This week in Chapter 3 of Bear Fate, Amber and Lance go to the Valentine’s Day dance in the small town of Success, Colorado. Unfortunately, their romantic first date does not go exactly as planned.

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Lance tugged her onto the dance floor, ignoring the incredulous looks from the other fellows. They weren’t used to seeing Lance Prescott getting up to dance. And they sure as hell weren’t used to him getting up with the prettiest girl in the room. He liked the way Amber kept her eyes soft and friendly even when they rested on his damaged face.

Out of deference to her, he was wearing his eye-patch. The black leather was hot and uncomfortable, so he preferred not to wear it if he could manage it. He usually had to keep it on at work to keep the dust out of his bad eye. His left eye was so badly damaged it could not blink fast enough to keep dirt and debris away from the eyeball. And it was down to fifteen percent vision anyway.

Between the irritation and the risk of infection, he stood to make bad worse if he didn’t keep it covered most of the time. He had settled for wearing the eye-patch whenever he was working with hay or horses. He had worn it tonight because he thought Amber would probably not want to look at his disfigurement all evening. But it meant he had to keep her on his right or he couldn’t see her.

They joined the line. Other people made room for them and howdied in a friendly way. Amber returned their greeting and admitted she was a stranger. She was as light on her feet as he had hoped. She didn’t know the steps, but she watched, and she picked them up fast.

“You’re pretty good at this,” he said.

“I was a cheerleader,” she said grinning.

“A cheerleader?”

“Yeah, you wouldn’t think it to look at me, but until I was sixteen I was no wider than a whisker, and short too.” She chuckled. He spun her, and she clapped her hands on the beat and kicked both feet and turned to the left just as she was supposed to.

After a couple more dances, he led her back to their table. Two strangers had pulled up extra chairs. Lance didn’t know them. And he didn’t like the look of those men. But there was now nowhere else to sit. He pulled out Amber’s chair for her and showed his teeth. “Howdy. I’m Lance and this is Amber.”

Dog and Blondie introduced themselves. But volunteered no further information. Resignedly, he sat down between Amber and the outsiders, which gave her his left side to look at. “Amber and I work at the Bascom Quarter horse stud,” he continued, keeping his voice friendly. “You fellows from around here?”

Dog and Blondie guffawed. “Nah. Do we look like a bunch of hicks?”

Actually, they did. In their plaid shirts and faded jeans and battered cowboy boots, they were dressed like half the guys in the bar. It was just his luck, to have these two assholes choose to sit at his table. Amber edged her chair a little further from Dog’s, and a little closer to his.

“Would you like another coke?” he asked her.

“I think I’ll just go to the restroom. Which way is it?”

“It’s at the back. Down the hall. He pointed to the sign which was almost obscured by one of the Happy Valentine’s Day banners. Amber got up and took her purse and went to the back.

“You know, you fellers might want to think about sitting somewhere else, this is my first date with the lady, and I was hoping to get to know her better.”

Dog and Blondie looked as though they wanted to argue. But Blondie dug his elbow into Dog’s gut and transformed what was almost certainly going to be a crude remark into a shit-eating grin. They stood up and shoved past other tables right up to the bar. Hank nodded at them, but he was busy pulling pints, and confined his inspection to narrowing his eyes.

Lance glanced towards the doorway that Amber had gone through. When he looked back at the bar, Blondie had decided he too needed the restroom. Lance didn’t quite understand why he was twitchy, and he wasn’t sure what he had missed. Having monocular vision was a bitch.

* * *

Amber put another smear of lipstick on. She seemed to have chewed off the layers she had applied at home. Her cheeks were flushed from dancing. That was the worst of having pale skin. As soon as she exercised she got two big clown circles on her cheeks, as though she didn’t know how to apply rouge. Her hair was all right. She dragged a comb through her bangs and tossed the long, curling ends of the rest over her shoulders. The red sweater looked good against her dark hair. And the gray and white scarf made a pleasant counterpoint.

Lance made her feel like a bit of a bumpkin. Not that he was mean. He hadn’t exactly laughed at her. But she could tell he was mentally rolling his eyes at her naivety. But she couldn’t help that. She was just a small-town girl, from up on Yakima Ridge. Success, Colorado was not exactly the big city. But it felt really weird to go out and not know a soul but the guy who brought you.

Back home in French Town, she always knew everyone in the room. Even if they knew where to get them, no one would put date rape drugs in your glass. Every now and again some kids would try to add liquor to the punch. And get caught and stopped and sent home in shame by the sharp-eyed elders chatting against the walls.

She pushed the washroom door open. The ill-lit hallway was even dingier than she remembered. Blondie was standing right in front of the ladies’ room. He smiled at her, and she suppressed her shudder. She hadn’t been too happy to have Blondie and Dog sitting at their table — even with stalwart Lance between her and them. But, here in the dark, she felt afraid.

“How about a dance, darlin’?” Blondie asked. He reached for her hand.

“No, thank you,” Amber said clearly and distinctly. She deliberately folded her arms across her chest.

“Don’t be so standoffish,” Blondie said. This time his hand closed on her elbow.

“Let me go,” Amber said. With an effort, she kept her voice level and uninflected.

Blondie yanked her towards him. Amber didn’t bother stopping to think. She raked the edge of Heather’s boot sole down his shin and stopped hard on his instep with the heel. Blondie promptly let go of her. He shrieked. He pulled his right arm back. And before his slap landed, she kicked him in the gut with her left foot – just like her cousin Joey Benoit had shown her to do.

She followed up with a smack across the nose with the hard edge of her purse. Hard hands pulled her away from Blondie. She was standing behind Lance before she could catch her breath. And he was doing something swift and severe to Blondie that had him falling to the floor clutching his wrist and whimpering like a baby.

“I was managing just fine,” she snapped.

“So you were,” Lance said agreeably. “And I’d back you against this son of a bitch in a fair fight. But I draw the line at letting an unarmed woman tackle a thug with a knife.” He opened his hand and she saw he was holding a knife with a six-inch blade.

A short, stout man spoke from the doorway. “Everything okay?” His voice was the voice of authority.

“He broke my arm,” Blondie complained from the ground.

“Just your wrist.” Lance showed the stout man the knife. “He pulled this on Miss Dupré, Roy,” Lance said. “I had to take it away from him.”

Roy put a meaty hand down and yanked Blondie to his feet by the collar of his shirt. “That would be assault with a deadly weapon,” he said cheerfully. “That’s a felony here in Colorado. You’re under arrest.”

“He broke my fucking wrist,” groused Blondie. “Who the fuck are you?”

Roy twisted his hand so that the collar tightened enough to shut Blondie up. “I’m the Sheriff,” he said calmly. “We’ll take you by the clinic, on our way to the jail – and if it’s closed, and likely it is on a Saturday night – once you’re booked, the deputies will take you to Acton.”

Roy was joined by a pleasant featured woman, wearing the uniform of a Sheriff’s deputy. “Now ain’t this a shame?” she said sadly, shaking her head so that her brown ponytail swayed. “And on your day off, Sheriff. We’ll just put him in the squad car and take him to the jail. And you can go and finish your beer with Mrs. Ramirez.”

“What about my fucking wrist,” whined Blondie.

Roy Ramirez ignored Blondie. “I don’t mind if you don’t, Olga. Is Jaime with you?”

“Yes sir. We’ll take this fella to the station.” She led Blondie away with his wrists cuffed together in front of him. “You keep still, and that won’t hurt as bad,” Olga Flores advised.

“We’ll need a statement from you, Lance,” Roy Ramirez said. “And you too Miss Dupré. Tomorrow morning will be soon enough. You finish up your evening, and don’t let this sorry son of a gun destroy your fun.”

* * *

“Do you want to dance?” Lance asked Amber.

Her face was white. She shook her head. “Could we go home?”

Damn. Looked like his date was over before it really began. “We’ll do that thing,” he assured her. He kept his body between her and the people milling around. “I don’t want you to think that those two are a sample of the men around here. They’re not typical and they’re not from around here.”

The Deputies had hustled Blondie out, ignoring his pal Dog, who had flounced out of the bar after them grumbling, but not actually making threats. Sheriff Ramirez raised a hand as Lance pushed the door open for Amber. In the parking lot, the patches of ice were still a hazard. He smiled down at her. She still looked strained.

“I’ll carry you again,” he offered, “Unless you have some objection.”

“Thank you.”

Lance handed Amber his keys and swung her into his arms. Despite their heavy coats, he relished the softness of her hip against his belly and the firmness of her back and thighs. But in two steps they were at his pickup and he had no excuse to hold her. He angled her so she could get the passenger door opened.

“Thank you,” she repeated as he put her on the seat.

He turned the heater on high. “You want to tell me what brought on that fight?” He pulled onto the road.

“Blondie was waiting for me when I came out of the Ladies.” Amber sounded mad. “He asked me to dance. I declined. He grabbed me. I don’t put up with that from anyone,” she said.

“That’s a nice trick you have with your boot heel,” he said.

“One of my cousins taught me and my sister how to look after ourselves. I’ve used that technique a time or two. But I’ve never had anyone pull a knife on me.”

“That was a bit unusual — even for a bar fight.” Lance nodded. “All women should know some self-defense. Don’t you worry, Blondie picked the wrong county to assault a woman. He’ll do some jail time, and Ramirez will see that Dog stays on the other side of the county line.”

He made a note to tell Carlos Diego about this evening’s fracas. Since they had halted the cattle rustling last spring, things had mostly been quiet on the ranch and the stud. The culprits had been arrested, but Laura’s husband Steve Holden had always felt that they had not caught all the rustlers. Lance had just been glad that the sabotage had stopped. Not that he had any reason to suspect Dog and Blondie of being cattle thieves.

Just because a couple of fellas were the kind of jerkwads who grabbed unwilling females, they weren’t necessarily criminals. But over the years he had learned that criminal activities often spilled over into generally antisocial behavior. Wasn’t anything much more antisocial than laying violent hands on a woman.

“We’ll go into town after morning stables to make our statements,” he said. “I’ll fix it with Carlos.”

Amber looked relieved.

“And we’ll try going to Hank’s another time.” He waited hopefully.

“I’d like that.” She even sounded like she meant it.

* * *

Maybe if she hadn’t grown up in fear of Bobby’s Dupré’s fists, she wouldn’t have overreacted in the bar. But her stepfather had a bad temper and had never hesitated to smack her and Heather around. Time was she had believed they deserved the beatings they received. But she had grown up and realized that Uncle Bobby was just meaner than a snake. But her fear of male strength remained.

Lance was capable of violence. He had expertly broken Blondie’s wrist with a single move. He didn’t look that strong. But she knew he was. Lance trained Quarter Horses all day every day and in between did the hundred and one things that needed doing in a stable. And he had been a soldier. He had known how to disarm and disable Blondie as smoothly and easily as he groomed Laura Bascom’s big stallions. Not that Blondie had not deserved it. Pulling a knife on a woman just because she turned a dance down was crazy.

Besides she knew lots of men just as lethal as Lance who would never use their expertise to hurt a woman. Her cousin Joey Benoit, who had taught her how to respond to attack, had been in the Reserves until he married his Caitlin. He knew a thing or two about hand to hand combat.

Joey would have made two of Lance. He was a big, blocky bear with bulky shoulders and long arms. And a chest as broad and deep as a barrel. Yet he was as gentle with his wife and kids as he was protective. Lance was lean and wiry. More of a willow than a redwood. And no kind of a shifter at all.

She sniffed the air delicately. Lance didn’t smell angry. Or not much. His gloved hands on the steering wheel were relaxed and easy. She decided he didn’t scare her. His violence had been result oriented. He had intervened to stop her from getting hurt and praised her efforts at self-defense. Catch one of those trolls from French Town praising a woman for her fighting skills. Most men in French Town was not as enlightened as Joey Benoit.

On the other hand, Lance was aroused. Again. Ever since the morning he had burst in on her in the altogether that had been his normal. Not that he had done anything about his arousal, other than ask her to this dance. She kept glancing at him but he kept his attention on the road. Little white flakes were drifting downward and collecting on the sides of the road. The deep snowbanks were already whiter than white, all the dirt thrown up by drivers since the last snow covered up by this fresh snowfall, but the asphalt still showed black.

He pulled up in front of her little cabin and ended her reverie. “Stay put,” he said softly. “The snow is sticking some and you don’t want those boots ruined.”

No she didn’t. She liked it when Lance carried her—further proof he was stronger than he looked. She was a big girl. The bear shifter part of her thrilled to a man’s brute strength. The forward-thinking feminist part disapproved of such primitive instincts.

And then he was opening her door and smiling down at her. The left side of his face didn’t move perfectly in synch with the right. His best smile was more of a grimace. But he was a good man. And it behooved a patriot not to despise those wounded warriors who had kept their country safe. She returned his smile with one of her own.

Lance picked her up and held her close against his chest. She could feel his heart pulsing through both their coats. He set her down on the boards of the narrow front porch. “Do you have a shovel indoors?”

“Outside the back door.”

Lance looked up at the sky. Not a star twinkled. “Bring it inside. You might wake up to four feet. Or a dusting.”

“All right. Thank you for taking me into town.” She hesitated. This was the awkward part of any date. The part where you got kissed—or you didn’t. Lance had stiffened up. But she knew from his scent that he wanted her. Did she dare? She guessed she did.

She brushed her lips against his. For a moment he seemed startled, but he had been trained to think on his feet. His arms caught her gently against him and he kissed her back. His lips felt soft against her own. She let herself relax. He was a better kisser than Willie Benoit. Probably a better kisser than she was.

He nibbled on her lower lip, but even when she parted hers, he didn’t forge inside her mouth. He kept up his gentle kisses and his hands at her waist stayed put. Of course, his parka was as puffy as her own. They weren’t really touching anywhere but their lips. She kissed him back as he was kissing her. Although he was freshly shaven, the skin around his lips prickled her own. She liked the feel and taste of that male skin.

Her front door opened and a deep voice said, “Where the hell have you been?”

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