’ll be like a volcano.” I pinched the bridge of my nose with my thumb and forefinger.

My god, he’d almost changed back at the herb shop.

“He could have torn me to shreds back there, and then gone on a killing spree before someone stopped him.”

She looked down at her hands and nodded. “I know. He’s a danger to himself and others.”

I laughed. “Aren’t you the queen of understatement. He’ll murder everything in his path, who cares that he’s a danger to himself.”

Her eyes looked up at me and the blue of the sky reflected from her irises.

“I care.”

Yeah, I knew that already.

“And by a danger to himself, I meant he’s going to ask the Alpha of the pack here to kill him.”

My stomach fell again.

He wanted the Alpha to kill him before he hurt someone.

I felt my heart pounding in my ribs.

For some unfathomable reason, the thought of him giving up and having someone put him down just hurt my heart.

No one should have to feel so desperate that they would rather choose death than to live.

Especially a shifter.

Shifters didn’t get sick, they grew older very slowly—but when their animals became broken, then they descended into insanity.

And his bear had been caged up inside him for nine years.

It was beyond crazed.

“You have to help him, little medicine woman,” she said.

Was she crazy too?

“As I said, I’m no medicine woman. I’m just a werepuma, a girl with a background in bar and grill management, and that’s it.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but then her eyes widened and she looked behind me, her eyes rising.

Damn…

“He’s standing right behind me, isn’t he?”

She nodded. “He looks calmer, though. That’s a plus.”

“I’m sorry I was so gruff with you earlier,” Maddox said.

He moved around the table until he was standing half way between me and his grandmother.

My mouth was suddenly so dry it hurt to swallow.

“It’s just, you…” he stopped talking and scented the air. “You still smell like my grandmother.”

I blinked at him.

How insane was he?

I looked pointedly at the old woman across the table from me. “There’s a reason for that.”

She sat there and sadly shook her head.

“What would that reason be?” Maddox’s voice had turned hard and brittle again.

Irritation spurred me to say something…

But as I took a deep breath to say it, my words turned to ashes on my tongue.

I looked at the old woman across from me.

She smelled stale.

Her grandson couldn’t see her.

He was so angry about being able to smell her, though.

And she kept calling me little medicine woman.

“Fuck…” I rumbled.

My grandmother would have slapped me in the back of the head for using such language.

But she wasn’t here.

She was dead.

She’d said her mantle of medicine woman for the tribe would be passed down.

And she had told me all my life how she saw the spirits of the dead, and that they sometimes talked to her.

I closed my eyes and bit my lip.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

The old woman sighed.

Maddox said, “Tell you what?”

I opened my eyes and saw he was leaned over, his hands on the tabletop. He was staring at me with utter hostility.

I didn’t blame him a bit.

“You wouldn’t have believed me if I had,” she said. “I had to wait for you to realize it on your own.”

I rubbed my hands over my face and tried to make sense of it all.

But first things first.

I had a huge, volatile werebear in front of me, and I needed to calm him down.

“I didn’t know your grandmother was dead.”

His brows knit together.

I continued.

“I guess I see dead people, ghosts.”

He stood upright and folded his muscular arms across his chest. “Yeah, right.”

“I know,” I said. “It’s kind of a surprise for me too. But I picked your Nonna up at the city limits sign and drove her to your shop.”

“I don’t know what kind of sick joke this is, or how you found something of my grandmother’s.” He took a step closer to me. “But you’re going to give it back to me right now, and then you’re going to get the hell out of town.”

He was looking dangerous again…

The woman called Nonna blew out a disgusted breath and said, “Fine, we'll play it your way.”

I frowned at her. “What?”

“Tell him he still needs to buy me a new pair of lace panties.”

What the…

“Are you serious?”

She just stared at me.

“Okay,” I looked up at him and said, “She says you still need to buy her a new pair of lace panties.”

His glare turned into a frown.

“And if he doesn’t want me to start telling you about what he used to use his socks for when he was seventeen, that he’d better start listening to you.”

“This is just…” I closed my eyes and inwardly had to chuckle. This was just ridiculous.

“She says that unless you want her to start talking about what…” I looked to her again.

She said, “What he used to use his socks for when he was seventeen.”

That’s a strange…

Then it dawned on me.

“Ewww…”

She leveled me with a withering glance. “Just say it.”

I tried to shake the image of what she’d just said out of my head.

But truthfully, the thought of him now, naked, with his…

No.

No, no, no!

I was a good girl.

Well, not that good a girl.

I’d tried everything in that song Follow Your Arrow when I was in college that month and a half. Kissed lots of boys, kissed a couple girls, and drank way too much.

I’d gotten it out of my system real fast.

I’d also figured out I didn’t know what the hell I wanted to be or do, so staying in college—especially at those prices—was ridiculous.

I was a skinflint even back then.

I sighed and said, “She says that unless you want her to start talking about what you used your socks for when you were seventeen—and I’ve already figured that one out, thank you—you’d better start listening to me.”

His eyebrows knitted together. “What?”

I gave him a wide-eyed glare. “Don’t make her explain it, or anything else like it. Please.”

I saw the gears start to whirl in his head as he mouthed the word “socks.”

And then his eyes got wide, and he blushed.

“So,” he said, his voice cracking around the edges, “What does… what does she want you to tell me?”

I turned and looked at the gray-haired woman across from me. “I’d like to know that too.”

She gave us both a disgusted sigh. “Finally! Tell him he’s going to have to release his bear. Broken or not, it has to be done.”

I nodded. “She says you need to release your bear. That broken or not, it has to be done.”

He shook his head. “I can’t do that, and if she’s really… shit!” He scrubbed the back of his neck with his big, rough looking hand. “If she’s really here, then she knows damn well why.”

He was so afraid of what his bear might do, he’d held him in until he was nothing but rage and fury.

I looked to the old woman. “I don’t think it would be safe to let his bear out. It could be a disaster.”

He looked at me, and then to where his grandmother sat. It probably looked like an empty chair to him.

“I’m going to have it taken care of,” he said, his voice flat and nearly inaudible.

I stood up and looked him straight in the eye. “That’s not the way either.”

He shrugged his massive shoulders. “You don’t know shit, lady.”

God, this was a ghoulish conversation.

“I know you’re going to ask the Alpha of this town’s pack to kill you, and I think that…”

His eyes bored into me with so much hate.

“What do you think?” he spat at me. “You think it’s easy to decide this? I’ve been trying to figure out how to get rid of it for years, thought if I just pushed it back, kept it locked up it would go away.”

A shifter’s animal is a living thing. It gives its strength to its host, and the host gives it life. There was no getting rid of it.

“I think you need to stop trying to get rid of your bear.”

He laughed at me. “Do you know what it will do if it ever gets free?”

The thought of that would probably give me nightmares for years to come. And the thought of him releasing that bear anywhere around me made me want to run.

Run for my life.

But…

But it broke my heart to think of this man giving up, letting that precious life of his go.

I looked at the old woman. “You said I could help him, with his broken bear. How?”

“That’s… complicated.”

I leaned across the table and looked into her eyes. “It really isn’t. You said I could help, so you must have some idea about me. A plan?”

She gave me another disgusted sigh. “Everything has to be in a rush with your generation. Rush here, rush there. No patience.”

“Um… what’s she saying?” Maddox asked.

I stood up straight again, glaring at the old woman. “She says we need to be patient.”

“Now I know it’s her,” he growled. “That’s her favorite saying. You have no patience, be patient… show a little patience!”

She pursed her lips and gripped her purse tight enough to make her knuckles turn white.

So the wind didn’t affect her, but she could make her knuckles turn white.

Ghosts are a mass of complications.

“I’m hoping you’ll stick around long enough to… to let this thing sort itself out.”

I pointed my finger at her. “Look, lady, I have no plans on staying here or anywhere for very long. I…”

I had someone to get over…

I had an enormous hole in my life, in my freaking chest…

“I don’t need to stick around here trying to fix your grandson. So if you really want him and his bear fixed, then you’re going to have to spit it out!”

I suddenly realized Maddox and his grandmother were both watching me.

Maddox had this indescribable look on his face. His gaze was burning right into me, but not in the violent, rage-filled way it had been before. This was…

Different.

Made my face warm and…

Damn…

His gaze made my body start to thrum, like a guitar string.

The old woman, though, had a look of concern on her face.

“Fixing his bear is going to help you too.”

That I doubted.

“How’s that?”

She took a breath, and I thought she was going to tell me…

But then she said, “And there’s a monster out in the woods behind my house.”

I blinked at her. “A monster.” I looked at Maddox. “She says there’s a monster in the woods behind her house.”

He laughed. “I’m staying there while I…” He waved that away. “I think I would know if there was anything back in those woods.”

I looked to her. “And since, technically, we’re all monsters here, I think we’ll be safe enough.”

She pounded her little fist on the tabletop. And the thud it made must’ve been something Maddox could hear because he spun around and looked to where his grandmother was sitting.

“What was that?”

“Your Nonna beat her fist on the table. Very dramatic.”

“The monster,” she said, steel in her voice, “is a dark fae.”

I didn’t know much about the fae. They had come to this land far after my people, so they weren’t as ingrained in my culture or our stories. But Gram had spoken of them with reverence and fear.

“Salt,” I said. “Salt and iron are their weakness… that’s all I know about them.”

“Yes,” she said, “but that isn’t going to be enough with this one.”

“Why not?” I was getting tired and needed to sleep. So I didn’t sound all that kindly.

She seemed to know that, her expression softer somehow. “Because it’s old and sneaky, and I didn’t even know it was there until it was too late.”

I stared at her as that little nugget of knowledge seeped into my brain.

“Is it what killed you?”

Maddox turned toward me. “What?” Anger was like a whip in his voice.

“Careful, dear,” she warned.

He kept looking from me to where his grandmother was seated. I could feel the agitation radiating from him. He was only hearing my part of the conversation.

“The monster in the woods is a dark fae, and it killed her,” I said. Better to just put it right out there.

A growl rumbled out of his chest, making my heart skip a beat.

I saw the gold shimmering through the cracks in his irises.

He spun and demanded, “How do I kill it?” of his grandmother.

He needed to calm down, and right now.

His bear was trying to get out, and with us out in the open, and a town of innocent people surrounding us, I had to do something.

I reached out and touched his hand.

I don’t know why I did it. It just felt like what I should do.

Something snapped the instant I touched him: an electrical, magical, chemical thing. It was as if a light switch had been turned on, and we were both bathed in a nearly narcotic, blissful light.

I saw his body sag as the breath whooshed out of his lungs. My hand went all tingly where I was touching him, and I swear I could hear the wind singing to me as it blew through us, washing away our anger and fear effortlessly.

He looked over at me, and the golden cracks in his eyes were gone, only the dark, drowning deep brown of his eyes remaining.

Oh boy… What the heck was happening?

He looked down at where we were holding hands. Slowly his brow furrowed, and he bared his teeth.

With a deep growl, he pulled his hand from mine, making whatever magic we’d fallen into snap off as if it had never been there.

I fell forward against the table and luckily sat down in the chair I’d been in, instead of falling flat on my butt.

Maddox held his hand to his chest, his nostrils flaring. “What the hell are you?”

Hell if I knew. A couple weeks ago I’d been a bartender at my family’s bar and grill, and a werepuma. Now I could see dead people and magic things without even knowing what I was doing, or how… or that it was even going to happen.

“Don’t do that again!” he roared at me.

There were a couple of middle-aged women not twenty feet away, across the street, and they were watching us with rapt attention.

I panted, suddenly winded. “Deal.”

He staggered to the side a few paces, turning as he looked around him.

If he felt anything like I just felt, he was pretty darn dizzy. And had a slight case of dry mouth.

I reached for my cherry pop.

“Ask him how he feels,” the old woman said to me.

I glared at her. “Probably pretty crappy, with a side of dizzy as hell.”

Her fierce eyes bore into me. “Ask him how his bear feels.”

His bear…

“Now!” she demanded.

I held up my hand to her. I got it.

“How does your bear feel?”

His eyes locked on me and for a split second, he looked normal and calm… but a moment later I saw the golden cracks start to appear again, though dimmer.

“Just like he always feels…,” he growled, “like he wants to kill something, and kill it now!”

Okay, that answered that.

He slammed his hand down on the table, and the metal bent, leaving the impression of his hand on the tabletop.

He stared at me with utter hatred. “Tell… whatever it is that’s talking to you that I’ll kill whatever’s in the woods behind the house. But I never want it or you coming anywhere near me again. Got it?”

My bout of dizziness faded and I felt the icy claws of fear scratch up and down my spine.

This man, this bear, was dangerous.

And if I didn’t get the hell out of here he was going to be the death of me.

Literally.

I licked my dry lips and forced my voice not to break, squeak, or wobble. “Consider it done.”

Maddox stood there for another few moments, his eyes crackling with the gold of his bear, the muscles in his jaw tense and pulsing as he stood there.

And then he just turned and walked away. He walked away at a rather fast, somewhat inhuman gait, but technically it was a walk.

When he was out of sight I started to collect my still half full takeout containers and shove them back in the bags.

I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I didn’t think I’d need to sleep for a week with the adrenaline pumping through my veins right then.

“You can’t leave,” Nonna said.

I looked down at the handprint in the metal table.

“Watch me.”

I turned and shoved my bags of half-eaten food in the big trashcan by the front doors of Hannah’s.

“He has no idea what he’s getting into,” she said as I climbed up into my truck and slammed the door shut.

“He’s a big bear, he can figure it out.”

The old Chevy roared to life and before the old woman could holler anything else at me I slammed my foot on the gas and peeled out of the parking lot.

My heart was hammering in my chest as I lurched through town, stopping for a light here, and trying not to rush through a stop sign by the post office.

I just wanted the hell out of this town.

I could hear the rage in Maddox’s voice as he said, “I never want it or you coming anywhere near me again. Got it?”

I got it.

But that didn’t mean that same heart that was beating so fast from fear wasn’t a little broken.

Something, somewhere inside me wouldn’t stop pinging.

Something stupid inside of me was urging me to turn around and drive back.

He needs me…

He needs a therapist.

“He really does need you,” Nonna said from the passenger seat of my truck.

I jumped and swerved, just missing someone’s curbside mailbox.

“Cripes! Don’t do that!” I ground out through gritted teeth.

“Do what?” she asked, her eyes innocent.

I was just about to tell her where to shove that innocent routine when she said, “The dark fae already has its claws in him. He has no idea. And with her hold on him, if he leaves the house tonight, she will take him.”

She looked into my eyes as I slowed my truck to a stop at the side of the road.

“It will kill him.”

This isn’t my problem.

I gripped the steering wheel and willed my foot to stomp on the gas again.

He doesn’t want my help.

I closed my eyes and all I could see were those broken brown eyes, cracked with his bear’s gold.

“He might just try to kill me.” I leaned back in the seat of my truck and stared at the old woman.

She waved my statement off with a flick of her hand. “He was just being dramatic. He was raised a gentleman. He’d never hurt a lady.”

My eyebrows rose. “Think his bear’s a gentleman too?”

“He needs your animal to safely release his bear.”

I shook my head. “No, he needs a pack and an Alpha, and a freaking miracle.”

She just kept talking. “And he’ll need your magic to sever that thing’s hold on him.”

Magic…

Until a minute ago I had no idea I even had magic.

“I don’t know how to do that.”

I didn’t know if I ever would.

“He still needs you,” she said. “Without your help he’ll die tonight… and you know it.”

The chance that that man would stay in the house when the thing that killed his grandmother was just outside his backdoor was slim to none. I know I’d be out there, claws and teeth ready to tear into her.

And that meant that tonight really was the night he would die.

Whether I could stop that from happening was up in the air.

I was pretty sure I couldn’t stop it.

But part of me couldn’t bear the thought of losing Maddox. Not to the dark fae, not to his crazed bear. Not to anyone.

Shiiit…

“Tell me what you know about the Fae.”


Chapter 4


Maddox


My brothers and I had come here after our parents were murdered.

I stood in the kitchen of Nonna’s house, staring out the back window.

The woods behind the house had been where my brothers had played, and where I’d watched them, to ensure they were safe.

And this was where Nonna had watched over us, washing dishes, or cleaning vegetables.

Always watching out after us.

And I hadn’t been here when she’d died.

When she’d been murdered…

I hadn’t even suspected.

But that fae in the woods would die bloody tonight.

I’d picked an old iron carving knife from the back of Nonna’s knife drawer. It had a good balance. Obviously—from the dark though gleaming patina of the blade—made before mass production.

I had a container of iodized salt too, one with a picture of a little girl with an umbrella on it.

I should have been afraid, right?

But I wasn’t.

That probably wasn’t good.

But all I could think was that I wanted to carve up this piece of otherworldly crap and feed it to the fishes in Cedar Falls.

I felt the bear inside me growling its approval. It wanted blood too.

I would never let it out, though.

Since that day, when I’d killed those loupes who’d murdered my parents, and had come, covered in their blood, to kill my brothers and I, I had never shifted again.

And I would never.

I would never claim the sick and twisted animal inside me either.

It was an abomination.

Others of my kind were connected with their bears.

That was nice, for them, but I could never be like that.

I’d fought many shifted bears in the past, and had won every single time.

But I’d never killed again.

But now I would.

The sun had set, and somehow I just knew that dark fae was out there waiting for me.

How long had it been out there, watching me?

How long had it been preying on my grandmother?

I gripped the knife harder. It felt good in my hand.

I thought of the beautiful, infuriating woman from earlier. Her flesh had been tanned with a splash of freckles, and her hair had been long and straight, almost dark enough to be black, but not.

Stormy…

Was that her name?

She hadn’t told me. But I was almost positive it was Stormy.

As if someone had just whispered it in my ear.

My heart pounded harder just thinking about her.

If only I wasn’t broken.

And if only she was the one for me.

But she wasn’t.

She couldn’t be.

She deserved someone better.

The moment I walked outside, the night air seemed to tingle against my flesh, like walking through a spider web. I should have suspected it wasn’t just the cool of the night. But my anger and the need to make that thing bleed led me straight out through the backyard and out into the dark woods, knife in one hand, the canister of salt in the other.

***


I’d been in the state of New York, far to the north of the fabled city, when the authorities there had tracked me down.

I’m a lone bear, or so Nonna had called me. She’d said that’s why neither I nor my brothers could stay in one place very long. My father had been like that.

That’s why we’d been on our own and not in a pack like there was in Cedar Falls.

That’s why the loupes had chosen to hunt us—we were easy pickings.

Two bears and three cubs.

We hadn’t had a chance.

The policewoman and her male rookie partner had tracked me down, having been notified by Cedar Falls PD.

They hadn’t been able to find my brothers. They’d only found me from a postcard I’d sent a few days before.

I’d thanked the police officers, quit my job and started driving south to Cedar Falls. Took less than a day, since I only stopped to use the restroom and fill the gas tank.

I had a key still and let myself into the house.

There had been no crime scene tape.

Nonna had been found out back in the woods.

They’d said it was probably a heart attack, that she’d been lying on the ground, no signs of a struggle.

I’d slept on the floor beside her bed, trying not to let the anger rise in me.

I needed to be in control.

I was always in control.

I would bury Nonna, sell her herb shop, or close it down.

And sell the house?

I didn’t think I could do that. Not for anything.

Maybe I’d give it to her pack when I left. I think she would like for other bears to live in her house, to have a family live here.

When I woke the next morning there had been dishes of food left on the kitchen table, all smelling delicious—I hadn’t eaten since I’d left New York.

Had I left the door unlocked, or did someone have the key?

There was a note pinned to the top of a plate of still warm sausage and bacon.


We’re sorry for your loss and hope this helps in the days ahead.


It was signed Regina Florents.

She lived over the hill, and I remembered her coming over to have tea with Nonna in the winter, and lemonade on the front porch in the summer.

They probably had keys to each other’s homes. Probably had for decades.

That day, after eating and taking a shower, I’d driven into town, took a look around Nonna’s herb shop. She’d had it since I could remember. I was pretty sure it was one of the first shops in the town, first being a general store, and then slowly narrowing its focus into just herbs.

She owned the building and had remodeled it way back then into several shops, hers being in the middle. There was now a beauty salon, a sporting goods store, and a trendy looking coffee shop.

I’m not sure why, but I opened the shop and started working in the shop. She had regular customers, and I’d done my fair share of working in the shop in my teen years. Somehow, it just made me feel like she wasn’t really gone.

Now, walking out into the night-shadowed woods, I saw that I had just been deluding myself.

She wasn’t coming back, and no matter what I told myself, I was just staying here to not feel her loss.

I would kill the thing that killed her, and then I would go to Dax, the local pack Alpha, and ask him to end me.

I hoped he would see how necessary it was, for me, for everyone else too. For their safety.

I stood in the middle of a stand of trees, right where Nonna had been found a few weeks before.

But I didn’t feel anything…

Not angry, not guilty…

I felt numb.

And that’s when the creature showed itself.

Tall, willowy, and unearthly.

I tightened my hold on the carving knife.

But as it came closer, it seemed to change. Its stark lines turning to feminine curves, its naked, husk-like skin turning to soft, silky flesh, a sheer gown of green draping from her shoulders—she was a vision.

Somehow I knew, just knew she’d been here a long time, in this land, and she’d been so happy to find my grandmother. She’d fed from her magic and her animal for a full cycle of the moon.

I didn’t find that disturbing, and I was no longer angry.

I was just standing there, staring at her, waiting for her to tell me what she wanted me to do.

Like she was…

My master…

She smiled as that thought whispered through my mind. Her lips were blue and cold looking, but also delicious looking.

She came closer and I felt my body respond to her. My pulse quickened, my flesh burned and my cock hardened.

She reached out toward me and I thought, for just a moment, of the knife in my hand…

But it was gone, and so was… well, whatever else I’d had in my other hand.

I looked into her eyes, and the frosty green made me think of frozen swamp water.

You are mine… came a coarse whisper in my mind. You will be delicious.

The moment her hand touched my face I felt her drawing on me, sipping me like I was…

Like wine… the cold voice mused. Delicious…

My legs shook and my heart skipped a beat.

Just like being in love… she mused.

Love.

I’ve never been in love…

She lifted her other hand to the other side of my face, cupping my jaw in her cold, rough hands.

Those hands looked so soft…

If I ever fell in love… I would want it to be with someone like…

And just as I thought of her, she appeared at the edge of my vision.

“Stormy,” I breathed, feeling something well up in me just looking at her.

The fae pulled her hands from me and hissed. Her face was stark and cold, and her hands had smoke coming off them.

I fell back against a tree, my heart slamming against my chest and my lungs burning.

My legs felt as if they could hardly hold me upright.

I looked past the fae woman, to where Stormy stood. She had a sword in her hand, long and elegant, and she stood with it pointed at the fae.

“I think you have something of mine.”


Chapter 5


Stormy


It’s amazing how much someone could know about a subject. Maddox’s grandmother went on and on and on about legends, parables, fables and why each one of them was true and untrue at the same time.

It was like having Gram explaining a vision quest to you and discounting the parts she didn’t experience when she went on one, but also telling you about the parts others had sworn had happened to them on their vision quests.

Like trying to learn how to do something on the computer using a book of riddles as a guide.

So aggravating.

I hadn’t learned anything useful in the two hours I’d been listening to her.

But I did have a headache, and I was irritable and scared—of what was waiting for me in the woods behind the old woman’s house, and of her grandson.

When that bear of his ripped out him, it would kill every living thing for miles.

And there would be nothing I could do about it.

I could be the lucky first to die…

“Okay, okay…” I shook my head and gritted my teeth. “I just don’t see how any of this is going to help me.”

If only the thing in the woods were of Native American origin. I wouldn’t know how to stop it, but at least I wouldn’t be going in blind. Gram had been teaching me, grooming me to become a medicine woman without me even realizing it.

“It shouldn’t be able to affect you as it does Maddox or me.”

“Why? And how is it affecting Maddox? He didn’t even know it was out there all this time.”

The old woman’s eyes were so sad. “She’s been weaving her magic into him, even through the protections of my home’s threshold. There was just me living in there for so long, the power of the threshold was diminished.”

I held up my hand. “Weaving?”

“She is fae. Her magic is like a thin thread, and it penetrates and makes knots. That’s how it slips into you undetected until it’s too late.”


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