Simon Jacobs now believed in destiny. It was as much a part of him as his heritage, a gift no doubt from his mother. His father would’ve brushed the sentiment aside, telling him his bear would lead him in all things. In this case, either of them could’ve been in the right. His bear had chosen its mate, and whether or not fate had put her in his path was irrelevant at this point. Five years ago, hell, maybe even a year ago he’d have dismissed any talk of destiny. He’d wanted to believe he had control in all things, but it had taken a simple glance at Calita Wright, and just a small hint of her scent for his bear to rip that delusion from him.
He sighed, his body buzzing from just the memory of that day. He’d come to Selena’s diner on a whim, searching for something sweet. He had spotted a woman as she talked with his cousin’s wife Selena, their heads bent together at the counter. His bear had rumbled, tightening his body with power until half the patrons had turned to him, their gazes curious. Calita’s soft voice had reached his exceptional hearing and yearning clouded his mind. Only the iron control he asserted over his bear had kept the creature from bursting from his skin and rushing to her side. For her safety and his sanity, he’d left the diner that day.
But, he had come back.
And prayed fervently, sending thanks to the gods his mother and her people had worshipped. He and his bear, waited. Waited and plotted on the best way to secure their mate. Bears were nothing if not patient, and as the alpha, he had more patience than most. His bear had grown impatient with his pace, though, but Simon wouldn’t be rushed. Not when he saw flashes of fear in Calita’s gaze when she thought no one watched her.
Watching her skitter away from people, Simon had worried at first that she had an issue with shifters. But, he’d come to find out that Calita shied away more from the humans. Especially the males. Her nervous glances, the little flicker of her tongue as she moistened her lips, he catalogued it all. Calita was a little skittish, no doubt about it. But eventually, he would have her, he held no doubts about that either.
Last night he’d decided that his bear was right, it was time to make a move on her. It was one of the reasons he’d picked the comfortable booth he currently occupied, instead of the one nearer to the back of the diner in which he normally sat. He sipped his coffee and flipped through the Sunday paper, his hooded gaze watching the human wife of one of his bears.
“Good morning, Selena.”
“You gonna say something to her today?” Selena settled a hand on her generous hips and gave him a sly look.
“You keeping a calendar I don’t know about?” He folded the newspaper and laid it on the table.
She smiled. “You been in here for dinner two weeks straight, hiding in that back booth, watching my girl.” She wiggled her eyebrows.
He stifled his smile. Nosy bears. Calita was the first human to catch his eye, so he understood their fascination. Mating with humans was no strange thing, yet as alpha, it had always been believed he’d mate with a shifter. He’d grown up in a time where humans in Bear Ridge were rare, and it was rarer still for them to interact with each other. He’d never once considered a human for his mate. But, his bear had chosen, and that was that, so he gave it no second thought. He knew his clan would be the same, so he allowed them their fun.
Now that a new treaty with the humans was in place and the immediate threat of government interference in their town gone, his bears deserved it.
Behind Selena’s light banter, concern for her friend lurked in her dark brown eyes. Her gaze roved his face, searching for something. “Calita’s not like…”
He inclined his head. “She’s your friend. I understand, Selena.”
“I mean no disrespect, Alpha.” She paused, her gaze lowering.
“She’s been hurt.” It wasn’t a question. Calita had a natural wariness that told more than words could.
He’d figured out some months back that his mate had been through something. It was the only reason he’d been able to leash his bear for so long. Impatient though they were, the two of them were in agreement that hurting Calita was out of the question.
Selena sighed. “Some, but that’s for her to tell.”
“When have you known me to mistreat a woman?”
She let out a hard breath. “You’re right.”
“I’m always right.” It was an automatic answer, his bear prickling at the thought of someone thinking Simon wouldn’t take care of their mate.
She lifted her hands and barked out a laugh. “Fine, I’ll leave it be. Besides, another week of you tiptoeing will earn me a hundred dollars.”
He had to laugh at that. “The sheriff know you up in here gambling?”
“You let me take care of the sheriff.” She winked, a twinkle in her eye at the mention of her mate. Her face straightened, and her gaze drifted to the door. “Speaking of Calita.”
Selena hadn’t needed to tell him. His bear rose and Simon closed his eyes as her scent reached him. The warm fragrance of cream and honey hit his senses, and hunger assailed him. The familiar sound of her footfalls reached him next, and both he and his bear went on alert. It was rare to see her in the diner before lunch, but there she was. Her long legs, and thick thighs encased in a pair of fitted jeans that did wonders for her ass. The simple, no nonsense V-necked blouse clung to her, outlining her full breasts. He was entranced, his gaze following her as if by compulsion. His body buzzed, and his head spun with need gripping him.
Not now, she’ll be ours soon. He placated his bear, pushing down on his power.
Simon’s gaze traced her face, seeing the signs of a sleepless night in the dark circles marring the brown skin under her eyes. His jaw clenched and his grip tightened on his coffee cup. He wanted to walk up to her, demand she rest and let him take care of her. Instead, he could only follow her march towards the kitchen with his eyes. Her long black hair was tied at the nape of her neck, twisted into one of those nonchalant buns she liked. He’d only caught one glimpse of her hair down, and the image was burned into his brain. Her cocoa skin was smooth and unadorned. No make-up, no jewelry, nothing to detract from her natural beauty.
Her heart shaped face was serious as her eyes occasionally looked up and darted across the diner. She had a wary way about her. That look a deer got in its eyes when it knew the hunter was close. That momentary flare of panic that widened the eyes and kept the body on alert. He wondered, not for the first time, what his mate was running from. He’d given her time to settle in, but from the rumble leaving his throat, his bear was done with waiting. Selena chuckled and touched his shoulder as she left him.
Simon thought on it as he sipped his coffee. His mind wondered back to why she’d come in so early. He didn’t usually see her. Not that he came to breakfast every morning, he had work on the ranch that kept him busy most days. There were some days, though, when he had a hankering for the pastries Calita made…that and he craved the sight of her. He came often enough that it had raised the town’s interest, even though he wasn’t the only one drawn into the diner by the pastries and desserts Calita made. Bears who almost never left their dens and bears from miles away had started making the trek to Selena’s diner.
But, he would admit…
He’d given himself away from his first glance of Calita.
And now everyone in town was betting on when he’d make his move. He shook his head and waved down a waitress to order a dozen more of the croissants with lemon jelly to go. He’d hide them in his office and hope his second in command didn’t sniff them out before the day was done.
The small diner was starting to get crowded as the patrons of the small hotel next door trickled in. Most of those patrons would be headed out to his ranch once breakfast was done. Watson Ranch was a big tourist draw for their town and he was extremely proud of that. It was a reminder that he had work he needed to be doing. But taking his mind off his mate was harder with each passing day. Calita was a mystery he was intent on solving. He thought it best to wait until the shadows left her eyes, but a year in their small town and she still seemed tense and uneasy. Obviously waiting would get him nowhere with this particular problem, so he needed to take action.
Besides, if he didn’t say something in the next couple of days his Beta threatened to do him bodily harm. Gavin wanted to win the money from the pool. Simon shook his head. He liked seeing his bears happy. Even if it was at his expense.
The kitchen was busy, the loud noise music to Calita’s ears. The staff was small, but efficient, good-natured insults were tossed back and forth in easy camaraderie. The diner where she now worked was small and a far cry from the fancy restaurant in Chicago where she’d been executive chef, and she got far more enjoyment from it because of that. Selena had hired her to take over the kitchen, but she’d felt more comfortable assisting her friend, getting a feel for the place. She didn’t want to…no couldn’t, deal with the extra responsibility when she’d first arrived. But recently, even though she kept the schedule of a line cook, Selena had moved all responsibility over to her. Calita’s lips quirked up into a smile. They were both obstinate, she would continue pretending to be a regular kitchen employee, and Selena would steadily defer decisions to her until she caved.
The breakfast crowd was coming in steady streams, and Calita was happy she’d come down earlier. She should’ve been upstairs trying to get more sleep before her shift, but she’d found that working helped keep the demons away. Remnants of her nightmare flitted across her mind. Her hand lifted, pressing against her shirt, just under her bra, her habit of rubbing the spot, reflexive. She needed to feel the scars that were proof of nightmares made real, it was compulsion.
The kitchen door swung inwards and her best friend since middle school sauntered in, a mischievous smile covering her face. Calita jerked her hand from her chest and changed her gloves, going back to work on her dough.
Cali shook her head. “I don’t trust that look in your eyes, Lena.”
“What look?” Her friend leaned against the stainless-steel table Cali worked at.
She waved her spoon at her closest friend. “That look, the smug one you’re wearing.”
Selena waggled her neatly arched eyebrows. “Someone has an admirer.” She fluttered her lashes, her voice rising an octave.
Cali shook her head. It was a good idea for her to leave men alone for a while. But, that would explain the feeling of eyes on her she’d felt when she was walking through the diner a moment ago.
“What’s new? Ms. Thang keeps them panting after her.” One of the waitresses waited at the window for her order.
“It’s not me, personally. I’m sure it’s because I’m new here.” Cali set down her spoon and dumped her dough onto the pastry mat, avoiding Selena’s eyes.
“Yeah, okay.” The waitress grabbed her tray and closed the pickup window with a laugh.
Calita chanced a look at her friend and noticed she still wore her smile. “You’re up to something.”
Selena shrugged, but arched her eyebrows. The smile on her face dropped when she got a good look at Calita’s face. “What’s happened?”
“Nightmare.” She raised her hands as Selena gasped. “I’m handling it.”
“If you need to talk.”
“Really, Lena, I’m fine, I just need…” she shook her head. “You’ve given me what I needed.” She whispered. “A fresh start, a place where I finally feel safe. Give it time.”
She looked around, not wanting the others to hear the strain in her voice. Selena touched her shoulder and nodded. Calita kept herself from flinching from the touch. With the nightmare fresh on her mind, she was anxious, agitated. But she noticed since she’d come to Bear Ridge that people did that a lot.
She’d finally trained herself not to flinch.
She puffed out a breath and pushed down the need to escape her friend’s probing stare.
Selena cleared her throat. “Is that why you’re down so early?”
“You’ve gotten, what, three hours of sleep, tops.” Selena brushed a hand over her hair.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll go upstairs and take a nap before I start the desserts for dinner. Besides, you’re lucky I came down. The pastries for breakfast are low anyway.”
“Well, you know bears.”
Calita nodded. Another thing she was learning since being here, the appetite of bears. Wasn’t life funny? Shifters had come out to the public decades ago, and she didn’t think she’d met a single one until she’d come to Georgia.
“Don’t you want to know who it is?” Selena asked, changing the subject.
Calita sighed, wishing her friend had changed it to something else. “I do not.”
Though, she was a little curious. The men around this town were hunky to say the least. She didn’t know how she felt about dating a shifter. She’d arrived at the town wary, thinking they would be dangerous animals, but the human she was running from had scared her way more than that possibility. From day one though, the gentle bears had made her feel safer than she had in a long time. Even through their curiosity, they’d given her space. They passed along compliments on her cooking, or gossip about town and its people, all the while never intruding into her personal space. It had made her feel welcome.
Selena leaned over the counter and opened the pickup window, jarring Cali from her thoughts. Her best friend pointed to a man sitting alone at the booth directly across from them. Calita’s nape tingled, her body tightened and her breath stalled. Her eyes collided with a set of onyx ones. Heat flooded her cheeks, her stomach did a lazy flip and her body awakened. Who was he? She blinked to break contact. A mocking smile tilted his full lips and he raised his glass of juice in a toast. How had she missed a man that fine?
He couldn’t be real. His Native American heritage was stamped on his face. High cheekbones, hollowed cheeks and a squared jaw gave him a rugged look that pulled at her feminine core. Curly hair flowed to his shoulder in wild disarray, along with rich dark skin that told her he was Black as well. Thick eyebrows lowered over those dark eyes as his heated gaze roved her face. Feminine awareness and a healthy dose of self-preservation had her moving out of view of the window. All that restrained power crackling around him, Lord…just a look at him had Calita’s hormones bouncing around her body. Her hands shook as she went back to kneading.
Who was he?
Not her business. She couldn’t afford the promise of heat in his eyes.
Selena laughed outright. “So, you want to know his name?”
She shook her head no, still unable to speak. She was shaken, but not in a bad way.
“Simon’s a great guy,” Selena sang.
Feminine sighs met that statement. Cali narrowed her eyes at the staff. The town’s alpha. She’d heard a fair amount of stories about him and they did nothing to prepare her for the dominance that radiated from the man.
That was a better word for it. She turned to the sink and washed her hands to give herself a moment.
“That man is a God,” someone said.
“You ain’t never lied.” This from one of the prep chefs.
“Thank you for disrupting the kitchen,” Cali accused.
Selena shrugged her rounded shoulders. “If you don’t want him, I can think of at least a dozen women who’ll take him off your hands.”
Bawdy laughter had her rolling her eyes. “Whatever. You can leave now.” She turned back to the table.
“Make him work for it, Cali.” Another waitress said floating past her, tying on an apron.
Cali swept everyone in the kitchen with a stern gaze. Chuckles met her look. “Disrespectful, the whole lot of you,” she teased. “Back to work. I’m not talking about this.”
She shook her head and promptly ignored them. She couldn’t shake those dark eyes though. Upturned at the ends, mysterious, and heated, his gaze would haunt her. Selena left the kitchen laughing. Calita puffed out a breath, her hands shaking until finally, the others lapsed into busy silence.
Simon…yeah, she wasn’t ready for that.