Predator’s Salvation

Rosanna Leo

 

Prologue

January

Lake Gemini, Ontario

JOHN Page was in deep shit. They were taking him out to the woods to kill him.

At least that was the impression made by Royal Hill’s goons as they dragged him off the road into town toward the forest at the edge of Royal’s property. Although John was a sizable man, these two were bigger. Both Seb and Vadim towered over him. Even if he managed to make a run for it, they’d outrun him and overpower him.

As he stumbled through the snowy undergrowth, his regrets confronted him like multiple slaps in the face. He’d always wanted to travel and see the world. Right now, he could barely see through the trees they were so thick. He’d always wanted to make some money. Real money, the sort that made hot women throw themselves at you. He would have found a nice hacienda by the beach and thrown some cash at a few Mexican honeys. Yeah, that would have been the life.

Not much chance of that now.

“Pick up your feet, you crybaby,” Seb muttered. “Walk like a man.”

“And try not to piss yourself in front of Mr. Hill,” said Vadim. “He’s hunting and wouldn’t want your stench to give his position away.”

“I’m not crying, and I haven’t pissed myself.”

Vadim’s laugh held a bit too much mirth for John’s liking. “Give it time.”

“Look.” John tried to sound cool, but he heard the quaver in his own voice. “We’re all bear shifters here. Brothers, in a sense. I think you can trust me to walk on my own. I won’t run.”

The men tightened their grip. Clearly, they didn’t buy the whole bear brotherhood routine. He couldn’t blame them. He wouldn’t have bought it either.

He knew some shape shifters liked to believe they were all part of some holy communion of supernatural beings. What did his good-for-nothing older brother Howard used to say?

We look after our own.

Yeah. Bullshit.

No one had ever looked after him, not even Howard. When John had first started having issues with gambling, he’d gone to his brother and Howard had turned him away. Granted, he’d spotted him a bit of money to get over the first hump, but he could have done more.

I gave you that cash for groceries and rent, not so you could lose it at the card table. You’re cut off now.

John worked, but he’d frittered away most of his pay. Even the generous wages supplied by his boss, Ryland Snow, weren’t enough to cover all his debts. John worked as a waiter at the Ursa Resort on Gemini Island, a resort for shape shifters. He’d recently asked Ryland for an advance on his wages, but the man had refused.

“Sorry, John,” Ryland had said. “I’ve helped you out a couple of times already. I can’t do it again.” He’d taken a moment to choose his next words. “Someone on the team told me they’ve seen you at the casino. Several times. If you need to talk to someone about your gambling, I can make the arrangements.”

“I don’t have a gambling problem.”

Only today it appeared he did.

Ryland might like to pretend he was some sort of do-gooder, but he hadn’t done John much good. He didn’t want to attend some stupid meeting so he could talk to a bunch of losers about his feelings. He just needed some cash.

“Thanks for nothing, Ryland,” he said under his breath.

“You praying, little man?” Vadim’s lips curled. “You’re not as dumb as you look.”

A single gunshot ripped apart the morning silence. John tensed, but the men just pulled him along.

What was that? A fucking practice shot?

“Come on,” said Seb. “Mr. Hill is just up ahead. Let’s get this over with.”

John lowered his head as they walked, recounting his sins and measuring his good deeds against them. Even to his own eyes, his random acts of kindness were sadly lacking in number. He was a screw-up and always had been a screw-up.

Why had he ever gone to Royal Hill in the first place? He should have been able to foresee this day. Unfortunately, the lure of easy money had been too hard to ignore. Once his debts starting racking up, he’d had no choice. The bank didn’t exactly fork over loans to cover gambling debts.

But Royal Hill did, or so some drunk at the casino had told him. If you needed fast cash, go to Royal. Just be prepared to pay him back and with hefty interest.

He should have known he’d never be able to keep up. Considering his recent losing streak, it should have been a no-brainer, but he’d been convinced the next big win was just one game away.

The ground beneath their feet became jagged, and they approached a small series of hills. The mouth of a cave was visible by one of them.

Royal Hill stood at the cave’s mouth, a rifle in one hand. At his feet lay a female bear, bleeding from the chest. Its tongue lolled out of its mouth.

The man held out his arms in apparent welcome. Smiling, he almost looked friendly. The clean-shaven face and tidy brown hair might be marks of a respectable businessman, but John glimpsed the strange light in Royal’s eyes. They were a little too bright, all-seeing, and they made him nervous.

He wore pressed jeans and a bright red winter jacket. Not exactly the clothing of a hunter. Was it his first time shooting at wild animals, or was he so confident in his hunting skills that he just didn’t care about being seen?

Royal broke the silence. “Ah, John, my friend. You’re just in time to witness this magnificent kill.” He grabbed the bear by its head. “A real trophy, huh?”

John tried to keep his voice steady. “I didn’t think it was bear hunting season.”

“It’s always hunting season for me.” Royal dropped the beast’s head.

John’s stomach lurched. Although he felt no real affinity for the wild bear, as a bear shifter, his own spirit animal growled in disgust. He had no quarrel with hunting in general, but to slaughter a bear in the midst of winter as it rested?

Forget the bear. Keep an eye on that rifle.

“Now the real prize is just inside the cave.” Royal hunched over to look inside, one hand on the rock. “Can you hear that?”

The noise was faint, but there was no mistaking the heart-rending mewl of baby bears.

Royal leaned his rifle against the rock face and stepped over the mother’s carcass. He crept into the cave, emerging a moment later with two baby bears in his hands. “Cute, aren’t they?”

Cute and small and utterly helpless without their mother. John’s gut raged again.

“They’re premature,” said Royal. “Even still, they’re usable.”

“Usable?”

“Oh, yeah. Do you have any idea what cub organs go for on the black market? This is a great day for me.” He made a face. “Not so good for you, though. I believe you’re in arrears, John.”

“I can get you the money, Royal. I swear.”

“You said that last month. I’ve been more than generous.”

“You have. I realize that.”

“I don’t think you do realize it.” Royal nodded at Vadim.

Without preamble, Vadim grabbed John’s left hand and wrenched one of his fingers back.

As the bone snapped, John howled. Although John’s knees buckled, the men held him up. “P-please. Just a little more time.”

Royal paced in front of him, gesticulating and holding one bear cub in each hand. Their little mouths opened, rooting for a nipple they would never find. “You see, when you have a bit of money, people think they can play fast and loose with you. It’s a good lesson for you to learn, John. If you ever come into some cash, you need to invest it, not give it away like I do. My problem is I’m too much of a philanthropist. I can’t bear the suffering of my fellow man, so I do my part. I try to help out my friends and then they just kick me in the teeth. I don’t like how it makes me feel.”

“I’m sorry, Royal. I never meant to hurt your feelings.” John tried not to look at his bent finger.

The trafficker kissed the baby bears on their heads and handed them to Seb. His assistant took them to the pickup truck they’d parked close by and dumped them in a burlap sack.

“Don’t tie it too tightly,” ordered Royal. “I need them to be able to breathe for a while longer. It’s better if the organs are fresh when I extract them.”

“Yes, Mr. Hill.”

Bile flooded John’s mouth, but he swallowed it. It occurred to him he should be groveling some more but couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Royal picked up his rifle and walked over to John. He laid a hand on his shoulder. “Be honest with me. When can you get the money?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been working extra shifts but—”

“Ah, yes, at the Ursa Fishing Lodge and Resort on Gemini Island.”

“Yeah.”

Royal’s eyes narrowed. “I have heard of the place. Interesting.”

“It’s a good job. I’m sure I can go to my boss again and ask him to spot me a bit of cash.” Ryland would never give it to him but maybe if he pleaded.

“I don’t think a bit will help in this case.” Royal used his jacket sleeve to buff the rifle barrel. “Of course, you could always come work for me. I find people like you make motivated employees. Why, it wasn’t all that long ago that Seb came to me with his tail between his legs. Isn’t that right, Seb?”

Seb’s tight nod was the only response.

Oh God. What would he make John do? “But what about my job at the Ursa?”

“Have you ever heard of multitasking? I hear it’s all the rage in the corporate world. I’m offering you a way out, John.”

“Right. I’m sorry. Of course.”

“The fact is I’ve had my eye on the Ursa Resort for some time. I’ve wanted someone on my team who can share the inner workings of the place with me. You know, someone who can tell me more about the people who work there. They’re a mysterious bunch, even for shape shifters.”

“You mean you want me to be a spy?”

Royal laughed. “This isn’t MI-5. ‘Spy’ is such a derogatory term. I’d prefer to think of you as my very own little fact checker.”

“Okay.” So, a spy. If it meant he’d keep his head, he’d be a spy. He wasn’t sure why Royal needed information on the people at the Ursa though. Personally, John had never met a more boring bunch of shape shifters. All they cared about were their teen mentoring programs and making the goddamn world a better place. How many of his coworkers had ever tried to make the world a better place for him? None. “I would…I’d be honored to work for you, Royal.”

“Mr. Hill. My employees call me Mr. Hill.” He nodded at Vadim again, and the man let go of John. “You’ve made a wise decision today, John. I’ve needed some extra help because my hunting takes up much of my time. Tell me, have you ever gone hunting?”

“No.”

“Well, I love to hunt. There’s nothing more vital, more life affirming, than seizing the life of another creature. And as you know, I rely on hunting to provide me with the product I need.” The man lifted his booted foot and rested it on the mother bear’s head. “Beauties like this one are ideal. Bears command the best prices for their spleens and gallbladders, but I use other animals in my taxidermy shop. Gotta have a legit business so the humans don’t snoop around.”

“Taxidermy, right.” Vomit crept up John’s throat once again. Swallow, swallow.

“Make faces all you want. I’ve been dealing with that sort of condescending crap my entire career. Taxidermy is an art. I’m an artist. Art isn’t always pretty and packaged with a bow. Art stirs the soul. It makes us uncomfortable and aware.” Hill shook his head. “I don’t know why I bother trying to explain it to people. Only a fellow artist would understand.”

“Sorry, Mr. Hill.”

“Anyway, your duties are much simpler. I want immediate reports on everyone who lives at the Ursa Resort. You will tell me where they work, where they play, what they eat, and when they stop to take a piss. I want all their spirit animals catalogued, from the biggest tiger right down to the smallest doe. Do you hear me? Everyone, young and old. I want photos, too. Lots of photos. You do know how to take a picture, right?”

“Yes, Mr. Hill.”

Hill patted him on the shoulder. “Good man. I’ll deduct your debts from your wages. Although the way you suck at cards, it might take a while for you to catch up. You might want to stay away from the casino.” He shook John’s hand. The right one, thank God. “Looks like we’re in business. Get to work.”

Vadim took John by the shoulders and pushed him.

“Oh, and John?”

He looked over his shoulder.

Hill crouched down and smiled at the dead female bear. “I think Mama Bear is pretty enough to display in my shop. What do you think?”

“Uh, sure.”

Uh, sure? What’s wrong with you? Look at the rich shading in her fur and the beautiful muscle tone. It’ll be an honor to capture this majesty for all time.” His eyes got all dreamy and creepy. “I’m a bit of a sucker when it comes to lady bears. They’re my one weakness. Call me a connoisseur.”

As Seb and Vadim helped Hill haul the bear over to the truck, John raced through the trees and toward the road.

Only then did he allow himself to vomit.

Chapter 1

YOU are invited to attend the

Grand Re-opening Celebration

of the

Ursa Fishing Lodge and Resort

on Saturday, March 15

6pm – 12am

Oak Room

Gemini Island, Ontario

Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (and by that, we mean beer and meat)

Families welcome

Featuring entertainment by the Lex Dawson Band

* * * *

Juneau, Alaska

Late February

It was the fifth time Elaine Gleason had read the invitation. It was also the fifth time she’d tucked it into a drawer, meaning never to read it again.

As much as she appreciated Ryland mailing her the details, as well as a hand-written note asking her to attend, she couldn’t. When she left Gemini Island two months ago, she’d left it for good. There was nothing keeping her there. If she’d stayed, she would have drowned in bad memories.

It was hard enough staying afloat five thousand kilometers away.

Even still, she understood why Ryland had invited her. As he’d said in his message, she “would always be part of the Ursa Lodge family.” They had ties, strong ones.

Unfortunately, some ties had to be severed.

“Mommy, Mommy!”

Elaine’s children, Andy and Layla, barreled into her bedroom, toppling over each other in their haste to jump on her bed.

“Hide us,” said Layla.

Their Aunt Toni had offered to bathe them this evening, and their favorite game was running away from her. Of course, Toni always found them, but it put a smile on their little faces for a few minutes.

They hadn’t had enough smiles lately.

Elaine cuddled them, breathing deeply, and pulled them down onto the bed with her. Andy, her youngest, scrambled over her body and tucked himself on her left side. Layla curled against her right rib cage. For a moment, Elaine closed her eyes and raked her fingers through their hair.

“Is Aunt Toni going to use the special no-tears shampoo again?”

“Yeah,” said Layla. “She says we’re the only ones who get to use it. She won’t even let Uncle Fred use it, not even when he pretends to cry.”

“Uncle Fred is a big man. I think he’ll get over it.”

When Andy sat up, his face wrinkled with curiosity, she prayed this evening would break the mold. For weeks now, he’d been asking the same questions before bed. She was weary of answering them, but she steeled herself and sat up.

“Mommy, when is Daddy coming home?”

“Remember how I explained what happened to Daddy? He passed away, sweetie.”

“But when is he coming home?”

“Daddy lives with the angels now. He has a new home.”

“Why does he want to live with angels? Why doesn’t he want to live with us?”

Elaine grasped his hand. “He did want to live with us, baby, more than anything in the world. He just couldn’t anymore.”

“Don’t you remember?” Layla huffed. “Mommy already told us. He died because of the bad men.” She might only be four, and Andy might only be three, but as shape shifter children, they were more perceptive than human kids. In some ways, they might as well both be going on fifteen, if not forty.

Andy scratched his nose. “Was Daddy a bad man too?”

That was a new question, and it sucked the last little bit of wind out of her lungs. “No, absolutely not. Your daddy was one of the best men I’ve ever known, and he loved you both so much. He died protecting our friends at the Ursa Lodge. Remember them?”

He nodded. “Can we see Uncle Connor soon?”

“I don’t think so, sweetie. Uncle Connor is busy at the lodge, and it’s far away.”

“But I like how he tickles me.” Andy pointed at his belly. “He gives me zerbits on my tummy.”

“You mean like this?” Elaine rolled him onto his back and made her lips vibrate on his belly until he squealed. When Layla inched away, she grabbed her daughter and tickled her as well.

“There they are.” Elaine’s cousin Toni stood in the bedroom doorway, wielding her shampoo bottle. “I’ve been searching all over for you two. If you don’t have your baths, your mom won’t be able to finish your bedtime story. Don’t you want to know what happens to The Forgetful Bunny?”

The children hopped off the bed.

“Give your mom a hug before I steal you away,” said Toni.

Layla wrapped her arms around Elaine’s neck.

“I love you,” Elaine whispered.

When Layla stepped away, Andy poked her on the knee. “Mommy?”

She scooped him up and squeezed him. “Yes, baby?”

“Do I still look just like my daddy?”

Elaine forced another smile. She was so unaccustomed to smiling these days, and it felt like peanut brittle snapping. “Yeah. You both have his dark eyes and his brown hair. When you look in the mirror, he’ll be looking right back at you. Now go have your bath. I love you.” With a pat on his bum, she sent them out of the room.

Toni remained for a moment longer, her shoulders sagging in empathy. “Day by day.”

“Day by day.”

“I know the past seven months have been hard.”

The hardest thing she’d ever done in her life. The word “hard” didn’t even begin to encompass it.

“You’re doing great, kiddo. Lloyd would be so proud of you.”

Lloyd.

Elaine nodded, her throat too scratchy to talk.

“Let me put the mites to bed tonight. You rest up.”

“It’s okay. I’m tired of resting. Sometimes it seems it’s all I do.” What she really wanted to do was run and run and run some more, forcing her stiff body into action, screaming her hatred for fate into the sky. What she really wanted to do was shove Lloyd’s killers up against a wall and pound them until their muscles and bones gave way under her fists.

“I’ll call when we’re done then.” Toni disappeared down the hallway.

Elaine stared at the empty doorway.

Seven months.

It felt like a hundred.

It had been only seven months since her beloved husband and mate had been torn from her life, killed by men who could never measure up to him in any way. Mere weeks since she’d left their former home on Gemini Island, determined to escape from anything that might remind her of what she lost. She’d turned from all the friends who’d supported her during her darkest days.

She still glimpsed no light.

Would Lloyd really be proud of her? She felt so weak, so abandoned. Every day she tried to put on a brave face for their kids, eager to help them reclaim their lives, but she feared it wasn’t working. Thank God she had Toni and Fred.

But her cousins were human. They didn’t understand, not really. They couldn’t possibly comprehend the bond that linked Elaine and Lloyd.

As shape shifters, Elaine and Lloyd were different. She’d never told her human family how Lloyd had mated with her, making her a bear shifter as well. Shifters didn’t tell humans about their existence as a rule. However, when Lloyd had been killed, Elaine had had no choice but to turn to her friends because she wasn’t sure she could trust her family with a secret that involved so many in her community.

You could have stayed on Gemini Island. There, they understand us.

She silenced her inner voice, that of her bear, for the umpteenth time.

The Ursa Lodge in Northern Ontario was a shape shifter resort, owned and run by bear shifter Ryland Snow. An inviting retreat for shifter families, the facility also served as a place of mentorship for troubled teenage shifters. Many of their species transformed for the first time in their teens and the change could prove tumultuous to say the least. At the Ursa, Ryland and his people helped families cope with those changes.

Lloyd had been a security expert there, and Elaine had spent much time there as well.

When an evil cult leader had set his sights on the resort staff last year, everything had changed. There had been a terrible battle, one Elaine had missed because she had been on the mainland, visiting with an ailing human relative. Thank God she’d taken the kids with her. Lloyd had died that day, in his prime, trying to protect some of their friends.

She hadn’t even been able to say goodbye.

There was a belief among shape shifters. When a mated shifter died, the partner often died of a broken heart. Elaine had seen it happen. Shifters felt too intensely. Their emotions were too much a part of them, the meat holding their bones together. They couldn’t carry on without their mates, or so she’d been told over and over again.

As far as she was concerned, there might as well be a target on her forehead. It was only a matter of time before she faded away as well, despite trying so hard to be a good mom to her kids. They were the only things keeping her going.

God only knew she’d pretty much neglected any attempt at a career since Lloyd died. She’d been a stay-at-home mom ever since the kids were born, but she’d hoped to start working outside the home soon. Now it didn’t seem all that important. She and Lloyd had tucked a bit of money away, and she wouldn’t be wanting for anything for some time. Whenever she even contemplated filling out a job application, her vision blurred. So much for taking the initiative with her career.

She’d made a mess of her friendship with Connor as well.

Connor Church was in security at the Ursa Resort. He’d worked alongside her mate and was Lloyd’s best friend. When Lloyd was killed, Connor made a vow to look after his widow. He’d been so good, so kind, and Elaine had pushed him away.

Run! It’s what you do best.

She’d never forget the anguished crack in his voice when she turned from him. His words still haunted her.

“I’m sorry, Connor.” She wished he could somehow hear her whisper, despite the many miles between them.

Of all her friends on Gemini Island, she missed him the most. Even now, weeks after leaving him behind, she lay awake most nights, wondering if he hated her.

Once more, Elaine retrieved the party invitation from the drawer and stared at it. The lodge had been burned to the ground in the skirmish that claimed Lloyd’s life. It had taken months, and there had been delays because of the cold winter, but the lodge was finally ready to re-open.

If she had any real fortitude, she would go back and wish Ryland and the others well. She would seek out her friends Fleur and Lia and all the others.

She would face Connor and…and do what?

Apologize again? Make promises she couldn’t keep?

Try not to die?

Elaine ripped up the invitation and tossed the pieces of paper into the trashcan. And then, not knowing what else to do, she sat on the bed again and stared at the wall.

She stared at a lot of walls lately. It was easier to rouse herself when the kids were around, but when she was alone, her loss struck deepest.

It wasn’t long ago that she’d begged Lloyd to give her a sign of some sort, something to hold on to during her dismal moments.

That was the funny part about signs from the dead. They didn’t exactly come along too often.

The whitewash on the wall began to blur. She stood, needing to move, and meandered over to the dresser. With all the photos of Lloyd and their friends from back home, it might as well have been a shrine.

Lloyd fishing on Lake Gemini, smiling at the camera. Lloyd sharing a beer with Ryland and Killian and Connor. Lloyd holding Andy in one arm and Layla in the other, his face lit with pride. Lloyd arm wrestling Bart.

So many memories and yet not nearly enough.

The one she kept on her bedside table was one Ryland had snapped not long before the battle. Elaine sat on Lloyd’s lap in the lodge reception area, in one of the overstuffed chairs. Lloyd had his hands wrapped around her middle. Her hands rested on his forearms, and her head was angled toward his. She’d closed her eyes, but she was smiling.

They’d been so happy.

Tears threatened again. She was amazed she still had any left.

Touching his face in the picture, Elaine asked him once more. “Lloyd, please. It hurts so much. I’m not sure I can take more of this. I don’t know what to do. Show me what to do.”

Someone screamed.

It was Toni, in the bathroom. With the kids.

Elaine tossed the photo onto her bed and raced out of the room. She careened down the hallway, almost colliding with Fred, who was coming from the other part of the house. She entered the bathroom and stopped in her tracks.

Toni had jumped to her feet and was screaming in the corner. “They changed! They changed in front of my eyes. What in God’s name is happening?”

Two little brown bears sat in the bathtub, splashing in the water, oblivious to the horror around them.

Toni fainted in her husband’s arms.

Andy bear huffed out a greeting. As he did, bubbles erupted from his bottom.

Their first shift. About ten years too early.

Elaine passed a hand over her face. “Oh, shit.”

* * * *

“You’re quitting?” Ryland Snow’s mouth hung open.

Connor Church slid his resignation letter across the office desk toward his boss and old friend. “I’m sorry, Ry. I know it must come as a surprise.”

“Surprise? I had no idea you were even considering it. Why?”

Connor scratched the skin under his new beard. He’d started growing a beard only a while ago and hadn’t gotten used to the rasp yet. “I just need a change.”

“But the grand re-opening is in a couple of weeks. Connor, it won’t be the same without you. After everything we’ve been through…please tell me you’re kidding, dude.”

“I can give you lots of notice, as much as you want. I don’t want to leave you in a lurch when the lodge opens to customers again. I’ll stick around until you find a replacement. I don’t have another job lined up, not yet anyway.”

Ryland sat back in his chair. “You’re one of my best security people. I know it’s been busy since Lloyd died, but we hired two new people. Is there a problem with the job or with one of the other guys?”

“No, you know it’s nothing like that. I’ve been really happy here, Ry. It’s just not the same anymore.”

“Look, I know Lloyd was your best friend, and I know you miss Elaine as much as the rest of us do. More, even. Things have changed, I get it. But once we open again, once we figure out a new routine, it’ll get better.” The lodge owner clenched his jaw. “It has to get better.”

“It will. Without me.”

“I don’t know what to say. What are you going to do for work?”

He took a breath. “Actually, I’ve been studying for the police exam. I think I might want to be a cop.”

“You think you might? That sort of job is a vocation. You don’t sound so sure.”

“Yeah, well, it’s all still new. I’ve been trying to sort a lot of things out.”

“Is it the money? Because I’m sure I pay you better than what you’ll get as a cop. We can talk about your salary.”

“No, Ry. You’ve always been generous. It’s not about the money. I just want, ah, hell.” What did he want? He wanted to go back in time and stay with Lloyd so he could have destroyed the shifters who’d gone after his friend. He wanted to take the sadness out of Elaine’s eyes. He wanted everything he couldn’t have. “I guess I want to make some sort of contribution.”

Contribution. If he couldn’t keep his best friend alive, what sort of fucking contribution did he honestly think he could make? He was supposed to be making a contribution by taking care of Elaine. Look how well that had gone. So well he scared her into another country.

For the thousandth time since she’d left, he wondered how she was doing. And what about Layla and Andy? Were they adjusting to their new home and making friends?

Did they still remember their Uncle Connor?

“Wow. I can’t fault you for wanting to wear the uniform. It’s a noble profession. You’d make one hell of a cop, Connor.” Ryland grinned. “You’ll have to shave that cookie duster, you know?”

He chuckled. “Like I said, I needed a change. I kind of like the beard, though. I think I’ll hold on to it for now.”

Ryland fiddled with the corner of the resignation letter, making a dog-ear and then unfolding it. “Have you told Elaine?”

“No. We don’t talk much.”

“You should tell her.” The suggestion was made in a gentle voice, as gentle as the bear shifter could manage.

“She won’t care.”

“That’s a lie and you know it.”

Connor ran a hand through his hair. “She’s moved on, Ry.”

“Yeah, but you know as well as I do she can’t stay in Alaska forever. It’s a different country. You can’t just move in. Border security tends to frown on that. At best, she’s visiting. This is her home.”

“It doesn’t matter. She made it very clear I was only standing in her way. She won’t want to hear from me. I’ve sent her messages. She rarely responds.”

“She’s in mourning, and she has two small kids.”

“Don’t you think I realize that?” His voice fractured. “I fucking love those kids.”

“And Elaine?”

“Damn, Ryland. She’s my best friend’s widow. Of course, I care for her.”

“She cares for you, too. She’ll come around again. I know it. She just needs space.”

Space. As far as Connor could tell, Gemini Island provided oodles of space. With acres of woodland, trails, and networks of caves, a person could get lost for hours. Elaine could have had her precious space right here at home.

But no, she had to run away to Hicksville, Alaska, to live with cousins who didn’t even know she was a bear shifter.

Connor’s spirit animal, a gruff mountain lion, hissed inside him. He cuffed the beast gently on the head. It seemed every time he thought about Elaine, the great cat complained. Dumb beast.

“I sent her an invitation to the grand re-opening celebration.”

“You did? Has she responded?”

Ryland’s face fell. “Not yet.”

Connor stood. “See? She doesn’t want anything to do with me…I mean, with us. She’s happier on her own.” He sat back down again. “I failed her. I failed Lloyd.”

“You did no such thing.”

“I promised to take care of her.”

“You made that promise to yourself, Connor. Lloyd was already gone. He never would have asked you to put your life on hold for his family.”

“It doesn’t matter. I couldn’t help her, and she left. End of story. Elaine moved on without me. Now I have to move on too.”

Ryland sighed. “I had no idea this meeting would suck so much ass.”

Connor burst out laughing. “Neither did I. Life has sucked ass lately.”

“It’s improving.”

“How’s Lia feeling?”

“Good. Well, as good as she can feel at eight months, anyway. She’s exhausted, and she’s still putting in long days writing her next book and helping around the lodge. I keep telling her to slow down, but she won’t listen.” He smiled. “I offer her a lot of back rubs. It’s the only way I can get her to stop moving for five minutes. And then she falls asleep.”

“Poor bear man. Not getting any action, are you?”

His eyes narrowed. “I do just fine in the action department, thank you very much. Besides, my mate is carrying my child. It’s the most awesome feeling in the world. Action can wait. One day, you’ll have a family and you’ll feel the same way.”

“No, thanks. I’m a confirmed bachelor.” He stood and held out his hand. “Thanks for understanding, Ry.”

Ryland stood and shook his hand. “It’s what we do here at the Ursa, isn’t it? We understand each other.”

He couldn’t argue there. Ryland had taken him in fresh out of college after doing a diploma in law and security. They’d been about the same age, and Connor had gravitated to Ryland’s enthusiasm for his resort idea. They’d all been ready to take on the world back then.

Who knew they’d be forced to do just that?

Gemini Island had been his spiritual and professional home for years now. His best friends worked here with him. He’d miss Bart and Soren and Killian and the rest of the guys.

And Lloyd.

Ryland looked at the floor. “I miss him, too.”

Connor nodded. “It’s just…ah, hell. Remember your thirtieth birthday? Lloyd snuck into your office the night before and filled it with pink balloons. You couldn’t even get in the door. The balloons all said, ‘I’m the birthday princess’.”

The bear man cracked up. “Yeah, I remember. It was the same day the hotel inspector showed up. If I’d been able to find Lloyd, I would have tanned his ass, but he kept himself hidden all day. I thought someone had dropped me into an episode of Fawlty Towers.”

They stood together in companionable silence, both of them lost in their recollections.

When the office phone rang, they both jumped.

Ryland answered. “This is Ryland Snow.”

Connor was just about to make his exit when the conversation demanded his attention.

“Elaine?” Ry waved at him. “It’s so good to hear from you. How are you? How are the kids?”

Connor’s mountain lion perched on his kidney, watching Ryland through bright eyes.

All of a sudden, Connor had trouble swallowing. Why would she be calling?

Why hadn’t she called him?

Ryland nodded a few times, making the odd comment into the phone, but Connor couldn’t tell the gist of the conversation.

“No shit?” said Ryland. “Ah, Elaine, I’m sorry. That’s got to be hard.”

“What?” demanded Connor. “What’s hard?”

Ryland silenced him with a look. “No, no. I understand. Of course, we can help you.” A pause. “You are not taking advantage. I told you before, this is your home. Your cabin is always available. It’s reserved for you and the kids indefinitely. I would never book it.”

What? Why did she need her cabin? “Ry…”

“Yeah, just text me the info. We’ll make it happen. No, it won’t interfere with the grand opening. Just come home. We all miss you.” He glanced up. “Actually, Connor’s right here. He misses you too. Okay. Hang in there. We’ll see you soon. Bye.” He hung up.

“Well?”

“She’s worried about the kids. They shifted for the first time the other day.”

“What? But they’re munchkins. No one shifts for the first time at that age. That should have happened in their teens. Are they okay?”

“They are now. Gave their human relatives the fright of their lives.”

“You think?”

“I know. That’s why she’s bringing Layla and Andy to the Ursa. I’ll call the doc and make arrangements for her.”

Connor bit his lip. “Is Elaine okay?”

“She sounded, well, she sounded like Elaine.”

Connor understood Ryland’s meaning. Elaine might always appear poised, cool even, but since Lloyd’s death, there had been an undercurrent in all her actions and words. A river of fragility coasted under her, ready to sweep her away at any time.

How much more could one woman take? Connor had already seen her at her lowest. He didn’t think it could get lower. But her kids? If there was something wrong with Andy and Layla, it might very well kill Elaine.

“How would you feel about helping me get Lloyd’s old cabin tidied up? Elaine will be here in a couple of days.”

Connor’s mountain lion put its paw in the air, as if doing a high-five.

She was coming home.

Just as he’d made plans to find a new home.