Author: Marina Maddix
Series: Laid Bear #2
Genre(s): BBW, Shapeshifters
Released: July 31, 2014
Love can overcome anything...except maybe a pack of human-hating werebears.
Curvy bear shifter Veronica Muir is ready for a new mate. It's been six long and lonely years since her husband was killed, leaving her to raise rambunctious twin cubs on her own. And wouldn't you know it, the first time she dips her toe into the dating world, she ends up falling head over heels in love…with a human.
Marine biologist Jess Slade is still raw from his divorce when he spots Veronica's online profile. Unable to resist her luscious curves, he takes a second chance on love by moving to her hometown of Kodiak, Alaska. But the one thing he doesn't know about her might be the one thing he can't get past.
When a group of human-hating werebears called The Brotherhood threaten to tear them apart — quite literally — Jess and Veronica, with a little help from Max and Bethany, must decide where their loyalties lie and if their love is worth fighting for.
A review from...
... Twyla A.
This book has it all! Romance, suspense, tears, laughter, serious decision making and to top it off: a hunk in love with a BBW! I am a BBW and this book let the world know we are wonderful people and lovers if you just want to take a chance on us. I so enjoyed the closeness of the characters and the friendships they have with themselves and others. This is really a wonderful romance read and would definitely recommend it to others who like shapeshifter romances.
Also in this series:
Read the First Three Chapters
The cursor on Veronica’s screen flashed incessantly, blinking his impatience for an answer.
When can we meet?
She didn’t know how to respond to that. She’d never meant for things to go this far. It had seemed like an easy, no-harm-no-foul way of getting back in the game after being out of it for so long.
The last thing she’d expected was to fall in love.
And now Jess wanted to meet. Which meant he really liked her. Which was exactly how an online relationship would normally develop. And which was totally out of the question.
The cursor continued to blink at her, demanding a response.
She glanced over her shoulder. The twins were happily playing dump truck and fighter jet in the middle of their small living room, blowing each other up then hauling away the crash debris. Toys were scattered everywhere, as usual, and a basket of unfolded laundry lay half-dumped on her old sofa, a hand-me-down from her in-laws, one they’d had since before Keith’s birth.
Keith. Deep down, even after all this time, she felt as if she was betraying him by having this online flirtation. She glanced at the boys again, seeing his eyes and mouth every time they smiled. Sam glanced up at her and gave her a patented heart-melter that seemed to be a genetic quirk of all the Muir boys, even her father-in-law.
Her heart lurched, loving her children and missing their father. Tears started welling so she turned back to the screen, wondering what to do. Just do it, babe, a voice whispered in her brain. Keith’s voice. He’d always encouraged her to follow her dreams, mainly because she was a big fat fraidy cat. You deserve to love again. And to be loved.
A big dollop of saltwater splashed on her keyboard as she watched the cursor flash. “Why not?” she half-whispered to herself.
“Whatchya say, Momma?” Though they were identical twins, it was easy for Veronica to tell her boys apart. Sam was the charming extroverted daredevil, while Jason was tender, sweet and sensitive. Their voices matched their personalities, making them easy to distinguish, at least for her.
“Nothing, Jace. You keep playing.”
Before she’d even decided to respond, her fingers were flying over the keyboard. Can you meet next Tuesday at the Caribou Cafe on Main? Say 11 a.m.?
She was just reading it over to make sure it was exactly what she wanted to say when she heard a crash and a shout of anger from behind her. She turned just in time to see Sam shift into bear form and leap on his defenseless brother.
“Sam, stop that right now!” she yelled as she pulled the struggling cub up under one arm while grabbing Jason’s bleeding forearm. “What’s gotten into you?!”
With a shimmer and a shudder, the cub became a boy, ducking his head with shame.
“I’m sowwy, Momma,” Sam mumbled. “But Jason wan over my jet with his stupid twuck and it made me mad so I thwew it and…” He trailed off. They all knew the rest.
“Don’t apologize to me, Sam. You need to apologize to your brother. Look, he’s bleeding. You’re six years old now. A big boy. You know better than to attack him when he’s in human form. There’s a reason it’s against clan law.”
Tears spilled from Sam’s eyes as he turned to Jason. “Sowwy, Jason. I didn’t mean to make you bweed.”
Jason, ever the forgiving soul, sniffled and pulled his brother into a deep hug, the small scratch on his arm already forgotten.
“It’s okay, Sammy. I still love you.”
Veronica’s heart almost broke at the affection they had for each other. Sam was a bit of a hothead, and he was having trouble learning to control his shifting, but he loved his twin more than anything. Almost before she could blink, they were back to playing with their toys, Sam offering Jace his jet to play with.
Returning to her seat, she held down the delete key and turned off the computer.
~ * ~ * ~
Jess Slade scrubbed a hand across the brown stubble on his chin as he sat in front of his laptop, waiting rather impatiently for Veronica’s reply. Figuring she’d gotten distracted by her boys, he checked his work email, checked the weather forecast, checked on the bean stew in the slow cooker, fed his chocolate lab Fred. A couple of times he thought he heard the tell-tale ding of her response and went running to the computer only to find his question still sitting there unanswered.
Finally, he logged off, his stomach in knots. Why was she ignoring him? After sharing so much with each other, he thought they were beyond superficial wariness. It wasn’t every day that you found someone who got your offbeat sense of humor.
But he had. Right from the start, when he’d spotted her quirky profile on an online dating site six months earlier, he had a suspicion they would have a lot in common. Aside from the usual profile junk — all of which jived with his tastes and interests — her dark chocolate eyes reflected a shadow of loneliness, one he could relate to.
He’d signed up for the site at the urging of his nosy but devoted sisters. Growing up in a house full of women had taught him a lot about the opposite sex, but not enough to prevent his marriage to his high school sweetheart from crumbling.
It didn’t go unnoticed that Hannah was pulling away emotionally during the final months of their marriage, but he didn’t want to rock the boat by confronting her about it. Every couple goes through rocky periods, he told himself, and this was just one of those times.
When she told him she wanted a divorce, he was devastated. He wanted to work it out, to try counseling, but Hannah had refused.
“I’m sorry, Jess. It’s too late for all that now.”
Too late. He’d waited too long and she’d drifted away…right into the arms of another man, as it turned out. She was in love with someone else and there was no winning her back. There was nothing else to do but let her go.
It took months for Jess to get over the loss, then even more time to stop blaming himself. If he’d only fought harder for her, maybe things would have been different. Maybe if he’d given her a diamond tennis bracelet for her last birthday instead of the juicer she’d been eyeing. Maybe if he’d let her redecorate their apartment instead of insisting on saving for retirement. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Finally the Slade sisters had told him it was time to get back in the saddle, that a year was too long to grieve, so he’d registered on the dating site. It took another couple months to actually start browsing profiles, and the first woman he’d contacted was the only one he’d contacted: Veronica Muir.
The photo on her profile was of a pretty, young woman who was thin and fit. A little too skinny for his tastes, but very attractive. But it was those eyes that drew him in. So he sent her one of the site’s silly Cupid-grams — complete with a sappy instrumental rendition of ABBA’s ‘Take a Chance on Me’ — and held his breath.
He still remembered the flutter in his stomach when she responded. They started corresponding more frequently, sharing the safe bits of their lives and ever-so-slowly opening up about the bigger things.
As their friendship developed, she admitted that her profile photo was old, that she looked different now. He’d insisted on seeing what she looked like so she set up a webcam show.
What he saw was much more to his liking: a tall, stately woman, with a drool-worthy hourglass figure. Her auburn hair tumbled in loose waves around her shoulders, framing breasts large enough that her tank top could barely contain them. Her waist tucked in under her bosom and her hips flared deliciously, just begging for hands — his hands — to caress them. When she did a little pirouette for him, showing off her round bottom in a pair of tight black yoga pants, he nearly passed out from blood loss as it was all redirected south of the border.
When she was done with her little show, her huge mocha-colored eyes looked in the camera and asked for one from him, but there was no way he could stand up anytime soon, so he begged off.
A few days later, when he was perfectly in control of himself, he reciprocated. He didn’t consider himself some kind of hunk or anything, but he was pretty fit from all the backwoods trekking he did for work so he quickly whipped off his shirt. He desperately hoped she would be impressed by his tight abs and athletic build.
When asked what she thought, she responded that his physique reminded her a little of her late husband. That was the first time she’d really opened up to him, and it marked a turning point in their relationship. From that point on, they shared every little detail of their lives, from his failed marriage to how she hated artichokes but loved asparagus. Nothing was off-limits.
Except when he would hint at meeting. Then suddenly there was an important phone call she had to take, or she just happened to be out of town for a couple of weeks, or she would simply stop chatting, like tonight. Even though they’d both admitted they were falling in love, she clearly didn’t want to meet him.
Something he’d shared must have turned her off. Maybe it was the fact he was a pescatarian — a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish — or that he lived in a cabin in the woods, or that he studied fish for a living. Or maybe it was all of it.
And if that was the case, why had he taken a summer job beneath his pay grade just to be closer to her? More importantly, why was he wasting his time and energy on someone who didn’t want him?
As a marine biologist, Jess was endowed with a tremendous amount of patience. But he would only wait so long before giving up hope. If Veronica didn’t agree to meet soon, he’d have to break it off. Then spend the rest of his life trying to forget her.
Max rushed out of the bathroom at Bethany’s cry, half his face covered in shaving cream, a dripping razor in his hand.
“B, what’s wrong? You okay? Is it the baby?”
She looked up from her laptop and was distracted. A rivulet of shaving cream dribbled down Max’s muscled chest, following the curve of his right pec, outlining his rippled abs like a highlighter. Bethany's thoughts threatened to go in another direction as she watched the white liquid soak into the towel wrapped low on his narrow hips. Ever since he moved in next door to her in the duplex apartments owned by his uncle, Max had been distracting her in the most delightful ways.
She shook the lustful thoughts from her head. “I’m sorry, babe, I’m fine. I just got an email in the Ursa Love account, that’s all. It’s the first real one!”
Relief flooded Max’s face, and Bethany wasn’t blind to it. Even though he’d assured her that there was no inherent danger in her being pregnant with his werebear cub, he seemed overly concerned about her health. This set her on edge, but she didn't want to worry him any more than he already was.
As soon as she’d told him about the pregnancy, he’d called in the clan healer, the one who had tended to his uncle Chet’s human wife and child years before. This did little to comfort Bethany, since Crystal and the baby had both died in childbirth, but the healer insisted he was fully qualified to conduct her prenatal care.
He was an odd little man, older but he carried an air of youth. She’d met a handful of werebears and he was by far the smallest of them. His shock of red hair looked as if it hadn’t been combed in weeks and he wore horn-rimmed glasses that seemed off for some reason. It wasn’t until they were face-to-face that she realized why: they had no lenses.
According to the healer, everything with her pregnancy was moving along smoothly. He’d made this announcement almost immediately after meeting her.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Pearce,” he said.
“It’s Ms. Mills,” she corrected. “We’re not married.”
“Yet,” Max added with a wink.
“Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Mills,” the healer said, taking her hand in both of his. The warmth that pulsed up her arm was disconcerting and she tried to pull her hand away but he held on firmly, his strange gray eyes peering deep into her soul.
Then it got even weirder. He leaned in close to her and took a big, long sniff. The shocked look on her face made Max double over with laughter.
“He’s not going to eat you, Bethany. Relax.”
Then Dr. Graves placed his hands on her belly. She shot another look at Max, but he just winked and nodded encouragement.
“Hmm, yup, yup,” the strange man mumbled as he got down on his knees and pressed an ear to her tummy. What the…? she thought.
Springing upright, he declared, “Done! You and the baby are perfectly healthy.”
“That’s it?” she asked, bewildered.
Dr. Graves looked confused. “What else would there be?”
“Um, I dunno, blood tests and stuff?” She’d never been pregnant before but she was pretty sure prenatal doctor visits included more than some sniffing and grunting.
He waved away her concerns. “Not necessary.”
She sat there in stunned silence.
“What about, you know, a real doctor?” she whispered to Max when the healer left the room.
Max’s face clouded over and a muscle in his jaw twitched. “Human doctors aren’t superior to clan healers, you know. Our healers are born, not trained. They know instinctively how to treat wounds and illnesses, if they can. Their sense of smell is so much stronger than an average werebear’s that they can actually smell when someone’s sick. Human doctors are usually clueless until they run a million tests, and even then they often get it wrong.”
His tone was defensive, clearly offended at her suggestion. She slid her hand into his.
“Oh, Max, I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just…I’m used to Western medicine. And I’m not going to lie, I’m a little worried.”
He sighed and gripped her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “I know, babe, but it’s going to be fine. I almost lost you once. I won’t risk that again. It would break me.”
A tear spilled down her cheek remembering how Chet had almost convinced her into breaking it off with Max. But he wasn’t talking about that. He was remembering how a jealous female werebear had nearly killed her for daring to get involved with Max.
Bethany looked up at him and got lost in his powerful gaze. He grazed his lips against hers, his hot breath heating her core to the melting point. Thank goodness he wrapped his arms around her because she felt faint from the love and desire that welled up within her.
“Oops! Should I come back later?” The clan healer was awkwardly backing his way out of the room.
Max’s laugh was honey-covered nougat to her ears. “No, I think we can control ourselves, Dr. Graves.”
What a name, she thought. It appeared she was stuck with him so she would try to make the best of it, but that didn’t mean she had to settle for his mumbo jumbo.
“Can you perform…Western tests?” She’d almost said ‘normal’ but caught herself just in time.
“Of course, but why would I? They’re entirely unnecessary.” He was truly bewildered.
“I understand it’s a strange request, but it would ease my mind.”
The healer shrugged and pulled a needle from his bag. “I always carry a few Western medical items around with me. Mostly to show cubs what kind of torture human doctors would inflict on them if they weren’t werebears, but also in case I need to treat someone in front of humans. Props always make for a more believable performance.”
“Wait…” Bethany was saying as he plunged the needle expertly into her arm. It wasn’t pleasant but he drew her blood more quickly and efficiently than any phlebotomist she’d ever seen. It was over almost before it had begun, then her other arm was wrapped in a blood pressure cuff.
The worst part was standing on the scale in their bathroom with the healer peering around her belly to read the humiliating number. He made a few notes on a chart and handed her the results.
“I’ll send the blood to a lab, if you insist, but I can tell you that all your levels are normal. You’re gaining an acceptable amount of weight since your initial weight loss and your blood pressure is perfectly normal. Feel better now?” He shot Max a glance and rolled his eyes a little.
Bethany felt a little silly but it did ease her mind. Chet’s warning about her and her baby’s health echoed through her brain every day, and she needed as much reassurance as she could get.
“I’ve never heard of a successful mating between a human female and a bear male,” Chet had told her. “You humans are too delicate to handle our babies.”
She shuddered and tried to shake away Chet’s prophesy, her hand instinctively moving to her tummy.
“Who’s it from?” Max’s words brought her back to the present with a jolt.
~ * ~ * ~
Max smelled Bethany’s anxiety before he saw the flash of fear cross her beautiful face. He knew his own concern was making it even worse for her, and he tried to hide it but when he was caught off-guard, his inner bear got nervous. There was no hiding a nervous bear.
“Who’s it from?” he asked, sauntering casually back into the bathroom to finish shaving. He hoped his light tone would ease her mind. Damn Chet, he thought, even as his heart tugged in sympathy for his uncle. Now more than ever he could relate to why his favorite uncle had turned so bitter.
Chet had been irate with a capital I when Bethany moved in with Max, but when they broke the baby news to him, he’d blanched. With tears in his eyes, he stumbled out of the house without a word.
"He'll be okay," Max insisted when Bethany suggested going after him, wrapping a protective arm around her shoulders. "He just needs a little time.”
But Max wasn’t so sure. The death of his human wife and child had a profound effect on Chet, turning him into a grumpy human-hater. No, that’s not right, Max thought. He didn’t hate humans, precisely, but he was staunchly opposed to human-werebear crossbreeding, claiming it would dilute their breed.
Max couldn’t accept that Chet really believed that, but was instead using it as a form of self-protection. It was only natural that the news of their relationship and pregnancy would hit Chet hard, bring up long-buried emotions.
Max only hoped that his once-jovial uncle could work through it and be happy for them. As it was, they hadn’t seen or heard from him since that tense meeting months before. Since Max lost his parents as a teenager, Chet was all he had left of his family.
Except now he had Bethany and the baby.
“Babe? Who’s the email from? It’s not more hate mail, is it?”
Ever since Bethany started up their underground werebear-human matchmaking site, UrsaLove.com, they’d been getting threatening emails from weres all over the world. Some of them had even tracked down their phone number, making crank calls at all hours and doing everything they could to make their lives miserable.
“It's from a Veronica Muir. She heard about us and apparently is interested in a human male."
"Read it to me while I finish shaving.”
"Dear Max and Bethany," Bethany raised her voice so he could hear her. "You're probably very aware that the whole werebear world is in an uproar (haha!) over your relationship. You're rather famous, you know. I wish I could say this is a good thing, but I'm sure you've heard plenty from those who disapprove.
"Anyway, that's not why I'm writing. I've found myself in a situation and I can't ask anyone I know for advice. It dawned on me today that maybe you could offer some insight, if you don't mind.”
There was a pause before Bethany continued, her voice suddenly tight.
"Six years ago, my husband was accidentally shot by a hunter when he was in bear form. I was days away from giving birth to the twins at the time. My clan here in Kodiak, Alaska has been incredibly supportive through all of it and I'm finally back on my feet. Now that the boys are old enough, I'm interested in possibly finding a new mate.
“I decided to give online dating a try for a couple of reasons. First, it’s been so long since I’ve been on a date that I thought it would be an easy way to get my feet wet. But more importantly, I’m worried that another bear might not be able to accept my sons. They’re my priority and I won’t risk their safety and happiness for my romantic life.”
Bethany paused again. “What does she mean, Max? Why would dating another werebear be an issue for her kids?”
Max patted his face dry and padded into the bedroom. He’d told her about his keen sense of smell but he didn’t think she fully understood that he could read every emotion she had before she even knew she was having it. Like right now, he could smell her confusion mixed with a tinge of anxiety.
He snuggled up against her, leaning back on the headboard of the bed and pulling her back so she rested against his chest. She felt so good, so solid…like home.
“In the wild, male bears will often, um, dispose of cubs so they can mate with the mother.” At her gasp of shock, he quickly continued. “That doesn’t happen with werebears, really. But males can sometimes have a difficult time accepting another male’s offspring. And those who haven’t learned to fully control their inner bears…well, they’re punished by their clan in a pretty severe way.”
Bethany was silent, processing the information. Whenever they had one of these little lessons on bear culture, he anxiously waited for her to sit up and say ‘Enough! This is too much!’ But her inner strength, the part of her he loved the most, won out and she’d been nothing but accepting, even though there were some shocking differences between their communities.
She cleared her throat and continued reading. “The problem is, now I’ve fallen in love with a human. I wrote a big, long paragraph gushing about him just now, but zorched it. I sounded like a crushing schoolgirl! Anyway, as you can imagine, my clan up here in the wilds of Alaska is small and very conservative. Most are opposed to crossbreeding, and the Brotherhood is gaining a serious foothold here. If I tell them about Jess, my kids and I will be shunned, if not worse. I don’t know what to do. Any advice you can give me would be great. Veronica.”
They were quiet for a moment. Then Bethany gently pulled free from his arms, laid the laptop on the bed and walked into the bathroom without a word. The scent of her tears came to him quickly, tearing him up inside. He didn’t have to ask why she was crying, and it didn’t take any of his heightened senses to figure it out — except maybe common sense.
Besides the health of the baby, Bethany’s biggest concern was his status in the clan. “What if they shun you, or whatever it’s called?” she asked one day, her moist blue eyes gazing up at him in the most endearing way.
“They won’t. But even if they did, then we move in with one of your three overprotective brothers and I integrate into human society,” he replied as casually as possible. “It’s been done before. No biggie.”
But Bethany was too smart to believe it wouldn’t be a big-ass deal. Losing contact with everyone he’d ever known would be devastating for him. He couldn’t imagine never being able to see Chet, who’d become a second father to him after his dad was murdered. Not to mention all of his life-long friends.
The fact that she was determined to have their child be fully immersed in werebear culture would make the thought of this Veronica woman and her children being cast out of their clan unbearable. As sad as she was for this woman, she was also afraid for him and their cub.
More than anything, Max wanted to go wrap his arms around her, kiss away her tears and tell her everything would be okay. Only one thing was stopping him: He wouldn’t lie to her.
“So this is where my bitches be at.” Kimmy shuffled into Bethany’s kitchen through the sliding glass door, her hair a rat’s nest and her make-up smeared. She slumped down next to Paul at the table and picked up his coffee mug. “What’s this, coffee? No Bloody Marys?”
“Um, skank? Put down my elixir of life and go back to that rock you just crawled out from under. And brush your teeth while you’re there.” He waved his hand in front of his face and squinched his nose at her.
Bethany smiled at her friends’ banter. It would sound awful to an outsider but she knew it passed as affection for these two. She still wanted to pinch herself that Chet had agreed to let them both move into her half of the duplex after she moved in with Max, considering how badly he’d always wanted her to move out.
When they broke the news to him that they were moving in together, Max had suggested Bethany’s best friends as potential tenants. Chet was so upset that his plan to keep them apart had failed that he just threw up his hands and said, “Do whatever you want. You’re going to anyway.”
Since Max’s place was decorated so beautifully with an eclectic mix of items found during his travels all over the world, Bethany left most of her stuff for Paul and Kimmy to use. They’d both been living with multiple roommates — in Paul’s case, three — so the situation worked out perfectly. Bethany wouldn’t have to find new homes for all her furniture, and her friends had a nice, fully furnished apartment of their own right next door.
Not that having them so close was always a good thing — like the time a drunk Kimmy forgot which apartment was hers and stumbled in while Bethany was straddling Max on the couch — but for the most part, their proximity was a comfort to her. Especially since the harassment started and her family lived across the country.
She got up and poured Kimmy her own cup, tipping in two packets of sweetener, just how she liked it. “Here you go, Sleeping Beauty. Maybe this will help you wake up. What time did you get in, anyway?”
Kimmy eyed her darkly. “What are you, my mom?” She grabbed the cup and took a sip, moaning with pleasure. “Aaaah.”
“Slut didn’t drag her used-up ass home till five, if you can believe it,” Paul said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t you think she’s a little long in the tooth to be pulling all-nighters?”
“I’m sitting right here, dickpig. If you’ve got something to say, say it to my face.”
“Doing so might actually make my eyes bleed, but thanks for the offer.”
“All right, enough, you two,” Bethany interjected. “Kimmy, drink your coffee. Paul, lay off.”
“Fine,” Paul huffed as he pushed back from the table and moved over to a wall hanging. It was a small frame high up on the wall, probably higher than a piece of art should be. He stood on his tiptoes to get a better look.
“B, what’s this?”
“What’s it look like?”
“Well, from here it looks kinda like…bullets?”
“Shell casings, actually, but yes.”
Kimmy got up to join him. She flicked a glance back at Bethany, who sat there sipping her peppermint tea. “They look like silver or something.”
“You got it.”
The pair looked at each other. Paul finally shrugged and asked the question Bethany was waiting for. “I’ll bite. Why are there two silver bullets…excuse me, shell casings framed on your wall?”
She’d already told them about Max — though it took a shifting demonstration from the man himself to fully convince them — and was grateful that they didn’t freak out too much. Kimmy went on a bender for about three days but came back and gave Max a big hug. Paul had been more reserved but was coming around. He’d always been very protective of his best girl, Bethany.
“They came from the bullets that killed Max’s parents.”
They slowly turned to face her. “Holy shit,” breathed Kimmy. “They were murdered?”
“Max thinks so,” she nodded, pushing around a coffee ground that was stuck to the side of her mug. “But he also says that hunting accidents happen every year, where a werebear is in bear form and a human hunter kills it, assuming it was a real bear.”
“But…but don’t they, ya know, sort of morph back into their human form when they die?” Kimmy sat down across from her while Paul stood stock still, listening.
Bethany shook her head. “No, it’s not like that. It’s not like they’re humans who have a magic spell cast on them that allow them to shift. They’re really half-bear, half-human. So whatever form they’re in when they die, that’s the form their bodies stay in.”
Paul finally found his words. “So…these bears that are killed by hunters…”
She nodded somberly in response, understanding what he was asking. It made her sick to her stomach to think about.
“What?” Kimmy’s gaze bounced between them. She was a little slow on the uptake this morning…oops, afternoon.
Neither one of them said anything, just looked at her for a moment. Understanding flashed in her eyes and she blanched. “No! They eat them?!”
Bethany grimaced but nodded. “Or stuff them or whatever they do for trophies.”
“Is that what happened to Max’s parents?” Paul asked quietly.
She shrugged. “Dunno. Max doesn’t think it was an accident but he doesn’t like to talk about it. All I know is that those are the casings from the bullets that killed them.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes before Paul cleared his throat. “So when they die, they keep the form they’re in at that moment, but some of their senses cross over, right? I think you told me that they’re still sentient or whatever when they’re morphed, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. And when they’re human, they have, like, supersonic hearing. Like Bionic Woman hearing.”
“Whoa.” Kimmy glanced at Paul. “So can he, um, hear through walls and stuff?”
Bethany laughed as her friend turned a brilliant shade of crimson. “I’m sure he can. Why? What did you do in my old bed?”
“Nothing! Well, I mean, something but only that once. I didn’t even like it that much, I swear!”
Laughter filled the room as Bethany and Paul clutched their stomachs in glee, wondering just what the hell their adventurous friend had been doing, but really not wanting to know.
“Well, fuck you both. I’m gonna go shower.” Kimmy pushed back from the table and huffed her way out the door.
Paul caught his breath in time to shout, “Thank God!”
As their laughing fit died away, Bethany gathered up the empty cups and started washing them, grateful to have her friends so close.
“So how’s it going, B? Things calming down?”
She shrugged. “We’re still getting the occasional middle-of-the-night phone call, but not very many anymore. Max is meeting with his superiors right now, which is completely killing me with worry.”
“But I thought he’d already told them about you and the baby, and that they were fine with it.”
She chuckled bleakly. “I wouldn’t say they were ‘fine’ with it. They insisted on meeting me and educating me on werebear-human relations. It was actually pretty fascinating stuff. Did you know there are whole villages in Europe where humans not only know about weres but accept them as equals? There have even been a number of matings but they seem to be pretty rare. Plus they keep the secret from the outside world. It’s pretty cool.”
“And the baby?”
Bethany smiled and looked down at her ever-expanding bump. At the tail end of her final trimester, it wasn’t so much a bump as a mountain. And there’s still a month or so left to go, she thought, imagining that her nine-month belly would rival Mt. Everest in size.
She turned to Paul, leaning back against the counter and rubbing her tummy. “He’s doing great.” Or so says Dr. Graves, a niggling voice in the back of her mind whispered. Shut up, she told it.
“He?! I thought you weren’t going to find out the sex! Ohmigod, I have to call Charlotte—“ Paul gasped and slapped a hand across his mouth. “I’m so sorry, B. I totally forgot.”
At the mention of her former best friend’s name, the smile fell from her face, her heart was gripped with sadness — and she wasn’t going to lie, a tinge of anger. She turned back to the counter and started wiping it down with a rag so he wouldn’t see the tears forming.
“It’s fine, Paul. She couldn’t handle the truth about Max. Nothing I can do about it. At least she promised to keep our secret. For that I’m grateful.”
He sidled up next to her and rubbed her back gently. He knew perfectly well that it had a calming effect on her. Ever since she was a little kid, she found a hand on her back soothing. She took a deep breath and smiled at him, a single tear spilling down her cheek.
“So it’s a boy?” His voice was gentle as he tried to divert her thoughts.
Her blonde ponytail swished against her back as she shook her head. “Dunno. I’ve decided to alternate pronouns because I can’t stand calling my baby ‘it’.”
“Ah. Very smart.”
Bethany continued to awkwardly clean the already-clean counter as Paul stood there stroking her back. “Well, sweetie, I’m going to see what my clinically horny roommate is up to. I’ll talk to you later.”
She tilted her head to accept his cheek kiss but didn’t watch him leave. The moment the back door slid home, a solitary sob wracked her body. A few more tears trickled down her cheeks, but she swallowed her despair over losing her best friend. She’d grieved long enough. These were happy times and, though she’d welcome her friend back with open arms, she had to move on.
With a lighter heart than just a moment before, Bethany made her way to the living room — sticking her tongue out at the scowling African mask in the hall as she walked by — and eased herself onto the couch. She found this was the most comfortable spot for her to sit, though getting up was a bitch.
Setting her laptop on top of a flat pillow that was perched atop her belly, she brought up a search engine. She had yet to respond to Veronica’s email because she wasn’t sure what to say.
“My first client and I can’t even help her,” she mumbled as she typed in ‘Werebears Alaska’.
The first dozen pages were filled with results about video games and shifter romance books, but deep into her search, she found an ancient blog post ridiculing a pseudo-scientific paper that claimed werebears were real. The post didn’t name the author of the paper — the blogger probably didn’t want to risk getting sued — but it did mention that they found it in the dusty stacks of “a major Washington state university.”
Bethany searched for ‘washington state university’ and clicked the most obvious link. It took nearly an hour of digging on various sites and pages, but she eventually found a listing of all the theses presented by Ph.D. candidates for the past 40 years or so. A search for the word ‘werebear’ yielded no results, but eventually she found a paper titled The Existence and Effects of Mammalian Lycanthropes Throughout Ancient and Modern History by Theodore Scantling, Ph.D.c , written in 1989.
“Yes!” she hissed to herself when she discovered it had been scanned and uploaded to the university’s servers. For $5, she was able to download it to her computer, all 300 pages of it.
Her foot tapped an impatient rhythm on the Turkish carpet as she waited for the document to download and open. This was the first possibly-legitimate item she’d found on the existence of werebears, and she’d spent a fair amount of time looking over the past several months.
From the moment she started reading the treatise, her eyes started drooping from boredom. This guy is dry as toast, she thought as she skimmed page after page of boring hypothesis.
“Lycanthropes have played a small but vital role in the history of global societies for millennia. Every European culture claims the existence of such creatures, which include a variety of apex predator species, most notably those belonging to the families Canidae, Felidae and Ursidae.”
Geez, what a snore-fest, she thought as she clicked through looking for something interesting. When she reached the section titled ‘Lycanthropes in Modern Culture’, she slowed down. The writing was as dry as ever, but the author made a compelling case for the existence of werewolves, werecats and especially werebears. He even claimed to have witnessed one shifting in his youth.
An hour had passed by the time she reached the last page. “Though the scientific community might scoff, the evidence is clear and irrefutable: Lycanthropes exist and have infiltrated every culture in the world.”
The sound of Max’s keys in the lock drew Bethany’s gaze. She couldn’t help herself. Every time he entered a room, her pulse beat just a little faster. And every time, he gave her the smile he was giving her now. Beaming and warm, with a touch of devilry thrown in for good measure.
“Hey, babe…and baby,” he said, leaning down to kiss her forehead and then her belly. She buried her fingers into his thick dark hair while he murmured a greeting to his cub in his clan’s native tongue. She was picking up a word here and there, but it was a difficult language and she had little hope of ever becoming fluent.
As he pulled away, he glanced at her laptop. “What’s this?”
“Oh, it’s actually pretty interesting. This guy wrote his doctoral thesis on how lycanthropes are real. He has a lot of stuff right, from what I can tell.”
“What’s his name? Scanty or something?”
“Scantling. You’ve heard of him?”
“Yeah, rings a bell,” he said, standing and stretching his back, his rippled abs peeking out from under the hem of his tight black t-shirt. “If I remember right, the rest of his world thinks he’s a nutjob. That paper made him a laughingstock. Wasn’t he booted out of his program over it?”
Bethany shrugged. “He seems to have a lot of details.”
He nodded, his expression pinched. “Yeah, if it’s the guy I’m thinking of, he wormed his way into one of those tiny mixed villages in Eastern Europe. No one had a clue he was trying to gather evidence of our existence. It was a pretty big deal at the time, but I was just a kid back then. In fact, the Brotherhood was formed not long after that to encourage clans to withdraw from human communities.”
“Veronica mentioned something called the Brotherhood in her email.”
His thigh muscles rippled against his jeans when he sank into the couch next to her and kicked his feet up on the coffee table. His bulging bicep was warm against the back of her neck as he pulled her closer.
“Yup. It started innocently enough but, over the years, it’s morphed into something pretty ugly, kind of a Bear Power-type of movement. Members think nothing of terrorizing werebears who befriend — or God forbid fall in love with — a human. It wasn’t until they killed the human husband of a high-ranking werebear that they were officially denounced.”
“But they’re not gone, are they?”
“Nope. They just went underground. Unfortunately, many clan leaders know who among them are members — hell, some of them are in the Brotherhood — but they usually just let them do their thing, turn a blind eye.”
Memories of late-night phone calls calling her horrible names, threatening her baby or saying nothing at all flooded her brain. “That’s who’s been bugging us, isn’t it?”
Max frowned and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Most likely.”
An icepick of fear stabbed at her gut. “Are…are they dangerous?” she whispered.
“Nah,” he said dismissively. He unwrapped his arm from her shoulder and pushed off the couch, heading to the kitchen. The distinctive sound of a cap being twisted off the top of a beer bottle reached her ears.
“How do you know that? Didn’t you just say they killed a human mate?”
He stepped into the hall, leaning his shoulder into the wall and crossing one foot casually across the other. “Huh?” he asked.
Her eyes narrowed at him. With his supersonic hearing, there was no way he didn’t hear her question. He was stalling. “How do you know the Brotherhood won’t hurt us?”
“Because.” He shrugged and tipped the bottle to his mouth.
What kind of answer is that? “Because why?”
He huffed in exasperation and dropped the beer from his lips. “Because I’ll be damned if some bigoted punks are gonna get anywhere near my mate and cub.”
Bethany’s blood boiled. How dare he brush off her concerns about a marauding gang of murderous bears?! This wasn’t the type of thing that could be brushed under the rug with no consequences. If she or her baby were in danger, she had a right to know.
“Well, doesn’t that just make me feel all safe and secure.” Sarcasm had always been one of her favorite — or at least most-used — defense mechanisms and old habits died hard.
Max’s tan skin began shimmering and he seemed to suddenly grow about three inches. “Don’t question me, woman!” His voice became deeper, too. All telltale signs that his inner bear was getting riled and trying to come out. But that didn’t frighten her because she knew he was still Max in shifted form and he would never hurt her, even if his bear took over. In fact, it made her even angrier that he and his damn bear were trying to intimidate her.
Dragging herself and her mighty belly into a standing position, Bethany stuffed her fists onto her hips and glared him down, tears of anger pricking her eyes. “I am your mate, Maximilian Pearce, not your fucking subordinate! Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.”
In a fury, she yanked open the front door but turned back before storming out. “When you’re ready to discuss this as partners, I’ll be next door.”
~ * ~ * ~
As the door slammed shut, Max cursed under his breath. “Real smooth, asshole,” he mumbled to his bear…and himself. He only wanted to protect her, ease her mind. She was already worried enough about the pregnancy, she didn’t need this piled on top.
He raked a hand across his scruffy face. Dammit, now I need to shave again. Every time he shifted — or almost shifted — his human form was left with a scrubby chin.
The urge to chase after her was overpowering, but that would probably only lead to another blow-up. Better to just let her chill out for a few minutes. He took another cool swig of beer on his way to the bathroom for his second shave of the day.
Maybe they both needed to chill out. The pressure of their situation was really getting to them both, and maybe his latest assignment would afford them a bit of space to reflect. The harassing calls had tapered off to almost nothing, and he had to believe that Chet would step up to keep an eye on her if he left town for a few days. Plus Paul and Kimmy were right next door. She would be safe.
Safer than where he was headed, anyway. That woman’s email indicated the Brotherhood had a strong presence in Kodiak, which was exactly where the International Council was sending him. That group of backward-thinking bigots had very strong ideas about interspecies relationships, and had been known to get violent. He didn’t want Bethany anywhere near the place, under the circumstances. He could handle whatever bullshit was thrown at him, but there was no way in hell he’d put her or their cub at risk.
The towel was soft against his skin as he patted his face dry. He took one more bolstering swig and a big, deep breath as he headed next door to tell his angry and very hormonal mate that he was leaving town the next day.