Alpha Unmasked: BBW Bear Shifter Romance (Greenwood Shifters Book 1) (2 page)

BOOK: Alpha Unmasked: BBW Bear Shifter Romance (Greenwood Shifters Book 1)
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* * *

R
achel slid
the door of the van shut. She scowled at the peeling logo and blew at a stubborn speck of dust, but a few flecks of paint blew away instead. With the balance the client, Cyrus Greenwood, owed, she may have enough extra money to have the logo scraped and repainted.

Callisto’s Masquerade was a gig for which any caterer with an ounce of ambition would kill. It didn’t pay as well as it should have, but it offered exposure to the sort of people who loved to throw money around on events and parties. If people liked their pastries, she’d be set for the next party season, maybe the next year. If they didn’t, it was back to Seattle and bail bonds with the rest of her family.

Rachel pushed the worries to the back of her mind. Callisto’s Masquerade was also the classiest event in Los Angeles, at least the classiest event that someone like her could get into: a genuine masquerade ball. The idea of it excited her more than she cared to admit. Once she finished setting up she planned to find a corner to spy on the attendees and their glamorous costumes. Then she had a warm lavender bath and a hot cup of coffee waiting for her at home. With her luck, someone would shoo her away before she got a good look at anyone. She’d made herself presentable. But Rachel’s version of presentable was a pair of black slacks, a nice blouse, and sensible heels, not exactly proper for sneaking into a costume ball.

It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy getting done up. Fancy parties in Los Angeles meant rooms full of people calculating what they could get from everyone else in the room. Appearance was a big part of the calculation, and Rachel couldn’t afford to splurge.

Rachel made her way toward the kitchen with the last tray of apple blossoms. Even the service hallway had its charms. The sterile white walls and tiles looked brand new. If the owners spent that much money on upkeep for the parts people didn’t see, she could only imagine how nice everything else would be.

She’d only told one person about catering the ball, her roommate Megan. When her ex-boyfriend, Michael, had left her a blubbering and homeless mess, Megan had taken her in without question. And Megan was still the only person Rachel could bring herself to share her hopes with.

“You should stay at the Masquerade after you finish setting up,” Megan had said. “Find a hot guy to dance with.”

“How will I know if they’re hot? It’s a masked ball.”

“Puh-lease, you can tell if man is hot without seeing his face. It’s all in the shoulders.”

Rachel chuckled to herself as she set the serving trays onto a nearby table. A man in glasses carrying a black leather binder came up to her. His hair was slicked back. He wore a waistcoat, breeches, and shoes so shiny that Rachel could see her reflection in them.

“I’m looking for Miss Simmons?”

Rachel looked over her shoulder and nodded. “I’m Rachel Simmons.”

“I’m Louis, Mr. Greenwood’s assistant.” He looked her up and down and frowned. “No, no. Your outfit won’t do at all. It’s far too plain.”

Rachel looked down at herself and frowned. “For setting out trays?”

Louis pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “For serving, Miss Simmons. Everyone has to be in costume, even the service staff.”

“It’s Rachel. And I’m not service staff. Just the caterer.”

“Yes, and your contract clearly states that you are to provide and serve the agreed upon pastries.” He looked over the tray and frowned again. “Is this all of them?”

Rachel’s mouth fell open before she could cover her shock. “There must be some mistake.”

Louis squared his shoulders and tugged at the ends of his elaborate vest. “Miss Simmons, we discussed all of this, at length, when I brought the contracts to your office.”

“Now I know there’s been a mistake. We’ve never met.”

“It’s all right here, Miss Simmons.” He opened the leather binder and held it out for Rachel to see.

There were two signatures, hers and Michael’s. Sure enough, there was a clause saying they were to attend in costumes or formal attire and serve the guests.

Rachel rubbed her forehead in frustration. She would never agree to a contract that required her to serve. Flour, eggs, and sugar she could handle, but she was horrible with demanding customers. It must have been another little detail Michael forgot to share with her. Like their empty checking account or the lease that only had his name on it.

Her mind whirled. There wasn’t time to call in a favor from anyone she knew, and she couldn’t afford to hire a server for the night. Any hope she had of seeing the ball vanished as did her hopes for having the van repainted. She’d just handed Louis an easy way not to pay what he owed, but keep all her product.

“You’ll have to go downstairs to costuming. They’ll have something that fits you. And best do it quickly, Miss Simmons. The service staff is expected to attend the opening ceremony with the guests.”

With that, Louis clapped the binder closed and scampered off in the opposite direction.

Rachel took a moment to calm her ragged nerves. “Bastard could have warned me that it wasn’t a standard contract.”

Even as she said it, part of her was glad he hadn’t. She’d have blown her budget on a server, or refused the contract if she’d known ahead of time. Her bank account couldn’t afford either. Her little business wouldn’t survive if word got around that she’d blown a contract for Callisto’s Masquerade.

Rachel made sure the plastic wrap on the trays was secure and made her way down to costuming. At least she’d get to see the costumes. The rest just wasn’t meant to be.

2

D
irk sipped
his glass of champagne and watched his mother joke politely with Alexandra Tenwick. The younger woman twirled, and the light made her gold gown sparkle. Her mask matched her gown perfectly. Cass Tenwick stood close enough to the large mirror in the backstage area to check his costume without being noticed. Marlow Tenwick and Cyrus were outside, each enjoying a cigar and scotch. Both Alphas checked their dominance, but everyone knew that Cyrus had more power and more money than Marlow Tenwick.

Every male bear shifter could exert dominance to some degree. But the Alphas possessed the most. In the old days, shifters assumed that a man was born with a certain level of power. Dirk still got a laugh at that. Cyrus taught him and Maddock that you earned the right to dominate through words and actions, through presence only when necessary.

Cyrus’s actions seemed open enough, but the breeze that blew into the room through the open door was thick and heavy, a sure sign that someone was using their presence to dominate.
Old habits…
Dirk drained his glass and set it on a table.

The Greenwood family would take the stage three times during Callisto’s Masquerade. First time being at the beginning to welcome the patrons, the final time at the end of the night with a closing ceremony to send the patrons away.

At the midpoint of the ball, there would be a ceremony to acknowledge important guests. This year, Cyrus would also announce Dirk’s engagement. Daniella Crimmons was a phantom prospect. If Cyrus had any faith in that arrangement, he’d have invited her family to the Masquerade. No, Cyrus intended for Dirk to marry Alex. The knowledge left a bitter tinge in Dirk’s mouth, which he drowned with more champagne.

Everything seemed so ordinary, but something was coming. He could feel it. Maybe it was just the choice looming over his head. A lifetime mated to a woman he hated. Choose or die. More than likely, Alex had received similar orders, maybe even the same day. As if she heard his thought, Alex Tenwick turned and waved at him. A wide smile spread across her face, and for a second Dirk almost thought she was happy to see him. His mother’s hand on his shoulder brought him out of his thoughts.

“You seem off tonight,” she said. A warm but concerned smile spread across her lips, but stopped just before her eyes. Where Cyrus radiated power, Miranda radiated warmth.

“I’m all right, Mama,” Dirk said, forcing a smile to his face.

He grabbed another glass of champagne from a passing waiter and took a sip of it to cover the obvious lie. He nodded toward Cyrus and Marlow Tenwick. “What are those two plotting now, I wonder?”

As if he didn’t know. Marlow and Cyrus would be deep into the final negotiations for his and Alex’s marriage. The Tenwicks lived in New York. Cyrus may want his remaining son to join their clan, but Dirk knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t allow Dirk to take a low-ranking position. That meant his flaws would have to be smoothed over. Some of them, like his missing bear, would have to be covered entirely.

Alex wandered over to them before Miranda could answer. “Dirk, you remember Alexandra Tenwick.”

The heiress reached for a fold of her gown and pulled it to the side, curtseying to him and extending a well manicured hand for him to kiss. It took everything he had not to roll his eyes as he brought her soft hand up to his lips.

“I’m going to help your father get his mask on. You two chat.” Miranda said.

What a treat it must have been to her, introducing Dirk to his potential mate. Miranda wasn’t as cunning as her husband, but she was just as deeply committed to the success of her clan. It was a matter of duty, and she’d raised her children to perform theirs, no matter how bitterly.

Dirk looked back to Alex. “Wearing a mask already?”

“It
is
a masquerade.” The smile remained etched on her face as she spoke. “The real question is why aren’t you wearing yours?”

He shrugged and set his empty champagne glass on a nearby table. “Why hide?”

Alexandra pressed her lips into a thin line, watching Dirk with obvious disapproval. Then she smiled. “I just love this time of year, don’t you? So many parties. Daddy always says the clans have to stick together. All clans are only as strong as the weakest. People are always most at ease when they’re having a good time, don’t you find?”

“Sounds charming.”

“It can be. Or don’t you enjoy interclan politics?”

Dirk snorted. “Not at all.”

She covered her disappointment better than Dirk expected, but it was there. At least she was trying to get along with him. Her Alpha must have told her to be on her best behavior.

There was no reason Dirk couldn’t do the same. “I like parties all right, I guess. As long as they don’t go on too long.”

Alex gazed into his eyes for a few seconds as if what he said offered some hidden path into his mind. She sighed and shrugged. “Do you feel anything?”

“Not a damn thing.”

“That’s a shame. It won’t make the first few years of marriage easy.”

“I’m not your mate, Alex.”

“Did your Alpha give you the impression that whether or not we are true mates mattered? Mine didn’t.”

“You’re telling me you want to go through with it?”

“Nobody of our status finds a true mate anymore,” Alex raised her chin, as if she took pride in her status and the rules that came with it. “We’ll get married, and we’ll start our lives together. You’ll work for Daddy. We’ll have beautiful babies, and Daddy will teach them to be Alphas in their own right. The rest will sort itself out. And what doesn’t I’ll sort out for us.”

Alex’s warm smile gave way to a smirk. That was the Alex Tenwick that Dirk remembered, twice as beautiful as all the female shifters in their generation, and twice as cunning. She might have inherited the Alpha position herself if the clan laws allowed it.

He’d be damned if he’d spend a lifetime with her. He wasn’t sure he could bring himself to spend an entire evening with her.

“Places, Mr. Greenwood,” a stagehand said as he passed by.

Dirk leaned down and pressed a chaste kiss to the exposed portion of Alex’s cheek. If he wanted to get out of this, he had a role to play. He pulled his mask out of his pocket and settled it over his face.

* * *

T
he Belmont Hotel
had a lot of ambiance and history, but no air conditioning. If Rachel had known, she would have grabbed a stiff piece of paper to use as a fan. But she hadn’t, so the best she could do was try to ignore the beads of sweat as they dripped down her neck and between her breasts. Which was easy, because she was busy moving along the wall of the ballroom, trying to stay out of sight.

The costume mistress won the verbal battle over the corset, despite Rachel’s protests. Every female staff member had to wear one, and no it didn’t matter that Rachel would be behind a table passing out dessert all night. The corset was unforgiving chocolate brown leather that stopped just beneath Rachel’s breasts. Breathing in the contraption wasn’t easy, but it was better than the tug-of-war the dress caused.

Despite the fact that it was in her size, Rachel couldn’t quite manage to make all the thin linen material cover her body at the same time. If she pulled the thigh-high hem down, she lost an inch of fabric from her breasts. If she pulled the dress up to cover her breasts, her mid-thigh peeked out from below the loose miniskirt.

A few male patrons glanced at her as she found a spot near the front of the room. At least from there she could see the stage and ignore the men leering at her exposed cleavage. This wasn’t how she’d envisioned spying on the guests. Still, it wasn’t all bad. Everyone else’s costumes were as beautiful as she’d hoped.

Some of the dancers from downstairs were in the middle of an elaborate piece of choreography. Gasps and scattered applause from the crowd punctuated the performance. From the look of it, the number was an interpretive version of a battle between elves and goblins. Rachel couldn’t help but gasp as the Elf King swung his arm across his body and the Goblin King twirled and fell to the stage. The Goblin Queen knelt beside him as the rest of the goblins stomped and roared in rage.

The stage lights went down, and the dancers left the stage to scattered applause. The applause grew louder as the lights came back up and the hosts took the stage, two men in pale green togas, and a woman in a pale green Roman dress. Each wore identical black masks etched in a lace pattern. The two men towered over the woman, and both had massive chests and broad shoulders. Their bodies would put Greek gods to shame.

The younger of the two men was by far hotter. Gorgeous even, judging by his sharp jaw and tousled brown hair. His pale green toga stopped at the thickest curve of his firm muscular thighs. The top gave her a fantastic view of his sculpted chest. Rachel’s stomach fluttered as her eyes roamed over the taut muscles of his thighs. Too bad the costume mistress had given her the rules before sending her upstairs. No smoking, no drinking, and absolutely no flirting.

The man with salt-and-pepper hair stepped into the center of the stage and the applause grew louder until he raised his arms for quiet.

“Welcome to Callisto’s Masquerade!” he boomed. “Old friends, I want to thank you for joining us again to mark the season’s end. New friends, I am Cyrus Greenwood. This is my wife, Miranda.”

Miranda stepped forward and waved like a beauty queen.

“And my son,” Cyrus continued. “Dirk.”

Dirk stepped forward and waved. As he looked through the crowd, his eyes locked on Rachel for a second, and she felt a small jolt move through her. She thought she saw Dirk’s body tremble, but then his eyes moved on to the other side of the crowd.

Rachel followed his gaze into the crowd, and a chill crept up her spine. On the other side of the room, with a leggy blonde on his arm, was Michael. He was wearing a mask and a centurion costume, but she’d know him anywhere. The man who’d chewed her up and spit her back out.

Her breath caught in her throat. She couldn’t speak if her life depended on it. All she could do was listen as her heart raced and the room spun. Visions of an enchanting evening shattered before her eyes. A hot ball of tension settled in her stomach and obliterated every twinge of desire she’d felt just a second ago. She needed out. Now.

“It’s a special night for our family, but we’ll get to that later. For now, please eat, drink, and revel!”

The Elf Queen and Goblin Queen came back onto the stage, one carrying a
ceremonial
gold bowl with a tiny flame in the center, the other a leather satchel. Cyrus reached into the satchel and tossed a handful of the powder into the bowl. The fire flared and sparked.

Rachel wiggled her way past a man dressed as a Roman soldier and his Vestal Virgin date. She had to get to the Greenwoods before they disappeared. No amount of money was worth spending an evening in the same place as her ex. Louis met the Greenwoods as they came off stage. He positioned himself between Rachel and the Greenwoods as if he knew what Rachel was planning.

“Miss Simmons. It’s time for the staff to take their positions.”

Rachel brushed past him and marched up to Cyrus Greenwood. Louis was a fussy busybody, but Greenwood had the juice to let her out of this hell. She just had to make him understand that she would rather be in a hot pool of rancid lava than in a room with Michael.

“Mr. Greenwood. I’m Rachel Simmons,” she said. “I’m your caterer.”

Cyrus looked at her like she was a particularly intriguing species of bug, and then forced a fake smile to his face. She could hear Louis nearly choking on his tongue behind her.

“Ah yes, Miss Simmons. Your choice of costume is…interesting.”

“I didn’t choose it.” She pulled the fabric up over her breasts again. “I’m afraid there’s been an emergency and I have to leave. I know the contract says I’m supposed to serve, but—”

“Miss Simmons, my guests are used to a certain level of care. Having only one server is already pushing it. If you leave, I’ll have no choice but to contact my lawyer. I’m sure he’ll agree that you are in breach of contract.”

Rachel’s heart sank. Staying was bad; a bad review was worse. A lawsuit would kill everything she’d been working for. It would sink her into a mountain of debt. She could barely afford the rent on the store and her apartment, let alone a lawyer.

Off to the side, Dirk chatted with a woman dressed in a gold ball gown. While most of the other women’s costumes followed a theme, this woman apparently put on the most glamorous dress she could find. Rachel felt a slight twinge of jealousy. Of course he was a lady magnet. He was gorgeous, and if his family’s ability to bankroll a huge party was any clue, filthy rich.

Rachel sank her teeth into her lip. There was no way she wouldn’t see Michael if she spent the night stuck behind a table passing out pastries. She didn’t have the slightest hope that he wouldn’t recognize her in the costume and mask. If she’d known him on sight, then he would know her.

Rachel heard a horrified gasp and looked over just in time to see the golden woman slap the Greek god right across his perfect face. She stormed off through a side exit in a flurry of gold sparkles, leaving a wave of silence behind her.

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