Bearly Accidental

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Accidentally Paranormal Series, Book #12

Dakota Cassidy

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-944003-11-1

Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.

All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

I swear to God, ass-sniffer, if you don’t slow the eff down, I’m gonna—”

A woman named Marty—or “ass-sniffer,” as he’d heard—cut the pretty brunette off and, with hands on slender hips, bellowed into the cold late-afternoon air, “You’re gonna what, Not-Mistress-Of-The-Dark-Anymore? Rip my intestines out via my throat and wrap them around the nearest tree? Tie them into a big girlie bow? Or wait—maybe you’re gonna chew my face off? That’s always high on your list of threats. But guess what, Dark One? You can’t do that anymore, can you, Nina Statleon? Know why?”

Cormac Vitali winced. This Marty was taunting Nina. Outright daring her to take a shot at her. It was in her tone and in her stance. She’d been doing it since he’d discovered them here in the woods of Colorado while out on a run, and she hadn’t let up since.

What made him wince was how the brunette would react. He didn’t understand what the issue was between the two women, but the dark-haired woman was as testy as a sleeping bear poked with a stick.

Hah! Poking a bear. Funny, Cormac. You’re a laugh riot these days.

Nina made a fist of her gloved hand in response, her teeth clenched tight in her streamlined jaw. She was as stunningly beautiful as she was disgruntled, with her scrunched-up face peeking out from the furred hood of her coat, her almond-shaped, coal-black eyes narrowed.

She jammed her hands inside the pockets of her thick black jacket, but her lips instantly stopped moving, save for puffing out condensation in harsh gasps as she fought her way up the snowy hill.

So the question was, why couldn’t Nina chew Marty’s face off anymore?

Obviously, this woman Marty knew why Nina couldn’t chew her face off. Her question had certainly been asked rhetorically. Which made him curious, too. Who—on a regular basis, if Marty’s words weren’t an exaggeration—threatened to chew someone’s face off? And why was this beautiful woman so damn violent?

Marty stopped in the middle of her seemingly effortless uphill climb through at least a foot of snow and winked over her shoulder with a saucy blue eye.

“What? No answer, Mouthy McMouth? S’okay. I got your answer riiight here, Snookie. You can’t chew my face off or tie my intestines in a bow because you’re—not—a—vampire anymore, Statleon! You have neither the strength nor agility to carry out said threat. So take a breather from the I’m-so-scary crap you’re always flinging at everyone like a monkey with poop. In fact, just take a breather. You look positively winded.”

Oh shit. This Nina wasn’t just winded. She was winded and seething. And not a vampire anymore… Curious indeed.

Out of nowhere, the third woman of the trio appeared, moving into his line of vision from where he hid behind a thick pine tree.

She stomped across the length dividing the two women, kicking up packed snow like the ice was nothing more than a gaggle of dust bunnies, and held up a gloved hand with the speed and grace of a panther.

“For the love of all that’s holy. Shut. Up. The both of you just shut your flappy lips! I’m sick to death of the bickering.” The woman affected a hunched-at-the-shoulders posture with an angry expression, and growled, exactly like the brunette named Nina, “Aw, eff you, Miss Clairol 222. You don’t know shit—zip your fucking piehole or I’ll wax your damn eyebrows off!” Then she used a finger to twirl the length of her ponytail and bat her eyelashes as she said, in a breathy tone an octave higher, “I’d like to see you try, Faux Elvira! How will you ever catch me if you can’t even get past the refrigerator without a pit stop for another batch of Buffalo wings?”

Both the blonde Marty and the brunette Nina openly gaped at this woman—tall, elegant, and one helluva referee—as though she were the one who’d gone mad.

Now she waggled her finger, swishing it at the women. “Don’t you two look at me all wide-eyed and aghast while you clutch your proverbial pearls like you haven’t the faintest idea what I’m talking about. Don’t even. Since Nina’s vampiric demise in Shamalot, if she’s not stuffing her gullet with food, she’s arguing with you, Marty. Who, I might add, just can’t seem to let it go. Okay, so Nina has no powers anymore and she doesn’t want them back. She’s reveling in her returned humanity. So the hell what? If she had no legs, would you razz her like this?”

Marty pursed her lips in thought, her soft cheeks sporting two bright red spots. “Could we try the scenario where she has no mouth as our example for today, Principal Wanda?”

“Shut it! Shut it now, or I swear on your fruity color wheels I’ll GD well kill you, Blondie!” Nina bellowed, her husky voice reverberating around the forest as she attempted a run at Marty, only to get caught up in her bulky boots.

“Again I ask, how?” Marty yelped back with devilish glee. “A chicken wing to my head, perhaps? A six-pack of brewskies to the throat? A slip and fall in a melted puddle of the gallons of ice cream you’ve consumed since Shamalot?”

Wanda the Elegant lost it then. Something Cormac rather had the notion she didn’t do often. In fact, the entire time he’d been tracking them, she’d not been the least ruffled as they’d charged through the snow, battled a squall of even more of the white stuff (bickering the entire way), and eventually landed mere moments from the cabin he’d so carefully pieced back together away from prying eyes.

But right now, Wanda’s eyes grew all hot and furious, while her spine went rigid. “Eeeenough!

Aw hell. She’d yelled so loudly, snow from the branches of the tree he was beneath shed in icy clumps, thumping to the ground and just missing his head.

Obviously, Wanda had been dealing with the sort of grief these two doled out on a fairly regular basis, and her eyeballs were floating from trying to keep her head above water.

“I won’t have this anymore—understand?” she said with a hiss. “We’re here for Toni, got it? All the rest of the crazy from Shamalot, like Nina losing her powers and making cheesecake the new breakfast, will have to wait. Got it? We have a lead, ladies, a solid lead after a month-long search for Cormac. Are we going to do what we came to do for Toni or are we going to continue this pointless argument about Nina’s choice not to return to her vampiric ways? Because honestly, I’m up to my eyeballs. It’s not up to you to help Nina find a way to become undead again, Marty. Nina didn’t have a choice when she became a vampire. It was an accident. She can certainly choose not to be one now. It doesn’t mean she’s less our friend if she remains human. We just have to adjust to her human needs.”

Wait. What the what? Toni was alive? They knew his sister Antonia? They knew him? And where the hell was Shamalot?

Cormac wasn’t sure whether he should bust out from behind the tree and demand they explain why they were looking for him and how they knew Toni, or if he should continue to eavesdrop before making a final judgment call.

Marty bristled, adjusting her blue knit hat. “You mean like adjust to the fact that she’s slower than molasses uphill in the winter time—literally—or that she’s always whiny and cold now? Or that she’s no longer the muscle of this trio yet continues to behave like Thug Lite? Fine. Forget it all. She can do whatever she wants to do. I agree. Don’t be undead, for all I care. But quit your bitching about not being able to keep up with us to a minimum while you fill your big mouth with whatever isn’t nailed down, or I just might see if intestines really can be yanked out by way of your ever-increasing gut!”

Ohhh, Marty sure was damn angry Nina had chosen humanity. Almost as though being human was going against her belief system—a betrayal of some kind. But wait. Were Marty and Wanda vampires, too?

How could he tell? He was still learning to parse scents, but he had no clue what a vampire would smell like anyway.

Nina’s deep dark eyes went wide with hot fury, her next question asked in total girlish horror. “Did you just call me fat?

Marty sucked her cheeks in, making her lips purse, as though she were utterly appalled. “I did no such thing. I said a body part was increasing. Which, like I’ve been saying, isn’t a surprise, seeing as you’ve made it your mission to work your way through an entire ice cream case at the grocery store one pint of Ben & Jerry’s at a time.”

Nina pulled one of her hands from her incredibly bulky down jacket and gave Marty the finger before she began an awkward attempt to unwrap a bite-size Snickers with gloves so thick, she fumbled and dropped it smack in the snow.

“Oh, fuck you, Werewolf. If you couldn’t eat real food for eight GD years like the blood diet I’ve been on, once you got your hands on some vittles, your ass’d be the size of a freightliner. Wait. It is the size of a freightliner. So quit paranormal-shaming and piss the hell off!”

Picking up the fallen Snickers, Nina held it up to the sky, kissed it and popped it in her mouth, smiling in defiance at Marty as she chewed.

Okay, so Marty was a werewolf. Arooooooo.

Interesting.

Wanda closed her eyes before lifting her face to the heavens and blowing out a disgusted sigh.

Clearly, she’d asked the universe for patience on more than one occasion.

When her eyes popped open again, she looked as though she’d come to terms with her lot in their friendship. “Look, if the two of you are going to argue, I’ll just do this alone. We’re here to find Cormac, and find Cormac I darn well will. After what the Great and Wonderful Roz told us, we need to find him. All we have to do is locate him, fix the problem, and we go home. Now, I’m going to do that. With or without you two pains in my derriere.”

With that, Wanda stomped up the hill at a speed so rapid; he almost couldn’t believe he was actually witnessing a feat so incredible.

But then he reminded himself, you turn into a grizzly bear at random, moron. At least, that’s the breed of bear he thought he was, but it was all still very unclear. Even after three years and fifty or so romance novels on the subject of bear shifting—his only resource for research.

And hello. What was there to find at all unusual about a woman who moves at the speed of light or, for that matter, a werewolf and a former vampire who knew someone named the Great and Wonderful Roz?

Nothing. That’s what. Who was he to discriminate when all he needed was a mama bear and baby bear to complete this nightmare of a fairytale gone painfully awry?

So whoever these women were, they were like him—whatever that meant. They clearly understood what had happened to him. And they knew his sister.

And she is alive.

Christ, Cormac had to hold on to the tree he was propped up against to keep from crashing to the floor of the forest in relief.

All this time, three solid years, hiding out in this prison that was frozen more often than not, trying to find out what happened to Toni without being discovered himself had been a continual nightmare.

So why not go and introduce yourself to the nice, if not squabbly ladies, Cormac? Find out what they’re up to?

Because how did they know Toni? Maybe they worked for Stas, the fuck who’d kidnapped his sister to begin with and owned every cop this side of the universe. Maybe these women were just his polite henchmen. Okay, so the Nina woman wasn’t so nice, but maybe these paranormal people stuck together, and finding Cormac meant they got some kind of bounty.

He did have very sensitive information—even if the police wouldn’t take him seriously.

You’re paranoid—she is alive and well, Vitali. Look at them—look at all three of them. All drama doused with perfume, pricey boots, and potty mouths. Do they really look capable of working for a freak like Stas?

No. But one could never be too paranoid when it came to what had happened to him and Toni three years ago. Nope. He was going to silently wait this one out.

The last time he’d rushed, he was turned into a goddamn grizzly bear.

So wait he damn well would.

Quietly. From behind them, as they all began to move upward and far too close to his cabin for comfort.

Flexing his fingers, he felt the phantom ache of his missing digit, hacked off by none other than Stas himself, a total maniac who just happened to be his sister Toni’s ex-boyfriend and a mid-level player in a much bigger Russian mob organization.

A noise behind him, subtle, maybe even only in his mind, made him forget about the ache in his finger and stand up straight.

Cormac tilted his head again and sniffed the air. If there was anything valuable in this crazy-ass transformation he’d gone through, it was his heightened sense of smell.

It was badass. He could scent a fish from a mile down the creek, a bush full of ripe berries football fields away. In fact, in the beginning of whatever had happened to him, he could scent everything. For a time, it had been unnerving, but over the course of the last three years, he’d grown accustomed to it, nurtured it, and read fiction to try to understand it.

And what he smelled was perfume. Light, fruity. Maybe peaches and tangerines? None of the three women were wearing anything fruity. In fact, Nina wasn’t wearing anything at all but the scent of Buffalo wings and Coors Light with a hint of Kit Kat bar.

Cormac whipped around as the women continued upward, closer and closer to the only place he felt even remotely safe.

His eyes scanned the dollops of snow like whipped cream on the trees, the landscape hilly and covered in rocks, looking for this new scent, but seeing nothing.

Must be his damned imagination.

“Wait the fuck up, for Christ’s sake!” Nina yelled to her counterparts, struggling to push her way through the deep snow. “Jesus, this isn’t the flippin’ Olympics, Color Wheel Queen!”

“I told you that backpack would weigh you down, didn’t I? You only have a side of beef in it. Now pick up the pace, Ex-Vampire!” Marty shouted back, her devilish giggle swirling around the forest like tinkling fairies.

“I was packing just in case, all right? You don’t know how the fuck long we’re gonna be out here in the Hundred Acre Wood. I wanted to be prepared,” she gasped.

“Hah! You could feed a small country with what’s in that backpack and it has nothing to do with anyone but you and your bottomless pit of a stomach!” Marty chirped.”

“One more crack about my fat keister and I’ll haul your ass up that mountain and drop you from the tippy-top!”

As Cormac listened to them argue, following behind them, hopping from tree to tree, snowdrift to snowdrift, he caught the scent again, distracting him from formulating a plan about what to do with these women.

Sweet and soft, it grazed his nostrils before it slipped away.

He’d purposely covered his scent the moment he’d spotted the three of them from across the river. It seemed ridiculously cautionary at the time, but he’d learned the hard way never to expose himself. Now that he knew at least one of them was a werewolf, he was glad he’d taken the time to roll in some mud and leftover fish guts.

Just as the women peaked the top of the hill and Wanda yelled out, “Oh my God, I think I found it!” he smelled that perfume again.

That was probably five seconds before something sharp and pointy jabbed him in the side of his neck and he howled his outrage, before falling to the frozen ground and passing out cold.

Chapter 2

As the great Sheldon would say, bazinga!

Theodora “Teddy” Gribanov smiled in satisfaction as she eyed her prey from more than a hundred yards away.

Hah. Her older twin brothers, Vadim and Viktor, could essentially suck it. She still had it and she had it hard. Grabbing her phone from her backpack, she zoomed in and snapped a picture of Cormac Vitali’s still body, lying in the snow as though he were merely napping, and sent it off to her brother with the subject, “Neener-Neener-Neener!”

Jamming the phone back into her pack, she hauled it over her shoulder and pushed her way up the small incline to stand over this enormous man she’d just taken down with a dart gun.

He was worth a lot of money.

A lot. Money she’d gladly collect and stuff away in her bank account until the time came to figure out how to save the part of her life that was her heart and soul.

For right now, all she wanted to do was teach her mouthy brothers a lesson about patience and perseverance, and the fact that, despite their ribbing her about being a candy-ass, she wasn’t such a rainbow Skittle after all.

For a moment, she wondered who those women Cormac had been following were and if they were here for the same reason she was.

That would piss her off. A deal was a deal, comrade. Vitali was hers—which meant she needed to move quickly in case they’d heard his yelp through all that squealing they were doing up over the rise of the hill.

Kneeling, she was relieved to hear the voices of the three bickering women were still distant, but she couldn’t quite catch what they were saying.

Not that it mattered. She was going to haul Cormac Vitali out of this forest, lob him into her battered truck and bring him in—then do a drive-by at the bank, where she’d withdraw her hefty paycheck.

Jamming her hands under his torso, she ignored how muscly he was, how thick his thighs were, and the fact that he had silky chestnut-brown hair sprouting from beneath his knit cap.

She also managed to ignore his stench. Why he’d covered himself in mud, fish guts, and whatever that salty hint of schmeg was, she had no clue.

Don’t worry about who he is or what his predicament is, Teddy. It’s what makes you too soft for this shit. Toughen up and imagine dollar signs on his forehead instead of trying to peer into his soul to see if his heart beats true. Bad guys are bad guys.

Viktor’s taunting but stern words just before she’d left Denver came back to haunt her.

Okay, so she liked to look further than the paycheck. But looking at Cormac, his eyelashes fluttering against his ruddy cheeks, lean and chiseled, wasn’t hard to do.

If one of her brothers had just tranq’d a hot babe, she’d entirely expect them to wonder what had brought their prey the misfortune of meeting the stealthy tip of a dart gun.

But they were slobbering Neanderthals, and they cared about one thing and one thing alone. Cash.

Well, to be fair, they cared about her, too. Which was why they’d taken her out of the game for so long.

But she was better now.

You’re nothing, Teddy. Nothing.

Fuck you, she silently spat.

Teddy bit the inside of her cheek to fight the nausea. She damn well was better, and it was time to stop being the biggest sissy this side of the Mountain time zone and get ’er done. She needed this money.

Her hands only shook a little as she pulled Cormac’s limp form to her chest, and she was proud to say she flung his body over her shoulder fireman style, her knees only buckling a little before she wobbled and righted herself, her teeth tightly clamped.

Rolling her head from side to side to ease the tension in her neck, she grunted as she began to make her way down the hill.

Jesus, he was heavy, and the fact that he was out cold made him heavier. Condensation puffed from her lips as she dragged her still-out-of-shape body down the hill and toward the river. She’d better pump up her jam if she hoped to get him to the truck and tie him down before the effects of the dart gun wore off.

But then two things happened at once.

Those three loud, constantly arguing women must have caught sight of her because there was a whole lot of caterwauling coming at her from behind.

Simultaneously, Cormac stirred, struggling against the hold she had on him at the back of his knees.

“What the fu…?” he yelped. His upper body, thick against her smaller shoulder, began to rear up.

She’d had a bad feeling the tranq gun didn’t have enough sedative in it to contain someone his size, but she’d doubted her assessment at the last minute and decided to only nail him with one dart.

Just another poor judgment call on her part, she thought with a grunt as Cormac wrapped his arms around her thighs and, with his abs of steel, managed to take her down by tipping her backward, using the weight of his body and the press of his bent knees. They fell against the packed snow, making her cry out on impact and sending her backpack flying.

He rolled from her and, before Teddy even realized where he was, Cormac pounced, pushing her back into the snow, knocking the wind right out of her.

“For the love of fuck, what’s going on, Marty?” one of the women bellowed as she ran down the hill, just as the other two appeared above Teddy.

Two lovely, put-together women with eyes of ragey-ish suspicion and their hands on their slender hips.

“Oh! Aren’t you pretty? Doesn’t she have lovely eyes poking out from that ugly-ugly mud-brown hat, Wanda?” the blonde with sparkling sapphire-blue eyes asked.

“Not the time for a color wheel assessment, Marty!” said the woman with an air of sophistication and the smoothest hair she’d ever seen in all of Colorado.

Teddy attempted to shake the snow from her face and wrestle her way out from beneath this enormous beast of a man. She was no weakling, but damn he was strong.

Gripping her wrists with a single calloused hand, Cormac yanked them over her head, pulled the dart from his neck and hurled it to the ground, then growled down at her, full of fire and brimstone, “Who the hell are you?”

The woman who’s going to slap your ass in the pokey and collect a lot of cash? Probably not the way introductions should go if she was to keep her identity a secret.

Teddy attempted to struggle in his GI Joe grip of kung-fu steel one more time—and that was when she caught sight of his eyes.

They were green. Okay, so yeah, they were angry, too, but she saw beyond that.

Oh, sweet-sweet mother of pearl, his eyes were so green. Beautiful orbs in his head that shone like colored glass. Sharply defined jaw and cheekbones, ruddy skin and a beard of thick, coarse-looking hair on his face, all giving him that hot, casually laid-back look.

Teddy’s heart sped up again as he settled on her torso completely—and a tingle of heat in her belly swished upward to her cheeks as she got an even closer look.

Thick lashes gave the appearance of guy-liner, but in her gut, she knew a man like Cormac would never wear makeup. He was too gruff—too involved in other things to care about his appearance enough to be concerned about how to enhance that thick fringe of lashes and make his eyes stand out.

Teddy’s breath left her chest in a whoosh of air as he straddled her with thick thighs and his eyes bore a hole in her face.

But his anger didn’t matter. None of that mattered. What mattered was what she had just discovered.

Jesus Christ, how could this be?

Who are you?” He ground out the demand.

“I—”

“Cormac!” the pretty blonde—Marty—shouted, yanking at his shoulder. “You’re hurting her! Get off!”

Who was this woman and why did she care if he was hurting her? Did they know each other? As she’d tracked Cormac tracking them, that wasn’t the impression she’d had at all.

His head swiveled upward, his eyes blazing hot. “For that matter, who the hell are you two?”

“Three!” the gorgeous brunette, Nina—wrapped up like she was planning a move to Antarctica—wheezed out as she stumbled down the hill, stopping short next to Marty and placing her hands on her knees in order to catch her breath. “Holy shitballs, it’s Lumberjack Bob.”

“Who are you people and what the hell do you want with me?” Cormac looked back down at Teddy, his eyes glowing with suspicion and rage. “Are you with them, too?”

Teddy only managed to shake her head, still in utter disbelief. This was wrong. Everything was all wrong!

Wanda, the one who’d managed to keep the other two from ripping each other’s throats out, gripped Cormac’s shoulder, huffed out a breath, and gave him a good hard shove, sending him tumbling off Teddy and into the snow with his grunt lingering in the air.

“Marty said get off! Now, do not move a muscle until we’re able to explain ourselves,” she ordered from tight lips with a wave of her finger, her chest puffing up and down. “Or so help me, I’ll take you out myself! I’ve had enough of everyone ignoring my wishes. Now hear this! I’ve had it up to my cerebellum with playing peacemaker for four days since we began this journey. You, Cormac Vitali, have the unfortunate circumstance of being my last damn straw. And don’t doubt for a single second I can’t take out a big, burly boy like you either. I’ll knock you clear to Kentucky. So you march your muscled ass on up that hill to your cabin, you do it without complaint, and you do it now, or so help me, as Charles Manson is my witness, I’ll kill you all! Goooo!”

Teddy’s eyes followed the direction of Wanda’s finger. This woman, whoever she was, had clearly had enough.

That was when she jabbed her finger down at Teddy, her eyes narrowed, her nostrils flaring. “That means you, too! I don’t know who you are or what you want, but we’re going to find out. And I’ll take the dart gun, Annie Oakley, thank you very much!” She reached for the backpack and threw it over her shoulder.

Teddy began to protest, but Wanda clamped her fingers together right under her nose. “I said not a word. Not a single word, or you’ll be the first on my list of things to kill while in Colorado. Got it? Get up and wallllk, goddamn it!”

Teddy only briefly looked into Wanda’s pretty blue eyes, acknowledging she had an air of authority that couldn’t be denied, before she crab-walked on her hands to back away from her. Rather than thicken the pot with confrontation, she hopped to her feet and began walking.

Marty followed Teddy closely while Nina, who looked absolutely frozen, fell in behind them.

There was nothing but silence as they made their way to the top of the hill and Cormac’s cabin came into view.

The entire time, Teddy attempted to construct a story in her head to explain why she was in the middle of nowhere, hauling Cormac away like she was some sort of female variation on a Neanderthal—because Wanda would want a story. Oh yes, she would. She didn’t look like the kind of woman who would put up with any shit.

When Teddy finally caught sight of Cormac’s cabin, she wondered how he’d found this place. She’d never, in all her tracking, encountered this section of the forest, and she knew the forest like the back of her hand.

It was a crude structure under the purple and orange twilight of the coming evening. The logs sturdy, but with no particular architecturally appealing design to them. There was a lone folding chair by the front door, sandwiched between two bushes and an enormous pine tree. Maybe a fishing cabin?

Smoke wisped upward out of the brick chimney, and a sagging clothesline off to the right side of the cabin, with a metal bucket beneath, waved in the light wind.

More snow began to fall, the distant roar of a rushing creek filling her ears. God, it was beautiful here. Even under these daunting circumstances, Teddy had to admit, she loved the forest far more than she loved the lights of the city.

What she probably wasn’t going to love? Explaining herself.

Cormac stopped at his front door, painted—of all things—an odd shade of eggplant purple, and turned to face them as they gathered, waiting for him to admit them entry.

“Well, open the door, dude. Jesus, it’s like frickin’ Iceland out here,” Nina demanded with a shiver, her lips dry and cracked.

But Teddy didn’t pay as much attention to Nina’s grousing as she did the smells these women gave off, assaulting her nose, one right after the other. Foreign, tangy, one even brought to mind the word “displaced,” if you could in fact smell such a thing. But it was strong.

She hadn’t heard all of their conversations in detail. Most of it had been just bits and pieces. She’d heard their names, seen their arms waving and middle fingers flying, sensed some general discontent, but she’d been so focused on capturing Cormac, she’d clearly missed something important.

As Cormac looked down at them, his gaze piercing, Teddy refocused her thoughts and waited. “I don’t know what’s going on, but this is as far as it goes until you explain who you are and what the hell you want from me.”

Then he crossed his arms over his burly chest to further the notion he wasn’t budging.

But it didn’t look like these women were up for any arguments. Especially the elegant one who’d demanded Teddy come with them to the cabin.

Wanda, the lady who’d shouted the orders, pushed her way past everyone and poked a finger into Cormac’s wide chest. “Open the door or I’ll use you as my battering ram. Got me, Bruiser? It’s been a long damn afternoon. We’ve been out on this hike from Hades for four bloody days. I’m cold. I’m tired. I’m done with every single person around me complaining about everything—and I do mean everything. Now, I get your suspicion, but you’re just going to have to trust that we’re the good guys, or I’m going to steamroll right over you if you so much as squeak a peep from your gorgeous lips.”

“But—”

Wanda clearly, visibly, undeniably snapped then. Her eyes went wild and furious, her mouth formed a sneer, and without so much as a grunt of exertion, she did exactly as promised. She steamrolled him, knocking Cormac, who was easily six-three and a good two-twenty, flat on his back.

Then, as dainty and graceful as any prima ballerina and just shy of pirouetting over his body, she hopped over him and entered the cabin, brushing the snow from her ski pants.

Cormac groaned from the ground, running a hand over his head, but the brunette held out her hand to him with a cackle. “Need some help, big boy? C’mon. Get up before Wanda whips out her clangers and things get really serious.” Then she cackled again as Marty grabbed Teddy by the hand and dragged her into the cabin behind her.

Once inside, when she got a good look at the interior of the cabin, Teddy’s mouth fell open on a gasp that took even her by surprise.

It was like FBI command central—or some special-ops mission.

Shit. What had her brothers gotten her into? Was this some kind of military facility—an outpost, maybe? Computer after computer lined the back wall, leaving only space for the hearth of the fireplace to the right, where a roaring fire burned, a small couch with mismatched cushions sitting in front of it.

There were monitors with all sorts of mugshots of some pretty rough-looking men, and maps with all manner of scrolling feeds of some kind.

But it didn’t look terribly official. Not from the way it seemed he’d jerry-rigged a bunch of tech she didn’t understand and several modems.

Wouldn’t it just figure this guy was of the tinfoil hat variety? Maybe some kind of doomsday prepper? It made sense, living all the way out here in the woods as far as he could get from civilization. He was probably one of those conspiracy theory nuts with a YouTube channel and more guns than the Armed Forces combined.

Wanda, who’d knocked Cormac down as if he were made of nothing more than tissue paper, ground out another order. “Sit. All of you. Anywhere. Introductions are in order.” She dragged her gloves from long, slender fingers and laid them over the crook in her arm before she folded them over her chest.

When everyone hesitated, she sneered and bellowed, “Do it!”

Teddy dropped where she was, crossing her legs and pulling her hiking boots up under her, right along with everyone else—except for Cormac, who had the audacity to resist.

Somebody was gonna lose their balls…

Because Wanda wasn’t havin’ it. She sauntered toward him, her eyes ablaze, her cheeks sucked inward. “You want another piece of this?” she taunted in a comical Brooklyn accent, pounding her chest with her palms.

As though he realized he’d be foolish to defy her for even one more moment, Cormac actually blanched and dropped down next to Teddy, but it wasn’t without an expression of palpable silent protest. He oozed defiance from every pore of his sexy-sexy brickhouse body.

“Thank you. So, how about we go around the room and introduce ourselves? I’m Wanda Schwartz-Jefferson from Staten Island, New York. Married, wrangler of the WrestleMania Twins, occasional dabbler in the authorial pool.”

Everyone remained silent until she nudged Marty with her toe.

“Oh! I’m Marty Flaherty from Buffalo, New York. Cosmetics company owner, mother, businesswoman, fashionista. Pleasure to meet you all.”

Wanda glared at Teddy, making her face flush hot and red. “Oh, sorry. Um, Theodora…uh…Jackson—Denver, Colorado. Wildlife rescuer, single, helluva Sudoku solver.” She cleared her throat, looking down at the floor and its colorful braided rugs. It wasn’t exactly a lie.

She was a crappy liar so she’d kept it brief, but no way was she telling them what she was really doing here. Nuh-uh.

Wanda’s gaze turned to the brunette, who was busily fishing through her backpack. She pulled out a Ziploc bag with a squashed sandwich in it and held it up like it was the biggest catch of the day. “Thank fuck. Found it!”

Marty rolled her eyes and unzipped her sky-blue down vest, shrugging it off to reveal a sapphire-blue turtleneck and colorful paisley scarf. “Phew. I was so worried you’d starve to death, you human garbage can.”

Wanda hissed in Marty’s direction before tapping Nina the Discontent on the shoulder. “Before you shove that in your mouth, use your words and introduce yourself.”

The brunette sighed, expelling a raspy breath. “What is this, fucking Romper Room? Nobody gives a shit who we are as people. I don’t give a shit who they are either. We don’t need a round-robin of bullshit surface stuff to do what we gotta do.”

Wanda swiped the sandwich bag from her friend’s hand, held it up for a brief moment, a maniacal gleam in her eye, then dropped it to the ground and stomped on it, flattening it until the plastic broke and what looked like tuna oozed out from the crust.

Everyone gasped. Even Cormac.

I said, introduce yourself.”

Nina made a face up at Wanda but then she peeled off her thick black gloves and said, “Nina Statleon. Hungry. Cold. Hate everyone.”

Marty clapped her hands, a set of bangle bracelets clinking together. “Yay! Look at you, using your words and emotions.”

Nina scraped the crushed sandwich bag off the floor after she flipped Marty the bird.

When it was Cormac’s turn, Teddy turned to look at him, the lines of his face chiseled in granite, a tic in his unmoving jaw. Talk about a long simmer—he was like a Crock-Pot of slow burn.

Nina, who sat on the other side of him, elbowed him in the ribs. “C’mon, dude. I don’t want to see you lose your sacs in front of everybody. Plus, I wanna get the fuck out of here pronto. I like the woods as much as any bitch, but this shit for four days solid is for the birds. All this Grizzly Adams trees and fucking caribou just ain’t my rap, yanno? So stop prolonging my agony and play the game so I can get on up outta here. If you do, I’ll share my Combos with you. I got a shitload of ’em,” she coaxed with an enticing shake of her backpack and a grin that decidedly mocked.

When Cormac finally spoke, he sent a chill up along Teddy’s spine. Calm, his voice was like silk washed in honey. Rich and deep with a hint of a rasp.

“You already know who I am. The question is, why are you here and how do you know who I am?”

Wanda let out a sigh, crossing her feet at her furry-booted ankles. “We’re here to help you, Cormac. Toni sent us.”

Instantly, Teddy was on alert, coiled and ready to spring. Who was Toni?

Cormac cracked his knuckles, making a sucking noise with his teeth as though he was preparing for confrontation and his restraint was close to coming undone. “How do you know Toni?”

It was then that Wanda must have realized Teddy had no relation to this scenario—whatever this scenario was—and from the masked expression taking over her face, Teddy guessed Toni was private.

Which was the moment Wanda set her sights on Teddy, and she realized she needed an alibi. Fast.

Wanda’s perfectly plucked eyebrow rose. “Why exactly are you here, Theodora?”

Yeah, Theodora, what brings you to the outermost reaches of the Colorado forests, with a dart gun, no less? Hmmmm?

Better stall.

“Teddy, please. You can call me Teddy,” she said, hoping her voice wouldn’t crack while she hatched a story in her busy brain.

Wanda swung her long arms in front of her and latched her fingers together in a basket. “Okay, Teddy,” she drawled, her tone making Theodora squirm. “What brings you to Cormac’s—with a dart gun?”

“It’s kind of hard to explain…”

“Aw, fuck,” Nina spat with disgust. “Here we go. Listen, Kitten Pants, spit it the shit out. Just do it and get it over with because if you don’t, I’ll miss dinner with my kid for the fourth night in a row since we got to this strange land of fucking icicles and free-range moose.”

Wanda reached down and tugged on a long length of Nina’s incredibly shiny, unbelievably thick almost-black hair. “Shut up.” Then she turned that I-have-ways-of-making-you-talk gaze back to Teddy. “How about you try? And I suggest you try really hard or this could turn into an incredibly long night of epic, unpleasant proportions for you.”

Nina cackled that cackle that said she took pleasure in another’s pain. “Oh, hold the hell up now. If we’re talkin’ Wanda and torture, don’t say a word, lady. I’d be willing to give up one more night of missed grub if she’s gonna put the screws to you.”

Marty reached around Nina and gripped the cap of her shoulder, making Nina wince and shrink back until there was the glisten of a tear in her eye.

“Get off, ass-sniffer! That stings!” Nina growled.

But Teddy held her hands up as white flags. “Okay. I’ll try to explain. I’m here because…”

Because O-M-G, what, Teddy? What-what-whaaaat?

Wanda sucked in her cheeks, turning her peachy-glossed lips into that of a fish. Meaning she was gonna lose her shit if Teddy didn’t answer.

She swallowed hard before she blurted out, “Because Cormac is my life mate!”

Chapter 3

You’ve done it now. You might as well have told him you planned your wedding on Pinterest and picked out names for your forthcoming children, Teds. Jesus, girl.

Teddy winced as silence pervaded the room. Silence and shock. Mouths fell open, eyes widened, and there was a snort from the appointed queen of snark.

That had come out all wrong. Way faster than she’d planned. She’d wanted to do a bit of warm-up to the subject. Maybe explain where she came from, and a bit about her background, her family, before making such an outlandish statement; hopefully get Wanda of The Schoolmarm Gaze of Death off her back.

But no, much like everything else in her life, relationships, bungee jumping, hotdog-eating contests, she’d hurtled headlong into the fire.

“Have you spent too much time watching Lifetime movies and tending your brood of cats?” Cormac asked in disbelief, leaning away from Teddy as though she’d just told him she was from the planet Pluto.

Which might be easier to process at this point.

Teddy shook her head and inhaled, feeling a headache forming right between her eyes. “No. Please, let me explain.”

Nina dragged a bag of cheese popcorn from her backpack and ripped it open, stuffing a handful in her mouth. “Yeah. Explain, Theodora.”

She smiled at Teddy. Beautiful, damn near perfect in fact, and maniacal, as though she enjoyed the most awkward of situations.

“So is it your habit to shoot all your life mates with dart guns and carry them out of the forest like sacks of potatoes? Some kind of ritualistic hunt for anything with a penis I missed the memo on?” Wanda asked, suspicion written all over her classically gorgeous features.

Teddy frowned and winced. “No. That was…it was an accident. I was just…just practicing while I…”

“So you could get it right when the time came to knock out your unwitting, very unwilling life mate?” Cormac asked, disbelief still heavy in his tone.

She paused at the way in which he used the words life mate. He didn’t sound surprised by the term, only that she’d claimed he was hers.

“No! Look, I’m sorry. I was target practicing, I still had some darts in my backpack. I just didn’t realize they were tranquilizer darts.”

Liar, liar, pants on so much fire!

Nina popped her lips while pushing her way out of the heavy parka she wore, kernels of cheese popcorn falling to her crossed legs. “Ya know, I gotta give it to her. That’s a pretty good line of bullshit. Very creative. Two thumbs up.”

Teddy licked her dry lips, digging herself in deeper. “I work at a wildlife preservation called Sanctuary, in Denver. You can look it up on your vast array of computers if you’d like. Sometimes we have to tranquilize an injured animal and it’s important to get it right the first time you take a shot. I was just killing time while I looked for Cormac…I’m sorry.”

Ugh.

Marty’s brow furrowed. “But you said you were here because Cormac is your um, life something or other, right? What does that mean?”

Ah. Now Teddy had the upper hand. Marty was a crappy liar. She damn well knew what a life mate was because she came from a circle of people who thrived on them. However, they didn’t know she knew.

And Teddy knew they were all paranormal, from all the fighting they did as she’d tracked them. She just didn’t know exactly what kind of paranormal. The word vampire had been used, but she didn’t know how to identify scents of paranormal species other than that of her own kind.

One thing she definitely knew? The reason Cormac had covered his scent—because he was a bear.

Just like her.

Rather than stay on the floor where she felt small and overpowered, a feeling she didn’t relish, Teddy rose with caution, keeping her palms facing outward.

“Okay, so let’s just be honest here. It means that I know you’re all paranormal—and Nina was once paranormal.”

“Ohhh!” Nina squealed her delight, pounding her fist on her backpack. “Boom, baby! Shit just got real!”

Wow, this woman really did take extreme pleasure in the awkward.

Wanda’s eyes flashed angry and bright as she approached. “And you know this how, Teddy?”

Teddy folded her hands in front of her and edged backward. Wanda’s wrath was real, and she didn’t want to invoke any more than was necessary.

“I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but you guys were really loud out there in the forest. So, I sort of heard bits of your conversations about vampires and all. But I’m still not sure what you are.”

Marty rasped a sigh and shook her head in obvious understanding. She swiped her index finger in the air. “That’s what that smell is. It’s you!” She pointed at Teddy. “I don’t mean to offend. I mean, I honestly thought you’d just neglected to shower or use deodorant or whatever. I kept getting whiffs of damp fur and mud mixed in with Nina’s bite-sized Snickers.”

Teddy fought the impulse to sniff her armpits. She’d showered today…

Nina rose now, too, towering over Teddy. At five-seven, she’d never felt so small. The woman’s nostrils flared, but she shook her head. “That means Katniss Tranquilizer Gun here is paranormal, too. So what are you and why can’t anyone define you by your fucking scent? Shit, I hope it’s something new. I’m damn tired of vampires and werewolves.”

Teddy stretched her neck upward, shoving her hands inside the pockets of her down vest. No backing down, no matter how big and scary. And if Nina was anything, she was intimidating. Yet there was a hint of vulnerability to her Teddy didn’t understand.

“What are you?”

Nina rolled her tongue in her cheek, squinting one almond-shaped eye as she cocked her head. “Former vampire.”

That explained the discontent she’d sensed earlier. “Former?”

“Long fucking story, part of the reason we’re here. Now ante up or I’ll have you breathing through your belly button in ten seconds flat.”

“So you’re officially human now? No super vampire powers to speak of?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’d like to see you try.”

Nina’s gaze was straight on and deadlocked on Teddy’s face. Her posture changed, her body language riddled with tension so real, she was like a bow ready to snap an arrow off. “Correct me if I’m fucking wrong, but am I hearing a challenge from your ruby-red lips?”

“You’re hearing my defense in regards to your threat. I like breathing from my mouth, thank you.”

Marty grabbed at Nina’s arm, dragging her out of her imposing stance. “This is exactly what I mean. You no longer have the muscle to back up the claims, bully! If you keep this up, you’re going to get us all killed one day. Do you want this to end the way it did with that poor man Eddie in the parking lot of the Dollar Store?”

Nina rolled her eyes in response, shaking Marty off. “Oh, fuck off. He deserved to have his shit handed to him. He was parked in a damn wheelchair parking spot. I just told him so.”

“No. That’s not the entire story. He was picking up his elderly mother, Mad Dog. He almost took your head off with a tire iron when you went at him like some sort of raging bull, Nina! And now that you’re human, a guy the size of a fully stocked fridge can do you some serious harm. You made me make him doubt his manhood after I got done sticking up for you. In front of his mother!” she howled in outrage. “Now for the last time, back the hell off, and stop trying to fill a role you no longer fit the requirements for!”

This particular admission left Teddy with instant remorse. How odd would it be to lose the part of her that had its own way of life? To lose the people closest to her because she didn’t have the same needs, the same abilities, the same struggles they did? It had to be like an average student ending up in the class for Mensa members.

Nina was struggling. With this huge change in her life, with her friends’ resistance to the changes, with the inability to live on the same plane they did.

She knew diddly squat about vampires—even less about how a vampire could possibly be a vamp one minute and human the next. But she regretted her rude words.

Instantly she turned to Nina, placing a hand on Marty’s shoulder to indicate she should back off her friend. “It’s okay, Marty. Really. I’m sorry, Nina. That was rude of me. I apologize.”

Nina flapped an irritated hand at her, slung her backpack over her shoulder and stomped to the farthest corner of the cabin where a small kitchen and a sink with actual running water was located. She dragged a misshapen wooden stool from the corner and plopped down into it, essentially turning her back on everyone.

Crap.

“So what are you?” Cormac finally spoke, his voice slithering over her like a sensual bath of silky warm water.

Her eyes met his, head on without blinking. “I’m a bear. Just like you. Brown bear, if you’re interested.”

Nina had that twinkle in her eye when she made scary bear paws. “You mean like roar, and shredding-unsuspecting-fucking-campers-while-they-roast-marshmallows, stealing-honey-from-hives, raw-fish-eating, Goldilocks-and-The-Three-Bears bear?”

Under any other circumstance, she would have laughed. “Mostly that’s what I mean. Except for the raw fish. Just can’t do it.”

“You’ve shredded unsuspecting campers?” Cormac asked.

Teddy looked right at him. “Duh. Don’t all bears? Is there anything better than hearing, ‘Oh my God, please don’t eat me, you mean, vicious bear!’ as you rip their throats out and collect your booty of baked beans and kerosene lanterns?”

“Aren’t you a real standup comedienne? You do The Improv when you’re done eating people?” Cormac returned.

“Okay, so wait. Lemme get this shit right. Your name is Teddy?” The former vampire squeaked her name out on a high note.

Did high school ever really end? “I know. Irony, right? Theodora/Teddy equals ha-ha-ha.”

Nina’s head fell back, revealing her slender throat. “Buwhahahhaha! Oh, Christ on a cracker, that’s the best shit I’ve heard in forever!”

“Wait, you’re a bear, too?” Wanda gasped out at Cormac. “Are you sure you’re the Cormac Vitali who has a sister from Jersey about yeah-high, gorgeous red hair, feisty as a coon who’s been cornered in a crawl space, with the heart of a warrior?”

Teddy noted his eyes were less narrow now, more contemplative. “I’m sure.”

“So does someone want to explain to me why Toni wouldn’t tell us you were a bear? We spent a solid month with her in Shamalot—”

“What the hell is Shamalot?” Cormac asked, once more crossing his arms over his wide chest.

“It’s a very, very long story. One we’d be happy to share with you. Privately,” Wanda added with a direct gaze in Teddy’s vicinity. “But that still doesn’t answer the question. Why would Toni purposely not tell us you’re a bear? Why isn’t she a bear, too?”

His answer was stiff as he rose and moved to his computers, turning each screen off. “Because she didn’t know. It happened after we…”

After what?

Teddy wanted to ask, but he wasn’t at all approachable at this point. She needed to get a call in to her brothers and figure out where everything had gone so wrong.

“Can we speak somewhere privately, Cormac? We have a lot to discuss,” Wanda reminded him again, pointing to a door just beside the small kitchen.

Cormac eyed her with suspicion as he pulled off his knit cap and lobbed it on the makeshift plywood he used as a desk. “And her?”

Teddy fought an angry retort, opting to remain silent. Her was just fine, thank you very much.

“I’ll stay with her,” Marty offered, rolling up her sleeves as though she were preparing to babysit a T-Rex. “She can tell me all about this life mate thing while you two talk.”

Like she needed a babysitter. But there was no getting out of this now. She was in for the duration. At least until she could get a phone call to her brothers.

And until she could figure out what to do about this call her heart had made.

Because whether Cormac Vitali liked it or not, he was destined to be hers.

* *

Cormac sat on a hard chair opposite Wanda, who’d taken a spot on the bed, crossing her legs as she explained to him this completely whacked tale of wormholes, knights and princes and ogres and Toni, who was, if he’d heard correctly, planning to marry a prince and would thus be a princess, and living in an entirely different realm.

He calmly stroked his cat, Lenny Kravitz’s ears while he listened, and Lenny purred with contentment.

“Are you hearing everything I’m saying, Cormac? Did you hear me tell you I’m a hybrid, or as my dear friend calls me, a halfsie?”

Yep. Half vampire, half werewolf. He’d heard.

“Oh, I hear you talking.”

“But have you absorbed what I’ve said?”

“Like the proverbial sponge.”

She sighed a grating, impatient sound he was meant to hear and shifted her position on the shabby quilt he’d pulled up over his pillow just this morning. She looked almost out of place in a room so sparse and dim compared to her refined sophistication. She belonged with fine crystal, silk drapes and fancy goblets in a mansion somewhere.

Her voice took on a stern teacher’s tone when she said, “I’m not the enemy here, Cormac. So I’d appreciate it if you’d kindly stop treating me as such and pay me the respect I deserve for hauling my butt up this damn mountain just to find you. I came all the way here from New York because we made a promise to your sister—someone we hold quite dear to our hearts after all we’ve been through. If you’re not willing to listen to me, then I’m happy to leave you right here in your frozen tundra of a prison. I do have a family and things that need tending back at home. I also have Nina. A very disgruntled, very lost ex-vampire who, as you’ve seen, is a beast with a food obsession. Clearly you can see my plate is full. Now, either you participate in this conversation, and squish your way onto my full plate, nestled in next to Nina the Crabby, or I leave you here with your alleged life mate and I go home.”

Rolling his head on his neck, he stretched it from side to side, setting Lenny on the floor. Her story was insane.

But was it any more insane than the idea that he’d been bitten and turned into a bear by a Russian mob member? The hair that clogged the drain in that pitiful shower of his after one of those bone-crunching shifts certainly said otherwise.

“You have to admit it’s a lot to wrap your brain around.”

Her face relaxed then and her lips tilted upward in a small smile. “You heard the part about OOPS, our company, right?”

“The paranormal crisis hotline. Yep. I did.” More crazy. Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

“Then you understand that absorbing these sorts of things is a steady diet for me and my friends.”

“Okay, I get the paranormal bit. I do. I get the accident bit, too. But the other-realm thing—Shamalot? A prince? An ogre? Fairies? A castle?”

Her lovely face turned sour when she wrinkled her nose at him. “Is that really any more difficult to believe than you being accidentally bitten and turned into a bear? A bear? Please, Cormac. Surely you’re past the stage of disbelief if you’ve been living with this for three years.”

He rubbed the spot where his finger had once been and grimaced. “Point taken. Look, I know I’m being pretty ornery here, but I’ve been on guard day and night since this whole thing with Toni’s ex-thug of a boyfriend went down. How am I supposed to just trust that you people even know Toni, let alone can help me when no one else will? Not the police, not anyone? I think it’s only fair that if I have to see your side of things, you should have to at least take mine into consideration.”

She slapped her thigh and finally smiled, lightening the vibe of the room in an instant. “Fair enough. But I do have proof we know Toni.”

He sat up straight, wary but all ears. “Via a crystal ball straight from Castle Nantucket?”

Wanda pursed her lips, very clearly not enjoying the joke as she scooped Lenny up and rubbed her nose against his white head. “Castle Beckett, Funny Man. I’ll let that slide for now and just tell you, I know something no one else but you and Toni and one other person in the world knows.”

Now she had his attention—but… “How do I know you didn’t beat it out of her? Maybe hack off her finger the way Stas and his goons hacked off mine to get her to talk?”

Wanda got that eye of the tiger again when she looked at him. “You don’t. There’s a modicum of trust we’re going to have to lend each other here. Once you get to know me—know us—you’ll see how utterly absurd that statement is regarding my two yappy friends and myself. But I also think you’re going to have to take a stab at logic here. Why, if we wanted to kill you, aren’t you already dead? That, you can either take or leave.” She smoothed her hand over her snow pants and re-crossed her legs, cool as a cucumber, and waited.

According to some of those ebooks he’d read, he should at least be able to sense whether she was being truthful. But that’s what he got for putting stock in romance novels because they were the only pseudo guide on the web with anything even remotely like his own very real-life trauma. His choices had turned out to be very slim.

Leaning back, now Cormac crossed his feet at his ankles as Lenny wound his tail around them and said, “Okay, show me your proof.”

“You have a tattoo.”

Cormac lifted an eyebrow, keeping his face passive. “Do I?”

“You do. Toni told us she only knows about it because your best friend Damon never lets you live down that night of infamy and takes every opportunity to razz you about it.”

Shit. Maureen. Aka Mo. His first love. The first love he’d lost, and after seven or eight beers, he’d drunkenly memorialized his love for her with a tattoo. With all sorts of declarations about how he’d never love anyone the way he loved Mo, he’d demanded his friend, Damon, take him to a tattoo parlor where he had her name glorified in ink.

On his left ass cheek.

“And what do you know about Damon and this tattoo?”

“I know it’s your ex-girlfriend’s name on your left butt cheek and you got it in a drunken tattoo parlor run after Mo broke up with you.”

That still didn’t prove anything. “How do I know you didn’t force Toni to tell you something so personal?”

“Are you denying Mo’s name is on your ass?”

He squirmed in his chair at the memory of that damn night when he was just twenty-one and drunk on what he was sure was love. “I can neither confirm nor deny.”

“Then I believe we’re done. Now, do you want help catching Stas and having him thrown in jail, where he can rot for eternity, so you can see your sister again? Or would you prefer we take our leave?”

Suddenly, he didn’t know. He was so busy keeping his guard up, so used to being alone, aside from the fact that he was unsure they were telling the truth, he didn’t know if he could even accept help anymore. Besides, how could these women help him catch someone who had the entire Jersey police department in his pocket?

“Surely, as those wheels in your mind turn, you’re not doubting our ability to help you, are you? It was you I took down like a tree in the forest, wasn’t it?”

Now he gave her a sheepish grin. “You’re pretty tough. I’ll let you have that.”

“Times two if you include Marty. Add in the other forces we have at work for us, and we’re a pretty damn good team to have on your side. I wish Nina could help as well, but like I said…” She sighed forlornly. “Marty wasn’t joking when she was taunting Nina about chewing her face off. Nina was a formidable foe.”

“So you were all accidently bitten?”

Wanda had explained how they’d all come to be, something he couldn’t deny because of his situation, but certainly something that would take time to digest.

She bobbed her head and chuckled. “Every last one of us, and we help people who’ve had the same experience all the time through OOPS.”

He’d kept his poker face on when Teddy had declared herself a bear, but this was unreal. Now he found himself riddled with curiosity; to know there were others just like him was incredible. “Was Nina always so testy?” The question slipped out before he was able to contain it.

Wanda’s expression was one of pride, despite her next words. “You mean before she was bitten? She was a horror. But she was pretty tough even without the vampire thing. She’s always been cranky and difficult. She has no filter. She’s very confrontational. But as a vampire? She was a bloody warrior with no fear and no doubt she’d come out on top of whatever we faced. Alas, she always did come out on top…”

Wanda’s voice sounded so gloomy, it left his chest feeling tight, though he couldn’t quite explain why. Maybe because they’d both shared a huge loss? The losses were nothing alike, but they were still losses.

“So how did she become human again?”

She lifted her chin, her glossed lip trembling ever so slightly before she appeared to mentally shake it off. “She saved your sister from a very powerful, crazed Queen in Shamalot named Angria. Nina threw herself in the face of this queen’s rage and sank her teeth into her neck to keep her from killing Toni, who was only trying to save the man she’d fallen in love with,” she said in a hushed tone.

Cormac swallowed, unable to speak. He’d come so close to losing Toni not just once, but twice? He closed his eyes and tried to gather his thoughts. If Wanda was lying, she was damn good at it. To come to him with a story as outlandish as this Shamalot tale was one thing. That alone took an act of pure faith, not to mention courage.

But to then concoct a story about this Nina saving Toni’s life and losing her vampiric powers in the process would be beyond ballsy.

“And Theodora?” he asked, her very name on his lips feeling foreign yet comfortable. “Do you think she’s a part of this thing with Stas?”

Wanda sucked in her cheeks again, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know, Cormac. I can’t get a clear read on her. So we keep her close until we know differently.”

To trust Wanda or not.

That was the question.

The other question was the gorgeous summer-blonde lunatic in the other room. Sure, most guys would be happy to have a woman as beautiful as Theodora “Teddy” Jackson declare them hers.

However, a hot woman and a mate for life were two different things, according to those romance novels.

So what to do about the beautiful blonde with the curvy hips, long legs, raspberry-tinted full lips and startlingly hazel eyes. A woman who smelled like Nirvana wrapped in the meaning of life.

Whoa-whoa-whoa. Why was he espousing her attributes when he thought she was batshit?

Why can’t she be one donut hole shy of a dozen and hot? Is there a rule against it? Some unwritten law none of us are aware of, Pooh Bear?

But wait. Wasn’t this the way every single one of those relationships in romance novels had begun?

One of the protagonists declaring an unwitting, sometimes unwilling partner their life mate? They fight, they have all kinds of sexual tension, they have some sort of inner conflict, coupled with an external conflict that keeps them apart, but in the end they overcome said obstacles, fall madly in love and mate?

No. That was crazy made-up shit.

Yep. Just like all the other crazy made-up shit, Mr. Bear.

Well, hell.

 

End of Extended Sample

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