Noelle stepped into the Sullivan’s house in a daze. Granger has just kissed her. His beautiful sexy, incredibly soft lips had just touched hers. His tongue had just danced into her mouth, igniting a wildfire of passion inside her. He liked her. He wasn’t just being nice and generous. He really liked her! And she liked him too, so much. It had been a lot for her brain to process as she’d stumbled through the snow, scarcely able to believe that he was holding her hand in his huge, strong one, and then she’d been introduced to the warmth of his parents, who were treating her like their long-lost daughter. It was all confusing, but in a very nice way.
“Would you like something to drink – mulled wine? Hot chocolate?” Diana called as they went through to the kitchen.
“How about both? It’s been a long journey. But I’ll help you fix it,” Granger said. Adam and Sylvia were in there, seated at the family’s huge kitchen table, wearing identically sheepish expressions on their faces.
Granger made up some cups of hot chocolate and carried them over to the table. His parents sat on one side, Adam and Sylvia on the other, and Noelle sat close to him, a little set back, not wanting to intrude on the family discussion.
“It’s so good to see you, Granger,” Diana said, gazing at her son with tears in her eyes. “How long are you staying this time?”
“I’ll tell you all about that in a second, but first, let’s clear the air a little, so we can all start to enjoy Christmas,” he replied with a laugh.
“Adam’s told us all about Sylvia being his mate - I mean, his partner,” Diana said with a frown. Granger nodded. “But how did you find him?”
“Oh, it took me a little while, but with Noelle’s help, I managed to track him down in Coleman.”
“Coleman? Where is that?”
“It’s a little town, around six hours away, so I guess it could’ve been worse. Anyway, I’m just very glad that I found him.”
“Oh, Adam, what made you run away like that? You should’ve stayed and spoken to us,” Diana exclaimed.
“Mom, you were freaking out. The two of you were being real aggressive and wouldn’t listen to me when I tried to explain how I felt about Sylvia. We were falling in love, and I didn’t want to remember this time as being full of anger and hostility, so I suggested to her that we went away someplace, so we could be happy.” Diana’s eyes glistened with unshed tears.
“I’m sorry I made you feel like that,” she said.
“Are you two absolutely certain about being together?” Albert said, in his deep, bass voice.
“Mom, dad, of course we are! She’s having my baby too.” Noelle watched as the parents’ faces paled.
“How long have you been pregnant, dear?” Diana asked Sylvia.
“About six weeks,” she replied in a tremulous voice.
“And you know what this means?”
“We do,” Adam said, taking Sylvia’s hand and holding it tight. “But she’s my mate. I’ve known it ever since we were kids, and so has she. We didn’t have any choice in the matter.”
“Sylvia, is this true?” Diana asked.
“Yes,” she said. Diana let out a long, slow breath.
“I’ll admit that we’ve had our suspicions for a while. And we’re not exactly overjoyed at this news. It’s got nothing to do with you, dear, you know that,” she said, directing her comment to Sylvia. Sylvia nodded anxiously. “It’s that neither of the clans have seen this as an ideal match. And we all wanted our grandchildren to be shifters.” Shifters? Noelle frowned. “But what’s done is done, and if this has been ordained by fate, then there’s nothing that anyone could have done about it anyway. I’m sorry for the shouting before, but we bears are a passionate bunch, and sometimes we need to get our feelings out. I want you to know that you’re welcome here, and in the family, Sylvia. You’re a lovely young woman, and I can see that Adam is smitten with you. And I very much look forward to the birth of our first grandchild.” A silence followed. Adam blinked several times.
“Is that it? No more screaming and shouting?” he said.
“Don’t push your luck, young man,” his father said. He turned to Sylvia. “Sylvia, I can echo what Diana has just said. Welcome to the family.”
“Thank you,” Sylvia muttered, sounding like she was about to cry. Noelle really felt for her, but she also felt like she was missing something major in the conversation, like there was a secret they all shared, but weren’t discussing in front of her. Why had the match between Adam and Sylvia caused so much angst when they seemed delighted to have her around? It made no sense.
“Now, Granger, you were about to tell us how long your vacation’s going to be?” Diana said. Granger grinned.
“It’s forever!” he said. “I’ve officially left the army!” Diana and Albert gasped.
“Seriously!” They leapt to their feet and wrapped their arms around him, Diana peppering his head with kisses.
“God, I can’t wait to see this lovely head covered with hair again, instead of that awful buzz-cut you’ve been sporting for the last five years!” Diana exclaimed.
“Thanks, mom,” Granger said, laughing and trying to fend her off. “Good to see my haircut is your biggest concern!”
“Aw, don’t be silly. You know how happy I am to have my favorite eldest son back full-time!”
“Thanks, mom. And, dad, before you ask, I am planning on joining you in the business.”
“You are?” Albert said, and he looked so happy and proud that Noelle got a lump in her throat. It was an adorable family scene. And she was fascinated with the way that they were so rough and tumble with each other. She wasn’t used to that at all.
“What made you decide to leave, Granger?” Albert asked. “You didn’t get into trouble, did you?” Granger laughed, not at all offended.
“No, of course not. My hell-raising days are far behind me. It was just time. I woke up one day and realized that I missed my family like crazy, and I wanted to settle down back here.”
“That’s great, son,” Albert said, looking delighted. “Now, Noelle, since we’ve just made you witness our family dramas, I’m sure you’d appreciate that mulled wine you’ve been promised?”
“Yes, please,” she said. He wasn’t wrong; she could really do with something to calm her nerves right now.
“And Sylvia, I assume you’d like something non-alcoholic in your condition?”
“Actually, I need to take Sylvia home so we can go face the music at her place too,” Adam cut in. He helped Sylvia to her feet.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr and Mrs Sullivan,” Sylvia said on her way out, and Adam turned and raised an eyebrow at his brother. Noelle didn’t envy them having to go round two with Sylvia’s family.
Diana brought over four large glasses of mulled wine.
“Merry Christmas, Granger and Noelle,” she said. “I’m so happy to have you both here!”
They clinked glasses and sipped. It was even more delicious than the wine they’d had at the hotel, full of orange, cinnamon and nutmeg.
“I’ve got to get back to cooking, but why don’t you two relax for a little while? You must be exhausted after running around after those two scamps!”
“Thanks mom. I think I might go show Noelle the annex actually,” Granger said.
“That’s a good idea. See you soon!”
Granger picked up their glasses and showed Noelle out through a set of French windows at the back of the house, and suddenly, they were in a beautiful expanse of untouched snow. There was probably a lawn underneath it, she thought, and it was surrounded by holly bushes and tall elms. A little fountain stood in the center of it, the spray of water turned to icicles.
“This is beautiful!” Noelle exclaimed.
“I thought you might appreciate a breather, after all the family dramatics you’ve just had to deal with,” he said.
“It was fine,” she said with a smile. “Your parents are lovely, and obviously trying hard to overcome what sounds like a big disappointment for them.”
“Yeah. To be honest though, I think it did take Adam eloping with Sylvia to get them to that point.” He sighed and ran his hands through his short hair. “There’s a couple of things that I really need to tell you,” he said. A shiver of anxiety ran like ice in her veins. ‘Things’ like that tended not to be good.
“What things?” She said. Granger’s face lit with a gorgeous smile, and he put his arms around her waist.
“Well, the first thing is that I really like you,” he said.
“You do?” she breathed.
“Of course. I thought you’d picked that up already!” Her lips curled in a mischievous expression.
“I think I just wanted to hear you confirm it again,” she said. Grinning even more broadly, he bent his head and pressed his lips against hers. She tasted the mulled wine in his mouth and shivered as his breath mingled with her own, suffusing her body with warmth. She kissed him back, parting her lips, welcoming his velvety tongue into her mouth. He made a little sound – almost a rumble – of desire for her. It was delicious standing outside in the snow, kissing this gorgeous man, who was radiating heat from his huge muscular body. Even if she was naked right now, she was sure his heat would be enough for the two of them. Naked. At the thought of being naked with him, a little spot between her thighs began to tingle, quickly developing into a deep ache.
At last, he drew back from their kiss.
“You’re so beautiful, Noelle. I could kiss you all night,” he whispered, his breath warm in her ear. He took her glass and put both glasses down on the edge of the fountain, then he took her hands in his and held them out to the sides. “But first, there’s one more really important thing that I have to tell you.” She saw a flicker of tension in his face, his lower lip tremulous. She frowned.
“What is it?” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly in a white cloud.
“My family – and Sylvia’s family – are very old, and have some traditions, or quirks, I guess you could call them, that go back for generations and generations.” He paused, as if unable to continue. Noelle stroked his forearm.
“It’s okay. I can tell that you’re worried about sharing this with me, but I promise that I won’t freak out.”
“It’s a big secret, Noelle. Hardly anyone from outside of the families knows about it. Only a very select few.”
“Would it help if I promise not to tell another living soul about it?” She said. He smiled at her, a little sadly, she thought.
“Yes, it will help. But, to be honest, your reaction to what I’m about to tell you is my biggest concern right now.”
“Granger, just tell me. You’re making me so worried,” she said. He cleared his throat.
“Okay, here goes: we are all shapeshifters. This means that we have the ability to change into animals at will. Essentially, we are half human and half animal.” Noelle stared at him. She didn’t need to say ‘what?’ or ‘seriously?’ it was very obvious that he was deadly serious. “We come from a long line of shapeshifters stretching back to the beginning of humanity. Obviously this is a secret that is very closely guarded from the human world.” Noelle nodded numbly.
“When you say animal, do you mean different animals, or just one?” she managed to say.
“Bear,” she said. He drew in a sharp breath.
“Yes! You’re right. But how did you guess?” She ran her eyes over his body.
“Just going by your build, I guess. But maybe your personality too. Because you’re strong and protective and independent. I mean, I don’t know any bears personally, but I have the impression that that’s what they’re like.” Her heart was beating fast. She didn’t know why but this all made sense somehow. She gazed at him, imagining him as a bear. “So, you said you could change between your human and animal sides at will?” He nodded. “How do you decide when you want to be a human and when you want to be a bear?” He gave a little smile.
“My animal side is for hunting for food, running in the woods and wrestling with my clan. It’s really fun being in my bear form, and my bear is always bursting to get out of me, but it’s not always practical, so I spend about 75% of my time in my human form.”
“So your bear is like a separate entity when you’re in your human form?” Granger laughed.
“Kind of. It scrabbles away at my insides, trying to get me to do things that I know are not always in my best interests.”
“Such as?” He gave her an intense look.
“Well, for example, it’s been trying to get me to be with you ever since I first laid eyes on you.”
“Be with me?” He released another long white cloud into the air, and she saw his chest going up and down with his breathing.
“It keeps telling me that you’re my mate. Shapeshifters have mates. Often ones that fate has ordained from birth. Every shapeshifter hopes to meet their fated mate. And you’re mine.” Noelle’s eyes got very big, and she became aware that her mouth was hanging open.
“But I’m a human?” she said. He smiled.
“It doesn’t matter. In fact, many shifters believe that a shifter-human combination is the most perfect match imaginable.” She blinked several times.
“I love this idea; it sounds so beautiful. But we just met by chance. How could that be fate?” he looked up at the night sky, and she followed his gaze, to the stars of faraway galaxies.
“Think of all the ways we could have missed each other. You could have chosen to sit in another café; so could I. You could’ve missed the bus; I could have caught sight of my brother before he left the town. You could have decided not to make that spontaneous journey in the first place; I could have decided to leave my brother to his own devices. But instead, out of the infinite possibilities that exist in the universe, we were in the same café at the same time.” His eyes ran all over her face, lingering on her eyes and lips. “I know this is a lot to take in, and you probably need some time to process it. But I hope you’re not repulsed at the thought that I’m a bear?” Noelle paused, organizing her thoughts. In the midst of all the confusion that was currently tumbling through her brain, a shaft of tenderness pierced through, and she knew, without any doubt, that it made no difference to her feelings that Granger was half bear.
“Granger, I’ve only known you for a couple of days, but something deep inside tells me that I want to be with you. I’ve never felt that way about anyone before. And it’s not just that you’re very kind to me, or that you’re the most gorgeous man I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s something deeper than that. It feels like instinct.” Granger laid his hands on her shoulders, his eyes brightening with emotion.
“Noelle, that’s how I feel about you too. Every time I look at you, I feel overwhelmed. You’re everything I’ve ever wanted, and so much more. Every time you’re not in my presence, I feel like you’ve been torn away from me.”
“Oh, Granger. What an amazing thing to say,” she said, and tilted her chin towards him. He took the cue, dipping his head and drawing her into a long, tender kiss. Waves of euphoria ran all the way through her body as he wrapped his arms around her, surrounding her with his warmth.
“But – what about your parents?” she said, suddenly. He grinned at her.
“They think that you’re a perfect match for me, and they’re ecstatic that you’re a human,” he said.
“Yup. They sensed that you’re my fated mate. I could see it on their faces as they met us at the door.” Noelle grinned.
“That’s amazing. It means so much that they’re welcoming me into your family. But why aren’t they happy that Adam is with Sylvia?”
“Because she’s a wolf shifter.” Noelle gasped.
“What, that little girl is, like, a werewolf?”
“Uh huh. She’s the daughter of one of the pack’s enforcers – that means the level of hierarchy below the alpha wolf and his family.”
“Wow. So a bear and a wolf isn’t a good combination?”
“It means that their offspring will be unable to shift. It’s impossible for a bear and a wolf to combine, so they’ll essentially have fully human genes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s just that my parents dreamed of having shifter grandkids.”
Shifter babies. What a thought. If Granger and I got married and had kids, our offspring would be half bear? She badly wanted to ask him if that was true, but it was way too early to be asking questions like that.
“What are you thinking?” he said.
“I don’t know. Everything’s happened so fast. I feel a little dizzy.” His forehead wrinkled in concern.
“Let’s get you out of the cold,” he said. They picked up their glasses and he led her across the garden to another wood cabin. “This is my place.” He opened the door and showed her in.
“You have your own cabin?” she said, impressed.
“Yeah, our parents built us one each in our teens, to get us out of their hair!” he said with a laugh.
It was a cozy, one-room place, with rustic furniture and a big, comfortable-looking bed, with furs thrown on top of it.
“This is lovely,” she said. He shrugged.
“It’ll do for now, until I get my own place.” Holding her hand, he led her to the bed and sat down, sweeping her onto his lap. His arms went around her waist and she laid her head against his chest, listening to his slow, steady heartbeat. He stroked her hair gently.
“I’m sorry, it was too much, wasn’t it?” he said. “I didn’t mean to give you a shock. It’s just that when we were having the family drama back then, I could tell that you’d picked up on something and I didn’t want to keep you in the dark. I also thought that it wasn’t fair to kiss you and touch you without you knowing my true nature. She lifted her head and ran her hands along his arms, feeling at his bulging biceps and strong forearms.
“Well, now I know your true nature, and I think I’m getting to like it,” she said, biting her lower lip.
“Yeah.” She placed her hand on his chest. “Now I know there’s a bear in there, I think I can feel it, you know?” He made a sound, a little like a rumble.
“And the more you acknowledge my bear, the more you’ll feel it,” he said. He drew her closer, so their bodies were pressed against one another. She heard, or rather felt, a relentless rumble, a little like a purr.
“My bear purrs when it’s happy,” he said.
“I make it happy?”
She put her hand on the back of his neck and pulled him down to her mouth again. He was such a good kisser. She loved the way that he sucked ever-so-gently on her lips, drawing her deeper and deeper into him.
At first their kisses were soft, exploratory. But as they continued, they became more and more passionate. She ached for him, but his hands stayed on her waist, not pawing her like guys usually did. She was beginning to think he didn’t desire her body that much until she wriggled on his lap and brushed against something hard and eager. He gave a little groan, and kissed her harder, bitingly, before stopping himself.
“If you keep doing that, I won’t be able to keep my bear under control,” he said, his voice thick with hunger. She met his gaze, the fire in his eyes reflecting her own need. She could tell that she was already wet, ready for the hard cock that was pressing so tauntingly against her thigh.
“What if I don’t want you to control yourself?” she said. He stroked her face.
“Noelle, I want to take my time with you. Our first mating is very important. I want it to be as beautiful and perfect as you are.” She sighed. That was the most incredible thing he’d said so far. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him tenderly. He hugged her tight, somehow making her feel delicate and petite, not the sack of potatoes she usually imagined herself as.
Suddenly a big clang sounded from outside. Noelle started.
“What the hell’s that?” she exclaimed.
“It’s the dinner bell,” he said with a laugh.
“There’s no missing it, is there?”
“Nope. My mom got impatient having to call us in for dinner when we were running around in the woods as kids, so she got it installed. Let’s go.”