The venue for the garden party was out in the hills, a 30-minute drive from downtown Hope Valley. As the taxi passed between two high, wrought iron gates and drove onto a private tree-lined avenue, Dina’s mouth fell open.
“What is this place?” she said.
“I don’t know,” Lauren replied. “But the person who owns it sure seems to have a lot of money!” The avenue continued for maybe a quarter of a mile, before it swung to the left and a huge, elegant house came into view. The house was white, with three stories, and big marble columns on either side of the front door. It gleamed like a Grecian temple under the flawless blue sky. To the right of the house was a painted wooden sign, saying ‘Secret garden party this way’.
The girls stepped out of the taxi carefully, Dina catching up her loose skirt so it didn’t get tangled in the door, and they walked towards the sign. They were now close enough to see that there was a pathway running alongside the house. Lauren looked at Dina, her eyes full of excitement.
“Are you ready?” she asked. Dina let out a long breath.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. They picked their way along the path, and when they reached the end, they stopped and stared at the amazing sight that greeted them.
There was a huge garden, full of palms and magnolia trees, with tables and chairs dotted here and there. A jazz band was playing in one corner, and in the other was a vast buffet table, groaning with food. Off to one side was a cocktail bar that looked like it had been lifted out of the 1920s, and in the final corner was a mini circus show, with acrobats and jugglers and fire-eaters. All the women were in pretty dresses, while the men were in tuxedos. Every guy that Dina glanced at was ridiculously, stunningly, good looking.
“Oh. My. God!” Dina breathed. “Is this place real?”
“Pinch me, I think I’m dreaming,” Lauren said at the same time.
As they stepped onto the immaculately-clipped lawn, a man walked over with a tray of champagne glasses.
“Drink, ladies?” he asked. He had a narrow, handsome face, with something sly in his expression that made Dina think of a fox. Lauren snatched two glasses immediately.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Are these men all shifters?” Dina whispered when the guy had walked away.
“Yup,” Lauren replied, looking around. “And what fine specimens they are. Not that I’m looking, of course; Connor’s all the man I’ll ever need.” As they walked into the center of the garden, they could hear the jazz band playing, and they were bathed in the sunlight of a beautiful summer’s day. Dina tried not to stare too obviously at the men all around them, but she couldn’t get her head around the fact that they were all half animal. And not only that, but they were insanely hot. She was practically salivating. Seeing such sexy men on the app had almost been too much for her; seeing them in the flesh was on a whole other level.
Just then, a woman in a shimmering golden dress ran over to them, tottering on incredibly high heels.
“Lauren, darling!” she exclaimed, taking Lauren by the shoulders and kissing her on both cheeks. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to greet you at the entrance. I just got caught up with so many people!” She turned to Dina. “And you must be Dina.” She also kissed Dina, while Dina stood there, too stunned to move. “I’m Tamika, and I’m so glad you’ve made it here tonight! Lauren told me all about that delicious man you found on Shiftr, and I can tell you that I’m pretty sure he’s here tonight. All but two of the local shifters responded to my invite, saying they were coming.”
“That’s great,” Dina said, a little shyly. Tamika’s effervescent personality had knocked her off balance a little. She was a beautiful woman in her mid-forties, with long, caramel-colored hair, carefully arranged into waves, and long, muscular, tanned legs. Her dress was a simple shift style, but it looked stunning on her generous curves, and she wore bold, statement jewellery, set with jade stones. She spoke in a booming voice with a foreign accent. “Where are you from?” Dina blurted out.
“I’m from England, darling,” Tamika said with a smile. “I grew up in London, but an American werewolf caught my heart ten years ago, and brought me over here. I’ve lived in the US ever since. Just recently, I started thinking about all the lonely shifters out there who are desperate to meet curvy girls like us, and the idea for the app just popped into my head!”
“It’s amazing what you’re doing,” Dina said, gazing around the garden.
“Thank you, darling. I very much hope you find the bear you’re looking for. Please come and find me if he hasn’t emerged from the shadows by the end of the night!” Tamika said. And, with that, she was off, greeting the next group of people.
“She’s quite something!” Dina whispered to Lauren.
“She is,” Lauren replied with a grin. “I’ve heard that she belongs to the English aristocracy or something, and she’s a millionaire, so she produces the app for free, just to bring curvy girls and shifters together.”
“That’s so sweet,” Dina replied. “Oh, hey, isn’t that Connor?” By the time she’d finished her sentence, the tall, stocky figure of Connor was right in front of them.
“Hey, baby!” Lauren yelled, throwing her arms around him. He kissed her on the lips, tenderly stroking the bare flesh of her upper arms. Dina was entranced. She loved the way Connor treated Lauren, like she was the only girl in the world. Eventually, they pulled away from each other, and Connor turned towards Dina with a big grin.
“Sorry, Dina, I forgot my manners! It’s great to see you!” he said, and pulled her into a hug that almost knocked the breath out of her. Fleetingly, she wondered if that was how it would feel to be held by the bear-guy.
When he released her, she registered how handsome he looked in his crisp white shirt and bow tie. She was used to seeing him in a t-shirt and ripped jeans.
“How are you?” he asked her, a warm smile lighting his eyes.
“A little nervous,” she admitted.
“Don’t be. You’re not going to have a hard time finding your mate, trust me,” he said, squeezing her hand. “Now, would you ladies like to come over and meet my clan?” He nodded to an area of the garden where a group of well-built, dark-haired guys were gathered.
“Your clan?” Dina asked. Connor laughed.
“Sorry, I forget people aren’t used to shifter language. It means something like my extended family.” They walked over to the group together. On the way over, a waiter appeared at their elbow with a tray of delicious-looking canapés, and Dina and Lauren grabbed one each.
As they arrived, all eight men turned around to greet them, and Dina was shocked to see approval and desire in the eyes that lingered over her body.
“This is Ryzard, Olsen, Bruno, Dalton, Frankie, Leigh, Niall, and Timo,” Connor said. “Guys, this is Dina.” They sweetly shook hands with her, one at a time, and she felt herself blushing as she met their intense gazes. Connor frowned. “Someone’s missing though. Where’s Logie?”
“He’s on a mission,” Bruno said with a laugh. One edge of Connor’s lips curled up.
“What kind of a mission?”
“He said he found this amazing woman on Shiftr,” Frankie cut in. “She seemed to like him too, but then she disappeared, and he couldn’t find her on the site anymore.”
“He’s been really cut up about it all week, because he’s sure they were perfect for each other. So he’s desperately hoping she’ll be at the party today,” Ryzard explained.
“He says he’d never forgive himself if she was here and he didn’t manage to find her,” Dalton added. Dina was totally charmed by the way they spoke, each picking up where the other one left off. But there was another, far more dramatic thought racing through her mind. She shot a glance at Lauren and saw that she was thinking the same thing.
“What does this Logan look like?” Lauren asked. The bears looked at each other and rubbed the backs of their heads.
“Pretty much like us?” Niall mumbled, confused.
“I mean, does he have black hair, or brown? Is he tall or average? What color are his eyes?” Lauren said. They looked relieved.
“Black hair!” Timo said triumphantly. “And he’s real tall, maybe the tallest out of all of us.”
“And his eyes?” The bears shuffled around.
“We don’t know,” Connor said with a laugh. “It’s a guy thing. I can tell you they’re not blue, but apart from that, I wouldn’t have a clue.” He shrugged helplessly. “Why are you asking, anyway?”
“Oh, no reason,” Lauren said. “Dina and I just need to use the little girls’ room. Could you point us in the right direction, Connor?”
Lauren dragged Dina off to a quiet spot under a tree, far from the others.
“Did you hear that?” she hissed. “He’s here! He’s looking for you! How amazing is that?” Dina looked excited and terrified all at the same time.
“What if he doesn’t like me when he sees me?”
“Please! Girl, you’ve never looked prettier, and you look better in the flesh than in your photos anyway.” Lauren put a finger on her lip. “Now, what should we do – should we wait for him to find you, or should we be a little more pro-active?”
They began to wander around the garden together, focusing their attention on any guy walking around by himself. Every guy they saw was either too blond, too short, or not stocky enough. Then, right on the opposite side of the garden from where Connor and his friends were gathered, there was a man with his back to them. He was about 40 feet away, and Dina could see that he was taller than most of the men there.
“Turn around,” she muttered under her breath. Incredibly, as she spoke, he did turn his head, as if looking for something. Dina clutched Lauren’s arm as he turned to face them.
“Oh my god, it’s him!” she hissed. There he was. Black hair, a hint of a beard, and six foot five inches of dense muscle, packed into a sexy tux.
“Are you sure?” Lauren said. “I can’t even make out his features from this far away.
“Yes. I’m sure,” she said. The man’s gaze focused in on her, and a dazzling smile broke across his rugged features. He strode across the grass, and in an instant, he was standing in front of them. His deep brown eyes locked with Dina’s, and she restrained a gasp. He was absolutely gorgeous, but it was more than that: she had the weirdest sense that they were being magnetically drawn together. He took a step closer, and held out his hand. Dazed, she stretched out her hand too, and he engulfed it in his. His whole hand was rough and callused, and she found herself wondering how it would feel running all over her body.
“I’m Logan,” he said, in a deep, rumbling voice that made her quiver from head to toe.
“Dina,” she replied, her voice an octave higher than usual.
“We met briefly online,” he said.
“I know,” she replied, with a giggle. Idiot. She’d planned to come across as mysterious and sexy, but she was so stunned by his good looks that she was acting like a teenager. He frowned, as if uncertain how he should phrase his next sentence.
“You’re even more beautiful than your photos. I appreciate that you think I’m not your type, which is why I couldn’t find you on the app after you received my message. But when we first made contact, I felt so strongly that we were a match. When I saw your photo, it was like a bolt of electricity was connecting your phone with mine.” He laughed, embarrassed. Then he paused, frowning adorably, before he began to speak again. “So I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to give it another chance. Maybe we could hang out today, and get to know each other a little?”
“It was a mistake – “ Dina started to say, but she was cut off by Lauren giving a little scream.
“Oh my god, I’m such a klutz!” Lauren exclaimed. Dina’s head snapped to the side, and she saw that her friend had spilled her drink down the front of her dress. “Goodness. I’d better go to the restroom and fix this,” she said, grabbing Dina by the hand and beginning to run. “I’m sorry, Logan, it was nice to meet you. We’ll catch you later!” she called over her shoulder.
“Oh no, you’ve ruined your dress,” Dina said, as they reached the restroom.
“It’ll be fine with a little water,” Lauren said. She took a paper towel from the dispenser, moistened it under the faucet, and began dabbing at the stain with a napkin. “Honey, you’ve got to make Logan work a little for you. You can’t let it come too easy. Let him woo you and seduce you. Guys need to feel like they’ve won you over somehow, and it’s important for you to feel like they’ve made an effort.” Dina gaped.
“You’ve spoiled your dress to tell me this?” Lauren looked a little embarrassed.
“Well, I could see you were steaming in there like a bull at a gate, and I had to hold you back somehow!” Dina laughed.
“But are you sure about this?”
“Trust me. Connor and I courted for a long time on the app before we ever met up, and then he took me out for some really romantic dates. The chase is half the fun of dating.”
“Ok. I’ll do what you say. You’ve never been wrong before. You’re the best, Lauren,” Dina said, and hugged her best friend tight.
Dina looked at her reflection in the mirror and applied more lip gloss and Lauren helped her primp her hair a little.
“Now go, and be romanced,” Lauren said, eyes sparkling.
Logan hadn’t moved from the spot where they’d left him, but he was holding two fresh cocktail glasses. The sight of him, waiting for her, made Dina catch her breath. This time Lauren introduced herself to him properly, shaking his hand.
“I need to go catch up with my man now, so I’ll leave you two to get acquainted,” she said, and floated off. The front of her dress was still wet, but she managed to carry it off with total elegance.
Logan turned to Dina, and she suddenly felt weak and quivery at being alone with him. He had such a strong, powerful presence, and he towered over her, which was a delicious sensation. At her height, there weren’t too many men who were capable of doing that.
“You look breathtaking,” he said. “And your dress suites you so well. You remind me of a fairy, or a woodland pixie.” Dina blushed, and bit her lip, forcing back the self-deprecating comment that was threatening to spill from her mouth.
“Thank you,” she said instead. He held out both cocktail glasses.
“I took a chance on the drinks,” he said. “This one’s a Lavender Martini, and this is a Summer Negroni. Take your pick.” Dina took the Martini from him.
“I love Martinis,” she said, smiling up at him. Her eyes lingered on his full lips and his sexy, perfectly-trimmed goatee.
“I’ve heard there’s another garden just behind this one. Would you like to go investigate it with me?” he asked.
“Sure, that sounds like fun!” They began to walk towards the rear of the garden, and Dina did feel a little like a fairy, floating along in her gauzy dress, tiny in comparison to this huge man.
At the edge of the garden, they passed through an archway, made of climbing roses entwined with vines, and they entered a second, completely different garden. A tall, manicured hedge stood directly in front of them, stretching all the way to the left and the right.
“Is this a maze?” Logan said, excitedly.
“I think it might be!” Dina said. “I used to love playing in mazes when I was a kid.”
“Let’s try left,” she said, and began walking. The path was narrow, just wide enough for them to walk side by side. At the end, it twisted around to the right, and then forked. They picked the right fork.
“Is your family from Hope Valley?” Logan asked her.
“Yes. For several generations. And I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. I just love the feeling of community, the way that everyone knows everyone. I guess I’m a typical small-town girl,” she finished, with a shrug. “How about you? I don’t think you live downtown, or we would’ve met long ago.” He laughed.
“No, I live out by the national park. There’s a few of us there.”
“The guys Connor introduced me to?”
“Yes! All the clan are together. I’ve lived near the park all my life, and my parents live on the opposite side of it now. It’s nice to have a little distance from them, but I could never be too far away.”
“Must be great to be out in nature all the time?” she said.
“It’s a necessity for me. If I lived in the city, I think I’d wither away. I need to wake up and hear bird song, and smell the forest.”
Dina glanced at him when he wasn’t looking. She loved the way that he was so connected to the earth. It was fresh, and genuine.
“Have you been on Shiftr for long?” he asked hesitantly.
“Nope, I’m a newbie,” she said. “Lauren talked me into joining after she met Connor through there.”
“That’s great,” he said. “Connor and I joined at the same time, after Tamika hunted us down and told us how great it was. He found his match pretty quickly, but I’m still looking for mine. I mean, I was, until – ” He broke off, and glanced at her. She looked up and met his gaze. The sun was shining full into his eyes, making his irises appear lighter than before, and she could make out the quick dilation of his pupil. “I know my profile isn’t very good,” he said. “It’s so hard to write about yourself. I guess I felt kind of embarrassed, and it came out really lame.”
“Oh, mine was terrible!” Dina said. “I had to have Lauren help me out with it.”
“Well, the end result was worth it,” he said. “I only got to see it for a minute, but I remember your photos, and how beautiful you looked in that red dress. And your eyes were so green and sparkly, just like they are now.” At that moment, Dina stumbled in her heels on a large stone. Logan’s hand shot out to steady her, curving around her waist.
“Are you ok?” he asked, eyes full of concern.
“I am now,” she replied, with a smile.
Afterwards, he didn’t remove his hand immediately, but let it linger on her hip. She could feel the heat from his fingers coming through the flimsy fabric of her dress, scorching her skin beneath. She also became aware of his scent – rich, spicy and outdoorsy. She didn’t think it was cologne, but his own natural smell. She inhaled deeply, letting it fill her nostrils, and it hit her like a drug, making her feel hungry and full of desire for him. She was also weirdly conscious of the sound of his breathing. It was a very subtle undertone – a low rumbling sound, kind of like a cat’s purr.
“I loved that you were into dancing and hiking,” he continued. “Two things that I really enjoy in life.”
“Yeah, I love to hike,” Dina said. “I’ve always dreamed of doing one of those famous trails, like the Appalachian.”
“Me too!” he said. “If you ever need a partner – ” he trailed off, realizing what he was saying. Dina smiled to herself. There was something delightfully awkward about him, as if he wasn’t used to dating.
“And you tutor kids too?” he said.
“Yes. I’m an elementary school teacher, and I also volunteer a couple of times a week at a local project to give vulnerable kids a little extra support. I’ve been doing it for a few years and I can see it makes a difference to these kids’ lives.”
“That’s great,” he said, eyes shining. “I really believe in supporting the younger generations too. I take on a couple of apprentices at my wood-carving business every year. They’re shifters though, of course. It would be too difficult to hide our true nature from humans, day-in day-out.”
“I’m surprised it’s been kept a secret for so long,” Dina said.
“Oh, it’s been closely guarded for generations. There are some who are nervous that the app will ruin everything. But the truth is that there are a lot of lonely shifters out there, who don’t have the skills to meet the right woman, and their species is dying out as a consequence.” He stopped walking and looked at her very seriously.
“Dina, how do you feel about me being a bear?” he asked her. At his words, a bolt of heat hit her clit, and ran deep inside her. The truth was, she was beginning to find it very sexy.
“It was something new to me, of course,” she stuttered. “But I actually really like it. I think it’s nice.” She looked up at him, into those smoldering chocolate eyes, and she couldn’t hold back. “I think it’s really hot,” she said, at last. Logan’s breathing became louder, a definite rumble, and he leaned towards her, his lips inches from hers. He’s going to kiss me! she thought, at the same moment that he straightened up, and began walking again.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“No, don’t be – ” she said awkwardly. Falling a step behind him, she shook her head. Damnit. He still thinks I don’t like him. She gazed at his muscular back, his black jacket straining over his powerful shoulders. But nothing could be further from the truth.
As they’d been walking, the turns in the line of hedge had become more frequent, and they’d picked the directions subconsciously, lost in their conversation. They were now deep in the maze, and the tall, dark green hedges seemed to be crowding in on them. Dina might have felt uneasy if she’d been alone, but Logan made her feel safe, somehow, even though he was still a stranger to her. Another turn brought them to a small open area. There was a bench, with a canopy of vines arching above it, and in front was a tiny rose garden, and an ornate fountain, tinkling softly. They peered into the water. It was full of orange and white koi carp.
“I think we’ve found the center!” Logan said. It was a lovely spot. The red, pink and white roses were beautiful, and, as they walked closer, Dina could see that the vines were passionflowers – her favorites.
“This was so worth the walk,” she said.
“Shall we take a rest here? It’s nice to be in the shade for a while,” he said.
“Sure.” She sat down on the bench and took a sip from her drink. She’d been so caught up in Logan’s presence that she’d forgotten to drink it. It had lost its chill by now, but the alcohol made her pleasantly lightheaded. Logan sat down too, leaving a small space between them. The scent of the passionflowers was intoxicating, but the smell of him was much stronger. It was a masculine, deeply exciting scent, and she longed to be close to him, smelling his neck, wrapped in his strong arms.
“I’m not surprised you rejected my profile, Dina. It was pretty poor. But I’m so, so glad that you’ve given me another chance to get to know you today,” he said. Dina looked into his eyes, feeling giddy, almost hypnotized by the intensity of his gaze, and the nearness of his firm, full lips. She couldn’t conceal the truth from him any longer.
“It was an accident,” she said. “My clumsy thumb swiped in the wrong direction. I was trying to look at your bear photo again, but instead I deleted you from my list altogether.” He broke into a grin, his straight, white teeth dazzling.
“Yes. Unfortunately I am that much of a doofus,” she said, her cheeks warming.
“So the message I sent you didn’t put you off? I was so happy when you said you wanted to find out if we were a match. Then, when you deleted me right after you saw my message, I was worried I’d come on too strong.”
“Not at all,” she said. “I thought it was beautiful. And I came here today because I was hoping I’d find you here.”
He gave a deep rumble. Dina jumped.
“What was that?” she exclaimed.
“It was my bear,” he said. “It’s a sound of happiness.”
“It does that every time you’re happy?”
“Yes.” he shrugged. “It’s an instinctive reaction. Actually, I want to show you my bear now.”
“You mean you’re going to shift into a bear right here?” Dina said, caught between horror and fascination. Logan laughed and pulled his phone from his breast pocket.
“No, I was just planning on showing you the photo that you were looking for. If you still want to see it?”
“Of course!” Dina said. She watched as he opened the app, and located his profile. The screen filled with the photo of him that had initially drawn her to him so strongly. He swiped left, and a large bear filled the screen instead. She took the phone from him and looked closely at the photo. The bear was huge, with glossy black fur, dangerous-looking black claws, a long, blunt muzzle, and deep brown eyes. It was standing on its rear legs, its front legs up against a fir tree.
“He’s beautiful,” she said, knowing instinctively that Logan would appreciate a compliment on his bear side.
“One day you’ll see me as a bear, if you’d like?” he said.
“I really would,” she said, her voice a shade above a whisper. Unconsciously, they’d moved closer together to look at the photo, and his knee was now brushing against her thigh. He leaned towards her, hesitantly. She met his eyes, seeing that his pupils were dilated, and reached out and touched his chin. He edged still closer, and, as his face went out of focus, she closed her eyes and their lips met. His lips were impossibly soft, gliding on hers. She felt the warmth of his breath, and the softness of the stubble on his chin. He drew back, as if assessing her reaction, before planting another kiss on her lips, and then another. They were sweet, soft kisses that made her impatient for more. She made a small sound, and her lips parted under his. He began to kiss her more confidently, his lips caressing hers, sensitively, exquisitely. A spark of desire was ignited deep inside her, and when she felt the flickering touch of his tongue, the spark grew into an intense warmth, suffusing her body. She hadn’t been kissed for so long that she’d almost forgotten what it felt like. In fact, she’d never had a kiss like this before. His lips were so soft and tender, making her dizzy with pleasure, and the touch of his tongue was velvety and exciting, as it danced into her mouth and seeking out hers. Logan’s arms wrapped around her waist, pulling her closer to him, and she responded by clasping hers around his neck. From time to time, his stubble brushed her cheek, and she found herself wondering how it would feel brushing her tender inner thighs. His hand moved into her hair, his fingers getting caught up in the strands, measuring its weight.
“God, Dina, you feel so incredible,” he muttered, drawing away from her for a second. She rested her hands on his shoulders.
“No, you do, Logan,” she replied, and she pulled him into another deep kiss. She’d had no idea that kissing could be so arousing. She was aware of her nipples, hard and aching beneath her lacy bra, and the growing ache between her thighs. She sensed that a part of her, which had been sleeping for too long, was finally waking up. She longed for him to touch her all over, wanted to feel those big rough hands caressing every part of her body. He was being the perfect gentleman though. While his kisses were becoming more and more intense, his tongue probing her mouth more and more urgently, his hands stayed on her waist, or her jaw, or her shoulders. When, at last, his hand moved down and touched her thigh, her flesh was so sensitized and eager for his touch that she jumped at the contact.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I think I was getting a little carried away.” He looked around guiltily, as if worried that they were being watched. But they were still alone. “I feel like we’ve been kissing for hours. I’ve been so lost in you.” She felt around in her purse and pulled her phone out.
“Well, it’s almost six already, so that’s definitely a possibility,” she said with a grin. He cupped her face in his hands.
“I don’t ever want to stop kissing you,” he said, and fell on her lips again. She sensed the passion and hunger coiled tightly inside him, and was amazed that he managed to hold it in.
Suddenly, Dina’s tummy rumbled, and they both laughed.
“God, I’m such a stupid bear. I’ve been keeping you out here all day without anything to eat or drink. Let’s go and get some food,” he said, getting to his feet and holding out his hand to her. Dina stood up, her hand naturally sliding into his. She was pretty hungry, now she came to think of it.
“Which way is it?” she said, aware that she had no idea of the turnings they’d taken to arrive in their secret spot.
“It’s this way,” Logan said, and walked confidently to the left. They passed through the maze quickly, never taking a wrong turning.
“But – how can you know this?” she said.
“I just followed our scent from earlier.”
“That’s amazing,” she said. He shrugged.
“Just one of the advantages of being half-bear,” he said. They held hands the whole way, and Dina tingled with happiness. She loved feeling so small and protected by him.
They returned to the main garden just as the sun was setting. The sky was brilliant shades of yellow, salmon pink and orange. Little white lanterns at the edge of the lawn were flickering into life, and the scent of night flowers filtered into the air. As they strode across the lawn to the buffet table, many eyes turned in their direction. Dina felt self-conscious, but in a nice way, as if everyone was looking to see who was walking with this big, sexy man.
The buffet was the most delicious-looking that she’d ever seen. There was seafood – lobster, oysters, shrimp and mussels, sliders with all kinds of fillings, huge trays of roast meats, chicken wings, cold cuts, cheese, and trays of fries and onion rings. At the side was a chef cooking steaks fresh on a barbecue, and you could choose any cut you wanted. While Logan lined up to have a steak cooked, Dina picked up a couple of sliders and a handful of fries. She was salivating at all the food, but she didn’t want to seem unladylike by loading her plate up.
Logan came back with a giant t-bone steak, so big that it was overhanging the edges of the plate. He frowned at her plate in confusion.
“What’s wrong? You were really hungry,” he said. Dina stammered something vague.
“Ah, I get it, it’s difficult to manage while you’re holding your purse. Here.” He passed his plate to Dina to hold. “You want some roast beef? Chicken wings?” As she nodded at this and that, he filled her plate up until it was as overloaded as his own. “That’s better,” he said in satisfaction. They looked around at the tables. “Do you want to go find Lauren?” Dina squinted. She could just make out her friend’s pink dress in the distance.
“No, I think she’s good hanging out with Connor,” she said.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” he said, looking at her with intensity. “I wanted to spend some more time with you alone.”
They located a table for two, in a secluded spot at the edge of the garden. Now that it was almost dark, the sky deep navy, with a crescent moon showing, other lanterns came to life, and their little table was lit in a soft orange glow. There were tea lights on the table, and as soon as they sat down, a waiter appeared with a tray of champagne glasses. They took one each. When the waiter had walked away, Logan raised his glass.
“Here’s to us meeting today, despite the obstacles that fell in our way,” he said. Dina grinned and they clinked glasses. As she sipped the delicious cold champagne, she felt like she was in a dream. Things like this didn’t happen to a girl like her.
Seeing how enthusiastically Logan dove into his food, Dina didn’t hold back. It was so liberating being able to enjoy her food like this with a man. Her ex-boyfriend had always been picking at her, telling her what she should eat, making little digs about her weight. She’d come to terms with being a big girl. She knew she’d always be curvy, and she kept herself fit and healthy by hiking. But there was always that little voice niggling away, saying men wouldn’t like her unless she starved herself.
Logan cut a hunk of his steak off and deposited it on her plate.
“You’ve gotta try this,” he said. “It’s almost as good as the meat the guys and I cook when we have our barbecues at home.”
“Oh, I love barbecues,” she said.
“It’s a real bear thing. There’s nothing our clan like to do more than hang out at one of our cabins with a fire going, plenty of beer, and barbecued meat – most of which we’ve caught ourselves.” Dina glanced at him sideways. She was still getting used to the idea that he would do things like hunt his own food.
“That sounds really cool,” she said.
“It is. And you’re top of the invite list for our next one,” he said with a grin.
They finished eating, and she delicately dabbed her lips with a napkin. Logan looked at her, the flame from the tea lights reflecting in his eyes, making his features seem softer than before.
“I hope this isn’t an intrusive question,” he said. “But I’ve been wondering all night how someone as lovely and beautiful as yourself could be single.”
“Oh.” She looked down, and fiddled with the stem of her champagne glass.
“I’ve overstepped the mark, haven’t I? I’m such a clumsy bear sometimes.” He laid his hand on hers, his eyes full of concern.
“No, it’s not that. It’s a really sweet compliment. The truth is, I’ve been single for a while. I had a long-term boyfriend, but he didn’t treat me so well. And when he left me, it knocked my confidence a lot, so I haven’t been ready for dating.” Dina didn’t know why she was telling him this, but something about him convinced her that he wouldn’t judge her negatively. Logan’s expression clouded over.
“I’d like to meet this guy who thought it was ok to mistreat you,” he said, clenching his fist. “He’d be very sorry by the time I was done with him, I can tell you that.”
“Hey, it’s ok. It’s far in the past,” she said, anxious to pacify him. He caught sight of her expression.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We bears come on a little strong sometimes. “It’s our protective nature.”
“It’s ok, I like it,” she said, entwining her fingers with his.
“I feel like I always want to be there to protect you, Dina,” he said. “I can see that you’re a strong, independent woman, but I’d love to be able to take care of you too.” Dina gazed at him wordlessly. They’d only met today, but he seemed to be talking about forever. With an average guy, that would be a sign to run away very quickly, but Lauren had said that shifters mate for life. And she felt the same. As little as she knew him, this rough-tender man already seemed to be part of her destiny.
“How do you feel about having children?” he asked her, breaking into her thoughts. “I mean, one day, far into the future.”
“Well, I love kids. They’re definitely part of my plan,” she said.
“Me too. I can’t wait to have cubs.”
“That’s what we call the children of bear shifters.”
“Cubs,” she repeated, trying out the word. “I like it. So, if a human and a bear shifter were to have children, they’d still be cubs? They’d be capable of shifting as well?”
“Cubs, yes, of course,” he said with a grin. “As to whether they become shifters – yes they should be. As long as the human and the shifter are a perfect match.” They stared at each other for a long moment, and then he leaned towards her and their lips met, in a gentle, slow kiss. It was as if the world was falling away from her, and time seemed to be poised, waiting for them. All she was aware of was the feeling of his lips on hers, his soft stubble brushing her chin.
After a long time, they pulled away, and gazed at each other in wonder, glowing with a sense that something had passed between them. Strains from the jazz band reached Dina’s ears, and she turned her head to look at it. The musicians were gearing up, getting to their feet to play their instruments, and people were beginning to dance on the small platform in front of it.
“Shall we dance?” Logan asked her.
“Yes!” she said, a smile blooming on her lips. He took her hand again as they stood up from the table, and escorted her to the dance floor, like a gentleman from another age. The garden looked beautiful and magical, with strings of lights suspended from the trees. It was all impossibly romantic, and Dina shivered in delight.
The band was playing a song from long ago, a quick, lively number. Logan pulled her into his arms as they stepped onto the platform, and began to move. He was a great dancer, she realized immediately, amazingly light on his feet for such a big man. He was doing a specific step. Dina didn’t know it, but with her experience and instinct for dance, she kept up with him, and they were soon spinning effortlessly around the space. Logan switched to another step as the music changed, and the musicians’ eyes twinkled as they watched them dancing.
“Do you know the tango?” he asked her. She nodded. It was her favorite step. As the piece came to an end, he went over and spoke to one of the band, and the music changed completely, to a sensual Latin rhythm. They came together, and began to dance energetically. Dina knew the moves inside out, having practiced constantly during her teens, and she fell into the rhythm, Logan twirling her expertly, as if they’d danced together all their lives. It was easy to get lost in the passion of the dance, even with a partner you weren’t attracted to, but with Logan, it was on a whole other level. It felt like a prelude to making love, their bodies so close, his thigh sliding between hers, his arms holding her up as if she was as light as a feather.
At the end of the piece, they stopped, breathless, and there was a small round of applause. Dina looked around in shock; she’d had no idea people had been watching them.
“Bravo!” the saxophone player called to them. Then he spoke to the band, and they began to play a much slower piece. Logan pulled Dina gently against his body. He held her right hand in his left, and his other arm looped around her waist. They were so close that she could feel the slow, steady beat of his heart. In her heels, she was tall enough to peep over his shoulder, but in bare feet, she would’ve been able to lay her head against his chest. She very much liked the thought of doing that. They swayed gently together, not moving much, just enjoying the closeness of each other’s bodies.
“Dina, I love dancing with you,” Logan murmured in her ear. “It feels so sensual.”
“I love it too,” she replied, lifting her chin to look into his eyes. He brought his mouth down to hers and kissed her again. Little by little, they edged over to the side of the platform, until they were back on the grass, out of the glare of the lights that were suspended over the dance floor. They began to kiss more passionately now, exploring each other’s mouths as they had in the secret garden. Dina’s arousal, which had temporarily yielded to softer, more romantic feelings, rose up again fiercely, and a sweet ache began to blossom between her thighs once more. Their bodies entwined as they kissed, craving ever-closer contact. As one of Logan’s muscular thighs slid between hers and pressed up against her clit, the heat inside her became almost unbearable. She imagined him touching her there, doing more than touching her. If he didn’t stop soon, she wasn’t going to be able to control herself. She could feel that her nipples were erect, pushing at her bra and her flimsy dress, demanding attention, needing to be taken into his mouth. He wrapped his arms more and more tightly around her, nibbling at her neck, burying his face in her hair, and she could tell that he was growing hard, that his desire for her was as strong as hers for him. This knowledge drove up her arousal by several notches, and she felt her panties becoming damp. She yearned for him to take them off, along with her bra and her dress, and make love to her for hours.
At last, he drew back from their kiss, and gazed down at her, his eyes very dark and fierce.
“God, Dina, you’re driving me crazy,” he said, his voice rough with desire. “If we don’t stop right now, I’m going to have to carry you off to my cabin, and I won’t be responsible for my actions.” She looked up at him, her eyes bright.
“Maybe I don’t want you to stop,” she said, softly, yet firmly. That had to be the understatement of the year. Every part of her being was begging for him to take her, to fill her, to make her lose herself. He looked at her very seriously.
“Dina, baby, I’ve never desired anyone the way I want you right now. But maybe we should take our time. I want to get to know you, to learn everything about you, to understand your thoughts and feelings and dreams and ambitions. To know what makes you happy and sad. I don’t want you to think that I just want you for one thing.” Dina bit her lip, her heart fluttering with happiness at his words.
“I want that too – ” she said, but the end of her sentence was drowned out by a loud Ooooh! and lots of shrieks of excitement. They looked back at the party that they’d forgotten existed. The circus act had gathered in the center of the garden, and they were setting up Chinese lanterns. One lantern had been released already, and it was floating into the night sky. Logan and Dina watched as it climbed higher and higher, until it became invisible. The couple who’d let it go looked blissfully happy, grinning and kissing each other.
“I hope they made a wish,” Logan said.
“I think they did,” Dina replied, with a smile.
“Let’s release one ourselves,” Logan exclaimed. This was all the encouragement Dina needed, and she skipped over to the circus entertainers, pulling Logan along with her.
“What color?” a man in tiger face paint asked.
“Red,” they said at the same time. The man selected a lantern, lit the flame and handed it to them. They stood facing each other, holding onto two sides each.
“To you, me, and our future,” Logan whispered to Dina. She repeated his words and, together, they released the lantern.
Logan stood behind her, his arms around her waist, and they watched their lantern blowing into the velvety night, glowing red and leaving a fiery train in its wake. They kept their gaze on it, until it was a golden dot, no bigger than one of the stars. Dina let her weight fall against him, enjoying the sensation of being supported, and he nuzzled her hair.
“Part of me could stay like this forever,” he murmured. She didn’t need to ask what the other part of him wanted to do, as she could feel his hardness pressing against the cleft of her ass, driving her crazy.
Lauren and Connor joined the line of people waiting for a lantern, and Dina and Logan watched as they took their turn, full of happiness and excitement. When their lantern had become invisible too, Dina called to them, and they ran over.
“Hey! I haven’t seen you guys all day,” Lauren said. “Been having fun?”
“We certainly have,” Logan replied. Dina flashed Lauren a secret smile, indicating how much she liked Logan.
“Connor and I are just going to set off a lantern, and then I think we’re done for the day. So I’ll say goodnight to you guys.” Lauren stretched up to hug Logan, and squeezed her arms around Dina.
“Go get him, girl,” she whispered. “Connor’s been telling me all day how awesome he is, and I can tell you’ll be so well suited!” Connor hugged Dina, and Logan and Connor exchanged some kind of complicated handshake, and a rough, back-slapping hug, and Lauren and Connor walked off together.
“How are you getting home?” Logan asked Dina.
“Oh, by taxi,” she said.
“We could share, if you don’t mind a slight detour by the national park?” Logan suggested.
“That would be great,” Dina said, excited at the prospect of another half hour in his company.
As they walked out of the garden, Dina was a little regretful at leaving such a perfect, magical evening behind. There was a line of cars waiting in the driveway.
“Complimentary service, courtesy of Shiftr,” the guy organizing the cars said as they walked up. “The driver will take you anywhere you want to go, just tell him your destination.” They climbed into the luxurious sedan, and it pulled away from the house, tires crunching on the gravel.