It’s an exciting day. This is the first installment of my new bear shifter novel Bear Fate. Amber Dupré has moved to Colorado to get away from her small town in Washington State. Lance Prescott has found a refuge on the Bascom Quarter Horse Stud where no one cares about his appearance. Will Amber find true love?

As this is a first draft, inevitably there will be typos and errors in grammar and continuity. Comments and corrections are always appreciated. Fair warning: Not everything I post on my website will make it into the final version. And once I publish it all passages will be deleted.

CHAPTER ONE

  February

The air was hot, dusty, and there was pervasive smell of human waste that caught at the back of the throat. It was dark, but he knew that Ferris was on his right, and Ricardo was two paces back to his left. When the explosion came, it lit up the drab, pockmarked landscape. He flew into a million pieces. And rained down on the ground on top of the scattered body parts of his buddies.

Lance Prescott came awake to the blast of frigid air from the window of his bedroom. He had left it open a quarter inch at the bottom. Clean, sweet-smelling winter air blew into his room and replaced the memory of Iraq. He was wet. His short hair was soaked with sweat. His sheets were damp. And he smelled of funk and fear.

It had happened enough times that he had a ritual. He stood under a hot shower and soaped himself until he felt clean. The smell of shit from his nightmare dissipated. His body stopped shaking, and his heart rate settled back to a steady beat. He dressed himself in his work clothes. There was no point trying to go back to bed. He knew he wouldn’t sleep, and if he lay in bed thinking, his anxiety would return.

He stripped his sodden bedding off the mattress, and bundled it into the washing machine. A little hot water and soap would get rid of some of the stench of death that clung to the sheets. He found the bottle of Jack Daniels in the cupboard and poured a small shot over ice. He put the bottle back on the shelf and closed the cupboard door and added a splash of water from the tap.

There was nothing on the television at three a.m. – nothing that he wanted to watch. But he forced himself to listen to a succession of elderly persons claiming that their arthritis symptoms had been entirely relieved by a device obtainable for the low, low price of three hundred and ninety-nine dollars divided into three equal payments. Tax, shipping, and handling extra.

By the time he had finished his bourbon, it was almost time for morning stables. There was nothing in his fridge that he wanted to eat. But he made coffee, and drank a cup while he looked out the kitchen window at the frozen creek. It was lonely out there, and very beautiful. When he had first come to Success, Colorado, he hadn’t thought that he would find its ragged, rolling plains as beautiful as home. But after five years, he didn’t think that there was a lovelier spot in all the US of A.

The winter sky was still pitch black, it wouldn’t start to get light for hours. Snow lay everywhere. It reflected the moonlight and he could see surprisingly far. He followed the grayish outline of a small bear wandering down by the creek. He wasn’t particularly worried, out here so close to the open range, wild animals were not particularly unusual. The ranch was troubled by the occasional loss of calves and elderly cows to cougars, wolves, bears, and even the odd coyote, but on the Double B that was considered part of the cost of ranching. Still, it was unusual to see a black bear so close to the stables and the houses, although this one seemed to be merely exploring.

He kept an eye on it as he sipped his coffee. Carlos and Rosa Diego lived not far from his house, and the new stable hand Amber Dupré lived behind him in a small cabin. He figured Amber was too savvy to leave her garbage outside her back door to attract critters. But he didn’t know that for a fact. It would do no harm to keep his eye on the bear.

The bear slid down the steep snowy bank to the frozen surface of the stream. And landed on its back and spun out. Then it clambered up and did it all over again. It was having fun. It was probably no more than a half-grown bear cub. Just old enough to have been kicked out of its mother’s orbit so she could have another litter. And just inexperienced enough to play near human habitation.

The bear continued its game, but eventually, it came to grief. It slid down the bank on its belly, landed on its paws, did a somersault and went right through the ice. Lance didn’t know if there was anything he should do. He didn’t want to think of the bear freezing, or drowning, but rescuing a frightened wild animal was a dangerous proposition. He decided to wait and see what would happen. What happened was that the bear broke out the ice with its powerful front limbs, and scrambled up the bank. It shook itself vigorously. Water sprayed into arcs of droplets that froze and fell, pitting the snow all around the bear.

He watched as the bear wandered a little further down the creek to where the ice was solid. He didn’t worry until it began to cross to the side of the stream where the houses were. He moved from the kitchen, to the living room, and then to his own bedroom. The bear was moving through the trees at a good clip, and heading straight for Amber’s little cabin.

He grabbed his shotgun and loaded it as he put his feet into boots. It was cold enough that he took the time to put on his parka and gloves. He would do Amber no good if his hands were too cold to fire his shotgun. He jogged out of his back door, and moved as quickly as he could through the two feet of snow towards Amber’s cabin. The bear was at her back door rattling it. He banged on the front door. He called loudly. “Amber, Amber.”

He envied Amber her sound sleep. But she was in danger if the bear came in while she was in bed. He tried the knob. It turned easily in his hand and he walked into the cabin.

It was warm. And just inside the back door, struggling to put on clothes, was a completely naked Amber Dupré. He stood there with his mouth open, drinking in the manifold beauties of this lovely young woman. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t noticed that she was a beauty. Her sister Heather had recently married the boss’ cousin Patrick and Heather and Amber were identical twins. Patrick and Heather had settled in Washington State, but Amber had moved out to Colorado to work on the Bascom Quarter Horse Stud as a stable hand. Weird. But not his business.

Amber’s blue eyes were round with shock when he made his unannounced entrance.

“There was a bear.” Lance stammered.

She clutched her clothes to her body. But there was still a lot of pink and white skin to make his cock spring to life as if the foolish thing hadn’t been playing possum for five years. Apparently it had been waiting for him to turn into a peeping Tom.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He strode briskly to the side window and listened with his back to her. He couldn’t see anything with the lights on, but he was sure he would hear a bear if it was knocking over garbage cans or trying to get in at either door. At least his back was now to Amber.

“I’m decent,” she whispered. “If there was a bear, think it must be gone.” She didn’t sound scared, which was quite something. In fact, she sounded amused.

He turned around and looked at her. She had tucked her magnificent bosom inside a plaid work shirt and done up the snaps. But without a bra, her boobies were straining at the snaps. Her jeans were done up. And as usual, they encased the loveliest, roundest, ripest ass in Colorado. Miss Dupré was without doubt one of the most delectable women he’d ever met.

* * *

Amber couldn’t believe that she had managed to turn completely back into a person before Lance Prescott had come into the cabin. She was freezing. Even in bear, that dunk in ice water had pretty much given her hypothermia. Dressed only in her damp skin, jeans and shirt, she was shivering and cold all the way through.

“I’m going to make coffee,” she said. “Do you want some?” She had better find out just what he’d seen. Laura Bascom who was both her boss and a cousin of her brother-in-law Patrick, had warned her against taking bear in Colorado.

“You’re liable to get shot,” Laura had said flatly. “Folks around here don’t understand about shifters. Be careful. You’re not on Yakima Ridge.” But restlessness and loneliness had driven her outdoors to frolic like a child — or a foolish bear shifter.

“Forgive me for bursting in on you,” Lance said. Red lay like stripes of paint on his cheekbones. For once he was not wearing his eye patch and the scarred lid of his left eye and the craters on that side of his face were on view. “I should check and make sure the bear has gone.”

“I’ve got good hearing.” Amber tried not to smile. “If there is still a bear outside, I’m sure I would hear it.” She could hardly tell him that the bear he was worried about was standing right in front of him. She liked Lance, and she didn’t want to see his cheerful friendship vanish when he discovered she was one of the monsters.

She busied herself filling the kettle and scooping coffee into the silly French press that was her only means of making coffee. This little cabin had never been designed for someone to live in full-time. It had a good wood stove so it was warm enough. But her whole kitchen consisted of one short counter with a small sink and a kettle. She had added a microwave, and a slow cooker, and was thinking of getting a toaster oven.

“What do you take in your coffee?” Amber asked.

Lance seemed startled to be asked. “Uh, nothing,” he said. “Black.”

“Coming right up,” she said. She turned around and leaned on the counter. “How did you happen to see a bear getting into my cabin at four o’clock in the morning?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” he said shortly.

Amber nodded. She knew better than to ask a veteran why he couldn’t sleep. She didn’t know how long it had been since Lance had been discharged from the military, but the bad dreams could last a lifetime. Back on Yakima Ridge, it was expected that men would do their military service before they found themselves a career, married, and had children. She had lots of cousins who had come back injured in heart and body, and a great many who hadn’t come back at all. So while she admired Lance, and pitied anyone with nightmares, she knew better than to go stirring up unpleasant memories with an interrogation.

She pushed down the plunger. And waited. When she thought the coffee grounds had had a chance to settle, she poured two mugs and added a splash of cream to her own. There was a small table and chairs against one window. She walked past her unmade bed to it. He propped his shotgun up against the wall, as if he was surprised it was still in his hand, pulled out a chair and sat down straddling it with his hands resting on the back. He sat like a soldier with an upright and solid bearing that made her feel safe.

“How come you’re up yourself?” he asked.

“It’s almost time for morning stables,” she lied.

“Good coffee,” he said after his first sip. “Thank you.”

“Would you like some breakfast? I don’t have a lot, but I can warm up some burritos — if you don’t mind burritos for breakfast.”

He laughed. “I guess you’ve not fed a lot of ex-soldiers.”

It was her turn to laugh. “Lots and lots. I take it that means burritos are fine?”

* * *

It was a good breakfast. The best breakfast he’d had in years. Especially after a nightmare, he never felt much like eating in the mornings. He usually made do with coffee. Which was probably not a good thing when you had to work hard all day. He loved his job in the stables, but there was no question the Quarter Horses needed a fair amount of muscle to control, and that wrestling 300 pound bales of hay, was not for weaklings. Yet most mornings he could not face food.

But he enjoyed the burrito Amber set in front of him. It was nearly as good as the ones Rosa Diego made. Only Rosa would never have put a store-bought tortilla on her table. But he had eaten worse — and often. Sitting at Amber’s tiny table, eating food she had made was a treat. She was easy on the eyes and easy to talk to. Even after being embarrassed by his intrusion her blue eyes were twinkling and she had a smile for him.

He had known that he was attracted to the stable’s newest hire, but not how much. Amber didn’t have any trouble with the physical aspects of the job. She was a big girl, round with muscle, and had the sweetest disposition of any girl he had ever met. Plainly they made them sweet in Washington State. But between the fact that she sort of worked for him — he didn’t have a title, but he was in effect the stud foreman’s second in command — and he gave her orders. And the fact that there was no reason for a pretty girl to want anything to do with an ugly bastard, he had done nothing about his attraction.

“Is that going to hold you until lunch?” she asked when he had polished off his burrito. “There’s more in the fridge.” She pointed to the miniature bar fridge under her counter.

“I could eat another one,” he admitted.

She looked pleased and jumped up. “Two minutes.” She stuck one in the microwave. “Should I make more coffee?”

He laughed. “That pot is pretty small.”

“Came with the cabin. I have to save up to buy a proper coffee maker.”

He didn’t comment. Amber’s sister was married to a billionaire. It made no sense that she was working in the stables. Just as it made no sense that she lived in a one-room cabin and had to save up for ordinary appliances. He reminded himself that it was none of his business. He ate his second burrito and had another mug of coffee. They chatted about the mares who were ready to foal.

“I don’t know if I’ll be much use at a birth — but I sure am looking forward to helping out at one.” She grinned at him and finished her coffee.

He ate the last bite of his burrito regretfully. “That was good,” he said. “Thank you.”

“You are most welcome.” She cleared their plates and put them in her tiny sink.

“There’s a dance on Saturday night at the bar in Success. Would you like to go?” He was almost as surprised as Amber at the words that came out of his mouth.

She blushed, but she nodded. “I would.”

“It’s Valentine’s Day,” he said. “Folks usually dress up a bit when there’s an excuse.”

“Good jeans dressing up, or something fancy?” She looked a little worried.

“Good jeans,” he assured her. “It’s still Hank’s with beer in pitchers, not fancy at all.”

The rosy glow was still in her cheeks. Her smile returned. “I haven’t been anywhere since I came out here. I’d like that fine.”

He stood up. “It’s a date.” He pushed his chair back in. And by God it was. Ugly, scarred, one-eyed Lance Prescott had a date with the prettiest girl in Colorado.

This is material not previously published. ©Isadora Montrose, 2017

CHAPTER TWO>>>