Thank you for your patience, lovely readers! I’ve been sick this month and too tired to do much writing, so I missed a week of Bear Fate. Never fear, however: I have prepared 3 new chapters for you this week to compensate, and we’ll be back on schedule next time.

The excitement continues. Jealousy drives Calvin to take bear and we finally get inside his head. Lance and Amber have a date and share their pasts. On his way home, Lance stalks a bear. Enjoy and thanks again!

<<<CHAPTERS TEN & ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

About the time his SUV was rumbling down the side road towards the Diego’s house and the small cabin that Carlos and Rosa were renting to Amber, it finally dawned on Calvin that he was about to make a fool of himself. What he wanted to do was scoop Amber up and carry her off to the Big House where the security was as tight as Steve Holden’s experts could make it.

Unfortunately, he had a snowball’s chance in hell of persuading her to move into Laura’s house. Amber was sure to assert her independence and insist on remaining in the cabin. And he had no way of compelling her to do the sensible thing. Hell, he didn’t even have an invitation from Laura, let alone a direct order.

He stepped on his brakes. The SUV obeyed and glided to a smooth halt on the snow-covered road. The lights of Carlos’ and Rosa’s house glimmered through the trees. The cabin was a glow from behind the house, reflecting off the snow on their roof. Amber was home and up. He turned off his vehicle and thought.

He needed proof that she was in danger. If that damned snake wanted to do her an injury, his best strategy would be to slip out of jail, attack her, and return to his cell before he was missed. That would be a piece of cake for a snake shifter who could leave by the ventilation system, or any other set of vents. Even a drain would do in a pinch. He had better scout around the cabin and make sure Blondie had not already paid her a visit.

A snow bank that had been broken by cows moving between pastures made a perfect spot to conceal the SUV. Cal got out into the frigid air and began to strip. He disapproved of taking bear anywhere. Doing so on the ranch with dozens of people around was simply asking for trouble. He ignored his shivering and reached into the SUV to turn off the overhead lights.

When he was completely naked and standing barefooted in the snow, he began his transformation. He fucking hated this. The wrenching pain as his bones broke and reformed was excruciating. He set his jaw against the feral bellow that threatened to give him away and endured. It seemed to take forever before the change was complete and he was equipped with large paws and a heavy coat. When he set off towards the trees, his face still ached as if he had been punched in the jaw.

But his eyesight had sharpened. The snow reflected enough light that he could clearly see the tracks of the hares and deer that had been visiting the ranch. His hearing improved too. He distinctly heard boots squeaking in the snow and tramping up onto Amber’s wooden porch. The boots stamped, knocking off snow. A brisk knock followed.

The door opened. Had she even bothered to check who her visitor was before she opened her door?

“Hey,” Amber’s rich contralto said softly. “Leave your boots on the mat.”

“Thanks,” replied Prescott’s baritone. The door shut and blocked all but a murmur. That bastard was kissing her.

Cal reminded himself that he had not come out to spy on the girl. He was looking for sign of a villain. He resisted the impulse to batter down the door and forcibly remove Prescott. Now that Kenneth and Lucy were home, Steve had better get on with investigating that bastard. They had a duty to protect Amber against fortune hunters.

The paths that led to the Diegos and the stables were packed down by those worn out boots of Amber’s. He made a note to speak to Pat about it. Surely Heather could see that her sister was properly dressed? Amber had left her scent behind too. A delectable aroma of nubile female bear that aroused his bear senses and made him eager to seek her out. Except that he knew exactly where Amber was. What he was looking for was the musky odor of snake.

The fir trees around the cabin were laden with snow, although the ground beneath the drooping boughs had been entirely protected from a winter’s worth of snow. Each time he stuck his snout under the lowest branches, the pine needles were redolent of deer mice and other small rodents, but there was no smell of snake, let alone snake shifter. Soon his head was covered with snow mixed with pine needles. Melt water trickled into his eyes and nostrils.

Disgruntled, Cal padded on. There were a great many trees. And he was leaving prints the size of pie plates. Fuck. Some cowboy was going to get his shotgun out and fill his sorry ass with buckshot. Couldn’t be helped. He quartered the area right down to the Diegos’ drive and as far as the stream. He shook snow off by the water and watched as sparkling drops and broken needles pockmarked the unbroken and crusted snow.

He was leaving spoor in a highly indiscreet manner, but at least he had established that the snake had not approached the cabin. Which did not of course mean that Blondie wouldn’t. The cabin only looked rustic. It had been built to withstand Colorado winters with heavily insulated walls and flooring and a sharply pitched roof. The windows were triple glazed and only a fool would open them on a night like this. Amber might be naive, but she wasn’t a fool.

He could go home to his own warm and comfortable bed and leave Amber and Prescott to their evening’s entertainment. Presumably Prescott could handle a snake that crawled through the drains. The hell he could. Cal circled the cabin while their conversation hummed and buzzed. At least if they were talking they were probably not in bed. Unless Prescott hadn’t bothered with preliminaries. Shit. Their chat was probably preliminaries.

He selected a tall oak that would hold his weight and climbed up to sit in the crook of one of its snow-covered limbs. It was too damned narrow for comfort. Too damned awkward for sleeping. And too damned far from the cabin to hear Amber and Prescott. But at least he could see over the tops of the firs and the roofs of the cabin and house. If anything came, he would hear and see it.

Images of Prescott undressing Amber’s ripe and luscious curves, peeling off her tight jeans to expose her lush thighs and generous rump, tormented Cal. Shit. He was no voyeur. As a rule, other people’s sex lives held zero interest for him. It appeared he was making an exception for this lovely young bear.

* * *

She had done something to her hair. Curled it or something. It hung loose and the thick, dark waves framed her flushed and beautiful face. She had changed her shirt too. The silky purple and black blouse followed the line of her bosom and hinted at the curve of her waist.

“You look especially pretty,” Lance said inadequately. He was immediately reminded that a shave and a clean shirt had done nothing to alter his disfigured face. He had tried growing a beard, but his skin was so damaged that his beard grew only in patches. The result was even grimmer than when it was clean-shaven.

“I made popcorn and hot chocolate,” she said shyly.

He took his parka off and hung it beside hers. Placed his shotgun against the door jamb. Her bed was made up and covered with a quilt and cushions. She had pulled her little table beside the single armchair and arranged the food on it. One of the two straight-backed chairs was set on the other side. She waved him towards the armchair and they enjoyed a polite skirmish which he lost.

“I didn’t know if you like marshmallows.” She picked up her mug where three tiny ones floated.

He shook his head. “Bit too sweet for me.” He took a sip and was pleasantly surprised. She had made it from scratch and it was bracingly chocolaty and barely sweet. “This is delicious.”

Belatedly he realized that she was nervous. Probably afraid that having invited himself over, he would force himself on her. How could he reassure her without making her more self-conscious? He took a larger sip and reached for a handful of popcorn.

She took some too. Like the hot chocolate, the popcorn was homemade with just the right amount of butter and salt. He glanced around. Yup, she still only had one hotplate and a microwave.

“Did you make this on your burner?” he asked.

She shook her head. Her curls bounced and her smile broadened. “In the microwave. My sister and I worked out a way that is faster and doesn’t set off the smoke detector.” She pointed to the plastic device on the ceiling.

“Cooking alarm,” he said and she laughed. He helped himself to more. “It’s really good.”

“Thank you.” Her nervousness was back. She cleared her throat and spoke. “I guess now that Laura has had her babies, she will be able to keep the ranch.”

Lance raised his brows. “What do you know about old Clive’s will?”

“Just that he left one that sure set the cat among the pigeons! Not just here in Colorado. He made a passel of trouble for my folks in Washington State too.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. Clive Bascom was a mean old goat, if there ever was one. I didn’t have much to do with him, myself, but I got to listen to him harassing Zeke, Patrick and Calvin. They’d show up for a visit and, without fail, he’d start in on them neglecting their true duty. By which, if you can believe it, he meant resigning from the military. And Major Bascom was in Special Forces, with I don’t know how many decorations.”

“I heard he put it in his will that Zeke, Pat and Calvin couldn’t inherit unless they resigned,” Amber responded in horrified accents. “Is that even legal?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But if it isn’t illegal, it sure ought to be.”

“Say that again. Half of my cousins are in the military, and the other half would like to be.”

“It’s the same back home in Tennessee,” he assured her. “Anyways, I do know that Miss Laura got the lawyers to waive that condition, although I couldn’t say how. But that still left her to cope with the stipulation that she marry and have a child if she wanted title to the Double B. Which was just wicked, considering she had been running the ranch and the stud for years.”

“What a way for family to behave.” She shook her head. “But now she has a husband and two children, Laura must get to keep the ranch for good, right?”

“I’d guess so. And a good thing too. The alternate heirs are those cousins who tried to kill her and Steve last year.”

“Gosh.” She was shocked all over again. “I guess that fits in with how Clive left money to my step-grandma.” He drained his mug and she got up and fetched a thermos. “Would you like another cup?”

“Thank you.” He sipped. It was just as good. “Your step-grandma?” he prompted.

“My Grandma Shirley was Clive’s love child,” she almost whispered. “He left her money and you never saw a ruckus like my kinsfolk kicked up in French Town, fighting over it. There’s still a lot of bad feeling and a lot of it is focused on Patrick, because he was the one handling the money.”

“I don’t understand. If the bequest was for your grandma,” he ignored the issue of illegitimacy, “Why was there a problem at all?”

“By the time Clive Bascom passed, Grandma Shirley was long gone herself. The family started fighting over this new money.” Amber sighed. “Her will said she left her money to me and Heather, but the rest of the family didn’t see it that way. In the end, Patrick set up a scholarship fund in Grandma Shirley’s name and married Heather. He keeps trying to give me money, but no way.” She pressed her lips together tightly.

“Hmm.” Best not to comment on that. “Is that bad feeling why you came out to Colorado?”

“Partly. Mostly I was tired of being gossiped about.” She held out the bowl without saying what the gossip was about. “More popcorn?”

He took a big handful. She passed him a paper napkin. “Think you’ll ever go back?” he asked.

“Calvin says he will take me home as soon as my sister’s babies are out of the hospital.”

He could take a hint. “How are they doing?”

“Plumping up.” She reached into her hip pocket and produced her cell. “See.”

The babies seemed to have fewer wires and tubes than before. They were still thin and their eyes were shut. But fans of lashes lay on rosy cheeks instead of being obscured by swollen eyelids. “They’re bigger,” he said, which was true.

She sighed. “Not big enough to go home. Laura and Steve are so lucky.”

“They are. But it won’t be long before your sister will be taking her daughters home. In another year, this anxious period will be history, and those girls will be toddling around shouting at their Aunt Amber.”

She brightened. “They will, won’t they?”

“You bet.” He covered her hand with his and squeezed. He wanted to kiss her, but her chair was just too far away — deliberately, he supposed.

She withdrew her hand and picked up her mug again. “What about you? Will you go back to Tennessee?”

“Just to visit. Nothing left there for me.” Which wasn’t as true as it had been. Somehow meeting Amber had made the old pain fade to unimportance.

“That’s too bad,” she said sympathetically. “It’s not just Tennessee. We have a major unemployment problem in French Town too.”

He nearly snorted hot chocolate all over her. As if! “That’s not exactly the problem in Duneden. It’s just that all the jobs involve working for my cousin, and I can’t do that.”

“How come?”

“He stole my wife.”

“You’re married?” Her blue eyes were round with shock and her voice was scandalized.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

“Divorced,” Lance corrected, while Amber’s heart squeezed painfully. “Holly divorced me to marry Tommy Jack.”

She felt desolate. What did it matter who divorced whom? Marriage was marriage. She felt entirely blindsided by his revelation. It came from being from the ultimate small town. And from being raised among bears. She and Heather had hardly grown used to the idea that Patrick’s father was multiply divorced. Even Bobby Dupré had stuck to Aunt Marlene.

Back on the Ridge, her male chauvinist kinsfolk might think that she and Heather intended to abandon all tradition to become modern women. But wanting to be treated as equals by their husbands hadn’t really altered their fundamental ideas about marriage. She and Heather still led fast to the values of bears. They both wanted a soul deep bond and forever after. Heather might have had to compromise, but she didn’t plan to.

She forced herself to speak, “Tommy Jack would be your cousin?”

“Yup.”

“Do you have children?” Please, no.

He shook his head. “No. We didn’t get around to it before.” He gestured to his face.

“She left you because you were wounded?” As soon as they left her mouth, Amber wished her words unspoken. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”

Lance gave a bitter laugh. “Told me that she couldn’t stand to look at me – even with the lights out.”

“That must have made everything a thousand times worse.” What sort of woman left her injured husband for his own cousin? Let alone a husband honorably wounded in battle? And what kind of person stated her reasons so baldly and unkindly?

“You could say that.” His crooked smile was back. “At the time, it seemed like the final indignity. But I guess Holly had a point. After all, she didn’t sign on to look after an invalid.”

“You are hardly an invalid. And that’s what ‘In sickness and in health’ means,” Amber shot back fiercely. She touched the back of his hand. “I’m sorry you had to endure that.”

“I’m legally blind in this eye.” He touched his patch. “Can’t see much besides color and light. And it’s never going to get any better. Of course it probably seemed worse to Holly in the beginning, when both eyes seemed damaged, and I could barely walk.”

Holly had left him because he might go blind? Dear heaven. “Light and color are better than nothing,” she said practically. “What about motion?”

“With my left eye? I can make out movement no trouble, but I can’t bring anything into focus.”

“Then why do you wear a patch? Some sight is better than none.” If it was unpleasant to look at, tough for the looker. Lance was the one actually suffering.

“It’s an ugly mess is why, Amber. The lid doesn’t close properly and when dust and grit get in, the damn thing runs like a river.”

“No dust and grit in here,” she responded. She did not expect him to remove the patch and he didn’t. But he looked less strained.

“Anybody ever tell you that you are sweetness personified?”

“Nope.” Not hardly. Back home, men usually described her as sharp-tongued and bossy. Of course Willie had thought she was sweet and sexy. But even if Lance didn’t mean his compliment, it was nice to hear the words.

Lance stood up and pushed the table away. He held out his hand as if he was asking her to dance. She placed her palm in his and he pulled her to her feet. Like hers, his hand was calloused and heavy with muscle. But he held hers as tenderly as if it was smooth, soft and delicate.

“I’m beginning to think the fellows in your home town have worse vision than I do, and no common sense at all, at all.” His kiss was soft and easy.

Amber’s lips parted willingly beneath his. This time they weren’t wearing heavy parkas and when he pulled her against his chest her breasts sank deliciously into the rock-hard wall of his pecs. His heart was beating so hard she could feel it. She leaned into his heat and returned the leisurely sweep of his tongue, darting up behind his top lip and flirting with the inside of his cheeks.

Lance groaned and heat rose off him in waves. But although his muscles hardened, he did not pull her any closer. He kept his embrace light as he nibbled his way along her jaw line to her earlobe. Lightening streaked straight to her clit and she squirmed against him wanting more.

Divorced or not, he sure felt like her man. She forced herself to remember he had been married. He let her go as soon as she pulled back. “What is it?” he whispered.

“Do you still love her?”

“Holly?” He sounded baffled. “Nope. Do you think I would be canoodling with you while I’m in love with another woman?”

She felt hope flicker. But he must have loved his wife once. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure. Whatever I felt for Holly ended a long time ago. Round about the time she started stepping out with Tommy Jack.”

“Oh.” She hesitated, then decided she had to know. “What about your family? How did they feel about your wife and your cousin getting married?”

He grimaced. “Why do you think I wound up here in Colorado?”

“Why you? You hadn’t done anything wrong?” It sounded desperately unfair to her.

He shook his head. “Maybe so. But all the same there was a heap of bad feelings, and folks taking sides without knowing the truth of the matter. Eventually, I had just had enough. I lit out and started over.”

Her heart twisted. “It can’t have been easy. Didn’t you mind having to leave your home?”

“By the time I left I was so tired of the fighting that I didn’t care if I never saw any of them again.”

“Even your parents?”

He looked even sadder. “Even them. Things are a bit better now. Last couple of years I’ve even gone home for the holidays. Everyone seems to have forgiven and forgotten.” He shrugged. “Mom and Dad are even fond of Holly and Tommy Jack’s boy.”

Fonder of his ex’s son than of their own? “Oh. How do you feel about them having a child?”

“Am I missing something here? I said I was divorced. Have been for years. Why is that such a big deal?” His voice stayed level but there was an edge to it.

She blushed. “We’re pretty old-fashioned back in French Town. Folks stay married for life. I don’t think I ever knew anyone divorced until I met Patrick’s father.”

“Must be nice.” He sounded even more bitter.

“It is. In my family, we take true love seriously.”

“And true love always ends in happily ever after?”

“Pretty much.” She sighed. “Unless someone dies.”

“Huh.”

“My true love died.” She so hadn’t meant to say that.

“Yeah. When was this?” Lance tipped up her face so his one good eye could stare into both of hers. His mouth was a severe line.

“Willie and I were high school sweethearts. We were going to get married when I graduated.” Her voice faded.

“And,” he prompted.

“Willie enlisted the week after his graduation. He was a Marine like you.”

“Hmm.”

“He never made it back from his first tour.” She couldn’t help the sob that emerged with the words. “He was just nineteen.”

Lance rocked her against his chest. “Hush,” he said as if she were a child. “Never mind.” He kissed the top of her head. His arms comforted her.

“I’m sorry.” She spoke into his shirt. “It’s just so sad. He never got to grow up.”

“And what about your feelings? Are you still carrying a torch for that boy?” His voice was a little rough.

She owed him the truth. “I don’t think so. It’s been five years. But I always thought he was my one and only.”

Lance stroked her from nape to waist and gave her another comforting hug. “Five years isn’t so long.”

“It feels like forever.”

“Hmm.”

“At first I felt cheated of our future. And then I was sad because I missed him.”

“And now?” His drawl was so soft she had to strain to hear.

“I don’t know. I still feel sorrow when I think of him, but it’s more muted. As though I have forgotten him,” she confessed.

“You’ll never do that. But time has a way of taking the edge off grief.” He gave her another squeeze.

“I feel like I have already forgotten Willie. Look at me kissing you.”

Lance went rigid. “You haven’t dated since you lost your high school sweetheart?”

“Nope.” She spoke to his shirt snaps.

“Hmm.” A long pause while he petted her back. “Maybe we both deserve a second chance at love.”

She tipped her head back. “Do you think you could love me?”

“As easy as falling off a log. What about you? I’m not the man I was, and I never will be again. And I’m years older than your Willie. Years older than you.” His voice was flat. He expected rejection.

Amber could feel her face heating. She suddenly felt shy, but she put some starch in her spine. A modern woman shouldn’t be a shrinking violet. And Lance didn’t deserve coyness. “I’d like to try.”

“Sounds like a plan, sweet thing.” His drawl turned ‘thing’ into ‘thang’.

His happiness made her as swiftly joyful as she had been melancholy before.

“Shall we seal our deal with a kiss?” He bent his head and covered her mouth with his.

His taste was more familiar this time, but just as exciting. And as before lightning sparked between them. She wondered if he would think she was promising more than she intended, but his restraint was just as marked as before. It was her response that was different. She felt free to indulge her bear as she never had before. In fact, come to think, she seemed to have a whole new bear. A randy brazen wench of a bear.

Lance seemed to enjoy her hotly aroused bear for he chucked with masculine appreciation before angling his mouth so that their tongues could duel. Her world dwindled to the fiery union of their lips and tongues. Part of her was still concerned that he would think this was the prelude to bed, but the other larger part wanted to learn what pleased this man most.

She suckled his bottom lip and tugged it between her teeth for a playful nip. He growled and reciprocated, letting her feel the barest edge of his teeth as he pulled away to kiss her neck. He nibbled his way to her earlobe and engulfed it with his hot mouth.

He grazed the lobe with his teeth before blowing on it. Her clit began to pulse faster. He blew again, while his fingers teased the other lobe. Her whole body tightened with anticipation. She grabbed his arms and held on for dear life. He responded by tracing the rim of her ear with his tongue and then drying it with his breath. Her breath hitched and her stomach clenched.

The more aroused she became, the more subtle and teasing his kisses and caresses became. Not that he was unaffected by his play. His breath rocked his chest and his face was damp. He left her ear and laved the base of her throat, lapping at her skin while her breasts peaked and her pussy throbbed. She was on the brink when he set her six inches away.

“Wow!” His tone was heartfelt.

Amber heaved a long restless sigh of her own and opened her eyes. Lance rested his hot face against her hair. “I’d better go home,” he panted.

She brushed his face with shaking fingers. Beneath her fingertips he stiffened. The skin of his jaw was closely shaven, but there were patches where it was rough and pitted. Scar tissue.

“Do you mind?” His voice was humble.

“Only that you were hurt.” She kissed him as tenderly as she knew on the damaged skin.

He relaxed fractionally. Again his mouth sought hers as if she were water in the desert. His hands became busy stroking and kneading her back. She had never thought of her back as an erogenous zone, but she felt like purring from the pleasure of his fondling. To her embarrassment she heard her own husky moans start up again. She almost begged him to stay.

But it was still too soon for her. “Morning stables will be here soon enough,” she said in a voice that trembled.

“Yeah.” He was perfectly still, cradling her close. Gradually his heart slowed. “I’d best be on my way.”

“Do you know how to use that thing?” he asked pointing to her rifle which was racked up over the front door.

“I got my first deer when I was ten – and every year since.”

“Good. Is it loaded?” He shrugged on his parka.

“Not much use if it’s unloaded,” she said dryly.

“Ever shot a man?”

She shook her head. “But I’ve taken out my share of watermelons.”

He ignored her attempt at humor. “It’s different than shooting to put meat on the table.” His voice was bleak. “But if you must pull the trigger, aim for the chest — it’s a good big target.”

She didn’t tell him that her cousin Joey Benoit had given her the same advice before she went off to the ‘wilds’ of Colorado. She nodded. “If someone breaks in, I’ll assume he means me harm. Fire first, ask questions later.” She rattled off the rest of Joey’s advice.

“Maybe you should keep your piece beside the bed,” he suggested as he pulled his gloves out of his pockets.

“I have a revolver under the night stand,” she confided. “Loaded. I plan to roll out of bed and fire at whatever I can see.” A snake would probably be on the floor anyway. And a bullet in the ankle would drop the biggest man.

He grinned. “Are you serious?”

She nodded. “Yup.”

“Good girl.” He gave her a quick, hard, possessive kiss and crammed his watch cap over his hair. “Lock up tight.” He opened her door.

“Good night.” She turned the dead bolt and threw the barrel bolt for good measure. She stood listening by the door. Lance’s footsteps started up after a beat or two and thumped down the three wooden steps. He began to whistle. Her ears caught the squeak of his boots on the snow as she turned off the porch light, and then silence.

Amber went to the window flipping off the light switch as she passed it. Lance’s straight back appeared and disappeared, meandering among the trees. What the heck was he up to? It looked like he was tracking something in the snow.

Should she bundle up and lend her skills? Probably not. Let the man have his pride. Any tracks would still be there in the morning. It was late and it was past time for a working woman to be in bed.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

The Colorado sky was spangled with stars and the moon rode high amongst them. Moonlight gleamed on the snow and turned the familiar landscape into a fairyland of glistening icicles and glittering branches. Even though he had left Amber to sleep alone and he ached with unfulfilled lust, Lance was filled with anticipation.

He hadn’t wanted to leave Amber, but it was clear his darling wasn’t sure of her feelings and equally clear that she didn’t share her body unless her feelings were engaged. Her skittishness was understandable given that she hadn’t had a lover in five years. If she and her Willie had ever got past the hand-holding stage. He would have to go slow.

But Amber’s passionate enjoyment of his kisses had been a balm to his ego. He didn’t think her eagerness was just because it had been a long time for her. She was turned on by ugly, one-eyed Lance Prescott. Go figure.

His injuries had probably only given Holly an excuse for the infidelity which had started before he came back from Iraq. He would never have believed Tommy Jack of all men would cuckold him. No one in the family had believed it either. But it was true. Probably.

That was the trouble with depression. And what was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but an extreme form of depression? It skewed your whole perspective on everything. Made you assume the worse case scenario was correct. He knew he had been moody and withdrawn. Had he shown his violent grief and rage to Holly?

For the first time in eight years he allowed himself to wonder if his post-battle surliness was what had driven his wife into his best friend’s arms. Not that it mattered. Water under the bridge now. Tommy Jack and Holly had produced an heir to the Duneden Stables.

Tommy Joe was growing up with his sisters’ kids. Just one of this generation’s gang of cousins. Tommy Jack’s son would be running in and out of Aunt Sally and Uncle Roper’s house just as Tommy Jack had done. Just as if he was Lance and Holly’s boy. Mom and Dad had loved Holly like another daughter. Sarah Ann and Jo Jo had welcomed her as a sister. No surprise they had all stayed close.

Tommy Jeff was probably making plans to dust off the tiny saddle he had used to teach two generations of Prescotts to ride. In due course, little Tommy Joe would please his great-grandfather by taking to riding like a duck to water. After all, horses were in the boy’s blood. Turning that idea over in his mind, Lance found it lacked the power to sting.

He began to whistle, imagining a future in which he danced the bedtime tango with the prettiest girl in Colorado. This gleeful noise astonished him. Been a long time since he had whistled for sheer joy. In fact his state of mind felt distinctly odd. Only distantly familiar. Well, dang. He had forgotten what happiness felt like.

He was pretty much prancing when he spotted the ragged prints where huge paws had broken the crusty snow and scattered the softer interior with every step. After a time he decided he was tracking a bear. He was thankful for his shotgun as he cautiously followed to see where it had gone.

Everywhere and nowhere. The beast had looked under every tree, padded around Amber’s cabin, and gone down to the creek. Was this the same half-grown animal he had seen frolicking the other day? That had gone up on Amber’s back porch?

The paw prints looked too big, but that could be an artifact of the condition of the snow. He had learned to track in Tennessee. But there was no comparison between a Colorado winter and the milder ones of his youth. He couldn’t be sure.

Just about the first thing his Daddy and Granddaddy had taught him was that tracks changed. Time, temperature, wind, all made a difference. Only way to be certain of what you were seeing was long experience. By the time he had joined the Marines, he had known the sign of every critter around Duneden. He hadn’t been the tracker Daddy and Tommy Jeff were, but he had expected to be.

In dusty, gritty Iraq, where the constant wind carried fine sand to blur and erase details, he had learned to identify footprints and tire prints with high accuracy. In Iraq, knowing the difference between three-hour-old tracks and three-day-old tracks, was the difference between living and dying, which sharpened your wits considerably. But since he had come to Colorado he had done his hunting in the supermarket.

About all he could say about these particular tracks was that they might be bear, and they hadn’t been there when he went to call on Amber. What was the animal after? If it was looking for food, it wasn’t doing it any way that made sense to a man. But at least it gave him an excuse to call his girl. For Amber had agreed to be his girl.

He was too old and too washed up to be courting a tender blossom like Miss Amber. It was taking advantage of her sweet, compassionate nature and her youth and inexperience. Hell, the kid had not had a boyfriend since she was a teenager. It was a sin to think of tying her down to a wreck like Lance Prescott. But he was tired of being noble. He was going to seize his chance and try to do his best to make her happy.

She answered on the first ring. She sounded happy too. “What were you looking for in the snow?” she asked. So she had been watching him. He felt a warm glow.

“I thought I saw bear tracks.”

“Oh. Again?” For a country girl, she sure sounded bewildered that the bear might have come back.

“Yeah. You keep an ear cocked. It might be the same half-grown cub, although the prints looked bigger. If you hear anything, you grab your rifle.”

“I’ve never shot a bear.” She sounded not so much frightened as dismayed.

“And likely you’ll never have to. But if one decides your cabin holds its lunch, you’ll only get one chance.”

“I guess. Are there lots of bears around here?”

“Some. The Double B does back right up to the foothills. Generally speaking we don’t see many. But an animal out of its habitat is more dangerous for being in unfamiliar territory.” He paused. Cleared his throat. “I wish you were with me, so I could keep you safe.”

There was a long silence and then she spoke. “Don’t you worry. I’ve locked up tight. There’s no scent of food around my cabin to attract bears. I’d be more worried one would go after the foals.” Well, he hadn’t really thought she would invite him to sleep in her cabin.

“Scout would be barking if it had been up by the stables.” Which was true, although come to think, it was weird that the bear had not followed that pungent scent. The stable block was kept clean, but it still smelled of horses and dung.

“So she would,” she agreed. “She’s a good watch dog.”

“I’ll give Darrell a call and ask if he’s heard anything,” he said reluctantly. He didn’t want to hang up. He wanted to keep hearing her voice in his ear.

“You probably better. Good night. Sleep well.” But she didn’t hang up.

“Consider yourself kissed, sweetheart,” he said.

It took another five minutes before they ended the call and he could phone Darrell. Darrell sounded as if he had been napping, and had just that minute woken up. He was skeptical, but he promised to look around.

“I don’t know, Lance, it would be plumb loco for a bear to come down here where there are people, when the calves on the range are there for the taking.”

“Not if it’s an adolescent male looking for its own territory, and too inexperienced to tackle a herd.” It was past time he remembered he had been trained to lead men. Lance infused authority into his voice. “Go patrol.”

“Okay, okay. I’m on it.”

Sgt. Prescott went whistling to his bed, to dream all night of soft dark curls and softer breasts.

* * *

The door to the cabin opened and light spilled over the snow. About damned time. Prescott gruffly told Amber to lock up. The door shut. The dead bolt snicked as she followed orders. The barrel bolts slotted into place with two audible clunks. Prescott tramped away. The bastard looked up at the sky and began to whistle.

The porch light went out. Calvin relaxed. At least, whatever had happened in that cabin, Prescott wasn’t spending the night with Amber. But now he was following Cal’s fucking prints all through the trees and around the cabin. That was what came of flaunting your fucking bear.

Prescott held his shotgun like a soldier. Easily. Casually. Like an extension of his body he was ready to employ. Shit. The leafless branches of Cal’s oak tree weren’t going to be much defense against gunfire. The cabin lights blinked out – Cal supposed Amber was off to bed. Did she sleep in her own pink skin? Probably not. He remembered white cotton peeking out of the enveloping hotel robe. Maybe she was just a quick-change sort of a gal.

Prescott continued to follow Cal’s prints through the trees. But he traced them only to the stream before giving up and going inside his own house. Who said that the Bascoms weren’t lucky? Cal wriggled more firmly into his notch. The lights went back on in Amber’s cabin. Maybe she couldn’t sleep. He strained his ears and heard only the faintest rustling.

Her phone chirped. It was loud in the cold silence. She answered almost at once and the murmur of her voice was a pleasant hum in the night air. Probably talking to Prescott, he thought gloomily. Like a pair of junior high steadies. Shit. Had he ever been that young or that innocent? If he had, it was a long time and many women ago.

The cloudless sky was studded with stars. He had forgotten how lovely the night sky was. Once he had known all the constellations. When they had come into their bears, he and Luther had camped out in all seasons and spent many nights studying the stars and talking about the future.

They had defied all the rules and taken bear together. Romping in the woods like the idiot adolescents they were. It had been their secret vice, hidden even from Pat and Zeke. Probably this was where his primal longing for an earthy, full-bodied woman came from. A longing that deserved to be squelched like any other primitive streak. Bear lust had no place in the modern world he wanted to inhabit.

Maybe little Amber had as little wish as he did to hook up with a throwback. Maybe she was actively looking for a man not a bear. And who was he to blame her? This damned genetic curse was as senseless as it was disruptive to a normal modern life. He didn’t want to be at the mercy of bestial urges.

The skies twinkled down at him and mocked his veneer of sophistication. He was going to have to brush up on astronomy. Kenny Luther and Lucy Brenda were going to be asking questions down the road. So were Patrick’s three girls. Hard to believe that between them Zeke, Pat and Laura had eight babies. They almost made him believe that he could catch hold of the brass ring and have it all: loving wife and beautiful children.

Only did Jenna really love Zeke? Did Heather truly love Pat? Or was the money the real attraction? He knew Zeke and Pat were convinced that they were loved. But how could a man be sure he hadn’t been married for his money? If Luther had lived, would he have brought home a buxom bride who looked like Jenna and Heather and Amber? Like Mom? Would Luther have joined Pat and Zeke in taking a risk on loving a woman the way Dad had loved Mom?

Any normal man, left a widower in his prime, would at least have gone looking for some female companionship. But not Freddie Bascom. Dad lived as celibate and sexually austere a life as if he expected his Brenda to return from that ill-fated trip to town. Hell, back when Dad still lived in the old house, sometimes Calvin would open the back door half-expecting to see Mom stirring a vat of chili, while the scent of cumin hung in the air like love.

And if the truth were told, sometimes he would catch a glimpse of his larger than life twin out of the corner of his eye. It had never seemed quite plausible that big, brawny, tough Luther Bascom could be dead. How could death extinguish so much vibrancy? He’d give his right arm for just ten minutes with his brother.

So he was in no position to fault Freddie for clinging to his lost wife. Dad and Mom had been soul mates. Clearly, obviously, joyfully in love. Was there ever a happier home than theirs before that car accident took Mom and Bethany from them? When Zeke and Patrick had lost their mother, Mom and Dad had just rolled them into the fabric of their blithe home life. But Brenda’s death was like moving permanently from color into black and white.

He swallowed hard on the lump in his throat. Yawned fit to split his face. Shook his head to dispel the aura of melancholy he had allowed to envelop him. Dead was dead. Life was loss. A fellow had to make rules if he wanted to survive in a hard and cruel world.

Cal stared out over the trees, noting the plumes of smoke rising from the Diego’s chimney and Amber’s stovepipe. A warmer breeze blew impishly down from the mountains ruffling his fur and bringing the scent of cattle and horses. The silence was split by the sudden screech of a hunting owl. And then like a heavy blanket the quiet fell back over the night.

He drifted. A woman with a shape like a rutting bear’s fantasy ministered to his every desire with passionate tenderness. Two children with his brother’s eyes chased each other through the rooms of his childhood home. Just as he was settling into contentment and his lover was whispering sweet nothings, a crack like thunder blasted his dream and his dream woman into fragments.

He slipped sideways, and before he could plummet to the ground, snatched at the branch above. Damn. He had been caught napping. Was the noise that had woken him, real or part of his dream? Another crack split the air and then another. The warm, dry Chinook wind had come roaring over the mountains warming the winter air and lulling him to sleep.

Icicles were falling like missiles from the eaves of the Diego’s house and Amber’s cabin. Smacking hard against brick and stone. Piercing the snow, as his dream had pierced his heart. By sunrise, a foot of snow would be gone and it would feel like spring. But the wind brought only the illusion of warmer weather. In the flicker of an eyelash the temperature would plunge again, and plants roused from dormancy would freeze and die.

Fickle as a woman. As fleeting as happiness. He and his damn fool heart had better remember that.

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

CHAPTER FIFTEEN>>>