“I need a minute, file out please,” I commanded, sitting back in my tattered leather desk chair, scratching my almost full beard. Rubbing my belly, I tried to scour away the itch of frustration, to no avail.
Frustration was my leech and its teeth penetrated deep.
I really should take better care of myself.
But my appearance reflected my attitude of late, ragged, teetering on the edge of mania. I’d gone too long without a haircut, opting instead for buzzing the sides myself and letting the top grow longer than I’d ever let it before.
“Yes, Alpha,” they all replied, swiftly moving from the cedar paneled office—except River. As more than my beta, my best friend, he always thought himself exempt from most orders, and he was. I frequently needed an ear that felt like it was on my side, and not just because the rules told him he had to be.
My father had been Alpha before me, and his father Alpha before that. Every day I uncovered another piece of the effed up puzzle—the real story of the turmoil my clan was in—the legacy they’d left me. And it seemed while they were excellent Alphas in terms of protecting the lands and growing the clan—they weren’t proficient at financing or piddling things like paying property taxes. They allowed their females no say over anything, which went against everything we were taught as young males. They failed to practice what they preached. Their mates had to grin and bear it. A female probably would’ve pointed out the details that my father and his father ignored. And now, one year after my father died of cancer and my mother followed soon after, I stood in a falling apart house, up to my eyeballs in debt with every male and some female clan members working two and three jobs to help out. My clan was crumbling through my claws.
Something has to give.
River was the same age as me, though our appearances aged us considerably. He growled out a sigh and plopped down in one of the huge chairs, built specifically for us, thick and sturdy. He beat his hands on the top of his head to some rhythm. He was deciding how to tell me something.
“Hawke, we can barely handle what we’ve got. Let’s face it, we are up to our muzzles here. Clan members are paying for bills usually taken care of by clan funds. We are working ourselves to the bone. We do what we can, but it’s just not enough. And now the LaFourche Clan Alpha wants to merge? I don’t know, boss.”
I hate when he calls me boss.
“I can’t help it. I have no money left after paying over two hundred thousand dollars in property taxes, insurance, flood insurance and everything else we were up to our asses on. The effing government was about to auction off our land. I have little to nothing left.”
I stood and took the two steps to the window to face the swamp. I could almost hear the fluttering of the catfish’s fins in the murky bayou, the teeth of the nutra rat chattering, and the bowing branches of the Cypress tree in the beginning winds of a Louisiana thunderstorm. The swamp called to me, begging me to allow it to soothe the beast and the stress. I wished it could. But I didn’t even have time to run anymore—I hadn’t shifted in weeks. The neglect of my inner animal made my skin crawl and itch.
Let me out, he pleaded.
He didn’t answer my rhetorical plea for him to further his rebuttal, so I continued my side of the debate, “What else can I do? Have you seen the other clan members? They’re as mature as a newborn cub. If I don’t take over as their Alpha, they’ll scatter to the winds. And with the other clans vying for our land already—they would take over the LaFourche land and be a heartbeat away from our boundaries. I won’t have it.”
He grabbed the arms of the chair and leaned forward, and I could see his reflection in the window.
“Then something has to give. Things are getting out of hand. We respect you, Alpha and will obey anything you ask of us. But the Betas and clan are restless, the males and the females. You know our ways dictate that our inner animal obey an Alpha pair, not just a male. We need the strength of a pair. If you intend to do this, we should be stronger, at least.”
Didn’t I know it? If they were restless for a pair to oversee them—if restless was the word they were using, then I was downright violent with my need for a mate.
The craving almost consumed me.
My bear needed a mate, and I as an Alpha, needed the balance of a female—plus, even with my warmer body temperature; my bed, of late, seemed to grow colder and colder.
But who had time to seek out a mate when the clan was in a spiral of disorganization and failure?
It wasn’t like there was a dating and mating website for bear shifters. If there had been, its mascot would have been that yellow Care Bear with the heart on its stomach. The commercial would have him doing the Care Bear stare or some shit. I hated Care Bears.
Why am I thinking about Care Bears?
I knew he could feel my malcontent over bringing up the issue of a mate, so he relented and moved on.
“There’s another issue, Alpha.”
I turned to my friend with a fake smile, “Oh great, what more?”
“There’s been a report of a black bear, a rogue, in South Dakota. She seems to be part of a grizzly clan, but is not mated. They have seen her working on clan lands and running perimeters on their boundaries at all times of the night.”
I shrugged, “It’s the female’s choice if she wants to keep clan with grizzlies.”
“The thing is—she’s thin—worn. The wolf pack Alpha who reported her says she’s unhealthy. He says he can see her ribs when she shifts and she’s maybe eighteen or nineteen but none of the kids in his pack have ever seen her in school. And they all attend school together up there, shifter and human. He assumes—he assumes she’s being held captive. He sent a formal request that you visit and see for yourself as the Alpha over all bear Alphas.”
I snorted in his direction, “I’m sure the grizzlies would be much obliging.”
“They don’t have a choice. We outrank them. Black bears outrank Grizzlies, you know that. They have no choice but to grant you entrance.”
Of course I knew that. I was just grasping at straws, trying to talk my way out of going to South Dakota for any reason.
“How can I leave now, with the clan in turmoil?”
“It will take us three days. It’s not gonna fall apart in three days. If she is what the wolf says she is, then we have to save her. We protect our own.”
I slammed my fist down on the table, more in frustration with the entire situation than towards my Beta. He jumped anyway, “I know we protect our own. Make the arrangements with the rest of the clan. I want you and Flint on my flank. Three days, no more.”
He didn’t answer with words, simply bowed his head in acknowledgement.
I couldn’t believe this. I was in the middle of a turf struggle, on the verge of taking on a new clan, and trying to calm the mate-craving animal inside me—and there was a lone female in cold South Dakota who’d gotten herself kidnapped and enslaved.
I grabbed the last plate after everyone else had passed through the line. It was immediately snatched from me by Horace, the Alpha, and my keeper.
“Did we forget something,” he asked and when he breathed through his nose, I could see there was a straggler in his cave.
“No, Alpha, I did everything on the list.”
“The list from this morning?”
I could feel the snare around my leg; ready to tighten.
His breath was always horrendous, and I stifled a gag.
“Yes, Alpha, the list from this morning, on my door, when I got in from perimeters.”
“And what about the list I left on your bedroom door this afternoon?”
I froze, “I’m sorry. I got in and had afternoon security detail. I haven’t even been home since then.”
“Well then, you don’t really deserve dinner, do you?”
“No, Alpha, I don’t.” I took my plate from him, clanked it back down, and lowered my gaze.
“Agreed. Why don’t you get changed and begin your forgotten duties? While you’re at it, take a shower. You stink of the species you represent.”
I soldiered out of the dining hall, starving to the point of nausea, but obeying, nonetheless. I didn’t have the pull, the instinct of obedience to Horace like the rest of the clan did, I assumed because I wasn’t like them, but I obeyed anyway. What choice did I have?
As far as I knew, I was a freak of nature, a mistake, a fluke. Plus, that was what I’d always been told. The story went that I had been found in the woods as a cub, and they’d felt sorry for me. So I worked my ass off every day trying to lift my burden somehow. It was indentured servitude at its finest, but there was never an end in sight for me. I’d never earn my freedom or feel the lift of a repaid debt rise from my chest.
Then, there was that thing where I could heal them. I was sure that was the real reason they kept me. But the more I stretched myself thin, the more it took out of me every time I did.
I scrambled to my room, snatching the note pinned to my door, grabbing a pair of cut off sweat shorts, and a tank top and running to the bathroom. It was a usual list—clean the house, inventory the pantry, make the grocery list, do the laundry. By the time I got done with the chores, it would be time to run perimeters again and try to get some sleep. I’d probably only gotten three to four hours of sleep in the past couple of days but somehow I would pull through. I had a five minute limit on showering, so I poured tons of shower gel all over me and scrubbed as fast as I could. The hot water revived some of my weariness and got rid of some of the stink I was said to carry. But to me, they stank. Even the wolves didn’t have the funk these grizzlies boasted. But then again, maybe it was me. I’d never seen another black bear, so there was a great probability it was me. Drying off and throwing on clothes, I worked through the house first, since everyone had flown the coop after scarfing down dinner.
Monday and Thursday night dinners were held at the Alpha house. I did all the cooking, for all one hundred and thirty one clan members and I cleaned up afterwards. In no time, I’d finished tidying up the kitchen, cleaning the house, and sweeping the porches. The laundry was next and it entailed going to the clan laundromat, which was a deed in itself. Not because of the laundry—I usually took pleasure in the solace it gave me. But I feared the goading I received if any other clan members were in there. It was funny how they chastised me one minute but expected me to heal them the next. But denying anyone a gift I’d been bestowed was beyond my comprehension. I just didn’t have the meanness in me.
I gathered the two baskets of clothing from the hallway closet, stacked them on top of one another, and made my way across the pathway to the laundromat. There was no one in there that night, thank goodness, so the peace of the pouring water and the tumbling clothes was mine for the taking.
As I sat in the stiff metal monstrosities, waiting for the next load to finish, I thought about the note passed to me from a wolf shifter at the boundary days ago. It was a letter from their Alpha telling me, warning me, I didn’t know which. It was of few words, but it spoke volumes and sent my mind into a frenzy of what ifs.
The Great Black Bear Alpha is coming.
As soon as I read it, the note was ripped from my hands and shredded. Then the wolf ran away.
Was I in trouble? Had I done something wrong—other than the numerous things I’d done wrong on a daily basis? Was he like the Alpha around here, and the other grizzly Alphas who humiliated and despised their females? Would I be punished for being in a clan of grizzlies? It wasn’t my fault. They’d found me and kept me.
I’d tried to escape once.
That’s when they started making me wear the taser collar around my neck—the same collars the dogs wore. As if my life wasn’t humiliating enough. When I reached a certain point on the perimeter, marked by little orange flags tied to branches, or if I went beyond the boundary, I was shocked and they were notified. At first, I rebelled against it, ran out of the boundary as many times as my neck could stand it. I had some burn mark scars to prove it. I could heal most of them, but in some instances I’d passed out for so long that scarring had commenced. I’d stopped trying years ago, and finally succumbed to my station in the world and on this land.
We’d travelled for just over twenty hours in my truck—twenty hours. That was a long time to be in a truck with two other male bear shifters. It was the equivalent of a cage. We’d finally made it to South Dakota, just outside of Yankton. The grizzly clan lands were just outside of Lake Andes but I had to announce my presence first, not out of necessity, but out of respect.
“Get your elbow out of my ribs before I snap your forearm in half, Flint.”
“I’ll move my elbow if you stop touching my leg with yours, you asshat.”
“Hey! Knock it off. We’re almost there.”
“Yes, Alpha,” they both replied, still giving each other glares.
“We’ll get to the motel in about ten minutes, call the Grizzly Alpha and then eat.”
Grunts were all I received, all the answer I needed were grunts.
After parking at the front of a sub-par motel, River went into the office, made arrangements for two rooms and came back later with keys. Flint and I were out, stretching our legs. I did not look forward to stepping on another Alpha’s land, much less another kind of bear’s land. And grizzlies had a reputation of being temperamental at best. And while I knew they could never best me, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the whole situation.
I pulled out my phone, as I entered a grossly undercleaned motel room, sat on the bed which almost collapsed beneath me, and pressed H for Horace. His number was one of the few under the H’s, and I pushed the phone emblem to call.
“Horace Milestone, this is Hawke Turnclaw.”
There was some fumbling of the phone and shushing of people in the room.
“Alpha, to what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Just a routine inspection. I’ve heard some good things about your clan. I thought maybe my own could learn some things from yours. We are in town and will be at your borders at noon. Please make your guard aware. We wouldn’t want a misunderstanding.”
Damn, I didn’t know I was so smooth at lying.
“Of course not, Alpha. I will let them know. Um—how long will your stay be?”
“As long as I deem fit. Until tomorrow, Horace.”
I hung up the phone, heard the sound of two cackling men and looked up to see my Betas doubled over in humor.
“What’s going on with you two?”
Flint barely contained his laughter as he answered, “River’s room was otherwise occupied with one man and two women. So he had to get another room. But you should’ve seen his face, like he’s never seen naked asses before!”
“Shut up.” River punched Flint in the gut.
“And since when do we do routine inspections? What are we the military?”
“I had to think of something. What was I supposed to say, ‘I’ve come up to investigate some female black bear spotted by your boundary friend Schuylar, the Alpha wolf next door? Please. Now, let’s go eat and get some sleep. They’re not going to make this easy on us.”
We walked down the street to a buffet, which promised steak and all the fixings. River moaned about the lack of sweet tea but I didn’t care, as long as something was quenching my thirst.
We all filled two plates each, with a sampling of what the buffet had to offer—one plate just for the enormous steaks. Almost finished with round one, I sat back to relax before going back. I saw Flint drop his fork and fish through his pockets, come out with a cell phone and dial a number.
“What happened,” he growled into the phone.
Whatever answer he received placated him enough to relax against his chair, “Please be more careful. You scared me to death. I was ready to tear this place down getting to you.”
More conversation from the other end, “Ok, I love you too B.”
Flint’s mate was Beatrice, he called her B, and so did everyone else. He was the only one of my Betas who had a mate.
“Yeah, she tripped on the last stair of the house and my heart fluttered,” he recalled, rubbing his chest.
“She should be more careful carrying a cub.”
“Cubs; and I know,” Flint sighed, “She’s just so damned anal about cleaning the house. That’s what she was doing, going downstairs to wipe the already clean counters again.”
We all laughed, and I tried in vain not to be frustrated with my circumstances. I had no idea what he meant. I had no clue of the sensation, being so in tune with my mate. And there was the heartbeat. The Creator made us know exactly when we met our mate. It was a secret kept amongst those who’d experienced it, but it was said that there was no denying it.
I wished I knew.
I’d never try to deny it.
We almost ate the place out of business and then retired to our respective rooms to get sleep in case there was any turf fight the next day. There shouldn’t be, but I wasn’t very well scripted in visiting other clans’ land.
Showering in the tiny stall, I tried to wash away some of the tension that came especially at night. It twisted my muscles, stretched my ligaments, and furrowed my brow without my permission. It was the tension of an unmated Alpha. I wiped the fogged mirror with my towel and decided I’d better clean myself up. I looked more like caveman than Alpha. Using a pair of scissors I found in the desk, I cut my beard down significantly
What in the hell was I going to do?
The entire clan had been ordered to stay up all night, cleaning and straightening and putting on a show. I didn’t know what they were prepping for, but a twinging in my chest told me it was something to pay attention to. I worked alongside them, forgoing my perimeter sweeps for a different kind of sweeping, dusting, mopping and cooking. Whatever they were prepping for was huge. I’d made ten casseroles, two pans of lasagna, fourteen cakes, all flavors and sizes, and I still had to make bread and various salads. I was also told that under no circumstances was I to make an appearance in front of the visitor. I was sure to embarrass them.
They were set to arrive by noon, so I had to be long gone by eleven thirty. That’s what Horace had told me. He’d suggested I run in the forest or go for a swim in the river but I knew exactly what I was going to do. I would go to the furthest boundary north and take the nap of a lifetime. I twisted my butt length black hair into a knot after covering all the food with aluminum foil and lining it up in the ovens. I also had snuck a spoonful of each dish into a Tupperware container under the cabinets to be stuffed in a bag that would go with me for naptime. If I didn’t sneak food around here, I’d starve.
I set up the eight foot long granite countertop with plates, napkins and silverware and looked over my work, making sure everything was covered. Glancing at the clock, I grabbed my stolen food, stuffed it and a plastic fork into my bag and waited by the front door for the clock to strike eleven thirty. Horace came out of the hallway, dressed in a well starched, white button down shirt and some hideous dark green, polyester pants.
“Is everything ready?”
“Good, any mistakes will be paid for later.”
I wanted one of those little machines, toys really, that would record a saying and then at the press of a button, repeat it. I’d seen one of the cubs playing with one, ‘Yes, Alpha. Yes, Alpha. Yes, Alpha.”
“Make yourself scarce then.”
I skipped the niceties and bolted. Entering the woods, I shed the backpack and the clothes, bundling them up and stuffing them into the worn bag. A smile broke out over my face as I felt the first of the change, my shift bringing me down on all fours, rounded black ears taking over my human ones, short claws replacing my fingernails, a warm blanket of fur sprouting from my pores.
My vision phased and my hearing peaked. My bear saw things so differently than I did. I was reactive while she was proactive. She saw the most minor of movements and color.
Grabbing the bag in my mouth, I sprinted for the boundary on one side of a trickling stream. The perfect watering hole and sleepy lullaby mixed in one shot. I shifted back into my human form and put my clothes back on, which didn’t do much in the freezing weather. I played for a while in my temporary freedom, splashing and tiptoeing through the cold spring water until my stomach growling and muscles churning reminded me of my real mission.
I sat on the edge of the water and partook of my meal. It lasted less than ten minutes as hungry as I was and after quenching my thirst with the clean spring water, I laid back, my bag as my pillow, under the warm sun and gentle wind and took the best nap of my life.
About a mile before the entrance to the Grizzly clan lands, I slowed down the truck to a crawl. It was cramped again in the truck, and River and Flint groaned when I lessened to a turtle pace. It wasn’t very nice to pull into another Alpha’s lands at full throttle, petal to the metal.
“You’re killin’ me, Alpha. We won’t be there until tomorrow. And I’m about to kill the other Beta in this cab.”
“We have to be respectful. We don’t want him to get defensive. We are coming in here to potentially steal one of his clan members. Have some tact.”
“I have no tact,” Flint moaned.
“That’s what B says,” River joshed him.
“At least I have a mate. You can’t even find one. No one wants to put up with your shit.”
I recoiled mentally, that one stung, and it wasn’t even targeted at me.
“It’s fine. That’s my problem. Can’t find a female who wants to step into the tornado with me.”
“Not to add to the stress, but B says there are some clan members not making their kids go to school every day. Principal Landry told B yesterday that you’d be getting a letter about the seriousness of truancy and the possibility of fines for parents of truant children.”
I punched the steering wheel in anger, “I don’t get it. Does everything have to be an exact, specific, order from my mouth in order for them to do something? Do I need to visit every parent and command them to make their cubs go to school before they’ll be obedient? I swear, if I don’t spoon feed them, some things they just don’t get. They need an Alpha female. But I’ll be damned if I can find one. I shouldn’t have to micro-manage everyone.”
“Chloe is certainly willing,” River snickered beside me.
I rolled my eyes at his jeering, “She practically humps me if no one’s around. It’s ridiculous. Maybe I can command her to get over herself. She knows how it goes. We are not mates and I’m not interested in anything with a female who isn’t my mate.”
“Well, I heard she’s been sniffing around the LaFourche Clan, so maybe you’re okay.”
They laughed at the humping comment for a while until we approached the gates—iron gates, at least seven feet tall with a grizzly bear design in the rods.
“Straighten up, Betas.”
I stuck my head out of the window and greeted one of the guards at the gate. He was stoic and suspicious, but after I stated my name, he let me in immediately with a much friendlier attitude and bared his neck with his hand pressed against his face as we passed. At least, they had a few manners.
My Betas tensed as we entered their land, as did I. My bear recognized the vulnerability of the three of us among so many of another species of shifter, so far away from home. He trembled with trepidation and general pissiness.
A log cabin, an enormous log cabin, came into view. I threw the truck into park away from the rest of the cars in the driveway in case a swift getaway was necessary.
“Take a good look around, boys. We know what we’re looking for.”
“Hawke, I can smell another bear. It’s not grizzly, but it smells off, not like us, but there is something familiar about it. It’s faint though, goes towards the trees.”
“Let’s play it cool. No more talking about it. There are ears everywhere.”
An older man, came out of the front door of the cabin, arms crossed, looking very stern and solid in his stance. Not to mention, very disco militant in his dress. The colors screamed Army with camo green pants, but they were polyester looking and had the old wrap around side button.
“This isn’t gonna be easy.” I grumbled to myself.
But perception was everything in clans and amongst shifters. I got out of the truck, walked through the yard and up the stairs of the cabin like I owned the place and everything in it, including him. His clan bared their necks and hesitantly, he did, as well.
“Horace, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I hope you and your clan are well.”
“We are excellent, Alpha. Please come in, we’ve created a feast for your visit.”
I allowed my Betas to go one before me and one after me, showing I was both dominate and humble. As soon as I entered, I smelled her. The scent of pure longing and raw desire bolted through my veins awakening the bear, whispering in my ear that a potential mate was near—potential because I hadn’t seen her yet. I had to see her, make the eye connection to know for sure. He stirred inside me, roaring at me to shift and find her—nothing else mattered—find her now.
She smelled like black bear, but something else, as well, as if another scent was stirred in with hers. I’d never experienced anything like it.
“Alpha, will you bless the food so we may begin?”
A small voiced woman chimed in from next to Horace. She seemed uncomfortable with speaking in front of the group. That struck me as odd since Alpha females should be very comfortable speaking in front of the clan. They are regarded as an equal half of the Alpha pair, and their voice and commands just as heeded and obeyed as the males’. Even in the private home of my father, my mother, the Alpha female was not given orders or commands. Although, the female always recognized and respected the tendency for the male to strongly suggest measures to keep her and their family safe. And in matters of security, the male usually won.
At least, that was the way it was supposed to be.
So why was Horace’s female so shy?
“Yes ma’am.” We bowed our heads, and I led us in a prayer. Immediately I noticed everyone hesitating to eat.
“Alpha, we do not eat until you do. Please,” he waved me along.
“I’m sorry. I am unfamiliar with the customs. Where I come from, the Alpha eats last. Forgive me.”
“The Alpha eats last? The Alpha needs his strength.” Horace boasted as I almost unwillingly picked up my plate first.
“But the Alpha must always maintain his humility. Otherwise there’s no clan, it’s just Alpha—alone. And that’s not a clan at all, it’s a dictatorship.”
I could feel the waves of dissension come off of the Alpha behind me. My Betas and I would have to tread lightly, but smartly, to find this black bear. She wasn’t in the room, but she was on the grounds. The more I tried, the more I could scent her.
I was practically forced to seat myself at the head of the table. I’d rather be in the mix of the clan, getting to know them better.
“Alpha, I was unaware of these routine inspections. How often will they be conducted?”
I finished chewing, an act more about making him wait than actual manners and then replied, “At my disclosure. My father didn’t carry them out at all while my grandfather inspected on a monthly basis. Mine will be spur of the moment, no more than twenty-four hours’ notice, if any at all.”
The grizzly Alpha’s face became distorted in rage. He could barely grip his fork any longer.
He was hiding something—something other than the female. Or maybe it was something to do with the female. The table finished their meals in silence, and the females retrieved the plates from in front of us and offered the males dessert.
“Actually, I’ll pass. May we begin the tour? River will come with me while Flint goes with whichever Beta is in charge of finances.”
“Yes, Alpha. Flint, Ridge is our financial officer. He will show you to his office. And right this way, I will show you the pantry and other facilities.”
We walked out of the main house, down the steps onto what looked like almost a small town. But the houses were entirely too small for growing families and the buildings were worn—and dated, much like their alpha.
“These are our laundry facilities,” the Alpha stated.
We walked into a laundromat which seemed off. Thinking of my own mother with cubs, I couldn’t imagine a female having to drag her laundry to and from a laundromat in the center of the lands. I walked around the squared off U shape, and as I came back towards the door, I walked slower, her scent was prominent by the front washers, it couldn’t be any more than ten hours old. She was there somewhere, I just had to find her.
“Here is our pantry. It is inventoried once a week. We divvy out rations according to the family’s needs. Then they are free to supplement with their own purchases.”
“I see.” I tried to suppress the envy I had over this portion of the tour. It was so pristine and orderly, and inventory sheets kept on a clipboard by the entrance. I picked it up and pretended to cipher through the numbers but really I was scenting her again. She had been in that very building. The inventory sheets even carried her scent. My bear rumbled inside me. “Who is this E. initial? Who does the inventory here?”
“One of our younger bears, Echo. She’s pouncing around somewhere. Always late for meals.”
I laughed, trying to cover my registry of the twinge of deception in his voice, “I’ve never known a cub to be late for a meal.”
“Well, she has a problem with obedience—always has.”
“I see.” I let his admittance simmer for a while, and trap him.
“I’d quite like to meet this cub. I can’t picture a bear so strange.”
“Yes, on one hand you claim she’s absolutely disobedient and on the other you show me a pantry with complete and exact kept records. She’s a mystery. Have one of your Betas hunt her down.”
He stuttered, “Yes, Alpha,” nodded his head towards a quiet man with a soldier like stance.
I suspected they would conveniently have trouble finding her. I’d either have to demand her, or be a little coyer in my search.
I was brought on a shallow tour of the rest of the clan lands and was taken aback by the contrast of the buildings versus the belongings of the people. Their clothes were upscale, furniture looked to be brand new, pantry full, freezers cleaned, but the buildings were crumbling and the cars were older makes. My first instinct told me they were doing something illegal. But I couldn’t accuse them, and quite frankly it was their own business. I could force them to stop, but I’d rather leave them to their own devices, get caught or not. If it were a black bear clan, I would demand they cease and desist.
I just wanted the female and to get out of there as soon as possible.
We were led back to the main house and again offered dessert. We declined and I made one more move, trying to catch his king unattended.
“And the female? Echo? Is she so stealthy she cannot be tracked?”
“I’m sorry, Alpha. She will face discipline as soon as we find her.”
They were rushing me out. Even the second offer for dessert carried an air of ‘please say no’.
“I’m sure she will. Thank you for your hospitality. I hope you can get your buildings in better repair for the next time we visit.”
“Thank you. We will try.”
Flint appeared from a back room with a wary look on his face. We departed, no more knowledgeable than when we’d left.
They refused to tell me everything—so sneaky Alpha it was.
“Tell me, Flint.”
“It’s shady. On paper, it looks as if the families get stipends from some fund, but the numbers don’t add up; plus, they work their regular jobs. But conveniently, the Beta couldn’t find any of the tax returns, nor the W-2s for the males. He was awfully tense too, wanted me out of there as soon as possible. And Alpha, the female black bear lives in the house. After leaving the office, while you were still on tour, there was no one in the house, so I walked around. There’s a small room at the end of the hall, I opened it, and her scent is everywhere. It’s…”
“What?” I growled at him. My bear really didn’t appreciate him smelling her out, even though he was trying to help.
“I think she’s half human.”
“Half human? It’s not possible. You’re either human or shifter, even mixed, she’d be either or.”
“I know, Alpha, and I don’t mean to argue, but I know what I smelled. She’s shifter, I could smell the forest and her fur, but there’s also an element of human. I don’t know what to make of it.”
I made the next turn, “That’s it. We’re going to see the wolf. Their lands back up to the bear territory. They may can help us.”
“Ugh, Hawke, I wanna go home. Can we come back another time?” River whined.
“Aren’t you the one who reminded me that we take care of our own? If you were here, would you want me to leave you?”
“That’s what I thought.”
I again slowed the truck as we neared the wolf territory. They had no idea we were coming. I hadn’t had time to make a formal announcement. We stopped at the gate and Flint nicked his head towards a security camera pointed right at the truck. Slowly getting out, I spoke to the camera.
“I am Hawke Turnclaw. I was contacted by your Alpha. We request entrance into your lands.”
There was no response for several seconds. My heart dropped at the thought that I’d never get to see her eyes, never get to know if she was my mate or not. Never get to save her—if she needed saving.
Then the gate whined and cried as it opened its mouth wide, letting us in.
I hopped back into the truck and drove slowly in, their pack lands a stark opposite of the lands I’d just been to. Every house was of equal size and repair. Anyone could see this pack took pride in their lands.
And there was the distinctive smell of wolf.
We exited the truck, not knowing what to expect. Then a man, my height, slim and built, with military type, cargo pants on and a gray t-shirt emerged from one of the houses, an enormous grin on his face, the sly, tenacious grin of a wolf.
“Hawke Turnclaw, welcome to our lands. I am Schuylar, the Alpha.”
Wolves didn’t have last names. They did for legal purposes, but never used them.
“Schuylar, it is a pleasure. We received your letter.”
I shook hands with the wolf, and we played that ‘my grip is stronger than yours’ male contest. I won.
“So you saw her? The female? Why didn’t you retrieve her?”
“Unfortunately, no. The Grizzly clan is hiding her, being very evasive. I know that your lands meet theirs. Is there any way we may see if she’s out there?”
He clapped me on the back, “Of course. We are very concerned about her. We’ve been watching her for some time. She’s extremely thin, she works day and night, and there’s…”
“Yes? There’s what?”
“She wears a shock collar around her neck. I’ve seen her with my own eyes try to cross onto my lands, probably to escape, but the shock usually causes her to pass out. When she’s bear, it stuns her back to human form. And when she’s human, she collapses, sometimes for hours at a time. She stopped trying years ago. But we do know why they’re keeping her. At least, we think we know.”
We’d walked at least a half mile while he spoke. I thought it strange that a member of a wolf clan would be more forthcoming than a bear clan. How dare they.
“What do you think you know?”
He stopped and looked to the sky, his hands on his hips. “Every time she’s crossed and gotten stunned, she places her hands on the burn and the redness, the anger of it fades. It leaves a scar, but there’s some power in her hands. There are other things too, but we will leave those for you to discover.”
As he spoke, I caught her scent again on the wind. She was near. Again, I tried to calm my bear, if she was to come with us freely, it would probably be in human form. I quaked visibly, my bear demanding to be brought forth, to seek out his mate. But a black bear pummeling towards her probably wasn’t the best way to approach my mate for the first time.
“There,” the wolf pointed towards a span of land, open and flat except for one spit of a stream running through it.
“We have tried to watch over her. We told her of your coming. But she looked shocked. I’m not sure what she expects of you. She may have been lied to.”
“Do you know her name?”
“Her name is Echo. She has become friends with my Beta, Blade. He is over there, watching her.”
A tremor of jealousy and rage passed through me and then from my bear to me, demanding that I take heed of any male, of any species, getting close to her.
“Alpha, how should we proceed?” River prompted.
“I will talk to her. I believe she is my mate. I’ll try not to send her running.”
River and Flint chuckled and nodded. They’d obviously caught the musk of mate-claim coming from me.
I stepped lightly towards the borders, not wanting to cross them just yet.
“Echo,” I called her name. It felt right, her name flowing from my mouth, like it had been burrowed into my vocal chords waiting for its cue.
“Echo,” a little louder after no response.
She sprung to a crouch searched for the owner of the voice that called her.
“Echo, I am Hawke,” I began, revealing myself, “I am the Alpha of the Black Bears. I will cause you no harm. You are safe.”
Why in the hell was I being so damned formal?
She zoned in on my voice, and her eyes met mine. I stepped back, thrown off by the color. There was no bear I’d ever known to have turquoise eyes—none. And then I felt it, a click, a clock hand turn, a shift in my heart, the caring one and the beating one.
And the rest of the world, the solar system itself, came to a firm and sudden halt.
My heart completely stopped and caused me to clasp my chest, then began again, a new rhythm, a rhythm that matched that of my mate—my female. In one instant, my world, my priorities, my being had changed. It all revolved around her first. I’d give her anything she wanted before anything I needed. She was mine. And I was completely hers.
She gasped in sync with me, clutching her chest and looking down, expecting to see something external to match what was happening to her internally.
“What the hell?” She shouted.
“Stay calm, Echo. It’s the mate-claim. We are mates. I’ve come to help you. I can get you out of here.”
Wrapping her thin hand around the girth of the collar, we both realized a piece of metal could stand between my resolve and reality.
“How? I’ve tried every tool in the shed trying to get this thing off me,” she defied me, clasping the collar in her hands.
How dare they put a collar on my female like a common canine.
I stepped onto their lands not caring about the consequences and inspected the collar. It had been welded onto her with iron. Only with heat could it be removed.
“I won’t leave you. We have to remove this.”
“She must cross the boundaries with it on, Hawke,” the wolf Alpha shouted to me.
Not hurt her. Not harm her. No pain. No hurt. My bear spoke to me in broken sentences, his anger and sheer terror rendering him unable to form full sentences in his despair.
“I can cross. It will sting, but I can cross. Can you or someone carry me after that? I will pass out. And as soon as I cross, it alerts them.”
“I don’t want you in any pain,” I said, reaching out to touch her hand for the first time. My bear was pleased at the contact, calmed by the beginnings of a physical claim.
“But it’s just once, and then you can take me away, right?”
I’d expected rebellion, revolt out of this female. She trusted me already. It warmed my heart. Maybe she was just desperate for any way out.
“Yes, I promise. I will take you from here, and you’ll never return. You’re mine.”
“Yours?” Her eyebrows furrowed in her question.
“Yes, mine. I will explain more later. That feeling in your heart. You are my mate.”
“I don’t care what I am as long as you get me away from here,” she said popping a fist onto her hip.
Not the answer I wanted, but I’d take it.
Before I could stop her, she’d leapt across the boundary and in midair, her body seized and slumped to the ground, lifeless.
I grabbed her bag and scooped her up before anyone else could touch her and began to run.
My nose smelled male bear, and it shocked me awake and into action. I clawed at anything in my reach.
“Stop the truck, she’s freaking out,” I knew that voice but couldn’t place it.
“Echo, Echo, darlin’, you’re safe.”
His voice stopped me dead in my tracks and hands on my face brought me back down to Earth. “Easy, girl,” he cooed, smiling at me. “Deep breaths. We’re far away from that place now.”
A stinging sensation on my neck tumbled me out of the depths of his eyes and back to reality. I touched my neck here and there until I found the spot that burned.
“The collar’s gone.”
“Yes,” he hugged me to him, and I had no desire to pull away. “The wolves helped us get it off. But your neck is badly burned. We tried to put some burn cream but it hasn’t healed you much. ”
Hawke, I think his name is Hawke.
“I can fix it.” Closing my eyes, I called upon the spirit that often helped me in times of need. There was no need to touch the wound. The warmth would filter through my body, finding the pain and healing it. I had to touch the wound or the diseased area on another person, but on myself, it wasn’t necessary.
“Woah,” someone said from behind me.
“You’re a healer and a shifter. How is that possible?”
I shrugged, “How should I know? I’ve never even seen a bear that looks like me, much less, one that could do whatever I do.”
The male who held me in his lap; covered by a blanket, laughed, “You’ve never seen a black bear? Well then you’re in luck.”
“In about an hour, you’re going to meet an entire clan of them.”
Fear froze my insides, “Don’t be afraid. I feel your fear, mate. Our clan is loving, and we don’t keep slaves. You will be completely safe and unharmed. I hope one day you find yourself happy even.”
“I wouldn’t know happy if it slapped me in the ass.”
“Ok, ok. Can we talk for a minute, outside?”
I’d never experienced a male ask for permission. Usually, I was jerked by the arm to another room and told what to do. But this male—he was kind. It was familiar, yet off-putting. Confusion didn’t begin to define my state of mind.
We stepped outside the truck, me hopping down from his lap. He climbed out after me and the other two males got out on the other side and purposefully walked in the other direction. The fresh air helped, though it carried with it a mugginess, almost like walking into a curtain of rain.
“Echo,” he hesitated, “Wait, I don’t even know your last name.”
“Echo Valley,” I replied. My bear almost whined inside me, pleading, begging me to reach out and touch him again. She was desperate to be near him.
He smiled and stepped towards me and took my hand. “It’s ok. Don’t ever hesitate to touch me when you need to. I am Hawke Turnclaw.”
I crunched my eyebrows together, “How?”
“How did I know? You’re my mate. I can feel your needs before my own. It’s more my bear than me. It will always be like this.”
“You didn’t even know me before. How can we be mates? How can I be anyone’s mate?”
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