Perfect Mate

By: Jennifer Ashley
Chapter One

A bear needs her beauty sleep.

Nell stifled a groan as a rhythmic banging dragged her out of profound slumber, the kind she found only in the depths of wintertime. Never mind that she lived now in a city in a desert rather than deep woods—in winter, her wild nature let her submerge into long, dark sleeps.

But the rest of her family wasn’t going to cooperate this morning. The headache that had begun in her dreams penetrated to her waking life, and she cracked open her eyes.

Who in the hell was doing all the pounding out in her kitchen at . . . five o’clock in the morning?

Nell dropped the clock with a clatter, swung out of bed, grabbed her pink terrycloth robe, and jammed her feet into some kind of footgear—whatever happened to be on the floor; she couldn’t see through bleary eyes in the dark.

If Shane or Brody were working on motorcycle parts in her kitchen or some idiotic thing like that, she’d whack her cubs up the sides of both their heads. It was winter. The boys knew to leave Nell alone in the dark of night in winter.

She stomped out of the bedroom, down the short hall, and into the kitchen.

A huge Shifter male she’d never seen before perched on top of a short stepladder, reaching up to nail a strip of wood onto the wall. The hammer banged, banged, banged into her headache.

Nell’s kitchen was a wreck—the counters and cabinets had been ripped out, the drywall broken, wires and pipes sticking forlornly out of the walls. In the middle was this Shifter—a bear—she didn’t know, his hammering jamming pain through her already throbbing head.

He stopped, mercifully, and laid the hammer on the one counter that was still intact. Not seeing her, he picked up his next weapon—a power drill—and prepared to attack the innocent wall.

Nell ducked back down the hall to her bedroom, silently scooped up her keys, stepped into the back hall that ran between bedrooms and kitchen to the laundry room, and unlocked the padlocked broom cupboard. She removed the double-barreled shotgun from its place, snapped in cartridges, and headed for the kitchen.

The Shifter in the kitchen had turned on his power drill, its whine cutting into Nell’s brain. He never heard her until she slammed the shotgun closed, aimed it at him, and said in a loud voice, “You have ten seconds to tell me who you are and what the hell you’re doing.”

The drill stopped. The bear Shifter glanced at her, blinked once, and carefully set the drill onto the counter. Then he smiled.

It was blinding, that smile. The man was big, like all bear Shifters, solid muscle under a torso-hugging shirt and paint-stained jeans. His arms were huge, like her son Shane’s, this man’s covered with wiry black hair. The Collar around his throat, black and silver, winked under the overhead fluorescent light.

His hair, which he’d tried to tame by cutting it short, was a mess of a mottled black, brown, and lighter brown strands. A grizzly.

Instead of having dark eyes, like Nell and her sons, this man’s eyes were a brilliant blue. Paired with the smile, the scrutiny of his blue eyes sent Nell’s heart pounding, which did nothing good for her headache.

“I’m Cormac,” the man said. His voice rumbled like a low wave of thunder, one far off enough to be comforting, not worrying. The sound filled the room and wrapped around everything in it. “You must be Nell.”

Nell tightened her grip on the shotgun. “This is my house. Who else would I be?”

“Shane gave me the key and told me to get started.” He waved a hand at the empty walls but never took his gaze from Nell. “He wanted to surprise you.”

“Consider me surprised. You still haven’t told me who you are. As in, where did you come from? What clan? What are you doing in our Shiftertown? How does my cub know you, and why don’t I? I’m ranking bear in this town, and no new bears come here without my say-so. Or didn’t Shane bother to tell you that?”

His look was unworried. “I got here last night. I’m from the Wisconsin Shiftertown, but I’m transferring here. Eric introduced me to Shane. Shane was excited about putting in the kitchen, and he told me to go ahead and start.”

Logical answers, perfectly straightforward, coming from an intoxicatingly good-looking Shifter who never lost his smile or the sparkle in his eyes.

“Eric introduced you to my cub? Without telling me first?” Questions blared through Nell’s mind, which was still clouded with sleep and pain. “And what do you mean, you transferred here?”

“Paperwork went through,” Cormac said. “Guess I’m the new bear in town.”

Again the wonderful rumble, with a hint of laughter. Nell wanted to hold on to the noise, to wrap it around her, and because of that, she clutched the gun a little tighter.

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