Coveted by the bear, p.1
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       Coveted by the Bear, p.1

           T. S. Joyce
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Coveted by the Bear


  COVETED BY THE BEAR

  (A STANDALONE BEAR SHIFTER ROMANCE)

  By T. S. JOYCE

  Other Books by T. S. Joyce

  Bear Valley Shifters

  The Witness and the Bear (Book 1)

  Devoted to the Bear (Book 2)

  Return to the Bear (Book 3)

  Betray the Bear (Book 4)

  Redeem the Bear (Book 5)

  Hells Canyon Shifters

  Call of the Bear (Book 1)

  Fealty of the Bear (Book 2)

  Avenge the Bear (Book 3)

  Claim the Bear (Book 4)

  Heart of the Bear (Coming January 2015)

  Wolf Brides

  Wolf Bride (Book 1)

  Red Snow Bride (Book 2)

  Dawson Bride (Book 3)

  Coveted by the Bear

  Copyright © 2014 by T.S. Joyce

  All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the United States Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, redistributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in any database or retrieval system, without prior written permission from the author.

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Chapter One

  Caleb

  The bell dinged above the front door of Jake’s Quickstop. My brothers and I turned our heads from our conversation just enough to see who had come in. It was a small town. Everyone knew everyone.

  Old man Tucker sauntered in and called out a greeting to Bernard behind the counter. I nodded my hello when he waved in our direction.

  “Here you go, boys,” the waitress said, setting three full plates down in front of Evan, Brian, and me.

  She wore a red and white, tight-fitting dress with white sneakers. The dress looked young for her, but she had been working at Jake’s for as long as I could remember. The uniform had never changed. She’d probably filled it out nicely in her twenties.

  “Thanks, Leona,” I said through a smile before I dug in. I was starving. Working on an oil rig meant physical effort and exertion from the moment I stepped onto that platform until the moment I climbed back down the clanking metal stairs to my truck. I was always hungry enough to eat a horse when my shift ended.

  Jake’s was quite the hotspot in town. It had multiple functions for a rancher or an oilman on the go. It tripled as a grocery store, gas station, and fine dining. By fine dining, I meant the best burgers and fried burritos in town. It was also Bryson’s social apex where all the old ladies picked up on the latest gossip. A boisterous group of them chattered away at the booth nearest the casino machine and rack of Twizzlers.

  The bell above the door dinged again, but I didn’t look up. The burger was good enough to hold my attention. Jake’s grew eerily quiet. The kind of quiet you feel more than you hear. Even the old ladies had stopped their chattering. Evan elbowed me, but I was already turning my head to see who had caused friction in a room full of old friends.

  “It’s Crazy Mira,” Evan whispered.

  I could hear the smile in his words. When Crazy Mira came to town, everyone had enough entertainment to last them a week.

  Each member of the crowd had frozen in whatever position they had been in when she came through the door. The audience held more interest for me than Crazy Mira did. Nelda Jenkins had a string of pasta hanging out of her mouth like she had been mid-slurp when the girl had arrived. It dangled there.

  Nelda reminded me of a fishing trip I had taken with my dad. The water had been so uncharacteristically clear, we could see the green and brown backs of the fish we were after. I had plunked my worm in the water in front of a big one and waited, a trill sounding through me as the fish moved closer. I had never seen anything like it, but the fish clamped on and stayed there. I didn’t even feel the pull of the pole. We just stayed tethered to each other by this thin, almost invisible line while he started to digest my worm. I had often wondered if I would ever feel so tethered to another living creature again.

  Nelda’s worm didn’t know it was being eaten yet.

  I could hear the sharp intake of air from Mira when she looked up enough to notice Jake’s was abnormally busy for this time of day. The girl was swimming in a cloud of mystery, but that she tried to avoid people wasn’t one of them. She’d failed.

  Mira dropped her chin to her chest and skittered for the grocery aisles. She picked up a small blue plastic basket from an end cap and began to fill it with items from a list she held clenched tightly in her white-knuckled grip.

  I tried to ignore her, if for nothing else than to give her peace from one pair of prying eyes. My gaze kept drifting just far enough in her direction to catch her movement in my peripheral, though. Something about the strange woman demanded attention.

  I saw Nelda make the sign for the devil with her hands. If ever anyone mentioned a witch, people knew who they were talking about. Crazy Mira and witch were one in the same.

  Nelda’s gesture at Mira pissed me off, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why.

  “Did you hear about Dina Manchester?” I asked Evan, loud enough for the others to hear.

  Evan still looked dumbly in Mira’s direction.

  It was my other brother, Brian, who took the bait. “No. Why, did you hear something?”

  “Nope. Just wondering why she put off the wedding. Again.”

  The ladies in the booth looked at each other with wide eyes and started to whisper amongst themselves.

  Crazy Mira’s movements became less jerky and robotic with some of the attention directed elsewhere. She rushed. She didn’t get many groceries, but it felt like she’d been in here for hours. Acutely aware of her effect on everything to function normally, I wished she would finish shopping already and leave.

  She dropped a can of soup, and the sound of metal on tile cracked through the room. Everyone became quiet and attentive again. She apologized. To the soup? I shook my head. Crazy Mira.

  I wasn’t hungry anymore so I pushed off and laid a crumpled ten dollar bill on the counter. Leona smiled at me. She probably loved serving the McCreedy boys. We always tipped her what our meal cost. Our dad always taught us that kindness and a good tip kept the spittle out of our food.

  “Good burger, as always,” I told Leona.

  She beamed.

  “Why are you leaving so soon?” Evan asked incredulously. What he was really asking was, why in the hell are you leaving before Crazy Mira finishes her show?

  I shrugged noncommittally. Really, I didn’t have an answer. Staring at Crazy Mira had never bothered me before. Now, it left a sick feeling in my stomach.

  By the time I turned for the door, Mira had pushed her meager groceries onto the checkout counter. She was staring longingly at a miniature refrigerator filled with small cartons of milk as if they were stacks of Spanish gold.

  “Fifteen seventy-six,” Bernard told her as he began to bag up the food.

  “Oh,” she said softly. She counted the change that sat in the bowl of her palm. “I don’t have enough.” She looked at the goods like she was trying to decide which to put back.

  She didn’t even ask for Bernard to cut her a break, and something about that struck me. Evan snickered from the counter in the back. Mira apparently heard him, too, because she threw a terrified glance in his direction. The problem was, I was in the midst of leaving and right in her line of sight. She froze when she saw me approaching. I didn’t mean to scare her. I was only headed for the door to hear the dinging of the bell that meant salvation from this uncomfortable situation.

  I’d never actually looked at her face before. She did an impressive job hiding it with all of that thick, wavy,
devil-black hair that cascaded down her back and brushed her hips. She always leaned forward a little, though whether it was to help gravity to pull her hair in front of her face or to look at the ground where she was walking, I couldn’t guess. Maybe both. And here she was, terrified. I was the cobra and she was the mouse. Not one of the black and white, hand-reared mice they sold at the feed store, but a gray, matted, feral mouse with teeth. She was the assumed victim none-the-less. I hated her for making me feel this way.

  Why couldn’t she just act normal? Say hi to people? Join a conversation? Smile? It was a small town. Everybody knew everything about everybody, but you couldn’t get more people willing to help you than in a place like this.

  Despite my anger, I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket. “Here,” I said as I laid it on the counter with her one dollar bills and coin change.

  “No, thank you.” Her voice cracked on the last word like she hadn’t used it in a while. Mira cleared her throat and looked down. She pushed the five dollar bill back in my direction and took a package of frozen broccoli and a loaf of wheat bread out of the bags. “Now do I have enough?” she asked Bernard.

  He shook his head. “Still a dollar ten short,” he said in a regretful tone.

  “Just take the money,” I said a little too loudly. I was baffled. Why was I still standing here trying to help her? And why couldn’t she just take the stupid money and give us both an escape?

  Mira flinched at the quiet snickering from behind me as if the sound were the crack of thunder in her ear. Her shoulders hunched inward when Evan asked me, “Caleb, what are you doing?”

  She threw a determined look at me. “I can’t.”

  I was already angry and should have just left. Instead, I gritted out, “You know, you really are as crazy as everyone says you are.”

  I regretted the words before they finished leaving my lips. The look on her face was something I would never forget. I watched her drown in sadness, in fear, and humiliation. She wasn’t angry with me. She was disappointed in me, and somehow that made it worse. I wasn’t usually cruel, and her confusion at my reaction held me in place, unable to take my eyes from her sorrow. The laughter around us had her dark eyes darting from one grinning face to another. She leaned her head forward and stared at the ground for a moment before she scooped up her change and bolted out the front door.

  “What about your groceries?” Bernard yelled after her.

  The dinging of the bell was the ugliest sound I’d ever heard.

  Chapter Two

  Mira

  Such a fine line was drawn between life and death. No one knew that better than me. I sighed as my stomach ached deeply, and I imagined myself completely hollow.

  The low-lying ceiling above my head was dim in the early morning light and covered in plastic stars that still glowed at night despite their age. The room had belonged to my mother before it had been cast into my ownership. I stamped the thought of her down, shoving it behind the locked iron doors in my head. Sometimes, if I did it quickly enough, the pain would be locked away with her memories.

  I rubbed my fingers along the puckered scars across my hip bones and wondered what kind of story they would tell to a man who had reason to look at them. I had nothing to worry about. It wasn’t as if the boys in town were beating down my door. I smiled privately. God, a fist against my crappy front door would obliterate it. I couldn’t hope for even that. People scurried away from me, whispering and shielding their babies, and men felt disinclined to chat with a girl made up entirely of wild hair and disturbing rumors.

  In my defense, the hair was a gift from my mother. Damn genetics.

  Mother. There it was again. I growled and rolled ungracefully off the side of the bed. My feet and hands hit the floor. Might as well dig around for some clean clothes while I was down here. The search lasted seconds. My uncle, and barely willing guardian, had decided clothes were a thing of necessity only. If he could have gotten away with letting me run around dressed like Mowgli from The Jungle Book, he would have set the precedence years ago. That idea had failed when I grew boobs.

  Other than the three tossed shirts and the cutoff pair of jean shorts, my room was tidy. I had a tendency to keep the entire house neat. It was as if the chaos of my youth had driven me to organization in adulthood. Okay, so maybe twenty wasn’t adulthood to others, but I had grown up long ago. Honestly, I couldn’t remember ever being a child.

  The first of the morning birds sang its song outside my window, and it made me miss the rooster. He had been delicious. The panes of window glass were streaked and warped with age, and the wood around them held the remnants of what was probably a lovely shade of light blue at some time in the room’s history. The walls were bare other than a few pictures I had ripped out of an overdue library book one night when I was feeling especially volatile. They were pinned side-by-side, two pictures of little huts propped above the ocean water with transparent floors to view the fish, squid, crabs, sea stars, and other stuff I couldn’t begin to venture a guess at because I’d never actually been to the ocean. I’d never been much of anywhere—an unfortunate by-product of my secrets.

  Next to the ripped pages was a small map with a red thumb tack I had not-so-artfully stabbed between the words Bora Bora. Paradise. My escape. It was where my mind lent itself when things got so dark I couldn’t breathe for fear of dying.

  The rest of my walls were just that. Walls. No paint, no decoration, and absolutely no personality to say it was Mira Fletcher’s room. Just wooden plank after splintered wooden plank that told the square of my room to stay where it was. The shabby floors here had as much chance of escape as I did.

  I had asked Uncle Brady to fix up the room for me when I first moved in. He’d said, “Ain’t gonna happen, darlin’. Stuff’s more valuable if it’s original.”

  I flared my nostrils at the heady scent of mold and wood rot and thoroughly disagreed.

  With seeking hands, I found my cleanest looking shirt, then stood in one fluid motion.

  I looked critically into the weathered, rust-eaten mirror over the dresser. Hips, legs, stomach, neck. All looked normal in the marred mirror. In a cleaner one, the scars of my struggles would have stood out like stars against the blackest backdrop of night, shining and dimming in the various stages of age and healing.

  Elbows locked, I leaned forward onto the dresser. It buckled and complained under my weight. I glared at my reflection. “I’m gonna kill you…squirrel.”

  I liked to call what I would hunt. It was my ritual. A weird one, admittedly, but it wasn’t as if anyone were watching. No one was ever watching. If ever there was a benefit to being utterly and uncompromisingly alone, shamelessly talking to one’s self would be it. And if I happened to be in town when I talked to myself, all the better. Townies would say, “There goes Crazy Mira. That kooky girl has gone to talking to herself now, too.”

  People asked less of crazy people.

  I pulled the threadbare cotton shirt over my head and shimmied into my cut-offs. At a loss for socks, I pulled my boots over bare feet. I’d pay for it later, but there was nothing to be done about that now.

  A gurgling growl ripped through me, and I lifted the hem of my shirt out of habit. Brushing my fingertips against the scars over my hip bones again, I weighed my options. Go to town and face the mortifying possibility that Caleb McCreedy might be there to torment me again, or hunt something down. What I couldn’t do was sit around and wait for someone to save me. I had to save myself in this life.

  I scribbled a quick explanation about where I was going on a sticky note, stuck it to the quiet refrigerator, and then turned to leave. On second thought, the note was unnecessary. The habit had only been for appearances. No one would ever read it or wonder at my whereabouts. It was for show in case some nosy cop came to the doorstep wondering where my guardian was. It had made it easier to convince them he was out to the liquor store in town if there was evidence we still had some sort of communication.

 
Unless I sprouted the ability to raise the dead, communication with my uncle was definitely off the table.

  Turning, I fixated on that note. I had counted down the days, and it had finally arrived. The day I didn’t have to fear someone discovering Uncle Brady’s untimely death and dragging me by my wild hair to some state home to live out the rest of my adolescence. Today was my twentieth birthday, two years past when I had to worry about the foster care system anymore. Happy birthday to me.

  It felt strange to celebrate another one alone. It was as if the life I wanted and the life I was living warred with each other in my mind. A million tiny battles fought throughout the day that determined whether I’d stay in the here and now, or if my mind would flit to the relief of daydream. To Bora Bora where my lavish friends and family would bake me cakes and buy me extravagant presents. I didn’t actually want or need these things, but the imaginings felt necessary for my continued existence. Knowing there was more to life for others kept me going.

  The note plunked satisfyingly into the metal trashcan, and I slid my hand comfortably into the worn leather strap that hooked to the smallest of Uncle Brady’s guns. Hefting it over my shoulder, I glanced once more at the house before I left to hunt down something that could ease the ache in my stomach. There was no point in locking the front door. Anyone could kick it in if they were so inclined, and the alarm system of the house was the fact that no one would willingly enter what looked like a meth lab. Unless it was a meth addict looking for meth, in which case, he could have the damned house.

  Sure, I’d have to alert the tiny town of Bryson about Uncle Brady’s death, and the power in the town wouldn’t like it when I enlightened them that my guardian had passed last year. No one had even bothered to wonder why he just stopped showing up to work. Being the town alcoholic enlisted you with some pretty special benefits, such as absolutely no accountability.

  I hopped over the missing stair on the front porch and landed with a little dust explosion onto the front lawn. Bull nettle and sticker burrs made up the floral bits of the yard. Yep, I’d have to tell the town about my uncle’s passing, and the will he’d left in my care, too, but I didn’t have to do any of that right now.

 
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