Breakwater: rick (bbw bad boy space bear shifter romance) (star bears book 2)

Thank you for supporting my work. I hope it’s as much fun to read as it was to write. This is the special Kindle Unlimited version of Breakwater:Rick. After you’re done reading it, you can continue to read every other story I have on Amazon. I’ve included them all for free for you. Just keep turning pages as long as you like.

Also, if you sign up to my newsletter, I’ll send you three exclusive stories that you can’t get anywhere else!

http://www.authorbecca.com

http://www.facebook.com/AuthorBecca

Breakwater: Rick

Star Bears II

by

Becca Fanning

Dalos XI was one of the few cities that could boast to being as stunning as the stars around it. The capital of colony world, it seemed to consist entirely of glass and light. In addition to being breathtakingly beautiful, it was also famous for having a peerless security force resulting in very little crime, especially for a port-and-trade city. People travelled light years to explore the peaceful, picturesque metropolis. It was the sort of place one could look at and think “we did it, the future is here,” a shining love letter to human civilization in glass and chrome.

“Shit,” Zosha hissed to herself as she crawled through a vent in the anterior security station. “Shit, shit, shit, don’t be a dead end, don’t be a—oh, motherfucker.”

She rested her head against the rough material of her pack, trying to convince herself that she should keep moving instead of just giving up then and there. In the end, the horror stories she’d heard from duct runners back on Lytos about the dangers of staying still too long won over the desire to accept her fate. Carefully, she turned herself around and began crawling back down the tunnel, pushing her bag ahead of her.

“I blame you for this entirely,” she muttered.

“Are you talking to me?” a bored-sounding voice drawled over the comm link. “Because if so, I’d like to remind you that this mess is not my doing.”

“Me being lost in this fucking metal labyrinth is,” Zosha groused. “I wanted to take my chances with a forged ID, but no, you wanted me to do it the hard way.”

“As much as I hate to cast aspersions on your impressive array of unlawful talents, there’s no way you could have gotten yourself an ID capable of fooling even a rookie Sixer,” Spinner replied. “And with my current schedule I couldn’t have gotten you a workable one in time. Chin up, darling, you’re almost out. Take the next left.”

“See, you telling me that the first time would have made this a lot easier,” Zosha said, making the turn. “Honestly, if you’re going to force me into the vents you could at least make sure I don’t get lost. I think I’d rather just get my throat slit by Lan Doro than die in here.”

“Zosha, I am in the process of crumbling a regime,” Spinner said, sounding mildly affronted. “I can’t just drop everything to hold your hand because you picked the wrong man’s pocket. Besides, Lan Doro would never simply slit your throat. With what you stole? He’s going to make you an example. Turn right.”

Zosha grumbled but complied. “Is it too late to hitchhike to some agriculture world and settle down with a nice lumberjack?”

“You’d die of boredom in a week. Alright, see the light? That’s your exit. I’m going to put the cameras on loop until you’re in the clear. On my go.”

While Spinner worked whatever magic he used on the camera, Zosha made sure her gloves were intact after crawling around the vent and reached awkwardly around her bag, multitool in hand. She began to work on the screws holding the vent screen in place, wincing as the electric current hit her. On any other job she’d use an E-pulse to knock out the defense mechanism but she couldn’t risk security noticing that one of the vents was malfunctioning. Even if they assumed it was just a maintenance error and sent a handyman instead of a guard, she was in trouble. Anyone spotting her, no matter who it was, could get her killed. She couldn’t afford to relax until she was out of the system. As it were, she relied on her gloves to take the brunt of the electricity and worked fast. It was difficult because she was working from the wrong side, but she’d had plenty of practice and in short order the screen came loose. She grabbed onto it to stop it from falling and waited for Spinner to tell her to act.

“Okay,” he said finally. “The cameras from where you’re coming out to the port are all on a loop. You need to go fast. Go into the hallway and follow the blue light. You want to be in docking bay 7.”

“Got it.” Zosha was moving before he finished speaking. She pushed her bag forward and it fell out of the vent, taking the screen down with it. Next she wriggled forward until she was only in the duct from her knees down, her feet pressed to the top of the metal chamber as she slipped slowly forward. She took a deep breath and relaxed, tumbling completely into the hallway. She hit the ground palms-first and let herself roll. It was clumsier than she’d like, but nothing felt broken. Grabbing her bag, she dashed towards the hallway. 

As promised, there was a blue light embedded in the floor that led visitors towards the docking bays. She ran along it, ignoring the odd looks she was getting from people. She skidded to a stop when she reached the end of the light path, looking around wildly for where she was supposed to be. She couldn’t see any signs and cursed under her breath. Her eyes fell on a lone security guard.

The guards out here don’t check ID,she reminded herself as she hurried towards him.It’ll be fine.

“Excuse me?” she called to him, trying to sound desperate. Given her circumstances, it came naturally.

He turned to her. “Can I help you, ma’am?”

Zosha nodded at him, widening her eyes and biting her lip. “Can you tell me the fastest way to D-7?”

“Sure thing,” he said, smiling at her. “Late to board, are we?”

She nodded again. “I just got so caught up looking at the kiosks in K-Ward I lost track of the time.”

“Happens all the time,” the guard chuckled. “Alright. See the elevator over there? Head towards that, then go down to the second level. The door is pretty clearly marked, you can’t miss it.”

“Thank you so much,” Zosha said as she spun away and made for the elevator.

“Of course! Hope you enjoyed your stay!”

Once she was in the elevator, she took a steadying breath and reopened her comm line to Spinner. 

“Alright, I’m almost there. What next?” she asked.

“You want to get onto a ship called theBreakwater,” Spinner answered. “They’re smugglers. I don’t know much about them, so make sure they don’t see you. As far as I know they’re not in the skin trade but tread carefully anyways.”

“Okay,” Zosha said, stepping out of the elevator. The guard had been right; there was a giant glowing seven above a door several yards away from her. She walked towards it. “Well, this is me. Have fun crumbling civilization as we know it, Davy.”

“Zosha,” Spinner said over the line. The softness of his voice made her step falter. “I promise I’ll look into sorting this out. You have my emergency line if anything happens.” By emergency line, he meant personal line, something which Zosha may have been the only person in the universe with access to.

“Thanks,” Zosha said, swallowing thickly.

“And Zosha?”

“Yeah?” she asked.

“If you ever use my real name again I’m going to have you assassinated,” he said gently.

She laughed wetly. “Got it. Alright, time for me to get stealthy,” she told him as she entered the bay. “Wish me luck then fuck off and let me do my job in peace.”

“Good stars and good winds, you noxious hell beast. Don’t die out there,” he told her, his voice as aloof as usual.

“Back at you, you gingery shit,” she told him before cutting the line with shaking fingers. 

Getting onto the ship was easy. Smugglers were, for good reason, notoriously protective of their ships. This meant they all had similar security measures in place, usually biometric scans and pass codes, all with one thing in common: no cameras. They couldn’t afford evidence of their own misdeeds, meaning they had to rely on other countermeasures. This would trip up almost anyone else, but Zosha had grown up on Lytos, an asteroid colony of thieves and murders, and had been getting through this type of security for what seemed like her whole life. She was on edge for the whole process, chewing her already abused lower lip until it bled, but she was on board before anyone else showed up in the bay and made her way to the cargo hold.

Luckily, the crew of theBreakwateralready had some cargo loaded, meaning there were plenty of crates for her to hide behind. She settled into one corner, making sure that neither she nor her bag could be seen, then took a moment to stretch out. Her back made at cracking sound and she could feel her knees creaking. She settled back, closing her eyes and preparing for a long, uncomfortable ride.

As exhausted as she was from running almost non-stop the past few days, she was too wired to fall asleep. The most she could do was even out her breathing and force her muscles to relax as she let her mind wander. She lay like that for about a half hour, feeling the tension slowly melt away from her body, when she heard the hiss of the door opening and several arguing male voices getting louder. 

“…all I’m saying is, if we’d decided to run guns instead of medicine, we’d have already been paid. I could be getting a drink thrown in my face by a gorgeous broad right now,” one complained.

“Well, at least he’s realistic,” another commented, which garnered a few laughs. 

“After the cluster-fuck on the Edge we can’t afford jobs that dangerous,” a new voice said. “We’ve been over this.”


Page 2

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” the first voice said. “Annie’s making you soft.”

“I can one hundred percent guarantee that’s the opposite of what Annie makes him,” someone snickered.

The first man gave a pornographic moan. “And who could blame him? God, her ass.”

“Custer.” It took Zosha a moment to place the voice as belonging to the third man who spoke due to the fact it was suddenly much lower and much more threatening.

“What? If you’re going to hog the only woman on board all to yourself, the rest of us should at least get to fantasize about her.”

“Custer.” 

“I think,” a new voice said calmly, “that we should get out of here before someone with a badge decides to double check our clearance. Custer, you stay here with me and unload. Captain, if you wouldn’t mind getting ready to take off, I’ll join you as soon as we’re done here.”

There were a few grunts of agreement followed by the sounds of footsteps.

“Seriously, though, it’s not like I’m asking for a turn at her,” Custer grumbled. 

“One of these days you’re going to annoy him enough that he sends you on a long walk out of a short airlock, but only if Annie doesn’t beat him to it,” the calm voice said. Zosha decided that it was a rather nice voice, deep and smooth. Listening to it hardly made up for being tucked away behind crates of dubious content, but it didn’t hurt.

“He’s totally whipped.”

“It’s Annie. We’re all whipped.”

“Speaking of, do you think they ever…” his voice trailed off and he made a sound like a whip cracking.

“Not all of us prefer our bedmates fully armed, Custer,” the other man said, sounding slightly exasperated. “Ugh, I need your help with this one.”

The conversation was momentarily halted as the two men grunted, followed shortly by a loud thud.

“Alright, tie those down and then we’re done,” the nice voice said.

“You got it. Also, you smell that too, right?”

“Of course, but avoiding the Sixers takes precedence right now.” The other man made a noise of protest. “Leave it. Captain’s not worried and we’ve got bigger issues.”

“Well if the Captain’s not worried,” Custer said mockingly.

“Get out of here. We’ll talk once we’re out of here.”

Custer grumbled but, if the fading footsteps were anything to go by, complied.

This left Zosha, as far as she could tell, alone in the cargo hold with the man who had a voice that was probably a lot nicer than he would be if he found her. Her skin felt tight and hot and she couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to wait a situation out, or even the first time she’d stowed away, but the stakes had never been this high before. After a few minutes of the sounds of crates being belted down and heavy breathy, a second set of footsteps retreated.

Zosha lay in perfect silence, hardly daring to even breathe, until several minutes without sound passed. Slowly she let herself relax. She was struck by the urge to call Spinner and let him know she was okay but disregarded it immediately. Her suit would protect her if someone scanned for heat or life signs, but that didn’t do shit if someone heard her. Instead she focused on one of the screws in the box she was facing, letting her mind slip into a trance as she stared at it. It was a good way to keep herself from going insane at the wait without being as vulnerable as she would have been asleep.

When she came out of the trance she had no idea what time it was, only that she was hungry. Slowly and quietly, she unzipped her pack and removed one nutri-pack, jabbing the attached straw into the foil. She took a small sip, face pulling into a scowl as the bland, faintly metallic-tasting mush hit her tongue. She let it sit in her mouth for a moment to adjust to the flavor, then swallowed and began to suck down the rest.

She was about halfway through the pack when a set of footsteps approached. Immediately she froze, straw still in her mouth, and listened intently. The footsteps grew loud enough that she suspected whoever had just walked in was only a few feet away, then stopped.

Someone cleared their throat. “Um, hello?” the nice voice from earlier said. Zosha felt her blood go cold. Who was he talking to? Had someone else walked in while she was in a trance? Had they heard her? “I just wanted to let you know that we’re about to eat and that if you’d like to stop hiding, you’re more than welcome to join us.”

The panic that had filled Zosha moments earlier at the thought of someone else walking in while she was in a trance was nothing compared to the all-consuming terror that hit her now. She forced down the wave of adrenaline trying to rise in her and forced herself to think. She couldn’t take on the entire crew in a fight, and taking a hostage was tricky when she didn’t know the ship, but maybe if she could force him out of the hold she could lock herself in, or find somewhere else to hide. The ship had to land eventually, and once it did… well. She had a lifetime’s worth of practice when it came from escaping tricky situations.

“Look,” the not-quite-as-nice-anymore voice said, “I can smell you. Hiding isn’t going to work, especially on this ship.”

Zosha stayed frozen, unsure of what to do next and praying that he’d just turn around and leave. Instead, he sighed and walked up to the pile of boxes she was hiding behind. Undoing the restraints on the stack, he removed the top box so he could lean over far enough to see Zosha, staring up at him wide-eyed with a straw in her mouth.

Distantly, Zosha realized the man was actually very handsome. He had messy chestnut hair and striking gold eyes. He smiled down at her, full lips pulling back to reveal straight, white teeth. If she hadn’t been absolutely terrified he was about to release her into the cruel vacuum of space sans breathing apparatus, she’d have been offering to buy him a drink.

His face scrunched up when he saw the nutri-pack in her hand. “Ugh, waste-paste. Seriously, most of our food was dehydrated at some point but at least it isn’t that shit.” He smoothed his features back into that charming smile. “I meant it when I said you might as well join us, by the way.” He reached his hand down towards her, clearly meaning for her to grab it so he could pull it up.

Zosha was frozen by indecision. He seemed sincere in his offer and his smile looked genuine, but one lesson everyone who grew up on Lytos learned fast and early was that the smiling ones were the ones you really had to watch out for. After a pause, she decided that her best bet was to do what he wanted for now. She was in his territory; if he decided she wasn’t worth the effort of playing nice she was fucked.

Grabbing her bag, she reached up slowly and grabbed his hand, letting him pull her up on top of the boxes and lift her off. He was stronger than she had expected, even after she took in his solid physique. The gold-eyed man gently herded her towards the doors. 

After a few steps, Zosha realized the faint whirring sound she had written off as another one of the ship’s noises was actually coming from the man. Specifically, from his pants. She squinted down at them, trying to figure out what it was. Her best guess was prosthetics, but some kinds of braces and under armor made the same kind of sound if you didn’t take care of them enough. The man turned, mouth open to tell her something, just in time to catch her glaring at his crotch. He shut his mouth and raised an eyebrow. Zosha scowled and ripped her eyes off him, focusing on the tunnel he was leading her down instead. 

“I’m Richard Chapel, by the way,” he said, sounding amused. “But everyone calls me Rick. And you?”

Zosha remained silent for a moment, deciding what to do. She didn’t want to tell him her name, but her survival could very well hinge on his goodwill. Of course, she could always lie, but he said he found her because he could smell her. Who was to say he couldn’t smell lies as well?

“Zoshanna,” she said quietly. “I go by Zosha.”

“Zoshanna,” Rick repeated, rolling the syllables of her name around his mouth. Zosha tamped down on the warmth in her belly that flared to life at the sound of her name in his low, rough voice. “Pretty name. Now, nobody’s going to hurt you, unless you mean us harm, in which case I recommend going the efficient route and eating a blaster now. Otherwise, as long as you do what the captain says, you’ll likely get off this ship in one piece. Understand?”

Zosha nodded, feeling lighter than usual as her body prepared to flee despite her knowing damn well there was nowhere to flee to.

Eventually, they wound up in what appeared to be a kitchen area. There were several cabinets along the walls and in the middle was a table with various bowls and packets strewn across it. What held Zosha’s terrified attention was the people around the table.

There were three men and one woman. All the men were stocky, which wasn’t unusual for smugglers, but they had golden eyes, which was. Related, maybe, or perhaps they’d had them cosmetically altered as a show of camaraderie. Whatever the cause, Zosha decided, it wasn’t important. The only woman in the group was seated in the lap of possibly the hairiest man Zosha had ever seen. She was slender and beautiful, but her eyes were steely. Zosha assumed this was the infamous Annie.

Rick walked up behind her and clapped a hand on Zosha’s shoulder. He either didn’t notice or ignored her flinch at the contact and addressed the others. “Alright, guys, this is Zosha. I have no idea where she’s from or who she’s working for, but she hasn’t tried to kill any of us yet, which isn’t something I can say for most of the people we meet.”

“So, what,” a man with an electric blue eyepatch said in a bored voice, “we just overlook the fact that she’s a stowaway because she slightly less homicidal than expected?”

“All I’m saying is, I think we should give her a chance to explain herself before we space her,” Rick said, voice casual and smile bright like he had conversations about killing people all the time. Zosha forced herself not to shiver.Always look out for the smiling ones.

“Alright,” the hairy man said. “She’s got five minutes. After that, if I don’t like her reasons, she gets personally acquainted with my blaster.”

Rick nodded and pulled out a chair, motioning for Zosha to sit. She did so gingerly and looked up at him, at a loss for where to begin.

“Alright,” he said, putting his hand back on her shoulder, “the one there with the stick up his ass and an eyepatch is Hyde. The shortie next to him is Dominic. And that’s Captain Ingram accompanied by the lovely Annie. Now, why don’t you tell us how you wound up on theBreakwater.” His voice was as pleasant as ever, but Zosha wasn’t stupid enough to think the last bit was anything but an order.

Zosha took a shaky breath, trying to decide where to begin. “So… Captain Strathmore,” she said finally.

Rick’s hand tightened on her shoulder and Hyde choked. Annie’s spine stiffened. 

“Go on,” the captain said, furrowing his brow and rolling his shoulders back.

“As I’m sure you’re all aware, he was a megalomaniac with delusions of godhood, a hard on for the Civil War, and a warship that could make a Taldori cruiser look like an escape pod. And then he died, which was both really great and really terrible because…” she trailed off and gestured incomprehensibly, trying to get her thoughts in order. “…okay, so, I’m from Lytos, right? And we don’t have what you’d call a comprehensive police force at the best of times. But when Strathmore kicked it, a lot of people who didn’t have the balls or blasters to stand up to him suddenly didn’t have anything stopping them from taking a piece of his empire for themselves except each other. And just like that, you’ve got rival factions going at it like pit dogs in every corner of the damn galaxy. For Lytos, it was the Rahm brothers against the pocket of the Bleeding Coffins that was holed up there, but the main body of the Coffins is on Delta so they backed off pretty quick. That was almost the end of that, but then the younger Rahm decides that this is as good a chance as any to launch a hostile takeover, and all of a sudden, everyone who declared loyalty to the brothers—which was every mother’s son on the damn asteroid that knew what was good for him—was scrambling to choose a side and fight or get the hell out of the way. Follow?”

Everyone at the table nodded.

“Alright. So. Everyone’s got to eat somehow, right? And while I’ve got nothing but respect for the girls working in the red light district, I know I don’t have the right disposition to be one of them, and no one respectable wants to hire a street rat, and I’ve got no love for the gangs. So,” Zosha shrugged, “I got good at stealing things. A friend of mine’s an information broker and every so often he’d set me up with a job, but for the most part it was just pickpocketing to make sure I had a roof over my head and food on the table. It was all working out about as well as you could expect from Lytos, but then I fucked up. See, there’s this man named Lan Doro. Greasy, but ambitious. When Rahm the Younger decided to try and take over, he jumped on board and after a little hard work and a lot of backstabbing he made it into the inner circle. Then he gets put in charge of the U4 shipments—you know, Euphoria? Gold powder? Makes you think you’re flying?-- and that’s where things start going downhill for me. You have to understand, I’d heard of Lan Doro but I’d never seen him before. All I knew was he looked like he had something valuable on him, which I guess he did. Not the good kind of valuable, though.”

Zosha paused to wet her lips.


Page 3

“What did you take?” the captain asked.

“I’m not sure, entirely, but there’s a lot of numbers and a lot of names,” Zosha said. “It’s the kind of thing that could get someone in trouble with the law, even on Lytos, but the real threat to Lan Doro is that I could give it to the older Rahm. It would help him reduce his brother’s influence, but not enough to unseat him entirely, which means that little brother would still be more than capable of making the rest of Lan Doro’s life a living hell. I’ve got no interest in giving the information to anyone, but as long as I have it I could ruin him and he knows it. So my information broker friend helped me hop from Lytos, to Trios, to Dalos XI. From there, obviously, I broke onto your ship and now we’re here.”

“You have an information broker friend capable of getting you through Dalos XI’s security?” Hyde asked, eyebrow raised.

“Kind of. He paid off one of the guards to not red flag my ID,” Zosha lied. One of the many caveats of being friends with Spinner was never admitting to knowing him. Best case scenario, someone would try to get her to contact him for information. Worst case scenario, someone would hurt her to try and hurt him by proxy.

“I wasn’t aware Sixers could be paid off,” Dominic said.

“There’s always at least one in every bunch,” Zosha said nonchalantly. In her experience, it was true. 

“So why not just give the information to one of the Rahm brothers?” Annie asked. “Surely, that would get you some degree of protection?”

“Two problems there,” Zosha replied. “The first is getting past Lan Doro. Running from him and his was difficult enough, and that was away from Lytos. On Lytos, he’s got eyes everywhere, or a friend who does. I’d have been dead in the water if I stayed. The second is that it could come back to bite me later. Let’s say I get information to one of the brothers, yeah? Well, if I get the information back to the younger one and the older one wins this little spat, then I’m one of his enemy’s people and I need to be eliminated. Same thing if I give the information to the older one. And either way, I’d be declaring a side, which I wouldn’t want anyways and which would put a target on my back. Running was easier and safer.”

“Huh,” the captain grunted. “Well, you’ve got about a minute left. Anything else you want to add?”

“I, ah…” Zosha searched for the right words that would convince the crew not to kill her immediately. “I’m good a cracking encryptions? And getting through security systems? And, well. I obviously have light fingers. I’d owe you a favor, and I promise I never meant to hurt any of you, I just needed to get out of Dalos XI.” She stopped herself from addingplease don’t kill meto the end of that. Negotiating for your life was one of those weird things Zosha had found that it wasn’t good to look to desperate during. There was no way to tell when the person you were telling all about your five sick children would get bored and just shoot you in the head.

The captain scratched his chin and stared at her. “I think this is one of those things people are always telling me to think through.”

Dominic guffawed. “Sorry, lady, it looks like Leo blindly trusting a pretty woman that comes out of nowhere and demands a ride is something that only happens one time.”

Annie smirked and kissed the captain on the cheek. “I say we watch her while she’s onboard and then drop her when we stop to refuel. That way we get rid of her without having to kill her or delivering her into this Lan Doro’s hands.”

“Sounds good,” Captain Ingram said. “Anyone else?”

“I say we space her now,” Hyde said. “That way we don’t have to worry about watching her.” Zosha stiffened.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Rick said. “I can watch her until we get to a depot.”

“Look, Rick, I’m all for you getting your dick wet, but time and place, yeah? I will personally buy you an hour with a nice girl on Gamma, but she,” he said, nodding at Zosha, “is getting of this shipnow.”

Rick walked slowly around the table to stand next to Hyde. “I don’t think I like what you’re implying.”

“I’m notimplyinganything,” Hyde responded, shifting in his seat so he was facing Rick instead of the table and crossing his arms. “I’msayingthat not all of us are willing to risk our lives for a nice set of tits. It was stupid when the captain did it—no offense, Annie—and it’s stupid now.”

“Hyde—” Rick began.

“I agree,” Dominic said quietly. “We’re smugglers, not a ferry for girls with notorious criminals chasing them across the galaxy. Besides, we need to lay low after the Edge disaster. You heard her, what happened with Strathmore turned the collective criminal underworld of the galaxy upside down. We’ve been lucky to escape the blowback this far. Putting ourselves in the path of another murder-hungry whack-job, especially for some random dame, is the kind of shit that gets people killed.”

Rick glared ferociously at Hyde and Dominic. It was the kind of look that would have had the worst men in the worst parts of Lytos scrambling for cover. Hyde and Dominic just looked indifferent.

“Captain?” Rick asked, not looking away from the two men.

“I’m thinking,” the captain answered.

“Don’t you think we owe her safe passage, in a way?” Annie murmured to him.

“Two things on that,” Hyde drawled, still looking at Rick. “The first is that is some roundabout thinking that assumes we give two shits what we owe anyone. The second is that if you’re thinking we owe her because of the reason I’m thinking you mean, then I’d like to point out that the blame for that falls on your daddy, and, if we’re talking people in the immediate vicinity, you.Wedon’t owe her anything.Youmight owe her something, if you wanna let your guilt complex take charge, but by that logic you still oweus. I suggest you pay it back by getting her off this ship by way of the airlock.”

The captain curled a protective arm around Annie’s waist. “Watch yourself. Annie has more than proven her worth in this crew.”

Hyde snorted. “Hate to say it, Captain, but her doing time on her back for you doesn’t help the rest of us.”

A thunderous look spread across Captain Ingram’s face, and it looked like the only reason he wasn’t jumping across the table at Hyde was the fact that it would displace Annie. Rick looked, somehow, even angrier. Even Dominic’s brow furrowed slightly. Annie, for her part, only raised an eyebrow.

“Hyde, you thrice-damned son of a pox-ridden—”

“I’m ten minutes late to the family meeting,” a familiar voice said from right over Zosha’s left shoulder, “and you all are already trying to kill each other.”

If Zosha had been a little less involved in the conversation in front of her, maybe she would have hear him approach. But she was, and she didn’t. As it were, she found herself in a situation where there was, suddenly, a person who could potentially harm her close behind her in a situation where her nerves were already thrumming with fear and anxiety. She’d stopped getting into situations like this as often once she began to truly excel at thievery, but the scenario was a familiar one, and she reacted the way she usually did. With a startled yelp, she turned in her seat and drove her elbow directly into the mystery person’s groin.

The broad blond man behind her went down with a pained gasp. Zosha had leapt out of her seat and hopped back several feet before his knees hit the ground. The entire room was silent apart from Zosha’s breathing, heavy from shock, and the groans of the man on the ground.

Dominic and Hyde looked at each other for a moment, then turned to the captain.

“Alright,” Hyde said. “She can stay, but only until the depot. After that, if I ever see her again, I reserve the right to break her in half.”

“Fuck… you…” the man, who Zosha assumed was Custer, gasped out.

The captain relaxed. “Good to know you’ve seen the light. Annie, can you show her to Rick’s quarters? I need to talk a few things over with the rest of the crew.”

Annie nodded and slid off his lap. She walked to the door and Zosha followed, stepping carefully around Custer.

“I’d apologize for Hyde and Dom,” Annie said as they walked down a hallway, “but I can’t blame them for worrying about the repercussions of letting you live, so I’ll say instead that I hope you prove them wrong.”

“Thank you, I think,” Zosha said. “Although I’m a little surprised you’re sticking up for Hyde after what he said.”

Annie laughed. “What, the comment about my back and whose sheets it’s been on? I’m more than used to that. If there’s one thing I’ve found that holds true in every corner of the galaxy it’s that when a man gets riled up and there’s a woman involved, inevitably her sex life is going to be used against her. I’m important to this crew and Hyde knows it. God knows those boys have spirit and muscle by the score, but I’m the one that can plan out the best place to apply that. If I was really insulted, I’d make sure to get back at him, but once he cools down he’ll feel bad about it, in his own way.” She stopped in front of a door and started to punch in a code. “This is Rick’s. He and Leo fly this bird in shifts, so he’ll probably be down to get some rest as soon as their little meeting stops.”

The door whooshed open and Annie gestured for Zosha to walk inside.

The room was plain in a way that made Zosha tense. It was all shiny metal and bolted-down furniture. Logically, she knew that all space ships has rooms like this, but on Lytos rooms like this were for people who needed to be able to get a little rough and clean up quick. Apart from a shirt tossed over the back of the desk chair and papers strewn across various surfaces, it was tidier than Zosha had come to expect from a single man’s living quarters. She dropped her pack and kicked it into a corner, then hovered awkwardly, unsure of what to do next.

“So, ah…” she started, more than a little on edge. All the nerves and anxiety and fear had gone from a broad, frenzied tidal wave of emotion to something like a tightrope in a void; it was compact now, and focused, and despite it being smaller then before it was still the only thing she could focus on without losing balance. Less of a bruising pain and more of a precise cut. “What did you mean when you said you owed me? I don’t think I’ve ever met any of you before, and I don’t do much business with smugglers.”

Annie tilted her head one way and then the other, mulling it over. “You said you were caught in the crossfire of an internal conflict caused by the ripples that Strathmore’s death caused,” she said finally. “If that’s true, from a certain way of looking at it, we owe you because we’re the one that caused those ripples.”

It took Zosha a minute to realize what she was saying because of the sheer impossibility of it. “I think I’m interpreting that in a way you don’t mean,” she said faintly.

“If you’re interpreting it as me telling you that we’re the ones who killed Strathmore, then congratulations, you’re on the right path,” Annie said, calm as you please, like she hadn’t just told Zosha she was at least in part responsible for shaking bits of the galaxy apart at the seams.

“I… see,” Zosha said because the silence felt too heavy and she was short on words.

Annie sighed. “It’s like this. My daddy was a gambler. One day he made a very big mistake and lost to a very bad man, and the short version of what happened after that is that I ended up at the altar with Strathmore. I decided to take my chances making a break for it, and Leo and the others rescued me. Strathmore tried to get me back; they stopped him. Permanently.”

“How?” Zosha asked. “Not to cast aspersions on the fighting prowess of your crew, but Strathmore had an army on that ship.”

“And that, I imagine, is what the boys are deciding whether or not to tell you about,” Annie replied. “Now that that’s out of the way, can I get you anything? A change of clothes? Food? You didn’t get a chance to eat while you were at the table, but I’m sure there’s something left.”

“That’s okay,” Zosha said with the awareness that she had just learned something huge and was now having to ignore it thrumming in her mind. “I have nutria-packs.”

Annie scrunched up her face. “Ugh, those things should be a violation of at least twenty human rights laws. Suit yourself, though. I need to go back and make sure my idiots haven’t killed each other yet. Rick will be down soon. And,” she added, her face softening slightly, “don’t worry about him. He’s not about to let you hurt any of us, but he’s surprisingly decent for one of theBreakwaterboys.”

Zosha nodded, refusing to let herself believe it. Annie walked back out into the hallway, the door closing behind her with a beep. Already suspecting what would happen, Zosha tried to open the door only to find that she was locked in. She weighed the knowledge that she could break out much more easily that she had snuck onboard against the knowledge that they would only catch her again.

She walked to the bed and sat on the edge, exhaustion crashing over her as the last of her adrenaline wore away. The panic and worry was all still there, but now instead of motivating her to move, to fight, to escape, it just wore her out. She let herself fall back onto the bed. Annie’s retreating footsteps had been audible even after the door closed, she reasoned, so she’d be able to hear anyone approaching. Comforted, she closed her eyes, just for a second.

She floated back to awareness when she felt something nudging her shin. She blinked, frowning, before the memories of where she was and why surfaced. A new wave of alarm swept over her, forcing her completely awake. She held herself perfectly still, eyes wide and locked onto Rick, who was standing by the bed where her legs still hung over the side.


Page 4

“Hey there,” he said, voice soft like he thought she might run for it. She couldn’t fault him for it; if she thought it would work, she’d have tried it in a heartbeat. 

“…hi,” she answered when enough time passed that it became clear he was waiting for some kind of response. He backed away and she sat up slowly.

“I’m sorry for waking you,” he said. “I just have a few things I need to go over with you. After that, you’re free to roam the ship. Although if I were you, I’d stay away from anywhere you think Custer might be.”

“He’s not, like, plotting his revenge, is he? Because I swear that was just a reflex.”

“Well, your reflex is the funniest damn thing I’ve seen in months. Watching Custer get what’s coming to him is always satisfying. I’ll say this, though: he’s got a history of going starry-eyed over girls who cause him significant amounts of pain as a first impression.”

Zosha added that to a mental character profile that was, in her opinion, not to attractive. “God, why?”

“Look, the man’s defining characteristic is ‘masturbates with his robot hand.’ I don’t know why Custer does shit and, frankly, I’m happier that way.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Zosha allowed. “Alright, what did you need to talk to me about.”

“Right. Ah,” he coughed. “You may want to be comfortable for this. Do you want to change out of that suit?”

Something went cold along Zosha’s spine and she stiffened. “Why, Mr. Chapel, that’s quite forward of you,” she said, voice sweet and artificial smile in place. “And here I thought you might be the gentlemanly type of smuggler.”

Rick raised both hands in a placating gesture. “Not like that. I like my women willing and enthusiastic. But this is going to be a weird conversation to kick off a long couple of days, so you might want to change into something less… that.”

Zosha cast a longing look at her bag. “Will you at least turn around?”

Rick made an assenting noise in the back of his throat and turned. Zosha practically ripped her suit open in her haste to get it off. It did its job adequately but not comfortably, and the sooner she was in something that didn’t feel like it was squeezing her to death quite so much the better.

“Alright, done,” she said once she had changed into her more casual clothes. Rick turned around, his eyes lingering on her newly revealed collarbone. She had opted to just zip a jacket up over her bra instead of putting on a shirt and she could practically see his eyes darken when he realized it. It was half a test to see if he was as good as his word and half a ploy. Men tending to be looser with both money and information when they thought they were about to get something they wanted in return, and all Zosha had to do was be the thing they wanted. There was a third reason floating around the back of her mind, but she was waiting until she felt she could trust Rick more before allowing it to influence her.

Rick cleared his throat and dragged his eyes up to hers. “Alright then,” he said, a bit huskier than before, “you may want to sit down for this.”

Zosha raised an eyebrow and sat on the edge of the bed. Rick tossed the shirt that was hanging off his chair into a corner by the closet and took a seat. 

“So, I’m assuming you’ve heard of bear shifters,” he said. 

Zosha nodded and tried not to speculate on where this was going. “Of course. I’ve never met one, though.”

“Funny story, that,” Rick said, scratching the back of his neck. “Actually, you’ve met five.”

Objectively, Zosha meeting people from a species she had been previously aware existed shouldn’t really compare with the shock of finding out she had accidentally stowed away on the ship of the ragtag crew that had killed the galaxy’s most feared dictator, and yet, somehow, it did. She sat for a minute, processing, until everything whited out into a haze of acceptance that the universe was a vast place with many, many things she could never hope to understand or control.

“That’s wonderful,” Zosha said in a voice that sounded generally like her trying to impersonate herself. “That’s just… wow.”

“Surprise,” Rick said, wiggling his fingers. “Are you okay?”

“I think I might be in shock,” Zosha said cheerfully. “It’s not a thing I go through a lot, but I’ve just received an awful lot of surprising information and it’s been a really stressful few weeks. I expect I’m going to have a truly spectacular meltdown when it wears off.”

“Let me know if there’s something I can get you,” Rick said. “Do you have any questions?”

“Not at the moment. Would it be okay if I just sat here for a moment? Quietly?” she asked.

“Of course. I’ll be doing some paperwork. Let me know if you need anything.”

Zosha took the opportunity to calmly assess the clusterfuck that was, currently, her life. If it had been inadvisable to let the crew of theBreakwaterknow that she was able to reliably contact Spinner before she had found out about their involvement with Strathmore’s death, now it was inexcusable. Spinner hated politics and never took sides. If he did anything that could be construed as helping her now, it could easily be interpreted as him aiding the others, which would automatically devastate the resources he pulled from Strathmore’s supporters. She was utterly, completely alone, apart from the six people who could kill her as easy as breathing and probably would if they thought it was convenient. In addition to that, she was trapped in a metal can with five men who could track her if she tried to run or hide and who seemed more forthcoming with their information than people who were planning to let the other party live generally were. She tried to organize her thoughts the way Spinner had taught her:what do I need? What do I want? What do I have?

The answers were simply bleak. She needed, as she always had, to get away from Lan Doro. She had nothing that she would be able to use successfully against the smugglers she had inadvertently thrown her lot in with should they choose to attack her. She wanted to be at home, safe, and not worrying about anything other than paying rent. She wanted Lan Doro to die. She wanted to have met this strange, kind man in another place and another time. She wanted an awful lot and felt a dawning fear that she might not get any of it began to trickle through her.

The last time Zosha had thought about something not being fair was the last time she had seen her mother, her back disappearing into the midday crowd. After that, she had walked through life with the knowledge that nothing was fair and that nothing would ever be fair. People lived their lives at different levels and on different scales, with self-preservation as the only common thread linking the whole of the species. It did no one any good to sit around thinkingthis isn’t fair.

Zosha thought it then. She felt the odd desire to be five years old again and throw herself on the ground, screaming and crying and kicking. She wanted to wail that none of this, not grabbing the notebook, or Lan Doro seeing her rounding a corner, or getting on this ship, was fair, because itwasn’t. Justifications were easy in lives like Zosha’s. She was in this mess because she was on the run, which was because she stole a notebook, which was because she thought she could sell it, which was because she was hungry, which was because that was how her life worked. It wasn’t her fault; she hadn’t asked to be born on that God forsaken asteroid, or to be a street rat. She realized her eyes were beginning to sting.

“Excuse me,” she said in a detached voice. “I think I’m going to have that meltdown now. May I use your bathroom?”

“Of course,” Rick said, frowning in concern. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No thank you,” she said, rising and walking towards the small bathroom. Once inside she locked the door, knelt by the toilet, and waited.

Soon enough, she felt the familiar tugging sensation in her stomach. She bent over the bowl just before the retching started. The one good thing that could be said about nutri-paste was that it came back up easily.

She felt the swirl of caustic, jagged emotions swirl through her veins and rested her head against her hands. She was so tired of all of the running and she would give anything to just stopfeelingfor five minutes. She had been on high alert constantly since she grabbed the damn book and she wasn’t sure how much more she could take before she went insane. It seemed like every time she turned around there was a new source of anxiety or fear waiting for her.

Her mind started to go fuzzy, like static, and she could feel herself shaking as her breath rattled in and out of her. She curled in on herself more.

“Europa, Ganymede,” she mumbled to herself, listing off the moons of Jupiter. As a child she’d been fascinated ever since she’d stumbled across a book about them. She still had all sixty-three memorized, and reciting them helped her calm down. “Io, Callisto, Amalthea, Ananke…”

Eventually, her breathing evened back out and she felt a little less like making all Hyde’s dreams come true and taking a swan dive out the airlock. She stood on legs that, thankfully, only trembled slightly, and walked to the mirror to check her reflection. She was, as feared, even paler than usual, except for the red, splotchy skin around her eyes. Deciding that it was as good as it was likely to get for a while, she walked back out into the main room.

Rick looked up cautiously as she emerged.

“I’ve got a weird question for you,” Zosha said, looking at a point somewhere over his left shoulder. “How good is your hearing?”

Rick opened his mouth, then closed it again. A hollow formed in his cheek from where he was biting the inside of it. “No one could judge you for…being upset right now,” he said carefully, mouth forming the words like they were glass. “You’ve been through a lot.”

Well, that certainly hadn’t been the answer Zosha had wanted to hear.

“Alright, well, I’ve been dealing with about all the emotions I can handle for the time being, so how do you feel about ignoring that little outburst and pretending everything is fine? Because that’s my plan.”

“That doesn’t sound very healthy,” Rick replied, although he sounded more amused than worried.

“Yeah, well, I’m a prisoner on a smuggler ship full of bear shifters because I’m running from a homicidal psychopath. Why break the streak now?”

“Fair enough,” Rick said, the last bits of concern fading from his handsome face.

“Repression, repression, repression, that’s my motto,” Zosha said with considerably more cheer than she actually felt. “So, what do you do for fun on this thing?”

From the look in Rick’s eyes, he had caught onto the underlying message ofwhat is there I can use to distract myself, but he didn’t call her out on it.

“Watch vids, read, try to lock each other in storage spaces, the usual,” Rick shrugged. “You got a preference?”

“Which one of those will distract you from work the least?”

Rick laughed, warm and low. “Sweetheart, this is all the shit Leo makes me do so he doesn’t have to do it himself. I would love a distraction.”

“In that case, tell me a story,” Zosha said. “You’re bear shifter smugglers, cavorting across the galaxy in search of the next haul. Surely you’ve got a few interesting tales to tell.”

“Hmm… I can think of a few. So, do you know why our girl is called theBreakwater? No? It’s because she can go underwater. Not terribly useful in space, of course, but invaluable if we need to shake someone or hide the ship while picking up a haul on any planet with a large enough body of water. Of course, this is all dependent on everything being sealed up proper. So anyways, there we were on Kitar II, picking up a shipment of what was supposed to be this super rare quail offshoot that rich folks in that system love because it’s the equivalent of just eating a brick of platinum but better tasting, right? But then…” He then proceeded to spend the next fifteen minutes telling her a story of proportions that, even in light of recent revelations, she was disinclined to believe. It involved pirates, an incredibly angry prostitute, and what were, as far as anyone could guess, flying crocodiles that spat poison. 

After he finished, she asked for another one. He told her about how he got a scar on his arm, and she responded by telling him about the time she’d broken her leg in two places sneaking out of a house she’d just robbed and ridden home on a street cleaner. They went back and forth and before either of them realized it, they’d spent the better part of four hours talking.

“…and that’s why I’m banned from the lower levels of Catastrophe,” Zosha finished. Rick, finally recovering from laughing so hard that she’d thought he might be suffocating, opened his mouth to say something in response when a crackling noise filled the room.

“Big Bear to Eagle Two, everything alright down there? Over,” a voice that Zosha recognized as the captain’s said from a metallic box on the wall by the bed’s headrest. Zosha, who had sprawled across the mattress about forty minutes in, jerked upright. Rick sighed and walked over to it.

“Captain, the day I call you Big Bear is the day Custer finally rips away my last tenuous hold on sanity, and it will be all the warning you get before I go on a killing spree,” Rick said with the voice of someone who had made that threat before. “What do you need?”

“Aww, Annie doesn’t mind calling me that,” the captain’s static-filled voice responded. Zosha choked and Rick rested his forehead on the wall, sighing explosively. “And I’m just checking to make sure you know you need to be up here in five.”


Page 5

From Rick’s hushed cursing, he hadn’t. “Be right up, Captain.” He took his finger off the intercom button and turned to Zosha. “Alright, that’s my cue to haul ass up to the cockpit. You need anything else before I go?”

“I’ll admit, I was hoping for another story,” Zosha said, smiling.

Rick shook his head smiling. “What are you, five?”

Zosha tilted her head, then grinned at him. Over the past few hours, she had come to two conclusions. The first was that this strange, tall man with his mechanical legs and golden eyes, would not harm her. The second was that she liked him quite a bit more than she had expected to, given both her situation and the short time she’d known him. Trying for anything with him would be, at best, dangerous. She could practically hear Spinner’s voice in her head, telling her that she was only going to get herself hurt.

Zosha had an absolutely abysmal track record at doing what was good for her.

She leaned back on one arm and tugged down on her jacket’s zipper with the other hand. She stopped about halfway to her bellybutton and rolled her shoulders back to widen the gape in the material a bit.

“I don’t know,” she drawled, running her fingers lightly from her collarbone to the top of her cleavage and back. “Do I look like I’m five?”

Rick swallowed audibly and turned back to the intercom. “Right. So. The button with the red sticker connects you to the whole ship. Green sticker is the cockpit. If you need Annie, yellow’s your best bet, that’s the captain’s room.”

“Red for everyone, green for you, yellow for Annie,” Zosha said. “Got it. Anything else?”

“One thing: if you want to leave the room, the code to get back inside is 2422. Me, the captain, and Annie are the only ones with the code, so you don’t have to worry about the others barging in here. Alright then, I’d better head up,” Rick nodded at her, resolutely keeping his eyes on her face.

“You sure? You look a little tense there,” Zosha teased. 

“I have about fifteen seconds to get myself under control before I head up to meet my captain and any of my other crew mates who care to check in. So yes, I’m a bit tense.” Rick said in a measured tone. “I don’t suppose you’re feeling particularly remorseful about that.”

“Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself,” Zosha said in the silky voice designed to get past night guards. She lay back down, dark hair spilling over Rick’s pillow, and blinked innocently up at him. “Now, don’t you have a ship to fly?”

“You know, I was expecting a personality change when the shock wore off,” Rick said in a voice that was probably fonder than he wanted it to be, “but I wasn’t expecting you to turn out to be evil incarnate.”

Zosha scoffed. “Please. I am, at best, severely vexing incarnate. Although that does give me something to aspire to, so thank you. Now,” she continued with a stretch before closing her eyes and waving a hand at Rick lazily, “leave me. I must rest.”

“You do remember the part where I told you I can turn into a bear, right?” Rick asked, heading for the door. “Because that’s still a thing I can do.” 

“Can’t hear you, sleeping,” Zosha called after him, smile widening as she heard him laugh before the doors closed behind him. She let herself relax completely and waited until sleep claimed her.

And waited. And waited. And waited some more.

After approximately ten minutes of trying and failing, despite her exhaustion, to fall asleep, Zosha gave in and sat up, irritated. Even with the trances, sleep was important. There was only so long she could substitute meditation for the real thing before she started to wear down, and she knew from experience that she was at that point. Every part of her body wanted her to just turn off for a few hours and let herself recuperate from weeks on running, but her brain refused to quiet down. She ambled over the desk, looking for a book or vid collection to distract her until she fell asleep. She found both and, remembering Rick was a single man who often spent long periods alone in this room, opted to go with the books.

She was surprised to see he had actual paper books. While they were common enough ground side, as far as Zosha knew people tended to use digital libraries during long periods of space travel to save room. She picked up a few and flipped through them. They were all action-packed tales of heists and dramatic rescues, which Zosha normally loved; however, it seemed that her mind was too wired to sleep but too unfocused to let her read. She looked over at the intercom and considered seeing if Rick or Annie could get her a sleep aid, then decided they had probably given her enough already. Thirty minutes into her failed attempts to sleep, Zosha gave up. She sighed, then did the only thing she could think of that she actually wanted to do.

Making sure she was zipped up in all the right places, she stepped out into the hallway. Apart from the hum of the ship, it was quiet. She began to make her way to what she assumed was the front of the ship. Luckily, theBreakwaterwas a small enough vessel that the trip was both fast and easy and she made it without running into anyone.

Rick didn’t notice her at first when she entered the cockpit. Moving quietly was second nature to Zosha, even when she didn’t necessarily mean to do it. She considered alerting him to her presence but decided instead to just look at the man for a moment. His skin was tinted in greens and blues from the lights on the control board as he stared intently at the stars rushing by on the view screen. Neither of them moved and Zosha, for the first time in what felt like years, let herself remain motionless, a moment of perfect stillness in a ship going warp 7. Then she moved forward, intentionally stepping down more heavily than normal to let him know she was there. He startled, then swung around to face her.

“Everything okay?” Rick asked. “The intercom not working?”

Suddenly, Zosha felt embarrassed. Why had she thought trailing after him like a puppy was a good idea? She straightened her shoulders. The time honored strategy of “fake it ’til you make it” had worked so far, might as well keep going.

“Couldn’t sleep after all,” she said breezily. “Figured I’d come up and see what an actual cockpit looks like.”

“Actualcockpit?” Rick asked, smirking. Zosha relaxed fractionally. “As opposed to what, exactly?”

“Fancy club for people who want to rent a boy for a few hours,” Zosha answered. “Never went myself, but I’ve heard some interesting stories.” 

“I see,” Rick said. “So, you don’t usually wander around the ships you sneak onto?”

“I’ve never been on a ship long enough to,” she answered, sitting beside the pilot’s seat and looking up at the view screen. 

“You’ve never… Zosha, is this your first time flying?” Rick asked, incredulous.

“I know, I just seem so worldly,” Zosha said. The streams of light on the screen were having an almost hypnotic effect on her. “It’s just, my entire life I’ve always depended on being able to get out fast and, as I’m sure you know, that doesn’t work as well on a ship. I was always afraid I would end up trapped. And then everything that happened… happened, and it didn’t really matter anymore.” She laughed at Rick’s sideways glance. “I know, I know. The irony is that it trapped me on Lytos. But hey. I’ll take being trapped on an asteroid over a ship any day. At least there’d be decent food.” 

She leaned over, resting her side against Rick’s chair, her head on his armrest. He stiffened for a moment, then placed his hand about two inches away. She closed her eyes. It hadn’t been a fluke, or the emotional runoff of their mutual storytelling. Something about Rick just made her feel… safe.

“What about you?” she asked, feeling herself relax completely. “How long have you been flying?”

“As a passenger? My whole life, it feels like. I’m a legacy smuggler, I guess. As a pilot, six years.” He looked down at Zosha. “You with me?”

“Mmm, yup,” she said, words sleep-slurred. “Tell me about growing up with smugglers.”

“Wow, you really like getting told stories,” he laughed.

“Or maybe I just like your voice and this is my clever ploy to keep you talking to me,” she said, then yawned.

“I think I could live with that,” Rick said softly. “Alright, so, theBackbreakerwas about twice as big as theBreakwaterand dealt almost exclusively in the Outer Rim. I don’t think I saw a core planet until I was ten, and my mom ended up accidentally kidnapping a shop girl. See, she’d gone in to look for spare parts…”

The combination of the stars rushing past them and Rick’s voice did what reading and breathing exercises hadn’t managed, and Zosha felt herself drifting off. At some point and indeterminable amount of time later, she felt a soft, warm pressure on the top of her head. When she didn’t move away, the pressure began to move down the length of her hair, lightly at first and then with more confidence. Zosha sighed happily and let the feeling of Rick running his fingers through her hair push her that final step into sleep.

She was, distantly, aware of fading in and out of consciousness, bursts of awareness of the glow of the screen and the sounds of the ship and, always, of the feeling of Rick’s hand in her hair.

“You’re gonna wind up outside my door begging to keep her, aren’t you?” she thought she heard someone say at one point.

“She’s not a dog, Leo,” Rick answered.

“Says the one petting her,” the captain snorted. “Anyways, you’re in luck. Annie likes her and, more importantly, Annie thinks she might be useful.”

“Usefulhow?” Rick asked, his voice suddenly something hard and sharp.

“Ease up. It doesn’t involve giving her to Lan Doro. Annie’s working on convincing the others to see it her way. If she’s successful, which looking back on her track record I’m inclined to think she will be, there’ll be another meeting. Consider this a heads up.”

“And whatever Annie’s thinking won’t put her in danger?”

“No more than she already is. Actually, Annie’s hoping we can solve one of our problems by solving hers. Why, were you planning on finally going on that killing spree if I said yes? Because as someone who’s been your friend for five years and your captain for six, I’m going to feel pretty offended if you throw me over for someone you’ve known for a handful of hours.”

“Don’t be stupid, of course not. But I do think she’s worth protecting.”

“I know the feeling. I’ll call you when Annie manages to glare Hyde and Dominic into submission.”

“She’s not worried about Custer?”

“Since when has anyone ever cared about Custer’s opinion on anything? Besides, he likes her.”

Rick sighed. “I was afraid that would happen.”

The captain chuckled. “Don’t worry, he’s not edging in on your territory. Anyways, I need to go make sure Dom and Hyde haven’t gotten offensive enough that Annie’ll be forced to retaliate. Try not to crash.”

“Fuck off.”

Zosha was aware on some level that she had just heard something important, but she wasn’t aware enough to figure out why it was important or why she should care. Instead she slipped back under.

The next time she woke up it was because Rick was shaking her. She blinked up at him.

“Wusshappenin?” she asked.

“Congratulations, that was almost a real word. I need you to get up now. Annie has a plan.”

Zosha tried and failed to will her legs to work, then looked plaintively up at Rick. He sighed, a warm look in his eyes, and hauled her to her feet.

“How did you manage to escape from a villainous mastermind on your own, exactly?” He asked as she leaned into him, stretching out a few aches and adjusting to being on her feet.

“I wasn’t alone. And Lan Doro isn’t a mastermind. And I am stealthy and amazing,” she told him, forming her words precisely as the fog of sleep slowly cleared out of her mind.

“I mean I’d go with ‘you’re lucky that you’re pretty,’ but sure let’s go with that,” Rick answered. Zosha cycled through reactions to that, from offended to teasing to nonchalant, before focusing on the important bit.

“You think I’m pretty?” she asked with a sleep-drunk smile, batting her eyelashes at him.

“Haven’t kicked you out of bed yet, have I? Or the cockpit, for that matter.”

“’Cause you know I’d kick youinthe cockpit if you tried.”

“Almost flawless comeback, that. Points off for there not actually being a pit near my cock.”

“There will be if you try anything, just ask Custer,” Zosha said.

Rick laughed and began pulling her towards the kitchen. “Alright, then, I’ll be a perfect gentleman.”

“Nope, too late, you already told me about the Great Brothel Escape,” she told him.

“And there goes the sterling reputation I’ve spent years polishing,” he said. Suddenly, his face fell. “Zosha, I just want you to know that everything is going to be okay.”

It seemed like a silly thing to say out of the blue, and Zosha was confused until the conversation she’d thought she dreamed came back in fragments. She was suddenly much more awake.

“Oh, God, they’ve decided what to do with me,” she said.

“Yes, they have,” Rick said soothingly. “And they’re going to help you. I need you to trust me. Can you do that, just for ten minutes?”


Page 6

Looking in those warm, golden eyes, Zosha thought she could trust him for a lot longer than ten minutes. She nodded and followed him the rest of the way to the kitchen.

The others were already sitting around the table when Zosha and Rick arrived, a sense of déjà vu sweeping over her. There were two chairs open across from where the captain was sitting, Annie leaning on his back with her arms around his shoulders, and Rick sat down comfortably, Zosha following suit after a second of hesitation. 

“Alright, so,” Captain Ingram began, “the brilliant love of my life has had an idea. I, personally, think it’s a damn good one, and these chucklefucks,” he gestured at Dominic, Hyde, and Custer, “apparently agree enough that they’re willing to consider it.Ifyou think you can do your part.”

The captain looked up and locked eyes with Annie, who nodded. She straightened up, leaning an elbow on Ingram’s shoulder, and addressed the room.

“So, it seems to me what we have here is a thief with a ledger and an asteroid locked in a civil war,” she said. “And, of course, what we’ve always had: our job. It seems to me there’s a way to combine those.

“Stop me, Zosha, if I get any of this wrong. After Strathmore’s long overdue demise, the Rahm brothers split and began fighting each other for control of Lytos. You had the misfortune of pickpocketing the wrong man. Lan Doro, something of a supplier to the younger Rahm, had a notebook detailing the U4 trade he was running. This notebook is now in your possession. Yes? Good. Now, I know all of you know what U4 is and exactly how much you can make smuggling it because we’ve been on the lookout for an opportunity to get in on the game. And this,” Annie said, pointing at Zosha, “is that opportunity.”

“How so?” asked Hyde. 

“We know what all three parties involved in this want. Zosha wants to get rid of the notebook and make it out of this safely. We want in on the U4 trade. And the older Rahm wants his brother out of the way.”

“Wait,” Zosha interrupted. “When did Sylas Rahm get involved?”

“We’re involving him,” Annie said, the steel back in her eyes, “because it’s the best way to tie up several loose ends. If we destroy or otherwise wash our hands of the notebook, Lan Doro still wants Zosha dead because he can’t let her live after reading it or give her the chance to tell his boss that he let it be stolen. If we take it to the younger Rahm brother, then we have to go into Lan Doro’s territory and we run the risk of him getting to Zosha before we reach our goal. And little brother already has a supplier.

“But if we take it to the older brother—Sylas, right? I was beginning to wonder if they had first names—then three things happen. The first is that Zosha gets rid of the notebook, but in a way that earns her the protection of someone powerful. I’m sorry, I know you didn’t want to choose sides, but that’s life. The second is that Sylas unbalances his brother’s empire, probably enough to guarantee him victory. As a result of that, I’d wager that either the little brother kills Lan Doro in revenge or Sylas kills him for being one of his brother’s men, which takes care of that. And last, Sylas Rahm, soon to be in charge of one of the most infamous asteroids of iniquity, finds himself without a U4 supplier, but with a crew of smugglers who have already proven their loyalty to him, aided by one of Lytos’ most talented thieves.”

“So what you’re saying is, essentially, you want to use Zosha as a battering ram to get into the U4 trade?” Dominic asked.

“Pretty much. Although I would like to remind you that, hopefully, we take care of her problems as well,” Annie replied. “So, you in?”

“I have a choice?” Zosha asked, because she was still processing the fact that this could work, that she could befree. Under the table, Rick grabbed her hand and squeezed.

“It’s more that we don’t have a choice in letting you have a choice,” Annie said. “You’re the one with the notebook, and this would work best if you were the one presenting this all to Sylas. This doesn’t exactly hinge on you being on board, but it would help a hell of a lot if you were.”

Zosha considered that for a moment, then stood slowly. “I think I need a moment. I’ll be right back.”

She walked out of the kitchen, her feet carrying her back to the cockpit. She sat in Rick’s chair, pulling her knees up to her chin and wrapping her arms around herself.Breathe in, breathe out.

“Europa, Ganymede, Io, Callisto, Amalthea, Ananke,” she muttered. “Pasiphae, Carme, Thebe, Metis, Adrastea…”

She’d gotten to Hegemone before Rick walked in. 

“I’ll be honest, I thought you’d be a little happier about this,” he said.

“I can’t let myself be,” she said without looking at him. “I can’t do this.”

“What do you mean?” he asked. “You’ve already come so far on your own.”

“I already told you, I wasn’t alone,” she told him, refusing to let her voice break. “And you mean I’ve already run so far. That’s all I’m good for, you know. Grabbing something I think I can get a decent price for later and then hightailing. And it works, because I’ve always been faster than whoever’s chasing me. But making a stand? I can’t do that. I mean, look at me. I’m all bluster and bluff to cover up the fact that I’m a wreck who can’t even control her own life.” She wiped her nose on the back of her hand. “You should have just let Hyde airlock me.”

“Hey, look at me,” Rick said, kneeling down next to her. After a moment, she complied. “You can do this, and you won’t be alone. You’ll have five bear shifters backing you up. I mean, we took outStrathmore. This is going to beeasy.”

Zosha nodded, trying to let herself be reassured. There was still one stubborn little worry that refused to dissipate.

“And then what?” she asked. “I already told you, I don’t want to take sides. I can’t live like that, knowing there might be a target on my back because of who I work for. I’d go insane. The only thing I can think of is to leave Lytos for good, but where would I go?”

Even on the run, she’d always imagined that one day, the dust would settle and she would be able to return to her asteroid. She hated living there, with the stink and the violence and the feeling that she’d never be anything more than she was, but the thought of never getting to live there again was surprisingly painful.

“You’d go anywhere you wanted,” Rick answered. “I mean, you lived your whole life on that hellhole. If you can survive Lytos, you can survive anywhere.”

This was a lie; being able to survive on Lytos meant that Zosha could survive on Lytos, or places like it. It meant she could sleep with one eye open, always on guard. It meant her fight-or-flight response, firmly weighted on the side of flight, had a hair trigger that had saved her life more than once but would never let her feel at home anywhere properly civilized. Rick knew it as well as Zosha did, but it was better than no reassurance at all and she allowed him to lead her back to the kitchen.

Hyde and Dominic looked unimpressed by her reentrance, but she ignored both them and Custer’s smirk in favor of addressing the captain and Annie. 

“I’m in,” she told them. “I think you’re crazy for wanting to do this, but I’m in.”

Annie smiled. “Glad to have you on board.”

The next hour passed in a frenzy of planning that consisted mostly of Annie convincing the others they could just shift from the get-go and kill anyone who tried to get in their way and picking Zosha’s brain for information. Once she had drilled everyone’s script into their minds to her satisfaction, she declared the meeting disbanded and told the crew members to return to their duties and Zosha to rest up.

Zosha had the alarming thought that if Annie and Spinner ever met each other, they would either kill each other or take over the galaxy.

The captain and Rick shared a long look that ended in the captain walking to the cockpit and Rick walking Zosha back to his room.

“He’ll fly us in. At warp 8, it should take twelve hours,” Rick told her as he keyed in the passcode to his room.

“Three and a half weeks of switching ships and hopping city to city and asteroid to dwarf planet to space station to get away from Lytos,” she told him, “and twelve hours to get back. It doesn’t seem right.”

“That shouldn’t be new,” he responded. “Annie was right, though. You only got about an hour and a half of sleep in the cockpit, you really should lay back down.”

Zosha couldn’t think of anything else to do, so she fell back on the mattress. 

“How are you feeling?” Rick asked her, shoving the papers on his desk into stacks.

“I think I’m actually so terrified I can’t even feel it anymore,” she answered. “You?”

“Eh. A little itchy from anticipation. Concerned about little Rahm’s defenses. Happy that your shit is getting figured out.”

“So is yours,” Zosha pointed out. Rick walked over and sat beside her, leaning back on the headrest.

“Happy about that too,” he said and put one hand gently on the crown of her head. She relaxed as he began running his fingers through her hair again. “Now, get some sleep.”

She closed her eyes, certain she wouldn’t be able to get a wink of sleep, and woke up eleven and a half hours later to Custer yelling over the intercom for Rick to get his ass in gear.

Rick moaned from where he’d passed out beside her and propped himself up on his elbows. They locked eyes and he gave her a crooked grin.

“Let’s go finish a war, shall we?” he said, and for the first time Zosha really, truly felt like this might just work out.

They gathered in the cargo bay. Dominic and Annie were staying behind. Rick and Zosha were splitting away from Captain Ingram, Hyde, and Custer to avoid drawing too much attention and then meeting back up at a rendezvous point after forty minutes. From there on, it was all a matter of getting into Sylas Rahm’s compound.

Rick and Zosha headed out first. She took him down to her favorite sweetbread vendor and they trailed around the marketplace, waiting for the appointed time.

Zosha remembered Spinner haggling with a tech vendor for the only decent monitor in the shop when they were barely in their twenties, his eyes narrow and lips thinned with impatience, and suddenly she missed him so much it hurt. She didn’t want to walk into what might be her death without saying goodbye to him.

She tugged on Rick’s sleeve and told him she’d be right back, then dashed into the nearest bathroom and pulled out her comm. She didn’t think she had time to call him, on the off chance he picked up, and she didn’t want to tell him face to face that, despite all his help, she could still very well be about to get herself killed. The habit to run away was, apparently, not something that could be kicked all at once.

She racked her mind for what to say, aware that Rick was waiting outside, and ended up sending a simpleabout to do something stupid with the Rahm brothers, watch out for the kickback, and thank you for everything. It didn’t scratch the surface of what she owed him or what she wanted to say to him, but it was better than letting her best, oldest, and only friend find out what she’d done through one of his contacts.

She walked back to Rick, and they killed fifteen minutes wandering before they changed course to meet the others.

Sylas Rahm’s base of operations was underground, which wasn’t unusual. Once the population had grown too much for the surface alone, mining shafts from before the asteroid had been converted for civilization were stabilized and turned into housing. Sylas’ compound was several of these tunnels connected and reinforced. They weren’t getting in without permission, regardless of what the shifter thought, so as soon as they reached the entrance she squared her shoulders and walked up to a guard.

“Hello. I need to talk to Sylas Rahm. Unfortunately, it’s important,” she said, trying not to feel like a child putting on an act.

The guard snorted. “I’m sure. Why don’t you come back later?”

“Look,” Zosha said, “can you at least tell me someone I can talk to that’ll pass on a message to him?”

“Can’t, actually,” the guard said. “Go waste someone else’s time.”

“Look,” Zosha said, patience running thin. “This is something that can help your boss and stop me from getting killed, so if you could please just tell me who I can talk to I’ll leave you alone. If not, you’re going to have to deal with me for a while.” 

“Look, sweetheart,” the guard said, and shoved her backwards hard. Two things happened at once. The first was that Rick, snarling, stepped forward to catch her. The second was the almost as soon as Zosha stumbled back, a bullet hit the guard’s shoulder. The six of them stared dumbly at the blood splattering the ground for a second, then everything was screaming and motion. Rick spun to face the direction the bullet had come from, drawing his blaster and keeping Zosha behind him. Custer and Captain Ingram followed suit. Zosha squinted through the fleeing shoppers, trying to see the shooter. Behind her, she could hear the guard yelling into his comm.

Fear shot through her as she saw men in black full body armor pushing through the crowd. There weren’t as many as she’d feared, but more than enough to put a bullet in her head.

“I think they saw us,” Custer said, cackling.

“Not now,” the captain said, voice hard.

The black-suited mercenaries advanced steadily, and Zosha and the shifters dove for cover. Most of the stalls were wood or a plastic material, and a blaster bolt tore a hole straight through the side of one, narrowly missing Zosha’s head. She clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming. Rick jerked her close, putting himself between her and the mercenaries.


Page 7

“Shifting!” the captain shouted, then tossed his blaster to the side and stood in the middle of the hail of bullets.

It happened in less than five seconds. His skin rippled, then exploded outwards, fur covering the expanding form. A snapping sound and a slick, organic noise could be heard over the report of the blasters and in the time it took to blink a giant, dark-furred bear stood where the captain had been. Zosha stared.

The bear shook itself off, then lunged for the attackers, who, understandably disoriented, scattered.

“Hey!” a voice behind them yelled. Zosha turned to see two new guards hauling their bleeding comrade into the compound, about five others in identical uniforms streaming out from behind them, energy shields flickering to life around them. They began firing at the mercs, who were forced to scatter.

“Go,” Rick commanded.

“I don’t want to leave you,” Zosha protested.

“And I don’t want to see you get shot. We came here geared up to fight. You didn’t.”

“But…” Zosha started, then swallowed around the lump in her throat. She didn’t want to be responsible for his death. She didn’t think she could live with herself.

Rick hesitated, then leaned in and pressed a hard kiss to her mouth. It took her a second to realize what was happening, but once she did she grabbed his shoulder in an attempt to pull him closer. They broke apart breathing heavily.

“I will come back safe,” he promised her. “I want to see that through.”

Zosha tried to say something in return and found that she her throat had tightened and she couldn’t speak. Instead, she pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth and dashed towards the door.

As soon as she was inside, one of the new guards hit the button to close the door. She turned to see that Rick had stood up, skin rippling the way the captain’s had.

“Wait!” Zosha yelled. “The bears are on our side!”

The last thing she saw before the doors closed completely was Rick erupting into his bear form, back to her. She sent a silent prayer to whatever might be listening for him to come through this safely.

“That was the weirdest fucking thing I’ve seen since I started working here,” one of the new guards, a tall blond man, said.

“He’s new,” the other one told Zosha, hauling his injured friend up and looping an arm under his shoulder. “Alright, I’m going to get Davison to medical. Take her to the boss.”

“On it,” the blond said. He gripped Zosha’s arm lightly and began to walk deeper into the compound.

Zosha let herself be led away. Something in her heart wrenched painfully at leaving Rick behind and she told herself he’d be fine. He had to be.

The guard stopped in front of a door and knocked on it three times.

“Come in,” a voice said from inside.

They went in.

Sylas Rahm had grey streaking his temples and cold blue eyes. He sat back in a large padded chair behind his desk, calmer than Zosha thought anyone who had people trying to shoot up his compound had any right to be. The light from the holoscreen on his desk lit him up, making his angles more severe.

“Thank you,” he said, nodding at the guard, who nodded back and then walked out, closing the door.

“So,” Sylas said lazily. “Tell me what all this is about.”

“It started with me picking the wrong pocket,” Zosha started, steeling herself. She told him about Lan Doro’s first barely avoided attack and all the running that followed. She told about sneaking through Dalos XI and onto theBreakwater. About being found. She only left out knowing Spinner, out of habit, and the truth about theBreakwatercrew’s genetics.

“…and there’s four of mine still outside,” she said, winding down. “And seeing as they can’t do much business for you if they’re dead, I think it would be best if you tried to keep them alive. Sir.”

Sylas contemplated her, eyes running over her as though she were a passably interesting problem to be solved. “You know, he said you could be a bit pushy. I see he wasn’t wrong.”

Before Zosha could ask who told him that, a very familiar voice sounded from the holoscreen.

“I am never wrong,” Spinner said, sounding as though he had a very large headache. “Hello, Zosha. Next time could you please try to give me more than fifteen minutes of a heads up before you get yourself shot at?”

“Did you pick a side?” Zosha demanded, ignoring his question. “You’ve never picked a side before.”

“You never got this close to being assassinated before,” Spinner responded. “Besides, do you have any idea how hard it’s been to get decent information from Lytos recently? It was time to put an end to this silly spat.”

Sylas raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

“Also, I—oh. That’s interesting.”

“What is it?” Sylas asked. 

“Well, good news, I think your friends survived,” Spinner said. “Of course, I can’t be completely sure that those are, in fact, your friends. Zosha, do you have something you’d like to tell us?”

“Ah, that,” Zosha said as the door behind her opened to reveal two of Sylas’ guards, one of the black-clad mercs looking somewhat traumatized and handcuffed, and four bears.

Zosha felt something warm rush through her veins as she saw them, looking roughed up but alive. She all but flung herself at Rick, wrapping her arms around his wide neck.

“I am so happy to see you,” she whispered into his fur. He made a deep noise in the back of his throat and pressed his nose against her neck, which she chose to interpret as reciprocation. 

“Zoshanna,” Spinner voice filled the room, low and deadly. “I have been out of contact with you for less than two days. Please tell me you haven’t managed to not only find but fall in love with a bear shifter in that amount of time.”

“Well, I mean, it’s a little soon to say it’s love, I think,” she told him. “But he’s really pretty and I like his smile, so it’s probably getting there.”

Rick made what Zosha hoped was a pleased sounding noise. 

“Fantastic,” Spinner said, voice practically oozing sarcasm. “Any other bombshells you want to drop on me?”

“Yes, but not right now,” Zosha said, already not looking forward to breaking the news to Spinner that he’d accidentally hidden her away on the ship of the people who took out Strathmore.

“Would you like a private room to, ah, change?” Sylas said with an impressive amount of composure for a man talking to a bear.

The bear Zosha assumed was the captain nodded. 

“In that case, could one of you please escort these gentlemen to somewhere where they can shift without being disturbed? I imagine they’ll also need a change of clothes.”

One guard nodded and stepped back into the hallway. Zosha gave Rick one last squeeze before stepping away from him. He bumped his shoulder against her chest before turning and following the guard. Once they were gone, Sylas beckoned for the captured mercenary to be brought towards him. The remaining guard hauled him forward, then pushed him on the ground, one boot at the small of his back and a blaster pointed at his head.

“I am going to ask you a series of questions. You will answer these questions with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no,’ no more and no less. Do you understand?” Sylas asked the merc.

“Yes,” the merc rasped out.

“Excellent. You work for my brother, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And you were sent here to kill this girl.”

“Yes.”

“You were told to do this because she stole a notebook that contained information on my brother’s U4 trade.”

“Yes.”

“This information has the potential to end Jackson’s little coup.”

“Well, then. It looks like everything’s in order. Kill him, please.”

Zosha barely had time to look away before the blaster fired.

“Sorry about that. I don’t mean to doubt you, but in this business one should always double check,” Sylas said.

“I completely understand,” Spinner said. “Zosha, you good?”

“About as good as can be expected,” Zosha answered, trying not to breathe in with her nose. Blaster-cooked flesh was one of those scents she could live without.

“Glad to hear it. So. What’s he like in bed?”

“Spinner, oh my God,” Zosha choked out.

“What? I want to know what’s new in your life. You don’t talk to me these days. You just send me messages about your inevitable death that you’re lucky I saw before it was too late. Now, is he the gentle type or the hair-pulling type?”

“This isn’t a conversation I want to have next to a dead body!” Zosha said, trying to keep the hysteria out of her voice. “And I haven’t slept with him yet.”

“Pity. The changing room has cameras. You’re in for a treat.”

“Please stop looking at the naked bear shifters. Please.”

“Well, I can’t anymore. They’re heading back to you,” Spinner informed her primly. “Also, if you wanted to thank me for talking to the delightful Mr. Rahm here, you could ask your boy and the one with the hand where they got their prosthetics done. I’ve never seen any that can shift like that.”

“Will do,” Zosha replied, relieved at the subject change.

Captain Ingram, freshly clad in an extra guard uniform and looking much cleaner than expected, threw the door open and strode in. Zosha, who hadn’t seen him in his element like this yet, had to admit he was much more intimidating on the job.

“Mr. Rahm. Sorry about the mess,” he said, smiling wryly.

“Occupational hazard,” Sylas answered with a dismissive wave. “Your associate here has filled me in on your proposal. I’ll admit, I’m intrigued.”

“You should be,” the captain said as the other shifters filed into the room. Rick immediately crossed over to Zosha and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “I’m not prone to false modesty, so I’ll tell you up front that I run one of the best smuggler ships in the galaxy. We’re head and shoulders over the half-rate idiots your brother uses, and I think we’ve already demonstrated our loyalty.”

“Are you okay?” Rick whispered to Zosha.

“I’m totally fine. You’re the one that was getting shot at. Are you hurt?” Zosha asked, smoothing a hand up his side.

Rick snorted. “Don’t worry, the mercs were so bad I almost felt bad for killing them. They were really into the ‘spray and pray’ school of shooting,” he reassured her, pressing a kiss to her hairline.

“Did you know that the standard decorum for most negotiations doesn’t involve feeling each other up in the corner like teenagers?” Spinner drawled.

“Shut up,” Zosha told him, stepping back from Rick fractionally. He dropped his arm from her shoulders, grabbing her hand and winding their fingers together instead.

Spinner sighed. “I break one of my oldest principles and plead your case to a criminal overlord, and this is the thanks I get.Sucha thankless child.”

“You’re half a year older than me,” Zosha muttered as the captain arched an eyebrow.

“Well, thank you for your intervention, Mr...” the captain trailed off, carefully addressing the holoscreen.

“Spinner,” Spinner said. “And you’re Captain Ingram. You’re turning out to be much more interesting that I expected.”

The shifters stiffened and then, almost simultaneously, turned to look at Zosha. Rick’s grip tightened on her hand.

She grinned sheepishly. “So, ah, you remember that information broker friend I mentioned?”

“I do,” the captain told her in an even tone. “I do not, however, remember you telling us that it was one of the most feared people in the galaxy.”

“Stop it, I’m blushing,” Spinner said.

“How can we tell he’s the real deal?” Hyde asked, eyeing the holoscreen suspiciously.

“You can’t,” Spinner informed him. “Your talents are useful, but not enough to find anything useful about me and honestly, that’s not your main concern right now.”

“Right. My apologies, Mr. Rahm,” Captain Ingram said.

“Think nothing of it,” Sylas said with what would have been amusement if he were the type of man to have emotions. “Please, tell me a bit about your work.”

As the captain launched into a sales pitch, Zosha looked tentatively up at Rick. Instead of the anger she had been afraid of, all she could see was affection tinged with exasperation. 

“Surprise?” she said guiltily.

“That’s definitely what you are, yes,” he said. “Why didn’t Spinner just take care of this earlier? He certainly has the influence.”

Zosha shook her head. “He can’t afford to take sides. It could affect the quality of information he receives. Me running was easier for both of us. I feel horrible about involving him in all of this. I’m just trouble for everyone who helps me, I guess.”

“Sounds about right,” Rick told her warmly. “You’re worth it, though.”

Hyde snorted but didn’t say anything.

“Glad to hear it,” Zosha murmured, clenching her hand tighter in Rick’s to stop it from shaking. Understanding filled his gaze and he turned to his captain.

“Leo, I think it might be best if I took Zosha back to the ship,” he said.


Page 8

Captain Ingram glanced at Sylas, who nodded.

“Alright. Make sure you fill Annie and Dom in,” the captain told him.

“Yeah, be sure to let Annie know that she was wrong. Killing our way in totally worked,” Custer snickered. Everyone ignored him.

“Comm me when you’ve rested a bit, Zosha,” Spinner said. “I think you owe me an explanation.”

“Will do,” she said and let Rick pull her out of the room.

The guards they passed looked at them suspiciously but did nothing to hinder them, and soon they were back out in the open air.

Zosha looked around at the devastation in the market and felt the guilt twist in her stomach. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but several stalls were obliterated and bloodstains covered the ground. Zosha didn’t want to think about what had happened to the bodies. 

Rick squeezed her hand. “If you want to blame someone for this, blame Lan Doro, or the Rahm brothers. You didn’t know what would happen.”

“That doesn’t make it not my fault,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Think about it like this: more people would have died if the conflict between the Rahm brothers had continued. You all but ending it here stopped that.”

“I know. It doesn’t feel like that, though,” she told him.

They walked in silence. Zosha kept her eyes on the ground and her hand in Rick’s. After a moment, he huffed out a laugh.

“Did I tell you about the time I had to hide in a tree for six hours because Custer pissed off a contact so bad he sent his personal army after us?” he asked.

Zosha felt something warm and fluttery worm its way into her stomach. “No, no you did not.”

By the time he finished the story, Zosha’s smile was small but genuine.

“So, what do you guys usually do after something like this?” she asked. 

“Me personally? Get drunk as hell. Why, what did you have in mind?”

“Life-affirming sex,” she told him. “But getting drunk works too.”

Rick stared at her for a moment, then swept her up in a bridal carry. She shrieked with laughter, wrapping her arms around his neck.

“I like your idea better,” he said, walking purposefully towards the ship.

“Glad you see it my way,” Zosha said, giggling.

The door to the cargo hold lowered as they approached, Annie standing at the top of the ramp and waiting for them.

“I’m guessing things went well,” she said.

“Yup,” Rick told her cheerfully as he walked by her. “Sylas Rahm is on board, the captain’s negotiating for work in return for the notebook now, and Zosha’s information broker is Spinner, and yes, I do mean the ‘occasionally crumbles regimes for profit’ Spinner. Also, I’m off duty for at least the next two hours.”

“What?” Annie all but shrieked after them.

“Ask Leo about it!” Rick called back at her, turning down the hallway for his room.

He shifted Zosha to one arm to punch in the access code to his room. She pressed a kiss to the side of his neck, then nipped the spot where her lips had been. Rick moaned and lunged into the room almost before the door was open.

He took three steps forward and then tossed Zosha onto the bed. She bounced once, giggling, and then he was on top of her, sliding his hands under her shirt and pressing open-mouthed kisses down her neck and along her collarbone. She arched up, pressing her breasts against his chest and hissing in pleasure.

“God, I’ve wanted you like this since I first saw you,” he said into the hollow of her neck.

“What, you mean when you found me hiding in your cargo hold with a nutri-pack hanging out of my mouth?” she asked breathlessly.

“I don’t think you realize how you look in that suit,” he said. “God, no wonder you never get caught. They’re too busy staring at you to do anything.”

A laugh bubbled out of her. “It’s just a suit.”

“It’s so tight,” Rick told her, thumb skimming along the underside of her bra. “I just wanted to rip it off of you.”

He slid one hand down and squeezed her ass. Zosha moaned, then tugged at his shirt.

“Okay, naked, we need to be naked right now,” she told him. He pulled away and shucked off his shirt, then went to work on his boots.

Zosha pulled her own clothes off with record speed and had gotten down to her underwear when Rick pushed her back onto the mattress. He kissed her, wet and hot, before sliding down the mattress to take one nipple into his mouth. Zosha let her head fall back with a breathy groan and slid one hand into his thick hair. She wrapped her legs around him and he put one hand on her thigh, the other on her waist.

Zosha relished the warm weight of him pressing her down. She felt deliciously caught, safe in his grip.

Rick tugged at her nipple with his teeth, drawing a gasp out of her, then kissed his way down her body until he reached the band of her panties. He looked up at her, golden eyes bright and cheeks flushed. Thumbing at the elastic over her hip, he raised an eyebrow. She nodded at the tacit question and he lowered his head to mouth at her through the cotton.

Zosha practically squealed at the feeling, gripping his hair with both hands as her legs clamped involuntarily together. Rick pulled back to press a kiss to the inside of her thigh and sucking a bruise into the pale skin there before moving his mouth back to the damp fabric and working Zosha into a babbling mess.

“Rick, please please please, oh my God,” she gasped out, not knowing what she was begging for but knowing she needed it.

Rick moved away to tug her underwear off, then nudged her legs apart and pressed his tongue to her swollen, dripping slit.

Zosha nearly howled at the sensation, her brain whiting out. Her world narrowed to his mouth. Distantly, she realized that the room definitely wasn’t soundproof, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

Rick ran one finger teasingly over her entrance, then slipped inside her. He flicked his tongue over her hypersensitive flesh and gave her a moment to adjust before adding a second finger and working her open.

Zosha lay back, sobbing for breath already, and taking in the feeling of him on and in her. Stars danced across her visions as her blood turned to fire. She could feel her climax beginning to build and she tugged at his hair until he pulled back to look up at her.

“I’m ready, I want you now,” she told him, somehow managing to get the words out despite the fact her brain had long since turned to mush.

Rick jackknifed up her body, settling between her legs. Zosha gasped as she felt his erection press against her thigh, hot and solid. He kissed her and she opened her mouth to him, tasting herself on his tongue.

“Can I?” he asked her, running a hand up and down her thigh.

She nodded frantically and forced herself to relax as he reached down and lined himself up with her.

The initial stretch of his cock inside her seemed to force all the air out of the room. She stared into his eyes, irises just a golden outline of his pupils, blown huge and dark. He hovered over, muscles tight, letting her adjust. After a moment, she rolled her hips experimentally, making them both moan.

He began to thrust into her, slowly at first and then harder as she locked her ankles at the small of his back.

“You’re so good,” he groaned into her ear. “You feel so good.”

Zosha just whined in response, well past the point of coherent speech. The heat in her stomach had turned to electricity and she could feel her orgasm begin to spark.

Wrapping one arm under Rick’s shoulder and the over his neck, she let herself fall apart under him, pleasure arching her back and pressing her flush against him.

She let her head fall back as a river of white fire swept through her veins, burning through everything that wasn’t the feeling of Rick rutting into her or the heat of his skin.

She came back to herself slowly, sparks of pleasure almost too intense to handle flickering to life as Rick continued to drive himself into her oversensitive body. 

“Shit,” Rick muttered as his hips stuttered. He tucked his face into Zosha’s neck as his rhythm broke down, fucking her hard and fast. He pulled out of her with a groan and reached down to stroke himself. Zosha felt something warm splash across her belly and Rick collapsed on the mattress beside her.

They stayed like that for a moment, breathing heavily, sweat gleaming in the artificial light.

“So,” Zosha started when she got enough breath back to speak. “Worth fighting a squad of mercenaries for?”

Rick chuckled and leaned over to press his lips to hers. 

She curled into his side and ran her fingers over his stomach, feeling the muscles flex under her touch.

“Come with us,” Rick said. “Leo will let you. You’re a fantastic asset. Annie’s fond of you and the others will get used to it. I don’t want to say goodbye to you yet.”

Zosha considered it. She thought about the asteroid where she’d lived her entire life: all of its flaws and all of its strengths. About the neon lights she’d grown up under. She thought about never seeing the place that held all of her memories again.

She thought about her future in the stars.

“I’m in,” she said softly.

She and Rick stared at each other, grinning like idiots, until the intercom crackled to life.

“So, uh…” the captain’s voice said. “You done in there yet?”

Zosha was too blissed out to be mortified, so she just turned her face towards the pillow and giggled. Rick kissed her cheek and reached over her to press a button on the intercom.

“Just teaching her how to fire a gun, Captain,” he said in a tone that implied he was referencing something. Someone snickered on the other side of the line.

“Well, put it back in the holster, cowboy, some of us are trying to work. And not vomit everywhere. Shut it, Custer,” he added when the cackling grew louder.

“Understood,” Rick said and dropped back down on the bed.

He pulled Zosha to him and wrapped an arm around her waist. She smiled, leaning on his broad chest and tracing her fingers lightly over the seam where the metal of his prosthetic legs met flesh.

“Does it hurt?” she asked him.

“Nope. Feel free to keep groping me,” Rick answered. “So, how does it feel to be an almost-official member of theBreakwater?”

Zosha’s grin threatened to split her face in two. “It feels perfect.”

I hope you enjoyed Breakwater:Rick. If you’d like to keep in touch on Facebook, just hit the button below.

Find my newest releases on Amazon:

Want more sexy Stories? Just keep turning the page! ->

Adam

Grizzly Groomsmen I

by

Becca Fanning

If she was being honest with herself, Maya wasn't even sure why she was invited in the first place. Glancing around the crowded room, she sighed, and reached for a glass of champagne; she would need it to get through the rest of the night.

At every wedding she'd been to, there'd been at least one guest who no one knew. She just never thought it would be her. As soon as the email had pinged into her inbox, she'd had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach, but she knew she couldn't turn the opportunity down. After all, Dina and her had basically grown up together, well, if you considered growing up those formative years between the start and end of college, which Maya did. They'd lived together for four whole years, before Dina had moved in with her soon to be husband. And now, Maya was here, with a sunset-hued bridesmaids dress in her closet, tossing back champagne, and staring across at her college roommate and her husband-to-be.


Page 9

Maya was pretty far from a wallflower most of the time, but right now all she wanted to do was finish out the last of this reception, get to bed, and catch her flight home the next day. Because, of course, Dina couldn't resist taking off to some remote tropical island to hold her wedding. Christ, if Maya had known about that, she probably would have found some way to wriggle out of it, Dina might be all grown up and done with her student loans, but Maya certainly wasn't. Hell, that wasn't the only way Maya was pretty far from being an adult. She was still living in the same rent-controlled apartment in the centre of town she had for almost nine years, she was still single, she was still avoiding calls from her mother. Part of her felt like she should have grown up by now, but, as she kept on reminding herself, she was only twenty-eight. She had plenty of time to figure things out, even if watching the girl she used to do tequila slammers with seven years ago with her fiance was freaking the hell out of her. Maya tried to keep her face nonchalant as she watched Dina show off her ring to some member of the family Maya didn't recognize. All of a sudden, it became far too real, Maya stood up, and headed towards the catering table, trying her best to look nonchalant. 

She spotted an open but untouched bottle of champagne sitting on the edge of the clothed table, judging by the size and shape, she could easily stash it under her dress and sneak off to the beach for the rest of the night. Glancing around, she thought for a moment that one of the other bridesmaids had caught her in the act, but realized she was just staring off into space in Maya's direction. Grabbing the bottle, Maya slid it under the flowing bustier of her dress and made her way towards the door. She caught Dina's eye, and offered a wave and a smile as she ducked into the cool, heavy evening air. 

No one looked twice as Maya hurried down towards the golden sands, pulling the bottle out from her dress as she went. Staring out across the waves, she felt a soft calmness pass across her. Being surrounded by nature always made her feel calmer. There was something so…analogue about the sounds of the waves lapping up over the sand, of birds calling in the distance. She sat herself down in the rich, slightly damp sand, wriggling her toes under the surface, and took a swig from the bottle of champagne. Maybe this wasn't the classiest way to spend the first night of this wedding weekend, but it certainly suited her. 

Suddenly, behind her,she heard the crunch of footsteps. It sounded like they were tracing her path down to the beach, so Maya quickly slipped the bottle of champagne under her skirts and tried to look like someone who hadn't just stolen an expensive bottle of booze from a fancy party.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you," A male voice, sounding a little out of breath, drifted over her shoulder. "I just needed a minute."

"No problem!" Maya chirped, hoping that whoever it was couldn't read the guilt on her face. She twisted her head so she could see over her shoulder, and realized that she recognized the source of the voice. Before she had a chance to say anything, he cocked his head and grinned.

"You're one of the bridesmaids, right?" He asked, skittering over the sand towards her. "Sorry, I'm not good on anything other than dirt."

"Yeah. And you're a groomsman?" She nodded, shifting up so that he could sit down next to her. If she was being honest, she had noticed him when she'd arrived. Well, mostly because she had been trying to distract herself with someone to flirt with, and his green-gold eyes had flashed mischievously back at hers when they'd made contact.

"Right. Not sure why, though," He shook his head, pulling out a packet of cigarettes from his pocket and offering one to her. "Smoke?"

"Sure," Maya shrugged. She hadn't smoked since she was in college, but something about the two of them sneaking off from a wedding felt devious and teenage enough to warrant it. She produced the bottle of champagne from under her skirt and held it out towards him. "Drink?"

He spluttered with laughter, reaching over to light Maya's cigarette before getting to his own.

"Did you steal that from the reception?" He demanded, looking at her with mock-seriousness.

"Yeah, you wanna take me in for it?" Maya tilted her chin up and challenged him. God, he was even cuter close up, maybe it was just the suit and tie, or maybe it was that lopsided grin, but this guy was seriously her type. 

"I'll hold off if you share with me," he offered, and took the bottle from her. They sat in companionable silence for a minute or so, drinking and smoking and ignoring the distant sound of the reception above them. 

"So, why are you here?" Maya asked, not taking the time to consider how blunt her words might sound coming out of nowhere. She shook her head. "Sorry, I meant-"

"Yeah, I know," The man waved his hand, dismissing her apology. "Cousin of the groom. I guess he needed someone to make up the numbers. That's the only reason I can think of for him inviting me. You?"

"College roommate. And pretty much ditto. I don't know anyone here, that's why I snuck off down to the beach." Maya shrugged, gesturing out over the golden sands in front of them. "Oh, I'm Maya, by the way."

The man stuck his hand out in her direction.

"Adam." 

"So, Adam, do you think they'll be missing us back at the reception?" She asked, glancing over her shoulder at the hotel.

"Ugh, I hope not," he shook his head. "You know how it is. I love my family and all that crap, but sometimes the thought of being trapped with them on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere isn't all that appealing."

"I feel you," Maya nodded. "At least you've got people to talk to, I don't know anyone but Dina and, you know, she's off doing all that fiancee stuff now."

"Well, you've got me to talk to know," Adam pointed out, offering her a quick grin and the champagne bottle. "Do you think we should head back up to the reception soon?"

Maya rolled her eyes, but she knew he was right. She didn't want Dina's last memory of her to be her being an ungrateful cow and sneaking off on the first day of her wedding weekend.

"Yeah, probably." She nodded, standing up and dusting the sand from her dress. "Promise you'll keep me company?"

"If you keep up with the free champagne," he shot back, offering her an arm. She took it gratefully, and the two of them made their way back up the beach. Maya couldn't help but notice how strong his arm felt under his suit jacket, and wondered if the rest of him felt as good. 

As they walked, Adam frowned and seemed to almost sniff the air, as if something untoward had caught his attention.

"What is it?" Maya asked, craning her neck to look around. She couldn't see anything at first, but then she spotted a figure halfway down the beach. That was odd, she could have sworn it was just the two of them when they first arrived. 

"I…don't like the look of him," Adam nodded towards the figure. "Do you know who he is?"

Maya squinted into the dark, and the figure took a few paces towards them, and Maya figured out where she'd seen him before.

"Huh, I kind of recognize him," she murmured, wrinkling up her face in distaste. "Can't put my finger on who, though.

"What are the odds someone else would come down here?” Adam wondered aloud, bringing the two of them to a stop and scanning the beach for other people.

"I don't know. Maybe he came for the free champagne?" Maya suggested. 

"I guess so," Adam nodded. "Should we go down and-"

"Wait a second, where the fuck did he go?" Maya exclaimed. She scanned the beach hurriedly, but she couldn't see any figure. Shaking her head, she plopped the champagne bottle on the sand next to her. 

"Think I've had plenty of that for one evening," she commented. Adam was still staring back across at where the figure had been standing, his brow furrowed.

"Shall we go?" Maya prompted, and Adam shook his head, like a dog shaking loose of a collar. 

"Sorry. Yeah, let's." 

They made their way back to the reception, and Maya couldn't help but wonder where she knew that guy from. Did Dina know he was here? Should she tell her? Grabbing the nearest free glass of wine that she could, Maya took a long drink and turned to Adam with a smile on her face. He was even cuter in the light.

"Dance?" She suggested, holding her hand out to him. He slunk an arm around her waist, and spun her around manically on to the dance floor. Most of the guests had grown pretty tired, and were picking listlessly at their buffet food and finishing their last glasses of wine. But for Maya, the night had only just begun. 

They danced for what felt like hours, but was probably only a few tracks in real time. Maya had never been much one for dancing, but when there was a band right there and booze flowing and a handsome man in fancy clothes, it felt right. And maybe it was a cliché, for the groomsman and the bridesmaid to flirt outrageously all night long, but it was a cliché Maya was all too happy to fulfill.

By the time her feet were aching and her make-up running with sweat, the band was just about ready to pack up. Most of the guests had vanished to bed, with only a few lonely singles still milling about, hoping to find someone to hook up with. Maya couldn't help but feel a little smug as Adam offered to walk her back to her room, even if she had no intention of taking things any further.

Giggly and a little drunk, Adam and Maya made their way back up the stairs and through the long, winding corridor to her room. They paused outside, facing each other, and Maya felt a little clip of excitement in her chest.

"You know I'm not going to invite you in, right?" Maya confirmed, raising her eyebrows at Adam. He held his hands in the air, defending himself.

"Of course. I wouldn't expect anything less of a classy lady such as yourself."

"Hey, I'd be classy even if I did take you to my room," she protested, wobbling slightly on her heels. He caught her, his hands firm on her upper arms, and she looked up at him. 

"C'mere," she murmured, and leaned up to press her lips against his. He tasted smoky and sweet, a mixture of wine and tobacco, and she found herself fighting the urge to invite him in after all. But no, the last thing she wanted to do was wake up regretting her decision, and anyway, this would probably be the last she saw of him. Everyone was heading home the next evening, and she didn't want to hook up with a guy and have that be her only memory of this wedding. She pulled back, keeping her eyes shut for a second longer as if savoring the moment, before she looked at him again. To her surprise and chagrin, he looked put out, angry, almost.

"Is everything okay?" She asked, stepping forward and placing a hand on his chest.

"Yeah, it's just, that guy, from the beach. I can smell him. He's nearby again, and I don't think it's to congratulate the bride on her magical day."

"How the hell can you smell him?" Maya demanded, wrinkling her nose at him in disdain. "What, is he standing right behind me or something?"

Adam glanced at the floor, and then back up at Maya, and in that moment, she figured out exactly what it was. What made him different. Why he could smell that guy. Why he seemed preternaturally attuned to everything that was going on around him.

"Are you-" She cut herself off before she could complete the sentence. She knew she was right. She should have guessed it as soon as she saw those eyes. no one had eyes that color, that golden, unless they were-

"I'm a shifter." He mumbled, his eyes still on the ground. Maya felt a wave of nausea rush over her, and she wasn't sure if it was the alcohol or the revelation.

"I need to go," she excused herself, unable to come up with a better reason than that. He shrugged and turned away, and Maya hurriedly unlocked the door and stepped into her room. She leant up against the polished wood panelling, her breath coming in short, sharp bursts.Shit. Had she really just…kissed a shifter? After all that shit her parents had told her? After everything that had happened? She wasn't even sure she had ever met one before, and now here she was, spending all night dancing and drinking and flirting with one. Her family would be ashamed of her. Hell, she felt pretty ashamed at what she'd just done. She thanked her lucky stars that they hadn't gone any further, and began the laborious process of getting undressed. At least she could be sure that that was the last she'd see of him. She'd hide up in her room tomorrow, then jump into a taxi and head straight to the ceremony. No messing around, no hanging about, just straight out of there to forget about the whole damn thing. Sliding in to bed, she was already writing off the whole evening as a bored, tipsy mistake, one never to be repeated again. As her eyes drifted shut, a distant rumble of thunder crashed to life over the sea.

Maya's eyes flew open, it was early, she could tell. Stretching out with a soft groan and flipping on to her side, she peered out the windows opposite her bed, rain was smashing up against the glass, and she could already hear the wind beating against the hotel. She was about to drift back off to sleep, until she remembered the airstrip-shit, would this mean the flights were cancelled?Pulling herself upright and grabbing for her robe, she slid into some slippers and padded down to reception, where there were already a handful of guests milling around. 


Page 10

Squeezing through the crowd, she made it to the front desk. A harried-looking receptionist with a phone tucked between her ear and her shoulder nodded her greeting, and held up a finger as she finished up the call. Around her, people were murmuring and muttering to each other with a kind of dissatisfied resignation, and Maya got the horrible feeling that she was going to be stuck here longer than she thought.

"How can I help?" The receptionist offered her a smile as she clicked the phone back into place.

"Um, yeah, I had a flight booked for Tuesday, and I was wondering-" Maya started, but she could already tell from the receptionists expression that it was bad news. 

"There are no flights going out for the foreseeable future," the receptionist cut across her, and it was clear that she'd had to repeat the same line a hundred times already. "Until the storm passes, everyone's stuck here. The bride and groom have offered to cover your rooms until you can leave."

"Well, thanks," Maya nodded, turning away and trying to disguise her annoyance. After all, it wasn't the receptionist's fault that she'd be stuck here longer than she anticipated. She eased her way past the crowd and back up to her room, sitting on the bed and staring out across the golden beach and the distant sea, well, there were worse places to be stuck with no hope of escape. 

And then she remembered, Adam. She'd almost forgotten about their dalliance the night before, and now she had to face up to the fact that she'd be stuck here with him for at least another day. What if he wanted an answer as to why she'd fled after finding out about his shifter status? Surely, he must have been used to it by now, even if everyone knew shifters existed, coming across them was basically unheard of. They were hard to pick out, if you weren't looking, all they had giving them away in their human forms were gold-flecked eyes, and you could easily just put that down to lucky genetics. 

Maya felt a flicker of sadness when she thought back over the evening they'd spent together. Sure, it wasn't much, but it felt like the spark of something. Shame he had to go fuck it up like that. And yeah, Maya knew deep down that it wasn't his fault, and he wasn't exactly obliged to come out and announce the fact that he was a shifter to everyone he encountered just in case they got a crush on him, but still. Some part of her felt betrayed-although maybe it was more that she felt as if she'd betrayed herself and her family by actually liking a shifter.

Back when shifters had first come out, almost seventy-five years ago now, the entire world had basically tilted on it's axis. The line between fantasy and reality blurred, and people didn't like that. The existence of shifters, of people who could take on animal form at will-was too much for a lot of people to get their heads around. And Maya's grandfather had been one of those people. Maya rested her jaw in her hand, her mind drifting back to all the times her mother had told and retold this story to her.

Maya's grandfather, Joel, had been one of the first to take a stand against the shifters. He had never been particularly open to the idea of change, and this one was cataclysmic. Maybe it was because he was just back from the war, still functioning under the impression that it was his job to secure his country and that the way to do that was through violence. Either way, when he found out that a shifter wolf pack had been operating only a town over, he gathered a group of men, waited till the dead of night, and went to hunt them down. 

The men who returned said the wolves were more than animal, but less than human. They fought with a deranged ferocity, protecting their own, fierce and feral and fearless. They couldn't have been surprised by the fact that somebody came to clear them out, even if they had been mostly benevolent, they represented danger, especially now that they didn't have to hide their wolf forms any more. Maya's grandfather and his men were just trying to secure the town, and who could blame them for that?

no one knew exactly what had happened to Maya's grandfather, all anyone could be certain off was that he went into that forest a healthy man, and came out practically torn to pieces. There were whisperings, what did he expect, leading an attack on a pack of half-human wolves? Didn't he know he would be leaving a wife and a daughter defenseless behind him? He was the only one not to make it out of the forest alive. Maya's mother often wondered to her if they had somehow known he was the ringleader, and targeted him for daring to upset their status quo. They'd never know-the wolf pack hurriedly moved on and was never seen again, and Maya's mother had raised with her a violent hatred of shifters ever since. 

Maya was roused from her reverie by a knock at the door, pulling her robe around her and running a hand through her hair, she went to answer it, praying it wasn't Adam. She opened the door, and breathed a sigh of relief, it was just Lorne, the only other bridesmaid she'd actually spoken to that weekend. 

"So, you heard that we're stuck here, right?" She asked, propping one hand on her doorframe and rolling her wide green eyes. 

"Yeah, I guess," Maya shrugged, glancing back out her window. The storm looked pretty well set, the sky was inky black as far as the eye could see, and occasional claps of thunder rumbled across the horizon. 

"We're getting the wedding party together for breakfast, we're gonna talk everything out and see how we can make this easier for Dina and Tom." 

Maya fought the urge to slam the door in her face, and tried to keep her tone casual. She knew that spending time with the wedding party would bring her face-to-face with Adam once again, and she wasn't sure if she was entirely ready for that. It was an inevitability, but one that she hoped she could put off a little while longer at least.

"Um, that sounds-"

"I'll see you down there in an hour?" Lorne raised her eyebrows at her expectantly. Despite her brusque nature, Maya knew she was just trying to do what was best for Dina, so Maya shrugged.

"Yeah, sure."

"Great, till then."

Lorne ducked off down the corridor, and Maya closed the door and flopped down on to her bed.Shit.Part of her wanted to vault the balcony and try to swim back to the mainland, but part of her wanted to see Adam. She'd known for years that her mother's hatred of the shifters was pretty much unheard of nowadays, but she'd never had reason to question it before. This guy, this normal, cute, sweet, funny guy, he was a reason. And that both scared and thrilled her in the same breath. 

She hopped in a shower, washing away the last remnants of last night's champagne and dancing, and got herself ready for breakfast. Until she figured out exactly what she wanted from this guy, she wanted to keep her options open-and that meant looking as fine as possible. As the water cascaded over her, her mind drifted back to the figure she'd seen on the beach before, where did she know him from? It was like having a name on the tip of her tongue that she couldn't quite remember. And then it hit her, Dina's ex. She'd seen photos, but never met him. He was the last person she'd seriously dated before her fiance, so what was he doing here?

Rolling out of the shower, Maya grabbed her phone and quickly scrolled through Facebook, past Dina's giddy posts about the rings and the dresses and the venue, and boom, there he was. He was tall and lanky but lithe, and had piercing gold eyes that seemed to glow, even on the small screen. Maya stared at him for a moment long, then shook her head, unless he came back, she was willing to write it off as a weird coincidence.

By the time she made it downstairs, everyone else had already filled up their plates from the buffet and found a seat at the enormous wooden tables. Maya grabbed some fruit and coffee, and slid in between a couple of the other bridesmaids, both of whom offered her a taut smile. Dina was there, and she looked beyond stressed at whatever was happening. 

"Fuck, how long do you think this is going to go on for?" Dina demanded, as Frieda, the sister-bridesmaid, tried to coax her into actually eating something.

"Fuck if I know, but at least a day, maybe two," shrugged Dean, one of the groomsmen, with a mouth full of food.

"Oh, Christ almighty," Dina rolled her eyes dramatically, and took a sip of water. Maya was trying to pay attention to proceedings, but she kept getting distracted by Adam, he was freshly showered, with damp hair, and he looked even better in a black t-shirt and washed-out dark jeans. He glanced over at her across the table, fiddling with a glass of orange juice in front of him, and she quickly looked away. Her heart flipped in her chest, maybe it was fear, maybe it was excitement, maybe it was the beginnings of a crush. She took a sip of her coffee and tried to focus back in on what was going on.

Suddenly, and all at once, Adam and three of the groomsmen seemed to sit up taller in their chairs. They were glancing around, their brows furrowed, as if something had changed and they couldn't quite put their finger on what yet. Adam looked over at Maya again, his eyes narrow, and all at once she recognized his expression, it was the one he'd had last night, when they'd seen that figure on the beach. She blinked in acknowledgement, and turned to Dina, placing a hand on her wrist to try and get her attention. Dina stopped mid-rant, and cocked her head at Maya in curiosity.

"Can I talk to you for a second?" She mouthed, tilting her head away from the table. Dina squinted in confusion, but nodded, whispering in her new husband's ear and pushing her chair back from the table. Maya led her outside the dining room, where most of the guests had by then congregated, and into the quiet of reception.

"What's up?" Dina asked, her face painted with stress.

"Look, this is going sound like a weird question," Maya began, "But did you invite any of your exes to the wedding?"

"What?" Dina wrinkled her nose. "No, of course not. Why would I want to do that?"

"I don't know, it's just-"

"Shit.Freddy?" Dina interrupted, closing her eyes and tilting her head down. "Did you see him? Is he here?"

"Okay, I've got no idea what I saw, but Adam and I were down at the beach, and we saw someone standing there, and it looked kind of like him. I figured you should know, especially if we're all stuck here for another day or so." Maya finished quickly. "I don't want to freak you out, but…yeah. Sorry."

"I told him so many times that if he came I would never fucking forgive him," Dina shook her head. "It's been four years, you'd think he was over it by now."

"So, he said he would come?" 

"He threatened to. I thought he was just trying to freak me out, but…fuck, it is exactly the kind of shit he'd pull." Dina glanced over her shoulder, as if he might be standing right there waiting for her. "Did he say anything or do anything?"

"Nothing that I saw, no," Maya tried to reassure her. "It could have been anyone, really, I just-"

"Trust me, I know Freddy, and this is precisely the kind of crap he'd try and pull. Thank you for telling me, I'll get security on it right away." Dina nodded. "As if this couldn't turn into any more of a disaster."

"Oh, come on," Maya cajoled her. "It's going to be an amazing weekend. You're getting freaking married, Deen!"

She grinned, slapping the air as if to dismiss the notion.

"I know," she acknowledged. "Anyway, what's this about you and Adam on the beach?"

"Um, nothing," Maya broke eye contact. "We just hung out, that's all."

"He told me you guys kissed," Dina raised her eyebrows at her.

"Yeah, but he's…" Maya leaned in conspiratorially, "he's a shifter, and you know-"

"So?" Dina cut across her with a small shrug, before turning away to head back to breakfast. Maya was left staring at the space where her head had been, and found that single word echoing in her head. So? So what? So Adam was a shifter? Did it matter when she liked him as much as she thought she did?

"Maya?" 

Maya swiveled on her heel, and found herself face to face with the man causing her all her turmoil.

"Adam, uh, hi," she tried to keep her tone casual, but she knew she was failing dismally.

"I think he's here again," Adam muttered urgently, closing the distance between the two of them and frowning. "Were you telling Dina about him just there?"

"Yeah, I just told her what we saw. I'm pretty sure he's one of her exes. She seemed really freaked out, he must be a real piece of work."

"He is, trust me. And I don't think he's here alone."

"Huh?" Maya squinted at him in confusion.

"I don't think he just wanted to crash this wedding. I think he wanted to make damn sure that Dina knew she'd never be rid of him." Adam shook his head. "Me and the guys are going to split up and take a look round the island, hopefully shake out whoever's here so we don't have to worry."

"I'll come with you," She suggested without thinking. "I mean, it's safer for you to have somebody with you."

Adam flashed her a hint of that lopsided smile, and held out his hand. 

"What are we waiting for?" 

The storm had calmed down a little by the time they set off, the wind was still whipping the trees, but the rain had eased off. Adam and Maya took on the beach, hurrying down from the hotel and onto the sand once again. 


Page 11

"Got any champagne for me this time?" Adam asked playfully as they took their first few steps along the waterfront.

"Ugh, don't speak to me about champagne," Maya shook her head. "If I never see another bottle again, it'll be too soon."

"Really? I thought you seemed pretty okay last night," he commented, peering around to look for any lurking shadows or unwanted company.

"I tend to do shit that I normally wouldn't when I drink champagne," Maya explained. "Like make out with-"

"Shifters?" Adam finished her sentence for her. "Yeah, I thought you seemed pretty put out when you figured it out."

Maya glanced away, feeling awkward. How the hell was she meant to explain to Adam how and why kissing him had been one of the worst and best things she'd ever done?

"I…my family. They really don't like…your kind." She managed, refusing to make eye contact. The only sound between them for a second was the crunching of sand beneath their feet as Adam contemplated what she'd just said.

"I get that it's pretty unusual, but does it bother you that much?" He asked quietly. Maya could barely hear him over the wind, but his face was etched with annoyance and confusion.

"It's nothing to do withyou,specifically. My grandfather, he was killed by a shifter. He went to purge them from a forest near the town he lived in and he never came back. Shifters have always been this bad, scary, terrible bedtime story that my mom told me growing up. I never thought-" Maya cut herself off, knowing she was about to come out with something she'd regret.

"So, he went to try and hunt them and he ended up getting killed?" Adam sounded incredulous. "Look, I'm sorry that happened to you, and him, and your family. But he went after them first. You can't really blame them for the reaction they had."

"Theykilledhim, Adam! There was basically nothing left of him when they were done!" Maya snapped, pulling her coat tight around her shoulders in an attempt to keep out the cold.

"And what would you have done if you'd been living peacefully and someone came along and tried to oust you?" He parried, turning to look at her again. His gold-green eyes were narrowed, and he looked furious.

"I don't know! But they were animals, Adam, they weren't like you," Maya tried to rationalize.

"But theywere.They were just people, like me, who happened to be in their animal forms when your grandfather came by and tried to destroy whatever life they'd built for themselves." Adam shook his head. "I knew there was a backlash when we first came out, but I never thought I'd meet someone who tried to defend it."

Maya found herself momentarily lost for words. All her life, she'd prided herself on being open-minded, liberal, decent, and here was someone pointing out the big, ugly block of bigotry at the centre of that. The wind whistled even louder, as if trying to fill the awkward pause in the conversation.

"You have to understand, I like you, but I could never be with someone who had…that.How could I ever trust you not to hurt me?" Maya replied tersely, her brain whirring as she tried to put the pieces together in her head.

"You're here with me right now, aren't you?" Adam pointed out. "Do you feel like you're in danger? Do you think I'm going to hurt you?"

"No, but you're not like the rest of them," she snapped back, exasperated.

"Oh, so I'm one of the good ones, am I?" He almost laughed. "You do realize how fucking ridiculous you're sounding right now."

"How do I know you've never hurt anyone before?" Maya shot back. Because she knew he was right, from the moment she'd met Adam, she'd felt safe in his presence, comforted, even. And she couldn't connect the two parts of her brain in a way that made sense.

"How do I know you haven't?" He looked at her, eyebrows raised.

"Because I'm not-"

"You're still a person, though. You're just as capable of hurting someone as I am. It's just that I might be a bear when it happens, or I might not. I don't lose control when I'm shifted. Do you know anything about our kind at all?" He cut across her, and Maya stopped walking, taken aback.

"You're abear?"She asked with incredulity. She had never really given much thought to exactly what kind of animals people could shift into, the only ones she knew about for sure were wolves. But a bear? That sounded particularly scary, especially threatening.

"Um, yeah," Adam mumbled, embarrassed. "I don't usually talk about it, but…that's my shift."

"Not the cute cuddly kind, I'd wager?" Maya raised her eyebrows.

"Nah. Grizzly."

She shook her head, unable to wrap her brain around the concept.

"So you just expect me to hear that, and 100% trust you never to hurt me. It's a fucking predator, for Christ's sake!" She yelled over the wind.

"That's me you're talking about," Adam replied sourly. "I'm not an it."

"But if you're an animal, that's what you are. You can't be in your right mind. You can't be in control."

"You want me to show you?" Adam turned to her, and stopped walking again. They faced off against each other, feet planted, expressions steely.

"Are you fucking serious? Now?" Maya gestured around. "In the middle of nowhere?"

"I can show you that I'm in control when I shift. And I'm not doing this because I want you to be with me. I'm doing this so you can understand that we're not the threat you think we are." He spoke with more certainty now. Maya looked him up and down, and weighed up her options. Either she said no, and held on to what was left of the anger and hatred she had bottled up for his kind, and walked away from here unscathed. Or…she said yes. And what would happen would happen.

"Do it," she lifted her chin, meeting his gaze. 

"Are you sure?" He took a few steps back from her. "It's pretty weird, if it's the first time you've seen it."

"I want you to." She challenged him again. 

He raised his hands in acceptance, and began to get undressed. Maya quickly averted her eyes, but snuck one quick look over her shoulder, damn, he was exactly what she'd expected. Muscular and toned, but not to an absurd degree. She wondered how he wasn't freezing in the cold, but brushed the thought from her mind as he handed her his clothes and turned away. 

"You're certain about this?" Adam yelled over the wind. 

"Just get on with it already," Maya demanded. And he did.

Even though Maya knew on an intellectual level what Adam was capable of, seeing him actually do it was a whole different kettle of fish entirely. She watched, her mouth agape, as fur sprouted from his back, running down his legs and up his arms, covering his entire body. His back seemed to warp upwards, his spine elongating and his neck cricking up, as he pushed himself closer and closer to the his other form. His ears shifted a few inches up his head, and he twisted his neck in time for her to see him sprout fangs and a short muzzle. She took a few steps back, her natural sense of self-preservation kicking in, but stayed to watch until the laborious process was complete. 

The wind and the rain seemed to dim down to nothing as she stared at Adam-or at least, what he'd become. The bear turned around to face her, towering a few feet above her head, it was only now that she could make out the length and ferocity of his claws, the way the light gleamed from his carnivorous teeth. Suddenly, he fell to all fours, and moved towards her-slowly, as if trying to coax her into calmness. He bent his head down, and she tentatively reached out a hand to touch him, she closed her eyes as soon as her fingers came into contact with his coarse fur. Hearing about shifting and seeing it in person were two very different things, and Maya couldn't suppress the tingle up her spine. It was something like magic, something she could never even have imagined before. But yet here it was, in front of her-a bear, gentle and sweet and soft, who seemed only a few steps removed from the man he had been moments before. The wind whipped Maya's hair and clothes as she stared at him, a lump quickly rising in her throat. She had no idea what to do next. Luckily, someone else made that decision for her.

The bear twisted his head quickly, attuning into a noise that was too far away for Maya to make out yet. Soon enough, though, she could hear it, a barking, like a pack of dogs moving closer. Her eyes widened, and she looked down at the creature in front of her. It was like something had changed, a chunk of the humanity he'd possessed only moments before seemed to have vanished. Suddenly, and at a terrific pace, he took off down the beach, galloping towards the source of the noise. Maya went to go after him, but before she could move, she saw something that made her blood turn to ice.

Standing atop one of the rocks only a hundred yards away-a wolf. But no ordinary wolf. This wolf had something like guile in it's eyes, something too close to human to be pure animal. And it had seen her. The bear had long since vanished down the beach, and Maya was left staring into the eyes of an animal she prayed she'd never see. The kind who had killed her grandfather. 

Dropping Adam's clothes, she turned and ran, her heart was tearing through her chest, her body stiff from the cold and the rain. She glanced over her shoulder, and saw the wolf in pursuit only a dozen or so yards away. She saw a blurring at the corner of her vision as she felt panic wash over her entire body,no, God, please, not now.The hotel was only a couple of hundred feet away, but it seemed like a mile. 

As Maya rounded the corner and sprinted up the path back to the hotel, she could hear the pounding of the wolf's paws only a few feet behind her. Her breath tore up from her lungs, her chest burning, as she urged her legs to keep on moving. She was just able to make out a handful of figures standing near the plate glass window, Dina, and one of the groomsmen.

"Help!" She yelled with what little breath she had left. "Help!"

Dina turned her head, and leapt forward, just in time to slide the door open to let Maya fall inside. The groomsman slammed the door shut as Maya collapsed on to her knees, leaving the wolf to slam painfully into the glass. Maya glanced over her shoulder, trying to confirm her safety, but all she could see was the figure of a man tearing off into the distance.

"What was…?" Maya panted, as Dina helped her to her feet.

"It's my ex. We think…we think he brought his pack with him." She murmured, brushing the rain-whipped hair from Maya's face.

"What?"

"Look, it's not for you to worry about. Just stay with us, don't leave the hotel. You'll be safe, I promise." Dina replied soothingly, sounding as if she was saying it as much to herself as to Maya. 

"Where is everyone?" Maya ran a hand through her hair, looking around. She knew the groomsmen had gone out, but she couldn't see any of the bridesmaids or other wedding guests either. 

"We managed to organize an emergency trip off the island for most of the guests," Dina explained. "We didn't have time to come find you. I'm so sorry."

"So why are the rest of us staying?" Maya demanded. 

"He's not going to stop, no matter what. We need to get this dealt with. And…no one's going to stop us here." Dina sounded nervous even as the words came out of her mouth.

"Are we in danger? Are you?" 

"Yes," Dina answered, her gaze steady and firm. "But not for much longer."

Suddenly, with a crash, the door burst open once again. Maya leapt back on instinct, only to see Lorne, carrying what looked to her untrained eye like a shotgun, and two of the groomsmen. 

"We had a skirmish, but I think most of them are unhurt. We're fine. One of them got away down the beach, though, did anyone…?" Lorne demanded, shaking the rain for her hair.

"He chased me, but I'm okay," Maya responded. "Where's Adam?"

"I'm right here," he cut in, and Maya spun around. It felt like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders-she hadn't realized just how worried she'd been about him till that moment. He had a small cut above his eye, and Maya grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the light.

"What are you doing?" He demanded, sounding as if all the wind had been knocked from him.

"I did first aid, trust me, I need to treat that." She replied firmly.

"Really, we've got increased healing time, I'll be fine in a day or so." 

Maya touched the area around the cut, and he flinched.

"Yeah, I still want to treat that. Come up to my room." She dragged him by the hand towards the stairs, and left the hustle and bustle of reception behind.

As Maya led Adam into her room, she could still hear the distant whistle of wind and rain across the island. He sat down on the bed, and she went to the bathroom for clean towels.

"Guess there's worse places to be trapped in a tropical storm, right?" Adam commented, looking around her quarters. "You guys definitely got a better deal than the groomsmen did."

"I'm not complaining," Maya shrugged. "Well, apart from the fact that a werewolf just chased me across the beach. Other than that, fine and dandy."


Page 12

"Seriously? Are you okay?" Adam leapt to his feet, but Maya placed her hands on his shoulders.

"I'm fine," She replied soothingly. "You're not, though. Let me deal with that."

She held the damp towel against his cut, and managed a smile. He gave her one in return, and she felt her heart skip a beat. Standing up quickly, she turned her back on him, there was still some stuff she needed to figure out before she was happy just falling at his feet.

"What actually happened out there?" She asked, peering out of the window, trying to see if there were any other figures in the distance again.

"The wolf pack found Lorne and Dean, tried to cause them some problems. We have it under control, but they're faster than us, so they got away. Then I had to go find my clothes." He smirked up at her, and she blushed a little, remembering how she'd dropped them on the beach. Then another query crossed her mind.

"So…they saw you like that?" Maya furrowed her brow. Adam grinned furtively.

"Trust me, I don't think it came as too much of a surprise to them."

"Whatever you say," she shrugged. After a pause, she took a deep breath, then continued. 

"On the beach, when you were…shifted. I've never seen that before."

"Seen what?" 

"Someone so in control of it. You know? I didn't think you were going to hurt me or anything. It was…new."

"Trust me, you never have to worry when you're around me," he reassured her, dabbing at his cut with the towel some more. 

"But…I thought I always would. With you being a shifter, and everything. I guess I just wanted to say that I think I might have been…wrong?"

"You don't say?" Adam raised his eyebrows sarcastically, and she swatted at him playfully.

"Look, you don't know how long I've been told that I should be scared of people…things…like you. And now that I'm not, I don't really know what to do with that feeling." Maya tried to explain. "I saw today…I saw you, and I saw that wolf, and I could see the difference. You were still in control, and I didn't feel scared or threatened or…anything."

"I never want you to feel like that around me. I never wantanyoneto feel like that around me." He stated emphatically. He looked up to meet her gaze, and Maya sat down on the ledge of the windowsill. She needed space between them, needed time to think.

"I can't just let go of everything I've been raised with. My mother…" Maya waved her hand in the air agitatedly. "If she found out that I was eventalkingto you, she'd probably never forgive me."

"I don't go about announcing it to everyone I meet," Adam replied flippantly. "I mean, most people I know, they've got no idea. They don't have to, because it doesn't affect the way I live my life."

"I know. You're just a person." Maya admitted, the words feeling foreign in her mouth. But she couldn't deny it any longer, with Adam sitting in front of her, right then, right there, she couldn't argue with the fact that he was no better or worse for what she'd seen on the beach. 

"Do you shift…often?" She asked, needing more information, needing to find something to rebel against. He shook his head.

"Only when I need to, and I've got to say, the requirement to become a giant bear doesn't come up that often." He replied solemnly. Maya giggled, and felt a familiar flutter in the bottom of her stomach. Adam got up, and sat next to her on the ledge, pulling the towel away from his face and wincing slightly.

"I don't think there's anything else I can do to convince you that being with me is safe," he murmured, covering her hand with his. "All I can do is prove it to you."

And with that, Maya couldn't take it any longer. She leant in and pressed her lips against his, it felt like an age since their first kiss the night before. But this kiss felt different. It felt honest, and sweet, and open-she felt his tongue slip past her lips and into her mouth, and a wave of relief passed over her. She wanted Adam. She really did. And nothing was going to get in the way of that.

Adam wrapped his arms around her waist, and drew her even closer to him. She draped her legs over his lap, and cupped his head in her hand, he tasted of sea air and cigarettes and something else, something she couldn't put her finger on. Outside, the storm raged on, even harder than before, but Maya couldn't have cared less. All that mattered to her now was Adam, and the knowledge that she accepted him for who he was. 

Adam stood up, and pulled Maya's legs up so they were around his waist. Carrying her over to the bed, he enmeshed his hand in her hair, pushing her back so that she was beneath him on the bed. The heat and strength of his body was almost more than she could bear, it had been a long time since she'd been with anyone, and she never thought her next hook-up would be with a shifter. She never thought any hook-up would be with a shifter, yet here she was, and all she could think was that she wanted more.

"Is this okay?" Adam pulled back for a moment and whispered, looking into her eyes intently. She nodded, and pulled him back down, arching up her hips to meet his. It might have been the adrenalin of the last hour, the newness of him, or any combination of the above, but she felt a sudden urge to have him closer, to go further. He slid a hand under her top, running his fingers along her exposed ribcage and up towards her chest-her breath hitched in her throat, and she closed her eyes, losing herself to the sensation of it. Adam quickly pulled off his shirt, and she did likewise, pressing their bodies together again so their bare skin was touching. He felt even better than he looked on the beach, and Maya half-wondered why she hadn't just gone and done this the night before. He peppered kisses from the top of her throat all the way down to her breasts, hooking his fingers over the cups of her bra and yanking them down so she was exposed. He trailed his mouth across her breast, teasing her with the scrape of his teeth against her nipples, and she let out a small moan.

"More?" He asked softly, flicking his tongue out across her skin tauntingly.

"More," she gasped, grabbing his head and pulling it up in line with her mouth once again. As their lips met again, his hand snaked down, undoing the button on her jeans and wriggling across her panties. Even feeling his fingers through the fabric was almost painfully erotic, and Maya lifted her hips, meeting his touch. Their tongues were hard and fast and needy against one another's, their bodies moving in almost perfect unison. 

After ever-so-lightly tracing the outline of her panties for a moment, Adam slid his hand inside her underwear and quickly found her clit. She gasped with relief, she had never wanted someone to touch her so much before. He slowly skimmed his fingers across her sensitive flesh, brushing his hand across her labia and the crease where her pussy met her thighs. She groaned in exasperation, needing more, and needing it now, and he obliged. Sliding his fingers down, he entered her, slipping two digits into her slit. She sank her hands into his back, as if holding on for dear life-his lips found her neck once again, and he built up a rhythm, moving in and out of her with luxurious slowness as if he was savoring the sensation. 

"I think these need to come off," Adam murmured, moving his hand and sliding down her jeans and her panties. Maya gratefully kicked them off, her breath coming in short sharp bursts as she watched him undress himself. He threw himself back down next to her, staring into her eyes for a moment, and then kissed her once again, but this time his lips travelled further South, past her neck, down her breasts, across her stomach, until he was hovering his mouth only a few inches away from her pussy.

"Can I?" He inquired, and as he spoke, his hot breath tickled her skin. She writhed underneath him, only able to give him a nod in response. But that was all he needed.

Sealing his lips around her clit, he started by drawing slow, gentle circles around her sensitive nub. Maya groaned, reaching down to mesh her fingers into his hair, guiding his mouth against her. She could feel the ache growing deep inside her, and didn't know how much more she could take without some kind of release. 

He continued, licking with long, slow strokes from the bottom of her pussy right to the tip. She shuddered underneath him; if she'd known how good hooking up with a shifter would be, there's no way she would have left it as long as she had. She closed her eyes, and focused on the feeling, the feeling of his tongue darting artfully against her clit, the feeling of his mouth on her. It had been so long since she'd wanted a man the way she wanted Adam, and it felt so good. Arching her back up, she squirmed back and forth on the soft hotel sheets, silently begging for more. He seemed to read her mind, tracing quick shapes across her clit, leaving her shuddering with pleasure. Her breath was ragged, her skin burning, and she knew it would happen any minute-

When she came, it felt like a revelation. It was far from the first orgasm she'd ever had, but something about the entire situation made everything more intense. Maybe because she knew she was breaking some kind of taboo, maybe because of everything that had already happened, but she felt a palpable sense of relief as her orgasm crested and broke, and Adam slowed his strokes down to practically nothing. Pulling his head back, he pressed one last kiss against the inside of her thigh before he crawled up level with her again. Her eyes were still closed, but she groped for him anyway, pulling him back on top of her and fumbling for the drawer next to the bed. 

"I really need you to fuck me right now," she moaned, her voice low and husky and still getting over the last few contractions of her orgasm. Her fingers finally connected with the "what-if" condoms she'd thrown into the suitcase last minute, and she pulled one out and handed it to Adam. He paused for a moment, looking at her, as if taking her in for the first time.

"Please?" She prompted, and he snapped out of his reverie, grinning at her and placing a quick kiss on her temple before unwrapping the condom and sheathing himself. He leant back down over her, pulling her leg so that it sat over his shoulder, and positioned himself at her entrance. 

"Ready?" He panted, and Maya realized she could still see some of her own wetness on his lips. She pulled him in for a kiss, and in the same moment, he entered her.

The feeling was exquisite-Maya had never much been one for doing anything beyond her first orgasm, but feeling Adam inside of her changed all of that. She pulled back from the kiss to look at him, his eyes were squeezed shut, and his teeth were just resting on his bottom lip as he was trying to hold back a cry of pleasure. Maya pushed herself up, grinding against him, trying to match his pace, and they began to move together. 

It felt as if they carried on for an eternity-holding each other close, feeling every moment of their first time. Maya couldn't get over how good it felt to be close to him, how incredible his skin felt against her's, cool and soft and new. She ran her nails down his back and gripped his butt, pushing him even deeper into her pussy, and he groaned-hearing the animalistic noise from between his lips reminded Maya exactly who he was,whathe was. 

He grabbed the back of her neck and pulled her up, so that she was sitting astride him. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she moved up and down, setting the pace, slowing everything down so that she could feel every inch of him inside of her. He looked up at her, almost reverently, and Maya felt another orgasm wash over her, this one softer, more mellow, but just as hot. She threw her head back theatrically and moaned loudly, knowing that Adam was appreciating the show. He thrust up into her, hard, and a few moments later she felt him find his own release inside her. 

They sat like that for a few moments longer-rocking back and forth, letting their breath return to normal, allowing their pulses to settle and the fog of arousal to clear from their minds. Maya slowly lifted herself off Adam, and he quickly disposed of the condom before the two of them lay next to each other on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Adam reached for her hand, and they interlocked fingers, the last thing Maya remembered before sleep took over was how sweet the gesture was, and how much she wanted to do all of that again as soon as humanly (or non-humanly, as the case may be) possible.

When Maya woke a few hours later, it was dark, and her body was aching. She couldn't tell if it was from the cold and the rain and the running, or from the fuck session that had followed it, and frankly, she didn't care. Adam was sprawled out on the bed next her, gloriously naked, and she sat up so she could admire him fully. Part of her wanted to wake him up and do it all again, but she knew he'd be tired after a long day. Sliding out of bed, she grabbed her robe and headed to the shower.

Slipping under the hot water, she contemplated everything that had happened, they were still in danger, but somehow, she felt safe. Adam was right, even though she'd been told her entire life to fear creatures like him, he was no more or less dangerous than any other guy she'd hooked up with. And, well, he was certainly a lot better at it than a lot of the guys she'd done before. Maybe Adam was a sign from the universe, telling her that she didn't have to believe everything she was raised with, and in fact, it was probably better for her that she didn't.

Maya stepped out of the shower, quickly towel-drying her hair until it wasn't quite the sodden mess it had been earlier in the day. Pulling on her robe, she stepped back through to the bedroom, only to realize that Adam was already awake.


Page 13

"Sorry, did I-" Maya started, but Adam had already leaned forward and pulled her on to the bed before she could get the sentence out.

"Yeah. But I'll find some way for you to make it up to me," Adam grinned, pulling her in for a kiss. And in that moment, none of it mattered, none of it even came close to him.

Breakwater: Leo

Star Bears I

by

Becca Fanning

As a little girl, Annie had pictured how her dream wedding would go. She’d wear a white dress and walk down the aisle, looking out over a sea of smiling faces as she approached the altar. Her groom she had pictured less as a specific person and more as an amalgamation of traits she wanted: kind eyes, a warm smile, broad shoulders… things she associated with a gentle, good-hearted man. Her mother would be alive, and her father would be sober.

She had always known this little fantasy of hers had been a mess of impossibilities. She just hadn’t pictured it going this awry.

Running a hand over the bodice of her dress, Annie stared at herself in the mirror. Her reflection looked morosely back out at her. One pale, manicured hand ran over the bodice of her gown, fingers tracing over the thousands of crystals dotting the fabric like stars. Annie had never been this close to a diamond before. She’d certainly never thought she’d be wearing this many of them. Her auburn hair was piled on top of her head in an elaborate series of braids and curls and there was shimmering powder swiped across the lids of her grey eyes, making them seem bigger and brighter.

Annie had never looked better, and she had never felt worse.

Not for the first time since she had received the news of her own impending nuptials by way of her father drunkenly sweating through a confession, Annie cursed at the series of mundane-to-regrettable events that made up her life. She’d always been told growing up that if she worked hard enough, she could be and have anything she wanted. Bright-eyed idiot that she had been, she hadn’t realized that it was just a condescending platitude doled out to the have-nots of the universe to make them more complacent with their lot, to shift the blame away from the people overworking and underpaying their employees. Instead, she’d planted her feet, ignored the throngs of people she’d known growing up who worked hard day in and day out and barely had enough to eat, and decided to become a politician.

She’d ended up as a waitress at dive bar instead. It hadn’t been all terrible—the other servers were friendly and she got free drinks—but spending anywhere between eight and fifteen hours a day avoiding groping hands and belligerent drunks hadn’t been how she wanted to spend her life. This was without her father showing up and explaining that he needed money—just this once!—and that he wouldn’t spend it all on cheap booze, only for a friend of his to call her to come pick him up once he’d drunk himself unconscious. At the time, it hadn’t seemed like much, just a continued state of existence tinged by the frustration that she could be so much more. Now it seemed like paradise. It was funny what made you learn to appreciate what you had. Sometimes it was a death, or a breakup, or getting fired. Sometimes it was your father telling you he’d accidentally sold you into being what amounted to a sex slave for a demonic autocrat with a warship that could eat the sun and a private army decked out in gear reminiscent of Civil War uniforms.

Annie had laughed when her father had first broken the news, and she hadn’t laughed again since. The next week had been a blur of the sickening realization that no, it wasn’t a joke, and she needed to go to a meeting point, where Captain Jacob Strathmore of the ITCAppomattoxhad looked her over with his pale eyes like she was a side of meat and declared her acceptable as a wife so long as she knew her place. She’d been whisked away for fittings and lessons. The dress, decorations, and a priest had appeared seemingly by magic. It was impressive what one could do when his footsteps echoed across the universe. It had been so hectic that Annie had barely had time to plan her escape.

The best course of action, of course, would have been to disappear while still planetside, but that hadn’t been an option. As it were, she had looked at her choices, fluttered her eyelashes at the gaunt, spidery tyrant who owned her, and done her best to seem cowed. She had convinced him that he couldn’t see her in her dress, and he had smirked down at his pretty, witless bride-to-be and agreed to adhere to her charming little superstition. He had, of course, had a few of his agents watch her and serve as makeshift bridesmaids; all three of them lay unconscious on the floor, the spiked punch making a sticky puddle where one had dropped her cup on the way down. Annie felt a pang of remorse for the women who Strathmore would doubtlessly punish severely when he discovered her absence, but then again they had all continued to wake up and put on their horrendous uniforms and do an unhinged warlord’s bidding day after day when the mechanics behind putting a blaster to their heads and pulling the trigger were fairly simple. She quelled her sympathy and checked the hallway outside her door.

She’d demanded to be taken on a grand tour of theAppomattoxin order to “acquaint herself with her future home.” This had given her general knowledge of two things: where the escape vessels were and the guard’s patrol schedules. Since the rise of technology, few people had physical patrols anymore. Instead, most relied on security measures such as bio-locks and cameras. Strathmore used both. Luckily, the room that had been given to Annie had, by her request, come with a great view off the side of the ship, and since the escape vessels were located at either side of the ship, this meant she was relatively close to the portside emergency escape station. All she could do was book it down the corridor, key herself in with an ID card she’d swiped from one of her napping guards—along with the woman’s boots—and pray.

Taking a deep breath, she did exactly that. She made it to the door just fine, which she’d expected, but as soon as someone saw her on the security feed or the emergency alert went off when she opened the doors to take off she’d have some of the best soldiers in the galaxy swarming her. Sure enough, she heard shouting as she closed the door. She looked around for something to block the doorway with, but didn’t see anything she could move. Instead, she hurried to one of the sleek, black Needles lined up for takeoff. 

Needles were escape vessels designed to maneuver out of combat situations, which meant that they had both full-cover plasma shielding and a simplistic flight situation geared towards avoiding pursuers. In short, it was perfect for Annie but only if she could get in one and start it before the guards got in. She lowered the interior bay door and released the boots keeping one of the Needles in place easily enough, but as the metal shutter began to lift, Annie heard shouting from just outside the door. Cursing under her breath, she hitched her skirt up and dashed for the newly released Needle. She had just managed to get inside and close the hatch when the bay door slid open and seven guards charged into the room.

“Annie Heathcoat,” one boomed, “please exit the escape vessel. Compliance will earn you lenience.”

“Shove a blaster in it!” Annie shouted back as the Needle’s engine thrummed to life. She hit the button to activate the plasma shielding as soon as she was able. A split second after the blue-white field appeared around her vessel, a blaster bolt slammed into it, dissolving in a flash of light. A screen on Annie’s dash showed that her shield was now at ninety-five percent. Needles had excellent shielding for their size, but that wouldn’t help her for long against many more point-blank blaster bolts.

The interior bay door creaked upwards, almost complete in it’s ascent. Most modern ships required the interior bay door to be manually opened. After that, the exterior bay door was set on a timer. A countdown was programmed in, usually around forty-five seconds, from the time the interior bay door was fully up. After that, the exterior bay door would rapidly lift, allowing takeoff. This enabled the person commanding the bay doors to open to either get in a ship or get out of the room and avoid being sucked into space. As the beep sounded to alert the room the countdown had commenced, one guard hurried over to the station to stop the doors from opening. Annie watched out of the corner of her eye, breathing deeply and steading her hands on the steering column. It would take the guard far less than forty-five seconds to re-lower the interior bay door. It didn’t matter; this was why Annie had reprogrammed the countdown to two seconds.

All sounds outside the Needle abruptly cut off as everything not properly latched down was swept into the inky vacuum of space. Annie took a moment to silently apologize to the seven guards who had been ejected from the ship and then entered warp 2. She double checked to make sure the autopilot was functioning, then slumped back. Pressing a hand to her chest, she closed her eyes and breathed out. Her heart was thumping far too fast under her hand, but she refused to let herself begin to hyperventilate. She was already on a ship with limited shielding and limited fuel in the depths of unfamiliar space. She didn’t need to add “overtaxed the oxygen recyclers” to her list of problems.

She reached into her bodice and pulled out a scrap of paper. On it was a set of coordinates. She’d done a little research while in captivity and she’d found the location of a Class 6 planet: breathable air, civilized settlements, but not important in terms of strategy or resources. With any luck, she’d be able to stay there until Strathmore lost interest and left. After that, she’d try and catch a ship out, or maybe just stay there. After all, there were dive bars all over the galaxy. 

She plugged the coordinates into the ship’s computer and closed her eyes. There wasn’t much she could do until she was planetside, and unfortunately that gave her time to do the one thing she really didn’t want to do: think. The worries and fears that had been building up for the last week surged forward in her mind, demanding her attention. With nothing to distract her, she gave in.

She wondered how her father was. She’d screamed at him, telling him he was no father of hers and that she never wanted to see him again. It had been largely to keep him away from Strathmore, but it had come naturally. At the time letting out years of frustration and disappointment had been cathartic, but now that the chances she would ever see him again being depressingly low she wanted to take it back. Carl Heathcoat hadn’t been the best father in the galaxy, but he was the only one she had. Hopefully he was so deep in a bottle that Strathmore’s men wouldn’t be able to find him.

And then there were Annie’s concerns about her own safety. She wasn’t dumb enough to think that Strathmore couldn’t track her little Needle. Honestly, she wasn’t sure why he hadn’t just caught up to her and either blown her out of the air or used a tractor beam to pull her back into the main ship. TheAppomattoxwas capable of warp 8, despite its size; Needles could only get up to half of that. Even with the memory of sitting on her mother’s lap as she steered a patrol ship in lazy circles around buildings fresh in her mind she couldn’t out-navigate a trained pilot. The only thing she could think of was that he hadn’t noticed she was gone yet, or that he didn’t care.

Soon, a blue light lit up on her dash to warn her she was about to break atmo. She sighed, rolled her shoulders, and prepared for her descent. This was the part Annie was truly worried about. She’d never landed a ship on her own, especially not without a proper landing strip. Her plan was to try to hit a huge lake that should be right under where her coordinates put her. If she could slow down enough and hit it at an angle, the emergency ejection system should get her out of the Needle safely. Of course, this depended mostly on her not dying on impact.

As the rippling blue-green waters grew closer and closer, she steeled herself and tilted the ship slightly upwards and she cut power to the engine. The Needle shuddered for a moment, then automatically booted up its safety protocols. The plasma shielding flickered back to life around her and she felt her freefall slow incrementally. She hoped it was enough.

The impact hurt more than she expected. She was thrust forward, her ribs hitting the dash with bruising force and knocking the air of her lungs. The Needle skidded over the surface of the water before slowly sinking. Gasping, Annie hit the eject button. Her seat launching out of the Needle and hitting the water a few yards away certainly did nothing for the spinning in her head. The parachute that came equipped on the back of the seat was a relief when it meant not smacking into the water again but soon she was fighting her way out of its folds. Eventually, she managed to escape the parachute and sit back in her seat, bobbing in the water and breathing deeply. 

Annie pinched herself to force her thoughts to gather. She had to get to shore, but she needed the seat to do so since its function as a flotation device was the only thing keeping her from sinking due to the weight of her elaborate, diamond-encrusted, and now soaking wet wedding dress. If she went under, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get her head above the surface again. She awkwardly managed to maneuver out of her underskirt, which helped, but Annie knew she wasn’t a strong enough swimmer to not feel worried still. In the end, she ended up clutching the seat in as much of a death grip as she could manage and doing an awkward doggy paddle to the shore. It took longer than she would have liked, but she made it to dry land without drowning. Then, however, the dress became a problem once again. It weighing her down was arguably better on the sand where drowning was no longer a concern, but it still slowed her down. Even without the underskirt, it was heavy and the material wouldn’t tear no matter how hard she tugged at it. She had two options: strip out of the dress and run around an unfamiliar planet in her underwear or leave the whole sodden contraption on.


Page 14

“I managed to get off your damn warship,” Annie mutter as she pulled futilely at her skirt, “and you’re still managing to make my life hell.”

Opting to leave the dress on, she made her way into the forest of silver-barked trees that ran around the lake. Once she was far enough in that she was certain she couldn’t be seen either from the shore or the air, she slumped against a tree and slid to the ground. Annie knew that she didn’t have the time to waste on a mental breakdown, but she couldn’t seem to will the hysteria to stop. Her breathing turned rapid and shallow as her mind began to race, showing all the worst things that could happen next in a loop. She slapped herself, the stinging pain letting her gain some control over her thoughts. She needed to make a plan, and she needed to figure out how to make that plan happen, and she needed to…

…were those voices?

Annie stopped breathing entirely, listening intently. She could only pick out fragments of what was being said, but keywords like “recover” and “bride” told her all she needed to know about who, exactly, was close by. Annie weighed her odds of survival if she stayed versus if she ran. Clenching her jaw and squeezing her eyes shut, she gathered up her skirt. Then, snapping her eyes open, she threw herself into a mad dash forward.

She had no idea which direction she was going or what would be waiting on her when she got there but anything would be better than being the property of a monster like Strathmore. Her boots pounded the ground with every step, sounding to Annie’s suddenly sensitive ears like thunder. Ahead, she saw the trees beginning to thin out. She decided to chance it; maybe there was someone who would be willing to help her.

Annie darted out of the forest and immediately skidded to a stop. In front of her was a ship, in front of which were two groups of men talking next to a stack of crates. They all turned to look at her, and more than one of them reached for a weapon. Eyes wide, Annie backed up. Sure, these people probably weren’t as bad as Strathmore, but that hardly meant they were the type she wanted to get acquainted with.

A tall, broad man with tan skin that probably had more to do with genetics than actual time in the sun and messy black hair stepped forward.

“Hold up, boys,” he said, one hand on his belt and one stretched out to calm down him comrades. “I’d rather not end this day by murdering an innocent woman. What’s your name, sweetheart?”

Annie wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to answer, or at least to answer honestly. Luckily, a man covered in tattoos spoke before she had to decide.

“I don’t care what her name is, she’s trouble. She’s clearly running from someone, and she’s seen us.”

“Look, as someone who’s had to look at your face for the last hour, I can completely understand the urge to shoot anyone who’s had the misfortune to bear witness to that monstrosity,” the first man drawled, “but let’s not be hasty.”

Annie wasn’t familiar with the gesture the tattooed man made but the meaning behind it came across loud and clear. “Fuck this, man. My job here’s done. Me and my boys are out.”

With that, he and several of the men turned and began walking towards a truck and several hover bikes.

Annie turned to look warily at the remaining men as the sound of engines starting filled the air before growing gradually quieter. Other than the man who had spoken, there was a taller, skinner man with brown hair and a blond leering at her. She noticed that all three had gold eyes that almost glowed in the sunlight. She debated running back into the forest, but any one of these men, who were all dressed in perfectly reasonable clothing and probably hadn’t just crash landed, could easily catch her. Besides, she didn’t know if Strathmore’s soldiers had followed her into the forest.

“So, who might you be?” the man asked, smiling at her.

“My name’s Annie,” she said softly, resisting the urge to take a step back.

“Nice to meet you, Annie,” he said. “I’m Leo, and this is Rick and Custer. Care to explain why a pretty little thing like you is running around in a wedding dress?”

“I really don’t think you’d believe me,” Annie answered, eyeing the other men warily. The tall brunette seemed calm, but the blond still had a manic grin on his face. 

“If it’s got anything to do with the people crashing through the forest,” Leo said, “I think I might.”

On instinct, Annie spun and backed away from the forest. It put her back to the strange men, but they were only probably going to kill her as opposed to Strathmore’s men, who were definitely going to kill her, so she figured it was the lesser of two evils.

“Shit,” she hissed, shoulders tightening. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“I’m guessing there’s a story behind this,” Leo said, sounding amused.

“Captain Strathmore won me in a card game,” Annie said as the despair settled over her. She supposed it no longer mattered if these men knew who she was because she doubted she would live long enough for it to matter. “I drugged some of his guards and stole a Needle to escape. Hopefully, the soldiers are just here to kill me.”

There was silence, then a low whistle.

“Ma’am,” Leo said, “I think you just might have beat out my entire crew in terms of ball size.”

“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind to comfort me while I’m being tortured to death,” Annie said. Shouts began to leak out of the forest and she tried to figure out a place she could run to that she couldn’t be followed. Maybe she should just throw herself into the water and end it all on her own terms. 

“I have a proposal for you,” Leo said.

Annie turned slightly back towards him, unwilling to put her back entirely to the forest but suspecting she should be looking at Leo for this conversation. Leo walked around until he was closer to her.

“Captain, I don’t think—” the brunette started before Leo cut him off with a lazy flick of his wrist.

“Didn’t ask you to,” he said, quirking an eyebrow at Annie. “So? Interested?”

Like she had any choice. “Go for it.”

“We help you with your soldier problem. Hell, we’ll get you off planet. For the right price.”

And there it was. Annie felt something cold start to move through her veins. 

“What price might that be?” she asked as calmly as she could.

Leo’s grin widened as his eyes traced down her neck and over her torso. He nodded at her chest.

“Those real?” he asked

Annie bristled. “Excuseme?”

Leo smirked at her. “The diamonds, sugar. I’m assuming yes if you got the dress from Strathmore but I thought I’d ask anyways.”

Annie straightened her shoulders as heat slowly filled her face. She ran fingers along the tiny crystals. 

“He said they were,” she answered. “I don’t know if he was lying, though.”

Leo shrugged. “Good enough for me. Alright, let’s get this onto theBreakwater.”

Leo gave Annie a wary look before glancing at Custer, who was still smiling like this was exactly what he had wanted to happen today. He turned and walked up the ramp into the ship behind him.

“Hyde, Dom, we need your help to load fast,” he called before walking over to one of the crates and loading it onto a flatbed next to the stack of cargo. He and Custer grabbed another box as Leo took a step closer to Annie. 

He smiled at her and put his hands up in a placating gesture when she tensed. “Got anywhere in particular you’re needing to be?”

“Why are you helping me?” Annie asked in lieu of answering his question. “And don’t say the diamonds. I’m asking why you’re actually helping me.”

“You don’t believe I’m motivated solely by greed?” Leo said. “I’m touched that you think I’m such a good person.”

“It has nothing to do with being a good person,” Annie snapped. “There are soldiers from one of the most feared private militaries to ever exist who are going to burst out of the forest at any minute now because the man who put the galaxy’s balls in a vise is trying to find me. If I were you, I’d need a hell lot more than a couple rocks to convince me to get involved.”

Leo’s smile faded as he ran his eyes searchingly over her face. “You think I’m going to sell you back to Strathmore.”

“I’d have to be an idiot to not consider the possibility,” Annie told him. “I’m a lot of things. That’s not one.”

“So why haven’t you made a break for it yet?” he asked, tilting his head.

“Because you’re only probably going to hand me giftwrapped over to Strathmore whereas the jackasses in the forest definitely will. The hand’s shit, but it’s still more in my favor with you.”

“Captain, they’re getting closer,” Rick called as two men ran down the ramp to help move the cargo. One had a shockingly blue eyepatch and the other, while no less muscular than his crewmates, looked to be several inches shorter than Annie. Both glared suspiciously at Annie as they approached and she wasn’t surprised to see they also had gold eyes. Rick leaned over and muttered something to them. They looked at each other, then went to work.

“Alright, you need to get inside now if you’re getting inside at all,” Leo said to Annie. “I can’t focus on fighting these chucklefucks and protect you at the same time.”

“Wait, you’re fighting them?” Annie said in disbelief. “I thought the plan was to try and outrun them.”

“I don’t remember saying that,” Leo replied calmly, rolling his shoulders.

“I thought it was implied in that there’s going to be at least five of them and unless you’re all secretly highly trained operatives then there’s no way you’ll win,” Annie said as she slowly realized she was throwing her lot in with a mad man.

“Don’t worry about me,” Leo said. “Just get on the ship.”

“I am not getting you killed,” Annie hissed at him. “I’ll deal with this on my own.”

Leo turned back at her and smiled. He had been grinning for the entirety of the time she had been talking to him, and yet it still felt as if this was the first time. It was wide and warm and Annie felt something in her chest flutter at the sight. 

“You’re one interesting lady, Annie,” he said. “I’ve got no intentions to kick it before getting to know you a little better. Now, please, get to theBreakwater.”

Annie was about to protest again when hands clamped down on her shoulder. She flinched violently.

“I have her,” Rick told the captain, pulling Annie towards the ship. “I’m going to go ahead and get our bird running. Don’t die.”

“I will do my very best,” Leo responded cheerfully.

The other three crewmen were pushing the carts up the ramp. Rick tapped Custer on the shoulder.

“Stay with him,” Rick told the blond, who grinned, nodded, and then jogged over to where his captain was staring out into the forest. 

“So we’re actually bringing her?” the man with the eyepatch asked as he adjusted his hold on the cart. “We’re actually kidnapping Strathmore’s fiancée?”

“I think it’s more that you’re de-kidnapping me,” Annie said. He glared at her, and the short man snorted.

“I give about as many fucks about the exact terminology of what the stunt we’re pulling here is as Strathmore’s going to give before he blasts our sorry asses out of the sky,” Eyepatch said. “That amount, if you were wondering, is zero.”

“Hyde,” Rick said warningly.

Hyde shook his head and tuned back to the cart. “All I’m saying is, the bitch better shit platinum.”

“Hyde,” Rick growled.

Annie had heard far worse on some of her best days working at the bar and had far bigger concerns.

 “Aren’t you a little concerned that they’re about to get themselves killed?” she asked, jerking her head at Leo and Custer as the sound of shouting grew steadily louder.

“They’re not going to die,” the short man—Dominic?—said, “which is a damn shame because I would give up some very valuable things to watch Custer bite the dust.”

The men pushed the carts the rest of the way onto the ship and into what appeared to be a cargo hold.

“Alright, we don’t have time to tie these down right now,” Rick said, “so we’re going to strap the whole cart and hope for the best. When we’re done, Hyde, you’re backing up the captain and Custer and Dom, I need you to—oh, dammit.”

Annie jerked around to see what he was cursing at and her heart dropped as she saw the familiar uniforms pour out of the trees. One soldier barked something at Leo, who said something in reply that made the man stiffen. Annie scrambled, trying to get out of the line of sight, but it was too late. One woman saw her and pointed, shouting. The others reached for their guns. Instead of reaching for their own weapons, Leo and Custer roared at the offending soldiers and exploded outwards.

Annie blinked, trying to reconcile what she was seeing with reality. Where Leo and Custer had been were now two giant bears, one black and one honey-colored, swiping left and right. Half the soldiers were already bleeding on the ground and the other half were, like Annie, recovering from what they were seeing. 

“Hyde, cover them, Dominic, engineering,” Rick snapped, running into a chrome hallway towards what Annie assumed was the pilot’s station. Dominic sprinted after them as Hyde unstrapped his blaster and put a bolt in the head of the first soldier to point a blaster at one of the bears. Between Hyde’s cover fire and the brutal assault by what were probably the captain and Custer, the soldiers were shortly dispatched and the two giant, furry creatures where lumbering towards the ship.


Page 15

“Move your asses,” Hyde hollered. 

The honey-colored bear shoulder checked him as he entered the cargo bay. As soon as they were both in, Hyde slammed a hand down over a button on the intercom by the door.

“All in and ready for takeoff,” he said.

“Get out of the cargo bay,” Rick’s voice answered. “I’m about to go and I don’t want any of you getting killed by a box of pain meds.”

All four of them, bear and human alike, hurried towards the hallways as the ramp lifted and the door to the outside slid down. They started into the main body of theBreakwateras the ship hummed to life around them. 

“Alright, I’m going to go see if Dom needs anything,” Hyde said. “Please, for the love of any god you so choose, both of you put some pants on. Custer, that means you.”

With that, he spun on his heel and stalked off. The bears wandered off and Annie, after a moment to adjust, followed the bear she was pretty sure was Leo. 

He walked down one corridor and came to a stop in front of one of the doors. Then, sitting back on his haunches, painstakingly typed in a passcode with far more care and precision than could ever look natural on his hulking, fur-covered frame. A surprised giggle burst out of Annie before she clapped one hand over her mouth. It was strange; she would have thought laughter to be beyond her two minutes ago. The bear simply sank back down on all fours and huffed at her as the door hissed open. Annie followed him as he walked inside a bedroom that reminded Annie loosely of hospital rooms, all uniform, sturdy furniture and sleek surfaces.

There was a strange sound, like a squelch combined with bones popping, as the transformation reversed. Within seconds, the bear had melted back into Leo, standing tall and proud and very, very naked.

Annie considered turning around to give the man some privacy, but from his smirk he clearly didn’t mind the eyeful she was getting and honestly after all she’d gone through, the universe owed her some compensation. She took a good, long look at his broad shoulders and sculpted abs before snapping her eyes back up to his.

“Impressive,” she said, half talking about his abilities and half talking about his physique.

“Done already? You’re allowed to go lower, you know,” he flirted.

Annie shook her head. “Maybe when you don’t still have blood on your hands. And face.”

Leo grimaced and held up one finger in a universal “wait a sec” gesture before turning and walking into what turned out to be a connected bathroom. As he entered the adjoining room, Annie allowed her eyes to dip down towards the dimple at the small of his back and then farther down. The view almost made up for having to run from a maniac with a private army.

She heard the hiss of a sonic scrubber start up and looked around the room while she waited. There was a bed with a nightstand next to it and an intercom system just above it, along with a shelf running around the room at about Annie’s eyelevel. A desk with a stationary comm unit sat against one wall with a chair pushed away from it at an angle. Annie, suddenly feeling the exhaustion of the last several hours pouring over her, figured that if Leo was willing to turn into a bear and kill her pursuers and then all but hand her an engraved invitation to look at his junk then he probably wouldn’t be overly angry at her for sitting down. Still, she sat gingerly, ready to spring back up if necessary, the memory of Strathmore striking her hard across the face for sitting without his permission at dinner her first night on theAppomattoxfresh in her mind. 

Leo sauntered back out of the bathroom and smiled at Annie.

“Alright, I’m getting me some clothes. Do you want something to change into? I don’t have anything your size, but you’re welcome to anything in my closet.”

Suddenly, Annie was more desperate than ever to get out of the dress. She nodded quickly. Leo laughed as he walked over to his closet and pulled out a shirt and a pair of pants and tossed them to Annie before rummaging for clothes he could wear.

Annie got her boots off in record time but her dress proved to be more difficult. It had taken two of the assigned guard to get her into it and do up all the little buttons on the back and tie the various laces. She cursed as she fumbled with the fabric, trying and failing to get it even a little looser.

“Allow me,” Leo said from behind her, followed by the familiarsnikof a traditional metal knife snapping open. There was a tearing sound, and suddenly the dress was a lot looser. Annie crossed her arms over her chest before the fabric fell away completely. She turned to Leo and raised an eyebrow.

“You’re clearly had practice with that,” she said.

Leo shrugged. “I’m a dashing and devastatingly handsome smuggler. A little roughness adds the edge the kind of women who come after me are looking for.”

Annie uncrossed her arms, letting the dress fall away, and reached for the shirt. She didn’t miss the way Leo’s eyes ran over her body as she tugged it over her head.

“I won’t lie, in any other situation it’d work for me,” she told him as she adjusted the soft blue fabric. The shirt was long enough on her that she really didn’t need pants, but she tugged them on anyways. The material dwarfed her, making her feel like she was playing dress-up. From the amused glint in Leo’s eyes, he agreed.

“In that case, I’ll wait for any other situation to pop up and try again,” he said and winked. The gesture came across more humorous than seductive and Annie laughed.

She was slowly, to her surprise, relaxing. Hours ago she had thought even her best case scenario to be hopeless but now she was on a ship with men who could become bears. Suddenly, the impossible seemed very possible.

“So, bear shifters?” she said with a small smile. “I gotta admit, I’ve met a lot of strange folks, but I’ve never met one of your lot before. I thought you all had fancy security gigs, shit like that.”

“First of all, we have about the same genetic frequency as redheads, so I wouldn’t say for sure you’ve never met one of us before,” Leo said. “And obviously some of us took the low road. I tried private security for a while. It got old fast.”

“I see. And the others? All shifters?”

Leo opened his mouth to respond when a beep came from the intercom. 

“Captain, letting you know we’ve broken atmo. Custer and Hyde went back to the cargo hold to secure the loose crates. Will let you know if anything else develops,” Rick said.

Leo walked over and pressed a button.

“Thank you, Rick, I appreciate it.”

He released the button and walked back towards Annie and sat on the corner of the bed.

“Sorry about that. To answer your question, yes, everyone on this crew is a bear shifter,” he told her.

Annie drew her knees to her chest.

“Can you tell me about them?” she asked. “Not anything secret, obviously, but I’m curious about who does what. You have a small crew.”

Leo nodded. “Bare bones, that’s us. We need to take on some more crew, but with our… peculiarities and our work, that’s not easy. We’d have to let anyone we hired in on our secret, and there’s a lot of money to be made in selling shifters and splices. Anyone good enough at smuggling to be hired here would be the type to jump at the opportunity.” 

He sighed, chewing at his lip. “Where to start… Rick is the obvious place. He’s my second in command and the other main pilot.”

“Main pilot?” Annie asked.

“Everyone in the crew can pilot this bird by necessity,” Leo told her, “but Rick and I are the ‘official’ pilots. He’s a good man. Quiet, smart. Stubborn as all hell once he takes a stand on something, but a good friend and a good pilot. His parents were in the smuggling game so he knows what he’s doing. Both his legs are prosthetics so if you hear him hissing when he moves, don’t worry, that’s perfectly normal. Out of everyone else on this crew, he’s the one you should worry about the least.”

“I’ll admit, I’m not thrilled at the implication that I need to worry about anyone here,” Annie said.

Leo chuckled. “You can relax. They won’t do anything to you as long as they know I’m against it, but they won’t be nice. Something tells me you can handle that, though. Next is Custer. Blond, prosthetic hand. Which, by the way, is the one that he masturbates with.”

Annie blinked. “I… see.”

“I could give you a detailed record of Custer’s varied failings,” Leo explained somewhat apologetically, “but honestly that’s the fastest way to give you a general picture of what he’s like. Other than his somewhat sadistic and maniacal tendencies, he’s a spectacular fighter and something of a jack-of-all-trades. He has basic knowledge of everyone’s jobs and goes where he’s needed.”

“He sounds lovely,” Annie said.

“You get used to him,” the captain said, shrugging. “He’s a basket case, but he’s loyal and a hard worker. Next are Hyde Jones and Dominic Banner. They’re closer to each other than the rest of the crew, but again, loyal and hard-working. Hyde’s the one with the eyepatch. He works our communications array and deals with whatever programming we need to keep the ship’s computer. He’s a sarcastic shit, but he’ll only get hostile if you pose a danger to the crew. Dom is our engineer. He’s blunt, and with any luck you’ll never see him shift. Actually, try not to ask him about shifting at all.”

“Why?” Annie asked, intrigued.

“Dom is a carrier for the DAI-O gene. It’s a gene specific to shifters,” Leo said as his smile dropped and a solemnness settles over his features. “It’s also called the ‘Berserker gene,’ which should give you a pretty good idea of what it does. The specific mutation of the gene that he has leads to Rogerson disorder, which, long story short, means once he shifts it’s extremely likely he won’t be able to control himself. Obviously, having an angry, feral bear on your hands is not an ideal situation, so for the most part Dom doesn’t shift.”

“Is that common? Among shifters, I mean?” Annie asked, unsure how to feel about this new disease.

“In bear shifters, there’s one in eight thousand who have it. I know that sounds like a lot, but remember, there’s not a ton of us to start out with and we’re spread out. And that’s just the stats for bears born with the mutation. Carriers generally don’t live as long as the rest of us for a variety of reasons,” Leo said soothingly. 

“Okay, so, your crew is made up of one decent man who knows what he’s doing, a man who probably has kinks that most of the population would consider cruel and unusual punishment, a sarcastic coder who almost definitely hates me, and the smallest, angriest shifter of them all,” she said just to make sure she had all her information right.

“You’re forgetting Leo Ingram, the suave, sexy captain,” Leo told her, waggling his eyebrows.

“How could I possibly neglect my savior like that?” Annie responded, letting the sarcasm gained over a lifetime of pouring drinks for some of the galaxy’s worst and dullest color her tone.

“Very impolite of you,” the captain said with a wicked grin. “But you seem to have acknowledged your mistake, so I’m willing to treat you to some of our five-star space safe cuisine in the kitchen, if you’re hungry.”

“Starving,” Annie said, standing. The captain walked to the door and pressed the door to open it, then held and arm out to her. She crossed over to him, kicking her dress aside as she passed it, and put her arm in his.

He cleared his throat as he led her out into the hallway.

“You know, if you need to talk to someone about today,” he said a bit awkwardly, “Rick’s good with that sort of thing. I mean, I’ll listen if you want, but I’ve been reliably informed I’m not the best person to talk to about trauma.”

Annie shrugged. “It’d be pretty hypocritical of me to start screaming and crying because you killed those guards, seeing as I spaced seven of them on my way out.”

Leo started. “Hold up, you said you drugged the guards.”

“I drugged my personal guards,” Annie explained. “I set the countdown on the bay door opening low when I stole the Needle and the guards who came to stop me from escaping left the ship the same time I did, only no ship.”

“Huh,” the captain said after a moment. “I mean, if you want to talk aboutthat—”

“I don’t,” Annie cut him off. “I feel terrible about killing them, and I wish I hadn’t been in a position where I had to. But these were people who woke up every day and loyally served a monster, and worse, they were content to let me be a sacrifice to him. I am not a cruel person by nature, Captain Ingram, but I will not let people take advantage of me without my consent.”

“Without your consent?” Leo asked.

“My father is an alcoholic, which is how I ended up in this mess in the first place,” Annie said. “He lied to me, he took the money I gave him for food and bought more alcohol, and he stole from me. I knew about it, and I kept letting him do it because once upon a time he was the best father in the world. Unfortunately, it appears that letting his behavior continue is only ever going to hurt me.”

Her voice was cold, as was she. She felt her muscles tighten the way they did when the temperature dropped, but instead of shivering she was perfectly still. Her mind felt far away as she locked down on the white-hot blaze of betrayal and rage she’d felt for her father ever since he’d told her what he’d done. Being out of danger for five minutes didn’t mean she wanted to start having emotional breakdowns right and left.


Page 16

Leo stopped walking. 

“Hey, now,” he said. “It’s not a mistake to be kind, and it’s not naïve to think that parents shouldn’t hurt us and take advantage of us. That’s normal. Well, maybe not so much in this line of work, but you know what I mean.”

He dropped his arm and grabbed her hands, smiling at her. Annie was suddenly aware that the man in front of her had kind eyes, a warm smile, and broad shoulders and her heart leapt even as her mind scoffed at the irony.

“Thanks,” she said, forcing a small smile. “Now, you said something about food?”

He put an arm around her shoulder and started walking down the hallway. She leaned into him and let his warmth soak into her. Her anger at her father was a thing decades in the making and wouldn’t be undone just because someone, even someone as gorgeous as Leo, smiled at her and told her it would be okay, but knowing that someone was on her side was comforting.

The kitchen was surprisingly spacious, with counters along the walls and a large table with five chairs scattered around it in the middle. Leo walked over to one cabinet and took out two packets and two bowls. He put a glass pot under one machine and pressed a button. The machine whirred to life and soon steaming water was filling the pot.

“Noodles okay with you?” Leo asked as he ripped the packets open.

“Sounds perfect,” she answered.

She looked around as Leo prepared the food. Again, the space was clean and, other than the chairs, orderly. She would have expected something messier from five men living together and working as smugglers. With that said, smuggling required a certain level of organization, so maybe it wasn’t so surprising after all. 

Leo set the steaming bowls of thick noodles in some kind of broth onto the table and motioned for her to sit. As they settled down to eat Annie realized something.

“You never answered my question,” she said, fiddling with her fork.

Leo swallowed the noodles in his mouth. “Hmm? Which question?” 

“Why are you really doing this?” Annie asked. “I asked on the beach but we got somewhat distracted what with all the murdering.”

He looked at her thoughtfully. “Because you are very pretty, and very interesting. I’m a smuggler captain. I need to be able to assess wares and make hiring decisions. That’s my job, deciding who and what is and is not valuable. And you are clearly very valuable.”

“Even without diamonds covering my tits?” Annie teased, something in her belly warming in a way that had nothing to do with the hot meal.

Leo laughed, clear and loud. “Even then.”

“Captain,” Rick’s voice floated down from an intercom, slicing through the light-hearted moment, “I said I’d contact you if anything happened and, well, something happened. Strathmore’s hailing us. Get to the cockpit as soon as you can.”

Just like that, the air turned to ice. Annie struggled to breathe, cursing her own stupidity as her thoughts faded into a panicked white noise. Why had she thought she could outrun something like Strathmore? Why had she thought he wouldn’t focus on retaliation?

“Hey, hey, hey, Annie, it’s going to be fine,” Leo said as he pushed away from the table and walked around the table to kneel in front of her.

“Of course it’s not fine,” Annie spat back. “He’s going to catch us and he’s going to kill me, and then he’s going to kill all of you for helping me.”

She tried to stand and discovered that her knees had turned to paste. Leo shot up to catch her as she toppled forward, wrapping his arms around her. Clutching at his shirt, she pressed against his chest and tried in vain to take comfort in him. 

“I should never have gotten on this ship,” she whispered.

Leo shushed her. “Don’t say that. You’re exactly where you’re meant to be.”

“How would you know?” she demanded.

“Because you being here feels right to me, and I’m hoping it’s the same for you,” Leo answered.

Annie looked up at him. “I’ve known you for less than a day, I can’t… I’m not…” She broke off and shook her head, frustrated.

“There are worse things to do than fall in love at first sight with the girl who jilted a warlord,” Leo teased with a gentle smile.

Annie snorted. “You didn’t fall in love with me at first sight. You’re not that kind of guy.”

“Maybe not,” Leo said. “But I did see you and realize you would be incredibly important to me if I let you. You crashed out of that damn forest in a torn up wedding dress and combat boots and I just thought ‘of course, this makes perfect sense.’”

“Is my incredible importance in your life getting you killed?” Annie asked.

“I’m willing to take that chance. I’ve always been a sucker for redheads,” Leo answered.

Annie looked at the man in front of her. It made sense that she was attracted to him; he was beautiful. But she refused to be the kind of girl to fall head over heels for someone without knowing them. Still, he was offering to risk his life for her and that was hardly nothing. She leaned up and slowly, gently, pressed her mouth to his.

“What was that for?” Leo asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m not sure, exactly,” Annie answered, trying to keep the tremble out of her voice. “I guess we’ll have to find out.”

“Have I mentioned I’m a huge fan of hands-on research?” Leo asked and pressed his mouth to hers. He was every bit as gentle as she had been but not as chaste. Running his thumb softly over her hip bone, he pressed his tongue to the seam of her lip. Annie let go of his shirt and wrapped her arms around his neck and opened her mouth to him.

The kiss was the kind of thing she stopped herself from imagining during quick hook-ups with men she never saw again. It was intimate and slow, the kind of kiss that promised all the time in the world. Annie thought her heart might stop. There were, she supposed, worse ways to go.

“Leo, I—oh, Christ, really?”

Leo and Annie jerked apart to see Rick scowling at them.

“I thought the intercoms were down,” the brunette said, “so I came to find you so we could deal with this situation we’re in. Of course, if you feel that going at it like teenagers is more impending than out impending doom, by all means go ahead.”

“I was just, ah…” Leo coughed. “I was just showing her how to shoot a gun, don’t worry about us.”

Annie cringed internally as Rick looked very pointedly at Leo’s weaponless self.

“Anyways. Please relocate to the cockpit. I have a suspicion that if I ignore Strathmore’s calls any longer he’s going to just blast us out of the sky.”

“Right,” Leo said, smoothing his shirt. “Lead on.”

The terror that had lessened in Leo’s presence returned with a vengeance. Annie grabbed his sleeve. 

“Tell me it’s going to be okay,” Annie hissed at him.

“At very least it’ll be interesting,” he answered. At her glare, he added, “I’m not in the habit of letting my people get hurt you know. Have a little faith.”

“For the man who thought ‘I was teaching her to shoot a gun’ would actually work?”

“You’re lucky you’re gorgeous enough to get away with that. Anyone else and I’d be forced to challenge them to defend my honor.”

“You have none to defend,” Rick cut in as they approached the cockpit. “Now, be firm, be polite, don’t let him access video, and don’t get us killed.”

“I can do that,” Leo said. He entered the cockpit and sat in the pilot’s chair, leaning over to press a button on the dashboard. Annie and Rick hung back.

“Don’t worry,” Rick murmured. “He’s actually very good at this.”

“I’m just afraid ‘very good’ isn’t going to get very far against Strathmore,” she answered quietly.

“Hello,Appomattox,” Leo said in a firm, agreeable voice that Annie recognized from the beach. “You are speaking to the captain of the ICSBreakwater. How may I help you?”

“Hello, Captain Ingram,” Strathmore said, voice as chilly and distant as ever. “I believe you have something of mine. I’d like it back.”

“Sir, I assure you that all cargo on my ship was gotten through a trusted supplier. I doubt—”

“Feigning ignorance will gain you no mercy. We both know I mean the girl,” Strathmore interrupted. “Anyanka, are you listening in? I imagine you are, since your new friends haven’t seen fit to allow a video call. How are you? It doesn’t matter. No matter what the answer is, it’s so much better than you’ll be once I have you again, you dim-witted bitch.”

Annie shuddered and Leo’s hands clenched so tightly on the edge of the dash she was afraid he might dent the metal.

“And why, exactly, should I give her back to you after that?” he asked through gritted teeth.

“I’d have thought it was obvious. I’m giving you the chance to earn the right to continue living. My sorry excuse for a bride in return for the lives of your crew. It’s an excellent deal.”

“With all due respect,” Leo said in a tone that made it very clear exactly how much respect he thought that was, “I think this is something I should discuss with my crew.”

“And give you time to plot? I think not,” Strathmore said, sounding bored. “You decide now, Captain. Is whatever the little whore’s been doing for you really worth risking your life over?”

Leo went rigid. “I think this conversation is over, Captain Strathmore,” he said in a voice ironically similar to the other man’s. “Fare well.”

He cut the connection and thumbed a few switches on the dash. Rick swore.

“Hold onto something,” he told Annie. “He’s about to get us out of here fast.”

As soon as he finished talking, the ship seemed to tilt. The artificial gravity compensated for the sudden burst of speed, but Annie still felt the nausea roil in her gut as the ship suddenly jumped to warp 8.

“What the fuck was that?” someone (Annie thought Hyde) bellowed over the intercom.

Leo slammed his hand down on the talk button. “Family meeting, kitchen, five minutes,” he growled. “We’ve got some shit to discuss.”

Annie wobbled to the kitchen, leaning heavily on Rick.

“Is it always like that?” she asked him, struggling not to vomit.

“I’m going to go ahead and let you in on a secret,” he said, smiling at her. “The answer to that question will always be ‘yes, but you’ll get used to it,’ unless you’re asking about Custer singing in the shower in which case the answer is ‘no, actually, it only gets worse from here.’”

“Good to know,” Annie said as he helped her into a chair. She leaned forward and shut her eyes, trying to relax enough to let her stomach unknot. The effect was ruined when Custer and Hyde barged in.

“What’s happening? Are we running from pirates again?” Custer asked excitedly.

“Not… exactly,” Rick answered. “I’ll let the captain explain.”

“No, I think you wanna tell me now,” Hyde said, nostrils flaring. He pushed the bandana keeping his dreadlocks out of his face up to glare more effectively. “Look at Custer. How does he look to you?”

“He looks happy,” Rick said in a resigned voice.

“Exactly. And do you know what the leading cause of that psychopathic little shit being happy is?” Hyde said, barreling on before Rick could answer. “You and the captain pulling some stupid shit that the rest of us have to handle. Now, there’s a girl at our table who Strathmore—theStrathmore—is looking for and Custer is smiling like he just got a puppy for Christmas, so maybe tell me why we’re flying like our ass is on fire because I am leaping to some very disturbing conclusions.”

Rick hesitated. “It’s exactly what you think it is.”

Hyde nodded, took a deep breath, and then released a series of expletives of such variety and creativity that Annie felt the urge to take notes. Custer laughed.

“What’s going on?” Dominic asked as he walked in. “I need to get back to engineering. Captain’s gonna pull our girl apart if he keeps overworking her like this.”

“Stupid motherfucker just went to war with Strathmore,” answered Hyde, his head now resting against a wall.

Dominic looked hard at Annie, his already blank gaze somehow managing to become even more expressionless. He pulled out a chair and sat.

“I’ll just wait until Leo gets down here, then,” he said calmly.

From what Leo had told her, she didn’t want to see him when that calmness faded away.

Leo walked in after a moment of tense silence. 

“I take it Rick’s filled you in on the situation?” he said when he was greeted by two glares and one manic smile.

“A bit,” Custer said. “Care to fill us in.”

Leo sighed explosively and ran his hands through his hair. “At the moment, we are currently at odds with the good Captain Strathmore. He demanded Annie’s return, I refused.”

Hyde threw his hands up and tossed out a few more choice swears. 

“So what do we do now?” Dominic asked.

“You can’t take it back,” Annie said, her voice thin. “He doesn’t give second chances. There was probably a bounty on this ship the minute you cut the line.”

Hyde snorted. “Who do you think we are? We’re not in the flesh trade.” He looked at Leo. “I’d say space her, but that wouldn’t solve our problems, would it?”


Page 17

“Not as such, no,” Rick said. “We need to run.”

“I wasn’t aware we could outrun Strathmore,” Dominic said. “TheAppomattoxisn’t the fastest ship, but if there’s a bounty on us we’re not just going to be dealing with one ship.”

“Custer? What say you?” Rick asked.

“I say we just kill Strathmore,” Custer replied.

“Great idea, idiot, we just waltz up to the best guarded man in the galaxy and shoot him. No way that gets us killed,” Hyde said.

The crew continued to argue amongst themselves, but Annie was finding it hard to pay attention. She was scared, she was tired, and she was horribly aware that she was on the verge of tears. 

She started as a warm, tan hand landed on her shoulder and squeezed.

“I’m going to go check the controls, make sure we’re good,” Leo said. “You guys keep brainstorming.”

With that he tugged Annie out of her chair and down the hallway.

They stopped at the entrance to the cockpit. Leo turned to face Annie and tilted her head up with a gentle hand.

“Hey, we’re going to get out of this, okay?” Leo said. “We’ve got people all over the galaxy. Don’t worry.”

Annie was about to point out that she’d have to be an idiot not to worry when a blinking light on the dash caught her attention.

“I can’t promise it’s going to be fun,” Leo went on, “but hey, we’ll make it out okay. Strathmore’s powerful, but he’s not omnipotent.”

“Leo—” Annie started.

“Just one more thing. I said I’d protect you, and I don’t go back on my word. I want you to know that,” Leo said softly.

“That’s great, but Leo, look,” she said, pointing.

Leo straightened when he saw the light flashing.

“We’re being hailed? By who?” he said, stalking over to the dash. “No one who we don’t know should be able to hail us. Strathmore clearly had the resources to get through anyways, but there’s no way anyone else is getting through.”

He hit a button and a holoscreen flickered to life. Leo blinked in surprise as he looked over the information. “What the… that’s theHonorable’s signature. I wouldn’t have thought Captain Lurk was the type to work for Strathmore.”

“Captain Lurk? You mean Josephine Lurk?” Annie asked incredulously. 

“That’s the one. You know her?” Leo said, turning back to her.

Annie nodded. “She traded banned whisky to bars around where I lived for years when I was a kid. My mom was a ship mechanic, helped patch up theHonorablea few dozen times.” 

Leo raised an eyebrow and accepted the call.

Seconds later, Josie Lurk was peering at them through the holoscreen. Annie felt an unexpected rush of relief course through her at the sight of the familiar captain, taking in the dark skin and curly black hair of the woman who brought her a model SK-class Destroyer for her ninth birthday and told her that one day she’d be piloting one as her mother squawked in outrage. She smiled.

“Hey, Jo,” she said.

“Hey there baby doll, Captain Ingram,” she said, nodded at them. “So I just got a bounty for a truly ridiculous amount of credits in exchange for your heads on pikes. A sum which Captain Strathmore has generously offered to double for you to be given to him alive.” 

The story poured out of Annie, from coming home from a twelve hour shift to find her father waiting for her to Strathmore calmly detailing exactly what he’d do to her if she resisted him to her escape. At some point, Leo grabbed her hand and held on tightly. She threw a grateful smile at him and continued. Josie looked calm throughout the entire explanation, but Annie recognized the tightening of her jaw.

“I think,” she said after Annie had finished, “that I’m going to kill your daddy.”

“That doesn’t really help anyone,” Annie said, shrugging. “Otherwise, I might have tried myself. As it is, I yelled at him until he ran off to get him out of the way when I ran. I just hope Strathmore hasn’t been able to find him.”

“Goddamn.” Josie shook her head. “Layla was one of the good ones, you know? It’s not right for her daughter to end up like this.”

The panic had receded to the point where Annie was able to think again and an idea slowly began to take form.

“In that case, do you want to help us get out?” Annie asked.

“You know I want to, but I don’t know what I can do to help you get away from Strathmore,” Josie said.

“Oh, I don’t want you to get me away from Strathmore,” Annie told her. “I want you to give me to him.”

She looked around at the dash as Leo and Josie let out a startled “what?” at the same time. She found the button she wanted and pressed it.

“Can you hear me?” she asked over the intercom system. 

There was a brief pause, followed by Hyde’s voice coming over the line. “We can hear you. Something happen?”

“Yes, but I have a question first. When Custer said we should just kill Strathmore, you said that was a bad plan because there was no way to get close to him. But if there was a way, would it be possible?”

“Yeah, as long as we could get back out without dying horribly,” Hyde said. “I’m assuming you’ve got a plan?”

“I think so. It depends on if Captain Lurk is in. Jo, can you arrange a meeting with Strathmore? Tell him you tricked us or something, but now you have us all in custody. He’s horrifically prideful, he wouldn’t imagine anyone daring to cross him,” Annie said.

“That’s because crossing him is suicidal,” Josie said.

“Tell him to meet you planetside somewhere so you’re on neutral ground. His guards are trained better than freelancers and pirates and he knows it. He’ll agree to humor you, and then we’ll have the advantage.”

“Only if—Custer, back off I swear to God—only if there wasn’t footage of the captain and this nutjob shifting to deal with the guards on the beach. You’re going for the element of surprise, yeah? That’s not going to work if they know.”

Annie shook her head, excited despite herself. “That’s one of the things I looked at when I was figuring out how to get away. The comm system for the guard teams works as an open link. It’s like any comm call, it’s constant. But they have to contact the ship to check in, so if they didn’t have time to do that—”

“—then no one knows about us. Huh,” Hyde said. “That still leaves getting away without dying. Even if we kill his whole ground team, someone on the ship could still come after us.”

“We could come down in a pod,” Annie said. “Have one person left on theBreakwaterand land her somewhere close, somewhere we can reach her but that Strathmore’s people won’t see her. I don’t know. But the rest of us port over to theHonorableand act as prisoners. Then once Strathmore’s dead, theHonorablecan take off to distract theAppomattox. Hopefully they won’t realize there were two ships until it’s too late.”

“But where can you land a ship that’s got enough cover Strathmore’s won’t stop it but is still open enough to be able to maneuver?” Josie said.

“A lot of places, actually,” Leo said, breaking into a wide grin. “Annie, have I told you why our bird is called theBreakwater?”

“You have not,” Annie said as she quirked an eyebrow at him. “Please, enlighten me.”

“It’s because she has a special talent. See, smuggling requires a--” Leo began grandly.

“She can go underwater. It’s because she can go underwater,” Hyde said. “So we leave someone on board—Dom, I’m assuming that’s going to be you—to get her underwater, then go down in a pod, kill the son of a bitch, and book it. That could work. It could also get us killed horribly, but it could work. We’ll get the ship ready, you two figure things out with Captain Lurk.”

The connection cut off, and Annie turned back to Leo, who had visibly deflated at not getting to reveal the ship’s secret, and Josie, who had a faint smirk on her face.

“There’s a Destroyer out there with your name on it whenever you’re ready, baby doll.”

Annie laughed. “I’d get bored.”

The three of them figured out all the details they would need to get in order to trick one of the most powerful men in the galaxy. There were less than Annie imagined. She’d thought there’d be precise scripts, hours of minutia, and exact calibrations. In the end, it was going over a general idea of what to do, agreeing to talk it over with their respective crews, and bidding each other goodbye so Josie could contact Strathmore and Annie and Leo could prepare.

They ended up back in the kitchen. Annie wasn’t hungry, but Leo had insisted she not have an empty stomach for what was about to happen. She choked down the noodles without tasting them, her mind going over a thousand ways everything could go wrong. She was caught somewhere between hope and abject terror and the contrasting emotions were making her dizzy. When Josie checked in to let them know everything was ready, it was almost a relief. Meeting Strathmore again might kill her, but the wait was torture. 

“Alright, remember,” Leo said as they stood gathered around the pod that would take them planetside, “we’ve been drugged, so act out of it. Stumble around a little, slur your words if you try to say anything. Now, we’ve got five minutes before we load in. If anyone wants to announce their undying love to me before we’re all trapped in a metal pod and hurtled towards what may be our doom, this is the time.”

Custer leaned towards Annie. “I think that means you.”

Leo batted his eyes. “Aww, you know I’m not picky. Hyde? Rick?”

Rick snorted and shook his head. Hyde just flipped Leo off.

Annie patted him on the arm. “I’ll swear my eternal love to you if you get me back off this planet alive. That work?”

“It’s a plan,” Leo said. “Alright, Captain Lurk, I think this is the part where you tie us up. Custer, try not to get too excited.”

“Can’t promise that, Captain,” Custer said, winking at Josie.

“I’d smack you upside the head for that if I didn’t think it’d turn you on,” Josie said coolly as she clamped a set of restraints around Leo’s wrists. The cuffs looked convincing enough, but even Annie’s human strength could get them open again. They would be no match for the four shifters.

Annie and the others dutifully stood still as they were cuffed and looked over to make sure they looked “imprisoned” enough to get close to Strathmore. Once they passed muster, they were loaded into the back of the pod with Josie and two of her men in the front.

“I bet you weren’t expecting to be doing this twice in less than forty-eight hours,” Leo joked as the interior back door slowly lifted.

“Hopefully I won’t have to do it again for awhile,” she replied, staring ahead.

The trip down to the planet was over faster than Annie would have liked. She craned her neck as they drew near, eyes resting on the purple lake Dominic had hidden theBreakwaterin and then on the clearing a quarter mile away where she’d soon be meeting Strathmore again. Their landing was much smoother than her crashing the Needle into the lake had been, and yet it made her feel twice as sick. She forced herself to swallow it down. She had imposed on these people, and now they were in danger. She didn’t have the luxury of backing out.

Once everyone was out of the pod, Annie and theBreakwatercrew on their knees with Josie’s guards pointing blasters in their direction, Josie set off a flare. It whistled up into the sky and exploded in a flash of red. Within seconds, a black speck hovering against the sky began to grow larger and larger, gaining on them swiftly.

“Remember,” Leo told Annie, “everything is going to be okay.”

“Tell me that when we’re back on theBreakwater, okay?” Annie asked.

The pod from theAppomattoxhovered, propulsion beams ruffling the grass, as the doors opened. Four guards leapt out, surveyed the scene, then moved forward so Strathmore could exit, helped down by one of his thugs.

He looked even more sinister than Annie remembered. His grey hair and pale eyes seemed to shine in the dusk light. The shadows cast across his face made his sharp features even more severe. The malevolence in the sneer that his mouth twisted into at the sight of Annie cuffed and on her knees, however, had nothing to do with the light.

“My, my,” he drawled. “You certainly have come through, Captain Lurk. And soquickly.” 

Josie scoffed. “Leo here and I are old friends. I saw the bounty and offered to help him out of the system. Poor idiot didn’t even notice I’d drugged them until the blond over there collapsed face first on my bridge.”

“Fuckyoo,” Leo heaved out, like forming the independent syllables was a hardship.

“Oh, don’t be like that, baby,” Josie crooned. “I told you I’d get you away from this mess. Don’t blame me for not disclosing the way out was death.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill your friend just yet. He and I need to become… better acquainted first,” Strathmore said before turning his gaze on Annie. “Anyanka, darling, how delightful to see you again. I hope you’re prepared to repent for your recent actions.”

Annie couldn’t force her jaw to unlock and settled for glaring up at Strathmore.


Page 18

Strathmore sighed. “I suppose it was too much to hope that this little exercise in failure would teach you your place. I suppose it’s no matter. I’ll just have to break you in myself.”

“Captain,” Josie said, drawing attention away from where Leo looked about ready to tear Strathmore in half then and there. “I’m afraid I need to ask for payment now. It’s rude, I know, but I’d like to go ahead and wash my hands of this.”

“Regretting turning on a friend?” Strathmore asked. “No matter. Excellent work, captain.” He pulled a sleek device of his jacket pocket and, with a flick of his wrist, pulled up a holoscreen. He tapped a few button and then put it back in his pocket.

“That should do it,” he said.

Josie opened her multitool, her eyes scanning the screen.

“Thank you for your generosity,” she said as she closed it back out. “Is that all you needed?” 

“It is, thank you,” Strathmore said. “I’ll keep you in mind the next time I need something like this handled.”

“Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to matter much,” Josie said coolly as she unholstered her blaster and shot one of Strathmore’s guards in the chest. Her men both turned their weapons away from the shifters and began to fire on the soldiers. Four were dead before they reacted, but by then it was too late.

Annie rolled away from Leo and the others as soon as the shooting started to give them the room to shift. Within seconds, Strathmore’s men were facing four bears and three armed pirates.

Strathmore stumbled back a pace before tripping and falling on his ass. For the first time, he had an actual expression on his face. Abject terror was written all over his features as he gaped at the spectacle before him. Annie took a sick satisfaction in watching him scramble backwards as Leo advanced on him.

“What the—” he said before being cut off by way of Leo’s paw crashing into the side of his face. Annie closed her eyes just before the impact but the crunching sound let her know that she’d heard the last from Strathmore.

It was over quickly. The few remaining guards dropped like flies and Josie helped Annie up as they started for the lake. It left Annie with a kind of dissatisfaction. Surely it should have taken longer? This was Strathmore, after all. But she knew better. She knew death always happened too quickly, without regard for the status or wealth of its victims.

The bear that was Leo pressed against Annie’s side for the trek to the lake. She rested a hand on his furry shoulder, taking comfort in the contact even as her skin felt too tight and her mind buzzed. 

Was it over? Was she free?

Josie radioed Dominic to let him know they were close and when they arrived at the lake, the Breakwater was waiting with her cargo ramp down. Annie was struck with a sense of déjà vu as she followed Leo into the ship. Almost as soon as they were inside, Dominic announced takeoff and the mechanical whirs of the ship working began to fill the air.

“Alright, baby doll,” Josie said as the shifters wandered off, presumably to find pants, “I doubt whoever takes over the Appomattox is going to waste time looking for you when whoever it is should be watching their back. That said, lay low. Now, I better get to the transport pad so theHonorablecan get the hell out of here. Is there anything you need before I go?”

Annie hesitated. “I hate to ask, but… my dad. I’m not asking you to take care of him, Lord knows he needs to learn how to do that for himself, but just make sure he isn’t dead, please?”

“I think I can do that,” Josie said and leaned in for a hug. “You take care of yourself, you hear?”

“Yeah, you too, Jo,” Annie said before stepping back. She waved as the woman made her way to the transporter room.

Annie started towards Leo’s room. Halfway there, she was overcome with the knowledge of what had just happened. She burst out in uncontrollable giggles as the world seemed to tilt forward. Walking no longer appeared to be an option. Instead, she made it the rest of the way to the room with a sort of stumbling run. She entered the code and launched herself inside the room, still laughing.

“Having fun out there?” Leo called from the bathroom. Annie heard the hiss of the sonic shower in the background. 

“Time of my life,” she answered.

“See? I told you everything would work out. Now don’t you have something to tell me now that we’re back on theBreakwater?”

Annie threw herself across the mattress. “And what would that be?”

“Oh you know.” Leo’s voice was warm and teasing. “A certain confession I believe I’m owed.”

The memory trickled in. “Ah. That.CaptainIngram,” she said dramatically, “I must make a confession. These last few hours have been the happiest of my life. I love you madly, darling. Now please, feel free to ravish my nubile body in return for saving my life.”

Leo laughed. “Well, you’re more than welcome to join me in here.”

Annie sat up considering. On the one hand, she hadn’t known this man for long and she wasn’t necessarily in the right frame of mind to make decisions. On the other, she was a fugitive who had just caused the death of her ex-fiancé/owner and was now fleeing on a ship with five bear shifters. To hell with caution.

She stripped quickly, deciding to put the shirt back on. Without her bra, her nipples stood out against the fabric as it fell off one shoulder. Annie walked into the bathroom and pulled the shower door open.

“Let me guess: come on in, the sonic’s fine?”

Leo’s looked her over, eyes darkening. “Something like that. You in?”

Annie shrugged and pulled the shirt off over her head. She let the material fall carelessly from her hand. Leo didn’t seem to notice. 

“I’m in,” she said, stepping into the shower and pulling the door closed behind her.

The feeling of the sonic shower on her skin was amazing, but Annie had a hard time focusing when Leo was naked right in front of her. He tentatively reached towards her.

“Can I touch you?” he asked, like maybe Annie had stumbled into the shower by accident.

“Yes,” she said, and sighed as he ran his fingers down her arm. He backed her into the wall and stared at her, eyes hot and dark.

“I’m not sure what, exactly, you want to do here, but—” he started.

“I have a chip,” she said.

“What?” Leo asked.

“I have a birth control chip implanted. It should be good for another two years,” she told him. When he stayed silent, she added, “what I’m saying is, you can come inside me. Unless…”

“Shifters can’t get sexually transmitted diseases from humans, or vice versa,” Leo said, swaying towards Annie. “So you want…?”

“I want,” she told him, then gasped as he leaned forward to scrape his teeth along the sensitive skin under her ear.

The feeling of Leo’s teeth at her neck was a religious experience. Annie’s toes curled as he sucked bruises along the slender column of her neck and pressed kisses over the darkened skin. He nosed at the hollow of her throat before pressing open-mouthed kisses down her chest.

“Still yes?” he murmured into her skin. 

“Still yes,” she sighed, tilting her head back and closing her eyes. The tingling sensation the sonic left on her skin was a sharp contrast to the warm, hard pressure of Leo’s body on hers and she could feel the slick heat between her thighs grow. 

Leo sank to his knees, his hands on her hips and his mouth kissing down her stomach. Annie let her legs slide apart as far as the small stall would allow. Long fingers traced gentle patterns over the skin of one of her thighs before Leo clutched one hip to support her while he used his other hand to hike her leg over his shoulder. Groaning as he pressed a kiss to the inside of her thigh, Annie slid her hands into his hair.

The first press of his tongue to her sex set sparks racing through her veins. The second turned them into a wildfire. She moaned as he worked the inferno hotter and hotter, his hands digging into her. It was incredible, already better than any sex she could remember having.

It wasn’t nearly enough.

“So,” she managed to gasp out, “how long are you planning to stay down there?”

Leo pulled back. “Impatient, aren’t you?”

“I deserve to be impatient,” Annie told him. “I’ve had the worst time of my life, during which I met the person who is currently the best man in my life, and he’s finally in between my legs but apparently he’s intent on teasing me until I pass out instead of actually fucking me.”

Leo rose slowly, a predatory grin sliding over his face. He traced his fingers lightly up her side, making her shiver. One hand slid up her neck so he could grab a handful of her hair, the other cupping one breast, swiping his thumb over her nipple and drawing out another gasp.

“Why don’t you tell me what you want?” he whispered into her ear, sliding a leg in between her thighs. Annie writhed against him, the pressure so very nearly enough.

“You know what I want,” she told him breathlessly. “Maybe you could be a gentleman and give it to me.”

Leo chuckled, warm and low, before releasing Annie and taking a step back. “Turn around.”

She complied readily, bracing herself against the stall wall and pushing her hips back at him. Almost instantly, he was on top of her. She had known he was a big man, but there was a difference between knowing and feeling. He pressed against every inch of her back, his face buried in her neck.

“Is this what you wanted, Annie?” he asked as she felt the head of his cock press against her entrance.

“Yes,” she moaned as he slid inside her. For a split second, she was afraid he would fuck her like she was fragile. She didn’t want that. She wanted this to be passionate, with neither of them holding back. Fortunately, it seemed that the thought had never crossed Leo’s mind.

He grabbed her wrists and held them against the wall just above her head so that his arms bracketed her, trapped her. She was pinned, with the beautiful man over and in her, flooding her veins with lightening. Her breath came out in ragged gasps as he drove into her, his own groans sparking down her spine. 

“Harder,” she told him, working her hips back to meet his. Leo squeezed her wrists and shifted his stance slightly, thrusting into her at a new angle. Her vision whited out for a moment, the sheer pleasure threatening to drown her. She babbled at him, urging him to keep going, until all she could do was pant out broken syllables. She felt her climax building. From the stutter in Leo’s hips, he wasn’t far behind her.

Annie’s skin grew hotter and hotter until she wasn’t sure how she wasn’t leaving scorch marks on everything she touched. She’d been with men in the past who had managed to work her to completion, of course, but it had never been like this. She drew nearer and nearer to the brink of orgasm, face red and heart pounding. One brutal thrust was all it took to push her over the edge and she screamed as she shook apart, undone by pleasure. The rhythm of Leo’s hips faltered, then sped up, drawing Annie’s climax out almost torturously. He grunted over the sound of their bodies colliding, and then pressed tight against her as he let out a final moan.

They stood like that for a moment, his chest to her back, just catching their breaths. Then, slowly, Annie tugged her wrists out of his grasp and spun to face him, wrapping her arms around his neck. She pressed kisses along his jaw as the sonic shower cleaned them off, the hissing sound it made in harmony with their heavy breathing.

“So,” Leo said at last, “did that convince you to stick around?”

Annie pulled back to look up at him. She drank in the sight of his dark, ruffled hair, the smile on his full lips, and the hopeful look in his beautiful gold eyes. It seemed strange that he would even bother to ask; there was only one possible answer.

“Yeah,” she said softly. “I think I could stay for a while.”

 

Slade

120 Proof Honey V

by

Becca Fanning

Slade Walker picked up his coffee mug and headed for the front door. The morning was already hot. The day would be a scorcher. He couldn’t wait to get back home after taking care of a few business tasks, and change into his bear form so he could run through the woods and feel the wind in his fur.

Today would be a boring day. He had to file some paperwork at the courthouse. Taxes, product information, and that sort of thing. This was the less fun part of his job, but at least it got him out of the house and into the city for a while. The Ozark Mountains were beautiful, but once in a while he liked to be around the tall buildings and congestion of the city.

He walked to his car, set his mug on the roof, and reached to unlock the door. But something wasn’t right. He walked to the front tire to inspect it more carefully. He set down his briefcase and bent to look closer. Yup. His tire wasn’t only flat as could be, it was damaged. Looked like someone had knifed it. He circled around the car to check the other tires, then cursed under his breath. All four, slashed.

And then he recognized the scent. It was the two of the women bear shifters in the area. The ones who’d been giving them nothing but trouble lately.

He’d have to take one of the guy’s vehicles. They had several between them. But as he walked from car to truck to car to check them, all he saw was flat tires. All slashed. They didn’t have a single vehicle undamaged, a single tire still holding air. 


Page 19

Slade slammed the house’s front door open and Dax jumped.

“What gives?” He stood in the doorway, looking like he was ready to head out himself in his suit and tie.

“Every vehicle, every tire, slashed.”

“You’re kidding.” Daxton pushed past him to run outside and see for himself.

Slade was standing in the doorway when he headed back. “It had to be them. I recognize the scent.”

Dax gritted his teeth and shook his head.

“I’m waking the guys up,” Slade said. 

He hopped up the stairs, taking two at a time, and knocked on each door. 

“Get up! Emergency meeting,” Slade called as he went. 

He went back downstairs and paced in the dining room, waiting. Daxton sat in a chair, texting. One by one, the men came down until they sat at the table, looking up at their leader, who stood.

“This has gone on long enough,” Slade said, practically growling in his anger. “We tried taking it to the police and that didn’t work. It’s time for us to take action against these women. To show them who’s boss and what clan rules in this town.”

“What do you want to do?” Knox asked.

“I think we should just go kick their butts,” Beck said.

“Don’t be unreasonable,” Amir said. “We’ll just get ourselves in trouble doing that.”

Dax huffed. “Yeah, like they did? They kill our hive, set fire to our building, try to steal our business, and get off with nothing.”

“Must’ve been sleeping with the cops or something,” Knox said.

“Amir is right,” Slade said. “We have to start out by being reasonable. Let’s go over there and confront them. Maybe they just need to know that we’re not going to back down. They might have gotten off with no jail time, but that’s not the end. We’re not going to let it go.”

“And make them pay for the tires,” Dax said.

“Seriously,” Beck added.

“What are we going to say to them?” Amir asked.

“We have to be intimidating,” Knox said.

Slade nodded. “Intimidating and forceful. We’ll make it clear that this is their final warning. We’ll demand they stop coming after us.”

“What about our vehicles? I have sales appointments today,” Dax said.

“Can you make some calls?” Slade asked. “Get some people out here to fix them?”

Daxton nodded.

“I’m going to case the joint in a little while. Try to figure out who the leader is ahead of time so we’ll be prepared. I’d also like to get a look at their grounds and their honey processing building if I can. I want as much info going in as I can get.”

“I can go with you,” Knox said.

Slade nodded. “Sure. That’d be great.”

A little while later, Knox and Slade met in the living room to head out. They stripped down until they were wearing nothing, then walked outside and shifted. Whenever possible, they tried not to ruin their clothing. Sometimes they had to shift on the fly and it happened, but they went through so many shorts and shirts, it was crazy.

Slade loved the feeling of the transformation. He stood tall, stretched his arms into the hot air, then set them on the ground so he was on all fours. Knox did the same. They were all so used to the transformation, had been doing it so many years, it was now second nature. In the beginning, sometimes it took them a few moments to set their minds to change. But now, it was instant and almost no thought was required. It was as simple as wanting it, then the change started.

It was always his back first. The bones moved and shifted to form the back of a large bear, then the rest of his bones followed. It reminded him of going to the chiropractor, having his bones cracked and adjusted. It felt much the same. Then, somewhere toward the end of his bones moving and the skin loosening or tightening around his new skeleton, hair would pop out all over him, growing from his skin as if in a time lapse video. The last thing was the teeth and claws. They shot out of his mouth and paws, and he was now a fully-formed bear. From start to finish, the whole process took about two seconds. 

They took off into the woods, running fast like they always did. They could run so much faster in bear form than human. The women’s clan lived many miles away. They tore through the forest, over a wide stream, scampered up part of a mountain. When they were close, they picked up their scent.

“Four?” Knox thought to Slade.

The best part about being a shifter and sharing a clan was the ability to share thoughts when they wanted to. Otherwise, communicating in bear form would be tricky.

“Five,” Slade thought back.

 Knox nodded.

When the scent grew thicker, they slowed. Who knew if the women were in bear form themselves, running through the woods. If the Walkers were smelled, the women would know it was them. Not only did they already know their scents from being on their property, but the bear shifters smelled different than natural bears. Their humanness left its mark, no matter what form their bodies were in.

They came to a large house. It was much prettier than theirs. This house was cream and white, the shutters painted with simple flowers at the edges, the porch clean and peaceful looking with a swing in one corner. 

They had a good bit of land. Maybe not as much as the Walker clan did, but enough. They circled around the premise first, to get an idea of what was located on the property. 

Besides the house, there was a barn. Horses were kept there, from the smell and sounds of it. There was another large building, unmarked. Perhaps their processing building? They had a few bee hives, a full garden of vegetables and herbs, and a few smaller ones full of bright flowers. Maybe Slade should have one of the guys’ girlfriends plant some flowers. It would be good for the bees anyway.

Slade was the last lonely bear. All of his clanmates and business partners had found love over the last year. He didn’t know how they managed it. Anytime he was anywhere near anything that looked like a relationship, it freaked him out. He never trusted any woman enough to share his secret, and if he dated anyone, he constantly worried she would find out. That somehow, he’d end up having to change in front of her. More than one of the Walkers had a tale like that. In the end, it had worked out okay for all of them. But Slade had been burned once, and he’d never lived it down.

When he was just barely twenty, he met a gorgeous woman and fell head over heels. They were madly in love, planned for marriage, the whole thing. He knew he had to tell her. He waited until the moment seemed right, took her outside and told her, then showed her. She’d been so freaked out, she left her engagement ring and never spoke to him again. The heartbreak had been so severe, it damaged him permanently. Never again would he put himself through that. He’d rather be alone. He was perfectly happy alone.

Knox nudged his shoulder with his head. Slade looked in the direction he indicated by jerking his head and saw that someone was coming out of the house. Two women walked outside. They paused to talk and while they stood there, three more came out. So there were five then. A common number for a clan.

As they watched, one in particular did most of the talking. She was taller than the others, had long, dark hair flowing down her back. She had to be the leader, then. The leader of a clan tended to grow a few inches taller, like Slade was taller than his guys. 

They were out of ear shot, even for their extended bear hearing. He wanted to move closer to hear, but that would be too close. That amount of movement would be heard and noticed. 

So they watched, and after a time, the women started to scatter. The leader turned around and Slade’s heart jumped. He cursed in his mind, loudly, and Knox looked over at him. Slade shook his head and thought, “Nothing. Sorry.”

But the woman, the one who’d made him curse, was gorgeous. Her hair was only one part of it. Her face looked round and soft with dark lips and darker eyes. She was intriguing. She made his body hot and he wanted her.

He did a good job of ignoring women and not becoming attracted or interested. It was part of the whole not-being-tempted to-start-a-relationship thing. But he’d seen her and he was more than a little attracted. He wanted her. And that pissed him off big time.

Two of the women got into cars and drove off, while the other three went back inside. Knox and Slade watched for a while, but there was little else to see. They had gotten a view of the layout of the place and they knew who the leader was. It was all they could hope to get for now. 

All that was left to do was wait. They’d go tonight, after the work day was done. They’d come, and hopefully, it wouldn’t break out into a fight. Hopefully, they’d be reasonable and things would be worked out.

Veronica Harper sat at her desk, moving around objects on her computer’s screen. She worked on a new ad for her line of honey products. This would be a flyer that they handed out with free samples of hand lotion. Across the top of the flyer, it said, “SheBear Honey” in swirly pink letters. She wanted to capitalize on the feminine name without making it too frilly.

When she felt satisfied with the design, she uploaded the file to the printer’s web site and went to check her email. Just a few emails later, there was a knock on her office door.

“Hey V? I think you should come out here.” A slight pause. “Like, now.”

Veronica got up and went to the door. Robin stood there, glancing back and forth between the front door and her.

“What’s up?” Veronica stepped into the hallway and shut the door behind her.

“Umm, well. The Walkers are running here. All of them.”

Veronica dashed to the door, where Christina and Abby were watching out through the screen door.

“There’s five of them,” Christina said. 

Veronica looked out and saw the five bears running toward their house. Christina pulled her t-shirt off, revealing her tank underneath. She unzipped her jeans, ready to push them down so she could transform into bear form without ruining her clothing.

But before she could, one of the men changed back into human form. He was tall and dark-haired. His eyes were hard and his face unsmiling. But the dimple in his right cheek softened his look ever so slightly.

Veronica tried not to react, but her eyes went wide at the sight of him. He covered himself with his hand, but that did little. She could see all of his muscles and the hair on his chest and arms and legs. He was exactly her type physically.Andhe was a bear shifter? Her mouth pulled into a sideways smile. Her heart raced and she refused to take her eyes off him.

But the other men changed, too, and one of them had brought a bag with shorts, which they pulled on.

“Let’s go,” Veronica said.

Her and her four clanmates walked out onto the porch, arms crossed, on the defensive. She knew why they were here. They’d been harassing them for the last two years since her and her ladies had moved into the area and discovered there was a male clan in the same business they were in—honey and moonshine.

And recently, they’d tried to press charges against them. Luckily, Veronica had talked to the officer in charge, the one who’d been in love with her sister, Valerie. She’d managed to get the arson charges against Christina dropped, and they agreed they’d be more careful not to get caught in the future. Veronica was sick of having to clean up their messes. Maybe the guys showing up would shake them up a bit.

Veronica stepped to the front of her group, and the tall male with the dimple did the same. So, he was the leader then. Perfect.

“You’re trespassing,” Veronica said.

“That’s funny. You didn’t seem to have a problem with trespassing when you came to kill our hive, then set fire to our building, and now slash our tires. Funny you should care now.”

Slash their tires? What had those crazy girls done now? She hadn’t approved that. She wanted to leave these guys alone. To find other areas of the honey market to expand into where they didn’t have product. That was the purpose of the new lotion line. The Walkers didn’t have any lotion in their lineup. She hoped getting a start in the market first would keep it that way.

“You have no proof of anything,” she said. “Obviously. Or the police wouldn’t have let us go.”

One of the other men huffed at that. 

“And you need to get off our property,” Christina said, stepping up beside Veronica. “We have every right to shoot you right now.”

Veronica nudged her inconspicuously. There was no way they were going to shoot these guys. Was she nuts?

“Relax,” he said. “We’re here to talk. I’m Slade. I’m the clan leader. And you are?”

He looked pointedly at Veronica only.

“Veronica.”

“Nice to meet you.” He stepped forward and held out his hand. 

She glared at him for a moment, but finally stepped forward and shook it. If she wanted to make any sort of arrangement with them, she’d have to start somewhere. The only problem was, she didn’t want to be so close to him. Her heart raced even faster. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to think straight being so near him.


Page 20

“Talk,” Veronica said. “We have things to do, so let’s make it quick.”

“You had plenty of time to get in our way,” the man who’d huffed said. “I’m sure you can make time now.”

She glared at him.

“Could we maybe step inside?” Slade asked.

Veronica opened her mouth to speak, but Christina jumped in. “I don’t think so.”

She would need to talk to her again about that. Being second in command didn’t give her the right make decisions like that and step in whenever she felt like it. Worst part was, Veronica had to go along with it. Had to back her up, or it’d look like they weren’t a solid team. She couldn’t show these guys any weakness.

“Fine,” Slade said. He moved his feet to widen his stance. “We’re here to call a truce. I don’t know why you found it necessary to come after us. The Walker clan has been in this area for over twenty years. If I recall, you’ve been here about two. You cannot just move into an area and think you can destroy our business.”

“We have every right to be here,” Veronica said. But she knew he was right. It was the same thing she’d said to them two and a half years ago. She didn’t want to move to the Ozarks to begin with. Why not find somewhere with no competition? But they’d all agreed that it was the best location, and they could just push out the competition.

“Sure. But you don’t have a right to destroy our property and do unethical things to steal business from us.”

“It’s just some healthy competition,” Abby said. 

Veronica could sense her starting to get mad. Anytime there was a fight, Abby got worked up. She liked to argue with anyone about anything.

“Not when you damage property,” another of the men said.

“Look.” Slade turned his gaze at her and held it. “I’m sure we can find a way to work together on this. There’s plenty of room in the market for us both. We’re just asking you to stay off our property and we’ll stay off yours.”

“And you think coming onto our property now is the best way to prove that?” Christina asked. “If you don’t get your hairy asses off our yard in the next two seconds, I am going to shoot every one of you.”

Veronica gritted her teeth. “I can’t make any promises,” she said quickly, trying to override what Christina said. “But we’ll be less damaging.”

“Less damaging?” Slade scoffed. “Does that mean you’ll pay for the damage you’ve done so far? The building? The hive? The tires?”

“You can’t prove it was us,” Veronica said.

“We have you on video,” one of the other men said. “My girlfriend saw you do it.”

“Well, the cops didn’t agree,” Veronica said. Which was a lie. Christina should be in jail right now for that. 

“Come on,” Slade said. “Stop playing games. We know it was you. You know it was you. Pay up and don’t do it again. This stops now. Or next time, we won’t just be talking.”

“Like I said,” Veronica said. “I can’t make any promises. But we’ll try.”

“Or, you could make it easy on yourselves and just leave,” Christina said. “Hell, we’d even come and help you pack.”

“Nice try.” Slade said. “We’re not going anywhere, and certainly not because of you.”

“Then I guess you’ll just have to deal with it,” Christina said.

Oh, how she wanted to slap her right now. Shut up, Christina! If only they were in bear form, she could send thoughts to her and not have to worry about anyone overhearing.

“Well, then at least get out of the honey business,” Christina said. “And leave the moonshine up to us, too.”

“Yeah,” Abby chimed in. “We’re not going to back off, so you might as well just do something else. Go sell flowers or something.”

“Now you’re just being unreasonable,” Slade said. “How hard is it to not break the law? I’d think that’s not exactly the most difficult request.”

Robin laughed once. “Because moonshiners are known for upholding the law? Right.”

“Hey.” Another of the men spoke up. This one was dark skinned and had a smooth accent. “We are 100% on the books. We follow the law. Unlike you.”

“Well, sucks to be you,” Abby said.

Veronica took in a deep breath. She met Slade’s gaze and he seemed to sense her frustration. 

He stepped closer to her and dropped his voice. “Can I talk to you privately?” he said to Veronica. But he wasn’t quiet enough.

“You deal with us all,” Christina said. “We’re a clan. Maybe you men don’t get that, but us women stick together.”

Veronica nodded very slightly. He saw it and nodded back, just as subtly. He put his hands in his pocket.

“Well, I can see we’re not going to get very far,” he said. “I’d really hoped we could come to an understanding.”

“Understand this,” Christina said. “We’re not going anywhere. If you can’t handle it, feel free to get out of town anytime.”

Slade stuck out his hand to shake Veronica’s and palmed her a business card. She stuck her hands in her pocket to hide the card and watched the men turn and walk away.

Veronica turned back toward the house, brushing hard into Christina as she walked past her. “Meeting. Now.”

They met inside minutes later, perched on various couches and chairs in the living room. Veronica stood in front of the TV, hands on her hips.

“That was completely unacceptable,” she said, her gaze hard on Christina. “Do I need to remind you that I am the leader of this clan? Not you. You don’t make decisions or speak for everyone.”

Christina crossed her arms and glared. “What did I say that you didn’t agree with,leader?”

“Well, where do we start? How about when you threatened them? Or told them to leave town? We will benefit much more if they think we’re friendly.”

“How so?” Abby asked.

“Because then they won’t be watching our every move. Like they surely are now. What do you want to bet they’ll have someone in the woods, watching us?”

Beth got up and went to the window to watch out. She stayed there. Beth was not one for confrontation. She was the quietest one of the group, and she often kept to herself. This was her way to take herself out of the fight. Fine. One less person to argue with her.

“We will not step a foot or a paw onto their property again,” Veronica continued. “Do you understand?”

Christina said nothing, but continued to glare. “You know, Valerie would have been all for this. If she were here, those guys would have already run off in fear.”

Veronica swallowed hard. Her hands balled and the rage tore through her chest. She stepped toward Christina, putting her face close to hers to hiss her words at her. “Well, I guess being dead and all, there’s not much she can do about it now, can she?”

How dare she bring up her sister like that? The ache that Veronica tried to suppress flared hot and angry inside her. She missed her sister constantly. It was like losing a limb. She always felt the absence of such an important part of her life. She was no longer whole. No longer able to function properly without Valerie. 

She’d worked very hard not to hold Christina accountable for Valerie’s death. But it had been Christina’s idea to go after the guy who cut them off in traffic. Her idea to terrorize his family when he pulled a gun on them. And when they’d shifted into bears in front of him to scare him and his children, Christina and Valerie had been cracking up at their joke. But the man didn’t think it was funny. He pulled out his gun again—had they thought he wouldn’t? He shot at them both. He missed Christina.

Christina was right about one thing. Valerie had been much more aggressive and up for a fight, just for fun. It was why her and Christina were best friends. All that had never interested Veronica much. Just like being the leader of the clan hadn’t either. That’s why, though Veronica was twenty-seven minutes older, she gave leadership rights to Valerie. Of course, when Valerie died, Veronica had no choice but to take over for her.

But so often she loathed this clan. Loathed the whole bear thing. It had gotten her sister killed. And after that, nothing seemed funny anymore. Nothing seemed worthwhile. They’d even moved here to try to get a fresh start. Veronica had wanted to come on her own, but the clan followed her. It was part of their duty to, whether she wanted them or not. They had to stick together. She had wanted a fresh start, but now, almost three years after Valerie’s death, this crap was starting all over again. The violence, the playing games, the pissing people off.

“We are not going to repeat what we were before,” Veronica said. “And since Christina reminded us, Valerie is no longer with us. She’s dead because of stuff like this. Because she couldn’t let it go when someone pissed her off. I will tell you this”—she made sure to make eye contact with each of them—“I am not going to bail any one of you out if you go after the Walkers. You’re on your own. I am forbidding it, so know that if you choose to take action, you’re on your own.”

Veronica stormed out of the room, to her bedroom. She glanced at the photo of Valerie on her bedside table. The grief ripped through her, and she fell to the floor on her knees, in tears. 

Maybe she could just leave. Get away from them all. Get out of here. If she left in the night, if she found some water to swim through to hide her scent, maybe they wouldn’t track her. Maybe they’d let her go. Christina could be the new leader. 

She sat on her floor, crying quietly for a while and missing Valerie. Then, she took out her phone and dialed the number on the business card.

“Slade Walker,” he said.

“It’s Veronica Harper. Meet me in the back of Michael’s on sixth tomorrow at two.”

“I’ll be there.”

She hung up and stared at the card, at his name. She didn’t want to feel anything for him. This was no time to get involved in anything. But the thought of meeting in the back of that dark bar excited her. She pictured his face. That dimple. He was so hot. And it had been so long since she’d spent time with a man. She hadn’t had a boyfriend since before Valerie, and after, she’d been too consumed by grief to feel anything except pain.

Maybe it had been long enough now. The pain would never leave. But most days, it was manageable. Even now, when missing her hurt so badly she couldn’t breathe, she still felt a stir of excitement at meeting him tomorrow. Maybe that meant something then. Maybe she was ready to be in a relationship again. Maybe. Though the leader of her enemy clan was probably not the one to try with.

Veronica got to Michael’s several minutes late on purpose. She wanted to keep Slade waiting. Wanted to make an entrance. She’d taken much too long to dress and do her makeup. She needed to look hot, but without looking like she was trying to look hot.

She’d settled on a tight-fitting black tank with a slight shimmer in the fabric. Short denim shorts and wedge sandals. With her makeup and accessories and hair pulled up on top of her head, she thought she’d managed to do what she intended. Drive him a little mad. Hey, it could only help her case, right?

She pushed opened the glass door of the bar and walked right to the back table, where Slade sat, watching her. She slid into the booth and pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head.

He looked even hotter than she remembered. He wore a t-shirt, but the sleeves strained around his muscles. She could see the glimmer in his eyes better, and that dimple. In the dim light, it was deeper and even cuter. It somehow added to his mystery. Like that little spot was full of his deepest secrets that his hard expression wouldn’t tell.

“Does your clan know you’re here?” she asked.

“Not yet. Yours?”

“Hell no.”

“So.” He crossed his arms and sat back.

She let out a long sigh. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I appreciate what you guys were trying to do. But you gotta understand, my clan is a bit nuts. When they smell blood, there’s no stopping them.”

“Tell them we’re bears, not sharks. They need to back off. I don’t know what to do, here, Veronica.”

“What do you mean?”

“You think my guys are fine with all of this? You think they don’t want blood spilled just as much? I’m doing my best to keep everyone calm and happy so this doesn’t break into a fight. But they are not calm and happy. Especially after you were so unreasonable yesterday.”

“Not me. My clan. Things should have gone very differently yesterday.”

Slade pressed his palms on the table and leaned forward. “Maybe you chicks don’t understand how the whole bear clan thing works, but there’s one alpha. One leader. And that alpha gets the first and last say and the others have to listen. You clearly need to learn how to manage your clan. They don’t make the decisions, you do.”

Her cheeks grew hot and she felt the anger building in her. “Shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about, okay?”

“Well, why don’t you tell me what you wanted to have happen yesterday, then?”

“First of all, I couldn’t very well go against my clanmates, could I? All five of you showed up, making the numbers even. If we had shown any sign of weakness or lack of solidarity, what do you think would have happened? You’re telling me the big, beefy blonde would have ignored that?”

He cocked his head to the side. “He would have done what I told him to.”


Page 21

“Whatever. I couldn’t let us look weak, even if I didn’t agree. You know that’s true.”

“Fine. But you didn’t answer the question.”

“I don’t want them to attack you. I’ve forbidden them from stepping onto your property. But they often don’t listen to me.”

He threw his hands into the air. “You’re supposed to take them out if they don’t obey. You know that, right? Honestly, did you skip bear instincts day? Do you not know how all of this works?”

Veronica looked down at her hand. At the small half of a heart tattoo that no longer had a living match. “You don’t understand. But it doesn’t matter.”

“It does. If you can’t control your clan members, if you can’t lead them and make them obey, I’ll have no choice. We’ll have to take action.”

“And that means what, exactly?”

“My guys will go after them. Or attack if they come on our property again.”

“What did you want to have happen yesterday?” she asked.

“I was hoping to come to an agreement. To first of all, agree to keep off each other’s property. Then maybe, I don’t know. I guess I was being too optimistic.”

“What? What else were you hoping for?”

“That we could somehow work together instead of against each other?”

“In what way?”

He sighed. “I don’t know. In a perfect world? We form a company and all take part. With twice the manpower and resources, we could produce a lot more. Expand our market reach, expand our products. Be one big team instead of fighting for business.”

She laughed. “My clan would never go for that in a million years. We came here with plans to chase you guys out of town.”

His eye twitched as he glared. “Yeah, I sort of figured that after yesterday. I don’t know why you think you can just come in here and chase us out. Our roots are much deeper. And in two years, your business is the one suffering, not ours.”

Veronica hung her head. A lot of that was her fault. She hadn’t been working nearly as hard as she should be working. But she had so little fight left in her. There was too much pain for there to be enough room left for strong motivation and a good business sense. “I know,” she said quietly.

“Then why let this go on? At least stop trying to chase us out, and focus on your own marketing. That would be much better for business.”

“They won’t agree to that. They like the fight. They like the challenge.”

“Veronica. You have to take charge.”

She shook her head. “This isn’t my clan. That’s what you don’t get. That’s why they don’t listen, and I can’t do anything about it. It was my sister’s clan. She was the alpha. She was also my twin. She was killed three years ago and the clan fell to me. But I never wanted them. She put the clan together, not me. I was happy being on my own, or with just our family. She wanted to expand, she wanted a business group. She brought me in and I joined willingly, but I never would have started a clan with half of these ladies.”

His mouth parted slightly. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” She looked across the room, staring at the neon beer signs and dingy mirrors high on the wall. They had timed it just right so that the place was pretty dead. The lunch crowd had gone and the after work crowd hadn’t yet arrived. They were nearly alone, and the perceived intimacy had made her say far more than she should have. She forgot, when she looked into his sparkling eyes, that their clans were enemies. Which meant he was technically her enemy, too.

“I guess I see why that’s hard for you,” he said softly and with compassion.

“So, I don’t know what to tell you. I’d love to merge, but it’s just not going to happen. Hopefully they’ll stay off your property like I told them to. I’m sorry. They’re just out of hand.”

He sat quietly for a long while, running one fingertip along the rim of his glass. It looked like he was just drinking a soda, but she didn’t know for sure. Maybe he’d added whiskey or rum. Finally, he looked up at her.

“I know it must be hard. But even if you didn’t want them to begin with, they’re your clan now. You’re going to have to step up and learn how to lead them properly. Or they’ll just keep walking all over you. Unless you want to step down, you have to step up.”

She nodded slowly. “I might step down.”

He looked at her, surprised. “Don’t do that. You’re a natural leader, Veronica. I can feel it. Maybe you don’t see it, but you have what you need to do this well. You’re just too consumed by pain to see what you have to do to change your life. To take a risk on something that might be…” He broke his gaze from hers and looked down at his hands for a minute before meeting her stare again.

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Some risks turn out to be worth it in the end,” he said.

They shared a long gaze. The feelings she had for him earlier seemed to be growing. He was so calm and cool. Even now, he sat back in the booth, casual and chill, like nothing in the world could shake him. Yesterday, he’d been confident and strong. In charge. And his clan listened to him. They didn’t step out of line. One or two spoke up, but they didn’t overstep. They didn’t make decisions. And it seemed like what they said was in line with what Slade said. He was a real leader. She wasn’t. But she deeply admired him for it.

“If it means fighting with your clan, it’s not worth it to me,” she said. “I’m happy to make honey and moonshine and any other products we come up with, but that’s it. I can lead in business. I never had trouble with that. Our workers follow my commands with no trouble. But I don’t want to wrangle a bunch of crazed bear women who just want to tear something apart. I’m more interested in building.”

“I’m not sure where that leaves us,” Slade said. “I feel like we really didn’t accomplish much.”

She shrugged. “We got to know each other better. That’s not nothing.”

He pulled up his mouth in a half smile. “No. That’s not nothing.”

“I’ll talk to them again. Maybe eventually I can get them to see the light.”

“Let’s hope.” 

He stood and dropped a $5 bill on the table. Must be just soda then. She stood as well and followed him out of the bar. He waved to her as he walked in the opposite direction. 

She was almost to her car when she turned around. “Slade! Wait!”

She ran over to where he was unlocking his car door. He turned to face her. She stopped in front of him, leaving just a foot or two of space separating them. Then she reached up, took a fistful of his shirt, and pulled him toward her as she leaned it.

She pressed her mouth to his hard, not letting him back away easily. But he didn’t back away. He put his hand at the small of her back and drew her closer. He kissed back just as hard.

She laughed when she ended the kiss. “Sorry, I… I guess I’m so starved for time with men and you’re just so hot.” She winked at him. “I spend way too much time in a household of women. They get on my nerves. It’s really refreshing to hang out with you. If you ever want to do it again, let me know. You have my number from when I called you.”

“Okay.” He nodded. “I just might call you then.”

“I hope so.”

He kissed her again, short and sweet, before she hopped off to her car.

Maybe it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but she really didn’t have a choice. She wanted him so badly and he just sat there, looking all sexy. It was the first of anything she’d felt since Valerie died and if she didn’t act on it, or do something to keep it going, then it might fade and she’d be right back in her grief, lonely. She was sick of feeling lonely. And she wanted Slade. 

Well, that was one way to show her leadership abilities, wasn’t it? To take charge and make the first move? He had to like that. Most guys did. Found it hot when the woman acted first. Usually it was because the guy didn’t want the pressure of making the first move, of the chance of rejection, but that couldn’t be true in Slade’s case. He had far too much confidence to be one of those guys. No, with him, it would be about the challenge. She’d challenged him by making the first move. Now, he had to step up and take charge unless he wanted to let her run the show. And she was pretty sure that, being a man, his alpha was stronger than hers. 

Good then. Let’s see what he does. See what move he made. See how much he really wanted her in return. She hoped it proved to be as much, or more than, she wanted him.

Veronica was on her way home when her phone rang. At first, her heart skipped. Was it Slade? But when she looked at her phone, she saw Beth’s name on the caller ID.

“Hey Beth,” she said.

“V? Where are you?”

“On my way home. What’s up?”

“You should probably hurry.” Beth sounded worried and her voice was hushed.

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Did you go to meet Slade?”

“What? Why would you think that?” She hadn’t told any of them, and she’d been careful. How did they find out?

“That’s what Christina said. And now, she’s got everyone going over there to attack them.”

“What?! Attack them how?”

There was a muffling sound, like someone was covering the phone.

“Beth? You there?”

The call ended. She must have hung up. Beth probably called without the others knowing. She could have endangered herself if they’d told her not to tell Veronica. They might have attacked her as well. 

Well, Veronica wasn’t going to allow this. She pressed harder on the gas and scrolled to Slade’s number on her phone.

“Hey,” he said when he answered.

“We have a problem.”

“Okay. What?” He already sounded ready to handle the situation. Ready to take charge. She liked that.

“I just got a call from my clanmate. She said Christina is leading an attack on your guys.”

“What else do you know?”

“She just told me to hurry, so I’d guess it’s going on now. She seemed to know I was meeting you.”

“Let me know if you get any more information,” he said.

“I will. You too.”

“Veronica?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.” Then he hung up.

She drove as fast as she could back to her house. When she got there, she found the place empty. No note, nothing to say what was going on. It looked like it could be any normal day with them scattered off dong their own thing, their own parts of running the business.

If it weren’t for Beth’s call, she would have no idea what was happening right now. She quickly stripped down, then ran out the back door, changing into bear form before her feet even hit the grass.

She picked up their scent instantly. She knew it so well, it wasn’t hard. The problem was stopping long enough to really concentrate. Their smells were all over the woods. They were all through there all the time, so finding the most recent trail took a second, though she had an idea of which way they had headed.

She picked up their trail and booked it, running at top speed for several long minutes and until she heard a distance growling sound. The sound of a fight maybe.

She ran harder, her heart ready to burst from the speed. “What’s going on?” she thought to them.

There was no response. So, they’d agreed to keep her in the dark. And it looked like Beth was playing along to appear like she was with them. Veronica tried to reach their minds, but they were shut off to her.

She finally saw the flashes of black fur up ahead. There were more than four bears in the woods, wrestling and jumping on each other. But then she saw several bears run off, away from the group.

“Stop this fighting now!” she shouted in her mind. 

Her four women turned and ran toward her, now that the bears they were fighting ran off.

“What are you doing?” she demanded. “I forbid you from coming here.”

“And we decided to take matters into our own hands,” Christina thought back, not pausing as she ran right past her. “We taught them a lesson. We’re not pushovers. We’re not weak girly bears.”

Veronica turned, and now she was chasing after them. “Tell me what happened.”

There was only silence in their heads. She knew Beth would tell her later probably, but she wanted them to fess up.

“Did anyone get hurt?” she asked.

“None of our clan,” Christina thought proudly.

“And the Walkers?” Silence again. “You have all deliberately disobeyed me. I should fight and kill every one of you.”

Christina laughed in her mind from several feet ahead of Veronica. “Go ahead. You think you can beat any of us? You wouldn’t even try. You’re all talk.”

Anger flared again inside her. Slade was right. She had to do something. They were going to keep attacking. Keep stepping out of line. But the thought of taking the action she should take overwhelmed her. She wasn’t the best fighter, it was true. And though being alpha gave her some advantage in size and strength, it wouldn’t be enough. She didn’t want to fight them, either. Didn’t want to hurt them, even if they had done something horrible. There was enough pain in her life. She didn’t want more.

When they got back to the house, they changed back to human form and Veronica shouted at them, standing naked on the back porch. “This is unacceptable, all of you! You have gone against my commands and you have attacked innocent men. I hope they press charges. I hope you all wind up in jail. Don’t think I’ll come to bail you out.”


Page 22

Christina glared back and Abby had a hard look, but Beth refused to look at her and Robin looked ashamed. At least she knew where she stood with each of them.

“They won’t press charges because we’ll just attack again,” Christina said. “I’m not afraid of jail time and besides, what are they going to say? That I turned into a bear and clawed them? He has obvious animal injuries. No one will believe him.”

“Who?” Veronica asked.

“One of the Walkers,” Abby said.

“We went after one of the bee guys,” Christina said. “He wasn’t so tough after all.”

“With four on one?” Veronica shrieked. “I guess not. I don’t know how many people would be, even those big men. How unfair and unethical. You foughtoneof them? All four of you?”

“We waited until we could get one alone,” Robin said quietly. “It was Christina’s idea.”

Christina turned and glared. “Well, someone had to take charge around here. Clearly you weren’t going to do anything.” She gestured to Veronica.

“I was, actually,” Veronica said. “When you launched into your disobedient plan, I was talking with their leader, trying to come to an agreement. You know, the proper and civil way, like adults.”

Christin huffed. “We’re bears, V. Don’t forget that. Our animal nature changes things.”

Veronica snatched up her clothes from the floor where she’d left them and yanked her shorts on. “Yeah, well, our human nature doesn’t.” She pulled on her shirt next. “None of you will leave this house for the rest of the night. Do you understand me?”

They all nodded except Christina. She narrowed her eyes and watched Veronica walk away.

She dashed to her room and called Slade. He didn’t answer. When his voicemail came on, she said, “Is everyone okay? I have my clan here, and I’ve forbidden them from leaving the house. Please let me know what’s going on. I’m sorry, Slade. Christina just went behind my back and did this, and she doesn’t care that I commanded them to stay away from you. I hope everyone is okay. I’m so sorry.”

She hung up and paced her room. Should she go over there? See what was wrong? But they might be hostile. They didn’t know the whole situation, unless Slade had managed to tell them some of it. But if he got home when they were in the middle of a fight, how much had he told them?

And if one of the guys was hurt, they might be going to the hospital now. Maybe that’s why he didn’t answer. She felt so bad about the whole thing. She didn’t want anyone getting hurt, and somehow, she felt worse that it was one of the men who had. If one of her women was hurt, it would be their own stupid fault. They would deserve it. But the men had only been trying to make the situation better. 

She hoped whoever it was would be okay. She didn’t know which was the beekeeper, or even any of their names, but it didn’t matter. Whoever he was, he was one of Slade’s, and that’s what mattered. She didn’t want Slade to be hurt by this. And she really didn’t want him to turn against her through all this. What if he did, though? What if somehow, he thought she’d planned it that way, to get him out of the way so her clan could attack?

Oh no. It did seem like a solid explanation. She’d set the time and place. How convenient. But then, she’d called him to warn him. To tell him to hurry. That had to mean something, right? He had to know, after all she’d told him, that she would never allow this. Would never order this. As her stomach tightened in panic, her phone rang.

It was Slade. She held her breath and answered. “Is everyone okay?”

“Hey. No. Knox is hurt really badly. We’re at the hospital.”

“Oh my God, Slade, I am so sorry. You know I didn’t allow this. I forbid them from coming onto your property at all. I never wanted it to get to this. I never wanted a fight or for anyone to get hurt.”

“I know. He’s going to be okay. But Veronica…”

“Yes?” She gulped. Her mouth was dry waiting for his response.

“We’re going to have to retaliate. I can’t just let this go. I owe my guys more than that.”

“Okay, right. Of course.” She tried to breathe. “What does that mean, though?”

“I don’t know yet. But I told the guys what you and I discussed today. They’re aware of the situation.”

“But Slade—”

“I gotta go.”

“Bye,” she said, but he’d already hung up.

She continued pacing, now worried for a different reason. What did it mean that he’d told them everything? That they wouldn’t hurt her because they knew? Or didn’t that matter? Maybe they didn’t care that she had forbidden them and they hadn’t listened. Maybe they thought if she couldn’t lead them, that she had to be taken out. Maybe it was going to be a huge slaughter.

She went downstairs and checked all the windows and doors to make sure everything was locked up.

“What’s going on?” Robin asked.

“We have to be prepared for retaliation.” She spoke louder, so everyone could hear her, no matter where they were in the house. “I want a watch all night. Take two hours shifts and rotate. Bear form, around the house only. Stay close. Got it?”

She heard a confirmation of some sort from each of them. 

“Watch starts now. I’ll go first.” Veronica changed back into bear form, but made sure her phone was close so she’d hear it if it rang again. She walked in a circle around the house, hoping it would burn off some of her anxiety.

Slade paced across the front of the living room, stroking his chin. The little hairs there needed to be trimmed, but it was the least of his worries.

“I think we should go tonight,” Beck said. He’d been wearing a permanent scowl since he found out his brother was injured. He was ready to fight them all. He was agitated and angry. Even his girlfriend, Harmony, hadn’t been able to comfort him.

“We have to be smart about this,” Slade said. “And if we go tonight, we’ll be fighting on no sleep, no rest, and emotionally and physically in distress. If we’re going to do this, we need to be in peak condition. Unless, of course, you don’t mind if someone else gets hurt.”

“Of course he minds,” Amir said. “He knows you’re right. Don’t you, Beck?”

Beck gave him a hard look, but said, “Fine. Tomorrow then?”

“Tomorrow,” Slade said. “We’ll get a good night’s sleep and rest up. Then when we’re ready, we’ll go. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Amir and Daxton said.

“Agreed,” Beck said.

“But.” Slade held up his hand. “I’ve told you about Veronica. Unless she fights, do not hurt her.”

“And if she joins in?” Dax asked.

“Then she’ll either have lied to me today, or have changed her mind, and she’s no better than the rest of them.”

The next evening, they gathered again. They’d spent a large part of the day at the hospital. Knox’s wounds were healing, and quickly. One benefit of being a shifter. But the fact that he still couldn’t use his arm, and his cuts hadn’t yet healed meant that he was badly hurt. 

Slade had been torn about Veronica. She had called to tell him what was going on when her rogue clan went after his guys. So, it was only fair to warn her back, right? But in that warning, he might be setting himself and his guys up. What if they planned something worse for their arrival? Would she tell her clanmates or keep it to herself? He couldn’t be sure. He was far from being able to fully trust her. And she was the leader of a group of his enemies. In the end, he decided to warn her, but give her no time. That way, if any of the other women found out, they wouldn’t have the chance to plan an attack. 

Before he walked downstairs to meet the guys, he sent her a text that simply said, “Now.” 

Slade met them downstairs and looked over them. They had gotten enough rest, he supposed. Even if they hadn’t, tonight was the night. They walked together to the back porch, took off their shorts, and stuffed them into a small backpack. Veronica hadn’t responded by the time he put his phone in the bag.

They all stepped outside, let the hot night air hit their naked bodies, and shifted into bear form. They took off running, Slade at the head of the pack, toward the Harper property. They arrived at the Harper’s property a short time later and paused in the woods a good distance away.

The four of them stopped to listen and watch before moving closer. They wanted to be prepared and not be caught off guard.

“They have a watch,” Dax thought to the others.

Slade saw the bear walking away from them, circling the house.

“Is it Veronica?” Amir asked.

He sniffed again to make sure.  “No,” Slade thought. “Charge the watch on my command.”

His clan nodded and waited for his signal. Slade watched until the bear was making her way back toward the front of the house. Then he lifted a paw and stomped the ground. They ran to her.

Their thumping paws quickly drew the attention of the watch. She stood on hind legs and howled. As the men reached the house, three more bears came running out to join her. Veronica was not among them. She wasn’t anywhere that Slade could see or smell. Had she decided to leave and not be a part of the fight at all? At least this was an even four-on-four fight then.

The male bears crashed into the female bears. The sound of growls and snapping teeth filled the air as they bit and swiped each other. Slade managed to whack one of the women with his paw and sent her flying back several feet. She came at him with claws flailing, and he ducked in just enough time to miss being slashed.

He leapt at her and closed his teeth around her throat. She fell flat on the ground in an attempt to break free. But his jaw was strong. He swiped at her and connected claw to skin. She whimpered under him. 

He thought he had her. But then another bear leapt on him, knocking his grasp free. He tumbled with the new bear, then landed on top of her. He looked back over his shoulder to make sure the bear he’d had his teeth on wasn’t coming after him. But Amir had her.

When he looked over the fight, all the male bears were overtaking the females. They were winning this fight.

A loud shot rang through the air. Then someone shouted, “Stop!” 

Eight bears’ heads snapped toward Veronica. She stood at the side of the property, holding a gun high in the air, naked. She’d obviously run somewhere in bear form. To get the gun maybe?

“Everyone stop right now,” she shouted. “Change back to human form.”

She stood with her arms crossed, the gun hanging from one hand. The position may have hidden her breasts somewhat, but it didn’t hide enough.

Slade gawked at her. Her body was lean and muscular. She must have almost no body fat. Her hips curved wide under her rippled stomach. But her breasts spilled above and below her arms. He was glad in that moment that he was still a bear. He’d have to get a hold of himself before he turned back to human form or everyone would know exactly how he felt about Veronica. 

For a long while, no one changed. Then, Veronica pointed the gun at one of her clanmates. “If you don’t all start to change, I’ll start to shoot.”

The woman she’d pointed the gun at changed back. Then another, who went to stand by Veronica, trying to hide her naked body the best she could. Then Amir changed. Then Dax and another woman. The rest of them changed almost all at the same time. The group of them stood in a circle, most of them covering various body parts. 

Slade had to work to keep himself covered. But he was still hard looking at Veronica, and he could only hide so much. He dared a glance at her, and she was looking at him. Looking intensely and with desire. They shared a long, intense moment, then she turned away from him, letting her arms fall to her sides, revealing every inch of her body, as she walked to the center of the group. Man, was she trying to drive him mad on purpose?

“This fighting must stop,” she said. “Someone has already gotten hurt and more people will get hurt if we continue.” She walked over to Slade and stood by his side. “The clans are merging. We will become one and we will work together. Our truce starts now.”

She looked around, challenging someone to argue with her. Slade wanted to kiss her right then for being so bold. And they were going to join clans? So, she’d decided to step up after all. He wished she’d told him this was her plan, but maybe he hadn’t given her time to. All that mattered now was how they would get their clans to be okay with it. He’d already talked to his guys and while they weren’t thrilled with working with women who had attacked them, they agreed it was better than continuing a war.

“This is ridiculous,” one of the women said. It must be Christina, based on what Veronica had told him about her. “We are not joining them.”

“We are,” Veronica said. “We will form one company to make our products together, and we will be sister clans. Anyone who doesn’t like it, can leave.”

“You can’t be serious,” Christina said.

“You can’t make us do this!” another woman said.

“Oh, yes I can, Abby,” Veronica said. “I am the alpha. You will obey or you will find a new pack.”

“Nothing like this would have happened if Valerie were still here,” Christina said.

“And if you hadn’t been so interested in fighting,” Veronica said, “shewouldstill be here.”


Page 23

Christina glared back at her. “You can’t just kick me out. I live here.”

“I’m not kicking you out,” Veronica said. “I’m telling you we’re going to work with the Walkers. We are going to stop fighting them. If you can’t do that, then you are free to leave. It’s your choice.”

The men watched, looking back and forth from Veronica to Slade, waiting for direction. Of course, they all knew Slade had wanted them to work together. They probably just never expected it to actually happen. But Slade was happy that none of his guys seemed ready to take off. He wouldn’t expect any of them to do that. 

After a few tense minutes, Christina shifted into a bear again and ran off. Veronica looked around at the rest of her clan. He could see the hurt in her face and hear it in her voice when she spoke. She was bothered that Christina had left.

“Anyone else?” she asked.

Veronica saw Abby’s indecision. Her and Christina had been close. Closer once Valerie died and the position of Christina’s best friend was available. She didn’t envy the decision Abby had to make now. It was either her best friend and freedom or her clan and her business.

Abby turned to her, tears filling her eyes. “I’m sorry, V. I can’t just let her go on her own. She’ll have no one.”

Veronica nodded. Abby ran to her, gave her a brief, awkwardly naked hug, then shifted and ran off. Veronica swallowed hard and looked at the remaining members of the group. She’d expected this, though. She had a pretty good idea that Christina would leave. Was half hoping for it. As much as she loved Christina as a sister and clanmate, she was the one always causing trouble. And she reminded her more of Valerie than any of the others. They’d been inseparable before her death and something about Christina being her dead twin’s beset friend made her special to Veronica. But she couldn’t have her causing this trouble. 

Abby hurt worse. Though Veronica thought she’d likely leave if Christina did, she was sadder to see her go. She liked Abby a lot, though she was argumentative. In the end, she usually ended up listening to Veronica. Well, until recently with all this fighting. Her loyalty clearly lay with Christina, though, so in the end, it was better.

She looked at her two remaining clan members. She knew Beth wouldn’t leave her in a million years. She was the one Veronica was closest to. And Robin had joined Valerie’s clan because of Veronica, so she assumed that loyalty would continue. They didn’t look confused. They looked sure in their decision.

She looked over at the men. None of them seemed ready to take off, either. She felt a ping of jealousy at that. Slade was a much better leader. His men were much more loyal. Though it looked like one was missing. That must be the injured one, though.

“Anyone else?” Veronica said. “Last chance. Leave now or forever keep the peace.”

She waited for two long minutes. Then, she turned to Slade.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s make this happen.”

The seven of them gathered in the Harper’s living room, now dressed at least partially. The men were all shirtless. Veronica didn’t mind at all, if it meant Slade would stay shirtless. She considered offering them shirts, but then decided they were just fine as they were.

Her and Slade stood at the front of the room. She could feel the heat coming off him and she wanted to reach over and touch him. Feel the hard muscles of his stomach, kiss his soft lips again. And again. And again. She tried to focus. This was about the clans. They had to make this work to keep the peace, and for the betterment of their business. They could get down to personal business later. 

“I think for now, we should start with a basic peace treaty,” Slade said. “We’re all tired from days of fighting, and we’re missing Knox, so I don’t want to make any serious decisions yet. Let’s take some time to think about what we want this to be. What we each hope to gain out of this merger. Then, we can come back together and discuss the terms and set some sort of contract in place.”

Veronica nodded. “So, what do you think? A week? Longer?”

“I think a week is good for our initial discussion. I think it might take a few meetings before we have a solid agreement.”

“Everyone okay with that?” Veronica asked. They received a combination of agreements and head nods from the group.

“So, we’re all in agreement that, for now and for the foreseeable future, there will be no fighting,” Slade said. “We will not go onto each other’s property without permission, we will not damage each other’s property, we will not set out to harm each other’s businesses, and we will not cause physical or emotional harm.” Slade looked to Veronica first.

“I agree,” she said.

One by one, each of them made their agreement. The men stood to leave, but Veronica turned to Slade to whisper in his ear. “Can you stay for a little while? There’s something I want to discuss with you in private.”

He nodded. “I’ll see you at home later, guys.”

Veronica took his hand and led him upstairs, to her bedroom. Once there, she closed the door behind her. He stood in the middle of her room. He looked around for a minute, at her white walls plastered with many photos of her sister of other family and friends. Her bright yellow curtains and comforter, chosen because they felt cheerful at the time. 

“So, what’s up?” he asked.

“Well.” She walked closer to him and hugged him. He hugged back and she stayed there for a moment, just enjoying the feel of his strong arms around her. Then she looked up at him and said, “I just thought maybe we could talk about our merger.”

He pulled his eyebrows together. “Okay. I thought we just said we were going to take some time to think about it, then discuss things next week.”

She smiled. “Oh no. Not our clans’ merger.Ourmerger. You and me.”

“Oh.” He bent down to kiss her. 

As their lips moved together, she felt the heat rise in her chest and spread through her. 

“What is there to discuss?” he asked, tugging gently on her lip with his teeth.

She raised a shoulder. “Do you have any terms you’d like me to comply with?”

“Yes.” He lowered his eyes and pulled his mouth into a half smile. “First, you cannot be wearing clothing.”

“Right.” She pulled off the tank and shorts she’d put on earlier, after the fighting. “But you have to comply with that, too.”

“Fair enough.” 

He stepped out of his shorts and she saw the full length of him, hard and ready. She made herself look away. Otherwise, she’d rush things and jump on him right then.

“Next?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, stepping close to her again. “You cannot be more than arm’s reach away from me at all times.”

She stepped back into place in his arms. This time when they hugged, though, she pressed her hips against him, letting his hard cock rub against her bottom lips. She was already wet with desire for him. He slid back and forth easily against her, sending waves of pleasure through her body.

“Anything else?” she asked.

He closed his eyes and moaned. “Umm…”

She slowly slid down his stomach and took him into her mouth. He let out a moan and put out a hand to brace himself against the wall. He let his other hand fall to her head, letting his fingers run through her hair softly as she sucked and stroked him.

“That feels so good,” he said. 

After another few minutes, he stepped back to break free of her mouth. Then he picked her up and tossed her onto the bed.

“My turn,” he said.

He spread her legs apart and lowered himself down. With his tongue, he flicked and sucked at her clit and around her lips. She moaned and moved her hips against him, wanting more. He slipped a finger into her as he pressed his mouth harder.

Veronica sat up suddenly. “You have to stop.”

He pulled his eyebrows together in confusion. “Okay…”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said. 

He sat at the edge of her bed, his legs tucked underneath him, and she crawled over to him. 

“I just can’t wait any longer.” She positioned herself with her legs around him and lowered down onto his erection. 

He growled in her ear and wrapped his arms around her, then rocked forward and back with her, pushing in deeper with each move forward and pulling out slightly with each move back.

She moaned and tugged at his earlobe with her teeth. He growled in response and then made a purring noise that sent chills through her. She dug her fingers into his hair and pulled him closer, smashing her mouth to his. Why did he always feel too far away from her? If his skin melted into hers, he still wouldn’t be close enough.

“You’re so wild,” he said. “I like it.”

“Must be the animal in me,” she said. 

She rose up on her knees so she could slam down harder on him, tilting her hips forward and back to rub her clit against him as she did. She pulled at his hair and scratched along his back and kissed him hard. She still couldn’t get him deep enough or close enough.

He squeezed her tight and rolled them over onto their sides. Then he rolled to his back and pulled her on top of him. She sat up, digging her fingers into the hard muscles of his stomach. He grabbed her ass and smacked her, hard.

“Oh, you like rough, do you?” she asked with a smirk.

“I do,” he said in a deep and smoothly sexy voice. “Do you?”

She answered by pulling at his hair and biting his neck, then his nipples.

He flipped her over onto her stomach and took her from behind. He pulled at her hair and rammed hard into her. She cried out in pleasure, putting her hands up to press against her head board so she could push back against him, sending him deeper inside her with each thrust.

The bed was banging against the wall, and she knew Beth and Robin had to be hearing this. That thought only turned her on even more and she moaned louder.

“Yes. Faster,” she said.

He obeyed and sped up. Thrusting into her until she felt the level of pleasure rise and spill over into orgasm. They moaned loudly together as they finished.

He sat still for a moment after, staying inside her while they panted.

“One more term to add to our agreement,” he said.

“Yes?” she breathed.

“There can be as many repeat performances as necessary.”

“Deal,” she said, chuckling. 

He withdrew from her slowly and lay to face her on the bed.

“Hi.” She smiled lazily at him.

“Hi.”

“You know something? I think you’re pretty great.”

He kissed along her shoulder. “I think you’re pretty great, too. And I think we’re pretty great together.”

“We are. But, I should tell you,” she said. “And I don’t know what exactly you had in mind moving forward, but it’s been a long time since I was in any sort of relationship.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Okay. I’m not really looking to rush things. Well, I mean emotionally, I guess. Physically, I like fast.” She winked at him.

He smiled and brushed aside a stray piece of her hair. “Me either. I honestly never thought I would be able to trust anyone again. I thought I was done with relationships. My last serious relationship was a disaster and ended very badly.”

She laughed humorlessly. “I probably got you beat, but let’s hear your story.”

“Well.” He lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling. “We were together a few years and we were engaged. Totally in love, planning a wedding, all that. And I realize now that waiting probably made it worse, but I still hadn’t told her I was a shifter. Then one day, when I thought I couldn’t wait any longer, I told her. Then I showed her. She flipped out and ran off and never talked to me again. She wouldn’t even come and get her stuff herself. She sent a friend. I think she was maybe scared of me or something. I tried to talk to her to explain. Calls, texts, emails, letters. She wouldn’t listen and wouldn’t respond to any of it. Just like that, it was over.”

“Hmm,” she said.

“Pretty awful, right?”

“Well, I can see why that would give you trust issues. It’s interesting, though.”

“Interesting? That’s not the response I was expecting.”

“Oh no, it’s awful for sure. But I can imagine exactly how painful that would be. That’s almost what happened to me. We weren’t engaged, but we were together for four years. One night, I drank a little too much and we were making out. I got too excited and wasn’t in control of myself. I started to feel the change. Instead of stopping it, I stood up and said something stupid like, ‘Look how wild I really am,’ and changed, just like that. Obviously, he freaked. He called me lots of names and said he would tell everyone. I had to bite his leg and promise to hurt him worse to get him to agree not to tell. And, of course, I never heard from him again, either.”

“That is interesting. We have a very similar relationship past.”

“Yeah. Oh hey,” she said, turning on her side to face him again. “I should tell you something before this goes any further. I don’t want any surprises later or for you to freak on me like the last guy did.”


Page 24

She saw the glimmer of concern cross his face. “What?”

She leaned down and whispered, “I can turn into a bear.”

He made his eyes go wide. “Oh no, you’re kidding me! Well, I have my own secret.”

“What?” She smiled and made her face looked worried, playing along.

He leaned in close to her and whispered, “I trust you more than I’ve trusted any woman since my ex. And this is the first time I’ve ever thought that someone was worth the hassle of a relationship.”

Her smile vanished. She’d expected him to say he was a shifter, too, to keep the game going. But this was serious. “Really?”

He nodded. “There are so many things I don’t have to worry about with you. You know all the intimate details of being a shifter. You even know what it’s like to be the alpha. You’re in the same business as me, and you know about running a company. You’re like the female version of me. I have no reason to hide anything from you. You already know the most complicated parts of my life. And now that you know my relationship history, you know my biggest piece of baggage. And it’s the same as yours, too.”

“We do have an awful lot in common. It’s nice, for a change. I’m surprised more shifters don’t bear up together in relationships. I don’t know any shifter couples, actually. Any of your guys single?”

“No,” he said. “I was the last holdout. And they’re all in shifter-human relationships. I think maybe most of us cling to that normalcy that comes from pure humans. I don’t know. There’s also not that many of us, and even fewer close by.”

“We should start a bear shifter dating web site to help us wild, lonely folks find each other.”

“Right.” He let his fingers trail over her stomach and breasts, her hard nipples. “God, your body is perfect. You know something? I think I could love you.”

She closed her eyes, the emotions flooding her. When she looked at him again, tears blurred her vision. “You know something? I’d be totally okay with that.”

She leaned up to kiss him, feeling more at peace than she had in a long time.

Slade sat at the head of the long table in the Walker’s dining room and Veronica sat to his right. The table was filled with both of their clans. Daxton, Knox and Beck, Amir, then Beth and Robin across from them. 

“Are you all ready for the big reveal?” Slade asked.

“Wait, I know what it is,” Robin said, holding up her hand. “Veronica is pregnant.”

Veronica’s face went red, and she shook her head. “That’s not the big reveal. And I’m not.”

Slade glanced at her, stood, took in a deep breath, and said, “Okay then. Here’s the design we came up with.”

He turned around a board that held the logo design her and Slade had worked on together. Across the top of the image, it said, “Harwal Honey Products,” the name of their new company. At the very bottom, it said, “A merger of Bear Natural Honey and SheBear Honey” in small letters. Between the lines of text was an illustrated drop of honey falling into a small piece of honeycomb. 

They’d gone through multiple looks and colors and names, working together over long hours into the night. They stopped often to take sex breaks, as Slade liked to call them. It helped to keep their minds clear and focused, he claimed. Right. She didn’t care what excuses he came up with, she loved being able to alternate work and making love and was happy to pause anytime.

The whole process of merging their clans and businesses had taken much longer, but gone much better than she expected. They had come back together the next week to discuss things. Turned out, everyone had many more ideas than either Slade or her anticipated. Great ideas, and all ways to work together to make their new company awesome. 

With Christina and Abby gone, the hostility had quickly vanished. They began regular picnics and events to get the clans together, with the guys’ girlfriends joining in. They’d all become friends over the months, and Harmony’s little boy was brutally spoiled with kisses and hugs. They’d even briefly discussed building one giant compound that all the couples could live on together. It would take more time for that to become a reality. They’d need more land, and they had to focus on production first. 

“Thoughts?” Veronica asked. She looked around the table at their reactions. There were many head nods and several expressions of interest.

In the end, they all liked it. Next on the agenda, they discussed the new product line. They were going to expand the soaps that the Walkers had tested, and include the new lotions the Harpers had perfected. There would also be teas, candles, and candy.

And they had plans to expand into shampoos and other food options later down the line. They had a whole five-year-plan and a ten-year-plan that had been dreamed up over the months of meetings they held. This was one of their weekly meetings, which would end with a cookout.

“Work hard first, then play harder,” was what Slade always said. Though, when they were alone, Veronica said, “Work hard first, then fuck harder.” Slade was happy with both versions.

Once they finished all the business on the list, Slade stood again.

“Any final issues of business?” he asked.

No one said anything. 

“Then, it’s time to have some fun!” Veronica said.

“Wait a minute,” Slade said. “Any non-business issues to discuss?”

They always left time to talk about personal things or share about what was going in their lives. Veronica was hungry, though, and wanted to speed things along. They’d all talk while they cooked out anyway.

“I do have one thing.” Robin stood. “It’s been a long time coming, I think, but I wasn’t sure how to tell you all.”

Veronica’s heart started racing. Robin looked nervous. Was she about to give them bad news? Was she planning to leave?

But then Beth stood, too. “And I asked her to wait until I was ready.”

Veronica glanced at Slade and he looked just as confused and worried.

“But, here it is.” Robin breathed out a hard sigh and reached out to take Beth’s hand. Then she turned and kissed her.

Veronica’s mouth dropped open. That was the last thing she’d expected. She had no idea either of them were gay, or that they had any interest in each other. Though now, it made sense. She’d never seen either of them in a relationship and they had been getting closer over the months. She had thought it was just the combination of Christina and Abby leaving and her spending more time with Slade and leaving them alone, but apparently, it was more.

Slade started clapping and the others joined in, hooting and hollering as Beth and Robin smiled with red faces. 

“Thank you,” Beth said. “We weren’t sure how everyone would take it.”

“You really thought there’d be complaints?” Dax said.

Knox nudged him, but laughed. 

“Really happy for you,” Slade said. He took Veronica’s hand under the table and squeezed.

“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, I’m shocked and I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner, but this is awesome!”

She had secretly been a little disappointed that all the Walkers had girlfriends. After knowing how awesome it could be to date another shifter, she wanted that for them all. She hated seeing Robin and Beth be the only single ones at their events that were all filled with happy couples. But this made everything perfect. Everyone was paired up and happy. Things felt very complete.

“Anyone else?” Slade said.

“Who could beat that?” Beck said.

“Well, I’m going to try,” Slade said. “Not to upstage you or anything, but I had this planned for months.”

He stood and turned to Veronica. “Exactly one year ago today, we kissed for the first time. It was unexpected, but wonderful, and since that moment, I have not been able to get you off of my mind. The last year has been the most amazing year of my life, and I want to see just how much better it can get. Veronica, I don’t want to live without you. You’re already my business partner, my co-alpha, my best friend. But, I’d like to add wife to that list.” 

He dropped down on one knee, and Veronica’s eyes went wide. They hadn’t discussed marriage at all. They’d both said they’d been so hurt in the past and had such trust issues that they were going to take things slow. This didn’t feel slow. 

But she’d fallen so hard in love with him in the last year. So hard, she thought it would scare him if she told him. If she said how she’d dreamed of being his wife and having shifter babies. When Robin joked at the start of the meeting that she was pregnant, she wanted it to be true. But she didn’t want to move things too fast for him. It seemed now, that they’d both decided slow wasn’t necessary. Everything about this felt so right.

Slade opened a ring box and held it up to her. “Will you marry me?”

She took a moment to gaze into his eyes, to let the scene blur with her tears as her heart swelled with joy. But apparently, she’d taken too long.

“Of course she will!” Robin said. 

“Yes!” Dax said. 

Veronica laughed and nodded as a chorus of “Say yes!” broke out from the table. 

Slade slipped the ring on her finger and kissed her, then stood with his arms tight around her at the head of the table. “Meeting adjourned.” 

The room cleared, but Slade held her close to keep her there. She didn’t mind. She wanted a few minutes alone, too.

When they were alone, he kissed her again and asked, “They didn’t pressure you into it, did they?”

“No, of course not.”

“You’re sure? I know it’s fast and we said we wanted to take things slow, but—”

“It feels like exactly the right time,” she said.

“Yes. It does to me, too.”

“Then that’s all that matters.” 

Reinicke

Bear Dating Agency V

by

Becca Fanning

Prologue

The most irritating thing in the world was a ‘happily ever after’. As the director of an incredibly popular dating agency, Karina Vasquez was responsible for such miracles occurring every damn day. She was inundated with calls from those who she’d set up, wanting to thank her for making their dreams come true. And, when grateful past clients weren’t clogging up her phone line, new ones with dreams of their own were battering down her door. In simple terms, she had become far too good at her job. Demand was outweighing what she could supply, and there was only one solution to the problem, as far as Karina could see.

The sign on her office door read: “Out to lunch. Permanently.”

She had driven to the place where happy childhood memories called, memories of a time when there were no demands or pressures placed on her. It was the place where her mother, Rose, had taught her to swim, and where her father, Javier, had cooked ribs on a rickety old barbeque. As she arrived in Fairhaven Park, the sun was shining with a glorious brilliance, and all at once she was no longer a twenty-five year old business sensation in the world of romance. Karina was as free as the birds that soared above her.

Best of all, work could not follow her here. Not long ago she’d had four clients in this very park, all of them brothers with the surname Best. But now they were paired off, a domino effect of happily ever afters that had been part of the boom which sent Karina off the deep end. That meant there were no eligible men seeking love here, only a park full of quiet, silent places where she could forget that the rest of the world existed. It was going to be heaven.

And then there was a crash, and Karina rocked in the seat of her car.

“Watch where you’re damn going!” said a voice that was almost a growl.

Karina threw her head out of her car window, watching as a man in the Land Rover opposite her did the same. He had tawny brown hair cut straight and sensible, and his face was the most serious one Karina had ever seen. He had a strong jaw pulled into a grumpy sneer and shining eyes that appeared gold by the light of the brilliant sun. For a moment, Karina just looked at him, mesmerized. Before she remembered what he’d said, and done.

“You bumped my car!” she decreed, outraged.

“You were daydreaming!” the man insisted. “You came straight at me.”

“Come on!” Karina retaliated at once. “It’s a wide road. You could have gone around! You’re just one of those assholes who likes to make trouble.”

“Sure I am,” the man replied, “but I’m also responsible for other people’s safety here. Can’t let a menace like you go unchecked.”

It was then that Karina spotted the badge glinting on his lapel. He was in some kind of uniform, and further inspection of his car revealed a huge logo for Fairhaven on the side, along with the words:Park Ranger Service.

“Shit,” Karina said quietly.

“Indeed,” the man said sharply. “My name’s Reinicke, by the way. I suggest you avoid me for the duration of your stay.”

He drove off, snaking around her car before she could bite back with the insult that was bursting on her tongue. Reinicke. It was such a peculiar name. It was one that Karina knew would stick in her head and come back to haunt her. She clutched her steering wheel tightly.

Advertising Download Read Online
Other books
claws for alarm by t.c. lotempio
the god particle by richard cox
star over bethlehem by agatha christie
the widow by nicolas freeling
star crossed hurricane by knight, wendy
follow your heart by barbara cartland