Authors: Sloane Meyers
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Paranormal, #Bear, #Werebear, #Adult, #Erotic, #Shifter, #Mate, #Firefighter, #Wildfire, #Sexy, #Boyfriend, #Secret, #Risk, #Smokejumper, #Beast, #Nurse, #Dreams, #Biggest Desire, #Tough Times, #Crashes, #Run Away, #New Life, #Rethink, #Future, #Intersects Past, #Past Demons, #Heartache, #Lonely, #Scared
“He’s lying,” Ian said. “I can smell it from a mile away.”
“I don’t know what you’re smelling, because that’s the truth, I lost altitude awareness,” Zach said, even though he knew Ian couldn’t be fooled so easily.
By this point, the other crew members had rushed over as well, all clamoring to see if Zach was okay. Ian let out a low growl, but dropped the matter. Zach knew, however, from the look in his alpha’s eyes that the discussion wasn’t over—just postponed. Ian let the rest of the crew clamor around Zach for a minute or two, and then put a stop to the commotion.
“Alright, everyone,” Ian said. “Shows over. Let’s get to work.”
The crew’s chatter died down and they scurried off to finish unpacking their gear. Ian shook his head at Zach in disgust, and then followed the rest of the crew.
Charlotte stayed behind for a moment, and gave Zach a curious look. Her eyes were full of questions, but the only thing she asked was whether he was okay.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m really sorry that I worried you.”
Charlotte nodded, and then gave Zach’s arm a quick squeeze before heading off in the direction the rest of the crew had gone. Zach slowly gathered up his gear. This whole incident had only confirmed for him that it was time to leave the clan behind. The longer he stayed here, the more people he was hurting.
Zach determined to throw himself into the work at hand, and try not to think about anything else until the job was done. There would be time later to figure out the gnarly details of the next chapter of his life.
For a while, Zach’s plan worked. The crew set to work with chainsaws and pickaxes, clearing a fire break in the trees. They had gone through this process dozens of times now. Once they had made a fuel-free zone by removing anything that would burn, they would set a back fire on the other side of the fire break. The back fire would burn toward the wildfire, and when the two fires met they would burn each other out. The work required a great deal of physical exertion and strength, and that was exactly the kind of thing that Zach needed right now. For three and a half days, the crew spent every second of daylight clearing away the trees and brush. When they finally finished, Ian took a flame torch and lit the backfire. Long after the rest of the crew had wandered off to grab some food and take a break, Zach stood watching the back fire burn. The bittersweetness of the moment overwhelmed him. How many times had he stood with the clan, watching a scene similar to this? And this would be the last time.
He turned when he heard crunching footsteps behind him. Ian was walking toward him and munching on a protein bar.
“Hey,” Zach said, keeping his gaze fixed on the fire. He couldn’t bear to look his alpha in the eye right now.
“Want to tell me what’s going on?” Ian asked. His anger had seeped away over the last few days, and now his voice was filled with concern.
Zach finally looked over at Ian, and his heart tightened at the look of worry on his alpha’s face. Zach decided that now was as good a time as any to drop the news of his leaving on Ian. The longer he waited, the harder this was going to be.
“This is my last mission, Ian,” Zach said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best for the clan if I leave. You know as well as I do that I haven’t really gotten along with everyone for a long time, and I think I need to just go. Find my own way, and let you guys be free from the demons that follow me around.”
Zach expected Ian to immediately protest and forbid him to leave. But Ian was silent for a long time, staring off at the flames of the back fire. When he finally spoke, his voice was filled with a heavy sadness.
“I can’t stop you from leaving, Zach. But I think you’re making a big mistake. You’ve spent the last several years going on and on about how humans can’t be trusted. But it’s not just humans you don’t trust. You don’t trust your own clan members, either. There’s obviously something very big bothering you, but you won’t tell anyone what it is. I guess you think it will hurt us, or that we won’t be able to handle it. But you’ve never even given us a chance to try. You just sink deeper and deeper into your own despair. We’re all here waiting with outstretched arms, wanting to save you from whatever ghosts are chasing you down. But we can’t help save you unless you let us.”
“No one can save me,” Zach said, his eyes turning dark.
Ian sighed wearily. “You’re right. No one can save you, because you refuse to trust anyone. If you want to leave, then leave. But after everything this clan has made it through together, I think you’re acting like a selfish, spoiled child for thinking you can handle your problems better on your own. We’re a family, Zach. We stick together, no matter what. If you really want the clan to be free from your demons, then let us help you fight them.”
Ian turned and walked away, leaving Zach to consider his words.
“Nice thought, Ian. But you don’t know what you’re asking for,” Zach said aloud. Then he turned away from the fire himself and headed back to the clan’s fire camp one last time.
Friday morning, Mindy woke up well before her alarm clock. She had been visiting Sophia every day at the orphanage, and could hardly believe that today she was finally going to be able to bring the little girl home.
Mindy quickly showered and had breakfast, then went to Sophia’s room to check on the little welcome basket that she’d put together. She had filled a pretty white wicker basket with an assortment of children’s books and a large, soft stuffed Dalmatian. Sophia had told her a few days ago that she loved dogs, especially the ones with “the spots all over,” so Mindy hoped she would like the toy.
When Mindy picked Sophia up from the orphanage, the little girl seemed more resigned to her fate than excited. Sophia waited patiently outside Mr. Stewart’s office, holding a small duffel bag that contained her few belongings. When the time came to leave, Sophia took Mindy’s offered hand and let herself be led out of the building. The girl was quiet the whole ride home, and Mindy didn’t try to force her to speak. She thought letting the girl have some space was probably the best course of action right now.
Sophia still didn’t speak as they arrived at Mindy’s townhome and Mindy showed her the welcome basket.
“Do you like the puppy?” Mindy prompted, as Sophia stood staring at the bedroom and the basket.
“Do you want to go give him a hug?” Mindy asked.
Sophia shook her head. “No. I don’t want to love anything. It all just gets taken away when I have to move again.”
For the thousandth time since she’d met Sophia, Mindy felt her heart breaking. This little girl had been through so much for someone so tiny. Mindy bent down next to Sophia.
“This puppy is yours. You can keep it no matter what. I’m planning to have you stay here with me until you’re a grown up. But even if you had to leave for some reason, I’m not going to keep the puppy. You can take him with you.”
“Promise?” Sophia’s small voice asked, taking on a hopeful tone.
“I promise,” Mindy said, and picked up the stuffed dog to hand to Sophia. “Do you want to give him a name?”
“Frog,” Sophia said.
Mindy tried not to laugh. “You want to name your puppy ‘Frog’?”
Sophia nodded, and Mindy smiled brightly at her. “Okay. His name is Frog, then.”
Sophia squeezed the stuffed animal tightly. “I love Frog,” she said.
Mindy smiled. “That’s great! Frog loves you. He’ll be a friend to you wherever we go. Now, I have another surprise for you. We’re going to go to the store and pick out some new blankets and sheets for your bed. Whatever design you want.”
Sophia eyed Mindy suspiciously, as if trying to decide whether she was serious. Mindy stood up straight and offered her hand to Sophia. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Mindy took Sophia to a nearby home goods store, and let Sophia browse the options for bedding for as long as she wanted. The girl took the task of choosing a bedroom theme very seriously, and made sure to look at each available option. She bypassed the glittery pink princess options and finally settled on a design with adorable woodland animals.
“I like animals,” she explained, as if she needed to justify her choice.
Mindy smiled. “I think you made an excellent choice. Let’s pay for this, and then we’ll go get you some new clothes. You shouldn’t have to constantly switch back and forth between two outfits.”
Mindy took Sophia to the Red Valley mall, where she bought her a modest but well-rounded new wardrobe. When they had finished shopping, Mindy could tell Sophia was getting tired and hungry, so she took her to the food court for a snack. Sophia thoughtfully picked at her chicken nuggets for several minutes before looking up at Mindy.
“Why are you buying me all this stuff?” she asked.
“I want you to be happy and comfortable in your new home,” Mindy said, giving Sophia what she hoped was an encouraging smile.
“I want us to be a family. I know I can never replace your mom, but I hope that in time you can learn to feel happy and safe again. I’m not going to just send you away, Sophia. I’m committed to keeping you in my home until you’re grown. I’m trying to make it official by going in front of a judge and adopting you. I would do that tomorrow if I could, but it takes a while for the judge to get to us. We have to wait for him to have a spot available to see us. As soon as he does, I’ll officially adopt you, and then no one can make you leave ever again.”
Sophia thought about this for a long time, then popped a chicken nugget in her mouth. She chewed it slowly and swallowed, and then said, “I’m really tired.”
Mindy nodded. “It’s been a long day. Let’s get home and get your new bedroom set up. I hope you’re going to sleep well tonight.”
Sophia did sleep well that night, and the night after. Mindy had taken a few days off to help her adjust to her new home, and Sophia seemed to be warming up to the idea that this was where she would live from now on. On the fourth day after Sophia came to live with her, Mindy went back to work. When she took Sophia to the preschool where she would stay while Mindy was at work, Sophia started crying.
“I thought I was staying with you,” she said between sobs.
“You are, sweetheart. But I have to work and I can’t leave you by yourself while I work. You’ll be here for the day. You can make new friends and play with them, and the teachers are really nice. I’ll be back to pick you up at the end of the day, I promise.”
Mindy’s words did nothing to lessen Sophia’s sobbing. Mindy gave her a big hug, and left with one more promise that she would return at the end of the day. Mindy felt badly for Sophia, but she reasoned that the little girl would realize after a few days that Mindy was coming back for her at the end of every day. Hopefully, Sophia would even start to make some friends and look forward to attending the school each day.
Although Mindy loved her job, she found the hours dragging as she watched the clock and eagerly awaited the time when she could leave to go pick up Sophia. When Mindy finally arrived back at the preschool, Sophia was no longer crying. But she didn’t look happy, either. She was sitting in a far off corner by herself, and silently watching the door. When she saw Mindy, she squealed and came running for her.
“You came back!” She said, and wrapped Mindy’s leg in a giant hug. Mindy scooped her up into her arms and gave her a big hug back.
“Of course I did. I promised. And I’ll always keep my promises to you, okay?” Mindy said.
Sophia still looked doubtful, but she nodded and threw her arms around Mindy’s neck.
“Let’s go home and get some dinner,” Mindy said. “Are you hungry?”
Sophia nodded. “Can we have steak?” she asked.
“Steak? I’ve never known a girl your age who would choose steak for dinner.”
“It’s my favorite,” Sophia said.
Mindy laughed. “Okay, then. Steak it is.”
Mindy stopped by the grocery store on the way home from the preschool and picked up some steak. She took Sophia to the common area of her townhome community, where several grills stood available next to a small field of green grass. Mindy let Sophia run around in the grass while she grilled, and marveled at the amount of energy the small child had. Sophia and Frog, the uniquely named stuffed Dalmatian, had become fast friends. Sophia ran around showing Frog several important discoveries, like an extra large leaf or an exceptionally pointy twig. Mindy sighed with relief as she watched Sophia. The girl seemed happy and comfortable, despite her challenging day of preschool.
When the food was done, Mindy decided that they should eat outside since the weather was so nice. Sophia gobbled down her steak and then asked for dessert. Mindy laughed.
“My, my. You’ve got the appetite of a little bear, don’t you?” Mindy said.
Sophia’s eyes darkened at Mindy’s words, and she pushed away her plate. “Nevermind. I don’t want dessert,” she said.
Mindy frowned and quickly apologized. “I’m sorry, Sophia. I didn’t say that to be mean. I like bears. I think they’re cute and cuddly.”
“No, bears are bad!” Sophia said, picking Frog up and holding him tightly. She jumped off the picnic table and ran with Frog to the entrance of Mindy’s townhome.
Mindy sighed in confusion. “Okay,” she said to herself. “Bears are bad. Duly noted.”
Mindy gathered up the paper plates from their dinner, and followed Sophia to her front door. She helped Sophia change into pajamas and brush her teeth, then tucked her in to sleep with Frog. Sophia still seemed agitated, and Mindy couldn’t figure out why. She had seemed fine until the bear comments, but that didn’t seem like something that would set off such a strong reaction.
“Sophia, are you scared of bears?” Mindy asked. “Is that why you think they’re bad?” In response, Sophia flipped over so her back was facing Mindy.
“No! No bears!”
“Okay,” Mindy said, raising her arms in surrender. “No bears.” She gave Sophia one last kiss good night, and then turned off the light. Mindy had noticed before leaving the bedroom that none of the woodland creatures on Sophia’s new comforter were bears. They were all squirrels, foxes, raccoons, and rabbits. Mindy wondered if Sophia had been attacked by a bear at some point. Were there bears where she had lived in Idaho? Mindy had no idea, but made a mental note to Google it later.
Mindy stayed up a few hours after Sophia had gone to sleep, working on some jewelry projects she had brought home. Now that she had spent some time learning from Bailey, she was confident that she could do some of the simpler designs by herself. Bailey, who at this point was completely swamped with orders, had been happy to let Mindy take some of the projects home to work on between their meetings at the smokejumpers base camp.
Bailey had quickly become one of Mindy’s best friends. Even though Mindy didn’t need to save up extra money anymore, she still enjoyed helping Bailey with the jewelry business. Besides, even though she didn’t need an extra forty thousand dollars for an adoption anymore, having extra money was never a bad thing.
When Mindy had grown too tired to work on the jewelry, she put away the supplies and went to bed, peeking in on Sophia before heading to her own room. Sophia was sleeping restlessly, tossing and turning in her bed and mumbling in her sleep. Mindy felt badly for the little girl, who had obviously been through so much. She hoped that, with time, Sophia would settle down into her new life and learn to trust again.
Exhausted, Mindy quickly fell asleep. She started dreaming about bears chasing her and Sophia through the woods. In her dream, Sophia was screaming, and no matter how hard Mindy tried to calm her down the little girl kept yelling.
Mercifully, right before the giant bear in her dream was about to catch her, Mindy woke up. But Sophia’s screaming didn’t stop. Mindy sat up with a start, and realized that Sophia actually was screaming in the next room. Mindy shot out of bed and ran down the hall to Sophia’s room, but just as she reached the door she was knocked backward by a small burst of wind and light. With all her senses on high alert, Mindy stood up and rushed into the bedroom. But she didn’t see Sophia anywhere. Instead, she saw a large bear cub running wild circles around the bedroom.
“What the hell?” she asked aloud, panicking as she tried to locate Sophia. The girl was nowhere to be found. Mindy quickly checked the window, which was shut and locked just as she’d left it. And there was no way that Sophia could have escaped down the hallway so quickly, since Mindy had heard her screaming just moments before entering the room. Mindy checked under the bed, and in the closet, but she couldn’t find Sophia anywhere. Meanwhile, a bear cub was still running wildly around the room. Mindy started to truly freak out. Where had this bear cub come from, and where in the world had Sophia gone? Mindy decided that the first thing she needed to do was call the police, even though she had no idea what she would tell them when they came on the line—“Hi, my child is missing, and a giant bear cub is in my house”?
But, just as Mindy started to race from the room to get her cell phone, she was hit by another rush of wind and light. She was knocked backward again, and, when she sat up, the bear cub was gone. In the exact spot where the cub had just been, Sophia sat. The little girl was naked, shaking and crying.
“Bears bad! Bears bad!” Sophia chanted over and over, hugging her knees to herself and rocking in the corner.
Mindy rushed over to her and picked her up, then grabbed a blanket off the bed to wrap around her.
“What in the world?” Mindy asked.
“Bears bad,” Sophia said. It seemed to be the only thing she could manage to get out right now.
“Shhh,” Mindy said. “Everything is okay. I’m here now. You’re safe.” As she looked around the room in confusion, trying to figure out what had just happened, Mindy noticed that the pajamas Sophia had worn to bed were now strewn about the room in shreds. Suddenly, the pieces started clicking together in Mindy’s mind. She didn’t see how it was possible, but it appeared that Sophia had just switched from human to bear and back again, losing her clothes in the process. Sophia’s fear of bears now made sense, as did her statements back at the orphanage that she wasn’t allowed to say what kind of trouble it was that she caused. Mindy had a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Stewart had known about this all along, and that’s why he had been so eager to get Sophia out of the orphanage.