Thoughts came slowly to Carl Carman, but each word reverberated with power. That was the best part of being a grizzly bear. Simple words meant simple, strong deeds. Human complexities were nonexistent in this state, though they echoed in the back of his mind. He was on a mission, had come to this Christmas tree field on a clan purpose. That he took joy in what he did was a trivial detail.
He braced his legs, shoved his claws deep, and then he thought it. One word, and the power crashed through every cell in his body.
What he held, he uprooted.
What he gripped, he crushed.
Whatever he touched, he tore apart.
He grinned, though he grunted with effort. He tasted blood—his own—and the coppery tang was sweet. Human language tried to intrude in this moment, but the grizzly had no interest in it. His language was action, power delivered with thrilling ease. And he liked to rip things apart. So he continued and was content.
Until something else disturbed him. Red and blue flashes across his retinas. At first he flinched away from the lights, but they roused the rational part of him. Red. Blue.
With a roar of fury, he began to tuck the animal away. His bear fought the shift, holding on to his shape with every ounce of his determination. But in this, the man was stronger, the mind crueler. With steadfast will, he folded the grizzly into an envelope in his mind. It had taken him years to master it. A thing that large doesn’t origami into a tiny flat rectangle easily.
His bones shifted and most of the fur thinned and disappeared, though some fell to the ground. His face tightened, and the strength in his arms and claws pulled inside, shrinking as it was tucked away. He straightened, the grizzly hump now gone as the energy coiled tight inside. His eyes burned. Damn, how they burned. But in time that last vestige of dark power would fade and his normal cool green color would return. Quiet control and long, complex sentences would be his norm. Though his first words as a human were always the last snarl of his bear.
“And Merry Christmas to you, too,” said a familiar female voice, though that particular holiday had passed months ago. His vision settled, and he saw Tonya dressed in her patrol uniform as she leaned against her squad car. The lights were still flashing, and at dawn, those colors would be seen far and wide.
“Flip off those lights,” he growled as he started searching for his pants. He was out here swinging in the breeze for all to see, and though that rarely bothered him, naked and vulnerable was not a good idea around her.
She opened the door of the squad car and used one hand to flip off the lights while the other aimed her phone at him. Jesus, she was taking pictures.
“I’ll tear that thing out of your hand,” he snarled, “and I won’t be gentle.”
“Promises, promises,” she said with a sigh. But she did drop the phone. “Doesn’t matter. I already got my holiday screensaver.” She pushed off the car and sauntered over, her hips swinging in a tantalizing rhythm. Tonya Kappes had short honey-blond hair, modest curves on her tall, muscular frame, and a dangerous look in her eyes that had once tantalized his grizzly like honey. Now it just made him tired. “See?”
She was hard to miss. He might not want to marry her, but that didn’t stop him from appreciating her feminine charms. But then a moment later, he realized she was talking about the image on her phone, flipped around for him to see.
Hell. “Give me that.”
She tried to pull away, but he was faster and stronger. He caught her wrist and squeezed until the cell dropped into his other hand. She might have fought him more, but a glare from him had her quieting, her head tilted to the side in submission. Then he looked down. There, full screen on the phone, was a video of him as a grizzly bear methodically destroying a field of Christmas trees. The telltale silver streak down his back flashed clear in the dawn light.
“Why would you record this?” he asked.
She flashed him a coy look that only pissed him off. “I like watching you work.”
Bullshit. She liked collecting blackmail material on people. She’d never used it as far as he knew, but that didn’t stop her from gathering intel on everyone. It was just part of her character and probably helped her be a good cop. But that didn’t mean he had to like it. With a quick flick of his thumb, he initiated a factory reset of her phone.
“Hey!” she cried when she saw what he’d done. “That’s evidence!”
“You here to arrest me?”
“You did just destroy Nick Merkel’s best tree field.”
“It had to be done, and you know it.”
Her lips compressed into a flat line. “The Merkels’ farm brings a boatload to the local economy. Hurting this field damages everyone.”
“He refused a direct order to fix his pesticide platform.” Pesticides were a fact of modern agriculture, and most farmers were extra careful about the area where the chemicals were mixed and stored. Not Nick Merkel. Spills were common, and his platform leaked like a sieve. But he didn’t seem to care because the runoff went off his property. Too bad for him that Carl cared. A lot. “He’s leaking poison into the ground water.”
She nodded, grim anger on her features. “So kill him and be done with it.”
“You’d rather I murder him than destroy his prize field.” It wasn’t a question. He knew that shifter law gave him the right to kill anyone in his clan who openly disobeyed him. But the man in him kept looking for a more civilized punishment. Not so for Tonya.
“He’s got a wife and two sons to carry on the farm. They’ll fix the platform and still bring in money to the area.”
Carl didn’t answer. Tonya was a cop through and through. That meant black-and-white law and swift justice. If kids vandalized a building, they went to jail. If a man poisoned the land, he got killed. For the most part, shifter law bowed to human law, but there were two unbreakables. Don’t hurt the land. Don’t disobey the alpha. Nick Merkel had done both.
Something in the Merkel bloodline was just ornery. The man had been a thorn in Carl’s side since Carl had stepped into his position as the alpha of the Gladwin grizzly shifters eight years ago. But Carl had seen firsthand what happened when a leader took the law into his own hands. He had sworn his tenure as Maximus of their mid-Michigan clan would not be one of terror and vigilante justice. So he’d done one step short of murder. He’d destroyed a field of Merkel’s Christmas trees, cutting the bastard’s pocketbook instead of his jugular.
“It won’t work,” Tonya said. “You’ll have to kill him eventually.”
“And then they’ll crucify me for killing one of our own.” He knew because that’s what had happened when he’d taken control of the clan. Another idiot had challenged him, and he’d let his grizzly out. One bloody death later, and Carl was the acknowledged alpha. But then the widow had started grumbling. And before long, others had agreed that an alpha should never kill one of his own.
“It’s an endless cycle,” Tonya agreed. “You can’t stop it. So get on with the next step and kill him. Deal with the next step when it happens.”
“Just help me find my damn pants,” he grumbled, unwilling to admit that there wasn’t a way out.
Her lips curled into a slow smile. “They’re locked in my trunk.”
Carl’s head whipped back to her. “Why?”
She shrugged, a roll of her shoulders that set her breasts to bouncing. “Evidence.”
“Blackmail, you mean.”
She chuckled, a low throaty sound. “Or just a way to keep you naked for a little bit longer.”
She took a step back, her gaze rolling slowly down his torso. Jesus, she was bold. She had a way of making even the most exhibitionist of his set feel dirty in a completely teenage, horny, fuck-’em-fast-and-furious kind of way. But he’d left those hormones behind years ago.
Then he caught her scent. “You’re in heat.”
Damn it, if he hadn’t been so absorbed in dealing with Nick Merkel, he would have noticed it right off the bat. No wonder he was keyed up around her.
She arched a brow. “Ticktock goes the biological clock.”
“Give me my clothes. I am not fucking you. And especially not in the middle of a destroyed Christmas tree field.”
She chuckled. “I don’t care where we do it, Carl, but we gotta do it.”
“No, we really don’t.”
He watched hurt flicker in her eyes. It didn’t even touch her face, but her eyes flinched, and it was more telling on her than a scream on anyone else.
He didn’t want to insult her. He had some warm feelings for her. They’d known each other all their lives, but cuddling up to her was like snuggling with a live hand grenade. He could control her. She always submitted to him eventually, but who wanted to spend his off hours in a constant game of dominance and submission? He wanted someone he could relax and have a beer with. Around Tonya, he’d be on duty as the Gladwin Max 24/7. “All right,” she said as she folded her arms across her chest. Her breasts plumped nicely, and his bear took notice. The rest of him was seeing that despite her words, Tonya had not given in. “Let’s look at this logically.” She almost sneered the last word. Grizzly clans were not known to be deep thinkers. Something he daily tried to change.
“Not until I’m dressed.”
She didn’t move. “Our bears are compatible. We established that as teenagers.”
“Everyone’s compatible at sixteen.” And back then, they had “compatted” as much as possible for a hot, horny month. But even at sixteen, he had grown tired of the constant power play.
“You’re Maximus now, but you need a strong wife at your side to hold the position. Merkel openly defied you. Unless you do a massive show of strength, more will follow. The last thing we need is a civil war inside the clan.”
He knew this. It had been burning through his brain ever since Merkel had refused to fix his platform. Carl had tried to sic the EPA on the man, hoping that human justice would help him out, but the organization was overloaded and undermanned. The earliest they could get someone out to check on violations was three weeks away. Hence his morning rampage.
“We’re short on numbers as it is,” he growled. “I’m not going to murder my own people.”
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I will.”
“I’m a cop and the strongest she-bear in a hundred miles. Get me pregnant and my brothers will line up to support you.”
“They could line up without me knocking you up.”
She shook her head. “That’s not how it works and you know it.”
True. Family loyalty trumped clan groupings all the time. It was the reason Merkel’s wife and sons hadn’t taken care of Nick themselves. That kind of betrayal was nonexistent within shifter communities. Tonya’s family was large and powerful, and there were rumblings of them splitting off to establish their own clan. Or of them taking over his. That would all end the moment he impregnated Tonya. If she became his Maxima, then that would fold her family into his, locking up the leadership for generations to come.
But he just couldn’t do it. They’d drive each other insane inside a year. Besides, he had a better idea, but first he had to end any romantic ideas between the two of them.
“I think of you like a sister,” he began, and it was the God’s honest truth.
She didn’t argue. Instead, her gaze drifted down. The shift was slow and deliberate, and he forced himself to let his hands go lax, opening up his entire body for her perusal.
Flat. Flaccid. And absolutely uninterested despite the fuck-me pheromones she gave off.
She didn’t speak. There was no need to. She simply lifted up the car key fob and pressed a button. The trunk popped open, and he finally got his hands on his clothes.
They didn’t speak as he dressed. He didn’t even want to look at her. He’d hurt her, and the guilt weighed heavily on him. Maybe the others were right. Maybe there just wasn’t enough bear in him to effectively lead the clan. His uncle had been so much bear he was almost feral. When he’d been Max, he’d killed with impunity, destroyed at random, and taken the most powerful she-bear by force. It had been human cops who had killed him—with Carl’s father’s help—opening up their clan to another way to rule. Logic and law—human concepts that the Gladwin shifters desperately needed.
Ten years later, Carl had stepped into power, but everyone seemed to think he was more man than bear. He couldn’t kill without exhausting all other possibilities. And he couldn’t fuck the most powerful she-bear around just because she was in heat. Which left him with a fracturing clan and his best ally hurting as she answered a call on her radio. Some drunk teens were cow-tipping a few miles to the east.
“I have to go,” she said as she climbed into her cruiser and shut the door. But the window was still open, so he leaned in.
“Tonya, you’re still a valuable member of the clan. Maybe my most—”
“Save it. I’ve heard it all.” They’d had this argument in one form or another since they were old enough to marry. The only sop to his guilt was that she wanted the power of Maxima way more than she wanted him.
“I have a better idea,” he said. “Be my beta.”
She froze, her eyes widening in shock. “Alan’s your beta.”
His brother, Alan, had served as his second from the very beginning. It kept the power in the family, but Alan had never shifted. The grizzly DNA had missed him, and the man couldn’t hold the position for much longer. Privately, Carl believed that’s what had sparked Merkel’s latest round of disobedience. The idiot hoped to force Carl into making a compromise and giving him the beta honor.
Never going to happen. He needed someone he could trust as his second.
“I know it’s unorthodox,” he continued, “but I can’t think of anyone better.”
“Unorthodox? A female beta is unheard of! You think you have problems with Merkel now? Every shifter in the state will be calling you a pansy-assed human.”
A big insult in the shifter community. Everyone seemed to believe that the animal side was the power center. The male animal. But if any female could change their minds, it was Tonya.
“A female beta makes the clan look weak. Those Detroit bastards will be on us in a split second.”
“The Detroit clan has their own problems. They’re not looking to start a war with us.” He hoped.
“You should ask one of my brothers.”
He’d thought of that, but he didn’t trust them like he trusted Tonya. He’d known her since they were children. Everyone expected them to marry, so they’d been shoved together from their earliest moments. He knew the way she thought and which way she would jump. In most things, their opinions aligned, though she tended to more of a black-and-white rule of the jungle, while he tried to think a problem through. All of that added up to her being an excellent beta.
“I choose you. Swear unwavering loyalty to me, and we can hold the clan together without marriage. That’s what you really want, anyway.”
She arched a brow. “You underestimate your attraction as a mate.”
“Bullshit. You want the power.”
“And the hot sex.”
Carl rolled his eyes. “So get a gigolo and be my beta.”
She shook her head slowly, not in denial but in stunned amazement. “You’re trying to drag the shifter community into a modern mind-set. It’s going to backfire on you. We’re just not as logical as you.” To her credit, she didn’t sneer the word “logical” like most shifters would.
“Will you do it? I can announce it at the next clan meeting.” He needed time to tell Alan, and that was not going to be a comfortable discussion.
“Yes,” Tonya said, being typically decisive. Then she pushed the car into drive, but she didn’t move. “One more thing. You had a message. That’s why I came out here to find you.”
He frowned. Damn it, she should have told him that first thing instead of trying to trap him into mating. “What?”
“There’s trouble in Kalamazoo.”
“What?” The word exploded out of him, but Tonya didn’t hear it. She’d already hit the gas and was roaring away.
Just as well, he thought as he sprinted for his truck. Even clothed, there was no way to hide his reaction at the mention of that place where she lived. He hit the freeway with his erection lying hard and heavy against his thigh.