Diamond Dust- extended excerpt
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She can’t shift, but she can shake their world.
Takhini Wolves, Book 3
Caroline Bradley is having one hell of a week. Her wolf lover has sniffed out his mate, making her an instant free agent. Not only that, Takhini territory has been overrun with aggressive bear-shifters electing a clan leader, and the wolf pack is feeling the effects—pushing her diplomatic skills to the limit.
Tyler Harrison is a grizzly on a mission. If he’s going to win the majority of the bears’ votes, he needs one final thing: a female companion. The only woman in town with influence over wolves, humans, and more bears than he’d like to admit, is Caroline.
Despite the sexual pull between them, though, Tyler’s not seeking a permanent relationship. And Caroline isn’t looking to be anyone else’s political pawn. But she should have remembered that when shifters are involved, changes happen in the blink of an eye.
Warning: Billionaire bear hero plus kick-ass human heroine equals a sexually volatile power struggle. Get ready for what might be the naughtiest game of tag that’s ever been played in the great outdoors.
Life is a fiddler, and we all must dance.
From gloom where mocks that will-o’-wisp,
Free-will I heard a voice cry: “Say, give us a chance.”
Chance! Oh, there is no chance!
The scene is set,
Up with the curtain!
Man, the marionette,
Resumes his part.
* * *
On the other side of the ornate sanctuary doors, voices murmured. The low tones of pipe-organ music lent an air of anticipation to the setting. Caroline Bradley took a deep breath to calm her nerves and the rich scent of roses swirled upward from the bouquet in her hand to fill her senses.
One of life’s mysteries. How did a fully human woman, who just happened to know about the shifters living in Whitehorse, end up in this predicament?
Just lucky, I guess.
Caroline laughed at her own joke as she regarded her companion in limbo, the Takhini Alpha. Evan Stone wore a sharply tailored black tux and a crisp white shirt that only emphasized his dark good looks. There was no way to stop her heart from skipping a beat. Wolf genes were damn sexy in the first place. Add in that GQ outfit and the lazy smile twisting his lips, and she was liable to end up a sloppy puddle of melted butter if she wasn’t careful.
“You look gorgeous.” Evan tugged one of the spirals of blonde hair falling artistically from her temple. “And bonus, a little less like you’re going to puke than you did five minutes ago.”
Her stomach gave a warning twinge. “You’re such a soothing fellow.”
He tucked his fingers under her chin and lifted until there was nowhere for her to look but into his beautiful dark gaze. His thumb caressed her cheek. A gesture he’d made many times over the past months that connected them so intimately. So caringly.
Caroline cupped his hand to her face, the familiar touch reassuring and right. “You sure about this?”
Good grief, as sure as she could be. “Evan, I’m wearing a bloody wedding dress. I’ve got flowers in my hair and the most uncomfortable bit of elastic around my thigh masquerading as a garter belt. There are over a thousand people on the other side of that door, and in two minutes we’re supposed to march down that aisle and…”
“…and simply make official what we already knew.” He leaned in and pressed his warm lips to her forehead, passing over his unwavering confidence. “I’ll be with you every step of the way, holding your hand.”
She turned her face and nuzzled his palm before tugging his hand away. “You’re going to make things crazy, getting your scent all over me.”
“Hey, what could happen, a fight to the death on a mountain hillside or something? I don’t think so.” His raised brow made her smile. As the head of the Takhini pack, having Evan on her side had been more wonderful than anything she’d remembered. Until now—
The world was about to change for good.
The doors opened a crack and the music swelled.
“Shit.” The word snuck out even as she straightened her spine.
Evan snorted as he pulled her veil forward then helped her face the doors, the expansive train of her dress flaring behind her like a semiobedient dragon tail. “Smile. You’d think we were walking toward a firing squad.”
“I could arrange that.”
“Of course you could, but you don’t have to. There’s no need for any more fighting.” Evan shook a finger at her. “Because of you. I’m so proud.”
They stared at each other, and Caroline’s lips curled into a real smile this time. “Damn right, you are.”
Evan laughed, the sound ringing full and clear as they faced the gathering. People turned in expectation as they passed, Evan supporting her fingers over his arm as they marched in time with the processional. He petted her gently. “You are, as always, incredible. One step at a time, you can do this.”
One step at a time. Caroline clutched him tighter.
The pews were filled, leaving standing room only along the edges of the sanctuary. Turned toward them was a sea of faces. Pack members and visiting bears all mixed in with locals, most humans totally unaware they were seated next to a man or woman who in their spare time loved to go furry and run through the Yukon wilderness.
Good people, all of them. She was doing this for them. So Mr. Jacks over there, who didn’t know he was flirting with a lynx shifter, wouldn’t have to find out. So the bloodshed that had threatened her pack and her city would stop—she was doing this because it was right for more people than her alone.
Evan paused three feet short of the stairs that rose to where the actual ceremony was to take place. He twisted her to face him, lifted her veil and cleared his throat. “I know it’s not proper, but screw it. For old times’ sake. You’re one in a million, Caroline. Thanks for being a part of my life.”
He leaned in and kissed her. For real. Never slipped her any tongue, though, which was good, because the involuntary reaction to Evan and tongue wasn’t the kind of thing she wanted to deal with when at least five hundred of the people watching all had oversensitive sniffers. But it was a real kiss—his hand cradling the back of her neck, holding her in position as he gave her his full attention.
That slow murmur of voices returned in a heart beat, the noise rising in volume as people gasped in shock or twittered out muffled laughter.
And under the whispers, a low, enticing rumble that made her toes curl.
Evan pulled back, grinning his fool head off, his gaze locked on hers. Caroline’s cheeks steamed they were so hot. “You did that to yank his chain,” she muttered as she attempted to pull herself back into a state of counterfeit calm.
“Yup,” Evan admitted readily. “Just because there’s a wedding about to take place doesn’t mean you stop being my good, good friend.”
Goose bumps broke over her. The deep, growly voice rolling in her ears belonged to only one person.
She and Evan turned together to discover that the enormous shifter who’d strolled into Whitehorse and spun everything upside down had joined them, and now stood inches away. His big body close enough to heat her.
Caroline swallowed hard.
Tyler’s expression was dark, none of his usual levelheaded diplomacy visible. “Good friends who don’t ever kiss from here on. Just so we’re clear.”
Evan shrugged. “No problem. Got it.”
Tyler stared for a long moment. Nodded. Then shifted his gaze to meet Caroline’s. “You ready?”
He held out his arm, elbow raised high. She pulled herself together once more and rested her hand on his tuxedo-clad arm. Left Evan standing behind as she and Tyler walked up the short flight to the dais. Left her old life behind.
Oh Lordy, what had she done?
Whitehorse, seven days earlier
“We’ll be landing soon.” Justin plopped himself into the oversized seat opposite Tyler and buckled himself in. “Should be no delays at the airport—I arranged our arrival so we land well ahead of the commercial flight the other delegates are traveling on.”
“Of course you did.” Tyler sipped the last of his wine and stared out the window, mentally ordering the next couple hours according to the least frustrating tasks he could remove from his list quickly. “Transportation organized?”
“Limo for the first days.”
A growl of annoyance escaped before he caught himself.
“I know, I know, but play along for a bit, okay?” Justin tugged the empty wine glass from his fingers and handed it to a male secretary walking in the aisle. “We have to stick with standard protocol until we get things lined up and all the security has been double-checked—”
“Justin. I wrote the security handbook. I know what’s in there.”
“Right.” Justin tapped his fingers on the armrest. “We’ve booked in at the Moonshine Inn. Your suite is—”
Tyler lifted a hand to interrupt the man. “I swear you’re nervous or something, because you’re rambling. You’ve already gone through the details of our accommodation as well as the schedule for the first two days of conclave. Verbally once plus you left me three copies to read.”
Pressure changed as the plane started its descent. Tyler examined his best friend, who happened to also be his personal advisor and bodyguard.
As if he, a bear shifter, needed a guard, but traditions weren’t easy to break. So long as Tyler didn’t have to put up with sycophants, he had no problem spending time with his friend as they dealt with the issues of clan security.
Still, there had to be something wrong. Justin was normally far more relaxed. “You got word of trouble brewing?”
Justin blinked then shook his head. “A bad feeling is all. There’s been nothing but problems for the first two weeks of conclave between kidnapping and extortion, and plain old stupidity on the part of a few clans. I don’t expect anything will get better for the final set of votes merely because we’ve shifted locations from Dawson City to Whitehorse.”
“Of course there’s still trouble coming.” Tyler thought back through the notes he’d read on the previous territory-distribution talks. The events weren’t held often, but the opportunity for an orderly exchange of resources and ideas was still the best way to stop the overaggressive bear shifters from methodically taking out most of their population and ninety percent of the other shifters in the north.
Bears on a rampage weren’t a pretty sight.
“We’ll deal with the troubles in a civilized manner. We aren’t dogs to fight over a bone.” Tyler spoke louder as the props on his private plane increased in volume. “Speaking of which, did you find more information regarding the wolf pack in Whitehorse?”
Justin laughed. “Yes, from the strangest source, actually. You’ll never guess who.”
Tyler was tempted to make him lay a wager, but nabbing money from his best friend on a sure bet was far too unsportsmanlike. If he was going to gamble, he wanted the risk to mean something. “I’d never in a million years guess you spoke to my brother, Frank.”
Justin’s expression twisted in disgust. “You’re not a lot of fun at times.”
“I know everything…”
They both laughed as the plane touched down with a gentle kiss of the wheels to the tarmac. “Yeah, you have more resources than a gopher has holes. How did you figure out Frank was in town?”
“He texted me.”
“Frank?” Justin’s tone of voice was somewhere along the lines of hearing that Lady Gaga had flown a solo trip to the moon.
“Well, someone must have texted for him because I doubt he has a phone or a computer, but he’s staying with the Takhini pack.” Shocking information in and of itself, but true.
“You don’t need my report, then?” Justin stood as the pilot smoothly taxied the plane toward the terminal.
“Oh, I need it. Frank was his usual loquacious self. ‘At the Takhini pack house. See you for dinner. You’re buying.’ This makes me even more curious what kind of pack Whitehorse has that they welcome outcast bears into their midst.”
“Curious situation to be sure. And it’s two packs, not one.”
This got stranger by the minute. “There are two wolf packs in the city? What kind of masochists are they? They must have total control over the media because I haven’t seen any weekly reports of bloodshed in the streets.”
Tyler joined his guard at the exit door. They waited briefly until the path was cleared, then Justin stepped out and looked around before giving the go-ahead. “Word is Takhini is in charge and Canyon has gone into hiding. We’re staying at the hotel owned by the Takhini pack. Current Alpha is originally from the Hudson Bay pack.”
Tyler whistled. “Impressive.”
“Yeah, name of Evan Stone—took over about a year ago and seems to be controlling them okay. The other pack, all I could find was a name, Sam, and a lot of fuzzy rumours.”
The mid-July sunshine caused heat waves to shimmer above the runway. The short walk to the waiting limo was long enough for Tyler to wish he wasn’t headed for formal meetings, but finding somewhere comfortable along the river to ease back and relax. Maybe with someone soft and curvy to help pass the time.
The limo took off, the unfamiliar Alaskan highway disappearing rapidly as they headed into downtown. Tyler hadn’t been to Whitehorse very often. His business trips tended to take him farther south into the US, or over to London or Europe. Staying in the smaller towns in northern Canada over the past couple of months had been a refreshing change from his long-range excursions to exotic or formal settings. “What did Frank tell you?”
“He likes them, that much was clear. He’s been in town for a few days and he’s still a guest in the pack house, so they’re either very tolerant, or Frank has improved his manners since he used to live in Yellowknife.” Justin peered out the windows, remaining alert as they traveled. “Also, he mentioned there was someone you simply had to meet.”
“That sounds like a woman comment.” Which was all kinds of impossible. “Don’t tell me Frank’s broken heart has healed.”
“Don’t think that’s what he was implying.” Justin grinned as they stopped at a set of lights. “Your brother said there was someone he wanted you to meet, emphasis on you.”
“Good grief. He’s trying to set me up?”
Justin shrugged. “Diplomacy will fill your days, but there are a couple of gala events planned—the organizing committee is striving to uphold the peaceful nature of the talks. You’ll have a lot of time on your hands at night if you want Frank to introduce you to this someone special of his.”
Tyler didn’t bother to respond, instead glared at his friend. Justin grinned harder, then ignored him, whistling as the limo headed to their destination.
A downside of having money, power and a coveted position. Tyler didn’t go long between offers of female company. Justin knew it well—the asshole rubbed it in all the time that Tyler’s arms must get tired from fending the women off.
Tyler didn’t fend them off. He simply took what they offered and let them leave. It might seem heartless, but physical pleasure was enough.
Although, once the territory issues were solved he’d consider putting more energy into finding someone permanent. A man with the kind of business and status he had needed to think of having a family to pass it on to someday, which would require a wife at some point. Right now, though, he had too many important tasks to be distracted by a pretty face.
His brother’s broken heart and subsequent escape into the wilds of the Yukon was another good reason why Tyler avoided dating. Women wrapped a man up and tore them apart in ways that business and territorial claims never did. Those situations were logical and orderly, or at least when done correctly. Tyler had no intention of getting emotionally whipped through some kind of roller coaster only to find in the end he wasn’t in control of anything—his family, his business or his heart.
In the meantime, he’d focus on the conference. Seven days and all this should be settled. Justin was right, though, there was an odd feel in the air, as if a storm was about to hit. Not unexpected, but Tyler would need all his wits about him for the coming time frame. If he could pull off the difficult task of winning the election and complete the territory shuffles without losing anyone—bear, wolf or otherwise—it would be a miracle.
Good thing he liked to play the long odds.
* * *
“You’re looking for me to kick your ass into tomorrow, aren’t you? Because…keep up the bad excuses and I’ll totally help you with that.”
Caroline glared as the wolf directly in front of her shuffled his feet and eased back a few inches. “We figured our work lists got mixed up.”
“Mixed up?” She took a deep breath and counted to ten before slowly letting go. With every room in town booked solid over the next while, even pack members who weren’t usually Moonshine Inn staff had been wrangled in to help. Wasn’t their fault the two teenaged boys currently cringing at her displeasure weren’t familiar with the tasks, but she thought the chore lists she’d prepared were pretty self-explanatory.
Only instead of cleaning the room as assigned, she’d caught Tweedledee and Tweedledum using the suite’s gaming system to blow up the galaxy of Xerkon.
Getting mad wouldn’t fix the problem, though. She lowered her voice and forced her body into a less threatening position. “I’ll go do the final run-through on the rooms. You two go to the restaurant and work there. Got it?”
They’d still be helping, but she’d be less likely to kill them if she couldn’t see them.
Total relief brightened the young wolves’ faces. “That would be so much better. I mean, I’ll pour beer or lift barrels of ale or—”
“Me too. I can rearrange tables and do manly things.”
Manly things? Good grief, these boys were in for a lesson when she had more than two seconds to work them over. She caught each of them by one ear and towed them into the hallway. “Move. Both of you. We’ve got guests arriving any minute.”
They took off at a sprint toward the pub, getting while the getting was good.
Caroline changed direction. Normally she’d delegate. She was the queen of delegation, but with the clock ticking there was no time to waste. She grabbed a cleaning cart and passkeyed her way into the executive suite.
Chatting about how housekeeping was something everyone should learn was obviously an agenda item for the next pack meeting. Not now when she wasn’t sure the rooms that were supposed to be ready were even clean.
She dragged out her cell phone as she took a preliminary glance at the damages. Hopefully Evan wasn’t busy or goofing off. Or busy goofing off.
“Hey, sweet thang.”
Man, if she weren’t so stressed the endearment would have given her a thrill, right before she planned how to get revenge. “If you are anywhere but in your office, I will make you bleed for using that nickname.”
“I’m alone, finishing paperwork. You sound stressed. What’s up?”
“My blood pressure. I need you to give me a hand—and if you start clapping, I’ll tie you to a stake and find ants to crawl all over you.”
His even chuckle helped calm her. “What can I do?”
The suite wasn’t as bad as she’d expected. She raced around tidying, the phone tucked against her shoulder as she worked. “I sent a couple of doughboys your direction. Put them to work scrubbing dirty dishes, or something gross and unglamorous.”
He laughed. “They pissed you off, did they? Fine, I’m on my feet. Walking to greet them at the doors to the kitchen, and they will rue the day they messed with you.”
“Thank you. Second favour… The head of the Harrison clan is due to arrive within the hour. Because I’m doing the job those brats didn’t, you might have to greet our guests when they arrive.”
Dead silence on the other end of the phone.
“Pleeeeease, Evan. I’ll be there as soon as I can, but if I’m late, you have to do it.”
“You want me to greet the Harrison delegation in my front lobby? You have any idea what kind of trouble this could cause? Two Alphas in the same space?”
“I’m sure you’re much bigger than he is, Evan,” she wheedled sweetly. “In character, if not in size. It’s not as if he’s coming here to take over your territory. Just welcome him in then take him to the suite. Talk about…the weather. Tell him the hours at the restaurant. There’s already about fifty of his clan in the hotel, so boast about how much your pack loves you. He’ll tell you about his fawning followers, only you know yours are better.”
“You’re managing me, aren’t you?” Evan growled.
“Well…” She totally was.
“You’re sexy when you’re managing me.”
She laughed. “I’ll be real sexy in about thirty seconds when I stick the toilet brush in the bowl and get scrubbing. Can you handle it?”
And with that, all her plans went to hell. Something had gone wrong. The final word he’d spoken was in his irrelevant voice. The one he used when something random and potentially dodgy was about to happen. It wasn’t often the Alpha of the Takhini pack lost focus, but when he did, situations went to hell fast.
He didn’t answer.
Drat. So much for her last-minute bailout idea. Somehow she’d have to be the one greeting the delegation. She’d stuff Evan into his office with a glass or two of liquor to keep him out of mischief. Hmm, maybe pop the pack Beta in there as well, because when the two of them got together uncontained, bad things happened.
Wait. Oh, wait. Pack Beta—yes—there was her solution.
Caroline put down the cleanser and darted a glance at her watch. “Oh, silly me. I totally forgot. You never mind about the bears. I remembered Gem offered to help. You take care of the boys I sent, though, right?”
“Sure—dirty tasks.” He was completely distracted. What the hell was going on? “I’m in the kitchen now. I’ll make them work.”
As weird as Evan was acting, he didn’t seem dangerous, so Caroline hung up and punched in another number, the pack’s female Beta answering on the second ring.
“Hello, Caroline. How are you?” Gem’s impeccably polite southern drawl poured from the phone like soothing music.
Only there wasn’t time to relax. “Emergency. You know where your mate is?”
Gem caught the urgency. “Yes. What do you need?”
“Send Shaun to help Evan deal with whatever is going on in the kitchen. Tell him it’s important to keep Evan away from the front lobby. Then I need you to do your political-princess thing and charm the furry socks off the Harrison delegation when they arrive. I’m stuck doing the final spit and polish on their suite.”
“Oh, you poor thing. Of course. I’ve got everything covered for you.” Gem laughed softly. “I’d offer to clean, but I’m probably better off acting as hostess. I have years of training.”
“Hey, you’ve learned tons since you arrived in the spring, but the pack needs your diplomacy more than they need you to have housekeeping skills.”
One disaster neatly avoided. Caroline should have felt more pride, but she was too busy multitasking. “Thanks, girlfriend, I owe you one.”
“You don’t owe me anything. We’re pack, we work together. Don’t worry, I’ll get the boys under control, and I’ll give you a warning call once the group arrives.”
Gem hung up and Caroline tucked away her phone.
She moved quickly through the tasks that still needed completing, cursing egotistical young men who thought they were above “women’s work”.
The entire time she kept the cleaning cart close at hand, ready to vanish the instant Gem hit the warning signal. While Caroline was absolutely fascinated with the Bear Jamboree gathering, she didn’t want the first time she met them to be while coated in eau de Pine-Sol.
Shifter politics had always been on her radar. As a human in a mixed shifter family, understanding why one wolf had more clout than another had been an important lesson. Surviving in the pack meant she’d learned young that power seemed inborn for some shifters.
As a human, she didn’t have access to any built-in authority, but over the years she’d found something else that worked just as well. Humans called it chutzpah. Well, chutzpah in combination with the willingness to bleed or make someone else bleed.
Wolves liked their power games with a slice of pain.
She’d faked it until she’d made it. She’d even wrangled her way into a close relationship with Evan in a plot to help her less-dominant half sister. The good side of that ploy was she and Evan honestly liked each other, and the sex was on fire. The bad part?
There really wasn’t one.
Their relationship was temporary. At some point Evan was bound to find his mate. In a way, she hoped it would happen soon, because he deserved to have the in-love-and-out-of-my-mind mate thing that had hit so many of her friends over the years. Shifter insta-mate wasn’t ever happening for Caroline, obviously, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew how much finding their soul connection meant to them, and as a good friend how could she not want that for Evan?
She finished the final wipe-down in the bathroom and manoeuvred the cart back into the living space of the suite.
Maybe she was twisted, but seeing people get in a flap over her and Evan amused her far too much. What was wrong with having a good, hot sexual relationship that wasn’t going anywhere permanent, but in the meantime delivered orgasms by the bucket load?
She didn’t want to settle down. Not yet. While she’d achieved one goal—having her sister return to the north and find a place—there was so much more to do. Caroline flicked her duster over the floor-to-ceiling window treatment, lost in thought.
Travel, excitement, they called to her. Maybe once the bears had checked out, she’d think about booking an extended holiday somewhere warm. Three or four months exploring tropical islands, or getting lost in the markets of Europe, sounded intriguing.
She pulled the final pillows into position on one of the oversized couches gracing the suite. Satisfaction at having dealt with the most recent hotel emergency swept over her. The place was clean and the bears would be greeted by Gem, who knew way more about sweet-talking cranky diplomats into good moods than Caroline did.
On the way to the door to put away the cart, she glanced outside and noticed the hot tub lid was out of place.
She tucked the cart aside and dashed outside, attempting to tug the heavy cover back into place. Leaves floated on the surface and she muttered in frustration. Scooping out the debris was simple, until the wind picked up, swirling around the third-story balcony. The rubbish skittered away over the water’s surface, disappearing under the quarter section still covered by the bulky lid.
Times like this she regretted she wasn’t a shifter. Stupid, awkward, heavy contraption. She crawled onto the edge of the tub and put her feet against the cover, using her stronger leg muscles to thrust it out of the way.
The wind hit the French doors and they slammed against the doorjamb, the sound harsh and abrupt in the quiet around her. Caroline jerked in surprise.
She inelegantly slipped off the smooth tub lip and under the warm water, the back of her head rapping the edge hard enough for her to briefly see stars.
Tyler stepped through the hotel doors and paused, partly out of habit to allow Justin to get into position, partly because the place was far beyond what he’d expected from a northern inn. Exquisite decorations filled the expansive front lobby, one entire wall a virtual wilderness with plants, rocks and a floor-to-ceiling waterfall dancing down the barrier.
Justin moved closer, but Tyler waved him down. The beautiful woman approaching him with an outstretched hand wasn’t a threat. “Gem Jacobs. How lovely to see you again, and in one piece.”
She smiled, turning to welcome Justin as well. “I’m glad your delegation chose the Moonshine Inn as a base. Did you have a good trip?”
Tyler nodded. “Uneventful. Not nearly as much excitement as you got up to earlier in the summer. My personal apologies for the terrible way you were treated by some of my fellow bears. Have you recovered from the mishap?”
“Completely. Please, don’t mention it any further. We all understand politics don’t always go the way we’d like.” She was the perfect hostess as she guided them through the grand foyer, pointing out carvings by local artisans, and Tyler hid his smile. He’d heard the southern belle was now Takhini pack, but seeing her in the setting was amusing. The last time he’d met her she’d been acting as hostess for her father in the far south of Georgia.
She turned from showcasing the lobby. “Do you gentlemen want to see your rooms or explore the town? We can arrange anything you’ll need for the duration of your time with us.”
“Thank you. If you could show us to our suite, that would be all,” Tyler answered.
Justin interrupted. “If you’d let me know where we can park our limo, I’ll inform the driver.”
She handed him two envelopes. “The blue is room key and information for your driver, the other is yours for the suite.”
Justin gave her a nod then turned to face Tyler. “You want to wait until I get back so I can escort you?”
The man was far too addicted to the guarding part of his job. “I think with Gem to protect me, I can make it to the suite without getting lost or shot.”
“Half of your delegation has already checked in. They seemed pleased with our arrangements.” Gem folded her arms prettily. “Let me assure you the Moonshine Inn is well protected. Between the security cameras and the pack presence, there’s no one on the premises we’re not aware of. Evan Stone takes safety seriously.”
In spite of her promise, Justin waited until Tyler motioned him away. “Go on. Deal with the driver. Oh, and grab the information the organizers said they’d have waiting at conference headquarters. I promise to be a good boy and stay in the suite until you get back.”
His guard nodded, leaving reluctantly.
Tyler offered his arm to Gem. “He’s far too interested in making sure I’m coddled.”
“It’s his job. You can’t blame him. This way, please.” Gem led him to the elevators and punched the button for the third floor. “Your initial security teams have already taken a look around the hotel and settled into their rooms.”
She nodded. “Also, I’m supposed to pass on the message the Takhini pack is available for you. Anything you need.”
He’d give it more time, a few days at least, before seeking out the pack Alpha and getting a feel for where the man stood regarding the bear situation. Conclave wasn’t something Tyler wanted wolves poking their noses into, but with everything else his opponents had tried over the past weeks, he’d be stupid not to think they might also mess with the Whitehorse talks.
Someone might attempt to use the potentially volatile situation of two wolf packs in one place to set off some troubles in their favour. Having the ear of the ruling pack could help Tyler.
“Thank you for that. I’ll keep it in mind.”
She guided them to a single door at the end of the hallway, opening it before passing over the key. “I hope you have a comfortable stay with us, and successful meetings.”
“Pass on my greeting to your Alpha.”
She left him, and that sense of “wolf” faded as he watched her go. He slipped through the door, relaxing as he examined the space.
Other than a cleaning cart blocking one wall, the room was standard to what he was used to. He loosened his tie as he strolled in farther, peeking through the doors he passed to find a large bedroom with a decadent attached bath. There was a second matching door on the opposite side—he’d assume a matching bedroom waited there for Justin. Tyler stripped off his suit jacket and tossed it on the bed before wandering back into the main room.
The partially open French doors caught his eye. He dropped his tie, grabbed up an apple from the massive fruit bowl decorating the kitchen counter and ate it as he wandered to the balcony railing. An incredible view greeted him, with the mountains rising behind the city streets. The lack of skyscrapers added to the beauty, and he breathed deep to fill his lungs with fresh air.
A faint scent of human made him turn, but there was no one there. Only the door he’d left open behind him, and at the far side of the deck an open lounging area with a hot tub, the lid strangely askew.
A hand draped over the far edge, just visible from his new position.
Tyler raced forward, reached into the water and scooped up the limp body of a blonde woman. Her head had been resting on a drink holder, the only thing that had kept her from becoming completely submerged.
“Wake up, little mermaid.” Tyler cradled her against him. He nudged the door open and brought her inside, dripping wet, examining her face for a reaction. She was breathing, but shallowly. He lowered her onto the couch then pulled a handy throw blanket over her shivering torso. “Can you hear me?”
Her lips moved, eyelashes fluttering. Nothing but slight muttering to his question.
Damn it. He had to call someone, and now. He leaned over her to snatch the phone from the side table. Her arms flailed. In his unprotected position, one hand connected sharply with his nose, and he grunted in pain.
Ignoring the phone for a second, he tucked her in again, holding down her arms to stop her from hurting herself or taking more pot shots at his face. “You don’t need to hit me, I’m trying to help you.”
The word whispered past her lips, and Tyler paused. Leaned in closer and sniffed.
The scent of wolves clung to his waterlogged woman, but she wasn’t wolf. Human through and through, yet the fact she’d just called him a bear?
Something was happening he wanted to get to the bottom of.
“Can you hear me?”
Her lips moved steadily, drawing his attention to them. For the first time he paused long enough to look the rest of her over. Her blonde hair stuck up in spots, the pale colouring all the way to the roots. Her skin was pale as well—whether from soaking in his tub or her natural colour, he wasn’t sure. The deep red of her lips contrasted sharply against her skin, a delicate pout forming on their soft surface as she attempted to speak.
Speaking of bears, his was at full alert. The beast bumped to the surface, keen on him shifting for some reason. While he was the bear and the bear was him, there was one part of his brain that remained independent. His human side reasoning, rational. His animal side more…well, animal. Earthier and more connected to the wilder roots of shifterdom.
He understood why his bear was interested. Pretty face and pretty body, the swells of her breasts rose and fell as her breathing evened out and grew stronger. That was the reason he was staring at her chest, to make sure she was recovering from her ordeal. Not because he could see straight through the wet shirt and the bra underneath it. Not because the lush redness of her lips seemed to be reflected in the tips of those breasts…
Tyler shook his head to make his brains settle back in place.
His mystery woman sucked in a deep breath, her eyes opening all the way. “Frack.”
He soothed her, attempting to keep her horizontal on the couch without actually forcing her back. “You should stay still.”
Her gaze darted over his face, and this adorable little crease appeared between her brows. “Who are you?”
Caution made him word his answer carefully. If this was someone planted by another bear clan, he wanted to know, so he used the oldest ploy in the book. His friend would understand. “I’m Justin. What’s your name?”
“Caroline.” Her eyes widened. “Why am I soaking wet?”
“I found you in my hot tub. I hoped you could tell me—”
She would have surged upward, and this time he made contact, hands to her shoulders, to keep her from jerking to vertical. “Don’t. You nearly drowned. Until you remember what happened, you shouldn’t move.”
The fabric separating his palms and her skin warmed, and the scent of her skin grew stronger. She relaxed onto the overstuffed fabric as she tentatively touched the back of her head.
“I remember. I was finishing cleaning the suite and slipped on the tub.” She moved her fingers slowly but still cringed in pain. “There’s a goose egg to prove it.”
Tyler settled on his heels beside her. Cleaning staff. Okay, that was a possible solution to the question without turning this into some kind of political intrigue.
“Do you mind if I check?”
“Be my guest.” She frowned. “You’re Justin? You’re the security man for Tyler Harrison.”
Cleaning staff who knew details of the room’s occupants? Tyler returned to being suspicious all over again.
He lifted her carefully until he could examine the back of her head. “I’m checking things out in the room. Everything seemed to be in order other than you doing unsupervised synchro.”
“Can you get me out of here before he arrives?”
“You sure you’re okay to move?” Tyler helped her upright, sitting next to her on the couch. He held one arm around her to stop her from shifting from side to side.
Caroline groaned lightly. “I’ll be all right. I’m not nauseous or anything, which is good. I would hate to throw up and ruin the great cleaning job I did.”
Tyler laughed. The conversation was far more blunt than he usually got to hear from people. “Well, yes. Let’s avoid vomiting, shall we?”
It was rather comfortable sitting with her. Far more comfortable than he should be after rescuing a strange woman in a strange place. He wanted to be wary, wanted to remain alert to the potential troubles in the situation, but with her wet body cuddled beside him, his damn bear seemed to have taken control of his mind.
Her shirt had separated from the waistband of her pants, and a sliver of bare skin rested under his fingers. The sheer willpower it took to keep from stroking that soft section of skin shook him.
His human side pushed forward in defense with logic. “I should call a doctor to check you out.”
She frowned. “I’ll go to the clinic. Let’s not have ambulances at the hotel today. It wouldn’t be a great way to start things off. Might set a damper on the meetings.”
Curiousier and curiousier. “You’ve obviously worked at the Moonshine Inn for a while.”
Give her a chance to admit she knew about shifters, and the game would change all over again. A tiny bud of a notion had burst forth in the last minute, probably planted by his bear, but damn if it wasn’t a working idea.
She nodded slowly, wincing. “I’ve been on staff for nearly five years. Since before the Takhini pack bought out the previous owners.”
And there was his answer. “You know about shifters, then.”
His bear was far too charmed by her instant and honest response.
Caroline motioned upward. “Help me to my feet, and we’ll see how I do. Yes, I know about shifters. Half-blood family, actually. My stepdad’s wolf, so I’ve lived with pack most of my life.”
A human who grew up with shifters. This might be the solution to one of his problems during the upcoming conference days.
Not to mention a lovely distraction, as long as she hadn’t injured herself with that crazy fall.
He had her standing, his arms still around her in case she wobbled. Caroline clutched his shoulder momentarily as her knees gave way. He caught her around the waist and pulled her against him for support. She was tall enough to make him not feel quite as enormous as he usually felt around the ladies. Other than that, he was desperately beating back the bear, who had just suggested they should peel her out of her wet clothes to make sure she wasn’t hurt anywhere else.
“I think we should get that doctor in here.”
“No.” Caroline spoke firmly. “Damn, you shifters are all the same, bossy as all get out. I’m fine, and I really have to leave before your boss gets here.”
His boss. Oh right, his little name game. They could drop that ploy. “Actually, I’m—”
The door opened, and Justin walked in. His best friend froze in midstep as he took in the entire scenario. From the open door, the trail of water across the carpet, the wet and disheveled woman, and Tyler himself.
Caroline swore and to his great surprise, hid herself against his side, arms curling around his torso.
Justin’s eyes widened even farther.
Tyler had to say something before this got out of hand. Only with the reaction of the human, he didn’t want to embarrass her further.
It wasn’t his finest moment, but between his bear rumbling happily about having her in his arms, and everything else, Tyler made a snap decision.
Before his guard could speak and give him away, he opened his mouth and lied his ass off.
“Mr. Harrison, the room is fine, but one of the cleaning staff had a mishap. If you’ll excuse us for a moment.”
* * *
Caroline bit her tongue to stop from swearing like a fishwife. Way to make a great impression. Five more minutes and she’d have escaped without showing herself to be the total incompetent she felt at the moment.
Thank God for the sympathetic bear shifter she was unashamedly hiding behind. While he was damn impressive himself, a man who worked for a powerful man would understand some of what she dealt with on a daily basis, working with an Alpha. She felt a kinship, almost, with him.
Yet, gack, she must have hit her head harder than she thought. This wasn’t her, she never hid. Certainly not when there was no good reason. I.e., soaking wet shouldn’t be enough to make her lose her senses. Who knows, maybe being shifters they would think dipping fully clothed in pools was some weird human quirk.
She untangled her fingers from where they’d somehow become fisted around Justin’s used-to-be-pristine white shirt.
White…shirt. White, like the uniform top she wore.
Caroline tilted her head to examine the full extent of the damages, but it was pretty much what she’d grasped in that one moment of blinding clarity. Her shirt had gone see-through. Great day to wear the sheerest bra she had in her closet.
She looked up to see her big bear studying her, the faint smile teasing his lips vanishing as she caught him.
Good grief. “Don’t guys ever have anything better to do than stare at women’s breasts?” she whispered in annoyance.
He chuckled. “Occupational hazard of being male. They’re nice breasts.”
Shifters. They were all the same. After years of dealing with the far more relaxed wolf-pack sexual attitudes, it was clear bears were no different. Still, she was human, and he should know better, so she secretly dug her fingertips into his side out of Mr. Harrison’s view. “Stop it, and get me out of here without making a spectacle of myself.”
Her benefactor dipped his chin. “Deal.”
He tucked her behind his back, using his broad body as a block between her and the head of the Harrison delegation. Caroline peeked out, but Mr. Harrison seemed to have developed a great fascination in the carpet at his feet, strolling toward the bedroom without so much as a glance her direction.
She was across the room in seconds.
“I’ll be a moment,” the big guard announced. “Wait here.”
“I can wait in the hall—”
“Right here,” he snapped, still sotto voce, but despite the low volume it was clearly an order. “Or do you want to parade around the hotel in what you’re wearing?”
Good point. She nodded. “Fine. Staying.”
He grabbed her cleaning cart, rolling it over to the door. Then to her utter shock he stripped off his own shirt, broad chest revealed in a snap, plus the most incredible set of upper arms. Biceps like massive rocks, shoulders that could have been formed out of granite.
Caroline had seen her share of nudity, what with all the shifting going on from the earliest time she could remember, but this man wasn’t a wolf, and he wasn’t stripping to shift.
Her cheeks flushed. Whoa nelly, the man was built. She might have a bed partner, but she wasn’t blind. The zing of attraction was natural enough, but other than enjoying it right here and now, that’s all she planned on doing.
He thrust his shirt out, and bar being any ruder than she’d already been, she could hardly refuse. Especially when he was giving it to help deal with her frail human sensitivities.
His fingers slipped over hers. Caroline glanced up in time to catch him staring. Not like a guy merely fascinated with her boobs, but a strip her down and ride her expression on his face.
Oh hell, no. Not a complication she wanted to deal with in this lifetime, thank you. She might think he was a looker, but she didn’t cheat. Not on Evan, not on anyone.
Caroline turned her back as she tugged on the huge shirt, the tails falling to mid-thigh and more than adequately covering her important parts.
He opened the door and gestured her into the hall, dragging the cart with them.
She put the bulky thing as a block between them, self-defense kicking in. “Thank you, for everything.”
“Not so fast.” He tilted his head and eyed her. “I want a report that you’ve seen a doctor so I know you’re fine.”
She snapped off a salute. “Yes, sir.”
“Smart-ass little thing.” He laughed. “You’re not what I expected.”
Yeah. “I get that a lot. Please, extend my apologies to Mr. Harrison. I’ll send someone in to dry off the couch and—”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll sit on chairs until it air dries. Not as if we’ll have to sit on the floor or anything.”
“Thank you for being understanding.” She grabbed the cart handle and prepared to leave. “I’ll return your shirt as soon as possible.”
There it was again—she hadn’t imagined it. That red-hot flash as his gaze dropped over her, even though she knew damn well he couldn’t see any thing. “Fine.”
“You should go explain to your boss what happened. I promise you’ll have nothing else to worry about for the duration of your stay.” When he didn’t move, she jiggled the handle, making the cart bump him. She smiled hesitantly, not wanting to encourage anything she’d have to defend against, but trying to walk the line between polite and unavailable. “If I didn’t say it yet, thank you for saving me. I’m glad you came and fished me out of the tub.”
He dipped his head and stepped aside.
She was halfway down the hall when he called, “Caroline…what?”
She waited for him to say something else, but that was it. Silence. He watched her, though. Even as she widened the gap between them, she swore his gaze burned a hole in the back of her oversized cover-up. While she waited for the service elevator to arrive, deliberately fiddling with items in the cart, he was stripping her in his mind. The final glance over her shoulder as she slipped into the elevator proved he was still standing there, naked from the waist up, wearing a smile that spoke of amusement and sexual attraction.
She stabbed the button for the basement level before collapsing against the wall with a huge sigh.
Oh my Lord, what a mess.
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