Sometime in the Middle of the Season…
The game moved a lot faster when I was the one playing it. Or maybe I was a little distracted by the three giant bear shifters sitting at the table with me.
A girl had priorities, after all.
I couldn't be mad that I'd lost yet another round as three sets of eyes followed my fingers as they took a slow, lazy trip down my leg to hook into my sock. Distraction was my favorite medium. I'd learned the tricks of the trade on the Las Vegas Strip, first working as a showgirl, but that wasn't where the money was. My ex-boyfriend was a professional poker player and he used me as his foil to tip the scales in his favor. Professional didn't mean he was good, or even ethical. It meant he'd made enough money playing the game to survive, by whatever means necessary. Many people play games like poker on sites not on gamstop as a bit of fun to earn some respectable side money, but for those that have a tendency to gamble irresponsibly, things can get a bit out of hand.
Until he managed to royally piss off some casino guys with a mafia complex. Our racket ended the morning they broke down our apartment door, demanding we give them back the money we no longer had. So I did what I always had before when I got myself into a sticky situation-I ran. After catching the first bus out of town, I saw an ad for The Real Werewives of Alaska on my phone. Holiday Falls became my new destination, and here I was, trying to prove I had what it took to be a Real Werewife.
And these bears were beating me at my own game.
“Are you gonna look at your cards or are you just taking something else off?” Steele winked at me. The biggest of the three men still had all his clothes on. The only delicious hint of skin he flashed was a muscular forearm. It was covered with tattoos. I salivated, wondering what else he'd decorated. He might consider it a win, but I didn't.
I narrowed my eyes at him, our gazes locking into a dangerous magnetic pull before I picked up the four cards in front of me. Distraction. It's the name of the game. “Why would I make this easy on you?”
He rumbled. It was the sexiest noise ever, and one of the many reasons those of us who'd signed up for The Real Werewives of Alaska were falling head over heels in lust with these guys. Lust was more than enough for me. I couldn't weigh any unsuspecting shifter down with my baggage. I'd never mastered the art of packing light, especially when it came to my past.
“I'll give you some advice.” His voice was still tipped with that irresistible vibration. “Don't make anything easy on any of us. We're football players. We love the game.”
When I looked up again, his gaze hadn't wavered. I forced myself to look away from Steele, taking in a quick sip of Corey to his left and Troy to his right. The three men couldn't be more different. Corey gave me a slow grin, but it didn't make him any less wild with his long blonde hair and wide, bare shoulders. Troy winked at me. He thought he'd be cute and take his shirt off first, putting his vest back on over his dark, ripped chest. His head was shaved, but he had a beard. And the most piercing dark eyes I'd ever seen. Each man set off a series of little explosions deep inside that had me squirming in my seat.
I was already down to my lacy bra, my nipples painfully straining against the fabric, begging for someone, anyone's touch. I'd worn a lot less in public many times, but I'd never shared this kind of electricity with my audience. My body was writing checks my gambling prowess couldn't cash. These bears knew they had me exactly where they wanted me.
And I liked it way too much.
Oh yeah, the cards. At least someone was distracted. Too bad it was me.
Three tens. An eight and a nine of hearts. Not a bad hand. It gave me some options. I snuck another peek at the guys. They were all so ruggedly beautiful. I'd already won this game.
Professional football players had some serious poker faces. And none of them were really interested in the card game. The only move they wanted to see was what I'd take off next.
Which made my strategy that much more important. These bears weren't the only ones who wanted to see some skin. The heart cards were my best bet. I discarded the ten of spades and clubs. Troy pushed two more cards at me. A seven of hearts and a three of spades. Nice. I grinned before laying down my hand.
The bra should make it through the round. I still wore my skirt, my panties, and the disapproving scowl of Tessa Williams, the producer of The Real Werewives of Alaska.
On the surface, running to a reality TV show might not seem like the brightest strategy for hiding from the thugs who were hoping to collect on my ex's gambling debts. But in gambling, the greatest risk reaped the biggest rewards. Or an unmitigated disaster, but I didn't have time for that kind of negative energy. I was hiding in plain sight. Deception, remember? It was supposed to be my specialty. If I pulled off my grand scheme, I'd never be on camera long enough to get anyone's attention.
I could already check off changing my name and bleaching the bejesus out of my hair. Those thugs would have to be paying a whole lot of attention to a reality dating show to catch me if I actually got any screen time.
Troy flipped over his cards. A royal flush. Seriously? Corey had two jacks and two queens. And Steele, that magnificent bastard, had four aces.
“This game is totally rigged,” I rolled my eyes dramatically, making sure to give Tessa and her camera a grin before I stood to take off my skirt.
“No it's not, darlin'.” Oh, I liked the way Troy said darlin', with a slight hint of a southern drawl. “It's a game of luck. And right now, we're about to get lucky.”
“That's enough. Cut.” Tessa waved her arms before I got the skirt over my hips. The groan emitted from the other side of the table was so satisfying. “We can't show this on TV.”
“There's an easy solution for that,” I said as I let my skirt drop. “Don't.”
Steele cocked an eyebrow, calling bullshit. But his gaze settled on my bare butt cheek. “I'm pretty sure I've seen much worse on shows like this.”
“C'mon, Tessa, things are just starting to get good.” Corey grinned at her. It would've worked on me, but apparently Tessa's heart had been poured from concrete. “Can't you blur out the good stuff?”
If Tessa had superpowers, she would've obliterated me with her stare. But the fact that I was still standing proved she was human. Some of the Werewives thought Tessa had a mom-like vibe, and maybe that was true, but she was the type of mom who always busted my ass over every little thing. She knew I had something to hide and she used it to her advantage.
She sighed. “Put your clothes on. This game is over. We need to talk.”
Tessa wasn't playing. She gave me an epic stare down until I picked my skirt up from around my ankles and pulled it back to my hips. The grumbles from the other side of the table would not sway her. I wasn't getting dressed simply to appease her. I was a grown-ass woman with needs. If I had better circumstances to choose from, I would've taken the bra off too and shimmied in front of her damn camera. Good decisions had never been my strong suit, and I was no stranger to dipping my toes in some very hot water. But if Tessa sent me packing, all I had waiting for me back in Las Vegas were a bunch of angry wannabe mafioso who'd decided I was responsible for repaying my ex-boyfriend's gambling debt.
I certainly couldn't go home.
The moral of this lesson was gambling was risky as fuck, addicting as hell, and I had to play these cards right because I was all out of second chances.
The guys grumbled as I followed Tessa out the door and to her van. She had as much of a hold on me as those Vegas goons.
“You wanted to talk.” I glared at her in the darkness as she pulled out of the parking lot. “What did I do wrong?”
“The Real Werewives of Alaska is about finding love. You're taking advantage of the situation.”
“Every Werewife wants something. Doesn't make me special.” I couldn't let on that I was secretly glad for her outrage. My plan was to string production along until those goons who wanted the money I didn't have moved onto someone with a bigger debt and forgot all about me. And play with some smokin' hot football players while I passed the time. A girl needed a hobby…or three. “How is a game of strip poker different than hot tub time?”
Hot tub time had become a running joke on the show-but it was also the universal Real Werewives signal that things were getting serious between a couple. I had some ideas for ways my three bear friends and I could finish our game in that tub that Tessa would most certainly hate.
“Because a couple goes into the hot tub. Two people. Not four.”
“But some of the Werewives have been to the hot tub with more than one guy.” Maybe not at the same time, but Tessa's theory had holes in it big enough to drive the production van through. “Will you show that on their episodes when they find their forever mates?”
She sighed. “You're not the first Werewife to think you're smarter than production. This show is my baby. It's about finding love, and it's about the Alaska Bloodhounds. Some of the Werewives think they'll use it as publicity for whatever they're here to promote, but once they find their forever mate, that changes.”
“I'm not promoting anything.” Just hiding, a full-time job on its own.
“I know why you're here, Shauna. And that Shauna is not your real name.”
She didn't know the whole story. I barely squeaked past the background check. Lucky-or unlucky-for me, the guys who were on my tail weren't the types to report my offense to any authorities. But I'd insisted production let me use a pseudonym. Just in case I actually did find forever love with an Alaska Bloodhound. Only then would it be necessary to come clean on my shaky past.
“I'm not good with rules.” I tried to stick to things that weren't bullshit. Kept me out of trouble.
“I understand not everyone finds their mates right away. I want you to take this seriously. If you think you like Steele, Corey, and Troy-I'm cool with that. All I'm asking is you take the time to get to know them-”
“That's what I was doing.”
She pulled the van in front of the Werewife Complex, cut the engine, and looked at me. “I want you to go out with them separately. If one of them is your mate, even better. That I can use. But there's no way I can put a four-way striptease on TV. Or whatever would've happened if I didn't put a stop to it.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. It was about time all this gambling finally paid off. Tessa bought me precious time I didn't think I had. I could totally go on a couple of sexy dates with Steele, the giant wall of man whose temples were tipped with gray. Then move on to Corey, with his wild long blond hair and a smile that dripped with sin. And then, like I deserved this much good fortune, there was Troy, who was meticulously put together…and that accent. A shiver went up my spine just thinking about it. Now if I could play by the rules, there was a chance I could get those Vegas goons off my back. And date three sexy as sin bear shifters while I did it.
But there was absolutely no way I could let any of them think I belonged to anyone.
What did I screw up this time? The three people sitting at the table frowned at me. I flashed them a stage-worthy smile and wrung my hands together. “Can I get you another round of drinks?”
“This isn't our order.”
Oh, right. Damn it. I might go down in history as the world's worst waitress. Four tables a night wasn't too much to ask. But I was distracted, watching the door for someone from my past to walk through and make me atone for my sins. I was much better at jobs where I took my clothes off, but since signing up for The Real Werewives, I could only do that on camera. With one Alaska Bloodhound at a time.
“Sorry. Your meal will be here in a minute.” I didn't bother making excuses anymore. Jenna, my boss, would be pissed. There was no way I could pick up these plates from one table and put them on another-even though the customers had never touched them; that was nasty.
She raised an eyebrow when the full plates came back into the kitchen.
“Sorry.” It should've been written on my name tag.
Jenna put down her spatula. “Tell me what's got you going in circles. Is it one of the Bloodhounds?”
I shook my head to buy time. Tessa said if anyone on the show found out about the trouble I was in, I had to leave. Something about liability. After all, she was harboring a fugitive. Jenna narrowed her eyes in confusion. Anything that had me this flighty shouldn't take so long to explain.
“It's not one of the Bloodhounds, it's three of them.”
She made a noise that sounded like a hum, but nothing I did could shock this woman. She'd snagged Landon Fox's heart long before the show started, and long before he was willing to admit it. And Fiona, her daughter, showed up in Holiday Falls and turned everything upside down. I was so thankful to have the attention pointed away from me. But after years of dealing with Fiona, Jenna's bullshit detector was the most defined muscle in her entire body.
“What happened at the poker tournament?” she asked.
The tournament was supposed to be for charity. But once Steele suggested upping the ante, so to speak, I'd forgotten all about the good cause and the cameras. That was why Tessa got so pissed last night. Distraction-I was supposed to be using it on other people, not the other way around. “Steele suggested we make it a game of strip poker, and a few other bear shifters who play on the offensive line joined in.”
“Who won?” Jenna asked.
I shrugged. “It depends on how you look at it. Tessa hauled me out of there before things got too serious and now she wants me to date all three of them. Separately, of course.”
“That's kind of the point of the show.” Yup, Jenna saw right through my bullshit. “Date the guys until there's a forever mate connection. Now will you tell me what's wrong? I can't have you bringing people the wrong orders. Being at Ocho is supposed to feel like having dinner with family. Not like your server can't be bothered to get your order right.”
Family was another thing I didn't know much about, since I ran away from them the first chance I got. That was how I dealt with my problems. I left. And I didn't have anywhere else to go from here.
But I couldn't tell Jenna why I was constantly looking over my shoulder, waiting for my past to catch up with me. “I promise I'll do better.”
“Okay.” She put her hand on my shoulder. “The plates are ready to go for the table you screwed up. Offer them free dessert. And when you're ready to talk, I'm ready to listen.”
I didn't deserve all these second chances. I liked to paint myself as the innocent party in the gambling business, that all I did was stand there and flirt, but it wasn't entirely true. I distracted the players, the dealer, and the pit boss. I gave Jack, my ex, strategies on how to game the system. He played the game, but I played a different one.
I blinked away tears as I set the plates down. “Save room for dessert. It's on the house,” I said to my table as the front door opened.
I gasped every damn time. Expecting the gig to be up.
So much for not being distracted. Steele, Corey, and Troy, my three bears from last night, filled the tiny restaurant with almost wall to wall muscle. Any Alaska Bloodhound sighting was an event, and my table was gawking right along with me. Only difference was the offensive linemen had eyes only for me.
“Can we get a table?” Troy asked. He was wearing a fedora. Every time I saw him with his clothes on, he was dressed up. The man was a sexy throwback to another era.
Ocho had eight tables, and the only empty one was in my section. As I led them over to it, I gulped down excitement and dread at the fact that I was going to have to wait on these men. Of course, it was my job, but I had tinglies just thinking about the business I left unfinished last night.
I lay menus on the table in front of them. “Are the three of you always together?”
Steele picked up his menu and looked at me over it. “We don't do everything together.”
“But the team relies on us to keep the quarterback safe and to execute the play,” Corey said. He traced his finger along the edge of the menu before flicking his gaze up to me. It was partially obscured by the blond hair that hung in his face, but the temperature jumped a few degrees. “That means we need to instinctively trust each other. Know the other guy's next move before he makes it.”
Definitely hot in here. These guys would have the windows steamed in no time.
“Can I get you water?” I certainly needed some.
The guys nodded, and it gave me a chance to remember I was still at work and had three other tables that needed my attention. And of course, Tessa and her camera crew glaring at me from the corner.
“You didn't tell me they did everything together.” I whispered to her as I filled their water glasses.
Tessa shrugged. “You can still only pick one.”
I got the water to the table without spilling it, a miracle because my hands were shaking. “Can I take your order?”
The look Steele gave me obliterated my clothing from the waist down. He had a day's worth of salt-and-pepper stubble, and the bluest eyes. “I thought all you could get us here was dinner.”
“That's right. Maybe a little dessert.” I winked. Tessa was going to wring my neck. “But let's start with dinner, shall we?”
“Salad. With honey mustard,” Steele said.
“Same.” Troy handed me his menu.
“I'll have that with salmon,” Corey added.
Yup, these guys did everything together. It would take everything I had not to think about how I could fit into that equation. “And for your entrée?” I asked.
They shared a glance, and Troy grinned. “We're not here for the food, Shauna.”
Which meant they were here to see me. I let my heart enjoy the butterflies in my stomach while my brain reminded me none of these gorgeous men could ever belong to me.
Shut up, brain.
My other tables had cleared by the time the guys' salads were ready. I sat with them in the empty chair at their table as they dug in. They might not be here for food, but they were hungry for something. The heat that rolled off the bodies surrounding me was enough to make me start stripping again.
“We had a little talk as we finished the poker game without you last night,” Corey said.
“Is that so?” I grinned, the images of these three bears naked around a card table would distract me for the rest of my shift. It didn't occur to me until now these bears might be just like me-looking for a little fun. Nothing serious. “Who won?”
“We all lost once you left,” Steele said. “But we came to a very important conclusion.”
I was dying to know what it was, but I couldn't show my hand that easily. “I'm sure we can find another game to play.”
“We will.” Corey licked his lips. My mouth watered, knowing they tasted of honey and heat. “All of our bears decided that you are our forever mate.”
“What do you mean, your bears decided?” I needed to get my hands on a How to Date a Shapeshifter manual pronto. Did such a thing exist? I hadn't paid much attention to how to make one of them stick around, because I didn't plan on keeping one of these guys in my life for long. “And what do you mean, forever?”
That word gave me hives.
Steele sighed and put his fork down. “Damn it, Corey. We were supposed to ease her into that. Humans get nervous when you start talking about forever.”
Especially this one. I gulped. “All three of you want me…forever?”
My bears nodded. After that declaration, I could totally call them mine. At least for the duration of the season. I couldn't make any promises past that.
“Ahh…” I didn't have to turn around to know that a certain someone with a camera thought the idea sucked big hairy bear balls. “I talked to Tessa about that last night, and she said-”
Steele waved that thought off. “Do you think Tessa knows better than our animals?”
I glanced back at her. Yup, totally scowling. Big surprise. Then back to the guys. The heat was unbearable. “Can you explain how your animal decides someone is their forever mate?”
The old me would've run. I'd done it before. But this new me, with the blonde hair and the new name, needed to stick around for a while.
“Our animals are always inside us,” Troy said. He had a faraway look in his eyes. He was a little smaller than the other two guys, and much more refined. “Until we shift. They're our conscience, and they see things we miss as humans. They're our truth. They tell us our true desires. And mine is pretty damn insistent that you're the one.”
Goosebumps blossomed over my skin.
“His bear is full of shit.” I'd swear Steele growled. “We're players, Shauna. We love the game. My bear plays to win.”
We had that in common. I turned to Corey. I could play this game too. “What's your animal telling you?”
“That you're playing with three men to who expect to win.”
I had to back away from him, or else I would've leaned across the table and kissed those honeyed lips. Felt his stubble against my cheek. If I were lucky, he would've tangled one of those big hands into my hair and given it a good pull…
But I was at work and I needed this job, and to stay in the good graces of Tessa Williams for as long as possible.
“Guys, I'm totally flattered.” Overwhelmed and a little bewildered too. Mostly by the fantasies that ran through my head of what these guys would do to win me over. Definitely not safe for cable TV. They belonged on websites that had a whole lot of x's in the URL. Not that I frequented those. “But as I was saying, Tessa said I could only go on a date with one of you at a time.”
My life was much less complicated when I only needed to buy time to stay away from my debt collectors. Now I had to stall three bears who all thought they could lay claim to me for the rest of time.
“Then go on a date with each of us.” Steele grinned. “And you decide which one of us is your forever mate.”
Oh, he liked to play dirty. But the ball was in my court. Just where I happened to like it. “What if I choose more than one of you?”
The guys looked at each other, searching for an answer. Even after that declaration, they all clearly expected to take me as their own.
I turned to the one who seemed to have all the answers. Tessa. “What happens if I choose more than one of them?”
“It was bound to happen.” She sighed, looking just as frustrated as the guys. “Try to choose just one, please.”
I kind of wanted to hug her. She was willing to play this game. “You've got to admit, it makes for some awesome TV.”
She groaned. This could be the first step in my grand plan of never getting an episode. And it would buy me time to consider my next move. There was no way all three of them could claim me, right?
Corey nudged my shoulder. “Who's the lucky guy who gets to take you out first?”
I went over my options one more time. My body trembled with a triple dose of emotions-excitement, fear, and the feeling that I didn't deserve to have these three men insisting they wanted me.
Especially when they'd fallen for a lie.
Troy winked at me. I took his hand.
“Wanna go on a date?”
Why did I decide to start with Troy? Easy. It was those suits. He always looked like he had his shit together-the total opposite of me-and he reminded me of the guys I knew from the casinos. Sleek and in control. Troy was familiar, and going out with him gave me an opportunity to prove I could get things right this time.
“How do I look?” I asked my roommate Molly as I twirled in front of the full-length mirror leaned against the wall between our beds. My little black dress was making its very first appearance in Alaska, but it had brought me pretty good luck when I'd worn it in Vegas.
“Like that thing's going to spend half the night in a heap on the floor.” She grinned as she opened her laptop. Molly was a romance author, and she swore she was just in Holiday Falls for research. I'd call bullshit on that if she'd actually been out with one of the guys yet. But I was the last person who should be questioning ulterior motives. “Where's Troy taking you?”
“He says he's bringing me dancing.” There was a major flaw to his plan. I'd been in Holiday Falls for over a month and outside the events Bloodhounds and The Real Werewives threw, it wasn't exactly a nightlife hot spot. Okay, there was an occasional wine and paint night that gave the moms in town a chance to escape the kids once a month. But nothing that resembled dancing.
Molly raised an eyebrow. “Where?”
I wished I could tell her about my past. If nothing else, it would make an amazing plot in one of her books. “All he'll say is it's a surprise.”
“Good.” She clicked a couple keys on her laptop. “When you get back I'll be a total creeper and ask you all the questions, because this three bears thing is giving me plot bunnies for the hottest story ever.”
“Maybe I'll ask you for suggestions on our next date.” I hadn't asked Tessa if dating each of the guys thing was a one-and-done situation. I had a pretty serious decision to make-whichever man I chose was in it for the long haul. I needed more than a few hours to choose. I didn't have an animal inside me keeping me out of trouble. Although, not having enough time could be my reason for choosing none of them.
But more dates would give me the chance to stretch this out through the end of the season…
“All my suggestions are only suited for behind closed doors.” Molly grinned at me. Whatever Bloodhound finally snagged her was in for one hell of a wild ride.
“Now I'll be sure to ask.” I slipped my feet into my heels and grabbed my fuzzy jacket that would do absolutely nothing to keep me warm on a chilly Alaska night.
Tessa waited for me in the living room. Molly and I shared the condo with four other Werewives. I loved the camaraderie; I'd never spent this much time around women who weren't related to me. But I hated that I had to put up a front-that I'd sold real estate in Vegas and my ex left me because he got cold feet about getting married. We were on The Real Werewives of Alaska to find love and connect with a shifter-or three-who wanted us forever. And all I had to offer the lucky guy was a lie.
You're not here to find a mate, I reminded myself. My mission was a lot easier before three smokin' hot bears laid their cards on the table. Each one of them showed me a winning hand.
“I'd like to bring you into the confessional before we meet up with Troy. I'm documenting this every step of the way, in case this episode ever sees the light of day.” My chaperone for the night called all the shots. I followed her, making faces behind her back the whole way. The other ladies were either at Ocho working or out on dates, so my performance was wasted.
“There are only a few questions, and I'll have more for you after the date,” she said as she flicked on the lights and picked up her tablet. Someone had painted the tiny room the color of Pepto. Ominous. “The audience won't hear what I say, so make sure to repeat my questions in your answers.”
“This isn't the first time I've been on camera.” I winked at her disgust. I wouldn't elaborate.
Tessa settled in to the chair across from me and opened her tablet. “Why did you choose to go out with Troy Mitchell?”
Well played, Tessa. She'd make me work for this and really choose one of them. My loopholes might have worked in Vegas-to a point, but I wouldn't get them by a much worthier adversary. “I'm going on a date with Troy Mitchell because he's kind and sophisticated, and I can't lie-this gentle giant intrigues me.”
She gave me the most genuine smile I'd seen from her all season. She liked that answer. “Have you ever been out with a shifter before?”
“I've never been out with a shifter before.” I was born and raised in New Mexico, the home of plenty of shifters and other magical creatures. But my family considered people they didn't understand to be evil. I was sure I'd met many shifters in Vegas, but my love life had been nothing short of disappointing. I was ready for something different.
“What do you expect to happen tonight?”
I closed my eyes and thought about my answer. I hadn't had a chance to spend any alone time with Troy yet, and I only knew him as a part of the bigger picture. The quiet, confident force that smiled at me from the other end of the table as we played cards. And this dancing thing. If he could pull it off, I couldn't wait to see what else he had up his sleeve.
“Magic.” Whoops. I forgot to include Tessa's question. “I think my night with Troy will be pure magic.”
After five years in the league, I wasn't only used to a high level of competition-I craved it. I didn't get to this level because I liked to lose. Winning was the only option, on and off the field.
And this woman-with her blonde hair that she tied back in a messy knot, her pink lips that always had laughter playing on them, and her legs that went on for fucking miles-would give me the toughest fight of my life.
She belongs to us, my bear rumbled inside me. I excelled at team competition and loved the concept that the sum of the group was more powerful than the individual, but that wouldn't help me win over my mate. I knew exactly what I brought to the table. That was part of being on a team. Knowing when to contribute and when to hold back. Because I'd played alongside Corey and Steele all season, I also knew what I had and they didn't.
Don't let them get into your head, my bear warned me. Tonight, it's you and Shauna. Win her over and make her forget about them.
I'd do whatever it took to make Shauna mine.
The knock on the door startled me. I'd been lost in my own thoughts, arguing with my animal. I had to stay on my toes. I might have the first date with Shauna, and that would mean I'd have to fight the hardest to keep her.
It was the guy I hired for the night to play saxophone. Holiday Falls looked like it belonged in a snow globe, but that meant my options for this date fit in the same tiny glass sphere. I had to get creative.
Most of the Bloodhounds took their date to the hot tub at the Werewives compound. But my competition was fierce and I had to wow Shauna beyond what she could expect from any other guy on the team. Especially from Corey and Steele. I wanted to sweep this woman off her feet.
My phone buzzed. Tessa. We're on our way.
Time to light the candles I'd put on the single round table left in the abandoned storefront. I had Jenna send wine over from Ocho. A little romance never hurt anyone. As the musician set up in the shadows, I waited.
All my life, I'd dreamed of finding my mate. My clan in Louisiana was small and that meant my mate would probably be human. Our clan had too many rivals, and a neighboring clan would never agree to join forces with us. A human mate meant I might not have an heir, but I contributed in other ways. I kept the clan financially secure.
In my dreams, my mate hadn't looked like Shauna. But it was her; I knew it as much as I knew the sound of my own blood drumming in my ears with each excited heartbeat when the headlights from the Werewives van lit up the storefront. Her skin was lighter, eyes bright green, but she had the same upturned nose and laughing lips. I hadn't dared to dream of a body like hers. Still, my animal knew as soon as he laid eyes on her that she was the one.
Tessa and her crew came in first, their heavy jackets and camera equipment blocking my view of my mate.
Shauna's mouth dropped open as she took in the mostly abandoned room. It was a risky location choice to win over a mate, but if I wanted something I'd never had before, I had to pull out every stop.
Tonight she had her hair swept up a little tighter than usual. Her lipstick was fresh and her eyes were rimmed with dark makeup. Sexy as hell. Her smile widened when her gaze landed on me. Like I was the only man in the world. My animal rumbled inside me, already considering this a victory.
Not so fast, beast.
“Troy Mitchell, what are you up to?” Shauna's heels clicking on the old wooden floor was the only sound in the room as she approached. My bear begged me to take her in my arms and kiss her, but I had to teach him patience. If we played our cards right, we'd have all the time in the world. “I thought you said you were taking me dancing.”
“The music is everywhere if you know to listen for it.” As I took a step closer to her, I signaled for the saxophonist to start playing.
Her breath caught, and the candlelight sparkled in her eyes.
“Can I have this dance?”
She nodded, and her hands were still cold from outside when she wrapped them around my neck. This was the closest we'd ever been and we fit together like she was a piece of me I had no idea I was missing.
This was crazy. I only knew her from that rigged poker game. But damn, did I ever want her. Tell her she belongs to us, my bear begged.
Not yet, we'll scare her away.
You have to tell her before she goes out with the other two. They'll do whatever it takes to make her theirs. My bear was always a cocky bastard.
“How did you know I love jazz?” she asked, grinning when I startled. Some job I was doing claiming my mate when I couldn't stop arguing with my animal about how to do it.
“Lucky guess.” I had no idea if she'd be into this. I asked the guy to play a mix, just in case I'd totally missed the mark. “And I wanted to bring a little of my home into the night.”
“I like that. Where are you from?”
“Just outside New Orleans.” Sometimes I felt like I'd come to Holiday Falls from another planet. Something was always happening there, whereas Alaska gave me too much time to think. “The music never stops in the city.”
“I've always wanted to go there.” She closed her eyes and let her head fall back, only for as long as the note lasted. “I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. My family is really old fashioned. Like, they chose my husband for me. But once I got wind of that plan, I snuck out and bought a bus ticket to Vegas. Never looked back.”
Not good, my bear growled, Not good at all.
Shauna stiffened, like she remembered something she didn't want to. To calm her, I pressed my lips against her forehead. My fingers tangled into her updo, holding her steady.
It calmed her.
“I messed up your hair.” I tried to smooth it before I let her go but it was useless. Chunks had tumbled away from the knot. My bear rumbled, and she jumped again. Shit. I was fucking this whole thing up without even trying.
But damn, did she look beautiful undone. A delicious preview of things to come.
She reached back and pulled the clip away, letting the waves fall over her shoulders. “I think it's time to let my hair down anyway.”
She took the opportunity to shrug out of her fuzzy jacket. Her little black dress tied at the neck and showed a delicious swell of her breasts. She winked at me, like she meant to say my eyes are up here, bear, before nodding to the saxophonist. “Do you know anything upbeat? I've been dying to dance ever since I got here.”
He nodded, and his next song was a bluesy version of something we'd hear at the club, if we had one here. Shauna took my hand, stepping in beat with the music. I'd follow her lead, just to see what she had for moves.
She rolled her hips in time with the music, or maybe it was my heartbeat. Damn, if this was the way she danced, I couldn't wait to see how she moved between the sheets. It was the most natural thing in the world to lean in and steal a kiss-but I couldn't steal what she gave willingly. Her tongue slid over mine, circling in time with her body.
The music stopped too soon-I'd only hired the guy for an hour. Had I been wrong, that could've been an eternity. Shauna collapsed in the chair, wiping the hair away from her dampened cheek. Lipstick smeared from that epic kiss, hair wild, she stole my breath away.
“You have no idea how much I needed that.” Her gaze shifted to the table. “There's wine, too?”
She looked back at me, narrowing her eyes. “How'd you get so perfect?”
“Sometimes I get lucky.” My bear rumbled, but this time, she wouldn't have felt it. I took a seat on the other side of the table. “Didn't bring any cards, though.”
“I've been forced into poker playing retirement.” She made a face at Tessa. “At least until the show is over.”
“There are other ways to have fun.” I leaned forward. This wasn't my first Werewife date, but it was the first one where I wanted to tell the camera crew to leave. And they would, when things got too hot to show on TV. But we wouldn't go there, not tonight. Not a common choice for the cast of The Real Werewives of Alaska, but my goal was to leave Shauna with the same insatiable craving for me that I had for her. When those other bears came knocking, I wanted her to come back to me. I had to be the one who left her wanting more.
They were my teammates, my brothers, my adopted pack-but I played to win.
“If you could be any place on Earth right now, where would it be?” She totally changed the subject.
Easy. “Right here with you.”
I loved her sigh. “Okay, let me rephrase that. If you could take me one place in the world, where would it be?”
Still too easy. “I'd take you dancing on Frenchmen Street and then out for etouffee.”
“Maybe I could earn my beads.” She laughed. “If I wasn't wearing this dress I'd earn them right now.”
She's wild, my bear said. She's perfect.
“Where would you bring me?” I asked.
“Tahiti, Bali, Bora Bora. One of those places with the cabin over the ocean.” Her gaze was as faraway as the destinations. “We could drink juice out of coconuts and swim in that water that doesn't even look real.”
“That's not fair. You picked three places.”
She cocked her head. “Don't you want to see the world?”
“I get to travel with the team.”
“It's not the same thing.” She waved me off, leaning back in her chair. “I'm talking like real adventure. Throw the map out the window and just go. Don't you ever get the urge to do that?”
She belongs to no one, my bear warned. You need to do this on her terms.
“What are you running away from, Shauna?”
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