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 looked sheepishly down at the floor. He did have a pretty bad track record.
Ian uncrossed his arms and continued talking. “You don’t have to do anything at lunch except be a polite, normal person. Just one meal, Zach. If you give it a fair chance, I think you’ll realize that Mindy is an outstanding human with a good heart. She would never betray her friends.”
“I thought the same thing about Traci,” Zach spat out.
Ian sighed. “I tell you what: eat one meal with Mindy. Keep an open mind, and give her a fair shot. If you still tell me that you honestly think she’s some huge risk to the clan, then I won’t let her work around here anymore. But you have to give it a fair shot. I think once you do, you’ll see that she’s not so bad, after all.”
Zach shook his head sadly. “How am I supposed to do that? I can’t just go having meals with a woman who might be my lifemate. It’s only going to make the magnetic draw worse.”
“Well, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Like I said, I think she’s a great person. And, if you’re drawn to her, that’s all the more reason you should give her a chance. Maybe you’re missing out on an amazing lifemate because of your stupid, bitter prejudices. This is my offer, Zach. Take it or leave it. But if you want Mindy gone, you’ll have to go have a meal with her first. If you do that, and in all sincerity tell me afterward that you still don’t want her around, then I’ll tell her to go.”
“You’re being unreasonable. I don’t even want to talk to you anymore,” Zach said, then snarled at Ian and pushed his way into the bunkhouse. But Zach knew deep down that he was the one who was being unreasonable. He felt himself faltering in his decision to pack up and leave. Maybe he should just take Ian up on his offer. Zach didn’t want to have lunch with Mindy, because he feared where it might lead—both for reasons of not trusting humans, and for reasons of worrying that Mindy was his lifemate. But what Zach did want was to prove Ian wrong. And if all he had to do to get Mindy banned from base was to spend one hour having lunch with her, then maybe it would be worth it. Feeling a little guilty, but a little smug, Zach turned on his heel. He headed out of the bunkhouse and back to the hangar.
He held his head high and strode through the large, open back doors. Then he walked right up to where Mindy and Bailey were leaning over a large container of assorted glass beads, waiting for them to notice him and look up. Their faces both took on a guarded, suspicious expression when they saw him.
Zach took a deep breath, and tried to muster up as much sincerity in his voice as he could.
“Listen, Mindy,” he said. “I think you and I got started off on the wrong foot, and I’m really sorry about that. I’m sorry that I stormed out of here in anger, and I’m sorry that I flipped you off the other day at the hospital. I also want you to know that I really appreciate your driving me home from the bar the other night. Would you be willing to let me take you to lunch, as a gesture of my appreciation for what you’ve done for me? You can pick the place and the day. If you’re going to be around here working with Bailey all the time, then you and I should at least be on decent speaking terms. What do you say?”
Mindy looked surprised, then narrowed her eyes at Zach. “This isn’t supposed to be a date, is it?” she asked.
Zach resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Why did women always think that every time you ate a meal or had a cup of coffee with them it had to be a date? “No, not a date. Don’t worry. I just want to get lunch together as friends.”
Mindy paused for a moment, still looking unsure of herself. She looked Zach up and down, as if trying to decide whether he was pulling her leg or something. Zach felt a pang of guilt, since he did have an ulterior motive. But he told himself that it was for the good of his clan, and tried to keep a pleasant, neutral expression on his face. Finally, Mindy nodded.
“Okay,” she said. “What about next Tuesday? There’s a pizza place a few blocks away from the hospital where I work that I really like. It’s called Jim’s Pizza. We could meet there at noon.”
“Sounds good,” Zach said. “I’ll see you then. And, in the meantime, I’ll leave you two ladies to your jewelry.”
Zach turned and hurried out of the hangar. He had to get away from Mindy before the bear inside of him went completely wild. He had never felt his inner beast get so excited at the mere sight and smell of a woman. But every time he saw Mindy, the feeling only grew stronger. Traci had certainly never had this effect on him. As soon as he disappeared out of the hangar and around the corner, he paused to take a few deep breaths. Just as he felt his breathing returning to normal, he heard Bailey’s voice drifting out of the building.
“Wow. I’ve never seen him be so nice to anyone,” Bailey said. “Especially to someone he barely knows. You must have the magic touch.”
Zach winced at Bailey’s words. He wasn’t being nice. He was being an asshole, and acting like he cared about Mindy in an effort to keep her away from the hangar. He felt his resolve to have lunch with Mindy weakening. He hated the feeling of uncertainty that clouded every decision he made these days.
With his mind swirling, Zach ran back to the bunkhouse, and went up to the deserted top floor. The crew used the area up there for storage, and hardly anyone ever went up to the room. Zach lay down on his back on the dirty wooden floor and stared at the ceiling, sneezing a few times at the dust he had stirred up. He needed to be alone for a few minutes to have some time to think.
It wasn’t just Ian who didn’t know who Zach was anymore. Zach realized that he didn’t even know himself. He used to believe that he was a good person, but now he wasn’t so sure. If he took an honest look at himself in the mirror, could he really say that he was the kind of person he would want to be friends with? He had become bitter and mean, but he didn’t know how to change that.
Zach sat up slowly, and looked around the dark, dusty room. Then he stood up and walked over to where several storage boxes with his name on them had been taped shut and piled into neat stacks. He pulled down two of the boxes to reveal a third box that wasn’t sealed. Looking around to make sure that he really was alone, he pulled the box down and opened it. Inside, he sifted through piles and piles of folders, each containing records of search after failed search in his effort to locate his cub. His whole life was in this box. His whole, failed life.
Zach had to wonder if he was really the kind of man who would make good father, anyway. He used to value words like kindness, integrity, and honesty. But now, he had become a bitter shell. Lying and conniving to keep happiness from those who could still find it.
“I’m sorry, little one,” Zach said, his voice breaking. “I’ve let you down. Not only have I not found you, but I’ve become the kind of man that you wouldn’t even want to find you. Maybe it’s time that I let you go. I’ll never stop looking for you, hoping against hope that around every corner I might suddenly see a little face that looks like mine. But maybe if I let the idea of you go, and come to terms with the fact that I might never meet you in this life, then I can actually start living again. I can actually start becoming the kind of person that I hope you might one day be.”
Zach stood up and looked around until he found the bin of office supplies that he had known was among the piles of boxes. He found a roll of packaging tape, and went back to the box of papers about his long-lost child. He sealed the box, putting strip after strip of the clear packaging tape across the faded, brown cardboard. He didn’t just stop at sealing the box flaps, though. He kept going, covering every square inch of the box with tape until the whole thing looked like one big, glossy block.
Feeling confused and scared, but strangely hopeful for the first time in a long time, Zach picked up the box and placed it at the very back of the pile of his things. Then he gave the box a little kiss before starting to arrange other boxes around it to hide it.
“Goodbye, little one,” he said. “I’ve sealed you away for now, but I promise you I’m doing my best. I hope that one day we do find each other, and I hope on the day that we do, that I’m a much better person than I am today.”
Zach left the box there in the top floor of the bunkhouse, along with a piece of his heart. He went back down to the bottom floor and decided to go for a jog instead of packing up a duffel bag to leave.
Abandoning his clan wasn’t the answer. But maybe, coming back to them was. He would find a way to once again be the person he used to be.
Later that afternoon, Mindy climbed into her car after several hours of making jewelry with Bailey. Her fingers and her eyes both felt tired, but her heart felt full. The afternoon had been challenging and fun. Bailey knew a surprising amount about handcrafting jewelry, and Mindy had found herself fascinated by the process. Mindy also found herself fascinated by Bailey herself. Even though Bailey had lost a longtime colleague in a fire, and almost died herself, she remained upbeat and optimistic about life. Between giving instructions on how to design jewelry, Bailey had chatted Mindy’s ear off about everything from her new boyfriend to her favorite taco fixings. The girl was a lot of fun to be around.
The only part of the day that hadn’t gone so well was the moment that Zach had seen them walking into the hangar. Mindy hadn’t necessarily expected Zach to give her a warm welcome, but she hadn’t expected the huge outburst of anger her presence set off, either. Bailey had told her not to take it personally, because he acted that way toward everyone. But Mindy hadn’t been so sure about that. It had seemed to her like it had been her specifically that set him off.
She had done her best to push him out of her mind and get down to business with Bailey. And, for the most part, she had succeeded. So what if Zach had big muscles and a handsome face? He had also proven that he loved to act like an asshole, and Mindy didn’t have space in her life for assholes. She had settled happily into choosing beads with Bailey when Zach returned and asked her to let him take her to lunch sometime. Mindy had hesitated at first. She wasn’t sure that Zach’s request was sincere, given his unkind behavior toward her. And then she thought, to her horror, that he might be trying to ask her out on an actual date. She would have turned that down in a heartbeat. Her interactions with Zach thus far had been almost entirely unpleasant, and she wasn’t interested in dating a guy like that, no matter how good-looking he might be.
But once he assured her that he wasn’t trying to date her, she hadn’t seen the harm in agreeing. After all, she had really enjoyed the time she spent with him at the bar the first night she met him—until he go too drunk to stand up straight. Maybe lunch with him might actually be fun. And, if she continued working with Bailey, she would probably be seeing Zach quite often. No sense in making things more awkward than they needed to be. Hopefully, eating a meal with him would help smooth out the rough edges of their fledgling friendship.
Mindy started preheating the oven for a frozen pizza. She didn’t have the energy to cook anything tonight, and she didn’t feel like waiting for delivery. She flopped on the couch while she waited for the oven to reach the proper temperature, and was about to flip the TV on with the remote when her phone started ringing. To her surprise, the caller ID displayed the number for Red Valley Orphanage. Her stomach clenched up as she answered the call. She’d never had a call from the orphanage outside of business hours, and her first thought was that something had happened to one of the kids.
“Hello?” she answered, her voice sounding squeaky and nervous.
“Mindy, hi. It’s Mr. Stewart.”
Mindy frowned. His voice sounded calm, and even conversational. But he must have a reason for calling at this time.
“Hi, Mr. Stewart. How are you?” Mindy asked cautiously.
“I’m good. Listen, I know we discussed letting you adopt once you had fifty thousand in your savings account, but we’ve just had another child join the agency, a little girl. I feel like she’s such a good fit for you that I would be willing to let you start the adoption process with her right now.”
Mindy felt the breath leave her lungs. Was Mr. Stewart trying to play some cruel joke on her? He had been so against her adopting that it seemed suspicious.
“Mindy?” he asked. “Are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m here. Um, I’d definitely be interested in that. How old is she?”
“She’s four. Almost five. Her mother died in a car accident a few years ago, the result of a drunk driving incident. No one has ever been able to find any family, and there’s no father listed on the girl’s birth certificate. The mom seemed to have a history of drinking too much and being in and out of trouble with the law, so it’s possible she didn’t even know who the father was.”
Mindy felt her heart beating faster with excitement. Was this really happening? Was she really going to have a chance to have a little girl of her own? She tried to tell herself not to get too excited until she knew for sure that Mr. Stewart was actually going to go through with this.
“Why are you changing your mind all of a sudden?” she asked. “What makes you think that this girl is such a good fit for me?”
Mr. Stewart sighed. “I just do, okay? Are you interested or not?”
“I’m interested, for sure,” Mindy said quickly.
“Good. When can you come meet her? We can set her up in your home as a foster child until the adoption can be finalized.”
“Um, I work tomorrow, but I could come by after work and meet her.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you then,” Mr. Stewart said, and then abruptly hung up.
Mindy stared at the call ended message blinking on her cell phone. Something about this whole situation felt strange. Mindy knew there had to be something Mr. Stewart wasn’t telling her, but she crossed her fingers and hoped that this little girl would be able to come home with her. Her dream of being a mother had suddenly gone from a years’ long project to potentially happening in the next few months.
Mindy got up to put the frozen pizza in the oven, and then went to look at the second bedroom in her townhome. She had kept it simple, with a small, twin bed and small dresser. The color scheme was a neutral gray pattern. She’d hoped to someday let her newly adopted child choose his or her own bedding and decorations. Mindy picked up a small white teddy bear from the bed and hugged it close. Maybe that someday was just around the corner.
Mindy spent the rest of the evening making plans, between shoving bites of pizza into her mouth. She would have to find childcare, and she’d need to buy new clothes and toys for the little girl. She frowned as she realized that Mr. Stewart hadn’t even told her the little girl’s name. Her intuition warned her that something about this little girl was unusual, but she pushed away the sense of foreboding that suddenly filled her. Mindy crossed her arms and set her face in a hard line as she stared down at her to-do list. She was sure that whatever Mr. Stewart wasn’t telling her was something she could handle. She would do her best to be the mother that this little girl desperately needed.
* * *
“Miss Mindy, are you here to see Sophia?” Drew asked.
Mindy looked down at the freckled little face staring up at her with a concerned look. Within two seconds of stepping into the orphanage, she had been surrounded by concerned, little faces.
“Is Sophia the new girl?” Mindy asked. She rolled the name around in her head. It was a beautiful, classy name.
“Yeah. Mr. Stewart says she has to go. She causes too much trouble. He said you would take her because you’re desp-uht. What’s desp-uht mean?”
“Desperate,” Mindy corrected. “It means you want something so much that you’ll do anything to get it.”
“Are you desp-uht to take Sophia home? Why you not desp-uht to take me home?”
Mindy felt her heart breaking, and she felt anger burning in her chest at Mr. Stewart. Whatever his reasons for thinking Sophia caused trouble, and whatever his reasons for not thinking Mindy would make a good mother, he shouldn’t be burdening these children with his problems and prejudices.
Mindy belt down and gave Drew a hug. “I wish I could take you all home with me. I love you very much. But there are lots of rules about who I can take home and when, and I have to follow the rules. But even if I can’t take you home, I will always make time to come here and play with you, okay?”
“Pwomise?” Drew asked.
“Promise,” Mindy said, giving Drew another hug. “I have to go talk to Mr. Stewart now, but I’ll see you in a little bit, okay?”
Drew nodded, and then skipped off with the other children. Mindy went to Mr. Stewart’s office and knocked on the door. When he bellowed for her to come in, Mindy pushed the door open and took a seat in her usual chair.
“Mindy! So good to see you. How are you?”
Mindy frowned. Mr. Stewart was keeping something from her. He never acted this happy to see her. Why was he so eager to pass Sophia off ?
“I’m great, how are you?”
“I’m fantastic! Thanks for coming by. I think you’re going to love Sophia. She’s a little shy, but she’s a sweet child.”
Mindy knew she might be jeopardizing her chances of taking Sophia home if she pressed Mr. Stewart for details, but she had to know what had caused his sudden change of heart. She took a deep breath and looked him squarely in the eyes.
“Mr. Stewart, I really appreciate the opportunity to potentially foster and adopt Sophia. But we both know that you have been strongly opposed to my adopting. What made you change your mind?”
Mr. Stewart leaned back and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I think Sophia is a sweet child, but she needs more one on one time than I can give her here. I think she would thrive much better in a home environment than here.”
Mindy frowned again. “That’s true of all the kids here.”
“Well, yes, but I think it’s true of Sophia specifically,” Mr. Stewart said, and waved his hands dismissively. “Why don’t you come meet Sophia and see for yourself what you think?”
Mindy knew Mr. Stewart was hiding something from her, and she didn’t appreciate being brushed off. But she couldn’t turn down a chance to meet Sophia. So she nodded and followed Mr. Stewart out to the backyard. He looked around a moment, and then pointed toward the swingset.
“Ah, there she is,” he said. “Sophia! Could you come here please?”
Mindy watched as the little girl who had been staring at the ground slowly raised her gaze to where Mr. Stewart stood. Even from this distance, Mindy could see that the girl was strikingly beautiful. Her dark hair hung sleek and straight around her shoulders, and her eyes were such a bright blue that Mindy could see the color from across the playground. She wore a pair of black leggings and a pale pink hoodie. Her feet had black canvas sneakers on them, and she kicked herself slowly back and forth on the swing. She seemed to contemplate what Mr. Stewart was saying, and then slowly shook her head.
“I’d like to stay here,” she said.
Mindy raised her eyebrows in surprise at how clearly the girl spoke. Most of the kids her age here struggled quite a bit with their pronunciation.
Mr. Stewart didn’t seem impressed with Sophia’s clear diction. He let out a frustrated sigh, and once again admonished the girl to leave the swing set.
“Sophia,” he said. “When I ask you to do something I expect you to do it.”
Sophia gazed at him calmly, and then shook her head again. She went back to looking down at the ground, rocking herself slowly back and forth on the swing with her feet.
“Sophia!” Mr. Stewart said. His voice took on a sharp tone that made even Mindy cringe.
“It’s okay,” Mindy said. “I’ll go over there and talk to her.”
Mindy walked to the swing set and sat on the swing next to Sophia.
“Hi, Sophia,” she said. “I’m Mindy. Is it okay if I sit here?”
Sophia shrugged, and kept swinging.
“How do you like it here?” Mindy asked
Sophia shrugged again. “It’s okay, I guess. But I probably won’t be here very long. Every time I get used to a place, they decide they don’t like me and move me.”
Mindy frowned. “What makes you think they don’t like you?”
“I cause trouble,” Sophia said simply.
“What kind of trouble?” Mindy asked.
“I’m not supposed to say,” Sophia said. “They told me if I say why I’m different, that nobody will want me.”
Mindy’s heart broke a little at the matter-of-fact tone in Sophia’s voice. Clearly, something about Sophia was different. The fact that the girl had been bounced around so much, and that even Mr. Stewart didn’t want her, signaled that there was something deeper going on. But, Mindy wanted to give the girl a chance. Sophia seemed to have a sweet, mellow spirit, and there was a certain intelligence in her eyes that went far beyond her years.
What would you think of coming home with me?” Mindy asked.
Sophia tilted her head sideways and gave Mindy a long, hard gaze. “Whatever,” she finally said. “Doesn’t matter if I stay here or go with you. Either way, I’ll be moving again soon.”
“Well, I’d like you to stay with me for quite a while. It will be up to you how long, but I hope you stay for a long, long time.”
Sophia scrunched up her nose, and shrugged again. Mindy did a double take at the familiarity of Sophia’s expression. Sophia’s scrunched up facial expression had a remarkable resemblance to the way Zach scrunched up his nose when he was thinking. The more Mindy looked at Sophia, the more she thought the little girl looked just like Zach. It was a strange, almost eerie coincidence.
Mindy squeezed Sophia’s shoulder. “I’ll let you get back to swinging,” Mindy said. But if it’s okay with you, I’m going to make plans with Mr. Stewart for you to come home with me in a few days.”