Alpha Unmasked: BBW Bear Shifter Romance (Greenwood Shifters Book 1) (8 page)

BOOK: Alpha Unmasked: BBW Bear Shifter Romance (Greenwood Shifters Book 1)
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“Did she ever leave?”

Rachel shook her head. “She never got the chance. I talked to her sister after. He’d been beating her for years. Her body just finally gave out.”

Dirk reached for her cheek and wiped away a tear near the corner of her eye. “You couldn’t have stopped that.”

“I know. It’s just… you go into that business thinking you’ll help people. I had these visions of little old ladies bailing their orphaned grandsons out of jail for some stupid prank. And I thought, ‘This will be the thing that sets him on the right path,’ but it’s never like that. It’s just bad guys and the people who hope to hell for a happy ending that never comes. And me in the middle taking a cut of their misfortune.” Rachel wiped her nose with one of the paper napkins. “After that I couldn’t do it anymore.”

“That’s when you moved to LA?”

“And became a caterer.” She laughed softly. “At least that way no third parties get hurt. Unless I over-salt something.” The joke sounded weak to her ears, but she’d learned long ago to cover pain with a joke. It took some of the sting away, and she had a feeling there was a lot of pain waiting for them at that house.

He chewed his lip for a moment. “Rachel, do you regret helping me last night?”

“No,” she whispered. “You’re a good guy.”

He slid from his chair and knelt in front of her. “I’ll make this right. Trust me.”

Rachel nodded. “With my life.”

9

R
achel folded
the checkout receipt and stuffed it into her pocket as she stepped outside. It was already getting dark, though they still had an hour to get back to Crestline, and Rachel’s stomach roiled in the residual heat of the day.

Dirk slouched against a grungy stucco wall of the motel. He smiled when he saw Rachel, wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and pressed a kiss to her temple.

“Nervous?”

“Not at all,” she said. Maybe if she pretended to be brave, she would be. “You can smell fear, can’t you?”

Dirk laughed. Rachel loved that sound and the way the corners of his eyes crinkled.

“I don’t need to smell it, love. I can see it.” He stroked her arm and pulled her closer. “He’ll just want you to agree not to tell anyone. He may even throw in some extra money. As long as you agree, he won’t do anything to hurt you.”

She smiled and looped her arms around his neck. “Determined to calm me down?”

He laughed. “That and I really don’t want you to puke on my shoes.”

Dirk’s body tensed and he sniffed the air. A slight tremble moved through him, so slight that Rachel might have mistaken it for a shiver, if the warmth radiating from the parking lot black top didn’t already have beads of sweat gathering at his brow.

She looked around the nearly vacant parking lot. Nothing had changed that she could see. “What is it?”

“A shifter. Get to the van. Lock yourself in.” Dirk’s tone left no room for argument. Then again, what could she really do against a man who could turn into a eight-hundred-pound bear? She ran for the van and locked herself in. Her heart pounded as she looked on. She had no idea how many shifters there were, but she didn’t want to bet on coincidence. And the last shifter she’d encountered tried to kill her.

Across the parking lot, Rachel saw Dirk raise his chin and sniff the air again. He stepped back from the staircase as a man came down. The man was a few inches taller and broader than Dirk, so that his leatherjacket stretched tight across his shoulders. Even from far away, Rachel could see the muscles of his thighs bulge under his jeans. What kind of monster would he turn into?

Dirk turned to face the man, and Rachel lost sight of his face. They exchanged words, but Rachel couldn’t hear from so far away. Maybe he was giving Dirk a chance to come peacefully.

Rachel leaned forward and gripped the door handle. She couldn’t fight. Not a bear or a man that big. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to sit there and watch while Dirk fought for her. As she reached to unlock the door, the leather-clad man smiled and pulled Dirk into a hug.

She pushed the van door open and climbed out just as Dirk motioned for her to come over.

Rachel went to Dirk’s side, but stayed an arm’s length away from the muscular man. Up close the man was younger than he looked from far away. About Dirk’s age with hazel eyes that trended more toward green than brown. “Friend of yours?”

Dirk nodded, the lopsided smile back on his face. She could feel the excitement radiating off of him. “Maddock, this is Rachel. Rachel, this is Maddock, my brother.”

Maddock looked from Rachel to Dirk and back, then grinned and extended his hand to her. “Nice to meet you, Rachel. I’ll be damned. Little brother found his mate. Does Cyrus know?”

“Not yet,” Dirk said. His arm protectively snaked around Rachel’s waist. “But if you can smell it, he definitely will.”

“Smell what?” Rachel asked.

Maddock winked at her, a huge grin spreading over his face. “It’s a bear thing.” He laughed. “Oh, man! He’s gonna shit himself.”

Rachel’s hands trembled. Dirk kept her thoughts focused on Cyrus’s reaction to her learning about shifters. It hadn’t occurred to her that meant they couldn’t be together either. She stuffed her hands into her jeans so the two men couldn’t see them shaking.

Dirk pulled her closer, though Rachel couldn’t say if he’d seen her shaking or could still smell her nerves again. Damned bears and their supernatural sense of smell. “Thanks, Maddock. What are you doing here, anyway?”

“I came for the party, bro! What better way to piss Cyrus off than crash his damned masquerade?”

Dirk blinked in surprise. “Maddock…the ball was yesterday.”

“Yeah well, you know me and schedules.” Maddock waved a hand dismissively.

Dirk wasn’t having it. “I do, but why are you really here?”

“All in due time, little brother. Right now I’ve got a date at the compound. Where’re you two lovebirds headed?”

“To the compound,” Rachel said.

The ever-present grin fell away from Maddock’s face. “You sure that’s a good idea?”

“I don’t have a choice. We’ve been summoned. Both of us.”

Maddock took a deep breath and scrubbed at the stubble on his face with his hands. “Then let’s get this show on the road.” Maddock clapped Dirk on the shoulder and sauntered toward a black luxury car parked at the far end of the lot.

Dirk pulled Rachel into his arms again and held her tight. Every part of her wanted to melt in those strong arms. To listen to the rhythm of his heart until it lulled her to sleep. In sleep everything might be okay. There wouldn’t be animal men that wanted to kill her or rip away the only person she’d cared for in a long time.

He buried his nose against her hair. “What did I tell you, Rachel?”

“Trust you.”

“Then trust me,” he whispered against her lips. “Whatever happens. Trust me.”

* * *

T
he trees were prettier
in the daylight than Rachel had expected them to be. There was nature in Los Angeles, but never so close. In a way, the towering pines reminded her of home. And they provided a welcome distraction as the van lurched closer to the Greenwood family home.

Dirk didn’t say much on the ride north. Neither did she. It was enough that they were close to one another. They exchanged glances now and then. One would reach and stroke the other’s thigh. But the touches were hesitant, as if each feared the other might disappear.

“This is it,” he said as he turned the van onto another hill.

The house that came into view as they reached the top of the hill wasn’t what Rachel expected. She’d expected something called the “compound” to be surrounded by ivy-covered brick walls and towering iron fences. The house itself would be a giant throwback to East Coast architecture with a mishmash of Spanish and Roman influences thrown in, like every other mansion in LA. Instead, the house was all honey-colored wood and clear glass so that it appeared to be bathed in the light of an autumn sunset, though the sun wasn’t quite low enough yet.

The house was divided into two wings joined at the center by an arched foyer with two heavy, glass-paneled wooden doors. All of the windows were open to allow the gentle, warm breeze to flow through the house.

Miranda Greenwood opened the heavy doors and stepped onto the entryway just as Dirk shifted the van into park. She wore a long white summer dress pattered with tiny green flowers. Her hair was a lighter shade of brown than either of her sons, and it spilled over one shoulder and nearly down to her waist. The calm of the wooded area gave her an ethereal quality that Rachel hadn’t noticed at the masquerade ball.

Miranda walked toward the van, worry etched on her face. She stopped short as Maddock’s black luxury rental pulled into view. Maddock climbed out of the car, and stared at the house. The boisterous humor Rachel had seen at the motel was gone now, and his expression as he came face-to-face with his childhood home was something between fear and determination.

Dirk took a deep breath and squeezed Rachel’s hand. “Are you ready?”

She tore her eyes away from the gorgeous house and the beautiful woman in front of it to glance at Dirk. “Not even a little bit.”

He reached up and stroked her cheek with his thumb, then got out of the car. Rachel followed.

Miranda held her arms open to Maddock and Dirk, tears in her eyes. Both stepped forward and wrapped their arms around her. She locked eyes with Rachel through the gaps between the massive men’s shoulders, and nodded to her.

When Miranda pulled away from her grown children, she wiped the tears away from her eyes and cleared her throat. Suddenly, she was the calm, ethereal woman once more. “Dirk, your father is waiting for you inside. So are the Tenwicks. Don’t say anything more than you have to.”

Dirk pressed a kiss to Miranda’s cheek and headed into the house, glancing at Rachel over his shoulder. She forced a smile onto her face and waved as he disappeared through the massive archway.

“Bet the bastard isn’t waiting for me,” Maddock said.

Miranda pursed her lips and clasped her hands at her hips. Rachel thought she saw a flash of emotion on her face, but it was gone as quickly as it had arrived. “He’s still Alpha, Maddock.”

“Not
my
Alpha.” Maddock leaned down and a kiss to Miranda’s cheek. “Better get in there. Dirk will need back up.” He disappeared into the house the same way Dirk had gone.

Miranda stared at Rachel in silence for a moment. There wasn’t any malice in her eyes, no anger. When Dirk looked at Rachel, she felt like the most beautiful woman alive. But next to this woman, Rachel felt plain, too plain for this grand house in this quiet, beautiful place.

Rachel cleared her throat. “I’m sorry I couldn’t do what you asked, Mrs. Greenwood.”

Miranda shook her head. “There was never much hope of that. My husband is accustomed to getting his way.”

Rachel crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I noticed. He’s not great with deals either.”

“When it comes to the boys, no. He loves them, but he also has a plan for them.”

“Does that plan include either of them being happy?” The words had more venom than Rachel intended, and she regretted them immediately. Miranda had been nothing but kind to her.

“I know how you feel, Rachel. What you’re going through…it isn’t easy, even in the best of circumstances. If things were different…” Miranda struggled for words.

“You know, don’t you? About Dirk. He said Cyrus would be able to smell it?”

Miranda shrugged. “If he can’t, he’ll see it. But he won’t mention it. Not in front of Marlow Tenwick.”

Rachel chewed on her lip and wrapped her arms more tightly around herself. “Because I’m just human.”

Miranda smiled the kindest smile Rachel had ever seen. She reached up and squeezed her shoulder gently. “There are worse things to be, Rachel.” Miranda turned and walked into the house.

Rachel followed, but she couldn’t stop the thoughts that sprang to her mind. Miranda was too kind to tell Rachel the truth, but Cyrus would if he was pushed. There were worse things to be, but not worse women for the son of an Alpha to fall in love with.

10

W
hen Rachel stepped
into the foyer, Louis was waiting for her. He had changed into khakis and a button-down flannel shirt, but he was just as fidgety as he’d been at the ball.

“Miss Simmons,” he said. He kept his voice so low that Rachel had to strain to hear him. “I’ve been asked to prep you for the conclave. It will be better for everyone if you don’t speak unless spoken to. Don’t volunteer information. Only answer the questions asked. Do that and this should go smoothly.”

Rachel nodded. She didn’t trust her voice not to crack if she spoke. Louis guided her into the sitting room. All eyes turned to Rachel as she entered. Everyone was there. Cyrus stood in front of the massive stone fireplace, his knuckles white from gripping the smooth mantle. She’d half expected him to be in a business suit, but he wore jeans and heavy work boots, though Rachel doubted he was the manual labor type.

Alexandra claimed a spot on the only sofa in the room, her body turned and sprawled across it. A black wrap dress clung to every curve of her slender figure. She might have been beautiful, but for the scowl that permanently marred her face. Marlow leaned against the back of the couch behind his daughter. Seeing them all in normal clothes made everything seem all the more otherworldly. Everyone in the room could change into a monster at will, yet they all seemed so ordinary.

“Why is
she
here?” Alexandra spat.

“Miss Simmons is here at my request,” Cyrus said. “In a way she’s the reason I’ve called the conclave.”

Dirk, Maddock, and Miranda stood on the far side of the room. For a second, Rachel felt an overwhelming urge to run to Dirk and cling to him, but she pushed the instinct away and sat in a nearby armchair. At least here she might be able to run if she needed to. Though she didn’t think she could outrun six bears.

“I can’t agree to a conclave with a human present,” Marlow said. “It’s out of order!”

Cyrus stared down at Marlow. There was a change in the energy of the room, as if the air over her shoulders became thicker and heavier. “Miss Simmons is here to give testimony for the conclave. I assure you, her presence here is completely warranted.”

Marlow’s brow furrowed, but he rose to his full height. It did nothing to make up for the inch or so Cyrus had over him. He apparently lost the silent battle of wills and slunk back to his place behind the couch. Rachel thought she saw the corners of Cyrus’s mouth tick upward in a small smile.

Cyrus crossed to Rachel. He towered over her from her spot in the armchair. She shrank back against the plush upholstery. “Miss Simmons, I understand you went to the lake looking for my son last night?”

Rachel’s heart pounded. “Yes. We had an agreement.”

“Indeed. But you found Cass Tenwick. He would be the man who was at our meeting last night, but isn’t here now.”

Alexandra leaned forward. “You saw my brother? You know what happened to him?”

Rachel opened her mouth to answer, but Cyrus narrowed his eyes to silence her. He dipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a folded pocketknife.
Her
pocketknife.

“Is this yours, Miss Simmons?” Cyrus held the pocketknife in front of her face.

Rachel glared up at him, anger temporarily overriding fear in her mind. Why ask her a question he already knew the answer to? Was he trying to trap her? “Yes, it’s mine.”
Short answers. Only answer the question he asked.

“Louis tells me that Cass’s body showed signs of a battle. Cass would never have gone into battle in human form…which means you saw Cass Tenwick turn into a bear before he died.”

Rachel swallowed. He’d already proved she was headed to the lake when they last saw her, and the pocketknife proved she’d made it there. There was no point in lying. She wanted to respond with a biting comment, but nothing came to her mind. All she could think about was how close Cyrus was to her compared to Dirk. If Cyrus wanted to change into a bear and maul her right there, Dirk couldn’t cross the room fast enough to stop it.

“Yes. I saw it,” she said.

The blood drained from Marlow’s face. Apparently, being seen by a human was just as bad as being a human who knew about shifters.

Cyrus looked over his shoulder at Marlow, who nodded.

“Miss Simmons, in keeping with the traditions of my people I offer you a choice.” He crossed behind her, and set his massive hands on her shoulders. “You can leave with your life, and the money you’re owed. So long as you agree to keep our secret.”

She looked at Dirk for reassurance, but he kept all emotion out of his expression. It was probably the safest move, but it hurt to see the face that looked at her so adoringly hours before now covered by a mask of indifference.

“Forgive me, Mr. Greenwood, but you aren’t good at keeping deals.”

Maddock laughed, a booming sound that pierced the quiet of the room and made Rachel jump.

“That was business, Miss Simmons. This is very personal. It’s the welfare of my family we’re talking about.” His fingers squeezed her shoulder more tightly.

“Wait a minute,” Marlow said as he crossed back in front of the sofa. “If she was there, she knows what happened to my son.”

“I’m sorry,” she stammered. She glanced at Dirk again. This time he nodded. “Yes, I know what happened to Cass.”

Marlow opened his mouth to speak, but Cyrus cut him off. “You aren’t Alpha here, Marlow. This is my conclave. Sit down!”

Marlow didn’t back down. Instead he moved in front of Rachel, towering over her just as Cyrus had. “Then ask her what happened to my son!”

“It’s obvious what happened to your son, Marlow. He battled a rogue and lost. A rogue nosing around my territory on the eve of our alliance.” Cyrus let go of Rachel’s shoulders and crossed the room, his eyes locked on Maddock.

“A rogue,” Cyrus continued. “Who conveniently arrived on our doorstep just hours after Cass’s throat was ripped out. A rogue who’d do anything to bring embarrassment to this family.”

Suddenly, Rachel understood Cyrus’s game, though it made her sick to her stomach. If Marlow found out that Dirk killed Cass, it would destroy the alliance. But Cyrus had already sentenced Maddock to death by exile. When it happened probably didn’t matter to Cyrus, as long as it benefited him in the end.

Maddock raised an eyebrow. “That’s a nice theory, but not true. My flight didn’t land until after midnight. And I haven’t been any farther north than this. So unless Cass picked a fight with me in a crowded airport and managed to get from LAX to Lake Gregory while bleeding from the throat, I’m not your guy.”

“And you expect us to believe that?” Cyrus leaned forward so that his nose almost brushed against Maddock’s, but Maddock didn’t back up an inch.

“I believe it. Maddock didn’t kill Cass Tenwick,” Dirk said as he locked eyes with Rachel. “I did.”

All hell broke loose. Marlow lunged at Dirk. Dirk jumped over Marlow’s sprawled body and ran to Rachel. In seconds, he’d pulled her from the armchair and pushed her against the wall. If anyone wanted to get to her, they’d have to go through him first. Maddock intercepted Marlow as he climbed to his feet and tackled him to the ground again. Louis ran to Miranda and slid into a defensive stance in front of her.

From her spot behind Dirk, Rachel heard an inhuman roar. It was higher than the ones that had come from Cass and Dirk during their fight.

“A human?! You want to claim a human instead of me?!” The shrill voice must have belonged to Alexandra.

Marlow pushed Maddock away and climbed to his feet. Rachel could see his enraged face just below Dirk’s shoulder. “That boy murdered my heir,” he spat. “He spurned my daughter, and broke every rule we hold. This cannot stand, Greenwood!”

“Enough!” Cyrus glared at Dirk, then at Rachel. “What do you want, Marlow?”

Marlow chewed on his lip, his massive chest heaved, though Rachel couldn’t say if it was from anger or from being tackled by the younger, heavier Maddock.

“The deal stays intact. The human dies.”

The words sent a chill up Rachel’s spine. She looked frantically for an exit, even though she knew she’d never make it back to her van.

“Nobody touches her,” Dirk said through clenched teeth.

“You are not Alpha here,” Cyrus spat. “And you’ve caused enough trouble.”

Miranda walked to Rachel’s side and stood between her and Cyrus. She laid a gentle hand on Cyrus’s shoulder. “Neither is Marlow Tenwick, my love.”

Cyrus nodded. “I need the night to think on this. Louis, show Miss Simmons to the guest room.” Miranda threw a pointed look in Marlow’s direction.

Cyrus stormed out of the room. Marlow and Alexandra followed. When they were gone, Dirk pulled Rachel into his arms. She clung to him as the relieved tension left her body shaking.

“I’ll do what I can,” Miranda whispered. Then she too left the room, hurrying in the direction Cyrus had gone.

Louis cleared his throat “Miss Simmons, if you’ll come with me?”

Dirk glared at him and growled in warning. “I haven’t forgotten my promise about your tail, Louis. She counts as part of me.”

Louis raised his chin in indignation. “I wouldn’t dream of harming your mate.”

“No, not unless our father ordered it,” Maddock said.

Dirk cradled Rachel’s face between his hands and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips. “I won’t be far,” he whispered.

Louis motioned for Rachel to follow him down the hall. She hugged herself as they went, though the warmth of the day hadn’t yet left the house. The beige walls were mostly bare, except for a handful of family portraits. From the look of them, they’d been taken ten years apart. The first showed Miranda holding a baby on her lap and Cyrus behind her, holding a toddler. In the second, Maddock and Dirk were boys, and their parents stood on either side. Rachel didn’t see the third, but an empty space and vacant nail marked the spot where she guessed it would have been.

“I’ll have Ana bring you dinner,” Louis said. “It’s best if you eat in your room tonight. I’m sure you understand.”

“Sure, wouldn’t want to bleed on the tablecloth. I get it.” Rachel swallowed.

Louis stopped in front of an open door. The room was smaller than Rachel would have expected. The king-sized bed swallowed most of the floor space. Each wall held a huge window that gave her a view of the tree line and the encroaching blackness beyond.

“Ana will bring you something to sleep in. Good night, Miss Simmons.” Louis pulled the heavy door shut.

Rachel kicked off her shoes and crawled into the bed. She stared into the darkness as the last bit of sunlight faded away. She’d only been awake for a few hours, but the tension of the day washed over her and drained every bit of energy in its wake. As she closed her eyes, she made a wish.

Let us live
. She thought.
Let me keep him, and let us live.

* * *

T
he bedside clock said midnight
, but Rachel could swear it was later. Maybe that was just the sentence hanging over her head. She couldn’t say when she’d fallen asleep for sure. At some point, a tiny woman in a pastel polo shirt brought her a tray of food and an oversized T-shirt. She was grateful for the shirt, but the food lay untouched on the bedside table. Her mind replayed the meeting over and over in her dreams. Except in the dream world, Marlow didn’t issue any demands, he just calmly wrapped his hands around her throat and squeezed the life from her.

The inky void beyond the windows didn’t help. The trees allowed only the faintest light from the moon to filter into her room. She couldn’t make out anything in it, but she had the strangest feeling that someone or something was staring at her in the darkness. She would have given anything for something to cover the windows, but there were no curtains or blinds. Her only escape was sleep, as fitful as it was.

All at once, Rachel realized why she’d woken up. There was someone in the room with her! Rachel gasped and reached for the bedside lamp, but a strong hand clamped over hers. She opened her mouth to scream. Another hand clamped over it. Every muscle in her body tensed as she thrashed to get away.

“Shh! It’s just me,” Dirk whispered.

Rachel stared in the direction of the voice and waited for her eyes to adjust. Dirk’s outline solidified out of the darkness. She threw her arms around his neck.

“You scared the hell out of me,” she whispered.

Dirk pressed a kiss to her forehead. His long fingers snaked through her hair, still ruffled from sleep. “Sorry. I only wanted to check on you.”

“Making sure Marlow didn’t maul me in my sleep?”

“He wouldn’t dare. Not under this roof. Why do you think we’re still here?”

Rachel’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think I understand.”

“It’s clan politics, love. Until the Alpha issues a ruling, nobody concerned can be touched.”

“And Cyrus is Alpha.”

Dirk nodded and cupped the back of her neck. “If Marlow did anything to you tonight, he’d start a war. Believe me, Cyrus would finish it.”

Dirk shifted their bodies and laid her down on the mattress. He slid beneath the blanket next to her and snaked an arm around her waist.

She ran her hand along his jaw and let the stubble tickle her fingertips. “We’re in trouble, aren’t we?”

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