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
“Why don’t you let me talk to him? I can try to see if he knows anyone from Idaho, or has any other ties that might indicate how he’s connected to Sophia. The guys just got back from a fire mission last night, so they’re exhausted. I guess it ended up being longer than they thought it would be because the wildfire changed directions before the backfire they lit caught up with it and burned it out. But anyway, I don’t think any of them have any big plans for tomorrow, so I’ll talk to him first thing in the morning.”
Mindy nodded solemnly. “Okay,” she said, although fears about losing Sophia to Zach still played across her mind.
Bailey stood up and gave Mindy an encouraging smile. “Don’t worry, this is all going to work out just fine. Do you have to work tomorrow?”
“Can you bring Sophia to base instead of taking her to preschool? I can watch her. I know it’s out of the way, but it’s better not to have her around people who don’t know about shifters until she has her shifting ability under control. If she shifts in front of everyone at preschool, they’re going to call her caseworker and the cops. Trust me, you don’t want that.”
“I’ll bring her by. In fact, I might just try to take tomorrow off. I’ve already taken several days off this month, but I think this qualifies as a family emergency.”
Bailey nodded. “Okay, well just call me in the morning and let me know if you’re bringing her by. I’ll talk to Zach first thing and let you know if he can shed any light on the situation.”
Mindy agreed, and Bailey left, shutting the door behind her and leaving Mindy alone with her now-cold mug of tea.
Mindy put her face in her hands and took deep breaths, trying to calm herself down.
When she first met Sophia, she felt like fate had brought them together. She had to believe that—no matter what happened tomorrow—fate would keep them together.
Zach woke up before dawn, and started quietly packing his bag to leave. The crew had arrived back to base late last night, and he’d been too tired to keep his eyes open. He’d figured that he should at least get a good night’s sleep before leaving the crew behind.
But his sleep had been anything but good. He’d slept restlessly for several hours, and finally woken up for good at five a.m. Rather than toss and turn any longer, he got up to pack his bag. Maybe he could slip away before anyone saw him. He didn’t really want to say goodbye. The crew would try to convince him to stay, but he had already made up his mind to leave. He didn’t want them to make it harder than it already was.
After packing his bag, Zach took a long shower, relishing the hot steaming water as it ran across his back. After spending much longer in the wilderness than the crew had originally planned on for this fire, creature comforts like a shower felt marvelous. When Zach finally stepped out of the shower and started toweling off, it was nearly seven o’clock. He groaned as he realized that the crew members would all be waking up soon, if they weren’t up already. He was quickly losing his window of time to sneak away from base unnoticed.
Zach quickly threw on the jeans he’d brought to the showers with him, then hurried back to his bunk. He’d finish getting dressed, then throw the bag in his truck and be gone.
But he stopped short when he reached his bunk. Bailey was sitting next to his bag, waiting for him. What the hell was she doing here? Had she somehow figured out what he was doing? And, if so, why did she care if he left? Out of all the clan members, he had probably been the rudest to her. He wouldn’t blame her if she hated him, and he honestly wasn’t too fond of her himself. He didn’t know her that well, but he hated how happy and peppy she always seemed. Right now, though, she had a serious look on her face.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at the bag.
“None of your business,” Zach growled. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m just wondering if you’ve ever spent any time in Idaho?” Bailey said, crossing her arms and looking at him carefully, as if she was expecting some sort of big reaction.
Zach almost laughed. He had no idea what she was expecting, or what kind of dirt she seemed to think she had dug up on him, but she was clearly mistaken about whatever it was she thought she’d found.
“I’ve never set foot in Idaho,” he said. “Any more trivia questions about my life, or was that all.”
Bailey frowned. “Hmm,” she said, stroking her chin thoughtfully.
Zach sighed. “You’re welcome to sit here as long as you want, but I’m going to get moving.” He grabbed his bag and started heading for the door, when Bailey said eight words that stopped him in his tracks and changed his life.
“Do you know any little girls named Sophia?”
Zach turned around slowly. “What did you say?” he managed to whisper. His heart started pounding. The night Traci had found out she was pregnant, and they had stayed up all night talking, he had mentioned his two top name choices—Myles for a boy, and Sophia for a girl. Over the past few years, when he’d imagined his cub, he’d always imagined him or her as Myles or Sophia, even though he doubted Traci would have used the names he’d picked.
Bailey seemed to realize that she had struck some sort of chord with Zach, so she kept talking.
“Mindy is fostering a little girl named Sophia. She’s in the process of trying to adopt her actually. Last night, we discovered that the girl is a shifter. She looks just like you, Zach. Just. Like. You.”
“How old?” Zach growled.
“Four. Almost five.”
Zach felt the world stop spinning. Was it possible? This couldn’t be real, could it? Mindy, his fated lifemate who didn’t want to give him a chance, had somehow ended up fostering his long-lost cub. But as the pieces fell into place in Zach’s mind, he realized it made perfect sense. Fate was drawing them all together, confirming that they were meant to be a family.
“Sophia,” Zach said softly, his voice barely audible. So the cub had been a girl. He had a daughter.
Bailey was talking again, saying something about how the girl was having trouble controlling her shifting and thought no one would keep her because of that. She was going on about how no one knew anything about the girl’s father, but Zach couldn’t focus on what Bailey was saying.
“Where?” he asked, his voice cracking as he interrupted Bailey’s monologue.
“What?” Bailey asked, startled by Zach’s sudden interjection.
“Where is she? Where’s my daughter?”
, he repeated to himself silently.
I have a daughter
“She’s at Mindy’s. They might come by here later but I wanted to talk to you first because—”
“Where is Mindy’s place?” Zach interrupted, his heart starting to beat wildly.
“She has a townhome on First and Elm, at Sequoia Place Townhomes, but, Zach—”
Zach didn’t hear anything else Bailey said. He grabbed his keys and ran, still barefoot and shirtless, to his truck. He hopped behind the wheel and cranked up the engine, then pealed out of the parking lot, leaving a very frustrated Bailey in a cloud of dust behind him.
“Sophia, Sophia, Sophia,” he said over and over, letting her name roll over his tongue. He drove way too fast the whole way to Red Valley, not caring if he got a ticket. All he could think about was that this couldn’t possibly be happening, but that he couldn’t handle the heartache if it wasn’t.
When he saw a sign for Sequoia Place Townhomes, he skidded into the parking lot and threw the truck into park. Hopping out of the truck, he ran wildly around for a minute, trying to figure out which door might be Mindy’s. An old woman gave him a strange look, and he realized he must look like an insane person, running around with a crazed look in his eye and no shirt or shoes. But he couldn’t worry about anything right now except how to find Mindy’s door. When he saw her old red Camry parked in front of one of the townhomes, he figured that one must be hers. He ran up to the door and knocked, crossing his fingers and pleading with the universe that he was about to find the child for whom he’d spent the last five years searching.
When the door opened, Mindy stood in front of him with a guarded, wary look in her eyes.
“Zach,” she said, her voice strained.
“Where is she?” he asked, his voice breaking. “Where’s my girl?”
A little face peeked out from behind Mindy’s legs and looked up at him curiously. The girl had Traci’s nose, but everything else looked exactly like him. There was no doubt that this was his child.
“Sophia,” he said softly, unable to believe that this moment was really happening.
“Daddy?” she asked, scrunching her little nose up in confusion as she looked up at him.
Zach looked at Mindy in surprise. “Did you tell her I was her daddy?” he asked.
Mindy shook her head no. “I didn’t want to say anything until we figured this all out for sure. I have no idea how she knows who you are.”
Zach knelt down in front of the girl. “Sophia, who told you I was your daddy?”
“Mommy did. I mean, my old mommy. Not my new mommy,” Sophia said, looking at Mindy as if trying to sort out all of the pieces of her complicated life. “The day before she died, she gave me a picture of you and said you were my daddy. She said she was sorry she had to leave me, but that she had made too many mistakes. She said you were my daddy and that I should try to find you, but I didn’t know how to look. So I kept the picture hidden. All of the adults that I’ve stayed with have been scary and mean. Except my new mommy.”
Sophia took Mindy’s hand, and Zach raised an eyebrow at Mindy. Clearly, they had a lot to talk about.
Sophia looked up at Mindy and scrunched her nose up again. “Mommy, did you find Daddy for me?”
“No, Sophia, I’d do anything for you, but I didn’t find him. I think fate found him for you,” Mindy said.
Mindy chuckled. “It’s sort of like saying something happened by chance, but it was meant to be.”
Sophia still looked confused, but seemed to accept this explanation.
“Sophia, honey, do you still have the picture?” Mindy asked.
Sophia nodded and ran to her bedroom. A few minutes later she reemerged into the living room holding a small 4 x 6 photograph.
“Can I see it, Sophia?” Zach asked. Sophia nodded and handed the glossy sheet to Zach. Smiling back at him from the picture was a younger version of himself. He was wearing his army fatigues and standing in front of the little Mexican restaurant where he and Traci had spent so many happy hours. He was giving the camera an exuberant thumbs up, happy and unaware of the painful spiral his life would take over the next few years.
“Is it you?” Mindy asked, straining to see the photograph.
Zach didn’t speak. He couldn’t or he would lose it. He handed the picture to Mindy without another word. Mindy covered her mouth with her hands.
“It’s you,” she said. “You really are Sophia’s father.”
Sophia looked back and forth between Mindy and Zach. “So, now I have a mommy and a daddy?” she asked.
Zach knelt down next to her, glancing up at Mindy for a moment. “Yes, sweetie, you have a mommy and a daddy now. But mommy and daddy have a lot to talk about. Do you want to eat some breakfast while we do?”
Sophia nodded and started jumping up and down. “I love breakfast! Mommy can I have steak?”
Mindy laughed. “Not for breakfast, Sophia. But you can have Lucky Charms or a bagel. Which one do you want?”
“Lucky Charms!” Sophia squealed.
“I should have known,” Mindy said, taking Sophia’s hand and leading her to the kitchen. Then she called over her shoulder to Zach. “She loves steak, by the way. Would eat if for every meal if I let her.”
Zach chuckled. “That’s my girl.”
Zach sat on Mindy’s couch and ran his fingers through his hair nervously while Mindy set Sophia up with a bowl of cereal and an Elmo cartoon on the small television in the kitchen. He watched the little girl eagerly pointing to the marshmallows as they fell from the cereal box. Zach marveled at how tiny her little hands were as they gestured emphatically toward the cereal bowl.
All of Zach’s plans to escape had gone out the window the moment he laid eyes on Sophia. He had no idea what to do next, but he knew that he could never leave Sophia, now that he’d found her. And Sophia obviously adored Mindy—she even referred to her as “mommy.” Zach couldn’t take Sophia away from someone who she viewed as a mother figure, no matter how much Mindy had insulted him. After all, Sophia had already lost one mother. Even though Zach thought Traci had been the scum of the earth, he knew Traci’s death must have been hard on Sophia.
Mindy came back to the living room and sat tentatively on the opposite side of the couch.
“So, what now?” she asked, her voice filled with trepidation.
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Zach said. “I have no experience with children, and you have quite a bit. Plus, Sophia seems to love you. What happened to her mom? Her biological mom, I mean.”
“Rita was in a car accident. A drunk driving incident, from the reports. But, from the story Sophia just told us when she brought out that photograph, it sounds like the accident may have been intentional.”
“Rita. So that’s the name she was going by,” Zach said.
“Huh?” Mindy asked.
“She was hiding from me. Her real name was Traci.”
“Why was she hiding? And did you know about Sophia? I have so many questions.”
“I knew I had a cub. I mean, a baby. But I didn’t even know if the kid was a boy or a girl. Traci left me when she was pregnant, and threatened to out my clan as shifters if I told anyone that she was pregnant. She also threatened to get an abortion if I tried to follow her, so that neither one of us could have the baby. I never told anyone about the baby, because I didn’t want my clan to be exposed. As you’ll quickly learn from taking care of Sophia, part of shifters’ living successfully in society is limiting the number of people who know they’re shifters. If the wrong people find out, they can ruin your life.”
“So you just let the baby go, just like that?” Mindy asked, her eyes widening.
Zach bristled a little bit at Mindy’s implication. “I didn’t abandon her. I kept my distance until the baby would have been born, to keep Traci from having an abortion because of me. Then I tried my best to find her. I searched high and low, even hiring private detectives. I don’t know how she managed to do it, but she left no trace. All my searching never turned up a Rita in Idaho.”
“So this is what you meant when you said you’ve been through a lot,” Mindy said.
Zach nodded slowly. “It’s hard for me to trust anyone, after what Traci did to me. She stole five years of Sophia’s childhood from me. I never even got to see her as a baby. I didn’t get to watch her first steps, or hear her first words.” Zach’s voice broke as he spoke, and he had to stop talking. He was going to start full-on sobbing if he wasn’t careful, and neither Mindy nor Sophia needed to see that.
“So, are you going to take her away from me now?” Mindy asked, her voice flat and emotionless.