Alpha Unmasked: BBW Bear Shifter Romance (Greenwood Shifters Book 1) (3 page)

BOOK: Alpha Unmasked: BBW Bear Shifter Romance (Greenwood Shifters Book 1)
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“I guess she didn’t like my joke.” Dirk said as he rubbed his jaw.

Rachel chuckled before she could stop herself.

Cyrus pressed his lips into a thin line. Rachel suddenly felt a heavy weight on her shoulders though no one had touched her or moved at all. The invisible weight pushed down, making her shoulders tremble. She’d seen that face on her father before, anytime she’d broken a dish or refused to do a chore the second he told her to. Anytime she’d brought home a bad grade. The day she’d admitted she had no interest in following in his bounty-hunting footsteps.

Cyrus snapped his fingers and beckoned Dirk, whose shoulders also trembled.

“I have an idea, Miss Simmons.”

Rachel winced at the weight on her shoulders. “Go on.”

“Since my son is apparently in need of an escort for the evening, and you are wearing a costume, you can stay with him.”

“You want me to babysit your grown son?” she asked. Dirk scowled.

“I’ll sweeten the deal,” Cyrus said. “If Dirk makes it through the evening without embarrassing me, our family, or himself, I’ll give you a bonus.”

She stared at Cyrus in shock. “What happened to needing a server?”

“I can find another staff member to cover it,” Louis said from his spot behind her.

Rachel rubbed her temples. This wasn’t how she’d wanted the conversation to go at all. She wanted to be headed home, toward her bath and far away from Michael.

“Mr. Greenwood, I—”

“That’s my final offer, Miss Simmons.”

The white-hot ball in her stomach swelled as the weight on her shoulders got heavier. She hated snap decisions.

“Louis, find Martin. Tell him one of the staff is in breach of contract.”

“Wait!” she said. She swallowed and looked at Dirk again. Even with the weight on her shoulders and ball of lead in her stomach, there was something else there when she looked at him. It was the only sensation she’d had in the past few minutes that wasn’t awful.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll do it.”

3

D
irk’s head
swam as he sank his teeth into his tongue. If he didn’t stop soon he’d taste blood, but it was the only way to keep from screaming at Cyrus. The indignity of being slapped in public was one thing. Something told him it wouldn’t be the last time his would-be-mate slapped him. But Cyrus’s little stunt with the caterer was another.

A wave of rage washed over him as Cyrus took Miranda’s hand, brushed past him, and moved toward the entrance to the Grand Hall. Dirk grabbed the caterer’s hand and pulled her out the side door onto the enclosed patio. A small jolt shot through his arm when he touched her. The pain made his heart race, but he pushed the sensation aside. At least nobody would stare at them for five minutes.

He finally turned to the caterer and took a good look at her. She flashed him a tentative smile. The poor girl didn’t even realize that the deal was stacked against her. Cyrus promised her a bonus if she kept Dirk from embarrassing the family, but she didn’t have a hope of collecting. Her very presence was enough to cause embarrassment.

He could tell from her scent that she was human. So could every other shifter in the room. Position was everything among the clans. The offspring of a shifter and a human might not be born a shifter, and that made any union between them a bad bet. In the higher clans, like the Greenwoods, any member who took a human mate faced banishment, if the Alpha didn’t kill the human first.

Even letting the human mate live was a cruel sort of punishment. Banishment was worse than exile. An exile was technically still part of the clan, and therefore under its protection. A banished shifter had no such rights. In effect, they became a rogue.

Every shifter in the hotel would be gossiping about Dirk’s human date. He didn’t much care what people thought. Hell, if it ever got out that he’d lost touch with his bear, people would say far worse about him. But he hated gossip, more so when he was the subject of it.

Most of the guests were leaving the ballroom when Cyrus saddled him with the human escort. If he was lucky, he had about an hour before word started to spread. There was no question about it; he had to ditch the human before too many more people found out. If she were smart, she’d lie low until the end of the night, and pretend she hadn’t left Dirk’s side.

He looked over at his hastily arranged date. She was taller than Alexandra, and curvier. The swell of her breasts beneath the straining fabric of her dress tantalized him. The vision sent another jolt of energy from his heart through the rest of his body. It settled on the growing hardness between his legs.
Damn it, not now.

The caterer cleared her throat and tilted her head so that her silky black hair spilled over her breasts.
Pity.

“Does it hurt much?” she asked.

God, her voice was like warm honey. He played it over in his mind, losing himself in the tones for a moment before what she said registered. “Does what hurt?”

She rolled her eyes and reached up, running her fingers along his jaw.

He pushed her hand away, and all thoughts of her luscious body with it. “It’s fine. Leave it.”

She frowned and crossed her arms in front of her chest.

Dirk frowned too. He hadn’t meant to snap at her. It wasn’t her fault that they were stuck together. For some reason, he felt the need to put her at ease. “Your costume is nice. Sexy.”

“Thank you,” she said with more edge to her voice than he liked. She tugged at the edges of her skirt. The motion drew his attention to her smooth, curvy thighs. He could almost imagine sliding his tongue along them, watching her writhe under his touch until she begged him for more.

Her voice brought him back to himself once again. “Do you and your parents always wear matching costumes?”

“My father likes to present a united front.” The thought of Cyrus was enough to finally push any lingering desire out of his mind.

“Yeah, I spotted that.”

If there were a prize for worst date of the Masquerade, Dirk was certainly in the running. In ten minutes he’d done nothing but stare at her breasts and take a swipe at his parents. The best thing for both of them was to go their separate ways.

“I’ll level with you. Miss…”

“Rachel. Just Rachel.”

“Rachel. Neither of us wants to be here. Why don’t we separate and lie low until the end of the night? If we avoid my father and his lap kitty, nobody will know the difference.”

“I don’t know.” A look of desperation crossed her beautiful face. Maybe she was just as eager to drop her date for the evening. It stung a bit. But he had nobody but himself to blame for the bad first impression.

“Trust me, Rachel. I know just how to disappear at these things.”

For a second she looked relieved, and Dirk thought she might take the deal. “Sorry, Mr. Greenwood—”

“Dirk.”

“I’ve already been given a big freaking list of rules, and I’m pretty sure they all boil down to ‘do what the boss says.’ Your dad’s the boss, and he told me to keep an eye on you.”

“He wouldn’t have to know.”

“So you can rat me out to him and have a laugh when he sends his lawyer after me? No thanks,” she snapped. “Sorry if I cramp your style, Casanova, but you’re stuck with me.”

Dirk hadn’t expected her to be so fiery in her rejection. He searched her face for a hint at her feelings. He’d done it hundreds of times before. His ability to read people was one of the main reasons he had any success in investing. The fact that he couldn’t quite nail Rachel was intriguing. It didn’t hurt that she looked amazing.

“Okay, I guess I deserved that.”

“You did.”

Dirk sank his teeth into his lip again. Why did she have to be so difficult? The entire thing would have been easier if he could tell her that she signed up to spend her night with a man who could turn into a grizzly bear. Well, used to be able to turn into a grizzly bear.

“I only meant—”

“I know what you meant. You didn’t plan on spending your evening with the help. Your family has money to blow on fancy parties. How could I possibly keep up?”

“It’s my father’s party, not mine. And I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to offend you.” Dirk took her hand. A wave of warmth moved from his fingers and up his arm. Something stirred in him, something more than arousal.

She stared at their hands, but she didn’t pull away. “I’m sorry. This isn’t how I expected my night to go. Callisto’s Masquerade. Who’s Callisto anyway?”

“A Greek princess. And nymph of Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the moon.”

A small smile appeared on Rachel’s full lips. Good, she was impressed. He could work with impressed.

“She took a vow of chastity,” he said. “But the god Zeus seduced her. Zeus was powerful, and extremely fertile. Callisto’s pregnancy wasn’t discovered for months.”

“What happened to her?”

“Artemis flew into a rage. She revoked all protection from Callisto, and banished her from her realm. That’s when Hera, Zeus’s wife, took revenge.” Dirk looked down at Rachel as he talked. Her scent was warm, like lavender. He felt a sudden urge to bury his nose in her silky black hair.

“She should have taken it up with Zeus,” she said.

“Probably, but none of the gods or goddesses dared attack Zeus. How do you take on the god of gods? But a disgraced nymph? That was a far easier target. And Hera had a habit of punishing women who caught her husband’s eye. She turned Callisto into a bear.”

Rachel’s brow wrinkled. “Why a bear?”

“I always thought it was because of a bear’s nature. They can be beautiful, but fearsome. Bears are solitary animals, and humans stay clear because they’re so dangerous.”

“So she sentenced her to solitary confinement?”

Dirk laughed. He’d heard the myth of Callisto dozens of times, but he’d never quite made the connection that way. “I guess she did.”

“What about her baby?”

“When he was born, Zeus hid him where Hera couldn’t find him. He grew up to be the best hunter in Greece. Then one day on a hunt, he crossed paths with Callisto. She remembered her son, and she tried to hug him. But Arcas didn’t recognize his mother. He thought the hug was an attack, and he responded with force. To save them both, Zeus sent them to the stars.”

“That’s horrible,” she whispered.

“It gets worse. As a last act of revenge, Juno convinced Oceanus to freeze Callisto and Arcas in place. That’s why everywhere in the Northern hemisphere, no matter what time of year, you can see the Big Dipper. At least that’s what the Greeks thought. Anyway, it’s just a story.”

“I think it’s a good story. Except Hera should get it at the end.”

Dirk laughed again. “The bad guys never do.”

Behind her, the first guests trickled out of the stuffy ballroom into the cool night air, so much for keeping his impromptu escort quiet. He wasn’t so eager to ditch her anymore, but he had the family honor and her paycheck to protect. And the clock was ticking.

4

T
here were worse
ways to earn a thousand dollars, Rachel told herself. She could have been ordered to spend the evening with Cyrus himself. Something about him rubbed Rachel the wrong way. Maybe it was the little smile he wore like he knew something she didn’t, and was only waiting for a chance to use it against her. She could have been sent back down to the bitchy costume mistress and her judgmental tape measure.

Yes, there were worse ways to spend the evening than with gorgeous Dirk Greenwood, even if he did keep trying to ditch her.

The empty patio was now nearly crammed with guests. One woman’s gold floor-length dress sparkled under the streetlights. Rachel realized that she was the woman who’d slapped Dirk and stormed off. She glanced down at her own costume again and frowned. Even the material of Dirk’s simple toga seemed more luxurious than her under-dress.

No wonder he kept trying to ditch her. Well, she wasn’t having it. She needed that money and no spoiled rich kid was going to keep it from her. Not even one chiseled from marble and tanned to perfection.

The glint from the gold dress caught Dirk’s eye and drew his attention. His eyes narrowed as the woman glanced at him and waved. “How about I go find us a drink?” he asked, turning back to Rachel.

Rachel pursed her lips. “That was clumsy, Dirk. I’m actually disappointed.”

He glanced at the growing crowd. “Do you really want to listen to the small talk?” he whispered.

She turned her head to the crowd, just in time to see the woman with the sparkling dress extend a bejeweled arm for someone to admire. The patron dutifully took the woman’s arm and turned it, so that her jewels could catch the light and sparkle even more.

“Point taken.”

He laughed and pressed a hand against the small of her back to guide her. Rachel tried to ignore her throbbing heart. Why should one touch mean so much? She wasn’t allowed to flirt with him or any patron. Something told her that particular rule wasn’t lifted just because she was technically Dirk’s date.

“The hotel has a decent enough wine selection. The twenty-five-year-old scotch is good, too,” he said.

“Beer’s fine. Whiskey’s better,” she said.

As they made their way toward the door into the ballroom, Michael and his date stepped out.

Rachel whirled around so she was face-to-face with Dirk. The look of panic in her eyes must have been more obvious than she’d intended because Dirk looked down at her with a mixture of confusion and concern.

“What’s wrong? Changed your mind?”

“Hey, you’re Dirk Greenwood aren’t you?” Michael’s voice came from directly behind her. Dirk looked over Rachel and nodded.

“I am,” Dirk said.

From his tone, Rachel didn’t think Dirk appreciated being recognized.

“I just read about you in Los Angeles Magazine! Bringing tech back to LA. Great piece!” Michael clapped Dirk on the arm, and for a second, Rachel thought she heard a soft growl catch in Dirk’s throat.

Rachel turned around and moved so that she stood by Dirk’s side. The leather of Michael’s centurion costume looked sturdy, but worn at the edges, and the vest too large for him. His mask was brown, with red swirls of glitter that fell away whenever he moved. Michael’s date wore a tight 1950’s pin dress that clung for dear life to her slim figure. She glanced at Rachel and her plain costume, and then turned back to Michael, who continued to fawn over Dirk.

Rachel waited for Michael to recognize her. She tried to prepare a biting come back for whatever backhanded compliment he gave her, but nothing came to mind. Michael glanced at her, but he didn’t seem to recognize her at all.

“Thank you. Enjoy your night.” Dirk took Rachel by the arm and tried to brush past Michael.

“Oh, man. You guys go all out, don’t you?” Michael pressed his hand against Dirk’s chest to keep him from leaving. “This place is amazing. How do you even book a place like this?”

“I don’t,” Dirk said, a sneer on his lips. “We hire someone to.”

“Yeah, I hear you. That’s the thing about Los Angeles,” Michael dropped his hand back to his side. “Whenever you want to do something, all of the good places are booked. I’ve got a buddy over in West Hollywood that’s been trying to start a comedy show, but can’t find a spot for love or money.”

“So you’re a comedian?” As he spoke, Dirk hooked an arm around Rachel’s waist and angled their bodies toward the door, but away from Michael. The warmth of his hand radiated up her side and she found herself fighting not to rest her head against his chest.

“I’m a producer, actually. I’m looking at doing a feature next year.” Michael slid two fingers into the waist of his costume and produced a business card. “If you’re looking to get into entertainment, give me a call.”

Rachel had to cover her mouth with her hand to hide her laughter. Leave it to Michael to network with someone far above his pay grade. His social climbing tendencies hadn’t been the only issue in their relationship, just the one that made her most expendable.

Dirk snatched the card. “Thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’m needed somewhere.”

He pivoted around Michael’s date and headed for the door, pulling Rachel with him. Dirk was gorgeous, smooth, and completely out of her league. Rachel didn’t warrant notice from a man who’d seen her naked body for two years. It stung more than it should have and far more than she cared to admit.

Maybe there weren’t worse places she could be.

She let Dirk set their walking speed as they moved through the deserted ballroom. Something about the ornately decorated room struck Rachel as sad. None of the decorations were out of place, but there were no glamorous patrons there to enjoy them. At least the warmth of Dirk’s hand provided some comfort. He didn’t move his hand from her side until they were in the hallway.

“Are you all right?” His voice was warm, as if he could tell that the encounter with Michael had rattled her.

Rachel nodded and brought her trembling hands up to her face. “That was my ex-boyfriend and the woman he left me for. I wish he wouldn’t fawn all over me like that. I’ve heard of carrying a torch, but have some dignity.” Under normal circumstances, a bit of sarcasm helped Rachel cope with distasteful situations. These were not normal circumstances.

“He’s really charming. I especially liked the business pitch. I can honestly say I’ve never had a centurion pitch a film venture to me.” Dirk dumped the card into a nearby trashcan.

“I wish I could call that a new low for him.” She sighed and clasped her hands together, anything to hide the shaking. “I really should be more charitable. It wasn’t all bad.”

“Maybe, or you could try hiding less. People like him always notice the biggest target in the room. The guy whose father has enough money to put this thing together? That’s a big target. Most people are happy enough to let everyone else hide.”

“You’re an expert on people
and
Greek mythology?”

He laughed. The sound poured over Rachel like warm honey and melted away the last bit of chill she felt from the run-in with Michael.

“Only Callisto. It was one of my mother’s favorite bedtime stories. I’ve actually never told that story to anybody else. Nobody wants to talk about Greek mythology when there’s so much networking to be done.”

“I’ll bet it comes with the territory, what with you being a famous tech…whatever you are.”

“I’m not famous. A buddy of mine is a staff writer at Los Angeles magazine. He needed a story, and I need a few more clients. I run an incubator.”

Rachel raised an eyebrow in confusion. “You sell chickens?”

Dirk smiled, but there was no note of mockery in his voice when he spoke. “Not quite. Basically, if you want to start a business, you come to me and I invest some money and work out the logistics to help you get started. If it works, then I own a piece of it.”

“If it doesn’t?” Rachel rubbed her arms, her fingers running over goose bumps that gave away how cold she was. She found herself missing Dirk’s warmth.

“Then next time I pick a better product,” Dirk said. He stepped closer to her and rubbed her arms gently. “Maybe from you, maybe not.”

“So basically, you use your piles of money and other people’s ideas to make more money.”

“I help people follow their dreams when they don’t have the money to do it alone. Come on.” He took her arm again. The edges of his lips turned downward, and Rachel wondered if her breakdown of his job had offended him. She may have seen him as just a rich business man, one of many in Los Angeles, but apparently that wasn’t the way he saw himself.

“Where are we going now?”

“To find a drink,” he said with a lopsided grin. “It’ll warm you up. And I could sure as hell use one.”

She didn’t protest as Dirk guided her into another room. The interior was smaller than the grand ballroom. Leather armchairs and small tables took up most of the space in the wood-paneled room. A costumed staff member tended the bar on the far side of the room, but it was otherwise as empty as the ballroom.

“Doesn’t anybody drink at this thing?” Rachel asked as she slid into one of the armchairs. It was more comfortable than she expected, though the corset pinched at her waist.

“Not many patrons drink here,” he said. “This is the VIP bar.”

“Should I be impressed?”

He grinned again. Rachel didn’t think she would ever get tired of that grin. “If you were another woman, yes. I just thought after meeting Prince Charming you could use some quiet.”

“That’s an understatement.”

Dirk’s smile faded as he stared down at Rachel. There was something about his expression that Rachel couldn’t readily identify. Something like confusion followed by realization. He gripped the edge of her chair until his knuckles turned white under the pressure.

“Dirk, you all right?” She placed a hand on his arm and he jerked away.

He took a sudden step back from her, and she found herself missing the warmth his body generated. “I’m fine. I just…need to excuse myself. Can you handle the drinks? Just tell them it’s for me.”

Dirk was out the door before she had a chance to answer.

Rachel ordered a whiskey for herself and one for Dirk since he hadn’t told her what he wanted. She sat in the comfy leather armchair and waited. And waited.

After a while, she felt silly. Why did she let him leave by himself? Of course, he would try to ditch her at the first opportunity. He’d been doing it all evening. He probably found a leggy knockout in a fancy costume. Rachel was prepared to babysit a gorgeous man, but not to be humiliated by one.

She drained the rest of her whiskey and contemplated getting another. Maybe she should just follow Dirk’s advice and find some place to lie low until the ball was over and she could collect her money. Then she’d never have to see gorgeous Dirk or hear another of his tragic stories.

Rachel couldn’t have been waiting for more than twenty minutes when Louis found her. He looked panicked, but then again someone is high-strung as Louis probably panicked a lot.

“Miss Simmons—”

“Rachel!”

“You’ll need to come with me right away. Mr. Greenwood would like to speak with you.”

“If he wants to speak with me, he can just come back and get his drink.”

“Cyrus Greenwood, Miss Simmons. Dirk left the building five minutes ago.”

* * *

D
irk pressed
his head against the back seat of the taxi as it drove away from the Belmont hotel and toward the lot where he parked his car. He couldn’t exactly say when he first felt the stirring, but it was unmistakable now, a gentle churning in his stomach and a pull in his chest. As if an invisible string ran between his body and the Belmont. Between him and Rachel.

Maybe it started while he was telling Rachel the story of Callisto. Maybe it was when the damned Roman centurion put her on edge. He’d felt a strange urge to protect Rachel then, and a distinct dislike for her smarmy ex-boyfriend, but he’d pushed it aside. It wasn’t until they were alone in the VIP bar that he realized the source of the strange stirring in his chest. The grizzly inside him was waking up, and it wanted one thing.

Rachel. To pull her into his arms and smother her in hot, passionate kisses, to feel her body writhe against his and hear her moan his name. To claim her. All things he could not have. Rachel was human, and he was even less so than he had been at the beginning of the evening. Besides, he was as good as promised to Alex Tenwick. That tie wouldn’t be broken easily.

Dirk’s mind raced as the bear raged in his chest. It was almost fully awake now, and no part of him wanted to be separated from her. He barely knew Rachel, except that he was drawn to her. He’d heard stories about fated mates. Of shifters who spent their lives with one perfect partner who was everything they wanted and needed at once. Whose pull on them was so deep that their very lives depended on one another. But fated pairings didn’t happen anymore. Men like him mated with the shifters chosen for them if they mated it all. And nothing anyone had ever taught him prepared him for the unexpected and overwhelming need he felt for Rachel.

What he wanted was to turn around, go back to the Belmont hotel, grab Rachel by her well-formed rear, and crush his lips against her perfect mouth. He wanted to pull her in front of Alex and Cyrus, strip the flimsy dress from her body, and lay claim to her. He needed distance and time to think, but he wouldn’t find that at Callisto’s Masquerade.

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