I pressed the button at the side of the door to roll up the window. We drove through a puddle along the dirt road, causing the thick, brown sludge to flick up the sides of Jack's Jeep. Wrinkling my nose, I brushed the splatter marks off the front of my legs with my hand.
“How much farther, Jack?” I asked.
“Straight ahead, at least another mile,” he answered.
The Jeep swayed from side-to-side as we dipped slowly along the deep crevices made by tire tracks. I reached up to grab hold of the handle so that I could steady myself from being jostled around. The harsh jerks were threatening to bring up the remnants of Mom’s lunch.
“Look over there.” Jack pointed straight ahead. “There’s the outpost.”
I squinted through the windshield as Jack turned on the water jets and wipers to clear away the splattering's of mud.
“Oh yeah, I see it,” I replied, searching through the smeared windscreen.
The station and outpost were made from the same sort of wood and materials that Jack's cabin was made from. The outpost had a watchtower, which you could no doubt see for miles over the vast forest. I could just about make out the binoculars that were fixed onto a stand.
“That’s so cool,” I muttered, drinking in the view.
We pulled up outside the smaller building and parked alongside a similar looking Jeep. Jack got out first and went straight in through the door.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to wait in the Jeep or follow, so I just got out and hung around outside. Thankfully, my backpack wasn’t that heavy, so I slung it over my shoulder.
Jack came out, followed by a tall, muscular, blond guy in a ranger's uniform. I’d be lying if I didn’t fully appreciate how fine he looked. I cursed my damn hormones for noticing.
He couldn’t hold a candle to Sam, but he was a sight to behold. I narrowed my eyes at Jack, silently cursing him for pairing me up with this handsome stranger for the day.
He looked as if he was in his twenties. I felt considerably awkward as he stood in front of me and held out a hand for me to shake.
“Hi, you must be Helen? I’m Luke.” Of course, he had a sexy voice to complete the package.
God, strike me down now!
I wiped the palm of my hand on the side of my jeans before returning the gesture. I desperately hoped he hadn’t noticed that my palms were clammy.
He shot me a killer smile, showing me his perfect white teeth. I felt the redness creep up my neck and spread across my cheeks.
Jack cleared his throat and mumbled to Luke. I just about made out what he said.
“Luke, remember what I said. If you see him, back off. He won't hesitate to come at you for her.”
Luke showed recognition by nodding. “Don’t worry, Jack, I’ve got this.” Jack hugged him, patting his back gratefully.
They muttered something else but I couldn’t see their faces clearly, so I couldn't make out what was said. It sounded like 'keep the scent to a minimum' whatever the hell that meant. I guess the guy had a flatulence problem.
Jack waved as he was pulling away in the Jeep and I regretted not going to the restaurant with him and Mom.
The awkward situation I was left in felt a lot worse, especially now I was on my own with this handsome stranger. I wasn’t sure how I was going to strike up a conversation without sounding lame.
I realized that I had absolutely nothing in common with this person as I stood there in my pink Doc Martins, denim shorts and a vest top that had 'drama queen' spelled out in diamante crystals. I had my pink glittery rucksack slung over my shoulder and there was a shit load of girly keychains attached to the zipper that jingled as I walked.
Feeling well and truly ridiculous with my outfit, I regretted not dressing more appropriately for the occasion. Luke seemed to take in the sight of me as he muttered something that sounded like ‘Interesting’. I didn’t know whether to take offense or not. I watched with curiosity as he retrieved supplies from the back of the Jeep.
The idea of him looking like an oversized boy scout popped into my head. My eyes followed him as he headed over to his vehicle and I snorted with amusement.
“We’re not taking the Jeep? I asked in confusion, watching him swing the hiking bag over his shoulder. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, grinning.
“C’mon, princess. A little fresh air won’t do you no harm.” He chuckled.
“That’s a double negative right there, buddy! So you're actually saying that it will be harmful for me.” I pointed out his mistake.
I scowled at him from behind. “Princess,” I muttered under my breath. I was mentally taking back every naughty, inappropriate thought I had of him with that one snarky comment he made.
I heard him snort and noticed his shoulders were vibrating in silent laughter. The cocky bastard. My eyes must have been burning holes into the back of his head because he turned around, cocking an eyebrow at me.
“Make sure you keep up, princess. Wouldn’t wanna lose you in the woods.” His eyes flared wide with sarcasm.
Was this his attempt at playful banter?
I had no idea why men just didn’t grow out of that phase once they graduated from high school. It just wasn’t that funny.
Figuring I’d give as good as I got, I shot back a retort, “It’s OK, I brought a bag of bread crumbs along.” I stomped past, just slightly ahead of him. Luke matched my pace and I could see him gazing down at me from the corner of my eye.
“So you got here yesterday, huh?” He asked, casually.
I huffed at his attempt at a civil conversation. I didn’t know this guy and for all I knew, he could be a really good guy.
Turning my head to glance up at him, I noticed he had the most vivid, blue eyes that I had ever seen. I must've been staring for a little too long because he looked down at the ground and cleared his throat.
“Um, yeah.” I stepped over a fallen branch, steadying myself by gripping hold of his huge bicep. “Got here just as it was getting dark, thank God for the sat nav.” I chuckled, more to myself.
“So, you met Sam?” He asked the question, even though I felt he already knew the answer, especially by the sound of the conversation that I overheard between him and Jack.
“Yeah.” My eyes flicked over to him and sighed. “Briefly.” I gave him an expression as if to say ‘Don’t ask’.
Luke widened his eyes. “Didn’t go too well, huh?”
“How did you guess?” I replied, flatly.
“Well, Sam and I go way back. Been best pals since we were cubs. Once he calms down, he’ll be back,” he spoke reassuringly, flashing me a warm smile.
“Cubs?” I scoffed. “I knew you were a fucking boy scout!” I threw my head back as I laughed out loud.
The color drained from Luke's face and he appeared flustered for some reason as if he had suddenly realized something that hadn’t occurred to him up until now.
His facial expression changed, setting into a more serious scowl. “Helen, can I ask you something?”
I was still grinning, having thought that I’d finally gained the upper hand over him. “Sure, what?”
“You do know what kind of a family Sam and Jack are from, don’t you? I mean, your Mom must've said something to you, right?” The look of concern was evident across his face.
“Mom told me what? Just that they met each other whilst she was on a team building exercise, here with work, and that she and Jack just gelled. I mean c’mon, even I thought it was sudden for her to marry a guy she just met, but as long as they’re happy, who cares, right?” I shrugged.
I was taken aback by the look of pure shock on Luke’s face.
“She didn’t say because she doesn’t know.” He closed his eyes and his face held a pained expression.
I stopped walking, putting a hand out to stop him. “What?” I asked suddenly concerned about his change in demeanor. “What is it?”
Luke shook his head. “I can't believe he’d bring her out here without explaining to her first,” he huffed, clearly annoyed. “The rules are there for a reason, Helen. We have worked so damn hard to keep the ridge safe for our community, for years. I assumed Elena knew?”
He rubbed a hand over his face. “I mean, she mixes well within the community, but if she was to witness a shift, jeez, Jack!” He released a forced breath.
“Whatever Jack has or hasn’t told my mom, that is between them as husband and wife!” I defended. “I happen to think they’re a pretty good match, and I’d hate for anything to come between them. I’ve not seen my mom this happy since she was with my dad, eight years ago. When he died, it was like she gave up on life. Jack is good for her!” I threw a hand up and let it slap down onto my thigh. “What is it with the people around here being so damn selective for, anyway?” I scoffed.
His jaw twitched as he stood there tight-lipped and arms folded, taking in all that I’ve just said. “Just saying that things should've been aired out before, that’s all. Now that I’ve practically outed us all to you.” He gestured towards the forest with his hand, “I’ll be the one to do all the explaining. Maybe then, that’ll make things easier between you and Sam?”
We started walking again, only this time it was me struggling to match Luke's huge strides. “Hey wait up.” I half ran to catch up. “Jeez, I wish I hadn’t said anything now! You’re so damn cranky!”
He huffed irritably beside me.
“So, you were in cub scouts with Sam?” I tried to make general conversation. I heard him snort, which made me snap my head up to shoot him an icy death glare.
There was no damn need to be so rude, I was starting to think that leaving Mom in this snobby community wasn't such a great idea, after all.
“Wasn’t a cub scout, princess.” He sounded as if he’d taken offense to the comment.
“But you said?” I wrinkled my nose and looked up confused.
“Nah, you heard what you wanted to hear. Just wait until we make camp, later. You’ll be well in the know. Then I trust that you’ll be the one to give your momma the heads up because I’m doubting very much that Jack will. I kind of feel sorry for the guy. It must've been difficult losing Sam’s mom. Not many people like us get a second chance mate. I can see why he’s worried about scaring her off.”
Some of the things Luke was saying didn’t make sense to me. I hoped he wasn’t some nut job, recluse, mountain man because I hadn’t signed up for that shit. I had definitely not agreed on spending the night out here in the wilderness with him, all on my lonesome.
That hadn’t been on the agenda for today. Mom would worry about where I was and send Jack to come looking for me. I pulled out my phone to see if I could get a signal or at least one bar, just enough to send a text to her.
“No signal around here, princess.” Luke chuckled.
“Hey! What’s with calling me 'princess'? I haven’t done a damn thing to you.” I caught myself as I tripped over a tree root. “Uh-oh! Shit, that won't polish out,” I cursed as I saw the scuff mark on my boots.
“My point exactly,” Luke scoffed. “Who the fuck wears pink shit kickers, anyway?”
My mouth hung open in shock and anger as I thought of a retort. “So what? I fucking love pink!” I threw my hands up over my head.
“Typical princess,” Luke snorted. “You gonna throw a diva tantrum on me, 'drama queen'?” He used two fingers on either hand to air quote ‘drama queen’ then looked to my chest to where it was spelled out in diamantes.
I quickly slapped an arm over my chest with a look of horror. “Don’t look there!” I yelled at him. “God, you’re so damn annoying! I can't believe you’re Sam’s best friend.”
He laughed and gave me a playful shove, causing me to lose my footing for a second. “Sorry, I’m only playing with you.”
Narrowing my eyes at him, I gave him a deathly glare. If only I could shoot laser beams from out of my pupils, he’d be fried right now. “Please tell me that you have a girlfriend that I could convince to kick your ass!” I threatened, poking him in his left peck.
Luke erupted in a fit of deep laughter. “Sorry, not yet, maybe one day you'll get your wish.”
I half smirked as I cocked my head in his direction. “I may be able to help you there. I happen to think you and my best friend would get along perfectly together. She can be a pain in the ass, too.”
“Let's just wait and see how well you take the news that I’m going to share with you. You may just run for the hills tonight.” He looked at me as if to say ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you’.
We walked for three hours straight, only stopping to grab water from the backpack. I swear, I had never done that much walking in my entire life.
The smell of pine trees was overwhelming my senses. The path we were taking was the only place that natural sunlight managed to seep through. Either side of us was dense, dark woodland.
“When will we stop to make camp?” I asked, hoping it would be soon. My innards felt like they had started to digest themselves. “You have more than one tent, right?” I mentally face palmed myself for not thinking to ask him sooner.
Why is the thought only occurring to me now that I had gotten so far into the woods?
Luke let out a low whistle, then dragged out words with pure sarcasm, “Uh-oh, someone didn’t come prepared.”
“Nobody said that I would be camping out for the night. My mom will be expecting me back later,” I pointed out.
“Nah-ah. That's not what Jack told me, honey. He said to keep you out here for a few days to get you accustomed to our way of life. Prime you ready for when you come to live out here when you finish college.” He was so matter of fact about it as if all this had been prearranged behind my back.
Thanks, Jack! Not!
“I don’t have a change of clothes or anything, Luke!” I protested, clearly pissed off.
“Taken care of!” The smart assed bastard replied, smugly.
“C’mon, where’s your sense of adventure?” His blue eyes sparkled as they caught the light, mesmerizing me for a second. They looked like semi-precious gemstones glistening in the midday sun.
“Fine, but I hope you brought marshmallows.” I gave him the look to suggest that I wasn’t kidding.
He tutted at me and rolled his eyes. “Of course. What do you take me for? An amateur.”
“I wish I knew earlier, I’d have brought some vodka.” I shook my head, cursing not having hindsight.
“Probably better to stay clear headed.” Luke warned, then caught the look of confusion I was throwing at him, quickly adding, “Bears.”
“Seriously? Are there bears here? Like, real live bears.” I sounded like a dumb five-year-old.
Luke chuckled to himself. “I rest my case. If there was ever any doubt that you hadn’t been given the heads up on this place, it would be right now.” He stopped dead and pointed a finger to something, then put the same finger to his lips, shushing me.
Luke crept into the thicket of trees, turning to beckon me over with his hand. I tried to whisper to him, in an attempt to find out what the hell it was that he'd seen, because like hell did I want to come face to face with a bear. He could forget it.
It wasn’t a bear though, which I was deeply relieved about. It was a family of deer. Holding my breath, I unzipped my backpack painfully slow, pulling out my sketch pad and a pencil.
Resting on one knee, I managed to quickly sketch the scene in front of me, capturing enough detail so that I could paint it later. I had a pretty good photographic memory. Luke watched as I finalized some of the finer details.
“You’re pretty good at that, you know?” He nodded his head in appreciation of my drawing.
“Thanks. I want to be an illustrator.” I shrugged, a little bashful at the compliment.
“If you’re lucky, that won't be the only opportunity to capture great moments like that. Just wait until we get to the lake tomorrow.” Luke mentioned as if I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Apparently, the lake was an awesome place to fish, according to Jack. It’s where all the locals went.
We didn't have to travel much farther until Luke stopped in a clearing, dropping his rucksack down onto the ground.
“We’re here!” He announced, much to my relief. “I’ll have the tent set up in no time. You know how to start a campfire, right?” He said with an amused smirk as if he knew too fucking well that I hadn’t the first clue on how to make a campfire.
“You’re literally kidding me right now?” I glared at him, hoping that this was just another one of his stupid jokes and that any second, he would turn around and shout ‘Gotcha’.
“Tell you what, why don’t you pitch the tent and I’ll build the fire,” he compromised.
I nodded to myself, looking at the folded material and poles that he’d just pulled out from the bag. It didn’t look that hard. I remembered watching Bear Grylls on T.V and he made it look easy, making a shelter out of twigs and leaves. So any idiot could put a tent together, I thought.
Well, fuck my life! I was still struggling with the poles, twenty minutes later. I stopped what I was doing to reassess the situation.
How the fuck was one end higher than the other? And shit! That was supposed to go there.
I cursed as I took it all down and started again. I was just about to launch the pole that I was holding into the trees in temper when Luke came up from behind me.
“Need a hand?” He was actually being nice, too. I waited for the onslaught of piss-taking to happen, but it never did. Instead, I was standing there staring at the poles as if to magic them together with the force of my glare.
My pouty face caused his grin to spread.
Stupid fucking tent!
I was like this as a child, too. I could remember when I couldn’t unravel the crappy elastic hair band that was tangled up in my Barbie dolls hair, only to then rip the head off in temper and launch the headless body across my bedroom.
It was the same when my hair wouldn’t go right when trying to put it in an updo. The hairbrush would be slung across the bedroom in temper.
That was me all over. If something didn’t do what it was supposed to, or I couldn’t get it to work, I gave it its own flying lesson.
Luke must have sensed my distress because he just got on with building the tent.
The sight of the campfire burning away behind me, along with the more than capable ranger was enough to make my lips twitch into a smile. I was fully appreciating the view of his perfect tight ass bending over in front of me. He would be perfect for Emma. If I managed to set them up on a date, she would honest to God thank me for it. What are best friends for?
Luke jumped up, all finished, giving me a reassuring tap on the shoulder. “All done, now we can eat.”
Sweet, sweet, music to my ears. My stomach was doing its own impression of a brass band.
I scarfed down the food that Luke made. Even though it was from the supply store, it still tasted good. He mentioned something about fishing tomorrow, down at the lake.
The only fishing that I had ever done was at a school fair, where I had to hook the duck on the pole to win a prize. I hoped he was an expert fisherman to make up for my lack of skill. Luke looked at me thoughtfully before bringing our earlier conversation back up for discussion.
“I think we should carry on the talk from before,” he spoke carefully, waiting for my response. I nodded, still chewing a mouthful of food.
“I want you to promise me that whatever I say, you will keep an open mind and most of all...you won't freak out. Do you promise?” He added with caution.
“I promise,” I replied, honestly.
He took a deep breath and continued. “This is a protected community for a reason. The families have lived here for generations now and it has become more of a safe haven. We are not the same as regular people, Helen. We come from a species known as Shifters. There are different kinds of shifter communities all over the world. The people in this community are bear shifters, hence the name Bear Creek. Helen...Helen? Are you OK?” Luke asked, scrunching his brows with concern.
“Huh? So, what’s a shifter?” I felt my heart pounding in my chest, not with fear but with anticipation.
Luke thought for a second. “A shifter can transform into an animal,” he explained, cutting straight to the chase.
“What, like... a werewolf?” I asked, hardly believing what I was hearing.
“Yes, exactly. But forget what you've seen in the movies. It's nothing like that. We are bear shifters. There are wolf shifters on the far side of the mountains in a place called Stonevale. The lake divides the towns. Our side is called High Lake, where the water is deepest. Their side is called Shade Lake, where the lake's more shallow. There is a mutual understanding between both our communities. There’s even a mixed shifter community a few miles from here called Hawcroft. It's owned by the wolves but it's also policed by the bears. There are jaguar shifters in the southern parts too, in a place called Ridgeland. They’re peaceful, and the Alpha's son, Raul, is one of my best friends. We don’t only shift when there’s a full moon, either. We can shift whenever we want. Helen? I’m not scaring you, am I?” He frowned in observation.
“No-no, it’s just a lot to digest that’s all.” My nerves started getting the better of me as my body trembled, causing my teeth to chatter. “Sam is a bear shifter.” It barely came out as a whisper.
How could I have not seen it before? All the signs were there. The animalistic growls, the way his eyes changed color, how his voice changed.
It's funny how your rational thinking brain functions to find a more plausible explanation, avoiding the obvious truth that is staring you right in the face. And right now, I felt like such a dumb ass.
“Does that change the way you feel? Now that you know, could you accept him for what he is?” Luke asked, deadly serious. I knew everything depended on my next answer.
I thought about what might happen if my mom took the news badly. How far would they go to keep their secret? Somehow, I very much doubted that they would just allow us to go on our merry way, just like that. I wasn’t stupid. I knew what was at stake. I’d have to talk to Mom. I’d make her be OK with it. She would have to be.
Luke was watching me intensely, waiting for my answer. The fact that I hesitated wasn’t sitting well with him at all. I would have to think on my feet because I didn’t want to end up being murdered in the woods. He hadn’t given me the impression that he was going to hurt me, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t capable of it.
“I’d have to find him first because I need to apologize. It was horrible the way he left, Luke, I feel sick thinking about it.”
“You didn’t answer my question.” His eyes bore into mine, pinning me in place.
“Of course I’d accept him. What kind of a stupid question was that?” My eyes glanced at the dancing flames of the campfire. “If you knew where he was, you would tell me, wouldn’t you?”
“I won't need to, Helen. Sam will come to you. I’m counting on it. I know for sure that he shifted and took off somewhere in the forest.” His eyes scanned the treeline. "He could be anywhere around here, but I have a pretty good guess where he'd go."
“What makes you so sure that he would come to me?” My words were laced with skepticism. I bet I was the last person Sam wanted to see.
“Because you’re his mate and you're here with an unmated male, that’s why.” I could see the reflection of the flames in Luke’s blue eyes. There was a hint of danger about them as if they held a hidden warning. Luke was planning on luring Sam out and I got the impression that I was being used as bait.
“And what if you’re wrong?” I asked, feeling pessimistic.
Luke gave a dark chuckle. “Oh honey, I’m not.”
“I thought we were friends now.” I didn’t know what to expect. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of him right now. He was looking at me as if I was food. The awkward scenario was making me uncomfortable.
“We are, Helen.” The way he smiled looked rather predatory and unnerving. “Doesn’t mean I can’t admire from afar though, does it?”
He stood up and started to take off his clothes. I averted my eyes away, shocked. “What the fuck are you doing?” I spoke through gritted teeth.
“Shifting," he replied, flatly. "I’m gonna keep watch tonight, so you get the tent all to yourself. I’ll be right outside if you need me,” he hinted for me to go inside.
I quickly glanced to see that he was smirking at me. His naked body was impressive. Everything about him screamed pure muscle. Even his penis was large, thick and veined, standing proudly against his stomach. He was telling the truth when he said he was aroused. I’m sure he would've followed me inside the tent if I’d asked him to.
“I want to watch you shift, first.” I kept my eyes locked onto his. I didn’t want to be caught staring at his manhood and give him the wrong impression.
“Don’t scream,” he warned playfully.
I watched as he dropped down to his hands and knees. The sound of bones cracking filled the clearing. I was shocked that he wasn’t screaming out in pain as his bones twisted and contorted in such a grotesque manner.
I gasped, clutching a hand over my mouth to stifle my scream. It looked so excruciatingly painful, that I had to force myself to watch. The skin all over his body began to ripple as thick, dark brown hair erupted from everywhere.
His hands and feet turned to claws and his face distorted, forming the muzzle of a bear. No sooner had it started it was over. There, stood before me on his hind legs, was an enormous grizzly bear. I couldn’t help but stare back open-mouthed in awe.
I hesitated, knowing it was Luke but wondered if could he still understand me?
“Luke, can you understand what I’m saying?”
The bear bent back down onto four paws and made his way over towards me. Instinct told me to back away slowly. I knew that if I tried to run that he’d give chase. I held my hand out in front of me and slowly edged out towards him.
“Can I touch you?” I asked, timidly. He sat watching me, waiting to see what I did next.
I walked slowly over to him, then ran my fingers through his warm coat. Once I realized he meant me no harm, I snuggled into him, burying my face into the soft fur.
“You’re beautiful, Luke,” I told him, honestly.
I giggled when he made a weird sound that was more like a whine and not a growl. I discovered that Luke liked to have his tummy rubbed.
I leaned forward and kissed his muzzle. “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
“Goodnight, Luke,” I whispered.
As I crawled inside the tent, I noticed that he’d laid out a sleeping bag and pillow for me. I smiled at the thoughtful gesture as I shuffled out of my shorts and boots, then crawled into the sleeping bag.