Authors: Vivi Andrews
Tags: #Canada;Yukon Territory;shifters;old flame;second chances
His heart would wait. It had practice.
Yukon Territory, Canada. Eleven years earlier…
The scent of shifter hit her as soon as she opened the door to the bar. And not just any shifter.
Moira suppressed a shiver of delight, scanning the rugged and only occasionally unwashed collection of men and women in the bar, trying to trace that scent. It wasn’t one she knew.
She’d been up here by herself. Nothing quite like summer in the northern wilds. For weeks on end the sun would forget to set and days would stretch into one another in an uninterrupted sprawl of light. Moira had tramped through the scrubby trees on four paws, wary of hunters but without the constraints of any sort of regular schedule. It was heaven being unfettered up here after the months apprenticing with the healer of the Black Lake wolf pack.
But even freedom got lonely. She’d been with the pack long enough to get used to the company of other sentient beings. So today Moira had taken her human form, pulled on clothes only slightly musty from being stashed in a cave, and headed down into the one-horse town that passed for civilization out here in the back of beyond.
Who was he?
It was distinctly a he. If she could have done it without being obvious, she would have tipped her face back and inhaled that rich, spicy scent, trailing it through the room until she found its owner.
Then the crowd shifted and she didn’t have to bother with a search. Never had any man looked more deliciously ursine than he did.
He sprawled in a wooden booth in the back of the bar, isolated from the locals with a battered duffle occupying the bench opposite him and a partially drained pitcher of beer at his elbow. He didn’t look up from the beer he was contemplating with an impressively dour expression.
Grouchy old bear.
Moira almost smiled. He was massive, bearded and giving off don’t-fuck-with-me vibes that kept the entire population of the bar from coming within five feet of him as effectively as a force field.
Moira marched right through the crowd, looking neither left nor right, shoved his duffle to the side and plopped onto the seat opposite him.
He lifted his head slowly, as if giving her time to retreat before his gaze made it all the way up to hers. Moira didn’t even flinch. His eyes—a lovely chocolaty brown, she observed—showed no reaction whatsoever to a tiny woman with the scent of a bear shifter dropping into the other seat at his table and saying hello. His barrel-like chest lifted on a prolonged sigh and his gaze skidded away, behind her. “Look…”
“Oh, I know,” she cut him off before he could brush her off. “You’re depressed and tragic and wallowing in self-pity and that sort of thing is really better done in solitude so you’d like me to take myself off to the bar to be hit on by the little men and leave you to your misery.” She smiled brightly. “I’m just not going to do that.”
His scowl darkened. “Why not?”
“The truth? I hadn’t realized I was homesick until I saw you. And you, Mr. Grumpy Pants, remind me of home. My dad was a big ol’ grouch too.”
“Good for him,” the bear muttered.
“It was, actually. My mother found it charming. She was the only one who could coax him out of a grump.”
His heavy brow lowered. “I’m not looking to be coaxed.”
“Oh, I know. I’m not here to cheer you up. I’m just here to bask in your grumpitude.”
Which was a bald-faced lie. Moira had never met a bear shifter who wasn’t nurturing by nature—even the grumpiest among them, like her father—but she’d always taken that caring impulse one farther. Moira was a healer. She’d always been able to sense when someone around her was in pain—be it physical or otherwise—and she’d never been able to walk away from that pain without at least trying to ease it.
And this big bear was hurting. Even if he didn’t want to admit it.
“And you are?”
He heaved a sigh. “Hugo.”
“Nice to meet you, Hugo.”
“Right.” When she arched a brow, he sighed again. “Nice to meet you too. But I’d really rather be alone tonight, if it’s all the same to you.”
“You do realize you’re at a bar, right? If you really wanted to be alone, you could take a growler to go and walk halfway to Greenland before you see another soul.” She tilted her head to the side, curiosity and that instinct that made her want to heal every wound driving her to stick with him when another—possibly smarter—woman would have given up and walked away. “Lots of folks come to bars when they need to forget their troubles by getting into new ones, but I have a feeling you’re more the sort looking to unburden himself to a perfect stranger.” She pointedly glanced over her shoulder. “The bartender is awfully far away, but I am perfectly strange to you.”
His lips twitched ever so slightly and she barely stopped herself from beaming at the little tell.
“Come on, Hugo. Tell me all your woes.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“How about starting with what the heck you’re doing in the middle of nowhere Canada?”
“I just needed some space.”
“Ah. So who are you running away from?”
He flinched as if she’d hit him with a cattle prod. “What makes you so sure it’s a who?”
“I wasn’t. But now I’m pretty sure it’s a
. Am I right?”
His locked jaw was the only answer she needed.
“Isn’t it always?”
His eyes narrowed, scowl sharpening. “She’s a lioness, married to my best friend, who is Alpha of the only pride in North America that treats non-lion shifters like they’re worth a damn and the only thing keeping rogue lions from challenging him for control is the perceived strength of their relationship.”
“What?” he growled.
“Not many lions would be stupid enough to challenge a man with a bear in his back pocket. So what the hell are you doing way out here wallowing in self-pity? Why doesn’t your beloved just leave her hubby since you’re more effective as an enforcer than she is as an ally?”
“It isn’t like that.”
“What’s it like then?”
Moira blinked, the penny dropping. “Ah. She doesn’t want to leave him.”
“She made her choice.”
“And you reacted by running to the Yukon Territory?”
“I didn’t run and I didn’t just
,” he growled, his pride clearly pricked. “She chose him fifteen years ago. They have a daughter.”
“I take it the daughter isn’t a new development either. So what sent you running?”
,” he repeated with a slight snarl.
“Of course not. You departed at a measured and controlled pace to get your space. So why did you need space now if all of this has been going on for over a decade? What happened?”
He shrugged his massive shoulders, hunching his bulk over his beer and taking a long drink.
“I’m very persistent,” Moira said with a small smile. “You might as well tell me now and save us both the time and trouble.”
Hugo aimed his most ferocious glower across the table at the curvy nuisance who had invaded his attempt to wallow in self-pity. The glower had exactly the same effect as all his previous attempts to intimidate and shoo her off—none.
She was pretty, in a round, soft way that might have been appealing if his standard of beauty hadn’t been permanently recalibrated around Lucienne’s long, lean limbs and silky blonde hair. The little she-bear looked to be about thirty, with brown curls and skin a shade too dark to be strictly Caucasian, though her features were distinctly Germanic. Her brown eyes didn’t hesitate to stare him down, when most would have averted their gaze in automatic submission, but there was nothing aggressive about her directness, just a frankness that was equal parts appealing and irritating, given his current desire for solitude.
He hadn’t expected to meet another shifter out here—much less another bear—which had been a large part of his motivation for this trip. The shifters this far north were almost all wolves and kept to themselves. His excuse for the trip was to make contact with those wolf packs and see if they had any leads on a handful of shifters who had gone missing in recent years—including the biological parents of the little cougar Lucienne and Greg had recently adopted.
That was pride business. He couldn’t tell this strange she-bear that, no matter how trustworthy her clear brown eyes seemed. But neither could he tell her the
reason he’d needed to get away from Lone Pine. He didn’t even particularly like admitting it to himself.
For fourteen years he’d been fine with the arrangement. Or so he’d told himself. Greg and Lucienne were king and queen of the pride, and they were good at it. Lone Pine was thriving, beyond all expectations. The policy of accepting non-lion shifters into the pride had been remarkably successful and their numbers had swollen with only a few minor scuffles as different shifters adapted to living in close quarters with one another.
The Alpha and his mate had a political union. They’d chosen one another for practical reasons, for the pride, and Hugo believed in the pride as well, so he’d buried all his feelings for Lucienne, content with the knowledge that in another life they would have been together. For fourteen years it had been enough to know that he had her heart—even if they could never speak of it or act on it.
But then he’d seen them.
It wasn’t that he’d never seen Lucienne and Greg together. There was always a degree of affection and respect between them and they frequently held hands or kissed in public to reassure the pride that all was well in their union.
But this hadn’t been in public. Hugo had climbed the stairs to Greg’s office to deliver the background checks on the latest nomads who had requested entrance to the pride. The door had been cracked and shifter hearing was keen, so he’d heard them long before he’d seen them, but he hadn’t quite believed his ears until he’d shoved the door open another inch and seen.
They were laughing. Alone. Not for show, not for the pride. Just the two of them, Lucienne and Greg. Sharing a moment that was private and tender and entirely too real for a relationship that was supposed to only be for appearances. Greg sat behind his desk, rocked back in his chair as he chuckled and Lucienne stood close enough for him to touch, her hip resting against the edge of his desk as she laughed with her arms wrapped around her waist, leaning toward Greg with the force of her mirth.
The sight of them had knocked the wind right out of Hugo. This was the love of his life and his best friend. He wanted them to be happy, to be laughing, to have love—but seeing them like that, being forced to face the knowledge that their relationship was more than the public façade, it had burned.
He’d volunteered for the trip to Canada the next day.
The little she-bear across the table waited, eyebrows slightly arched. “Well? What changed?”
What had changed was that he’d realized Lucienne might actually love Greg. And he’d hated the way the jealousy had burned. He’d managed not to be jealous until that moment.
But he wasn’t about to admit that. “Nothing changed. I’d just had enough.”
She smiled brightly, seemingly delighted with that answer. “The first step toward moving on is accepting that something needs to change.”
“Something like that.” Except he wasn’t here to move on. He was here to come to terms with the new emotional landscape, not to attempt to change it. Hugo lifted his glass for another draught of beer.
“You know what the best way to get over someone is? Get under someone new.”
He choked on his beer, spluttering all over the table. “Excuse me?”
She smiled, dimples flashing with deceptive innocence. She looked all soft and sweet and then—had she actually just propositioned him? Right after he’d told he was in love with someone else?
“You’re never going to get over her if you won’t let yourself look at anyone else.”
“I’m never going to get over her.”
“Not with that attitude, you’re not.”
to get over her. Lucienne was the One. If he couldn’t be with her, he was going to be alone. The matter of his heart had been decided long ago. Game over.
But that didn’t mean he had to be celibate. The little she-bear—Moira—sat across from him, her brown eyes twinkling with undisguised invitation—then she smiled and rocked back on the bench. “Never mind. You’re not ready for that yet, that’s fine. We’ll just be friends, and friends don’t let friends drink alone. We’re going to need another glass.” She eyed the nearly drained pitcher at his elbow. “And another pitcher.”
Moira smoothed the soft, sandy hair away from Jeremiah’s forehead as the little lion shifter cub squirmed on the exam table, struggling not to cry until the anesthetic took hold as Grace examined his arm. It was Dr. Brandt’s day off and Grace—one of the pride’s soldiers who doubled as a paramedic—was more experienced with this sort of trauma than Moira was.
Jeremiah whimpered and Grace, always the lieutenant, gave an unsympathetic grunt. “This is what you get for letting Ricon goad you into climbing so high.”
The third grade class had been on a field trip in the forest when the lynx cub had challenged Jeremiah to a climbing contest. Lion cubs
climb trees, but they weren’t built for it the way a lynx was—though try telling that to an eight-year-old on a dare. Jeremiah had, predictably, taken a tumble from a high branch and landed hard on one paw—proving that while cats did land on their feet, it didn’t always work out for them from that height. The bone in his right front leg had snapped—in what would have been a clean break, if not for the fact that the pain forced an instinctive shift. Shifting could heal many ills—many shifter scientists theorized that the process of the shift was actually the reason why shifters were immune to so many diseases—but shifting with a freshly broken bone only made it much,
The simple fracture was now a mess of fragments, as if the broken bone had been twisted and ground against itself—which, in effect, it had.
At Grace’s nod, Moira reached for a general anesthesia. They tried to stick with local anesthesia with cubs as young as Jeremiah, but they couldn’t have him squirming during the delicate operation.
“There will be a little prick and then you’re going to feel nice and floaty.” Moira kept her voice low and soothing as she injected the drugs. She comforted the little imp while Grace scolded him until he drifted off into dreamland and they could set about coaxing the bone back into alignment.
And two feet away, Hugo loomed over it all.
He’d been supervising the field trip and it was he who had carried the whimpering cub into the infirmary. Moira pointedly ignored him as she assisted Grace in setting the complicated break.
Or tried to.
Even his breathing was distracting.
“You can go,” she told the hulk. “We’ll take care of him until his parents get here.”
Moira lifted her eyes from her task just long enough to glare at the obstinate bear. “That really isn’t necessary.”
“I’ll stay,” he repeated.
“Is Ricon being punished?” Grace asked without looking up from the delicate work.
“Not by me,” Hugo grunted. “He might be the instigator—”
“Every single time,” Grace muttered.
“—but he never meant for anyone to get hurt. He burst into tears when he saw Jeremiah was hurt.”
“Just because you feel bad afterward doesn’t mean it wasn’t your fault,” Moira grumbled—only half talking about the cub on the table.
Hugo stiffened—direct hit.
“You really don’t have to stay,” Moira said again.
“He’s my responsibility,” the bear insisted.
“Technically he became our responsibility the second he crossed the threshold into the infirmary,” Moira argued.
Grace lifted her head for a moment, her gaze pinging back and forth between Hugo and Moira and a little wrinkle crinkling her brow.
“I’ll stay,” Hugo growled.
And Moira pressed her lips together to seal in the urge to keep arguing. Grace was too perceptive by half—and a born meddler. Moira didn’t want to give her any excuse to start digging into her and Hugo.
They worked in silence, focused on the task at hand until the last bone fragment was back in place and the arm was bound in plaster. Jeremiah would need to be watched carefully to make sure he didn’t shift for the next several days—children couldn’t always control the shifting and the break would likely re-shatter if he got overly excited and called on his lion.
The boy’s parents arrived as they were finishing up and Hugo spoke with them for a few minutes before departing. Jeremiah’s shifter metabolism was already shaking off the anesthesia, so Grace and Moira handed the groggy boy over to his parents, leaving the emergency area of the infirmary once again empty.
As soon as the door closed behind Jeremiah’s parents, Grace turned to Moira. “What’s going on between you and Hugo?”
Moira’s face instantly flamed. “Nothing.” When Grace looked unconvinced, she amended, “Ancient history.”
Grace’s blonde eyebrows flew up. “
? How did I not know this?”
“It was a million years ago. You would have been a teenager,” she told the younger woman.
“Still,” Grace argued. “I’m amazed I didn’t know. The way gossip flies in this pride—”
Which was exactly why Moira had been so careful not to let anyone know about her disappointed hopes. She’d promised Hugo she would never reveal to anyone how he felt about Lucienne. And thank God her own foolish dreams had never become public knowledge.
“Did he break your heart?” Grace pushed—which wasn’t surprising. Grace always pushed.
“Nothing so dramatic as that,” Moira said, hoping to bring the conversation to a speedy end. “My hopes were engaged, not my heart.” She shrugged as if it had meant nothing. “It was just a missed opportunity.”
Grace frowned. “If it was just a missed opportunity, why does it still bother you a decade later?”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” she said, trying the direct route.
“What did he do?” Grace pressed as if she hadn’t spoken. “Did he cheat? I’ve never seen Hugo with anyone. I always figured he was pining for someone or somethi—”
Too close to the truth.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Moira jumped in before Grace could stumble onto the right answer.
Grace cocked her head questioningly and Moira realized she was going to have to give a little more than that.
“I thought he was asking me to love him and he thought he was explaining why he could never love me.”
Grace winced. “Ouch.”
“When I arrived at Lone Pine, I thought—well, it doesn’t matter what I thought. Just that we weren’t on the same page.”
“But you stayed.”
Moira shrugged. “I love the pride.”
“And all this time you’ve been, what? Mad at Hugo but keeping it bottled up?”
“I’m not mad and I’m not bottling anything up.” Though she apparently wasn’t as indifferent to the situation as she wanted to be. She’d never been able to talk to anyone about what she felt because of her promise not to expose Hugo and Lucienne. Now, it felt good to finally say something—even if she couldn’t say everything. “I didn’t want to feel anything for him, so I tried to be stronger than the feelings. Tougher than them. I knew I could beat it. Make myself feel differently if I just put my mind to it. I’m not a slave to emotion.”
Grace’s eyebrows curved up into a high arch. “How’d that work out for you?”
Moira grimaced. “Some days better than others.”
Some days she could almost forget that she’d ever wanted something more with Hugo, let herself forget that she’d dreamed, but then there were those other days. The ones where she would recall with acute clarity how it had felt when she thought he wanted her. Those brief, futile days when she was convinced he needed her. And then it was harder not to rail at the fates for dangling what she desperately wanted right in front of her and then yanking it away.
They said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all—but if you weren’t going to be loved in return, it was undoubtedly easier never to have had the hope of love waved in front of you and whipped away.
She would rather have never had that night.