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Released: May 9, 2017
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Book Description

He didn’t want a wife…but he wanted her.

Bear shifter Katrina Hamilton spent her life obeying her father’s strict rules — and chafing under them. While all her friends were dating, Kat had been forced to watch from the sidelines. So when opportunity falls in her lap in the form of a very sexy stranger, she doesn’t hesitate to follow her heart.

Alex Fairchild just wants one last night of fun before fulfilling his duty to marry a stranger for the good of his werebear clan. He doesn’t expect to fall for his one night stand. He doesn’t expect to take her virginity. And he really doesn’t expect to meet her again…standing at the altar!

Once enemies, now mates, Alex must prove to Kat he’s not the womanizing playboy she believes him to be. But sinister forces lurk in the shadows, ready to do anything to tear the new couple apart. Will their marriage survive? Will they survive?

Part of Celia Kyle’s Howls Romance line.

Read the First Three Chapters

Chapter 1

Alex ran fast through the forest, pushing his great bearish body to its limit. His bulky muscles stretched and his massive paws hit the ground with earth-shaking thuds. Small creatures skittered out of the way of the large bear, but Alex didn't notice them. He concentrated on the tickle of the wind whipping through his thick fur, the shudder in his joints each time his powerful legs met the earth, and the utter, blissful freedom of moving fast and hard. He etched each sensation into his memory — especially the last — because nothing would be the same after this.

Of course, he would come back here to run at some point after the ceremony, but he knew in his bones it wouldn’t feel the same. Alex shook away the depressing thought  — shook away all thoughts  — and simply ran.

More than anything, he wanted to run for hours, but a movement in the trees caught his eye. Resentment boiled in his gut as he slowed to watch an older man enter the forest and stand perfectly still in Alex’s path.

Alex reared up on his hind legs and roared with every ounce of strength he had. Lather coated his fur, foam dripped from the tips of his fangs, and his razor sharp claws were at the ready to slice and dice anyone who stood in his way. He had no intention of doing so, but this was his last chance to vent his frustrations.

“Time to go, son,” Tier Fairchild said without so much as flinching. “The meeting is in less than an hour.”

Alex sighed — not something bears often did. Remaining on his hind legs, he pulled back his bear. His muscles cramped pleasantly as they shrank under his quickly retracting fur. The air chilled his human skin and within moments, Alex stood before his father in his human form. Even as a man, he stood an impressive six-foot-four, with bronzed muscles and shaggy brown hair no barber could tame.

"When I was a cub, you’d at least pretend to be scared,” Alex said, shaking his head ruefully.

Tier Fairchild smiled blandly and handed Alex a pile of neatly folded clothes. "When you were a cub, it was cute. If I flinched now, you might think it was time to take over as head of the clan."

Alex pulled on the bespoke grey suit pants and buttoned the crisp white Oxford, but decided to forgo the tie for now. He was in no hurry to feel any more shackled than he already did.

"I’m not in any rush there, I promise you."

"Glad to hear it," Tier Fairchild said as they strolled through the forest toward the car that was undoubtedly waiting. "You are a good inch taller than me. It’s possible you could take me down."

Alex grinned and wrapped his arm around the older man’s still-burly shoulders. His father wouldn’t give up the title of Tier of the Fairchild Clan any time soon, but it was true — Alex was an inch taller.

A comfortable silence settled between them and they didn't speak again until they were on the highway, speeding toward the city. His father spoke first, his voice gruff and thick with emotion. What that emotion was, Alex couldn’t be sure.

“Are you ready, son?”

Alex frowned at the trees rushing past his window. “It’s not like I haven’t had time to prepare, Father. Twenty years is a long time to come to terms with an arrangement I didn’t make…and certainly don’t want.”

Tier Fairchild sighed, probably at the bitterness Alex couldn’t keep out of his voice. “Knowing and doing are two very different things, Alex. Today you’ll sign the papers, and in a week…”

Alex knew very well what would happen in a week. Most of his life had been in preparation for that very day. That didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Don’t worry, father. I know what it means to be the son of a bear chief. I won’t embarrass you.”

“I know, son.” Tier Fairchild kept his eyes on the road and didn’t say anything more.

Alex continued to stare out the window, blind to the beautiful lush forest, only seeing his own troubles. He tried not to speak, to not give voice to his doubts and concerns, but he couldn’t hold back. The ceremony was so close, and he he still had one question he’d never dared to ask, though it had plagued him for years. It was now or never.

"It's just… I know you brokered the betrothal to finally and truly end the war between Clan Fairchild and Clan Hamilton. I get that. But can you tell me how any man could simply give away his daughter to someone he’s never met?”

Tier Fairchild’s expression didn’t change beyond a slight tightening of his jaw. "I don’t pretend to know him well, even after all the years we've spent as technical allies, awaiting the union. But I remember all too well what the wars were like — for both sides."

Alex started to break in but his father cut him off.

"Yes, yes, I know you were alive for some of it, but you were a child, protected from the worst, even if it didn't seem like it.” He shot Alex a dark glance. “You don’t have a clue, son. What you witnessed, or learned in school, or heard stories about — none of it compares to the true horrors of that war.”

A chill pebbled the skin of Alex’s arms and the fine hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He remembered seeing the outer edges of a couple of skirmishes and thinking nothing could have been worse than that. Judging by the grim expression on his father’s face, Alex had been very, very wrong.

After a moment of thoughtful silence, Alex returned to the discussion at hand. “I understand, Father, but I can’t help thinking Tier Hamilton must have thought his daughter wouldn’t be able to marry without arranging it himself.”

Tier Fairchild scowled at him. “Are you suggesting something must be wrong with her?”

Alex shrugged, deeply ashamed by his selfishness, yet just as deeply worried he might be right.

His father chuckled. “She’s probably thinking the very same thing about you. I’ve never met the young lady, but I’m sure she doesn’t have horns sprouting from her forehead, Alex. Tier Hamilton and I brokered this marriage to end the war and save lives, not because we were worried our children would never find mates.”

It made sense, but Alex wasn’t entirely convinced.

“Besides,” his father continued, “It’s not such a bad match. You’re wealthy enough to keep her comfortable, and I’m sure she’ll bear you many fine cubs. Despite the generations of hate between our clans, I believe Tier Hamilton knows our family is honorable and you’d never mistreat his daughter in any way. Right?

“Of course not!” Alex huffed at his father’s warning glance and turned back to the window. He might not be excited about his upcoming nuptials, but that didn’t mean he’d mistreat his future wife — any woman, for that matter.

His thoughts wandered — and not for the first time in his life — to what his arranged marriage would be like. He’d seen such marriages before — friends of his parents, whose unions had been arranged at birth and who'd never been allowed to meet before the ceremony. Most of them had seemed stiff to him, lacking entirely in passion, seeming to barely be friends. Like polite strangers.

Alex tried to imagine bedding a woman he had to be polite to. The very thought made his skin itch, and his bear, just under the surface, yearned to run. But he wouldn’t run, as tempting as the idea might be. He’d do his duty and fulfill his destiny.

The ceremony wasn’t for several more days. His morning run had been nice, but come sunset, he'd find a woman to join him in one last night of pure passion before he shackled himself forever to a woman he didn’t love — hell, didn’t even know. The thought cheered him a little.

In an effort to lighten the mood, Alex asked his father how his stamp collection was going and spent the rest of the ride hearing about it.

Chapter 2

“Sign here, here, initial here, and sign and date here.”

With tremendous effort, Alex managed not to snarl at the Hamilton lawyer as he fumbled for a pen. As the heir to Fairchild Incorporated, he was quite used to working with attorneys — in fact, he’d forged a well-earned reputation as a cut-throat businessman — but the lawyers in this room spoke of marriage the way he might talk about buying and selling 600 tons of frozen salmon.

With every passing moment, the reek of greed and guile rolling off the men agitated him more and more — they seemed not to realize or care that two people's lives were being signed away. Alex would have loved to meet any of them in bear form. He had no doubt that, as bears, they were all under-sized and weak, the sort that followed after stronger bears and scavenged their leftovers. He noticed several wedding rings and wondered how on earth any of them had managed to find a mate.

Next to him, his father cleared his throat loudly. With a start, Alex realized why he was having trouble picking up his pen — his fingernails had grown long and sharp. He quickly got himself under control, willing his claws to retract. No matter how much contempt he held for the others in the room, this deal was too important to screw up. Once his nails became short and squared, he grabbed the pen and got to work.

As soon as he dotted the last ‘i’, Tier Hamilton shook Alex's hand.

“Welcome to the family,” he growled, his smile grim and tense.

“Thank you, sir,” Alex replied, his tone just as grim and tense as his future father-in-law’s smile.

He looked deep into the man’s grey eyes for any hint of regret or shame over what amounted to selling his own child, but the clan leader appeared to be perfectly satisfied with the arrangement.

Tier Hamilton then turned to Tier Fairchild. The two men stared at each other for a long moment, before they reached for each other’s hands. After centuries of war between their clans, it was practically a miracle they were even in the same room together, much less willing to shake hands.

Not another word was spoken as Tier Hamilton and the team of lawyers filed out the door, leaving Alex reeling. He’d just signed a document that would change the world, not just for his clan mates, but for the bears in Clan Hamilton as well. He only had to give up his own freedom in the bargain. No big deal.

Alex tried to convince himself Katrina Hamilton was probably a wonderful woman who would make a perfect mate. She had to be entering into this marriage for the same reason he was — to save their clans. As much as he tried, though, he just couldn’t swallow it.

Tier Hamilton had been adamant she and Alex never meet before the ceremony. There could be only one reason for that, as far as Alex was concerned — the man was afraid Alex would back out if he met her first. Was she a mutant of some kind? Had she been horribly disfigured in some bizarre hunting accident? What exactly was wrong with this woman? The mind boggled.

Following his father out of the room to wait for their own elevator, Alex glanced at his watch. The meeting had taken almost five hours. There’d been a lot to hammer out — trade agreements, property allowances, various treaties. Plus, lawyers on both sides had to prove they deserved their paychecks by droning on and on and fighting tooth and nail — almost literally — for the upper hand.

As soon as the elevator doors closed, Tier Fairchild turned to his son with a smile, his green eyes — the same ones Alex had inherited — glinting under the fluorescent lighting.

"I'm proud of you, son. You did well. You're doing a great thing for us all."

“I know, Father.” Alex managed not to roll his eyes.

All his life, Alex had wanted nothing more than to make his father proud. He'd barely had a childhood with all of his training, from learning how to hunt in bear form to how to be a perfect businessman in human form. Getting straight As, being accepted into the best schools in the country, winning every bear fight he'd competed in since he was eight, making his father’s company millions of dollars. All of it had been expected of him. But it was this — entering into a sham of a marriage for the sake of his people — that made the old man proud.

Figures.

"Care to come to dinner with your mother and me? She'd love to see you. Says you haven't called in days."

"Sorry, I've got plans." Alex didn't mention those plans included going out on the town until he met a woman who’d make him forget, if only for a few hours, about his future. "I'll call Mother tomorrow, I promise."

"All right. You know how mother bears get."

Alex smiled tightly at the joke every father he knew made to every one of their offspring at least three times a week. He’d never been more relieved to have elevator doors open.

“See you soon, Father.”

Tier Fairchild headed for the parking garage, as Alex strode through the large lobby of Hamilton Enterprises, trying to decide whether his prowl should begin at a nightclub or one of the private bear dens his kind frequented.

“Oof!”

Alex was jolted out of his all-consuming and utterly filthy thoughts when he collided with something…or rather, someone. Papers fluttered into the air, almost comically, but the hint of a smile fell away from his lips when he saw the woman he’d bumped into windmilling her arms to stay upright. And gravity was winning.

Reaching out, he caught her as she tipped past the point of no return. His fingers wrapped around her upper arms and he instinctively pulled her toward him. As her body met his, her breasts pressing into his broad chest, his head swam with anything but thought. Instinct, lust, id — whatever the name, he was feeling it.

He tried to open his mouth to apologize, to ask if she was okay, but only a strangled choke eked out. Tall with abundant curves in all the right places, the woman’s beauty took his words — and his breath — away. Her chocolate-colored hair fell down to her waist in undulating waves, and Alex longed to bury his hands deep into the luscious tresses.

Round, amber eyes, rimmed with long lashes blinked up at him in surprise. He felt as if he could stare into their infinite depths forever…until her plump lips parted. His hot gaze dropped to her mouth, and he nearly growled with need at her soft intake of breath.

His heart pounded faster than after a hard run, but exercise never gave him a raging erection. If she moved her hips an inch closer, she’d probably look even more surprised than she did now. Oh, how he yearned for her to move closer…

As stunning as she was, the woman’s werebear scent had an even more powerful effect on him. It reminded him of the forest in the early morning, clear streams and fresh air. It was pure and clean and deeply, perfectly innocent.

He wanted to throw his head back and roar, to take her, to have her — but also to protect and care for her. Alex had desired many women, but never had he felt so deeply and instinctively that he needed a woman. For a moment, his human and bear sides were perfectly joined, utterly manifested, in one thought.

He needed her.

Chapter 3

Kat blinked up at the man staring down at her, and embarrassment flushing her cheeks. What was going on with her? How could she be so graceful and strong as a bear, but so clumsy and awkward as a woman? Even in her father's building, with her guards not ten paces behind her, she’d managed to do something as ridiculous as walking straight into a strange man. A strange, tall, strong, incredibly attractive man. A man who smelled like the forest at night, and—

Blushing more than ever, she pulled herself away from him and dropped to her knees, scrambling to pick up the sketches strewn across the floor.

She'd been out of sorts for days now, even weeks. Something was wrong, she just didn’t know what. Her parents had been acting strange — she kept catching them looking at her with troubled expressions — but they insisted everything was fine.

On top of that, every time she went out these days, her hackles were constantly raised from the sensation someone was watching her. She felt…hunted. Not something a comfortable feeling for a bear.

Ridiculous!

Her father was so obsessed with her safety, he kept her surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four-seven. Not that she was a captive — she was allowed to go anywhere and do almost anything she liked. She'd flown on private jets to Switzerland to paint mountains and to Africa to paint people; she'd lived for two months in a tree house in Peru, and she'd studied art in France for a year.

If you overlooked their incredibly old-fashioned ideas about dating, her parents were actually quite permissive. Except when it came to her bodyguards. Her very big, ever-present bodyguards. Her friends joked about it, but it wasn’t funny to Kat.

As she gathered up her work, she pretended not to notice the man kneeling beside her, helping her. The collision had apparently stunned him at first, but now he gave her a wide, brilliant smile, his green eyes flashing. Kat’s nerves barely let her lips tweak upward.

Men were a mystery to her — by her parents’ design. Romance of any sort was the one thing they’d denied her. No matter how much she begged and pleaded, they wouldn't explain. When she was twenty-one, they said, she could make her own decisions. Until then, no boys. No dates. Not even group dates. Nothing.

Of course, Kat sometimes met boys anyway. Even all-girl schools had guys around now and then — brothers of her friends and sons of teachers. Then there were the men who worked for her father — some of them quite young and attractive.

But the moment she'd tried to flirt with any of them, they all reacted the same way. They'd turn pale and go stiff, then they'd get away from her as quickly as possible. Whether she took human or bear form, males just didn't seem to like her.

Kat had spent long hours in front of the mirror, trying to figure out what made her so unappealing, but it remained a mystery. The mirror told her she was at least reasonably attractive, and her girlfriends insisted men loved women with curves, but the men of her clan had missed the memo. They all seemed practically terrified by her flirting.

This man didn't seem scared, though. It was hard to imagine him frightened of anything. As they stood, sketches clutched in their hands, he towered over her, and she sensed his power. No doubt about it, he was an alpha — a man used to taking control and getting his way — yet his manner was gentle as he handed over her papers.

"Thank you," she said, forcing herself to speak past the lump in her throat. "And sorry about that. I'm so clumsy…"

“Entirely my fault,” the man said, oozing charm.

He appeared to be relaxed, but an undercurrent of tension she couldn’t identify rippled in the air between them, like heat waves coming off a desert highway.

"Hey, did you draw this?" he asked, looking at one of the pictures he'd just given her. "It's fantastic."

“Um, thanks,” Kat mumbled.

Kat’s art had won awards and sold well at gallery shows, so compliments were nothing new to her. But coming from this man… She wasn't used to anything coming from men like him.

"I'm being rude, sorry. I'm Alex."

He held out his hand, and when her fingers disappeared into his massive paw, a jolt of electricity sizzled through her. Was this…lust? If so, it made her dizzy and tingly all over. A deep part of her, a part that was pure bear, began to rumble. It was all she could to do keep from purring with desire.

There was more between them than the buzzy, effervescent sensation of arousal, though. It defied all logic, but this man made her feel safe — safer than she’d ever felt with a dozen of her father’s bodyguards protecting her. For the first time in weeks, that feeling of being hunted fell away. She felt relaxed and at peace. Almost as if a missing piece of her puzzle had been fitted into place.

“I’m Kat,” she sighed, staring up into the greenest eyes she’d ever seen.

She managed to get a grip on herself and give him her most winning smile, hoping like hell he didn’t run screaming. When his hand tightened around hers in response, she knew he wouldn’t.

"This is very forward of me” he said, “but you're so beautiful and so talented. It's a refreshing combination. Would you go out with me tonight? Dinner and dancing? I'd love to get to know you better."

Kat gaped up at Alex, completely stunned. No man except her father had ever called her beautiful. Her hammering heart drowned out the doubt and replaced it with excitement.

Her father, of course, would have insisted she say no “for her own safety,” but the idea of saying no to this large beautiful bear of a man was unthinkable. Thanks to her self-defense training, Katrina Hamilton probably could take care of herself better than the average she-bear. Besides, she was only a week away from turning twenty-one.

Alex watched her patiently as he waited for her answer. Kat stared up at him, chewing her lower lip, consumed with uncertainty. She’d never disobeyed her father before — at least not at this level — but she'd never wanted anything as much as she wanted to spend time with this man.

A surreptitious glance told her the bodyguards stood at a respectful distance, as usual. They’d learned she preferred them to stay out of her way, which is why none of them helped pick up her sketches. Their bored expressions indicated they almost certainly couldn’t hear the conversation, which meant she might have a chance to get away with it.

“Okay,” she almost whispered. “But we have to be careful and play it cool.”

Alex’s lips twitched up into a smirk that nearly turned her knees to jelly. “Why?”

“Shh, it’s a long story.” Glancing at the guards again, Kat took his arm and tried to ignore the shivers that ran up her spine when she touched him. “Make it look like you’re trying to see my pictures in a better light.”

She led him across the lobby to where sunlight streamed in through the windows, far enough away from the guards they definitely wouldn’t overhear, though they watched her every move.

“I’ll meet you tonight,” Katrina said quietly as she held up a sketch to maintain the ruse. “Where?”

“I’ll have my driver pick you up,” he suggested, completely ignoring the drawing.

Obviously, picking her up at home wouldn’t work, but she could sneak out easily enough. Still, her safety instructors would have insisted doing such a thing was dangerous. They’d told plenty of horrific stories of women going missing — or worse — after getting into a stranger’s car. But one whiff of Alex’s scent overwhelmed her. She could trust him, she felt it down to her very soul.

“All right,” she said, then held up another sketch. “Have him meet me at the Café Orange on Fleet Street at eight.”

He raised an eyebrow, but she just smiled. “I have to meet colleagues there at seven. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Not at all.”

“And…” She hesitated, trying to figure out the best way to say it without sounding like a total weirdo. “I hate being interrupted by people I know on dates, so let’s not go to one of the major dens. I prefer someplace a little more…secluded.”

His eyes narrowed momentarily. “You’re not mated, are you?”

“No, nothing like that. As I said, it’s a long story.” She smiled and tried to flirt a little. “Maybe I’ll tell you at dinner, if you’re nice.”

Better to seem mysterious than pathetic. He surely wouldn’t be interested in a woman who wasn’t allowed to date.

As he gazed down at her, Kat imagined what it would be like to run as a bear with him by her side. What it would be like to hunt with him, to curl up in a den with him, have his cubs…

Slow down, girl! You don’t even know this guy!

Then why did it feel as if she’d known him her entire life?

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