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
Zach awoke to a sharp pain in his ribs. He cracked his eyes open and winced at the bright sunlight that hit them. The sharp pain in his ribs repeated, and he let out a small howl.
“Dude, what are you doing? Did you go off and get drunk in town last night? Too good to just get drunk with your boys anymore?”
Zach opened his eyes fully and tried to focus on the blurry figure above him. Ian towered over him, holding a mug of coffee and wearing a scowl on his face.
“Too bright,” Zach whimpered out. His head felt like it might explode at any moment from the hammer-like pounding rhythmically beating against the inside of his skull. His mouth felt drier than cotton, and he could feel his lips cracking. He tried to lick them, but his tongue was too dry to be of any help. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been this hungover. To his left, his pants and shoes sat in a crumpled pile. He had no idea how they’d gotten there, or why he wasn’t wearing them.
Ian’s steel-toed boots made contact with his ribs in a swift kick, and Zach realized that his alpha was responsible for the pain in his side as the now-familiar sharp sensation radiated across his chest.
“Ow, stop it,” Zach said in protest. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with me?” Ian said with a snort. “I think the better question would be what’s wrong with you. I’ve been pretty tolerant of your attitude over the last several years, but it seems to be getting worse by the day at this point. Look, we all felt really badly for you when Traci left you—”
Zach interrupted Ian with a low warning growl. He hated the sound of Traci’s name, and most of the time the crew didn’t dare to mention her. But Ian seemed to have reached some sort of breaking point, and was determined to let Zach have it.
“I know you really loved her, Zach. But you can’t live in the past forever. You have to move on and live your life. This constant moping around has to stop. This insistence on being rude to your crew members’ human lifemates has to come to an end. Also, you need to fix the door that you smashed in last night,” Ian said, giving Zach another kick in the side for good measure.
“This isn’t about Traci,” Zach roared out. “And don’t say that bitch’s name around me.”
“I don’t believe for a second that it’s not about Traci,” Ian said. “The day she left you, the old Zach disappeared. The fun-loving, kind, all-around good guy that you used to be just vanished. In his place is this angry shell of a person who becomes more withdrawn with every passing year. If you’re not still hung up on Traci, then where is all of this angst coming from?”
Zach stood with a roar, despite the fact that the effort required to do so made him feel like he was going to pass out. “There are things you don’t know about, Ian. Things you can’t know about. We can’t all go blissfully through life like you, believing that humans are actually good and accepting of us. Some of us have had to face the harsh reality of human betrayal, and it’s not pretty.”
“I’ve had human girls break up with me before, too,” Ian said, getting right in Zach’s face. Zach winced at the stench of morning coffee breath that blew into his face, but he couldn’t really complain. If his breath smelled anything like his mouth tasted, then Ian was probably smelling a mixture of morning breath and stale whiskey right now.
“It wasn’t just an ordinary breakup,” Zach said, his voice turning quiet and steely.
Ian shrugged, sloshing a little of his coffee over the side of the mug as he did. “You keep saying that, but you can’t give me any reason that Traci leaving you was so special. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it pretty much looks to me like it was an ordinary breakup. It’s time to get over it. It’s been almost five years, and you still mope around like she broke your heart yesterday. Get your life together, man.”
Zach’s only response was another steely glare, and Ian let out a sigh before heading for the stairs that led up to his office.
“And be nice to Bailey,” Ian yelled out over his shoulder as he climbed the stairs. “She’s a good girl, and Trevor really likes her. She’s going to be around here for a while.”
Zach let out an exasperated grunt as Ian’s office door slammed shut. Then he sank back to the floor and sat cross-legged, looking around the large, open airplane hangar and trying to remember how he had ended up passed out on the floor in here.
Since the crew didn’t have their own airplane, they had converted the hangar into a workroom. Sewing machines, which the crew used for parachute repairs, lined the wall. Neat stacks of gear stood ready and waiting for an emergency fire call, although it would likely be at least another month before the wildfires started up again.
Zach squeezed his eyes shut and tried to piece together memories from the night before. He remembered getting angry about Trevor showing up with Bailey. He recalled taking a pie box from the table and storming off to a bar in Red Valley. He’d stopped at the first neon beer sign he’d seen, and the place had been surprisingly cozy. He remembered sitting down at the bar next to a pretty, red-haired nurse, and then ordering whiskey and eating pie. After that, things got fuzzy.
He reached to pick his pants up from the floor, and realized that they were damp. Had he pissed himself last night? Horrified, he gave the pants a quick sniff, and was relieved to find that the dampness seemed to be just water. He stood again and pulled the pants on, ignoring the bothersome sensation of damp denim against his skin. He didn’t know if the rest of the crew had woken up yet, and he didn’t want anyone else to see him hungover and traipsing around with no pants. He grabbed his shoes in his hands and walked out the front door of the hangar, then looked toward the bunkhouse to his left. As far as he could tell, no one else had woken up yet. Hopefully, he could sneak in and get some fresh clothes without anyone else seeing him.
As he stepped out of the hangar and onto the cool ground, he felt mud squishing between his toes. He looked down, and saw that the dirt on the edge of the parking lot had been turned into a tiny swamp. When he looked over at the trees across the road, he saw their branches glistening in the bright morning sun. It looked like their leaves were all soaking wet.
Trevor frowned. Well, that explained his wet clothes. He must have been caught in the rain last night. But why had he taken his pants off? He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember more details from the night before, but his memories stopped abruptly after his second slice of pie.
When he opened his eyes and glanced around the parking lot, he realized that his truck wasn’t there.
“Shit,” he said aloud. He checked the pockets of his jeans, but his keys were not in there. He walked back into the hangar and looked around, hoping that he would find them. But they weren’t there either. He had no idea how he had gotten home, or where his keys were. Logically, the first place he should look would be the bar he’d gone to the night before. The only problem was that Zach didn’t remember what the bar was named or exactly where it was. The only clear detail he remembered was that the nurse’s name was Mindy and that she worked at the Red Valley Hospital.
Kicking himself for ending up in this predicament, Zach left the hangar. He walked over to the bunkhouse and changed into a fresh set of clothes, then snuck out and got his bike from the bike rack near the hangar. He probably could have convinced one of the guys to give him a ride into town, but he didn’t want to deal with apologizing for the night before. He knew that his crew was mad at him for the way he was acting, but they didn’t understand the deep heartache that he lived with every day.
Zach started peddling toward town. His heart felt heavy, but he didn’t know what to do to change things. Traci had taken so much from him when she walked out the day. Not only had he lost his chance to be involved in his child’s life, but he had lost the ability to truly be a part of his crew. He felt forever on the outside, hiding a deep, dark secret that was his alone to bear. He knew that if he told the clan what had really happened with Traci, that they would all be willing to go to bat for him. They would line up without question, ready to fight for him and for his child. But that loyalty was exactly why he couldn’t tell them the truth. If they started fighting for him, the clan would be destroyed. Traci would tell the police, or someone in the government, and life as they knew it would be over. Zach didn’t want that for his crew, and so he did what he had to do to keep them oblivious.
Zach knew Ian was right when he said that not all humans were out to get them. In fact, some amazing humans who headed up the United States Forest Service—the agency that the clan worked for when they were smokejumping—knew about the clan’s shifter status. As far as Zach could tell, those humans were loyal and truly interested in keeping the bears’ secret. That little qualifying phrase—“as far as he could tell”—was the problem though, wasn’t it? How the hell was he supposed to know whether his gut feeling about a human was right or wrong? Ian and the other clan members seemed to trust their human lifemates implicitly. But Zach had trusted Traci, and he had been wrong about her. You just never knew when you gave your heart to someone else whether you were signing away your happiness, or ensuring it.
Beads of sweat rolled down Zach’s face as he continued to pedal steadily toward the hospital. He tried to figure out what he would say to the nurse when he saw her. She had been a cute little thing, with curly, fiery red hair, and expressive green eyes. The skin on her face had been freckled and smooth, and she had just the right amount of meat on her bones. Traci had been stick thin, and that was one thing Zach had never liked about her. Zach liked to have something to hold onto on a woman. Not that it really mattered what Mindy looked like. She was human, and therefore off-limits.
Zach frowned, and pedaled harder. He had given up hope years ago of ever finding a shifter lifemate. There didn’t seem to be many shifter clans living around here, and Zach wasn’t going to travel anywhere unless the rest of his clan was coming with him. Besides, he spent most of his free time consumed with trying to find Traci or his kid. He’d put in hours of research, and gone down every possible rabbit trail. But he still found nothing. He had no idea how she had managed to disappear so completely. It’s like the freaking witness protection program had taken her in or something. But Zach wouldn’t stop trying. He couldn’t stop trying. His kid would be almost five years old now, and around age four or five was usually when bears in his clan had really started to show their shifter side. Without a parent around who understood how shifting worked, his little shifter cub would probably freak out about what was happening to him or her. Traci wouldn’t know how to handle questions about shifting.
Zach smiled for just a moment, remembering happier times when his clan had been larger, and the squeals of little cubs shifting had been a common sound. Back then, Zach had loved watching the little kids in his clan as they first learned how to shift. They would switch into bear form, and stumble around unsteadily on their unfamiliar bear legs. The effect was adorable, like watching a toddler learn to walk. Except, instead of toddlers, these were furry, sweet little bear cubs. It had been years, though, since Zach had seen a little bear. Most of his clan had been wiped out in a rockslide, and the Burning Claws smokejumpers were the only bears that had survived. Zach himself had almost died when one of the rocks hit him, and he still had the large, nasty scar across his back to remind him.
Zach frowned, and pushed thoughts of his lost clan members out of his head. Some days, he wondered if there was even a point to his life. It seemed like his existence had been filled with only sorrow, and it often felt like too much for one bear to take. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to just throw in the towel. He had to keep fighting, for his clan’s sake, and his kid’s sake.
Zach finally reached the hospital, and he parked his bike out front. He didn’t see a bike rack, so he chained the bike to a street sign and went looking for the front entrance. When he found it, he walked inside and made his way to the front desk. A receptionist sat twirling strands of hair around her finger and staring off into space.
“Excuse me,” Zach said. “I’m looking for a nurse who works here. Her name is Mindy. Can you help me find her?”
The receptionist shifted her gaze to Zach with mild interest. “What’s her last name?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, actually,” Zach said. “But I lost something important last night, and I think she knows where it is. Can’t you just look her up by her first name? There can’t be that many Mindys working at the hospital.”
The receptionist raised an eyebrow at Zach. “It’s kind of creepy to ask for someone just by their first name, don’t you think?” she said, still twirling her hair around her finger.
Zach sighed in exasperation. Maybe the direct approach would work better. “Look, I got drunk at a bar last night, and now I can’t find my keys or my truck. Mindy is the only person who I know for sure was there, and I’m hoping she can help me find the bar and my truck. Please have a little sympathy on me, and help me find her. I promise that’s all I want from her. I’ve got pretty much the worst hangover of my life and I really just want to get my truck back and go home.”
The receptionist started laughing. “Let me get this straight, you lost your truck, and you don’t even remember which bar you left it at? Sounds like someone had a wild night.”
Zach took a deep breath to calm his frustration. He opened his mouth slowly, trying to come up with a reply that didn’t sound mean. After all, he needed the receptionist’s help, so he didn’t want to tick her off. But before he could say anything, he heard a voice behind him that sounded familiar.