“So, how did you guys find us?” Adam asked. Granger glanced at him in the rear-view mirror. He was stretched expansively across the back seat, Sylvia snuggled into the crook of his arm. He smirked.
“Ah, the password for your online banking account wasn’t exactly hard to figure out, dude,” he said.
“Oh, I guess that was pretty dumb of me,” Adam said, laughing. “So you must have known where we were staying the whole time, huh?”
“Yup. Except, I was having a hard time keeping up with you since your card usually got charged when you checked out, so I was always a day behind.”
“Wow, it’s like you were some kind of detective, hunting us down. I am touched that you made the effort, bro. I really am. And we both want to thank you so much for what you’ve done.”
“That’s okay,” Granger said gruffly. “Just do me a favor and don’t ever run away like that again.”
“Sure thing. From now on, my priority is taking care of this one here.” Adam planted a smacking kiss on Sylvia’s forehead to illustrate his point.
He then fell silent for a while and the road swished by, the landscape pristine and sparkling white. Sylvia had fallen asleep on his shoulder, and Noelle seemed to be enjoying the silence, leaning her head against the cold window and gazing out at the view.
Granger’s head was spinning. The news that Sylvia was pregnant with Adam’s baby was a huge game changer. Sylvia wasn’t just from a different clan, as he’d told Noelle. She was a wolf. And the rivalry between the local bears and wolves was bitter. Consequently, a baby born of a wolf and a bear shifter was unthinkable. There had been occurrences in the past, and they had turned out okay, except that they were always unable to shift and had to live as humans for their entire lives. But his parents wanted more for their grandchildren than that, and he didn’t blame them. There were plenty of female bears out there looking for mates, and plenty of human females who would make excellent mates for a bear shifter. But then, you couldn’t choose who you fell in love with. And Sylvia seemed like a lovely girl. He was sure that she and Adam would be happy together. But that meant that even more of the responsibility now fell on his shoulders. He glanced at Noelle again, noticing the way that her hair curled on her cheeks, how huge the whites of her eyes were, and the way her beautiful lips were more red than pink. His parents were going to love her, no doubt about it. For a bear shifter, a human was the ultimate mate, more highly prized than another bear shifter. He didn’t know why that was the case; it was just what he’d always been told. And he always found himself attracted to humans rather than shifters. Curvy girls like Noelle were so much sexier than female bears. In fact, the thought of Noelle’s curves, currently only inches away from his fingertips, was driving him and his bear wild. He longed to be back in bed with her, spooning her soft body, nuzzling her hair, inhaling her incredibly sweet feminine scent. It was a good job she’d been wearing a T-shirt last night, and bad enough that she’d been in her panties. If she’d been any more naked, his bear would have been impossible to control. He barely slept all night, lying awake, terrified that it was going to burst out of him and forcibly mate her. But he hadn’t cared; he’d been content snuggling her, feeling the soft skin of her thigh beneath his hand, listening to the quiet, regular sound of her breathing.
He’d finally drifted off at maybe 4am, and when the alarm went off, he realized, to his horror, that he was hard, and he’d been rubbing his cock against the cleft of her ass in his sleep. His stomach knotted in dread, but he couldn’t tell whether she’d noticed. She wasn’t acting like she was offended, but he just wished he knew whether she was interested in him or not. Her pupils dilated when she looked at him, and there had been that moment in the hotel room when it seemed like something could’ve happened, but he still couldn’t believe that a girl as amazing as Noelle could be interested in him. Hell, she’d probably freak when she discovered that he was a bear. That. That was another thing he needed to broach, because if he waited until she met his family, she was likely to find out the truth very abruptly. He had no idea how he was going to do it, but he hoped that the next five or so hours in the car might yield some inspiration.
“Have you really left the Army, Granger?” Adam piped up from the back.
“Yeah,” Granger said, grinning at him through the rear-view mirror. “Officially discharged. I couldn’t go back now if I wanted to.”
“Awesome!” Adam exclaimed. “It’s going to be so cool having you around all the time!”
“Yeah.” Granger frowned. “Feels like I’ve missed so much in the last five years, and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
“But what made you decide to leave? You seemed so happy there.”
“Ah, I decided it was time to go back and help dad out with the business, and spend time around the people I love.”
“Dad’s going to be so happy. At least one of us is the responsible son.”
“Errr, now that you’ve got a baby on the way, that’s going to be you as well, doofus!” Adam smiled lazily.
“I know, and I can hardly wait. The past few days have made me realize a lot of things. Maybe I can join the family business too?”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Granger said, only half truthfully. Time will tell, he reminded himself.
Adam stretched and yawned.
“I think I might sleep for a while now, if that’s okay with you, dude?” He said.
“Haven’t you just slept, like, all night long?”
“Uh, we could only afford a single room, and the bed was a little small. So I didn’t get my usual nine hours.” Granger shook his head in mock outrage.
“Sweet dreams, then,” he said. Adam’s eyes were already closed. Granger glanced at Noelle to see if she was still awake, and she flashed him a mischievous grin.
Then next two hours of the journey passed easily, Granger and Noelle chatting quietly from time to time. She was such easy, relaxed company. He felt like he didn’t need to put on a show to impress her; he could just be himself. And that was a great feeling.
They stopped for lunch at a roadside diner, everyone having cheeseburgers and coffee.
“It’s really Christmas Eve isn’t it?” Adam said looking around at the busy restaurant. It was filled with people traveling to see loved ones, all looking full of anticipation for the holidays.
“Yes it is!” Granger said happily. “And my first one at home for years.” He looked down and caught Noelle’s eye. She was smiling, a little too bravely. But he was sure that her anxiety would dissipate as soon as his parents welcomed her.
As they were leaving the diner, Granger caught Adam and pulled him aside.
“Can you do me a favour when we get to the house?” he asked. “I need you to go in first with Sylvia –”
“No way, dude,” Adam cut in. “I need you there so they won’t kill me.”
“Adam,” Granger snapped. “You’ve run me all over the country looking for you, and now I’ve got to spend Christmas Eve driving your ass home, instead of relaxing at home, as I’ve been looking forward to doing for the past few weeks. Mom and dad are going to be angry - yes - but they won’t kill you. And I’m sure they’ll be so relieved to see you that it will take the edge off things. This is the least you can do for me.” Adam hung his head.
“You’re right, bro,” he said at last. “I’m sorry.”
“So, I need you to tell mom and dad that I’m bringing a human with me, to make sure they won’t let anything slip.”
“Wooh, I thought you’d told her about us! That’s going to be interesting. How are you going to manage that one?”
“That’s for me to figure out,” Granger said with an indulgent smile.
It was dusk when they set off again, and darkness fell quickly in the mountainous region. The thermometer on their dashboards showed that the temperature had suddenly dropped 8°, and Granger could see that the wind was picking up. Another snowfall was likely not far off.
When they were still an hour from home, it hit. Sheets of snow fell heavily at an oblique angle, directly into the windshield. The wipers were going at full speed, but they were barely capable of clearing the windscreen and visibility was reduced to around 20 feet. Granger felt a little burst of adrenaline. He was confident of his own driving skills; he was more worried that somebody might run into them from behind. The next half hour was agonizing, and his palms sweated. But, mercifully, the road was empty. There was a car far ahead of him, but nothing behind. It seemed that everyone coming to town for the holidays was home already.
At last, they were there. Granger’s heart leapt as the signpost for his hometown came into view.
“This is it!” he said to Noelle. “Welcome to Richmond!” In another five minutes, they were at the edge of the forest where their clan and Sylvia’s pack lived.
“You live in a forest?” Noelle said.
“Yep!” Granger replied as he turned the car onto an unmade road. They passed the territory of Sylvia’s pack, and she shuffled down in her seat to make herself invisible. Tall pine trees lined each side of the road, in a way that was pretty during the day, but could seem a little sinister at night, particularly to a stranger. The whites of Noelle’s eyes flashed in the darkness, and, spontaneously, Granger reached out and took her hand, giving it a squeeze. She looked in his direction and he thought he saw her give him a quick smile. His heart bloomed with tenderness for her, and he wished he knew exactly what she was thinking.
At last he turned off the track and began to drive directly through the forest. The trees were quite dense but he knew the way like the back of his hand. As he pulled to a stop, Noelle looked confused. They’d just stopped in a thicket – which was by design. His clan guarded their privacy from the human world very carefully. Adam leapt from the car, dragging a confused Sylvia behind him.
“Time to face the music!” he yelled cheerfully and slammed the door.
“Are you okay?” Granger asked Noelle. The car was dark again, and he could barely make out her features, the blue glow from the moon glancing off the tip of her nose, her lips and her chin.
“Yeah I’m fine. A little groggy from the journey, I guess,” she said, her voice soft, like honey to his ears. He could smell her freshly shampooed hair and her warm skin. She felt so adorably vulnerable. And now she was here, at his home. Her eyes glittered in the darkness. The urge to kiss her was overwhelming. She wants you, his bear told him. She wants to be your mate. He leaned an inch closer. If he was wrong about this, he was about to cause chaos – an embarrassing painful situation that would be hard to recover from. His heart pounded, and his hands, usually the steadiest at handling deadly weapons, trembled. She leaned an inch towards him. Their mouths were now a mere six inches apart, her lips slightly parted.
“Can I kiss you?” he whispered. She was definitely smiling now, her teeth gleaming like a string of pearls.
“I’ve been hoping you’d do that for the last 24 hours,” she breathed. He angled his head, bridging the tiny gap between them, and their lips met.
Wow. Her lips were incredible. Beyond incredible. They pillowed against his, impossibly full and soft. She drew back infinitesimally, eyes watching him like big, dark pools, and then they came together again, her jaw tilting to bring their mouths closer. Her lips parted under his, and a flame of desire raced through his body. He moved his lips back and forth, every tiny movement creating blissful sensations. He lifted his hand up and caressed her face gently, suddenly aware how rough his fingertips were. She made a little sound – a moan, or a sigh, and began to kiss him more deeply, her tongue darting out and flickering between his lips. Tangling his hands in her hair, he pulled her closer, feeling that it wasn’t just their lips that were mingling; it was their souls. Her hand was on his thigh, resting softly, hesitantly, and he yearned for her to touch him all over.
At last, they broke apart, Granger having no idea how long they’d been kissing – it could’ve been minutes, or hours.
“Wow,” she said softly. “That was nice.”
“It was?” he said.
“It was a lot more than nice, actually. It was pretty amazing.” He took her head in both hands, and kissed her on the lips again, and then on each cheek.
“You’re an incredible woman, Noelle,” he whispered. “Absolutely gorgeous. I’ve wanted to be with you ever since we first spoke.” She gave a little laugh.
“What, when I was a tearful, miserable mess?” He laughed too.
“Well, when I first met you, although I couldn’t help noticing how beautiful you were, I was mainly just very concerned about you. But after that, as we began to get to know each other, I discovered right away how amazing you were.”
“Really?” she said, as if she couldn’t quite believe it.
“Of course, Noelle. Any man would be lucky to have you.” He stroked her hair; it was even softer than he’d imagined. “Uh, I guess we’d better go now and rescue Adam. But let’s continue this conversation very soon.” He opened the car door and the light came on. Noelle had never looked more beautiful, her eyes bright and her cheeks glowing, the harsh light not diminishing her attractiveness one bit. Granger ran around to her side of the car and helped her out. He took her hand in his; it was impossibly small and soft, and the physical contact sent waves of euphoria leaping through his body.
“It’s just this way, through the trees,” he said as they crunched through deep snow. As they left the thicket, a large wooden cabin came into view and his heart leapt again. This was home. The place where he’d been born, and lived for the first 20 years of his life. All the scents of home wafted to his nostrils, filling him with nostalgia. He couldn’t wait to share all of this with Noelle.
As they reached the front door, she gripped his hand more tightly and they glanced at each other, both hearing the yelling coming from inside. Granger rapped loudly with the knocker and the voices fell silent. A moment later, the door was snatched open, and his mom stood there, beaming.
“Granger!” she yelled, throwing her arms around him. “You’re back! You’re really back!” He hugged her tight, so happy to see her. She drew back. “And who’s this?” she asked, turning to Noelle with a big smile.
“This is Noelle. Noelle meet my mom, Diana.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Noelle said, holding her hand out, but Diana enveloped her in a hug instead.
“It’s so lovely to meet you, dear,” she said, looking at her with fascination. “You’re very welcome here. Please make yourself completely at home.”
“It’s lovely to meet you too. And thank you so much for having me over for Christmas,” Noelle said, with an adorable hint of shyness.
“Of course, dear,” Diana said in a tone of surprise. “Of course. You belong here.” Just then a very tall man appeared behind Diana.
“Noelle, this is my dad Albert. Albert, Noelle,” Granger said. To his relief, his dad just shook hands with her. He was a little more reserved than his mom, but he had the same light in his eyes. They both believed that Noelle was his mate, he could tell. And he could also tell that they very much liked the look of her. He stepped towards his dad and they hugged each other, with plenty of manly slaps on the back.
“Come inside. Let’s get you kids warm,” his mom said, closing their lovely, rustic front door and shutting out the winter.