Granger parked his SUV outside the bus station and dashed back into the building through the heavy snow. When he saw the petite, curvy girl bundled up in her huge winter coat on one of the bus station’s ugly chairs, his heart leapt. It had taken him a little longer to drive there than he’d expected, and he’d been worrying that she’d be gone by the time he got back. What if she’s nervous about sharing a room with you, and she’s decided to make her own arrangements? a little voice in his head said. What if a bus came and she decided to jump on it, and try to find herself a happier life someplace else? Granger wasn’t usually the kind of guy to be plagued by anxieties, but then, he’d never met a girl who’d affected him like Noelle. She was amazing – so smart, genuine and lovely to be with. And she’s your mate, his bear told him, loud and clear.
But there she was – her long chestnut hair swinging in front of her face, obscuring her wide-set, clear gray eyes. She looked so vulnerable. Every fiber in his body wanted him to sweep her up into his arms, protect her, look after her forever, and make sure that she never suffered pain or loneliness ever again.
“Sorry it took so long!” he called, running over to her and grabbing her duffel bag. “I had to drive real slow because of the poor visibility. It looks like our journey up the mountain might take a smidgen longer than half an hour!”
“That’s ok!” she said, getting to her feet and giving him the most beautiful, radiant smile he’d seen in his entire life. “I’m just glad you’re here.”
“Where else would I be?” he replied, a rush of euphoria making him a little light-headed. He’d never been so happy to be in someone’s company before. Just being in Noelle’s presence made him feel like the sun had come out and birds were singing in the trees.
“You might want to put your hood up again,” he yelled as they ran out of the door and sprinted for the car. Noelle gasped as she jumped in and closed the door.
“Oh my god. It is INSANELY cold!” she exclaimed, rubbing her hands together.
“I hope the hotel has good heating,” he said, starting up the engine and pulling out of the parking lot.
Thankfully, the snow eased off during the journey and they chatted as Granger followed the sat-nav’s directions. He asked her all about her life and her job, wanting to know everything about her.
“It’s a dead-end job, like many others I’ve had. I work as a proofreader for an online magazine.”
“That sounds interesting,” he offered.
“It’s kind of dull. But I like the way the work’s predictable. I don’t have to deal with stressful meetings. I get to work from home a lot too.” He sensed that she appreciated not having to be around people too much, that strangers presented a threat to her, and he was all the more touched that she’d trusted him enough to be in his car, and stay in the same hotel room as him. He shot quick glances at her when he thought she wasn’t looking. She did trust him. She was a tiny presence on his car seat, but he sensed that she’d unfurled; the anxiety that had shown in her eyes, in she way she’d held herself, had gone, and she seemed softer, glowing.
“What’s it like being in the army?” she asked, quickly turning the conversation back to him. He gulped. How to describe the army. There were so many things to say about it. And it was hard for civilians to appreciate it, however much he tried to explain.
“It’s kind of relentless. Like you’re never really off duty. It can be scary, and beyond exhausting. It’s often hard to see the big picture, when you’re based in one place, and you’re following or issuing orders.”
“You were so brave, choosing to fight for your country,” she said.
“I didn’t start off as a brave soldier. I was just a normal – albeit immature – guy when I signed up. But I did become one over the years. I can honestly say it’s changed me for the better. It can also be fun being in the army. The comradeship is great. But for me, nothing compares to being at home with my family.”
After twenty minutes of driving, he turned a sharp right and began to climb. The road was very icy, even for the powerful wheels of his car, and they slowed to a crawl.
“It’ll be worth it when we get here,” he said, sensing that Noelle was becoming tense again. He sniffed with his highly-sensitive bear nostrils. It was more than tension; he picked up the unmistakable scent of fear. Her parents had died in a car crash. Maybe on a mountain road. “The car’s really safe, don’t worry. And I’m a sensible driver,” he continued. She made a small sound – an acknowledgement of what he was saying, or fear, he wasn’t sure which.
At last, the cabin swung into view, and she gave a little sigh. The sharp scent evaporated, replaced by her natural sweet smell.
“Safe now,” he muttered.
“Thank you,” she said simply.
The hotel looked exactly as it did in the photos. Soft orange lights shone from the ornate, wooden-framed windows, reflecting onto the snow, and the roof and gables had a pretty white frosting. Holly and ivy decorated every window, and there was a fir tree at the side of the front door, lit up with fairy lights. It was the perfect winter log cabin.
“I’ve got to say that I’m pretty excited to have some comfort and good food,” he said. “Army rations can be a little basic.”
“Me too!” she said. “I don’t even know the last time I stayed in a hotel.”
They crunched through the snow to the entrance of the hotel, and the owner met them at the door. She had curly gray hair and twinkling blue eyes.
“Welcome!” she said. “Gosh, you poor dears must be freezing! I’ve got a little something to warm you up while we get you checked in.” She went over to a big urn and ladled out two little cups of mulled wine, and handed them one each. It smelled delicious, and it tasted even better, immediately warming him all the way down to his belly.
“Now, you folks said that you needed the pull-out couch making up?” she said, looking at them shrewdly, as if she didn’t really believe that they weren’t a couple.
“Yeah,” he replied, a little regretfully.
“That’s no problem at all. I’ll get that done for you while you’re having dinner. Apart from that, I think we’re all set. Here’s your key to room 23. Let me know if you need anything at all, and I hope you have lovely stay here!”
They thanked her and headed up a rustic flight of stairs. Granger turned the key in the door and swung it wide open.
“Welcome to our abode!” he said, his joviality attempting to hide a burst of nerves. Noelle gasped.
“This is so lovely!” she said, walking into the room and looking around. The mulled wine had brought some color to her cheeks and brightened her eyes. There was a huge four-poster bed, wooden paneling on the walls, and cozy rugs all over the floors. A realistic-looking electric fire was burning in the hearth, and there was even a mini Christmas tree in the room, twinkling with fairy lights and baubles. The bathroom was large and beautiful, and even the sofa looked very comfy – a big improvement on the motel beds he’d slept in for the past couple of days, and a huge upgrade from his army cots.
Granger dumped Noelle’s bag and his army-issue backpack on a chair.
“I’m starving!” he announced. He could smell the food cooking in the restaurant, and it was making him salivate. “Do you want to freshen up before we eat?”
“Just for two minutes,” she said, and dived into the bathroom.
“Take your time,” he called. He went to the window and looked out at the snow. When he’d woken up this morning, he’d never dreamed that his day would end with him still not having found his errant brother, but instead sharing a hotel room with a beautiful woman who, according to his bear, was the one he’d been looking for all his adult life.
Fate works in very mysterious ways, he thought. Three hours ago, he’d wanted to strangle his brother for all the stress he’d caused their parents, but now he only wanted to hug him for having brought Noelle to him. He hadn’t realized she was his mate when he first saw her in the café; she was just a pretty girl who’d trod on his toe with her tiny foot. And then when he saw that she was crying, he’d been acutely aware of her distress and just wanted to comfort her. It was only when they were chatting a few minutes later that he felt like he’d been struck by a comet.
He turned as she came out of the bathroom. She looked even prettier than before. Her sweet full lips were redder, and her eyes looked darker, kind of smoky and seductive. Her hair also looked really soft and silky. He wondered what it would feel like curling around his fingers.
“Ready,” she said with a smile.
The restaurant was small and cozy, with red corduroy banquettes, a fireplace, wood paneling, and lots more Christmas decorations. They were one of three couples, being served by the husband of the woman who’d checked them in. As he brought the menus, the snowstorm started up again, and they shuddered, happy to be warm and comfortable, feeling the heat of the open fire while the wind howled outside.
“This is so great,” Noelle said, the candlelight reflecting in her eyes, turning them into huge bright pools. She suddenly looked as happy and carefree as a child.
“And I’ve got a feeling the food’s going to be even better,” he said, scanning the menu eagerly.
“Wow, you can even have an entire Christmas dinner – turkey, stuffing, potatoes, carrots, brussels sprouts. It’s probably a bit much, though.” She laughed, guiltily, self-consciously, for a reason that he couldn’t understand. But he could tell that she really wanted to order it, despite her reluctance.
“Come on, I think we’ve earned it. It’s been a tough day for both of us,” he said. She turned her glowing eyes on him, an impish smile creeping to her lips.
“Ok,” she said. “You’re right.”
“Two Christmas dinners,” Granger said to the waiter as he arrived. “And do you like wine? Red? White?”
“Red,” she said.
As they closed their menus, it occurred to him that she probably hadn’t had too many real Christmas dinners, and it saddened him.
“I have feeling your mom makes good Christmas dinners,” she said brightly.
“Yeah, the best. She’s a great cook. I actually haven’t been home for Christmas for three years though, so it’s been a long time since I’ve had one.”
“Were you on deployments?”
“Yup. It wasn’t so bad though. The army puts on some entertainment for us, and we have turkeys shipped in. Although, the chef has to work with what he has, usually out in the desert!”
“That must be interesting!”
“Uh huh. Everything you eat in the army somehow ends up tasting the same, no matter what it is and how it’s cooked.”
“That sucks. I don’t think I could cope with that. I love food too much, as you can see from looking at me.” He frowned.
“What do you mean?” She gave him an odd smile, the look his army buddies gave him when he failed to get an in-joke from a TV show.
“I mean that I’m overweight,” she said at last, her cheeks warming. He blinked.
“What? No, you’re not. You’ve got the most perfect body ever.” Her eyes widened, and she laughed dryly.
“Come on, you know that’s not true.” He was temporarily rendered speechless. Her body was absolutely stunning – what the guys at the base would call ‘smoking’. She had lush curves – full breasts, with a deep cleavage that he’d been trying his hardest not to stare at all day, and wide, round hips. Her generous thighs and plump, round ass were encased in tight black jeans that showed them off to perfection. Every time he looked at her, he had to silence the purrs that his bear was fighting to let out. It kept urging him to seduce her, to claim her. But that wasn’t going to happen. She was obviously in a vulnerable position, and there was no way he was going to take advantage of that.
“I’m being honest, Noelle. I don’t want to sound like a perv, but purely objectively, if I had to describe my ideal body type, it would look a lot like yours.” Now her cheeks went from pink to red and even her chest flushed. She looked totally adorable, but he felt a little bad at making her self-conscious.
“Well, thanks for the compliment,” she said. Mercifully, the server brought the wine over. Granger suggested she tasted it, and she said it was good. They had huge balloon glasses that intensified its warm, spicy aroma.
“I think I’m getting a little tipsy already,” Noelle said after a couple of sips. He saw that she was relaxing a little more, that the barrier that had surrounded her before, like an electric fence, was starting to drop.
“Mmm, me too. It’s always the way when you’ve had a hard day, isn’t it?” She nodded.
“Yeah, it is, but I thought that was just me.” She gave him an intense look, as if she was bursting to ask him something.
“Do you often go rescuing damsels in distress in cafes?” she said suddenly, her lips curling with suppressed amusement.
“No, first time ever. I’m actually not great at approaching strangers. I think I just acted spontaneously. If I’d had time to think about it, I would probably have decided that it was none of my business, and just felt bad for you from a distance. My mom says I’m far too well-mannered for my own good.” She smiled.
“In that case, I’m glad you got over your manners today. Not least that you got the opportunity to try a pumpkin spice latte for the first time!”
“Yeah, that was definitely the highlight,” he said, returning her smile. She stared down at her wine glass, spun it around on the table.
“I don’t normally go crying in cafés, honestly. That was also my first time.”
“I don’t blame you for being upset back there.”
“I do. I’m a big girl now. And I’ve realized that I need to get my shit together, and not go off on random escapades. That’s going to be my new year’s resolution.”
“Sounds like a good one,” he said, impressed by the determination in her voice.
“Well, it’s long past due. And what about you – what are your resolutions?”
“Everything is new for me now,” he said with a grin. “I have to find a new career, a place to live.” A mate, he almost said, before he managed to stop himself.
“And what are you going to do for work now?”
“I haven’t decided 100%, but I think I’m going to make my dad happy and join his family business in forest conservation. I used to be part of the local volunteer fire service too, so I’ll probably put some additional hours into that. I think my leadership skills could be valuable, and it’s good to give something back to the community.”
“That sounds great,” she said, leaning closer to him. “I think you’re inspiring me to make the career change I’ve secretly craved for a long time.”
“What are you thinking about doing?” She pursed her lips and looked up at the ceiling, very cutely.
“I think I’ve always wanted to help people, but I felt like I didn’t have the right. You know, because I’ve had a few issues in my life.”
“Of course that shouldn’t stop you. What happened to you was terrible, and there was nothing you could do to help it. Compare that with me – I was a stupid kid who chose to go smoking marijuana, and I still managed to grow into a responsible adult. The power to change your life lies within you.” She nodded.
“You’re right. I think deep inside, I did know that. I just needed to hear someone else vocalize it.”
“Everyone needs a little guidance sometimes.”
The food arrived, and it looked and smelled incredible. Granger had to contain his urge to devour it, much to his bear’s disgust. The past five years had been very hard for his bear. At times, he’d been for weeks without shifting, because it was just impossible in the desert, living in exposed spaces with enemy insurgents everywhere. For a bear, this was the equivalent to being bed-bound. And now it knew that he was going home, he could barely contain its instincts.
“This is amazing,” Noelle said.
“It is,” he agreed.
Some music came on – a Christmas carol.
“Silent night,” she murmured. “I don’t know many carols, but I know that one. “I used to sing it at elementary school.”
“I know it too,” he said, assessing her expression. She looked happy, a little wistful, but not pained. He decided to give voice to the idea that had been occupying him ever since they were in the bus station.
“I’d really like it if you came to spend Christmas with me and my family,” he said. She put her fork down and blinked several times, then her eyes widened.
“Won’t I be intruding on your family reunion?”
“Not at all. I guarantee that you’ll be joining several other waifs and strays. There will definitely, definitely be several people that I don’t know there.”
“Absolutely. I’m sure I’ll walk in and someone will ask me how I know the clan!” she laughed.
“Your family sounds like fun!”
“They are. They’re real relaxed.”
“Are you sure you want me there? You’re not just being nice?”
“Hell no. I’d love for you to be there!” he almost shouted. Her face lit up.
“In that case, I’d love to come!” He had the strongest urge to lean forward and kiss her, but he managed to hold himself in check. Instead, he lifted his glass in a toast.
“To a very merry Christmas,” he said, and they clinked glasses.
“Thank you for everything, Granger,” she said.
“It’s my pleasure, Noelle,” he replied happily.
They ate their fill, even Granger not managing to clear his plate, and then the mood altered subtly in each of them, and they leaned close, chatting constantly. Excitement fizzed through Granger’s veins. He couldn’t wait to take Noelle home and introduce her to his family. His parents had always pushed him and his brother to find a human mate rather than another shifter, and he knew they’d just love Noelle. And maybe, just maybe, amid the fun and comfort of being with his clan, he might be able to seduce her into becoming his mate.
He excused himself to got to the bathroom. When he came back, Noelle was playing with a candle, flicking at the flame.
“Like playing with fire?” he asked. She withdrew her hand, guiltily.
“Sorry, bad habit. I was one of those kids who was always playing chicken on railway lines. Now I restrict myself to avoid being burned by a candle.”
“You were a wayward kid, huh?”
“Yeah, kind of. I had plenty of bad habits.”
“Let me see that finger.” He reached out and took her hand, and as their fingers touched a jolt of electricity seemed to leap between them. Noelle stared at him, obviously as startled as he was. “You’ve singed your nail a little.”
“Uh huh. That’s the point where I usually stop.” He shook his head. “What other stuff did you get up to?” She sighed.
“Gosh. Plenty. For a long time, I was real angry at the world. I used to run around with other disaffected kids from the children’s home. For one thing, I was a Christmas saboteur. I used to steal decorations from outside people’s houses. I was always throwing hard, icy snowballs at windows and people, and I used to kick over snowmen. I really wasn’t very nice.”
“Sounds like very understandable behavior,” he said, but the color had gone from her cheeks.
“Oh my god, I’m sorry. I don’t even know why I told you that stuff. I wouldn’t do anything like that now.” He grinned.
“Of course you wouldn’t. In the same way that I wouldn’t sit in Johnno’s car, getting high with him and Andy. And when Adam and I were kids, we were horrible to his girlfriend’s clan. Our families have been sworn enemies for years, and our parents brought us up to be hostile to them. We were always doing pranks, and they’d get revenge on us, and we’d go back and do something else to them.”
“Sounds like the Capulets and the Montagues.” He laughed.
“Yeah, I’m sure my brother and his girl are a regular Romeo and Juliet. Anyway, my point was that stupid shit you do as a kid has no bearing on your life as an adult. As long as you don’t kill someone or something, I think you can always make good.” She nodded.
“Sometimes I feel like I was the person I was supposed to be when I was small, and then I became somebody else for a while. Now, I’m just trying to remember who that person was.” At her words, a wave of tenderness washed over him. More than anything, he wanted to help this fascinating woman to rediscover herself. But he wasn’t about to scare the hell out of her by telling her that. Instead, he took his phone out to distract himself from saying something stupid.
“Speaking of my dear brother – it looks like he’s arrived someplace.”
“Great! So he’s not on his way to New York!”
“Nope! Guess where he is?”
“Right! You’re a good guesser.”
“Ah – if it was Nolan, he’d still be on the bus for another hour.”
“Right. I knew that.” They met each other’s eyes and burst out laughing. “I blame the wine.”
“Uh huh.” His heart warmed with affection. He loved that she was a little snarky, not afraid to make a joke at his expense. “So, what’s the story – has he checked into a hotel?”
“Unfortunately not. He’s just spent $15.68 at a convenience store.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. “Maybe he’s still on his way to a hotel.”
“Mmm. I just hope Coleman has more beds than Northwood and he’s not hiking around in the cold, unable to find anywhere, and freezing that poor girl’s ass off.”
“I’m sure he’ll find somewhere. There must be a reason why he picked such an obscure town. And at the very worst, the Greyhound station stays open all night.”
“You’re right. And this is good news. As long as we set off good and early tomorrow morning, there’s a decent chance we’ll catch him there.”
“That sounds like a smart plan.”
Just then, the server came over with the dessert menus.
“I’m pretty stuffed, but I have a hard time saying no to a crème brûlée,” Granger said. Noelle bit her lip.
“Me too.” He gave her a sly look.
“Shall we go halves?”
The waiter brought two spoons when he delivered the dessert a few minutes later. Shyly at first, they each dug in, the small spoons clinking together.
“This is amazing!” Granger proclaimed. “I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth, and I was dreaming about this when I was lying on my army cot, listening to a sandstorm blowing outside.” She giggled.
“And now you’re eating it, sitting with a strange girl, listening to a snowstorm blowing outside.” He grinned.
“You’re not that strange.”
“Neither are you.” They held each other’s gaze for a long moment.
They finished every delicious mouthful of the dessert, Granger delighting in the evident pleasure that Noelle took from food. He looked at his watch.
“I guess we’d better turn in, to make sure we’re in Coleman in time to apprehend my brother tomorrow, wherever he might be.”
“Sure – so we should leave around 6, I guess?” He sighed.
“I guess so. I thought I’d left inhumanly early starts behind when I left the army, but it doesn’t seem like it. Still, it’s only 10pm now. Enough time for seven hours sleep.”
“Works for me!” she said brightly.
As the server came, Noelle snatched the check and insisted on paying the whole thing. Granger argued, but she was adamant, and eventually, he gave in, knowing that she needed to feel that she was contributing her share and wasn’t just getting a free ride.
They lingered at the table, Granger reluctant to end the meal. It had felt so much like a date, and he was so enchanted by this beautiful woman. He was also nervous about going back up to their room, and spending the night sleeping in close proximity to her. It was becoming harder and harder to conceal his desire for her, and he barely trusted his bear to be be alone with her. But they had to sleep.
At last, they pushed their chairs back and stood up.