Authors: Elle Thorne
Lance’s voice in the fogginess that surrounded her. A miserable cold had settled into her bones. Her head ached from being hit.
She could feel herself healing though, healing because of the couplebond with Lance that had made her a shifter’s mate. Shifter’s mates couldn’t do the hibernation heal, but they didn’t take as long to recuperate as humans.
The cold had sapped her energy, left her in a lethargic state of inaction. She’d passed out, unable to get out of the seatbelt, unable to reach her phone, completely and totally helpless.
Then the door had opened, what seemed like an eternity later. Lance’s voice had seeped through the cold’s fierce grasp on her body and mind.
Her body had moved. Warm air surrounded it, but still she couldn’t move, captive to the cold that had set in.
Another eternity later, Lance’s voice cut through the cold unconsciousness.
Mac’s mind flew to a cognizant state of being. Her body didn’t respond, as if cold still held it, unwilling to give up the prisoner.
Lance was there—as if in her dreams. He was asking about the tattoo. Wait—how—when did he find out about the tattoo?
Her body, so in tune to his, still, picked up the vibrations of his confusion and frustration. She sensed his questions, felt his sorrow, commiserated with his confusion.
Mac sunk back into cold’s clutch. It was easier to be in the shackles of unfeeling cold than to feel the array of emotions bombarding Lance.
He wouldn’t understand. He couldn’t understand what had driven that decision, all those years ago.
hat one sunny day
, years ago…
t had started
out as just another day at the clinic, on the computer, analyzing data on migration patterns.
Until the phone rang.
A ranger near Coeur d’ Alene had called about a grizzly.
She still thought of Lance. And though half of her hated him, the other half missed him greatly. He’d been gone almost two years.
Yes, she knew to the minute how long he’d been gone—but she was trying to break herself of counting those days—minutes—seconds.
Damn. Him. Damn the heartbreaking soulless bastard.
“I’ll bring my medical supplies,” Mac told Raven, her ranger friend.
“You won’t need them. Just thought you’d want to come see.”
Raven laughed. “Just get here.”
Mac drove toward the national park, taking the roads above the speed limit.
What could Raven want her to see?
Mac met Raven a little over two years ago, not long after Lance had vanished. They’d both been called in to Olympic National Park.
As she recalled it, that was for a grizzly-related matter as well.
Mac loved her job, loved that part of the perks included being invited to sites and situations that involved wildlife.
She thanked her lucky stars she’d interned under the same professor as Raven’s older sister, Sky. When Professor Muata had asked her if she’d like to be considered for the Bear Canyon Wildlife Reserve, that they had an opening, she’d jumped for the chance.
Getting paid to do what she loved? Hell, yes!
She’d come to the valley.
She’d met Lance.
She’d lost Lance.
Now she was headed to Coeur d’ Alene.
My life could be summed up in bullet points.
She pulled into the wooded area near the park.
Raven’s vehicle, a Cherokee 4X4, was one of several vehicles.
Raven stepped out of the trees. She put a finger to her lips.
Mac nodded, raised her shoulders in question.
“Grizzly babies,” Raven whispered.
“No mama?” she asked.
“Nope.” Raven’s tone was filled with sadness.
“What?” No way. She would never believe that. No mama bear would abandon her babies.
Unless she was dead.
Mac cocked her head. “Special?” she whispered.
“We’re taking them to new homes.”
Odd word choice.
“What about the mother?”
“Dead. Father brought them this far. Then died.”
That’s not how grizzlies work.
“We knew you’d be the perfect one.”
“To monitor them, to keep up with them. After they are placed with their families.”
I’m so confused.
She silently followed Raven into the woods.
Her confusion didn’t last long.
Those baby grizzlies?
They were shifter babies.
A man and a woman stood in front of the grizzly toddlers, their backs to Mac.
She stared as two little girls, toddlers really, dressed in dirty, once pink and green outfits—twins clearly—sat next to each other on a log, staring at the grownups surrounding them.
The little girls roared, then shifted into young cubs. The cubs cuddled each other, their eyes wide.
“Oh my,” Mac whispered. She didn’t know what else to say. Yeah, she did.
She turned to Raven. “Why me?”
The man and the woman turned to face Mac. She knew one of them.
“Mae?” What was Mae doing here?
“You were chosen because you are mated to a shifter,” the man said. He was older, wideset shoulders, and sported a scar that split his eyebrow and extended clear down to his jaw.
“Do… I—I don’t know you.” That’s all Mac could think to say, but she kept her eyes glued on Mae.
“We need you to take records of their existence. Of their lives. Their whereabouts,” the man continued to speak, as if she hadn’t just said she had no clue who he was.
“Raven? Mae? Care to explain?”
Mae stepped closer to Mac. “You were chosen. You are a grizzly shifter’s mate.”
“I’m not his mate. I thought that was public knowledge.”
“You’ll always be his mate,” the man said.
“I don’t think so.” Mac wasn’t going to admit it, but his proclamation made a vein of fury run through her body. “I’ve looked into shifter lore. I know there’s a way to nullify the couplebond. I’m going to find someone to do it.”
The man glanced at Mae.
Mae shook her head. “I wish you wouldn’t. Lance is your true mate. He’s been foolish, but that will pass. He will be back. He can’t help himself.”
“Oh, and I’ll be sweet Becky Homecky, just waiting for that big strong man to come back to me. After four years. That’s the deal? Really?” Mac couldn’t keep the bitterness from her voice. She couldn’t keep it from her heart either.
“No.” Mae reached for Mac. “Don’t say that.”
Mac backed up. She wanted no comforting. She wanted no excuses. There were no amends.
A lightbulb went off in her mind. “My position with the Bear Canyon Wildlife Reserve? That has something to do with…”
She didn’t want to believe it.
Please don’t let them say it’s because of Lance. I didn’t even know him back then. I didn’t…
“It’s because of you,” the man said. “You were the right one for the job. So you were given it.”
“Raven?” Mac looked at the woman she’d known, the woman whose sister she’d gone to school with. “Are you a part of this?”
“There’s really no
,” the man interjected. “There’s you—the right woman for the job—who met her mate. You’re still the right one for the job.”
Now Mac was even more pissed. “What do you know about the Bear Canyon Wildlife Reserve?”
“I fund it.” The man’s words were blunt. “I sign your paycheck.”
Mac never saw the checks, they were direct deposited, but what reason would he have to lie?
Mae nodded. “MacKenzie, it’s true.”
The little girls had shifted out of their bear forms and were sitting on the log, cooing to each other.
Realization hit—the man was her boss; she should be respectful. “Do they have names?” Mac asked. “Why are they here, instead of in a home?”
“Trista and Tessa,” the scarred man said. “I was meeting their father. He’s over there,” he pointed. “Not alive.”
“No last name. Best to leave that out, so there’s no cause for retribution or for anyone to find them. They need a fresh start on life. Away from their history and their parents’ past.”
“What do you need from me?”
“We’re going to place them with a shifter family. You’ll keep up with them, check on the girls every so often, as part of your trips with the reserve’s projects and business. You’ll do this for several shifters and their families, as assignments come up.”
“So my job with the Bear Canyon Wildlife Reserve, that was a front?” All this time, she’d thought she was doing good?
“No.” The man glanced at the twins. “That job is important, and you still do it. It was no front. It was genuine, and still is. You’re merely going to augment it with this. It won’t create extra work for you. We can make sure the salary stays commensurate with the work.”
As if this is all about money.
“I’m not worried about being compensated.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
“You are…” She waited for his name.
“You can call me Larsen.”
“Okay, Larsen.” Then she rethought her lackluster response. “Thank you.”
“About what you said,” Larsen began. “The shifter lore. You want that? You want to break the bond?”
Tears flooded to her eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “I need to.”
For my peace of mind. To stop the constant ache in my heart and body.
“I can help you with that,” Larsen said.
“What?” Mae’s voice was loud, causing the twins to whimper and flinch.
“Sorry.” Mae leaned down, kneeling on the forest floor. She held her arms out to the babies. They stuck their thumbs in their mouths at the same time, brown eyes wide, staring at Mae, then jumped up and leapt into her hug.
“You can help me with what?” Why did Mac feel she was bait-clicking?
“I can help you with your objective to nullify your bond with the bear shifter.”
“And you’d do that? Why?”
The man narrowed his eyes. “Do you want my help or do you want to question my motives?”
She flinched from the intensity in his voice. Was he a shifter? “I want your help.”
“You’ll go see my cousin in Seattle. She’ll give you what you need. I’ll give you the directions after we get the little ones packed. Meanwhile, you’ll start a database.”
“Larsen…” Mae started to speak.
He held his hand up, stopping her protest mid-sentence.
“What about all the shifter babies before these? Is there an existing database?”
“There is. Elsewhere. Now we start fresh again.” He glanced at Mae.
“You have a home for the girls, make sure MacKenzie has the contact information. They’ll still be kept together? Not separated?” he asked.
Mac found herself holding her breath, waiting for Mae to answer. It would suck for the little ones to lose each other, now that they were orphaned.
Mae nodded. “We’ve got the same home for both.”
“Good. I like to see siblings kept together.”
he day of the tattoo
up the records for the twins, Mac had tried to settle into her routine at work. She’d tried not to look at the paper with the number and the address and directions to Larsen’s cousin.
She couldn’t concentrate though. Her eyes constantly drifted to the paper she’d folded in half and stuck to the side of the filing cabinet with a magnet. She needed to get moving on this. Every day was as hard if not harder than the day before. Missing Lance was eating her soul.
It didn’t take Mac long to make arrangements to visit Larsen’s cousin in Seattle. She’d wrapped up her plans and headed out the door before dawn. Misha, her sheepdog would spend the weekend with the clinic’s help.
A few hours later, the GPS said she was ten minutes away. She followed the directions, a little bit nervous and a little bit excited about the visit.
And a whole lot of sad filled her, leaving Mac with a void.
This is it. After this, my bond with him will be broken.
Did she really want that?
He broke our bond when he left us.
She fought the reflex to call Lance. Her fingers itched with a desire to dial him—see if he had the same number—tell him what she was planning, find out if he had any feelings on the matter.
Of course, he has no feelings. If he had, he’d have reached out. He’d have told me why he’s doing this.
Yeah, he didn’t give a shit.
It was time for her to move on.
She took a left. And another. And another.
Jesus, where the hell am I going?
She wasn’t going into Seattle. She was going farther from civilization.
The GPS quit showing a route, instead, proclaiming it was
searching for satellite reception
“Just fucking great.” She fumbled for the paper she’d put in her purse. It had a few directions from Larsen.
Pass the owl mailbox.
She’d seen that.
Turn left when the road dead ends.
Okay, that hadn’t happened yet. She was still good.
The road ended less than thirty yards farther. She should have slowed. Mac slammed on the breaks, sending the contents of her purse pitching into the floorboard on the passenger side.
“Lovely.” Battery acid sarcasm reflected in her voice.
She ignored the spilled contents, and clutched the note.
Fourth house on left.
What the fuck?
That was not a house. That was a hut. A shack. Made of tin and wood, and probably spit.
The grass had grown tall, waist-high, except for a narrow path’s worth of real estate leading to the front door.
Here goes nothing.
She stepped into the path, feeling more like she’d stepped into another world, another time, even. At the end of the path, past the tall weeds, she could see her ultimate goal. The hut.
Step by step, mindful of snakes, Mac made her way, finally stopping at a front door that looked like it couldn’t withstand a knock, for fear the wood might collapse.
Mac rapped her knuckles on the doorjamb instead, feeling certain it, at least, could withstand a bit of pressure.
The door opened to a woman unlike any she’d ever seen.
This is his cousin?
Long white-blond hair. Eyes so light a blue that they were almost indistinguishable from her whites. Her skin was a dusky tan color, offsetting the eeriness of her irises.
She was attired in a long white gown, flowing to her ankles. Her feet were in sandals composed of strings—or weed cuttings.
She returned Mac’s stare, not saying a word, not moving, no expression on her face.
Mac regained her composure, tried to hide her shock at seeing the woman. “Larsen sent me.”
“You’re MacKenzie Clarity.” Her voice was accentless, her tone remained neutral.
She wasn’t asking a question. She was telling Mac she knew who she was.
Mac nodded. “Larsen said you could help me.”
“Yes. He mentioned. The bear shifter’s woman.”
Ugh. Thanks for the reminder.
“Your aura is strong. The bond is strong. Why do you need it dissolved?”
Is that really any of your business?
But she couldn’t say that, so she opted for, “He had other plans.”
what the hell is her name?
—narrowed her eyes. “Odd.”
“So, can you help me?”
“I can give you what you need.”
That’s what Larsen said.
Ciara motioned her inside.
The inside was much better than the outside. Clean, state of the art accessories—coffee machine, fridge, stove. For a one-room shack, someone had spent quite a bit to make the inside as comfortable as possible.
So why the dilapidated, deteriorated outside? Why make it look like something you’d never want to go in? To discourage thieves, trespassers?
“You live here?”
That’s it? That’s all she’s going to say?
Ciara wore a forbidding look on her face, clearly in place to dissuade more questions and prevent prying.
Ciara handed her a robe that reminded her of the one she’d worn the last time she’d visited a day spa. “Put this on.”
A few questions buzzed in Mac’s mind. Starting with,
Yet for some damned reason, she couldn’t get any of the questions to come out of her mouth.
Ciara pointed toward a door. “You can change in there.”
The restroom was the same as the rest of the interior. Modern. Clean. Untouched. Unlived in.
With quite a bit of trepidation, Mac shrugged out of her top, left her bra on, and slipped the robe over it.
She came out of the restroom, the questions on the tip of her tongue.
Ciara had taken out a kit. It looked like a tackle box, the biggest she’d ever seen. And she had a table that reminded her of the ones she’d lain on when she’d been to the day spa.
“What are we going to do?”
Ciara was plugging in an instrument.
Mac eyeballed it. She’d seen enough TV to know what the hell that was.
A tattoo gun.
What the hell is she doing with that?
Mac gave the instrument the stinkeye. “I’m not sure you’re—I’m not—what are—?” She couldn’t even put a phrase together, much less a whole sentence.
“This is part of the procedure. The formula is in the ink. The tattoo will keep it sealed in.”
None of this made sense to Mac. Then again, a couple of years ago, being mated—couplebonded, even—to a grizzly bear shifter wouldn’t have made sense. Nor would it have been believable.
“And it will work? You’re sure of that?”
She wasn’t exactly willing to go through the pain of a tattoo for nothing. Anyway, what guarantee was there it would work?
Ciara was facing away, fiddling with the instrument. She turned toward Mac. “Would you rather not go through with this?”
And be forever stuck in this state of love for Lance?
Not a chance.
“Just do it.” She sat in the chair, leaned back, and tried to take her mind somewhere else. Somewhere that didn’t feel the sting of the needle. Somewhere that didn’t feel the sting of tears—not for the physical pain of it—but for the emotional pain of being torn asunder from what she had shared with Lance.
A million times Mac thought of Lance during her time in that chair, staring at the sterile white ceiling above. A million times she wanted to stop the procedure, get in her Jeep and find Lance—if only to get answers.
That day was hell for her. A hell that fueled her emotions to this very day.