Authors: Sloane Meyers
An Alpha’s Lightning
Water Bear Shifters, Book 2
By Sloane Meyers
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Similarities to actual people or events are entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 by Sloane Meyers. All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
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About the AuthorChapter One
Jade Fuller put her small, white car into park and jumped out, already running before her feet hit the ground. Her adrenaline ran high as she headed for the spot on the beach where a small crowd had gathered. She knew that’s where she would find the animal she had come here to rescue: a baby gray whale separated from its mother. The whale was beached on this stretch of sand just north of San Diego.
Jade spent her days rescuing and rehabilitating sea mammals, but most of the time those rescues involved smaller animals, such as sea lions or seals. A whale rescue was something special. Jade had only been involved in one before, five years ago. Back then, she had been a mere apprentice at the San Diego Marine Mammal Rescue Center. She had spent the entire rescue following along wide-eyed behind the director as he confidently barked out instructions.
During today’s rescue, however, she was in charge. She would be the one giving directions, and the lifeguards and other volunteers on the scene would be listening to her. Jade slowed her run as she drew closer to the crowd. Several lifeguards, a few police officers, and a handful of beachgoers had surrounded the whale, trying to keep it stable as the incoming tide crashed against it. Jade, already wearing a wetsuit, ran up to the group and began assessing the situation. One of the lifeguards explained that they had tried to push the whale further out to sea, but after a few minutes it had washed up on the beach again.
Jade took a closer look. The baby whale looked like it was only a few days old. It had somehow been separated from its mother, and was understandably disoriented and upset. The stress of being tossed back and forth on the sand by the surf wasn’t helping things, and Jade feared that sand was getting into the whale’s blowhole.
“We have to get him back out to the ocean and search for his mother. If we can find the pod of whales he was separated from, we can get some boats and guide him back to them,” Jade said. “But we could really use some air surveillance. Finding the whales using just boats will take a lot longer.”
“I could call the Coast Guard,” one of the police officers suggested. “We have a pretty good working relationship with them, and they might have a helicopter pilot free who could help out.”
“That would be awesome,” Jade said. “Can you give them a call and beg them to send someone out?”
“Will do,” the police officer said, and started heading off across the beach. Jade started giving directions to the ragtag group of volunteers, organizing them for the big job of pushing the baby whale back out to sea. Although the whale was only days old, it already weighed fifteen hundred pounds, so getting it back into the ocean again would require some serious strength. Jade looked around gratefully at the volunteers on the scene. Most of them looked strong and capable, and, with a strong joint effort, they could get the whale back into the ocean.
Once the baby whale was returned to the water, the real work would begin. Finding the whale’s mother wasn’t going to be easy. On her drive to the beach, Jade had radioed for one of her colleagues to send a boat. The lifeguards were offering the use of their rescue boats as well. The group would be able to follow the baby whale easily enough, but if they couldn’t find his pod, he would be in serious trouble.
As Jade positioned herself next to the whale to assist in pushing it back out to sea, she sent up a silent prayer that the Coast Guard would be willing to spare a helicopter pilot. Air surveillance would give this little whale his best chance of being reunited with his family.
* * *
Ace Grimes flipped mindlessly through the channels on the large TV in the common room of the Coast Guard’s San Diego air station. He only had two hours left on his on-call shift, and odds were pretty good that nothing exciting was going to happen in those last two hours. This whole three day shift had been pretty boring. He and his search and rescue crew had done a few training sessions, but that was nowhere near as exciting as the real thing. Ace served as the pilot for the helicopter that the crew used to conduct rescue missions for people stranded out in the open ocean. His fellow team members—Ben, Lance, and Brett—were his best friends, and he loved working with them. Which was fortunate, since Ace spent the majority of his time working.
Ace flipped the channel once more, landing on a cooking show just before Lance burst into the room.
“Hey! There you are. Do you want to have some fun?” Lance asked, his blue-gray eyes dancing.
Ace raised an eyebrow suspiciously. “I’m always up for some fun. But I’m also wary of the mischievous look in your eyes right now.”
“I just convinced the Lieutenant Commander to let us go out on a whale rescue mission.”
Ace laughed out loud. “A whale rescue? I know our helicopter is pretty badass, but I don’t think we can airlift a whale in the rescue basket.”
Lance rolled his eyes. “We’re obviously not going to try to lift the whale. The San Diego P.D. just called. They’re working with a marine mammal rescue group to try to get a beached baby whale back to its mother, and they need air surveillance to help find the pod of whales that the baby belongs to. The baby will die if they can’t find his mom, so it’s pretty urgent.”
Ace sat up straighter. “I would love to help out. It sounds like the most excitement I’ve had all week, and I hate to see animals suffer. The Lieutenant Commander actually approved this?”
“Yeah, I guess he’s in a good mood today or something. Let’s get going and get out of here before he changes his mind. Ben’s already prepping the helicopter.”
Ace jumped up and tossed the remote aside. “Alright, then. Let’s go save a baby whale.”
Thirty minutes later, the four men were lifting off from the air station in the helicopter they usually used to save humans. Ace sat in the pilot’s seat, and Ben sat next to him in the copilot’s seat. Brett and Lance, who normally handled the work of pulling survivors from the water, sat in the back to help watch for any signs that might indicate the baby whale’s missing pod was nearby. The February morning was slightly foggy, with gray skies and feisty winds. For Ace, however, who was one of the most experienced pilots around, the conditions were still easy flying. He expertly guided his bird over the ocean waves, and soon spotted the small group of boats that were herding the baby whale out toward sea and away from the shore. He made radio contact with the lead boat, and a woman with a strong, authoritative voice answered, directing him to search the surrounding area for signs of whales. She said to keep an eye out for the waterspouts that resulted when the whales came up to breathe, and told him to search an area further out to sea than where the boats were. She said it was easier to see whales from the boats, but that the boats were more limited than the helicopter in the amount of space they could cover.
“I’m Jade, by the way. Sorry for the lack of introduction. I’m a little preoccupied with everything going on right now.”
“No worries. I’m happy to help. And I’m Ace.”
“Ace? Like Ace Ventura?” Jade asked over the radio, then chuckled.
Ace rolled his eyes. “Never heard that one before,” he said sarcastically.
“Sorry, it’s the first thing that popped into my head,” Jade said. “Let me know if you see anything that might be a whale, and I’ll try to stay away from the bad jokes. Thanks for your help.”
“No problem, we’re on it,” Ace said.
For the next two hours, Ace and his crew flew a pattern back and forth across the ocean waves, straining to see any signs of whales. The work was tedious, and the crew was now past the time when their three day work shift should have ended, but no one complained. They all hated to see an animal suffering. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that each of the men was a panda shifter, hiding an animal within himself. Or perhaps their protective alpha instincts spurred them on, giving them energy to help a fellow creature in pain. Whatever the reason, the men were committed to the search.
Several hours later, though, the crew still hadn’t found the whales. Daylight would be fading soon, and Ace had started to worry that the search would have to be called off for the night. But just before he broached the subject with the crew, Lance shouted out in excitement.
“I see a waterspout, thirty degrees west. And there’s another! We might have found them!”
Ace swung the helicopter around and flew over for a closer look. The crew could count three whales, and they looked like gray whales, from the description Jade had given them.
Ace excitedly got back on the radio. “Jade? I think we found that baby’s mama.”
* * *
Jade couldn’t keep the tears of happiness stinging at her eyelids from spilling over as the crew of volunteers on her boat erupted into cheers. After an hour of using boats to carefully herd the baby whale, the little guy was finally back with his mother. Jade had nicknamed him Ventura in honor of the Coast Guard pilot assisting with the rescue effort, and the volunteers had adopted the nickname.
“Swim free, Ventura,” one of the lifeguards called out as they watched the whales begin to swim north. The sun was shining its last rays across the water in a brilliant show of orange and pink, and Jade watched for several minutes as the group of three adult whales and one baby continued to swim away. Finally, Jade nodded to her crew.
“Alright, everyone. Our work here is done. Let’s head back to shore.”
Jade could feel the exhaustion in her bones by this point, so she handed the steering wheel of the boat over to one of the volunteers. She went to sit near the rear of the boat, where she could watch the waves that the motor stirred up behind it as they headed back toward the beach. Days like these felt so rewarding. The happy endings reminded her of why she did what she did. Sometimes, in the midst of all the sad stories of the animals that didn’t make it, or the warnings of how pollution and human apathy was ruining the oceans, it was easy to feel discouraged. But when something did go well, Jade felt renewed strength to continue on with her work. She had loved seeing so many people coming together today, with the common goal of saving that beautiful, baby whale. The energy behind the joint effort had been contagious, and heartwarming to see.
Jade closed her eyes for a moment and relished the feeling of the cool water droplets hitting her face as the boat picked up speed and continued to stir up the water. She was especially impressed that the Coast Guard had agreed to send out a helicopter. Living so close to the ocean in San Diego, she often heard stories about how the Coast Guard had rescued a wayward boater, or stopped an attempted drug smuggling operation. Now, the Coasties here could add rescuing a whale to that list of heroic feats.
Jade opened her eyes and watched the waves as they grew darker in the fading light of dusk. She should send the Coast Guard crew some sort of thank you note. The whale rescue team probably wouldn’t have found the whale pod without air surveillance, so the helicopter crew had literally saved the day. Jade smiled as she remembered the pilot’s name. Ace. Then she giggled. A pilot named Ace was a bit of a cliché, but the unusual name would hopefully make him easy to find. She wanted to make sure she gave him and his men the recognition they deserved.
After all, they had helped with something great. It’s not every day you can go home and say you saved a whale, all in a day’s work.
Ace crossed three lanes of traffic way too quickly and cursed at his GPS. The stupid thing never warned him that he needed to exit until seconds before the exit sign appeared. A car that Ace cut off honked angrily at him, but Ace barely noticed. He was overly cautious when flying his helicopter, but he lived on the edge when it came to driving his truck. After managing to make it to the exit without causing a major collision, Ace finally slowed down. His GPS instructed him to turn left at the next stoplight, and then right a few hundred feet after that. Ace did as the GPS ordered, and soon found himself pulling into the parking lot of the San Diego Marine Mammal Rescue Center.
He parked his beat up pickup truck in one of the many available spots, and headed for the front entrance. He wasn’t sure exactly why he had decided to come here. He’d told the other guys on his crew that he wanted to see whether anyone at the Rescue Center had updated information on the baby whale he’d helped save yesterday. He probably could have just called to find out, but he had the day off and was curious to see what the Rescue Center looked like. He felt drawn here somehow. The other guys had teased him about being a big softy despite his macho exterior. Their jabs didn’t bother Ace, though. He was a tough guy, and he knew it. He didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and, besides, he didn’t think caring about living creatures made him a softy.
He walked into the lobby, and an elderly lady behind the desk smiled kindly at him.
“May I help you?” she asked pleasantly.
“Uh, sure. I participated in a rescue for a baby whale yesterday. I was just wondering whether anyone had any more information on how the little guy was doing.”
The woman’s face lit up. “Oh! You were part of that rescue? How marvelous! We haven’t had a whale rescue in ages. I’m so glad this one had a happy ending. Thanks for helping.”
“It was my pleasure,” Ace said, smiling back at the old lady. Her enthusiasm was infectious. “Do you know if anyone tracked the whale after it rejoined its family?”
“I don’t know, dear. Jade would be the one with information, if there is any. She’s around here somewhere, probably checking on the sea lions in the hospital area.”
“Can I go look?” Ace asked.
“Sure, go right ahead. Here’s a map of the facility. We offer guided tours in the afternoons, but that won’t be for another several hours. Feel free to walk around yourself using this map as a guide.”
Ace thanked the old lady and took the map, heading for the area marked “hospital.” He passed the kitchen, where fish mash was made to feed the patients at the rescue center, and the autopsy room, where an elephant seal that hadn’t made it was being examined. At the far end of the facility, he found the hospital. The animals were behind a large chain link fence, and were separated into pens that each contained their own kennel and pool area. Several large signs warned visitors to be quiet out of respect for the animals, and Ace felt like he needed to tiptoe through the area. He didn’t see anyone else, so he decided to just stand there and observe the animals for a bit. Several sea lions were sleeping, but a few others were awake and frolicking around their pens. One was pushing a large ball around with his nose while barking. The barking sea lion seemed like quite a character, and Ace found himself chuckling at the animal’s lively antics.
“He’s a spunky one, isn’t he?” a voice behind him asked.
Ace turned around and found himself face to face with a woman wearing a pair of bright orange waterproof overalls. She was carrying a bucket of fish, and her strong arm muscles flexed under the weight of the load. Her deep red hair was pulled back in a tight bun, and her tanned skin offset the deep green of her eyes. She had broad, strong shoulders, and looked confident and sure of herself. It was easy to see that this woman was no shrinking violet. After only about three seconds of taking her in, Ace was hooked. She was the most beautiful, self-assured woman he had ever seen.
“He’s pretty entertaining,” Ace said. “Seems like a pretty happy guy.”
The woman set down her bucket and walked to the edge of the chain link fence for a better look.
“That’s Biscuit. And yes, he’s a very happy guy. He wasn’t so happy when we first brought him to the center, though. He was almost dead from malnutrition and dehydration. But he’s a fighter, and has made a full recovery. Should be releasing back to the wild within the next few days.”
“Biscuit,” Ace repeated. “That’s a cute name.”
The woman smiled. “Yeah. One of the veterinarians here has a five year old daughter that loves to name our patients. Her latest trend is to give them all food names. In the pen next to Biscuit is Sushi, and right past him is Thin Mint.”
Ace threw back his head and laughed. “Now I’m hungry,” he said. “And that little girl has quite an impressive palate. Sushiandthin mints.”
The woman smiled. “Yup. She’s quite a character herself. What about you? What’s your name? Hamburger? French Fry? Filet Mignon?”
Ace laughed again. “No. Nothing quite so appetizing. I’m Ace.”
“Ace? From the Coast Guard?” the woman asked, her eyes lighting up.
“Yes, from the Coast Guard. How did you know?”
“I’m Jade! Director of rescue operations here. You’re the helicopter pilot, aren’t you? We spoke over the radio last night.”
Ace worked to smooth over the surprise on his face when he realized that the woman standing in front of him was Jade. Her voice sounded different in her person. It sounded softer, with more of a musical lilt to it. And he hadn’t expected her to be so muscular and strong. She had feminine curves, but there was no mistaking the strength of her physique.
Ace’s inner bear growled in appreciation.Mine, his bear asserted. Ace tried to squelch the feeling for the moment. His bear could be so impatient when it wanted someone or something. Ace at least needed to get introductions out of the way before he started making a move on the beautiful woman in front of him.
“I am indeed the helicopter pilot,” Ace said. “It’s nice to meet you in person. That was quite an ordeal yesterday, wasn’t it?”
“It was crazy,” Jade said, her eyes lighting up. “But the day had such a happy ending. I cannot thank you enough for you help. Without air surveillance we probably never would have found that whale pod, and that baby whale wouldn’t have survived long without his mother. Seriously, thank you. We owe you and your crew a big debt of gratitude. I was actually just trying to figure out how to find you and your crew to say thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Ace said. “I was glad to help. I hate to see animals suffer. I actually came by today to check if anybody had any more news about the little guy. The woman at the front desk said if anyone knew anything it would be you.”
“I don’t have any more news, and probably never will,” Jade said. “We watched him swim away with his mom and pod, but since he doesn’t have a radio tracker, once he’s out of sight he’s gone for good. The good news, though, is that we verified that he reunited with his mom. We saw him nursing before they swam off, so he should be okay. It’s a very happy ending, and pretty lucky. Things could have been a lot worse for Ventura.”
“Ventura?” Ace asked, cocking an eyebrow in Jade’s direction.
Jade’s face turned beet red. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. I forgot to mention that we nicknamed the baby whale Ventura in honor of you and your crew. You know, like Ace Ventura.”
Ace crossed his arms and pretended to be offended. “Yeah. I remember you making a joke about Ace Ventura yesterday. And I’m pretty sure I didn’t laugh.”
Jade shrugged. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist. And the rescue effort took so long that we had to start calling the little guy something other than ‘the baby whale.’”
“Oh come one. We basically named him after you. Don’t act like you’re not honored.”
Ace tried to act like he was angry, but Jade’s playful expression was too much for him and he started laughing. “Okay, okay. I guess I am a little bit touched. You could have just named him Ace, though. Ace Ventura isn’t really my thing.”
Jade shrugged again. “How was I supposed to know what your thing was? My only communication with you was over a crackling radio.”
“I guess I’ll give you that,” Ace said “I must admit, it is nice to put a face to your crackling voice.
Jade smiled. “I could say the same to you. And I’m really touched that you stopped by to follow up on Ventura.”
“I love animals,” Ace said. “Maybe that’s not a tough guy thing to say, but it’s true. They have a special place in my heart.”
“If you love animals, you’ll really melt over the little seal pups we have in the hospital right now. They’re over in the far corner, away from the viewing area since they’re very young and sensitive. We don’t want our tour groups stressing them out. But I’d be willing to give you a private tour, if you’re interested.”
Ace felt his heart skip a beat. He definitely wasn’t going to turn down a chance to spend more time with Jade. “I’d love that,” he said. Jade grinned, and motioned him to follow her. She picked up the bucket again and started walking toward the hospital entrance. There was a pathway between each set of animal pens, and walking down it gave Ace a close-up view of the patients.
“Most of the animals we get here are seals or sea lions. Usually they’re suffering from things like poisoning, malnutrition, or injuries from interaction with human elements, like getting tangled in a fishing net. Our team does their best to get them healthy and stable again so they can get back to the ocean.”
Biscuit saw Jade with the bucket of fish, and sped over to the fence. He pressed his nose against it, and Jade laughed. “Hey, buddy. You hungry?” She fed him a few fish through the fence, then continued walking toward the back of the hospital.
“This seems like a really cool job,” Ace said. He was walking behind Jade and wishing she was wearing something other than giant waterproof overalls, which hid any chance he had at seeing what her ass looked like.
“Yeah, it’s pretty rewarding. Of course, it’s a lot of hard work, and, like any job, there are days when I’m tired and don’t feel like putting in the effort. But I’m always glad I did. And days like yesterday…wow. How many people get to rescue a whale as part of their day job? It’s pretty rewarding.”
They had reached the midpoint of the pathway, and Jade waved at a man who was standing in one of the pens with a sea lion, wearing huge overalls similar to Jade’s.
“Hey, Rick. I got that bucket of fish you wanted. Minus a few that Biscuit weaseled out of me.”
The man laughed. “Thanks! Biscuit sure loves his fish.”
Jade smiled, then pointed at Ace. “This is Ace, by the way. He’s the Coast Guard pilot who helped us with that whale rescue yesterday.”
Rick’s eyes widened and he reached over to vigorously shake Ace’s hand. “Oh, man! That’s awesome. Thank you so much for all your help. What an incredible day, huh?”
Ace shrugged. “Happy to help,” he said. For him, flying a helicopter around for a few hours was no big deal. But the effort had obviously made a strong impression on the staff here at the rescue center. Jade took him to see the baby seals, and for a tour of the exam rooms in the hospital. He met the kitchen staff, and some of the staff who were filling out record charts for the patients. Everyone he met treated him like a celebrity when they learned of his part in the whale rescue. By the time Jade finished her tour, Ace had shaken hands with a dozen people who told him he was something special. Ace acted politely toward them, but he was beginning to think that Jade was the one who was something special.
She knew all of the staff and all of the animals by name. Her smile made her whole face light up, and it was nearly impossible not to smile back at her when a beautiful grin was stretching across her face. She wasn’t wearing any makeup, as far as Ace could tell, but her skin was tanned and smooth. And despite her unconventional outfit and no-nonsense hairdo, she radiated a certain air of good fashion sense.
No wonder Ace’s bear wanted her.
As she walked him back to the front of the rescue center, he started arguing with himself over whether he should ask her out. On the one hand, he had come here to check on the whale that was rescued, not to make a move on the woman who rescued the whale. He didn’t want to come across as having ulterior motives for being here, because he definitely did not. But, on the other hand, he wanted Jade. And Ace was used to getting what he wanted. When Jade reached out to shake his hand goodbye, he decided to go for it.
“Thank you for showing me around. I really appreciate it, and I feel like I have a whole new appreciation for what it takes to rescue marine animals,” Ace said, then took a deep breath. “I’ve also really enjoyed having the chance to get to know you a little bit better. I’m just going to cut to the chase. I like you a lot. You’re kind, strong, and beautiful. I would like the chance to get to know you even more. Can I take you to dinner sometime this week?”
Jade tilted her head to one side, and gave Ace a curious stare. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. I appreciate your help with the rescue, more than I can even put into words. And I’ve enjoyed showing you the facility here. Let’s just leave it at that.”
Jade reached out and gave Ace’s hand a firm shake, then disappeared back into the building, leaving him standing alone on the sidewalk, dumbfounded.
Ace was good-looking, and he knew it. He had never had a woman turn down the chance to date him. Sure, there was always a first time for everything, but he had been having such a good time with Jade that he had expected her to jump at the chance to continue to explore the possibilities between them.
Ace stared at the door of the rescue center that had just closed behind Jade, and then crossed his arms. He wasn’t sure what Jade’s reasoning was for so quickly brushing him off, but, in his mind, Jade had just issued a challenge to him: convince her that he was worth a second glance.
Ace turned confidently on his heel and strode back to his vehicle with his head held high.
“Challenge accepted,” he said, then fired up the engine for the drive home.Chapter Three
Jade stood on the second floor of the rescue center and watched as Ace drove his truck out of the parking lot. She stared out the window until he disappeared from view, and then turned and leaned her back against the wall. She slid down into a sitting position, and put her head in her hands.
Of course, the first guy in years to actually make her heart beat a little bit faster just so happened to have a dangerous job. And Jade had sworn that she would not date someone who was at high risk for being killed in the line of duty. Not after Mike.
Jade abruptly lifted her head and stood up. She had to get out of here. She’d done enough for today, anyway. She’d done enough for the whole week, really. Yesterday had been exhausting, and Jade suddenly felt like she needed to lie down. She took the stairs down to the first floor two at a time, then went to the equipment room and took off her overalls. She grabbed her hooded sweatshirt from the coat rack and fished her keys out of the pocket, then headed for the front door.
“Bye, Mary,” Jade said to the sweet old lady who ran the front desk. “I’m going home for the day. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bye, dear,” Mary said. “Have a good afternoon.”
Jade jumped into her tiny truck and started the ten minute drive back to her apartment. Thankfully, the traffic was sparse, and Jade hit every light green. She made it home in record time, and bounded up the stairs to her third floor apartment.
The place was small, but homey. Jade had lived here for the last three years, and, although she kept telling herself she was going to upgrade to something better, she kept renewing her lease here when it ended. She could afford something bigger, but she figured she didn’t really need the space. And moving seemed like so much effort. So much change. Jade was comfortable enough here, and she didn’t think it was likely that she’d be sharing this space with anyone else any time soon.
Jade sighed as she opened her fridge and grabbed a diet coke. She popped the tab open, and took a long, thirsty sip. Ace’s face flashed across her mind, and she did her best to push the image away.
He was a helicopter pilot on a Coast Guard search and rescue crew. His job had high risk written all over it, and Jade refused to go there. She refused to spend her days and nights sick with worry that something tragic might happen. She’d had enough of that to last her a lifetime.
Jade stepped out on the tiny balcony connected to her living room, and watched the cars driving by on the road adjacent to the apartment complex. Life had become a bit lonely, true. But things were calm. Settled. Peaceful. The last thing Jade wanted to do was rock the boat. Jade took another long sip of her diet coke, and then walked back inside, leaving the balcony door open to let in the cool breeze. She leaned back on her couch and stared up at the ceiling for a few minutes, trying and failing again to get the image of Ace out of her mind.
No one could objectively deny that he was gorgeous. His dark brown hair and dark brown eyes matched each other perfectly, and offset the deep, olive tone of his skin. His hair was cropped short in a military style, but this morning he’d had a healthy amount of stubble on his chin. Jade guessed that he probably hadn’t shaved since he hadn’t been on duty today. He stood well over six feet tall, and his biceps looked like they were as big as her thighs. He was a beast of a man, and Jade had worked hard all morning to keep herself from swooning over his tough guy look.
She had figured she just had to keep her cool until she was done giving him a tour, and then he would leave and she would probably never see him again. He wouldn’t have any reason to come back to the rescue center, since she’d told him that she didn’t anticipate ever having more information about the whale they had rescued. As she bid him farewell by the front entrance, she had silently congratulated herself on making it through the tour without saying something stupid. But just as she thought she was done with him, he had asked her to dinner. Jade had been flattered, and surprised. She didn’t consider herself bad-looking, necessarily. But she wasn’t a runway model, that’s for sure. And Ace seemed like the kind of guy who could have his pick of runway models, if he wanted to.
But no matter how flattered she felt by his attention, she couldn’t date him. She had made her decision. Jade put her feet up on her coffee table and used the remote to flick on the television. The local news was playing, covering a story about a shootout between some gang members and a group of police officers. All of the police officers had survived, thankfully, and one of the gang members was in critical condition at a local hospital. The other gang members were in custody.
Jade flicked the TV off and squeezed her eyes shut. Why was everything today reminding her of what she had lost? She reached to open the storage drawer on the coffee table, and pulled out a small box of photos. Tears filled her eyes as she viewed the first one. Mike, standing at the top of Razor Point Trail in the Torrey Pines State Reserve. He was flexing his muscles, and had a grin that stretched a mile wide. The next picture was Mike in formal wear, with Jade on his arm, at a charity event for the rescue center. Again, he was flashing the camera his signature grin. Jade continued flipping through the photos, laughing through the tears at the many shots of Mike goofing off. At the bottom of the box were a few newspaper clippings. The first one announced the engagement of Mike and Jade, with a planned wedding date of July fifteenth. The next article clipping, dated June fifteenth, had a blurry picture of crime scene tape in front of a convenience store, with a headline that read “San Diego Police Officer Loses His Life in Armed Robbery Response.”
Jade didn’t read through the article. She didn’t need to. She knew all the awful details of that day by heart, including details the article didn’t mention. Details like the fact that Mike had surprised her at work that morning with a latte before heading off to work himself. Details like the fact that Mike had made reservations for them at their favorite Italian restaurant to celebrate the one month countdown to their wedding date. Details like the fact that no one had managed to contact her before she showed up at the restaurant to meet Mike. She had waited there alone, knowing as the minutes continued to pass that something had gone horribly wrong. Mike was never late. Never.
She had left that restaurant in tears when she got the call, and she hadn’t been the same person since. She had rushed to the hospital, but he was already gone. She never even had the chance to say goodbye. The last she had seen of him alive was him walking away after handing her the latte, winking and saying there would be more surprises that evening. Jade would never know what those surprises were supposed to have been.
She had gone into survival mode, functioning on autopilot while arrangements were made for his funeral. Wedding plans had to be canceled: photographers and caterers called, guests notified. Thankfully, Jade’s mother had stepped in and handled most of the details. A mama never stopped doing everything in her power to make her baby’s life easier, no matter how old that baby was. Jade wasn’t sure that she would have made it through those difficult months without her mother holding her up, steady as a rock.
Jade had eventually moved out of the condo she and Mike had shared. She had sold the place, put the money in savings, and moved into this tiny apartment. She had been so scared, and so unsure of the future. She had hoarded every penny as though she was on the brink of bankruptcy and starvation, even though her job easily covered the rent for the new place. Life had seemed so volatile and uncertain, though. She couldn’t be too careful.
That awful day was now more than three and a half years in the past. It had taken over two years for Jade to feel like the constant cloud of grief hanging over her had disappeared. These days, Jade was able to enjoy life again. Even though the idea of going a full day without thinking about Mike had seemed impossible at the beginning, Jade caught herself sometimes going for stretches of several days in a row without even thinking about him in passing. Even though she knew Mike would be happy to see her moving on and moving forward with life, Jade couldn’t keep herself from feeling a little bit guilty when she realized that he was becoming less and less a part of her life. She almost never shed tears over him anymore. It wasn’t that she didn’t still miss him. It’s just that time had healed the rawness of the wound.
But today, Ace’s innocent offer to take her on a date had brought a fresh surge of emotions rushing to the surface. Several men had asked her out in the years since she lost Mike, but Jade hadn’t had any interest. None of them could come even close to matching what she’d had with Ace. Ace was the first man to set her heart racing again. It was easy to see that Ace was a man’s man—strong, and full of life. He was exactly the kind of guy that Jade was looking for. Except for the fact that he had a dangerous job.
Jade had promised herself she would never again let herself love someone who might easily die from the dangers of his job.
Jade wiped the tears from her eyes and replaced the lid on the photo box. She chugged down the rest of her diet coke, then stood to head to her bedroom and change into workout clothes. She needed to do something to get her mind off of Ace. The man was off limits. And she’d told him she wasn’t interested, anyway. Odds were good she’d never see him again.
A few minutes later, Jade was lacing up her running shoes. She headed out into the crisp February afternoon to get some exercise and get her blood flowing—and to get Ace Grimes out of her head.Chapter Four
The wind whipped violently across the Pacific Ocean, as Ace did his best to hold the helicopter steady. Ben, serving as copilot, glanced tensely over at Ace.
“It’s getting pretty dicey out here,” Ben said into the microphone of his headset.
Ace nodded, but didn’t flinch for a moment. “I know. But there’s still a survivor stranded down there. Brett’s almost got him back to the rescue basket. Just relax. We’ve dealt with winds just as bad as this before. I know we can handle it.”
Ace kept his eyes on the bird’s instruments. He didn’t honestly know whether they could handle the winds. With a storm this violent, he was chancing it. But he knew Brett, and he knew Brett wouldn’t get back in the helicopter while there was still a survivor needing to be rescued. And Ace sure as hell wasn’t leaving without Brett. Even though he and Brett frequently butted heads over things, they were like brothers. Ace would die himself before he left his fellow alpha panda behind.
Ace had become somewhat desensitized to death, anyway. He had seen so much of it already in his lifetime. He had lost his entire clan in the Great Epidemic years before, which had wiped out all but four of the panda shifters. Ace, Ben, Lance, and Brett had managed to survive, since their alpha gene made them exceptionally resilient to disease. But surviving had been something of a consolation prize, leaving them lonely and mourning. Each of them had been the only panda shifter from their clan to make it.
The helicopter lurched sideways, and Ace once again did his best to steady it.
“Lance, how’s Brett looking?” Ace asked into his headset. Lance served as the crew’s flight technician, which made him responsible for lowering Brett in and out of the water, and for assisting with pulling up survivors in the rescue basket.
“He just got the survivor into the basket. Five minutes or less and we’ll be ready to get out of here.”
“Make it three minutes,” Ace replied. “We’re playing Russian roulette with our lives right now by being out here.”
“Roger that,” Lance said.
Ben glanced over at Ace again and rolled his eyes. “You said just two minutes ago that we could handle it.”
Ace laughed, despite the tense situation. “You should know by now that I’m full of shit.”
Ben rolled his eyes again, but couldn’t stop himself from cracking a smile. The helicopter lurched again, and Ace sighed.
“Hurry up, Brett,” Ace whispered under his breath. Then, to his surprise, Jade’s face flashed across his mind. Shit, was he getting sentimental about this girl already? She had refused a date with him, and yet his mind still went straight to her when he found himself in a life or death situation. Ace furrowed his brow. He knew his bear wanted her. But he hadn’t realized until just that moment how strong the desire had become. Was it possible that Jade was his fated lifemate?
The helicopter lurched again, and started to spin. Ace would have to digest these thoughts later. If he didn’t get this bird out of here soon, he and the crew would all be dead, and it would be a moot point who his lifemate was.
“Lance?” Ace asked. “Where’s our boy? We have to get out of here, now.”
“I’m dropping the hoist cable now,” Lance said.
“As soon as he’s clipped in, let me know,” Ace said. “We don’t have the time to wait for him to be pulled up.”
“Really?” Lance asked, sounding taken aback.
“Yes, really! Your three minutes are up. We gotta go.”
“Alright,” Lance said. A few moments later, he spoke again. “He’s clipped. Let’s go!”
Ben shook his head. “Brett’s about to have some fun,” he said.
Ace shrugged. “Better a wild ride home than a dead ride home. Let’s go.”
He turned the helicopter back in the direction of the air station. Below them, Brett swung wildly as the hoist cable that connected him to the aircraft was tossed around by the wind and the motion of the helicopter. Lance was trying to pull him in as they sped away, but the task was unusually difficult given the excessive movement. Ace and Ben concentrated on flying the helicopter while Lance did his best to pull Brett up. After a few tense minutes, Lance’s triumphant voice came through their headsets loud and clear.
“I got him!” he said. “Brett is safely on board.”
“Yes!”Ben shouted, followed quickly by a loud “Damn it!” as the helicopter lurched again.
“Woo!” Ace shouted. “Nothing like a near death experience to make you feel alive.”
“You’re crazy,” Brett said through the headset he had just put on.
“Guilty as charged,” Ace said with a grin. “Guilty as charged. Now let’s get this bird home.”
* * *
An hour later, Ace was sitting in the dining area of the air station, wolfing down a plate of food. He’d been so busy that he hadn’t had time to eat all day, and it was nearly eleven p.m. A loud bang on the table drew his attention, and he looked up to see a tray of food that Brett had just slammed down in feigned anger.
“Thanks for almost killing me, jerk,” Brett said. “Although I must say, riding around on a wildly swinging hoist cable beats the heck out of any amusement park ride I’ve ever been on.
Ace grinned. “I think you meant to say ‘thank you so much for saving my life, Ace.’”
Brett chuckled and sat down. “In all seriousness, nice work. That was probably our most intense rescue yet.”
Lance and Ben approached the table, also carrying plates of food, and sat down with the other two.
“Hey now,” Lance said. “Ace may have been the one to make sure the helicopter didn’t crash, but don’t forget about the guy who pulled you back up into a moving helicopter in the middle of the storm.”
“Well, there would have been no helicopter to pull him into if not for my expert flying,” Ace said.
“Sure, it was all you,” Ben said, crossing his arms. “Your copilot was no help at all.”
Brett laughed. “Okay, okay, you guys. Thank you to everyone for saving my ass out there. But don’t forget that I’m the one who has to go into the freezing cold water on our rescue missions while you sit up there in that cushy helicopter.”
“Freezing cold water?” Ace asked, punching Brett in the arm. “Come on, man, this isn’t Alaska. It’s San Diego. Don’t act like you’re going for a swim with the penguins or something.”
The group laughed, but Lance’s face turned serious. “Speaking of Alaska…I have some interesting news. Do you guys remember that black bear shifter I met when I went to Northern California on vacation a few months ago?”
“Ian? The alpha that heads up a clan of smokejumpers?” Ace asked.
“Yeah, Ian. That’s the one. Well, his clan had a polar bear shifter join their clan last year. She’s from Alaska, and she moved away because she got caught on the bad side of some clan wars up there or something. Anyway, she went back to Alaska to visit for a few months, and met up with a friend from her old clan. The friend told her that rumors have been flying in Alaska that there’s a group of scientists up there hiding out and testing out viruses specifically aimed at bear shifters.”
Ace felt his blood go cold. “Do you think it’s the same guys behind the Great Epidemic that killed all the panda shifters?”
Lance shrugged. “No way to know for sure. But Ian said the bear shifters up in Alaska have been trying to track them down and have had a hard time of it. Whoever these scientists are, they’re going to great lengths to protect themselves.”
Ben slammed his fist into the table. “I’ll be damned if I let those bastards get away with murdering more shifters.”
“I agree,” Brett said. “But what can we do to stop them? San Diego is a long ways away from Alaska.”
“I think we need to develop a working relationship with the clan in Alaska that’s been watching the situation. They have boots on the ground up there, so to speak. If we can be in contact with them on a regular basis, they can feed us information on what’s going on,” Lance said.
“That makes sense,” Brett said. “But how are we going to develop a working relationship with them?”
“We should send someone up there to talk to them. I think having one of us go in person shows how serious we are about wanting to keep an eye on things,” Lance said.
“I agree,” Ben said. “Lance, can you get in touch with Ian and see if he can connect you with the clan up there?”
“Sure thing,” Lance said. “I’ll talk to him and get back to you guys as soon as I can.”
Ace had just finished shoveling the last bite of food from his tray into his mouth, when the alarm went off. The crew was being called out on another rescue. Not surprising, since nights plagued by big storms always meant multiple rescue attempts.
“Let’s go boys,” Ace said. “Time for some more fun.”
Ace glanced at the clock on the wall, which read eleven forty-five p.m. One more day of work, and then he had two days off. And he was already making plans for how he would use those days to convince Jade to spend some time with him.
Thirty-six hours later, Ace had finished his Coast Guard shift, and managed to sneak in a long stretch of sleep. The shift had been an exhausting one, and Ace had collapsed into bed when he got home. But, after a chance to get some shuteye, and a huge breakfast of bacon and eggs, Ace was feeling rejuvenated. He sat at his kitchen table, sipping on a huge mug of black coffee, and toying with his cell phone.
The number for the rescue center was still listed in his recent outgoing calls. He stared at the digits on the screen for a few long moments, and then hit call.
A woman answered the phone. “San Diego Marine Mammal Rescue Center. This is Mary. How can I help you?”
Ace recognized the voice as belonging to the old lady who worked at the front desk. “Oh, hi there. May I speak to Jade, please?”
There was short pause, and then Mary spoke again. “Give me just a minute and let me check whether she’s here right now. Can I tell her who’s calling?”
Ace grinned to himself. “Sure,” he said. “Tell her it’s Ventura.”
“Uh, okay,” Mary said. “I’ll be right back.”
Ace chuckled as he imagined Mary going up to Jade and telling her some lunatic on the phone was asking for her and saying he had the same name as the whale that had been rescued. About a minute later Jade came on the line.
“Well, hello there, Ventura,” she said with a laugh. “I thought you hated being called that.”
“I do,” Ace said. “But I wanted to get your attention.”
“Well, you have my attention. What’s up?”
“I wanted to know whether you’d wizened up yet and decided to accept my invitation to dinner.”
Jade paused for a moment, and then laughed. “Really, Ace? You think if you just keep asking that I’ll eventually say yes? It doesn’t work that way.”
Ace leaned back in his chair and took a long drag from his coffee mug. “Why not?” he asked. He tried to sound blasé about the situation, but he cared more about the answer than he wanted to admit, even to himself. He wanted to know why, exactly, Jade was refusing to date him. He had never been so quickly brushed off by a woman like this. It irritated him—and it only made him want her more. No one said no to him. He was an alpha, a bear, a legendary panda. She didn’t know what she was refusing.
“You’re just not my type,” Jade’s voice came over the line.
Ace sighed. “That’s not a real answer,” he said.
“Why not?” Jade asked. “It’s the truth.”
“Is it? What is your type, exactly?”
Ace sighed. “Fine. Can we go to dinner just as friends, then?”
“Why? Am I not your ‘friend’ type, either?”
Jade laughed. “Come on, Ace. Pretending it’s going to be just hanging out as friends when it’s obvious you want more? That’s the oldest trick in the book.”
“Just tell me why I’m not your type, then. At least let me know why you’re rejecting me so I can work on fixing it.”
“I doubt it’s something you can fix. It was nice talking to you, Ace.”
“Jade, come on—”
The line went dead.
Ace tossed his phone on the table and crossed his arms. What was he supposed to do now? Come up with some romantic gesture to prove that he was worth her time? Ace had never been interested in playing the romance game. He always took good care of a woman he was in a relationship with, but he preferred the direct approach. If he loved a woman, he told her so. If he wanted to date a woman, he told her so. And that life philosophy had worked well for him up to this point. But Jade was going to require some convincing.
If she would just spend a little time with him, damn it, then he felt sure she would come around. But she wouldn’t even agree to go to dinner as friends, so he wasn’t sure how he was going to manage to spend time with her. Ace stared at his coffee mug for a few moments, when, suddenly, it hit him. If he wanted to spend time with Jade, he just needed to go to where she spent the majority of her days.
Ace picked his phone back up and dialed the number for the rescue center again. When Mary answered, Ace made his voice sounds as friendly and upbeat as possible when he spoke.
“Hi, Mary. I was wondering what I would need to do to work as a volunteer at the rescue center.”
* * *
A week later, Jade sat in the charting room at the rescue center. She furrowed her brow as she reviewed records from the rescue center’s current patients, most of which were suffering from malnourishment. The number of seal pups currently in the rescue hospital had become overwhelming. The entire staff was working around the clock to get everything done, but they still needed more help. And rescue requests continued to come in daily for stranded seals. Jade needed more people with vehicles capable of transporting the animals, but none of the staff had trucks. They all drove tiny, eco-friendly cars. Their commitment to the environment was admirable, but it wasn’t doing the stranded seals any favors.
Jade rubbed her forehead as she closed the file of yet another seal pup. Jade had gone before the board of the rescue center last week to beg them for funding for a dedicated rescue vehicle, but the board had refused the request. The large number of seal pups needing to be rescued right now was a fluke occurrence, the board had pointed out. It didn’t make sense to make such a large purchase to deal with a situation that was temporary. Jade had tried to explain that the vehicle would continue to be useful long after the last of this year’s crop of seal pups had been rescued. But the board had remained impassive, telling Jade to get creative.
Jade frowned. Get creative? How? It’s not like she could manufacture a vehicle out of thin air. She had already contacted local animal shelters and law enforcement agencies to ask whether anyone had a vehicle they could borrow. No luck.
A knock on the charting room door startled Jade out of her musings. She sat up in her chair and glanced in the direction of the door. “Come in,” she called out. When the door opened, Mary poked her head into the room. Jade smiled and waved at Mary. The old woman was friendly and warm, and one of the kindest people Jade had ever met.
“Hello, dear. Sorry to bother you, but I have someone here I think you’ll be interested in talking to.”
“Don’t be silly, Mary. You’re never a bother. Who’s the person?”
“A man called last week and asked about volunteering with the rescue center. He attended the volunteer orientation and training last Tuesday night, and I talked to him for a bit during the break. He mentioned that he has a truck, and I know you’d been looking for one to help with the rescues. I asked him to come by today and talk to you or one of the other rescue coordinators.”
Jade perked up. “Mary, that’s awesome. He’s here now?”
Mary nodded. “He’s waiting out in the lobby. Should I tell him you’re coming?”
“Yes, please!” Jade said, already gathering up the charts she had been reviewing to return them to the shelf. “I’ll be out in just a minute.”
Mary disappeared, heading back for the front entrance. Jade quickly put away all of the paperwork she had pulled out, and practically ran down the hallway toward the front of the building. If this guy really had a truck they could use, it would take such a huge load off of her mind.
Jade threw open the door that led to the front lobby, then stopped in her tracks when she saw Ace sitting there.
“You?” she asked, crossing her arms and shaking her head in a mixture of embarrassment and amusement. If Ace had a truck that she could use, she was just going to have to get over the uncomfortable fact that she had rejected his requests for a date on more than one occasion. She needed his help.
“Yes, me,” Ace said. “I hear you need a truck for your rescue efforts. I have one, and offered to drive it as a volunteer for the rescue center. Or am I not your “type” of volunteer, either?”
Jade gave Ace a sheepish smile. “I’d say you’re exactly my type, when it comes to volunteers.”
“Good. Glad that’s settled. I generally have one to two days off from the Coast Guard every week. I’d be happy to come up here and help with animal rescues on those days. When do you want me to start?”
Before Jade could answer, the radio clipped to her hip buzzed, and a voice called over it. “Jade? We’ve got another potential stranded seal pup on Torrey Pines State Beach.”
Jade pulled the radio off her hip, then arched an eyebrow in Ace’s direction. “What about starting right now.”
Ace grinned. “I’ll go warm up the truck.”
Ten minutes later, Jade was sitting in the passenger seat next to Ace, explaining to him the procedures for rescuing the seal.
“We always try to return the animal to the ocean right away, if possible,” Jade said. “But if they need medical care, which has been the case with most of the seal pups lately, then we catch them with a net and put them in a plastic kennel for the ride back to the rescue center. They’ll be evaluated by one of the veterinarians there, who will come up with a treatment plan. If all goes well, the animal will recover and be released back into the wild. The babies usually have to stay with us for a significant stretch of time, though. They can’t survive alone in the wild without their mothers.”
Jade glanced at the profile of Ace’s face as he drove. His chin once again had just a hint of stubble on it, which accented his strong jaw line. He kept his eyes on the road, nodding occasionally as he listened to Jade’s instructions. When she had finished talking, and finished answering his questions, the pair fell silent. Jade let herself steal several more glances in Ace’s direction. She couldn’t help herself—despite her insistence to him that he wasn’t her type, he definitely made her swoon.
Jade sighed as she felt her heart beating faster. She forced herself to look away from Ace and out the passenger window. She mindlessly watched the houses passing by, and tried to keep her thoughts on the rescue task in front of her.
Ace proved to be an excellent sidekick for a seal rescue. Most volunteers were nervous around the scared, wounded animals, which tended to thrash about wildly and bare their teeth at you in an unmistakably threatening manner. But Ace remained levelheaded, and his presence alone even seemed to have a strangely calming effect on the seal. Jade chalked it up to his Coast Guard training. No doubt, he had hundreds of hours of experience with remaining calm in tense situations. Dealing with an angry seal pup probably didn’t come close to the stress of flying rescue missions in stormy weather.
Over the next two weeks, Ace had a total of five days off from his Coast Guard job, and he spent each one of them assisting with rescuing seal pups. Jade halfheartedly told him he should take a break or he was going to burn himself out, but he brushed her off and said he was enjoying the work. Jade secretly felt relieved. She was beginning to wonder how they had managed to keep things afloat at the center before Ace came along. She knew Ace had decided to help so that he had an excuse to spend more time around her, but she didn’t care at this point. She needed his help, and, besides, she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy spending time with him, too.
In fact, she hated admitting to herself just how much she was enjoying spending time with him. He had a dry sense of humor that she appreciated, and he was a good conversationalist. He seemed to know a lot about many different subjects, so no matter what Jade felt like talking about, he was able to keep up. She was falling for him, and she knew it, but she couldn’t stop herself. On the days that Ace was working a Coast Guard shift, she found herself staring up at the sky any time she heard a helicopter rushing by, wondering if it was him.
Thursday night was one of those days. It was the third day in a row, in fact, that he’d been on duty at the Coast Guard air station. Jade, as usual, had spent over fourteen hours at the rescue center that day, chipping in wherever needed to keep things afloat. By eleven p.m., though, her work for the day was finally done. Instead of going home right away, she walked to the back of the hospital, where a grassy hill bordered the edges of the animal pens. Jade tiptoed past the sleeping seals, shivering slightly in the cool evening air despite the sweatshirt she was wearing. Noiselessly, she lay down on her back in the grass and looked up at the skies. She wished she could see more stars, but the lights from San Diego and the surrounding suburbs drowned out all but the very brightest of them. Jade breathed in deeply, taking a moment to savor the calm after a long, tiring day. A few puffy clouds floated by here and there in the darkness, but the skies were relatively clear tonight. The winds were low, too, which meant Jade worried a little less about whether Ace would be okay if he had to take the helicopter out on a rescue mission.
Jade sighed. She couldn’t escape the worry, could she? She had refused to date Ace for this very reason. But he had quickly become one of her best friends, and the only thing keeping them from becoming a couple was her stubbornness. They had great chemistry, and even the other volunteers and staff at the rescue center had noticed. Jade got a teasing poke from someone at the rescue center anytime Ace showed up to volunteer. She pushed away the hints, and insisted that there was nothing romantic going on between them.
Jade allowed herself, for the umpteenth time that day, to let Ace’s handsome face run across her mind’s eye. She fantasized all the time about saying “to heck with it” and just giving things a go with Ace. She was already worrying about him as a friend, so why not take things to the next level? Why not push aside her fears and finally allow herself some happiness?
“What do you think I should do, Mike?” Jade asked the sky above her. “Should I go for it? Let myself live again, even if that means risking losing someone I love again?”
There was no answer from the vast sky, and Jade sighed as she squinted up at the few stars that she could see. Then she chuckled, quietly so that she wouldn’t disturb the sleeping seals. Of course Mike wouldn’t answer a question like that. When he was still alive, he was always telling Jade to have more confidence in herself, and in following her heart.
Maybe that was what she needed to do now. And her heart was telling her to take a chance with Ace. Anyone on this planet could die at any time, for any number of reasons. Living in fear of death wasn’t really living. It was time to give life, and love, another chance. Jade had made her decision. She cared deeply about Ace. He had become one of her best friends, and she was undeniably drawn to him. Tomorrow, when he showed up for his volunteer shift, she would tell him that she had reconsidered. She would go to dinner with him, because he was definitely her type.
As soon as Jade made the decision, a shooting star streaked across the sky. Jade smiled. She wasn’t an overly superstitious person, but she took that as a sign. She was moving in the right direction.Chapter Six
Ace sat in the dining area of the air station, and downed his paper cup of coffee in three swift gulps. He was dog tired. You would think that the calmer weather would have meant a quieter shift for his Coast Guard search and rescue team, but they had been going nonstop for the last three days. Even in good weather, people made bad decisions and got themselves into trouble out on the water. They had even airlifted a family of tourists who had found themselves on a sinking boat—with no lifejackets. The company that had rented them the boat would be hearing from the authorities, that’s for sure.
Ben, Lance, and Brett sat near Ace, all looking as tired as Ace felt. Each man had a paper cup of coffee in front of him, and was staring wearily off into space, trying to put some mental space between themselves and the intense work they had done over the last several days.
“I’m gonna get more coffee,” Ace said, standing up. “Anyone else?”
Lance handed his paper cup over without a word, and Ace headed for the coffeepot to get them both another hit of caffeine. Ace needed to take a day off, a real day off, and he knew it. He had been spending every minute of his free time with Jade, rescuing seals and sea lions, or taking care of the animals that were being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. Ace had started volunteering mainly to have an excuse to spend time with Jade, but he had to admit that he loved the work. He had found it deeply rewarding to see a rescued animal get a second chance at life. Jade had taught him a great deal about rescuing and caring for the animals, and Ace found himself more attracted to her by the day. They had become good friends, and Ace kept hoping that the solid foundation of friendship they had built would blossom into something more. So far, Jade had been explicitly opposed to romance, however. Ace told himself to be patient—not an easy task for an alpha used to getting his way, but he was trying. He figured the best way to move in the right direction was to just continue spending as much time as possible with Jade.
He hadn’t wanted to miss a single day of volunteering, and, so far, he hadn’t. But after the stress of the last three days, he had decided enough was enough. The seals and sea lions would survive without him for a day, and he and Jade had become close enough friends that it would take longer than twenty-four hours for her to forget about him. He would sleep in tomorrow, actually go to the grocery store and restock his refrigerator, and maybe even go for a run on the beach. He needed a day without real responsibilities.
“Here you go,” Ace said, setting Lance’s refilled coffee cup back down in front of him.
“Thanks,” Lance said, grabbing the cup and taking a big swig, not bothered by the fact that the coffee was extra hot. Lance rubbed his forehead, and then glanced around at each of the men.
“So, I have some news on the Alaska situation.”
Ace, along with the others, perked up immediately.
“The alpha from the clan in Alaska is very interested in discussing the situation with us,” Lance said. “He’s even offered to host a representative from the clan, if we want to send someone up there to meet him in person. It sounds like they’re learning more every day about the plans the scientists up there have, and it doesn’t sound good.”
“We should definitely send someone,” Brett said. “It would be the best way to truly get a feel for what’s going on up there.”
“I agree,” Lance said. “Besides, sending someone would be the best way to show the clan up there how serious we are about fighting the danger these scientists pose. And we all have the next three days off, so if we can snatch up an early morning flight for one of us, we could get someone up there right away. Does anyone want to volunteer to go?”
“I will,” Ace said, before he could even think about it. True, he had just decided to take it easy for the next day or two, but he couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. Ever since the Great Epidemic had wiped out his clan, a deep rage had burned within him. He had sworn to himself that if he ever found the scientists responsible for the virus that had killed so many panda shifters, he would tear them apart with his own hands. He would show no mercy, just as they had shown no mercy to his clan.
“Alright,” Lance said, already pulling out his smartphone to search for flights. “Does anyone have any objections to Ace’s being the one to go?”
“Fine by me,” Brett said.
“Fine by me as well,” Ben said.
“Looks like you can leave San Diego at six a.m. tomorrow and arrive in Glacier Point, Alaska by six p.m.,” Lance said. “But it’s almost midnight here already. Do you think you can make a flight that early?”
“I’ll make it work,” Ace said. He did his best not to visibly wince at the realization that he was probably going to get less than four hours of sleep tonight.
“Alright, I’m booking it for you, then,” Lance said. “Go home and get a few hours of sleep, at least. I’ll email you the flight information, and make sure that someone picks you up at the airport in Glacier Point.”
“Alright, will do,” Ace said, standing as he downed the last few sips of his coffee. He should have been worried that the caffeine would keep him up, but he was so tired that it wasn’t making a difference. He knew he would pass out as soon as his head hit the pillow.
“Oh, and Ace?” Lance asked.
“Make sure you pack warmly. The high in Glacier Point tomorrow is below zero.”
Ace grunted in reply, then headed for the door. Luckily, he had some warm clothes he used on the rare occasions that he went skiing. He was going to pack every piece of winter clothing that he owned.
* * *
The next evening at six p.m. on the dot, Ace woke with a start as his flight touched down on the runway at the airport in Glacier Point, Alaska. He still felt tired, but at least he had been able to sleep through most of his flights. Ace yawned as he stepped off of the plane and into the airport, then shivered at the chill in the air. Even though the airport was heated, Ace could tell that the temperature was well below freezing.
Ace walked through the small terminal and past the security checkpoint, scanning the area for Ryker, the polar bear shifter who was supposed to be meeting him here. Lance had described Ryker in an email as tall, with dark hair. Ace had rolled his eyes at the description when he read it this morning while waiting for his plane at the San Diego airport.
“Well that sure narrows it down, buddy,” Ace had said sarcastically.
Luckily, Ace didn’t have to rely on sight to find Ryker. As he walked through the airport, he breathed in deeply, searching for the scent of bear. A few moments later, he smelled it behind him. He turned around, and saw a tall, dark-haired man walking toward him. The man carried himself with confidence, and had striking, violet-colored eyes.
“Ace?” the man asked.
Ace nodded. “You must be Ryker.”
“Yup, that’s me,” Ryker said, extending his hand to shake Ace’s. “Let’s get going. Neal is anxious to meet you.”
Ace nodded, and followed Ryker through the small crowd in the airport. Neal was the alpha of the Northern Lights Clan, the clan Lance had been in contact with over the last few weeks. Ace hoped that Neal had good information on whatever it was the scientists were planning. Nothing would make Ace happier than to destroy any chance the scientists had at ever harming a bear shifter again.
As they exited the airport, Ryker led Ace to a spot where two snowmobiles were parked.
“You ever driven one of these before?” Ryker asked.
“Sure. Years ago, when I used to live in Maine.”
Ryker nodded and threw a set of keys to Ace. “Good. She’s all yours for your stay. One of the other guys in the clan came up with me earlier to drop her off so she’d be here waiting for you when you arrived.”
Ace looked down at the set of keys in his hand, slightly confused. “We’re taking snowmobiles back to your place?”
Ryker grinned. “Yup. It’s how everyone up here gets around until the temperatures rise above freezing. Much easier to snowmobile around than drive a vehicle.”
Ace shook his head in amusement. “I’m definitely not in California anymore.”
Ryker clapped him on the back. “Nope, definitely not. Welcome to Alaska.”
Ace hopped onto his snowmobile and started following Ryker as he sped through the town of Glacier Point. After about fifteen minutes of passing houses and other small buildings, the pair sped past the town’s outer edges. A few minutes later, they were approaching a small group of cabins nestled among some trees. Ryker slowed his snowmobile, eventually pulling to a complete stop in front of one of the cabins.
“This is Neal’s place,” Ryker said, hopping off of his snowmobile. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”
Ace climbed off his snowmobile as well, shivering as he followed Ryker to the front door of the cabin. Neal had obviously been watching for them, because before Ryker could even raise his hand to knock, the door swung open. The man standing in the doorframe was taller than Ryker, which was saying something. He had broad shoulders, neatly cut dark brown hair, and the same striking, violet eyes as Ryker. His air of confidence left no doubt that he was in charge here. He was unmistakably an alpha.
“I’m Neal. You must be Ace?”
Ace nodded. “Nice to meet you, Neal. Thank you for inviting me here.”
Neal nodded. “Welcome to Glacier Point, on behalf of the Northern Lights Clan. We have a lot to discuss. But first, let’s share a drink. Do you want some food? You must be starving.”
Ace’s stomach growled audibly in response, and he laughed. “You could say I’m just a teensy bit hungry. Those airline meals don’t do much for a bear’s appetite.”
Neal grinned. “Come on in. We’ve got you covered.”
Ace followed Neal into the cabin, where he met Neal’s lifemate, Christine. Word spread quickly that Ace had arrived, and soon the entire Northern Lights Clan had shown up on Neal’s doorstep. Ace was introduced to several bear shifters, their lifemates, and plenty of little cubs. It was hard to keep everyone’s name straight, but he did his best. He ate plenty of the chili and homemade cornbread that Christine offered him, and he happily drank several of the bottles of beer that were offered to him. Despite the seriousness of the issues that had brought him to Alaska, Ace was feeling more relaxed than he had in a long time.
That relaxation didn’t last long, however. The next morning, Neal wasted no time on beginning an explanation of the issues facing the bear shifters in Alaska. Neal showed Ace around the town of Glacier Point, and pointed out a large warehouse on the opposite edge of town from where the Northern Lights Cabins were located.
“The place is empty, now, but it seems that it’s been used off and on for several months for secret meetings by the scientists who want to destroy bear shifters. We found out by accident, when Christine came here to look at some furniture that the owner of the warehouse was selling. It seems the owner had also agreed to let the scientists use the space for meetings, although he didn’t realize they wanted the meetings to be secret. The scientists were mad that an outsider had discovered them, and we haven’t seen them here since, but we have reason to believe they’ll be back.”
“Why’s that?” Ace asked
“We think they’re trying to find some underground caverns near here—the Black Ice Caverns. Rumor has it that there are stockpiles of various minerals and precious stones under there. We think they might be looking for minerals to use in shifter poisons, although that’s just a guess at this point.”
“Do you know where the caverns are?” Ace asked.
Neal nodded. “We have quite a long history with the caverns, actually. We know exactly where they are, and exactly how they’re mapped out underground. What we don’t know, unfortunately, is exactly where the scientists have gone. We hear reports now and then of shifters spotting them in different cities around Alaska, but no one has been able to find any centralized hideout. They seem to be moving around a lot.”
“Probably scared of being discovered,” Ace said. “Do you think they know that there are polar bear shifters up here?”
Neal nodded again. “We know for sure that they saw some polar bears shifting out on the tundra. So they know that there are some of us up here, although we’re not sure if they know how many shifters there are, or where any of the clans are located. It’s clear that they came up here with intentions to find a poison that will work on shifter clans they were already aware of in the lower United States. They left a few pages of notes behind when they abandoned the warehouse. I’m no scientist, but it’s obvious that whatever formula they’re working on is extremely potent.”
Ace set his mouth in a grim line. “They’re working on something that will kill the panda alphas.”
Neal glanced over at him with a curious look on his face. “It’s true then? The legends about panda alphas being nearly invincible?”
“It’s true. Well, it used to be true. Modern science and technology seem to be making panda alphas less and less invincible. These scientists tried to wipe out all the pandas, alphas included, several years ago. They almost succeeded, too. The virus they spread was so strong that even many of the panda shifters with the alpha gene died. But four of us alphas managed to survive. We’ve been hiding out in the Coast Guard ever since, but I’ve been itching for a chance at revenge.”