A very beastly christmas, p.1
A Very Beastly Christmas,
A VERY BEASTLY CHRISTMAS
(GRAY BACK BEARS, HOLIDAY NOVELLA, BOOK 7)
By T. S. JOYCE
Other Books in this Series
This can be read as a standalone holiday novella, but if you want more of these characters, they can be found in these books.
Gray Back Bad Bear (Book 1)
Gray Back Alpha Bear (Book 2)
Gray Back Ghost Bear (Book 3)
Gray Back Broken Bear (Book 4)
Lowlander Silverback (Book 5)
Last Immortal Dragon (Book 6)
A Very Beastly Christmas
Copyright © 2015 by T. S. Joyce
Copyright © 2015, T. S. Joyce
First electronic publication: November 2015
T. S. Joyce
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the author’s permission.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental. The author does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for third-party websites or their content.
Published in the United States of America
Aviana Novak. Timid raven shifter, Gray Back, proud mate to Easton Novak…and liar. Liar. Just the thought of the word curdled her stomach.
She’d never lied to Easton before, and she sure chose a monster fib to begin with. He was going to hate her. Okay, perhaps hate was too strong a word, but he was definitely going to freak out. And for Easton—or as he liked to be called, Beaston—freaking out meant fighting with the other male Gray Backs. Beaston didn’t have the best control over his animal, and though the entire crew had accepted that long ago, riling him up wasn’t in anyone’s best interest.
Aviana pulled on her second snow boot over her jeans and stood. Her reflection looked pallid in the dresser mirror, and with shaking hands, she slid a light touch over the slight swell of her stomach. If she didn’t tell him soon, he would notice her changing shape. Face crumpling and tears burning her eyes, she yanked her gaze away from the reflective glass and pulled an oversize pink sweater over her long, black hair. It settled at her hips and gave her a lumpy shape. “Just tell him,” she murmured.
But the thought of what she would say turned her middle sour and made her hands shake worse. Beaston would be hurt by her betrayal.
A loud whistle sounded from the Grayland Mobile Park a couple hundred yards away. Aviana lived in a singlewide trailer behind the park with her mate, close enough that they were still a part of the Gray Back Crew, but far enough away that Beaston’s bear could handle living with others of his own kind.
The whistle signaled that Willa, second in the Gray Backs, or “Almost Alpha” as she called herself, had heard the trucks coming down from the landing.
A wave of nerves and excitement churned inside her. She was going to see her beloved Beaston. Maybe today she would be strong enough to tell him. It was a few days before Christmas, and perhaps he would see it as a gift, not a betrayal. The tiny baby she already loved more than her own life was a blessing. Perhaps her dread was for no reason.
But no. She’d been there right after his mother had died during childbirth. She’d been there when Beaston had broken as a result.
Just tell him.
God, she wished she was strong like Willa. Or Gia, Georgia, or Clara. All of the Gray Back women were complete badasses, and then there was her. Aviana bit her lip as punishment for being such a wimp. Sometimes she felt like the weakest link in the entire crew.
Heart drumming against her sternum, she pulled her heavy winter jacket off the peg near the front door and made her way carefully down the snow-dusted stairs. Beaston was very good about sweeping them, but it had been snowing for most of the afternoon while he was stripping lumber up in the mountains. She smiled at how well he took care of her. Beaston had been broken in his childhood, but he’d grown up to be a caring man and the most incredible mate she could’ve ever wished for.
Gah, her stomach was in knots as she made her way down the snowy trail through the thin evergreen woods that separated her and Beaston’s trailer from the rest. Clara was sitting on the porch stairs of the old singlewide trailer, 1010, lacing up a pair of fur-lined snow boots. Her curly, red hair waved this way and that in the breeze, and when she’d tied the laces, she looked up at Aviana with a ready smile.
“You won’t be able to tie your own shoes pretty soon,” Aviana teased.
“He was kicking like a little fiend this morning. Damon has made me a bet that our little man is a feisty little bruin grizzly.” Clara stretched back on her locked arms, cheeks rosy with pleasure as she pushed her round belly forward. Six months pregnant, and Clara had never looked lovelier. Or happier.
The smile faded from Aviana’s lips. Beaston wouldn’t react to her news like Clara’s mate had reacted to hers.
Clara frowned. “What’s got you looking like a bluebird? Get it? Blue? Bird?”
Aviana forced a laugh at the raven joke and shook her head, careful to hide her eyes because she was absolute shite at lying. “Nothing. Just ready to see the boys home safely.”
“Ah, they’re fine up there. Damon told me winter is the boys’ favorite part of logging season. They hit most of their lumber numbers when it’s cold and the ground is hard.”
Even Aviana, with her weaker bird hearing, could hear the trucks now, and she zipped her jacket up to her chin as she joined Willa and Gia. Georgia was still out doing her park ranger duties, but this was a tradition for the rest of them—gathering around the high brick fire pit and greeting the boys on their return at the end of each day.
Today was going to be the day. She would tell him now before it got too close to Christmas. Beaston hadn’t celebrated the holiday since he was a child and his parents were still alive, and it should be a special time for him. Not one where he was upset with her.
God, let him not hate me.
Creed’s jacked-up charcoal-colored truck led the way under the Grayland Mobile Park sign, and Beaston’s old, white Chevy followed closely, bumping and bouncing with every pothole.
“There’s our A-team boys,” Willa called out, then let off a shrill whistle as she draped an arm over Aviana’s shoulders. Willa, with her bright-red dyed hair up in a high ponytail she’d straightened until it was spiky, was a woman Aviana admired deeply. She was brash and uncensored and funny as hell. She also had an inner strength about her that Aviana wished would somehow rub off on her. The tiny, dominant grizzly shifter wiggled her hips and sang a song about how the boys were too sexy for their shirts and how they were going to do their little turn on the bearwalk.
Gia, Creed’s honey-haired mate, held her toddler Rowan tighter and bounced along to the beat with a big grin on her face.
It was impossible not to feel better around her crew. Aviana’s insecurity only tightened its grip when she was alone during the day, but no more, because she was really going to tell him.
Beaston’s window was down, and his bright green, wild eyes locked on her as he passed. His smile for her was heart-stopping, and she froze under his gaze as he pulled to a stop near 1010. Mason and Jason got out of the other
With a long, relieved breath, she realized how good it was to be in his arms. He wouldn’t hate her. He would only be scared for her. Aviana buried her face against his neck and whispered, “I have to tell you something.”
Beaston went rigid in her arms, every muscle tensed to stone beneath her touch. He looked around at the other Gray Backs, reuniting with their mates, then eased her to her feet in the snow. “Whatever I’ve done wrong, I’ll fix it.”
“Beaston,” she whispered, tracing the two day scruff on his jaw with her pink mitten-clad finger. “You haven’t done anything wrong. I love you.”
“As much as before, Ana?”
She smiled. Everyone else called her Aviana, but to Beaston, she was just Ana. His Ana. “More than ever.”
He searched her eyes with his blazing green gaze, and the smile that had been so beautiful in place before slipped to a deep frown. “I have to Change.”
“Wait, now? Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?”
He shook his head slow, his jaw making a faint scratching sound against the popped collar of his jacket.
Beaston stepped out of arm’s length and dropped his gaze. “Because you’ve pulled away from me. You stare out the window too much now. I don’t want to hear it because it will hurt.” And without another word, he strode off toward the woods, his limp deepening as he left her standing there with her mouth hanging open and her palms out.
So he had noticed.
Their distance had been her fault. Her fault for stopping her birth control without his knowledge. Her fault for giving up on begging for a family and taking matters into her own treacherous hands. Her fault for the secret she’d kept from him.
He’d felt her betrayal all along.
“What’s wrong?” Willa asked, eyes round as she settled beside her.
Aviana didn’t want to tell anyone before she told her own mate, but she couldn’t leave the question hanging between them. Willa should see how bad she was. How weak.
As her eyes rimmed with tears, Aviana whispered, “I’ve done something awful to him.”
And a moment later, the woods shook with the roaring of Beaston’s bear.
His Ana would leave him. She would.
Beaston raked his claws deeply down the sides of a birch tree just to destroy something. He had to fix whatever he’d broken. He had to make her happy again because, lately, Ana wasn’t smiling as much. She wasn’t even Changing into her raven anymore, as if the wonder of flight had left her completely. He’d somehow stolen her joy, but he was helpless to know how. Of course he was doing something wrong. Growing up alone meant he had no map on how to make a woman happy.
Whatever she had to say, he didn’t want to hear it. He’d avoided serious talks for the last month because he couldn’t stand to hear his shortcomings, whatever they were. Maybe this wasn’t the life she’d wanted. Maybe she regretted being shunned by her raven shifter people by choosing him. Maybe she was homesick and wanted to leave to be closer to her parents again.
Maybe he just wasn’t enough.
Motion caught his attention, and he jerked his gaze to a massive brown bear waiting just through a thicket of trees. Jason. Jason was good to his bones. His best friend.
He was also half-idiot if he thought taking a walk through the woods with Beaston’s bear, ready to maul anyone and anything in his path, was a good idea. Usually, Jason was smarter.
The brown bear blew steam in a huffed breath and tilted his head, exposing his neck. Ears down, stump tail tucked to nothing, Jason walked slowly with him, several layers of trees between them.
Fine, let him follow.
Beaston made his way down a narrow deer trail, his six-inch claws digging into the snow as his ears picked up the distress cry of a rabbit. It was far away, and he wasn’t really hungry, but he wasn’t ready to go back to his trailer and face his unhappy mate yet. Sure, he was running like a coward, but the thought of this being the last hour he could be happy in pretending that Aviana was his forever was worth chasing a dying rabbit.
Huddled in the corner of the shed, Easton coughed out the scent of lingering smoke.
Beaston closed his eyes tightly to ward off the memory that was clawing at his mind, but it was no use.
It had been months since he’d burned the house to free his mother’s ghost, but still the smell clung to everything to remind him of all he’d lost. Now all he had to live in was a drafty shed. His stomach growled, and he clutched his middle tighter and huddled more deeply under the blankets. Nights were the worst. He was so lonely.
After his father had broken his neck, his shifter healing had allowed him to arrive just in time to tell him and Mom goodbye before he died, and then his mother had passed a few days later trying to have the baby. He didn’t even know if it had been a girl or a boy. He’d never seen the wee thing because Mom had given up before she’d really tried. He hated her for leaving him here. In her grief, she’d failed both of them, Easton and the baby, and now he was alone. His stomach growled again, but he ignored it. If he didn’t ration the rest of the food Mom and Dad had stocked up for winter, he would starve to death before spring.
The flutter of wings on the windowsill sounded, and Easton jerked his gaze to the fluffed up raven who stood on it, staring at him through the old window glass. She tapped it once with her beak, and he smiled. The stretch of his face felt strange after the last few months. Easton stood and opened the sticky window just enough that he could see the raven better. She held something shiny in her tar-colored beak and dropped it to the splintered, snow-covered windowsill. It was a sprig of holly with a tiny red Christmas ball dangling off it. The thin hook of the ornament had been wound round and round the branch so it wouldn’t fall off. Easton huffed a baffled laugh, then frowned as he looked past the raven to the snowy woods outside. What day was it? The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he tried to count the weeks. He picked the holly up and allowed the ornament to dangle below it. His raven liked to bring him trinkets—usually of the shiny variety, but if she’d found this abandoned on a trail or at a cabin somewhere, it meant it must be getting close to Christmas. A wave of unwelcome sadness washed over him. It used to be his favorite holiday when he had family to celebrate it with.
The raven cocked her head and blinked, and for a moment, he was reflected in her clear, black eyes. Emaciated, pale, eyes glowing like a monster. Eight years old, but after the last few months, he felt a hundred. He would die soon, and this would be his last Christmas.
At least the raven would remember him.
Beaston growled at the unwelcome memory, and shook his head hard to get rid of the last remnants of the remembered loneliness.
That raven had turned out to be his Ana, unable to reveal that she was a shifter for all those years. He still had that piece of dried-out holly with the ornament tucked away in the tackle box under his bed with all her other gifts. She’d given him a tiny, shiny ornament every Christmas until her father had moved her far away and left him alone again. It was in the winters after she had gone, when he’d been truly alone, that he had grown to despise the snowy holiday. In his mind, he called those the “broken years.” He wouldn’t say that out lo
He couldn’t lose her.
Beaston cast Jason a sideways glance and growled. He wanted to charge him and bleed him so his animal would feel better. Fighting always sated him for a while, but today, he needed something better from his friend. Something bigger. Something he’d never asked for.
He needed advice.
With a grunt of pain, he shrank from the heavily-furred silver bear to his human form. Jason Changed back a moment later and then shuddered, covering his dick with his hand as he huffed frozen breath.
“You make Georgia happy,” Beaston said low.
Jason was bouncing on the balls of his feet now, and his skin was covered in goosebumps. His dark eyes were wide and impatient as he answered, “Yeah.”
“What do you mean, how? The same way you make Aviana happy. I listen to her, I’m there for her, I try to limit my dumbshit-ness because she deserves better. I love her like she’s the only woman on the planet, because to me, she is. I see you with Aviana. You take good care of her.”
When Easton leaned back onto the rough bark of a lodgepole pine, the towering tree creaked under his weight. He narrowed his eyes in the direction of the crying rabbit. “I’m doing something wrong.”
“You also used to swear that Creed was going to kill you for being so broken, and he didn’t. Sometimes you’re wrong.”
Beaston swallowed hard and covered his dick, too, since that seemed to be what Jason found normal. Nudity didn’t bother a man who was mostly animal like Beaston. “I woke up last night, and she was crying.”
“Like…crying in bed?”
Beaston nodded once as shame tinged his cheeks. “I didn’t know what to do, and when I rolled over to hug her shoulders, she didn’t seem to want my comfort.”