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
Mindy looked over at Bailey, who was patiently waiting for Mindy to explain her predicament. Mindy decided that if she could trust anyone with her secret, then Bailey was that person. It would feel good to have someone to unload all of these frustrations on, anyway. Mindy took a deep breath, and decided to tell Bailey everything.
“This might sound crazy,” Mindy said. “But I want to adopt a child. I had ovarian cancer a few years ago, so I can’t have one of my own. At first, I was really upset about that. But then I realized that not being able to have a biological child didn’t prevent me from having children in my life. I got involved with Red Valley Orphanage as a volunteer. At first, I didn’t intend for my volunteer work to be anything more than a weekly commitment. But the more I was around those kids, the more I came to love them. I decided that I wanted to adopt. The only problem, and it’s a big problem, is that the director of the orphanage thinks that a single woman can’t handle being a mom. He thinks I need a man in my life to be able to properly take care of a child. I don’t have a man in my life, and I don’t have any promising prospects, either. But, yesterday, I convinced him to agree to let me adopt. The only catch is that he said I have to have fifty thousand dollars in my savings account. I’m about forty thousand dollars short right now. I know he only agreed to this because he thinks that I can’t get the money together. But I’m determined to prove him wrong. I don’t care how hard I have to work. I will make this happen. I think a flexible, part-time job helping you make jewelry would be a good place to start.”
Bailey looked across the table at Mindy with wide eyes. “Wow,” she said. “You’re very dedicated. I think that’s a really awesome thing that you’re trying to do. And what a jerk that guy is, for denying you the chance to adopt. He’s also denying one of those kids the chance to have a permanent home.”
“I know,” Mindy said. “It breaks my heart. But he’s the director, and his decision on things is pretty much final.”
“Consider yourself hired,” Bailey said. “I’ll give you as much work as I possibly can. That jerk should be ashamed of himself, and I’ll do whatever I can to help you make an adoption a reality.”
Mindy felt tears stinging at the back of her eyelids. Even if she only made a little bit of money working for Bailey, the expression of support and solidarity Bailey was making meant the world to Mindy.
“Speaking of jerks,” Bailey said, “Another bonus of your working for me will be that Zach has to see you all the time. He’ll be mortified to have you hanging around all the time, since you saw him drunk as a skunk.”
Bailey laughed, and Mindy joined in with her. But no matter how hard she tried to stop it, and how silly she told herself it was, she couldn’t keep from feeling a rush of nervousness at the thought of seeing Zach again.
A little over a week later, Zach stood in the middle of the large hangar, with his parachute spread across the ground. The huge, back doors of the hangar stood open. The large doors, sized for an airplane to fit through, were unnecessary since the crew didn’t have its own aircraft. But Zach loved to open them when the weather was nice.
And the weather today was perfect. Zach breathed in deeply and smiled at the fresh, earthy scent of spring that hung in the air. He loved this time of year. The seasons weren’t as pronounced in northern California as they were in other parts of the country, so the changes in the weather weren’t that dramatic. But Zach had still missed the freshness in the air that spring brought, and he indulged in another deep breath before buckling down to work.
He needed to inspect his parachute in preparation for the upcoming smokejumping season. The crew members all repaired their own parachutes, and were responsible for doing safety checks to make sure their gear remained in good condition. Zach carefully went over the thick fabric of the parachute, trying to find any holes or tears. Then he started inspecting the lines that connected the parachute to the container, which was the backpack-esque contraption used to secure the parachute to Zach’s body during a jump.
Zach started humming some lines from a recent country music hit, and lost himself in his work. He didn’t know what the rest of the crew was up to right now, but he was enjoying having the hangar to himself. Ever since he had stormed away from the barbecue, a noticeable strain had hung in the air between him and the other clan members. He knew they were upset with his attitude, but he refused to apologize. If they didn’t like the way he acted, they could just stay the hell out of his way. Which, it seemed, was exactly what they were doing today. Fine by him.
Zach kept humming as he started repacking his parachute. He hadn’t found any problems with the gear, so he was ready for the next job assignment. He would probably be waiting another month for an assignment, but, now that the weather was beginning to heat up again, it was best to be prepared at all times.
Zach’s happy solitude was interrupted a few minutes later by the sound of women laughing. He frowned as he heard their voices getting closer, and he tried to quickly finish packing his gear up so that he could leave the hangar. He couldn’t complete the task fast enough, however. As he yanked the flaps of his parachute rig closed, he saw Bailey round the corner of the hangar. She was holding a large, clear plastic container, and was looking over her shoulder to talk to someone behind her.
“We can set these supplies up for now, and then go back to get more if we need to. But I think this should give us a really good start.”
Zach rolled his eyes. Not only had Ian let Bailey, yet another human, move out to base to live with the crew, but he had also given her permission to run her jewelry business out of the hangar. Zach didn’t think that an airplane hangar was a good place to do arts and crafts, but Ian had stood firm, saying that they had plenty of room and there was no reason for Bailey to have to spend the money to rent office space in town.
Zach felt a pang of sadness hit him as he realized that it had been a long time since he and Ian had engaged in a conversation that didn’t end in an argument. Zach missed the good old days, when Ian was his best friend and they would spend hours hanging out, drinking beers, and just enjoying life. They both still referred to each other as best friends, but their arguments had been outshining any sense of camaraderie for the last year, at least.
“Good morning, Zach,” Bailey said brightly.
Zach grunted in response, picking up his gear to put it away and get away from the hangar as fast as he could. As he turned to put the parachute on its rack, however, he heard a familiar voice behind him.
“Good morning, Zach.”
Zach froze. That couldn’t possibly be who he thought it was, could it? He sniffed the air, and her scent hit him in full force. Slowly, he turned around, and found himself face to face with Mindy. An unexpected rush of conflicting emotions ran through him. He felt the warmth of desire creeping through his veins as his bear roared within him at the sight of Mindy. He felt embarrassment at having to face her again after the ungentlemanly way he had left her the last time he saw her. And he felt anger at himself, for being attracted to a human and caring about what that human thought of him.
“What are you doing here?” he snarled at her. She didn’t flinch or back away. Instead, she gave him the same sort of sickly sweet smile he had given her at the hospital right before flipping her off.
“Working,” she said. “I’m going to be helping Bailey with her jewelry business, so I’ll be hanging around here a lot. We’ll get to see each other all the time. Isn’t that fabulous?”
Zach snarled again, and turned on his heel to leave the hangar.
“Ian approved it, so don’t even try going to complain to him about it,” Bailey called after him.
Zach felt his stomach lurch at Bailey’s words. He felt like he didn’t even know who Ian was anymore. Just a year ago, Ian had been similarly opposed to having any humans around the hangar. But ever since Ian had taken a human lifemate, he’d gone soft and forgotten the danger that humans could pose to shifters.
As soon as Zach made it around the corner of the hangar, where Bailey and Mindy couldn’t see him anymore, he gave the grassy earth a giant, frustrated kick. For the first time, he let the thought of leaving his clan seriously cross his mind. Even a week ago, he would have never dreamed of considering such a thing. But he felt like he didn’t fit in anymore, and everything around here made him unhappy. The crew tolerated him, but only out of a sense of duty. He knew they all hated his attitude and thought he was out of line most of the time. And, honestly, he was starting to feel like he didn’t like anyone on the crew anymore. Not even Ian.
Zach felt miserable, but he couldn’t tell anyone why. He was trapped in this web of secrets, and the only way out was to put the whole clan at risk. He knew he could never do that, no matter how tense things had become. Worrying him more than anything, though, was the way he felt when Mindy was around.
He could never be with her, because she was human. And yet, his bear insisted on feeling all sorts of things when she was around that he’d never felt before. The rush of excitement was familiar—that satisfying sensation of desire that a potential new love interest sent coursing through your veins whenever they were around. Zach had felt that before, for sure. But he felt something in addition to that, something deeper. Whenever Mindy was nearby, he felt like the atoms of his body were being literally drawn to her. She had some sort of magnetic pull on him, drawing him in as though she had an actual physical connection to him.
Zach covered his face as he realized in horror what that magnetic pull was: the lifemate bond.
“No,” he roared, and took off running toward the bunkhouse. This had to be some sort of mistake. He didn’t trust humans. He didn’t want them around. He couldn’t possibly become bonded to one. There’s no way that he was actually fated to be lifemates with a human. Was there? What kind of sick, cosmic joke would that be?
Zach suddenly felt trapped, like he needed to get out of here now. What was the point in staying, anyway? Sure, he liked his job. But the crew didn’t like being around him, and he didn’t particularly enjoy being around them, since it meant being around their human lifemates all the time. Every day around here had become a painful reminder of how he would never be able to look in a human’s eyes with trust ever again. And, speaking of humans, he didn’t want to be around Mindy for another second. Every moment he spent around her was a moment spent fighting off traitorous feelings of desire. How could his bear be so attracted to a human when it knew how Traci had betrayed him?
There was only one answer to this situation: he needed to leave. He needed to get out of here without telling anyone, and go somewhere where he could truly be alone and have time to think. He would get a duffel bag, throw in some clothes and a few personal items, and go somewhere far, far away. He didn’t see any other option.
As he burst through the front door of the bunkhouse, he ran smack into Ian.
“What the hell, Zach,” Ian said, rubbing his forehead where Zach had just collided with him. “Slow down.”
“What the hell?” Zach said. “You’re really going to stand there and ask
‘what the hell?’ How about I ask you ‘what the hell, now not only are human lifemates allowed to hang around base but you’re letting them bring their human friends out here, too.’ What kind of alpha are you? You’re putting everything at risk.”
Ian sighed. “I’m assuming this is about Bailey’s friend?”
“Yes, it is. It’s about Bailey’s friend. Who, in case you haven’t noticed, is the human friend of a human lifemate. And now she’s apparently allowed to just waltz around the hangar. What are you thinking, Ian? When are you going to step up and act like an alpha? It’s your job to protect the crew. You have to stop turning a blind eye to the fact that humans can’t be trusted.”
“I knew you were going to throw a fit about this the soon as you found out,” Ian said wearily. “Look, I’ll tell you what has to stop—and it’s not my letting humans on base. It’s your letting humans hold your heart captive with fear. What kind of a bear are you, anyway? Always cowering in the corner when there’s a human around. Always looking over your shoulder, like there’s someone just waiting to expose you and ruin your life. That’s no way to live, Zach. If you choose to live that way, that’s on you. But I’m not going to force the rest of the crew to wallow in bitterness and fear just because you do.”
“Maybe it’s not the best way to live, but it’s the way I have to live,” Zach said. “And maybe I am over-paranoid, but you’re under-paranoid. You keep trusting people that you don’t know that well, and one of these days it’s going to come back to bite you.”
“I don’t just make these decisions lightly, like you seem to think,” Ian said. “Bailey may be human, but she’s one of the clan now. She’s agreed to be Trevor’s lifemate, and I don’t doubt her loyalty. She deserves to be treated with respect and trust. And she deserves our help with her new business. She needed to hire an employee, and she found someone who helped save her life at the hospital. Mindy also selflessly loaned Bailey money when Bailey had nothing. I don’t have any reason to doubt that Mindy is a wonderful human, who just wants to help out one of our clan members. Mindy’s being on base for a few hours to help Bailey out here and there is not putting our clan at any significant risk. Nobody’s going to shift around her, and nobody’s going to tell her that we’re shifters. It’s really no more risk than when one of us goes into town and walks around. Unless there’s an emergency and a reason to shift, Mindy will never know that she’s working in the middle of a bunch of bears. And an emergency could happen anywhere, at any time—not just at the hangar. Having Mindy around isn’t some big, extra risk.”
“She’s a big risk to me,” Zach said. “Don’t you get that?”
By the end of his sentence, Zach had raised his voice and was yelling. He knew Ian’s patience with him was running out, but he didn’t care anymore. Zach just wanted to leave, and he wanted Ian to know how he felt before he left.
Zach’s yelling caused Ian to lose his temper, too.
“And why is it such a big risk to you, specifically? What makes you so special?” Ian yelled, putting his face directly in Zach’s face.
“Because every time I see her, my bear gets demanding and restless,” Zach said, before he really thought about what he was saying. “I can’t deal with that. I can’t be attracted to a human.”
Ian’s eyes widened with surprise at Zach’s words. He blinked silently a few times before responding.
“Your bear wants her?” Ian asked, his voice returning to a normal tone. “Wants her, as in…is drawn to her?”
“Yes, is drawn to her. Meaning exactly what I know you’re hinting at—my bear thinks that Mindy is my lifemate. But there’s no way that’s happening. I can’t have a human for a lifemate. If that’s my only option, then I’ll just remain single. I refuse to trust any of their kind again.”
Ian’s expression softened somewhat at Zach’s words. “Zach, you know better. If she’s your lifemate, you won’t be able to just push those feelings away. You’ll feel incomplete and empty until you let her into your life. But, more importantly, regardless of whether Mindy is your lifemate or not, you have to find a way to get past this bitterness that you feel. I know Traci hurt you. I know you think I don’t know all of the details and can’t understand. But, while I may not know all the details, what I do know is this: you used to be full of life, and happy. Even after the rockslide where we lost most of our clan, and you almost lost your life, you have always been strong. You’ve been a solid, steady person, who could withstand any heartache. I don’t know why Traci leaving you affected you so badly, but, as your alpha and as your best friend it kills me to see you like this.”
“Well, it kills me too, believe me. But the more you try to get me to trust humans again, the more you just alienate yourself from me. I’ll never trust them again,” Zach said, his words thick with hatred.
“No one is saying that you have to trust every human fully, or even that you have to trust
human fully, at least not right away. But you should take some small steps to learn how to stop living your life in complete fear. If you find yourself drawn to Mindy, then why don’t you just ask her to have lunch with you? It doesn’t even have to be a date. It can just be lunch as friends. Tell her you want to buy her a meal to apologize for the way you yelled at her. And don’t try to say you didn’t yell at her. I know you did, because you yell at every human that comes by here, and then you come yell at me,” Ian said, crossing his arms and giving Zach a disapproving look.