Perfect Mate – Jennifer Ashley

A bear needs her beauty sleep. Nell stifled a groan as a rhythmic banging dragged her out of profound slumber, the kind she found only in the depths of wintertime. Never mind that she lived now in a city in a desert rather than deep woods—in winter, her wild nature let her submerge into long, dark sleeps. But the rest of her family wasn’t going to cooperate this morning. The headache that had begun in her dreams penetrated to her waking life, and she cracked open her eyes. Who in the hell was doing all the pounding out in her kitchen at . five o’clock in the morning? Nell dropped the clock with a clatter, swung out of bed, grabbed her pink terrycloth robe, and jammed her feet into some kind of footgear—whatever happened to be on the floor; she couldn’t see through bleary eyes in the dark. If Shane or Brody were working on motorcycle parts in her kitchen or some idiotic thing like that, she’d whack her cubs up the sides of both their heads. It was winter. The boys knew to leave Nell alone in the dark of night in winter. She stomped out of the bedroom, down the short hall, and into the kitchen. A huge Shifter male she’d never seen before perched on top of a short stepladder, reaching up to nail a strip of wood onto the wall. The hammer banged, banged, banged into her headache.

Nell’s kitchen was a wreck—the counters and cabinets had been ripped out, the drywall broken, wires and pipes sticking forlornly out of the walls. In the middle was this Shifter—a bear—she didn’t know, his hammering jamming pain through her already throbbing head. He stopped, mercifully, and laid the hammer on the one counter that was still intact. Not seeing her, he picked up his next weapon—a power drill—and prepared to attack the innocent wall. Nell ducked back down the hall to her bedroom, silently scooped up her keys, stepped into the back hall that ran between bedrooms and kitchen to the laundry room, and unlocked the padlocked broom cupboard. She removed the double-barreled shotgun from its place, snapped in cartridges, and headed for the kitchen. The Shifter in the kitchen had turned on his power drill, its whine cutting into Nell’s brain. He never heard her until she slammed the shotgun closed, aimed it at him, and said in a loud voice, “You have ten seconds to tell me who you are and what the hell you’re doing.” The drill stopped. The bear Shifter glanced at her, blinked once, and carefully set the drill onto the counter. Then he smiled. It was blinding, that smile.

The man was big, like all bear Shifters, solid muscle under a torsohugging shirt and paint-stained jeans. His arms were huge, like her son Shane’s, this man’s covered with wiry black hair. The Collar around his throat, black and silver, winked under the overhead fluorescent light. His hair, which he’d tried to tame by cutting it short, was a mess of a mottled black, brown, and lighter brown strands. A grizzly. Instead of having dark eyes, like Nell and her sons, this man’s eyes were a brilliant blue. Paired with the smile, the scrutiny of his blue eyes sent Nell’s heart pounding, which did nothing good for her headache. “I’m Cormac,” the man said. His voice rumbled like a low wave of thunder, one far off enough to be comforting, not worrying. The sound filled the room and wrapped around everything in it.

“You must be Nell.” Nell tightened her grip on the shotgun. “This is my house. Who else would I be?” “Shane gave me the key and told me to get started.” He waved a hand at the empty walls but never took his gaze from Nell. “He wanted to surprise you.” “Consider me surprised. You still haven’t told me who you are. As in, where did you come from? What clan? What are you doing in our Shiftertown? How does my cub know you, and why don’t I? I’m ranking bear in this town, and no new bears come here without my say-so. Or didn’t Shane bother to tell you that?” His look was unworried.

“I got here last night. I’m from the Wisconsin Shiftertown, but I’m transferring here. Eric introduced me to Shane. Shane was excited about putting in the kitchen, and he told me to go ahead and start.” Logical answers, perfectly straightforward, coming from an intoxicatingly good-looking Shifter who never lost his smile or the sparkle in his eyes. “Eric introduced you to my cub? Without telling me first?” Questions blared through Nell’s mind, which was still clouded with sleep and pain. “And what do you mean, you transferred here?” “Paperwork went through,” Cormac said. “Guess I’m the new bear in town.” Again the wonderful rumble, with a hint of laughter. Nell wanted to hold on to the noise, to wrap it around her, and because of that, she clutched the gun a little tighter.

“Oh yeah? I haven’t been asleep that long. No new bears transfer here without Eric our fine Shiftertown leader discussing it with me first.” Cormac reached to the counter and lifted a screwdriver—a quiet tool at least. “Eric said he didn’t want to bother you with it.” “He did, did he? That smug little pain-in-the-ass Feline . ” Nell trailed off, hurting too much to think of some really good names to call her next-door neighbor, a wildcat and the leader of the Southern Nevada Shiftertown. Feline Shifters always thought they were smarter than anyone else, probably because the damn cats never went to sleep. Nell opened her mouth to launch another string of questions at Cormac, who wasn’t bothered in the slightest that he was staring down a loaded shotgun, but the back door burst open to admit both her sons. The door really did burst—it flew back into the wall, the glass in the upper half rattling alarmingly. Shane stopped, taking in Nell, Cormac on the stool, the shotgun in Nell’s hands.

Brody, his younger brother, nearly ran into the back of him. “Mom,” Shane said in the voice Nell had come to know meant Come on, Brody, we need to calm down our crazy mother. “Please don’t shoot Cormac. He’s all right.” “Fine, I’ll shoot you instead.” But Nell didn’t move the gun, because she’d never, ever do anything that might come close to harming her cubs, even if her cubs were full-grown, seven feet tall, pains in her behind, and could shape-shift into powerful grizzlies. “You’re not even supposed to have that gun,” Brody said from around Shane’s back. He wisely hadn’t come all the way inside. “Eric told you to return it. Remember?” Yes, but what Eric didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

“Obviously I need it for defense, since you two insist on handing out the keys to our back door.” “Didn’t need them after all,” Cormac said. “The door was unlocked.” “That’s not the point!” Nell yelled. Most Shifters didn’t lock their doors. “The point everyone’s missing is that there’s a new bear in town, and no one consulted me about it. That’s never supposed to happen. Why are you new in town? Did the other Shiftertown kick you out? Why did you want to come here? Tell me your story, handyman.” Cormac settled in comfortably on top of the stepladder and rested his arms on his thighs, the screwdriver hanging from his relaxed grasp. He looked like the kind of man who could be comfortable anywhere—on a stepladder, on a lawn chair in a backyard, on a rock on the edge of the woods, overlooking the beauty of an endless lake.

“I requested the transfer,” he said. “I’m looking for something. I visited the Austin Shiftertown, because I had clan there. The leader there told Eric about me, and Eric said I could try my luck out here.” “Looking for what?” Nell asked, her eyes narrowing. “And why couldn’t you move to the Austin Shiftertown? What’s so special about the Nevada one?” Brody laughed. Maybe he wasn’t so wise after all. “Oh, you’re gonna love this.” Cormac looked Nell full in the eyes. He wasn’t supposed to do that, because she was dominant, but this smart-ass bear held her gaze and refused to look away.

“I’m looking for a mate,” he said. “The Wisconsin Shiftertown didn’t have any more unmated bear females not related to me, and the only bear females of mateable age in Austin are in my clan.” Cormac spread his hands, still holding the screwdriver, his shirt moving with his muscles. “So, here I am, continuing my search.” Nell lowered the gun, still angry, and broke it open. She wouldn’t shoot Cormac. Much more satisfying to go at him tooth and claw when it was time to teach him who was top bear around here. “Don’t know why Eric told you to come here then,” she said. “There are no unmated female bear Shifters in this Shiftertown.” Cormac just looked at her, his sunshiny smile getting wider.

Brody guffawed from his relative safety behind Shane’s back, and Shane’s face was painfully straight. “No?” Cormac’s question was soft. “No,” Nell said firmly. “Except for . ” Her heart plummeted, down through the shoes she’d managed to slip on—combat boots, she now realized. Her headache flared with a vengeance. “Except for me,” she finished. * * * Cormac kept his casual position on the stepladder so he wouldn’t leap down, embrace Shane and Brody, then grab Nell, throw her over his shoulder, and run next door to demand that Eric perform the sun and moon mating ceremonies then and there. It was nearly dawn—there would still be a moon, and the sun would be up soon. He’d found her.

At last, at long last. Even with the shotgun, Nell was perfect. Her hair, mussed from sleep, was black streaked with light brown, not a thread of gray in it. All bear Shifter females were tall, and Nell, at six feet and change, was no exception. But she had fine curves to go with her height. Nothing in Cormac’s experience ever looked more sexy than the towel-like pink bathrobe embroidered with dark pink roses, hastily belted over those flowing curves. Even more sexy were the round-toed combat boots that rose halfway up her shapely calves. She’d put them on the wrong feet. She was adorable. He’d gotten the letter a hundred years or so too late.

If Cormac had known about her all those years ago from his clansman who’d abandoned his clan, he would have gone to her, helped her, made her life—and his—more bearable all this time. No matter. He’d found her now. He’d make up for the lost time, for Magnus’s sake, for Nell’s sake, and for his own. “I’ll give you ten more seconds,” the siren beauty said, “and then you’re out of my kitchen.” Nell’s eyes under her scowling brows were velvet brown, the flash in them, behind the temper, that of a desperately lonely woman. Nell had her cubs, and she had her position as alpha bear in this Shiftertown, but Cormac knew and understood resigned loneliness, and Nell possessed it. “Mom, if he leaves, he can’t help put in the new cabinets,” Brody said. “Don’t make Shane and me do it all by ourselves.” Nell switched her glare to her youngest.

“You two are perfectly capable of . Wait a minute, what new cabinets? When did I have time to buy a new kitchen?” “You didn’t,” Cormac answered. “It’s a gift from Eric.” New rage blazed in her eyes. “Eric again? What the hell is he up to? Brody, go next door and tell Eric to get over here. I want to talk to him. Now.” “Are you kidding me?” Brody’s brown eyes widened. “You want me to go tell Eric what he needs to do? I’d like to keep my head on my body, thank you very much.” Nell growled, the flash of her Shifter beast curving her fingers into claws.

Cormac watched her fight her instinctive alpha temper, watched her tell herself that her cub was right. Shifters didn’t rush to a dominant and give him commands, or even make requests, even on behalf of another dominant Shifter. “Fine,” Nell said, her voice guttural with her bear beast. “I’ll tell him myself.” She shoved the shotgun at Shane, then stomped past Brody, who moved hastily aside, and out the kitchen door into the dark morning. The porch lights shone on her hair, moving in a sudden January wind, and the pink embroidery of the roses on her robe. “How far before she realizes what she’s wearing?” Brody asked Shane. “All the way into Eric’s house,” Shane said. “Nah,” Brody said. “Bottom of Eric’s porch.

” They shook on it, then watched. “Ha. Too bad, Shane. I win.” Nell appeared again in the light of her own porch, though Cormac’s Shifter sight had let him observe her entire journey to Eric’s porch and back again. Nell pushed past her sons, snarling low in her throat, and made for her bedroom, slamming the door so hard that flakes of loose drywall fluttered to the kitchen floor. Eric made the problem of who would fetch him moot by walking over the next minute. Cormac hadn’t known Eric long enough to make a full assessment of the man, but so far Cormac was impressed with what he’d seen. Eric was a Feline whose family tended to snow leopard. Leopards were not the largest of wildcats, but they were fast and smart, which made them dangerous fighters.

Cormac had fought leopards in the rings at Shifter fight clubs, and while Cormac had been several times their size, they’d made him work to win the match. Eric walked unhurriedly across the yard toward Nell’s house, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, gaze on the ground, as though he didn’t much care how fast he got anywhere. He looked up as he hopped onto the back porch and stopped just outside the open back door, not offering to come in without invitation. “How’s it going?” he asked. He directed the question to all of them, but Cormac knew Eric addressed him personally. Eric’s jade green eyes showed no rancor—in fact, his stance was so laid-back that any human might dismiss him as harmless, despite his height and obvious physical strength. Deceptive. Cormac was a little older than Eric, but not by much, and he could see how Eric had carefully crafted his nonchalant bearing to hide razor-sharp awareness. As Shiftertown leader, Eric needed to engender trust across species, and he’d never be able to use force to do it. He was dominant, but if a bear like Shane really wanted to take him out, the leopard in Eric would be hardpressed to survive.

Fighting in the ring was one thing—the fight club had rules. Battles in real life were a different story. The door down the hall slammed open again, and Nell came out, this time dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans. She still wore the combat boots, but she’d put them on the correct feet. Nell shoved her dark hair from her eyes and focused her glare on Eric. “You’d better have a damn good explanation for this.” “I do,” Eric said, his tone mild. He remained on the porch, despite the cold wind, carefully coming no farther into Nell’s territory. “I need Cormac to be here, and I need you to go along with it. You two mating will help me, and help you, and help all the other bears as well.

” He relaxed enough to smile, but his green eyes were watchful. “In fact, Nell, you’ll be doing it for the good of all Shiftertown.”

.

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