Authors: Ally Summers
Text copyright ©2016 by the Author.
This work was made possible by a special license through the Kindle Worlds publishing program and has not necessarily been reviewed by Three Cats, LLC. All characters, scenes, events, plots and related elements appearing in the original Grayslake: More than Mated remain the exclusive copyrighted and/or trademarked property of Three Cats, LLC, or their affiliates or licensors.
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A Bite of Love
There was a beautiful girl in my bed.
A dead body outside.
And a shifter war in my backyard.
There were a lot of reasons I should have stayed. Maybe another king would have. The kind of king who could stare heartbreak in the face and not give a damn. The kind of king who put leadership over his pride. The kind of king I wasn’t anymore.
That place couldn’t be my home. The reason I was drawn to it, didn’t exist anymore. The life I was supposed to have there had been ripped away.
The Tribe would find its way in a new place. I didn’t know where that was yet, but my warriors would wait until I had the answers. They were loyal to a fault. That’s what it meant to be soldier in the Maddox line.
I couldn’t pass by streets and remember her anymore. I couldn’t run by the field where we were married. I couldn’t explore the woods and not remember what it was like to see her green eyes light up like wildfire. How I held her. How I kissed her. How for one tiny second she was completely mine.
She had said “I do.” She had pledged her life to me. And what now? It was gone? The laws of the panther and jaguar shifters were dissolved. Her loyalty evaporated with them, and any love I thought she had for me faded with every second, as our laws became a thing of the past.
I pressed my foot to the gas pedal, urging my truck to go faster. The engine revved with a fervent chug as I forced it to push the limits. The red needle tipped a five and I backed off.
Anywhere was better than that city. Anywhere was better than the town that held nothing but pain and agony. The bitterness had gripped me. The anger was palatable with every breath. I couldn’t exist where she did.
I had to get the hell out of there.
Three months of living in the shadows had fed the darkness in me. It was more comforting than light and warmth. I knew I had retreated to a place that turned my soul a shade of black.
It was late, but I didn’t want to stop. I had to keep going until I knew she was a safe distance behind me. Part of me realized there wasn’t such a thing as enough distance. A shifter’s bond with his mate didn’t dissolve with miles. It didn’t lessen with a new address. But it was the only chance I had if I was going to survive.
I had to leave before they returned together. If I saw her with him, I’d challenge him. And there was no way to co-exist without running into them. I woke up this morning and decided I had to leave before someone paid for the pain I felt.
Eight hours later I turned onto a ruddy red road lined with divots and chunks of rock. The headlights on the truck lit the driveway as it tunneled toward the house. I hadn’t been here since I was kid.
But maybe this was the place that would make me whole again. Maybe this was where I needed to be until I realized my queen wasn’t coming back. That the woman who had taught me to be a better man hadn’t chosen me. Being a better man wasn’t enough. Being a better man was a mistake. There wasn’t enough humanity in me.
I gritted my teeth, thinking about how I had turned my life upside down for her. How I had sacrificed everything for her. Gone to war. Risked the lives of the Tribe.
I put the truck in park and looked up at the dark windows.
The house wasn’t much like I remembered it. Smaller in fact. I guessed childhood memories had a way of making things seem exaggeratingly bigger than they were in reality.
I stepped from the truck, scanning the perimeter of the property for any visitors.
There was a wide wraparound porch. It didn’t look like the swing had been touched in years. One of the center boards dangled from the seat. I peered at the door. The handle was rusted and it looked as if someone had tried to get inside, but failed. I ran my fingers over the claw marks. They were scratched into the trim around the windows too.
As a boy I had run through the forest on this property, learning how to be a predator. Learning how to take command. I was born a prince, but became a king. Tennessee was home, but Grayslake, Georgia was where I had spent some of the most memorable summers of my life.
I was in werebear country. Even though they didn’t own this land, there was no question this was a territory run by the bears of Grayslake. It was one of the reasons it had been such a great place for a young jaguar to be trained. My family could come and go in peace. This was my grandmother’s refuge. The one place she said felt most like home. She didn’t care about the other weres here. And she made friends with the bears.
Their Itan, the bear clan leader, kept a tight rein on shifter activity. I wasn’t here to get involved in politics. I didn’t care about shifter problems right now. I wasn’t going to jump from one war into another. My battle wounds were still fresh. You don’t change shifter history and walk away without a few scars.
I was in Grayslake for one reason and one reason only.
Forget that Dare ever existed, and that for one moment in time I thought there was a woman worth risking everything for.
I was tired. Exhausted really. I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand, caking it with a fine layer of sifted flour. I had at least two more dozen bruschetta bites to go before I could start packing the order for delivery.
Living in werebear country was good for business. There weren’t many caterers who could say they had the kind of clients I did.
I knew that was the deal living in Grayslake. Werebears had unbelievable appetites and when they had a party or special occasion, the order was almost enough to make my profit for the entire month.
The bad part of catering for them was I had to work my butt off to get enough food for their voracious hunger. I learned to put up with it though. It was worth all the sweat and tears to stay in business. There just weren’t enough humans here to keep things going for me.
I had built
Achording to Cadence
myself. It was my dream. After losing my mom, it felt as if it was the only link I had left to her. It was the foundation for the entire inspiration.
One day she was here laughing and joking about who had been kicked off
Dancing with the Stars
and the next Ty Abrams was at my door with the devastating news that someone had crossed over the double-yellow line. A drunk driver. A kid who had partied at prom.
After the funeral I went through her house, selecting the few items I couldn’t part with. The rest I had to sell. I walked away with her engagement ring, photo albums, and her recipe box.
I straightened my shoulders. No time for a pity party right now. I had to get this order finished and headed to the Bear Clan Den. If there was something I knew about werebears, it was don’t show up late with the food.
I turned my attention to the neatly folded white boxes and began to layer them with parchment paper. After filling them with stuffed croissants I folded them and began to load the back of my catering van. I slammed the back of the van until the latch locked.
The drive to the clan den was twenty minutes from the shop. I turned on winding roads and drove deeper into the north Georgia mountains. I loved the forest, but there was something about the shifters here that kept me from even thinking about buying a place outside of town.
It wasn’t as if they were completely unwelcoming, but there was a clear division between the weres and humans. The outskirts of Grayslake seemed like they belonged to them.
For now, I lived above my shop.
There was always something peaceful about this drive. It might have been the utter fatigue settling into my muscles after working my ass off for this order, or maybe it was the one spot of newness I always found on my way to the Clan Den.
I passed a field of wild flowers in bloom that was green last month.
Yeah, Grayslake wasn’t a booming metropolis and it wasn’t ever going to have huge malls and movie theaters. No twenty-story high rises here. But I was ok with that. Shifters and all, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
I took a careful turn onto the entrance that marked the drive to the werebears home.
I was especially cautious on the bumpy path. I didn’t want any of the pie crusts to crack or the cannolis to shift in the back.
The clan den was like something out of a movie.
I pulled up to the front of the house and made a circle in the driveway so I could back up the van.
As soon as I jumped from my seat, I was greeted with a big hug.
“What did you bring us this time, Cadence?”
I smiled. “Basically everything I have on the menu.” The bears would eat everything and love it. It was another reason I loved them as clients.
I always liked Keen. He was one of Ty’s brothers. Hot, with brown eyes and shaggy hair, but completely off limits.
“Can I help you get the food inside?”
I looked around him. Usually by now there would be ten bears bounding from the massive house ready to help.
“Sure. I could use the help. Where is everyone?”
He pulled a few of the trays into his massive arms.
“Getting ready for the party,” he answered.
“Ohh.” I learned growing up as one of the few humans in a shifter town that prying into shifter business wasn’t a smart idea. I let the answer go. He’d tell me what he thought I had a right to know.
I had a special arrangement with the clan. I was allowed to know about their existence without the usual rules that were enforced. They made an exception for me as a provider. Otherwise, I’d have to either marry into the clan, or … well, they didn’t let humans in on their secret.
I followed Keen up the stairs and inside the house. With as many times as I had set up for parties here, I knew my way to the kitchen.
After a few trips inside, the van was empty. Keen closed the doors and ushered me behind the wheel. He handed an envelope to me full of cash. I didn’t bother to count it. The Clan always tipped well.
“Thanks for driving out, Cadence.”
“Of course. No problem. I guess I’ll see you next month. I’ll stop by at the end of the week to pick up the containers and burners.”
“Yeah, well I think you’ll need to talk to Gigi about that.” He shifted back and forth on his feet.
“Is there something wrong?” There was a slow pit of uneasiness starting to spread in my belly. I didn’t like what Keen implied.
“No. No. It’s just. Hey, I’m not in charge of the food. You’ll need to talk to someone else. We might not need the order next month, that’s all.”
That’s all? That’s all? Oh God, my face probably went completely white from shock and fear. He might as well just told me I could no longer pay my rent, or order any more produce. That I’d have to put the electric bill on a credit card. And there was no way I could upgrade to that stainless steel industrial refrigerator I’d been eyeing. I felt sick.
“Oh, all right. I guess I’ll talk to Gigi later then.” I didn’t know what else to say. Things had gone from friendly to awkward quickly. “I hope you enjoy the food.”
I put the van in drive and pulled away from the house.
As I turned onto the main road my back wheel hit a pot hole and I heard something rattle behind the seat. I pulled over on the shoulder and turned to see a pan of lasagna that had slid across the floor.
“Crap,” I muttered.
The last thing I wanted was an entire bear clan missing an entrée from the order—especially if they were considering cutting me loose.
I tapped Keen’s number on my screen.
He answered gruffly. “Hello.”
“Hey, it’s Cadence. I’m headed back with a pan of lasagna. I’m so sorry. I guess we missed it when we were unloading.”
“No, don’t do that.”
“Really, it’s no trouble. I’m just on the main road now.”
I was about to make a three-point turn at the next gravel driveway when his voice shot through the phone.
“Are you sure?”
“Yep.” He hung up before I could talk about a refund or crediting the clan’s account.
I sat, puzzled and confused for a minute. What in the hell was going on with them?
My phone immediately rang and I answered it without looking at the screen.
“Change your mind?” I asked with a smile.
Achording to Cadence
Shit. It wasn’t Keen.
“Yes. Yes, it is. I’m sorry I thought you were someone else. How can I help you?”
“I need meal delivery.” His voice was crisp and deep. He sounded nothing like the clan brothers.
I fished a notepad from my oversized leather bag. I felt a rush of panic I hadn’t felt in forever. If there was a chance I was going to lose the clan as a client, I needed to find new ones quickly. Every phone call from here on out mattered. It felt like I was starting from scratch.
“All right? When is your event?” I asked.
“There is no event. I need meals prepared and delivered to me.”
“You realize this is a catering company? I do large parties, dinners, weddings—that sort of thing.”
I whispered a small prayer under my breath that this was some sort of wealthy, powerful, big-shot business man who needed a magnificent caterer for all of his corporate functions. I could switch from clan to corporate in a heartbeat. Please, God open a window for me, quickly. I was in deep trouble if the werebears didn’t need me anymore.
“Are you interested or not?”
I was taken aback by his impatience. “Of course, but I still don’t know what you need. I’m confused. I’m sorry I’m out on a job right now and—”
I thought I detected a growl. I thought I knew all the shifters in this town. Who in the hell was this guy and why did he have such a bee in his britches?
“I’m not actually a food delivery service,” I answered carefully. I saw the silver foil pan in the rearview mirror, remembering I had an entire lasagna I could deliver. “But I do have something I could bring over. It’s the last dish for the night. Why don’t you text me your address?”
Before I could tell him where I was, the line went dead. A minute later the address popped up on my phone. I pressed the map app on my phone and examined the location.
That was the Maddox plot. No one had been there in years. Come to think of it, I didn’t know if the family even used the house anymore. I’d never met anyone from the family. There were all kind of rumors about them. I knew better than to believe half of those stories.
Apparently someone was using the house now though. I put the van in drive.