A Bear Shifter lost in his past must protect the only things he has left in this world, his mate and his cub.
Cole Patton never knew who his parents were, but he knew his role in life. As a child he was an outcast, running away from foster homes in search of some kind of family. In the Marines he was a secret weapon, an eight hundred pound Grizzly Bear Shifter capable of breaching any bunker. And now that he was back home, he was a pity case, forgotten and living on the street. Struggling to balance his humanity with his bestial side, he knew that anyone he let close would be in danger. But what if a greater danger is looming from his past?
Kassie winced, practically diving for the tray of burgers and fries as it was thrust into her waiting hands. Just another day at the diner, another busy day of waiting on other people. She’d been there for eight hours already and had two more to go before the end of her shift, and she was already dead on her feet. The only thing that gave her any semblance of peace was the thought that when she got home her little girl would be waiting for her, and she had the next two days to relax with Taylor.
She already had the weekend planned out too. If Taylor would let her, she was going to spend tomorrow morning planted in front of the television, and the two of them were going to watch cartoons and eat pancakes, and she was going to forget that this busy diner even existed. Already, the idea of that existed in her top ten fantasies of all time.
But right now, she had to deliver this dinner platter to the table of bikers at the far end of the diner who were leering at her as she made her way over.
“Well hello, princess,” said the oldest and grimiest of the lot as she did her best to put a smile on her face. Tips were tips, after all. “And how are you doing this fine evening?”
“I’m doing just grand,” she said as she started dropping their burgers and fries down on the table. “And how are y’all? The road treat you well today?”
“Not as well as you’ll hopefully be treating us,” said another of the bikers, as his friends started hooting and hollering in unison. She sighed to herself, doing her best not to roll her eyes as her friend Hillary caught her gaze and did it for her.
Just another day at The Jukebox. Kassie wiped her hands on her apron and put her tray under her arm, taking a quick step back as one of the bikers reached out, attempting a quick grope of her backside.
“And, ah, can I get anything else for you gentlemen?” she asked as they burst out into another round of riotous laughter.
“Can I get a side of you?” said the older one.
Finally fed up with the situation, she up and turned away. All the tips in the world weren’t enough to put up with that kind of lewd behavior. They catcalled her all the way to the kitchen, and she was forced to listen to it until she disappeared behind the back door, where she dropped back against it, shutting her eyes and letting out a deep breath as the cook looked over at her.
“One of those days, huh?” he asked.
“Definitely one of those days,” she said. “Just give me a minute before I go back out there,” she said. “If Mike sees me, he’ll blow his lid, but I need a breather. I’m about to pass out.”
“Just take five minutes and breathe,” he said. “And have a soda.”
“Don’t need the sugar,” she said as she moved from the door and poured herself a glass of water, squeezing a wedge of lemon into it before sipping at it gingerly. Waitresses usually stayed out of the kitchen during the day, but with the type of crowd they got, they had a deal. If the girls needed a breather, they could take a few minutes to decompress and get away from the creepers.
By the time she got back out, Hillary had taken over the bikers’ table, and they were being even worse with her as they had been with Kassie. But at least Hillary had the attitude to deal with them. Right now, Kassie just wanted to finish up her work and get out of there.
But of course, it wasn’t going to be that easy. The moment she thought that maybe she could have a few minutes of peace and quiet, a woman walked in with three kids—two little girls and a young boy who was babbling about something. The kids were cute, at least. They reminded her of her own little girl, bringing a smile to her face.
“Well, aren’t you a doll,” she said as she picked up a handful of menus.
The woman smiled. “Say hi, Mackenzie,” she said, bobbing the little dark-haired girl on her hip up and down. The girl swiveled her head around and smiled at Kassie, giving her an airy wave. But the boy continued to chatter about something.
“Mom. Mom! Didn’t you see that man?”
“Honey, you shouldn’t be rude,” the woman said.
“I’m not being rude! I was just saying that we should help him.”
“We can’t help everybody, sweetheart,” she said in exasperation.
Kassie tilted her head, puzzled. “I’m sorry?” she said. “Is something the matter?”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” said the woman. “There’s just… there’s a homeless man outside.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially in the way that adults always did when speaking in front of children. It actually annoyed Kassie a little. Did people really think children didn’t listen closer when you tried to hide things? But the woman continued. “He doesn’t look dangerous. Actually, I think he might be a veteran. It’s a shame, really. My brother was in the Army.”
“I see,” said Kassie.
“Can we get him some food or something?” said the boy. “He looks like he could use something to eat.”
“I… well.” The woman sighed and turned to Kassie. “I suppose… if we paid for it, could you send someone out to give the man a… a burger or something?” She looked over at her son with a placating tone in her voice.
“Yes, we can,” said Kassie, smiling at the boy. “You have a very generous nature, young man. A very good heart. Don’t lose that.”
She seated them and took their orders, amused by the antics of the young children. Her little girl was about the same age as the little girl with the woman, though certainly not as quiet. Taylor was a bundle of energy. She always had trouble sitting still whenever Kassie took her out to eat, and she always wanted to talk to every stranger that she saw. Right now, it wasn’t a problem, as she was so small it was easy to keep a tight rein on her, but it scared Kassie to think what would happen as she got older and more difficult to handle.
And then there was the matter of finding the man that the boy had pointed out, if he was still around. She went to the kitchen to pick up the extra order.
“Hey, give me a minute to pop out of here, okay? I have to go find this guy.” She quickly bagged the extra burger, adding a serving of fries for good measure, and then edged her way out of the kitchen before the manager could see her sneaking out the front door and ask what she was doing.
Kassie had always had a soft spot for the less fortunate, never having been in that sort of situation herself, even if she’d been in a few tough situations over the past few years. Hard work and determination had always seen her through, even in the lean years as a single mom. Spartanburg had its fair few of homeless, many of them vets now that the country had been in war, so she wasn’t surprised by what the boy had seen.
Looking around, she finally spotted a man several feet away, tall and lean, but still somewhat muscular in his tattered denim jacket and cap. She started toward him, but paused for a second. Didn’t he seem oddly familiar? No. Shaking her head, she held out the bag of food.
“Excuse me, sir? I hope you don’t mind, but a young man in the diner thought you might— “
The man turned, his bright blue eyes catching hers, and the bag fell from her hands. Those eyes… She had seen them before, years before. Her heart hammered in her chest.
Kassie turned abruptly, almost toppling over as she rushed from the man’s side, practically running back toward the café. She thought she heard him say something, but it might have just been her imagination. She didn’t care. It didn’t matter.
She couldn’t handle this right now because that man was just a shadow. An echo of her past. She had never expected to see him again.
It had happened four years ago. That cold and rainy night was imprinted into her memory, and nothing that she could do would make it go away. She pushed her way into the diner and through the doors back into the kitchen and dropped down into a chair, the memory of that night replaying over and over in her mind, on repeat, as she tried to recall his face, tried to be sure that this stranger really was the person that she thought he was.
She didn’t want to believe it was true, even though she was already certain that it was. Even if it wasn’t already obvious in his dark and shaggy hair, or the firm set of his jaw, the unique and startling blue of his eyes was enough to make her certain that it was him. Kassie could still see those eyes peering at her through the darkness of the pouring rain.
If she had known in that moment that her life would change forever, would she still have picked up that stranger? Of course, she would have. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have her darling little girl. But still, it was sending a shock through her system to see that man here now. And to see him in such a state. At once, what had been shock turned instantly to pity. To think that Taylor’s father was living on the streets…
Kassie shook her head. No. She couldn’t let it get to her. There was nothing she could do about that. Taylor came first, and whether that man out there had any genetic connection to her daughter really meant nothing at all. Taking a deep breath, she stood back up and made her way through the door.
She half expected the man to have come to the café, to have come looking for her, but to her utter relief he was nowhere to be found. It was better that way.
With an hour left in her shift, she finished up what she needed to do and then got out of there as quickly as she could, picking up her tips and leaving without even stopping to say goodbye to anybody. The last thing she wanted was to run into that man again if he happened to be lingering around The Jukebox. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case, and she managed to make it to her car without incident.
By the time she got home, she was utterly exhausted.
“How was she?” she asked the sitter.
“We had lots of fun, didn’t we Taylor?”
The little girl squealed in excitement, not even sparing the sitter a second look as she ran at Kassie and attached herself to her leg. “Mommy!” she chirped as Kassie easily lifted her up into her arms, unable to help noting her beautiful blue eyes, so like the man’s.
“Were you a good girl?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” said Taylor. “I colored! A fish and a flower and, and…” she said. Then she seemed to want to show Kassie something on the nearby coffee table, so Kassie had to let her down so the little girl could show her several scribbled crayon drawings. She had to admire them as if they were works of art, and to her discerning mother’s eye, they were.
“Thanks again for being here today,” she said to the sitter once she was finally able to get Taylor calmed down, leading the older woman to the door. “I know she can be a handful.”
“I love watching her,” said the woman, who volunteered to watch the girl for free on her off days when her own grandchildren weren’t over. “It reminds me of when I had little ones. It must be so hard doing it on your own.”
“I get by,” said Kassie with a smile.
“Really, though. Why hasn’t a man snatched you up already? You’re such a beautiful young woman.”
“I don’t need a man. I have my little girl,” said Kassie with a laugh. “She’s all I need right now.”
The older woman laughed. “I suppose you’re right, dear. Don’t mind me and my old-fashioned ways. Goodnight,” she said, picking up her purse and making her way out the door. And with that Kassie finally collapsed on the sofa, watching as Taylor played with her dolls on the floor in front of the television.
Closing her eyes, she thought again of the man from outside of the diner. There had been something frightening about him, she thought in retrospect. It sent a chill through her. But it wasn’t that he himself had been scary. It was that there seemed to be something scary about the air around him—about the life that he lived. Not just that he was on the streets, but that the very atmosphere he exuded seemed to be charged with something electric and dangerous.
It had been like that, even then, on the night that they met. It had seemed intense and exciting, and it had been the perfect thing to put her mind off of Adam, her cheating ex. She could still recall the intensity of his touch and how it had send shockwaves through her system. Shivering, she again forced herself not to think of that. All of that was in the past. This was the present, and she had a little one to take care of.
“Come on, Taylor. You have to take a bath now,” she said, rising from the sofa and scooping up her daughter.