Read An Ember To Bear (Fire Bear Shifters 5) Online

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

An Ember To Bear (Fire Bear Shifters 5) (3 page)

BOOK: An Ember To Bear (Fire Bear Shifters 5)
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She followed the directions on her GPS to the outskirts of Red Valley, and then onto a country road that she’d never driven before. As far as she knew, this road only led out to a state forest with some hiking trails. She hadn’t thought anyone actually lived out this way. Mindy frowned as the dark forest whizzed by her windows. After about five minutes, the dark clouds finally turned from merely threatening to actually pouring down rain. Her visibility was reduced to nearly zero, and she slowed the car down as she strained to see the unlit road ahead of her. According to her GPS, she still had about ten minutes to go on this road. She glanced over at Zach’s slumped form, and swore under her breath.

“This had better be where you live, mister,” she said. “Otherwise, I might just leave your drunk ass on the side of the road.”

For a few more minutes, Mindy continued to creep along through the deluge. When she had about five minutes left until she reached the address on Zach’s driver’s license, she suddenly heard a loud pop and felt her car lurched sideways. She cursed under her breath as she pulled over to the side of the road and turned on her hazard lights. She glanced around the car in hopes that there might be a spare umbrella kicking around in her backseat, but all she found was an old flashlight. When she switched the flashlight on, it glowed brightly against the dark night.

“Well, at least I’ll be able to see, even if I do end up looking like a drowned rat,” Mindy said aloud. Zach’s only response was a loud, snoring grunt. Mindy rolled her eyes heavenward, and then stepped out of her car into the torrential rain. It only took about three seconds for her to see the problem. Her rear driver’s side tire had blown out, leaving shreds of rubber scattered along the road behind her.

“Great. Just great,” Mindy said. She leaned back into the car and glared at her passed-out passenger. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in helping me change the tire?”

Of course, Zach didn’t answer. Mindy turned her car off and applied the parking brake, then popped the trunk. Grumbling the whole time, she started the unpleasant process of removing her ruined tire in the middle of the dark rainstorm. It wasn’t the first time she’d changed a tire, but it was the first time she’d changed a tire with a strange, drunk man sitting in her front seat. The universe didn’t seem too interested in rewarding her for her kindness in giving Zach a ride home. Mindy had just started to put her spare tire on when she heard the passenger door of her car opening. She glanced up and saw Zach stumbling out, falling over as he tried to navigate the gravelly edge of the road. She had no idea how the hell he had managed to get his seatbelt off or open the door, but he had obviously figured it out somehow.

“What are you doing, Zach? Get back in the car!” she yelled at him, unsure if he could even hear her through the loud rain. Apparently he did hear her, though, because he gave her a little smile and wave.

“I have to pee. Why are you standing out here in the rain?” he asked. His speech had become a little less slurred than it had been at the bar, but he was far from sober.

“I’m changing the tire, genius. We had a blowout, and you’re too schnockered to do anything but fall all over yourself.”

“Schnockered is a funny word,” Zach said in response, and then stumbled over to the trees on the edge of the road. He started unzipping his jeans, and somehow managed to take a piss without falling over again. When he finished peeing, he started to take off his shoes and pants instead of getting dressed again. He left half his clothes on the side of the road, and then stumbled over to wear Mindy had almost finished replacing the tire.

“You look hot in that outfit,” he said.

Mindy rolled her eyes. “You are so freaking drunk,” she said. “I’m wearing nursing scrubs.”

“I’se not drunk,” Zach said. “You’re hot.”

Mindy looked up at him, and let out an exasperated sigh when she realized he was only wearing a sweatshirt and underwear. Although his erection was gone, his tight briefs didn’t leave much to the imagination about how well-endowed he was. With her flashlight trained on him for a moment, Mindy could see how massive his thigh muscles were as they glistened with rainwater. But Mindy wasn’t in the mood anymore to fantasize about sleeping with Zach. All she wanted to do was drop this bozo off and get home herself. She had a busy work day ahead of her tomorrow, and she should be getting ready for bed right now instead of changing a tire in the pouring rain.

“Get back in car,” she said. To her surprise, Zach listened to her and climbed back into the front passenger seat. Mindy quickly finished up changing the tire, and put the jack and wrench she had been using back into the trunk. She found Zach’s soaking wet shoes and pants that he had abandoned next to the car, and threw them onto Zach’s lap as she got back into the driver’s seat.

“You forgot these,” she said, and then fired up the car’s engine again.

“Why did we stop?” Zach asked in response.

Mindy rolled her eyes and didn’t even bother trying to explain things. She was pretty sure that Zach was blackout drunk right now. She drove the remaining distance as quickly as she dared in the dark, wet night. When she arrived at their destination, she was surprised to see that her GPS had led them to what appeared to be an airplane hangar. She pulled into the parking lot out front, where several other vehicles were parked in the dark.

“You weren’t kidding,” she said. “You really do live by the airplanes. I guess it makes sense for someone who works as a smokejumper.”

Zach sat up and peered out the window, looking surprised. “We’re home,” he said.

“You’re home,” Mindy corrected. “And as soon as I get you out of my car and into that building, I’m going to head to my home and your drunk ass is going to be someone else’s problem.”

Zach reached over and curled a soaking wet strand of Mindy’s hair around his finger. “How are you so beautiful?” he asked.

Mindy ignored the little thrill that ran through her at hearing someone call her beautiful. As nice as it was to hear someone say that about her, she knew that Zach was only saying these things because he was drunk. She needed to get him out of her car and get out of here. With a sigh, she opened her door and stepped out into the rain again. She walked around to the passenger side of her car and opened Zach’s door.

“Come on,” she said. “Can you walk?”

In response, Zach stumbled out of the car. He made his way to a door on the front of the hangar, and jimmied the doorknob. When he discovered that the door was locked, he started kicking at it. Mindy started to tell him to hold on a second while she got his set of keys from her car. If Zach did live here, then one of those keys probably opened this door. But before she could say anything, he had completely kicked in the large door. Mindy stood with her mouth agape as Zach staggered into the hangar. Mindy peeked in just in time to see him stumble to the floor and start snoring again.

“I think I’ve done enough for you,” she said to Zach’s passed out form. “I’ll leave your keys at the bar on my way to work tomorrow, so you can go get your truck whenever you’re sober enough to figure out how to get there.”

Mindy stomped back out to her car, avoiding the splintered door as she went. The rain continued to pour for the entirety of her drive home. When she finally pulled in to the driveway of her townhome, she was swearing to herself that she would never offer to drive another drunk stranger home again. Why was she always doing stupid stuff like this to try to be nice? All the good karma she put out into the world never seemed to come back to her, anyway. She should just let irresponsible assholes like Zach suffer the consequences of their own actions.

Mindy looked at the outline of a water stain that had formed on the passenger seat where Zach had sat. She hoped that water stain would be the last she ever saw of him.

Chapter Three

*** Five Years Earlier
***

 

Zach stared across the restaurant booth at his girlfriend, Traci, feeling like he’d been sucker punched in the stomach. Beads of sweat trickled down his forehead, caused more by the intensity of the moment than by the heat and humidity of late August in Georgia. Surely, he had heard her incorrectly. Or maybe he just misunderstood what she meant.

“What did you say?” he asked, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t repeat the awful phrase he’d just heard. Or that she would laugh and say this was all a joke, kicking him under the table in that annoying way she did when she wanted to make an especially emphatic statement about something.

“I said, I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” Traci said. No laughter, no kick. Just a stone cold face with her lips set in a hard, serious line.

Zach’s eyes widened and he tugged the scratchy fabric of his army fatigues. At Traci’s insistence, he had come straight from work to meet her at this tiny Mexican restaurant. They had spent dozens of afternoons here, enjoying cheap, happy hour margaritas and the best fajitas in a hundred mile radius. After a tour of Afghanistan, Zach and his clan had been stationed at an army base in Georgia for the last two years. Three months into his Georgia stint, he’d met Traci. He had one more year before his army contract ended, and he’d been planning to ask Traci to marry him when he got out. Things between them were so good—or so he’d thought. Zach had never felt more alive. When he had his arms around Traci, colors felt more vibrant and the sun seemed to shine brighter. He’d thought that she felt the same way, especially after the exciting, life-changing news she’d shared with him last night.

“I don’t understand,” Zach said. “Where is this coming from? Did I do something wrong? I thought everything was going so well for us.”

Zach stared across the table at Traci as she tore little strips from her beverage napkin. He forced himself to wait patiently for her reply. He felt anger beginning to bubble up in his stomach. Why would she bring him here to have this conversation? Was she trying to avoid making a scene? Zach furrowed his brow. If she thought that a couple of people scattered across the restaurant were going to keep him from protesting her breaking up with him, then she didn’t know him very well, after all. He didn’t really give a shit what anyone thought of him.

“I just think that it’s time for me to find someone more, you know,
mainstream
to be with,” Traci said. She never looked up from her napkin as she said those words.

Zach leaned back in stunned silence. He knew exactly what Traci was implying, but he had never thought he would hear words like that coming from her mouth. He had told her on their second date that he was a bear shifter, and she hadn’t flinched for a moment. By their fifth date, he actually shifted in front of her. She remarked on how badass his bear claws looked, but never once said anything to make him believe she had any hesitations about dating a shifter. She had always rolled with the punches and been surprisingly cool about the fact that he was half bear.

“How can you say that? Especially now, with the baby coming,” Zach said. The night before, Traci had run from the bathroom of her apartment waving a positive pregnancy test around in excitement. They had both been overjoyed, and had stayed up until the early hours of the morning making plans for their future child. When Zach saw his clan members at work today, he had struggled to keep his mouth shut. He wanted to scream the news from the rooftop. He was going to be a father. A father! The only reason he didn’t say anything to his crew yet was that Traci had asked him to keep it quiet for the moment. She had grand ideas of doing some big “reveal party” where they would spring the news on all their friends at once. Zach found the idea of a reveal party a little ridiculous, but it seemed important to Traci and so he agreed.

And now, less than twenty-four hours later, she was sitting here telling him that she didn’t want to be part of his life anymore.

“Look, I know this is probably a shock,” Traci said, breaking into Zach’s thoughts. “But I’ve thought about this long and hard all day. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been thinking for several months that maybe dating a shifter wasn’t the life that I wanted. I like you as a person, but I’m not so sure I can handle you as a bear.”

“But, things have been going so well. We’ve been having the time of our lives together. And now we’re having a cub together. I mean, a baby. How can you just say this all means nothing to you?”


You’ve
been having the time of your life. I’ve been struggling with the relationship. I have been for some time. I didn’t want to say anything because I wanted to be sure of my feelings before leaving you. But, last night, when I found out I’m having a baby, it made me realize that I need to stop being on the fence about all of this. I don’t want to live my life always wondering whether I should just go find someone normal, who doesn’t shift into a freaking bear. I don’t want to spend my life dating someone society would consider a freak, if they only knew what you were hiding under the surface. I don’t want my baby to feel like an outcast, or like his or her parents are different and weird. My baby deserves better than that.”


Our
baby, Traci. The baby is ours. Half of its DNA is mine. The baby itself will likely carry the shifter gene. You can’t just sweep the whole bear thing under the rug.”

“Yes, I can. And I will.”

Zach started to get angry. “No, you can’t. Do you honestly think I’m just going to sit by and let you act like I don’t exist? Even though it will shatter my heart into a million pieces, you can break up with me, if you really never want to talk to me again. But you can’t just keep me from my child. That baby is mine, too.”

Traci narrowed her eyes at Zach and lowered her voice. “This baby is mine. I’m telling you right now what you’re going to do. You’re going to tell everyone we broke up. Say it was me, say it was you—say whatever you want, I don’t really care. Just say we’re through. Don’t tell anyone about the baby. As far as you know, this child never existed. I’m dead to you, and this child is dead to you. I’m going to go far away from this dead end town, and start over like I should have done years ago. Don’t try to stop me, and don’t try to find me. If you do, I will get an abortion, and then neither one of us will get to see this child. Not only that, but I will out your clan. I will tell everyone and anyone who will listen that you and your friends are half-bear. I will make sure your life is miserable, and that everyone thinks you’re a monster. I’ll tell law enforcement that you’re dangerous, and need to be contained. Do I make myself clear?”

Zach stared at Traci in stunned shock. He opened his mouth and tried to squeeze out words, but his throat had gone completely dry, and he couldn’t manage to say a single thing. Traci must have taken his silence as acquiescence, because she stood slowly and walked out of the restaurant, leaving her half-drunk glass of iced tea sitting on the table next to Zach’s margarita on the rocks. The ice in both glasses started to melt, and beads of condensation made tiny little rivers on each glass. The waiter came by and asked if Zach wanted to order any food, but all Zach could do was hand him his credit card.

“Something came up. I have to go,” Zach said, struggling to keep his voice even. The waiter nodded, and quickly ran off with the credit card. A few moments later, the waiter discreetly dropped off the card and the receipt for Zach to sign, seeming to sense that Zach needed privacy. Zach went into autopilot mode, signing the receipt and putting his credit card back into his wallet. He blinked a few times, trying to stop the hot tears stinging at the back of his eyelids. He picked up his margarita glass and downed the cold beverage in one long series of gulps. Then he stood and walked outside, shielding his eyes against the bright sun, that now felt like it was betraying him. Nothing felt sunny or happy in his life. Traci had just made what she knew was a checkmate move.

Traci knew Zach couldn’t risk outing his clan. He’d spent long hours confiding in her about how difficult things could get if the wrong people discovered that a clan of shifters existed. His clan did their best to blend in with society and not make waves. Zach slipped behind the steering wheel of his truck, cursing himself for ever trusting a human. She held complete power over him now that she knew his secret. And what could he do? She’d made it clear that he couldn’t chase after her, or she’d have an abortion. Then the baby would be gone from his life for certain. Even once the baby was born, and that danger was over, he couldn’t very well waltz in and demand a DNA test. Traci would laugh in his face, and tell him to go right ahead and do a DNA test. She would make sure to point out the strange abnormalities in the test and demand further testing, which would show what a monster Zach was. No court would ever award him custody of a child when it knew he harbored a bear within him. Worse, if his child had the bear shifter gene, he might inadvertently reveal that, and then his child would face the scorn of society as well.

Still on autopilot, Zach drove back to his apartment building and walked the three stories up to the small one bedroom that he had called home for the last few years. He and Traci had been talking about getting a place together when their respective leases both ran out. In fact, just last night they had discussed finding a house to rent. Something with a little bit of a yard, where Zach could set up a barbecue grill and Traci could have a little vegetable garden.

“So fucking idyllic,” Zach said as he slammed the front door to his apartment shut behind him. “I should have known that was all too good to be true. I should have listened when other shifters warned me that a human could never truly love a shifter.”

Zach kicked off his boots and lay down on his back in the middle of his tiny living room. He stared up at the ceiling fan for a long time, watching it spin in consistent circles, stirring up the hot, humid air without actually cooling anything down. After about an hour of fighting it, Zach let the tears come. He cried for the love of his life that he had just lost, and for the baby that he would never get to meet. He wanted nothing more than to march up to Traci and demand to have a part in his child’s life, but she had made it clear that she would rather terminate the pregnancy than allow him to be a part of the baby’s life. Zach had never met this tiny little shifter whose tiny little heart had barely started beating, but he already loved the little stinker.

Zach slowly sat up and wiped at the tear streaks making their way down his cheeks. Because he loved that little baby, he would do what he had to do. He would be strong, for that little one’s sake. He would tell the clan that Traci had broken up with him, and leave it at that. He would let Traci go, but he would keep track of her. He would watch from afar as his baby grew up, never letting on that he knew where Traci had gone. And, maybe one day, he could figure out a way to be a part of his child’s life without endangering the kid or his clan. Maybe when the baby’s shifter side started showing itself, Traci would come begging him to help her. Then he might have some leverage to be part of his child’s life on his terms.

All he could do was hope.

So, Zach told his clan that Traci had left him. And he withdrew into himself. For a long time, he didn’t go out when the clan grabbed beers after work. He always made up some bullshit excuse, saying that the work week had exhausted him or that he thought he was coming down with a cold bug of some sort. At first, his clan members let him get away with this, assuming that he was still getting over a painful breakup. But as time went on, they tried to push him to move on and forget about Traci.

Zach couldn’t tell them that, although his love for Traci had long since faded into a dull hatred, his love for his unborn cub would never fade. It burned like an unquenchable fire in his chest. Zach had no contact with Traci, but he got on Google and figured out how to roughly calculate what the due date for the baby would have been. The closer he got to late May, when the baby would be born, the more he tried to figure out where Traci had disappeared to. But she had vanished like a ghost, leaving no trail behind her. Their few mutual friends didn’t have any idea where she had gone. Zach even hired a private investigator, but the detective couldn’t find Traci, either.

The years went by, and things changed for Zach and his clan. They finished their stint in the army, then became forest firefighters. Eventually, they were outed as shifters to their ground crew of firefighters, and became smokejumpers to avoid further exposure. It took a little time to get used to the new gig, where jumping out of airplanes was included in the job description. But, eventually the clan members seemed to settle into their new life, even finding lifemates.

But each new human lifemate that joined the crew reminded Zach of his own experience with loving a human. Logically, he knew that not all humans were like Traci. But his heart couldn’t let go of the idea that these women were just biding their time, waiting for an opening to take down the clan. His dark disposition worsened with every passing day, and he knew he had become nearly unbearable to be around. He didn’t care though. He couldn’t find the energy anymore to care about anything other than finding his child. He had no leads. He had no new information. He didn’t know whether the kid was still alive, or even whether it was a boy or girl.

The only thing he knew is he would never feel truly at peace again until he found that child or died trying.

BOOK: An Ember To Bear (Fire Bear Shifters 5)
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