Sunny Meadows wasn’t a people person. She had anger management issues, and most of the time, she didn’t even like herself. Working as a government agent, Sunny found herself in the Smoky Mountains tracking down a serial killer. A run-in with a park guest landed Sunny in the hospital and off the killer’s trail.
Dexter Cross and his family were black bears and lived in the Smoky Mountains, where he worked as a ranger for the park where they lived. He was to deliver a gun and a badge to the injured agent. He’d been told she was caustic, but he wasn’t prepared for her being his mate too.
When the killer discovered that Sunny was injured. She was making a move to end Sunny’s life, and anyone else’s that got in her way. Will Dexter and his family be able to protect her?
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Jamie Kemp was good at her job. Working for the FBI in search and rescue as a dog trainer and handler was fulfilling work. Never laying down many roots, Jamie was ready to head out on assignment with her dogs at a moment’s notice.
Mark Cross and his family had lived in the Smoky Mountains for ten generations, and he loved the land, but of late, he was feeling rather lonely. Mark and his entire family were bears, black bears that blended into the wooded areas better than any wild ones in the park.
Jamie and her dogs were called in to find a missing woman. Instead, Jamie found herself in the crosshairs of a serial killer. Mark showed her pictures of the women this maniac had killed, and she could be their twin. And to complicate things more, Mark was her mate….
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Sunny didn’t mind people—just not in clumps. She supposed that calling them clumps was better than calling them herds. But they sort of did remind her of cattle the way they mooed when they were upset—well, whined. And they complained all the time. She’d not met a single person on this trip who hadn’t complained about something, even the weather being too hot. Damn it all to hell, people. It’s summer! It’s supposed to be hot. She’d bet those same people were surprised when it turned cold during the winter months. A clump of people was just ahead of her, and she had to pause in her walk to get around them. Why did people stop in the middle of places, like an aisle at the grocery or a narrow path on the way to the falls, like now, to have a whole clump reunion? She didn’t understand anything about clumps. “Excuse me.”
The woman that was taking up most of the left side of the path just stared at her as she continued talking to the other female clump—there were children with her, so Sunny decided to call them clump-its. “I’d like to go through. Please?” The Crusty Clump huffed at her. “Don’t you see that we’re having a private conversation here? You’ll just have to figure out a different way to get around us. It’s considered rude to interrupt someone when they’re speaking. I’m surprised no one has told you that before.” Sunny assured her they had, but she was just like that to not listen. “It figures. Just wait in line like the rest of the people here.” “No. You’re the rude one. You have like fifty people in the line behind the clump you’ve created waiting to either come down or go up. Your clump is blocking a narrow path.
I’d like to suggest—and right now, since I’ve finally graduated from anger management classes, I’m only suggesting this—that you get your flabby fat ass out of the way and have your ‘private’ conversations elsewhere. Though how you figure that with hundreds of people clambering around you to get through, you could have a private shit right now is beyond me. Everyone can hear every word you moo. But that’s just me.” Sunny looked away to reign in her temper before it got the better of her. She didn’t mind people around her hearing her talk to the women. Nor did she lie to her about the anger management classes. She knew she had temper and anger issues. But— Sunny felt the pain in her shoulder just before she fell backward and hit her head on one of the large stones that made up the Smokie Mountains. Christ, that had fucking hurt. “You hit me.”
Crusty Clump nodded and used her cane like a sword like she was parlaying or something. The warmth of what she thought might be blood slid down her back and into her eyes, so she couldn’t see well. “You fucking hit me with that cane? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?” “You’re a rude young woman, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that you’ve been to anger classes.” Sunny tried to stand but was suddenly weak, her head spinning. “You stay right where you are, or so help me, I’ll toss you over this mountainside, and they’ll never find your body. Now. I’m going to finish my—” Sunny tried to get up and failed, hitting her head again.
“Did I not just tell you to stay there? I’ll hit you again, harder this time if you don’t—” Sunny didn’t hear anymore over the roaring in her head. Her belly, usually all right with anything she shoved into her pie hole, was rebelling as well. Holding onto what she hoped was a tree, she nearly went over the side of the mountain when she heard a voice. Well, several of them, but the one that was closest to her was making the most sense. “I’m going to put you down on the ground, all right?” Nodding was out of the question, and she wasn’t sure any longer that she could make her mouth work. But the man seemed to understand. “My brother and I are going to carry you down the path, miss. Are you alone?” “Crusty Clump hit me with her sword. My head hurts.” He smiled, but she couldn’t understand why her demise was funny to him. “No, I’m alone. No one likes to hang out with me. I’m sort of caustic. I’m a lot caustic.” She grabbed her stomach.
“I think I’m going to be sick.” She was too. Throwing up three times, the man held her hair out of the way. While she didn’t know a great many things at the moment, she knew she’d had her hair in a ponytail when she left her hotel room that morning. Then Sunny tried to think why that was important. Laying her head back on the cooler rock, she closed her eyes. “I’m going to need you to stay awake, miss. You more than likely have a concussion.” She told him her first name. “All right, Sunshine—did your parents name you that because of your sunny disposition?” “I’m sure they thought that was going to work, but I rebelled.” Her eyes wouldn’t focus. She saw three, or was it four of him right now? “Do you think you can stop fucking moving right now?” He told her they were going to pick her up.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. I’m seriously only just barely hanging on right—what the hell did you say again? Oh yes. Pain medication. Yes, that helps. I need to finish my walk today. Have the clumps of people moved yet?” If he answered her again, she didn’t know. The sudden feeling of being airborne hit her, and she was sick again. However, there was nothing left on her belly. Being picked up was too much. She begged them to toss her over the side and let gravity take her down. Sunny was sure it would have been a great deal less painful once she hit her head again.
Sunny was in and out of consciousness. Each time they had to stop, she was gagging. Not sure if she was telling them to stop or if they were that good, she was at the bottom of the hill before she could think where her bike was. If she could even find it, she told herself. “I’ll have someone look for it for you and make sure it’s safe. Can you tell me what kind it is? Or the license plate number?” After telling him it was a Harley and that it was an Ohio plate, she slipped away. Another pinch to her arm told her she was getting more meds.
The ambulance ride was a series of questions shot at her, and to her, for the most part, her not answering them. She would have, but her mouth wasn’t working again. The man who had brought her down the hill, she’d been told, was going to find her bike for her and put it away. The medic even told her how he’d gotten her down the hill. “He and his brother carried you. The two of them are park rangers. Someone called the visitors center, and Gibb and Barron were the closest. They’re good men—all the Cross men are.” All clumps weren’t that good. The man laughed, and she wondered again if she was talking aloud or if this man could read her mind. Before she could figure that one out, he started talking again. This time not to her.
Sunny was in the hospital, in a very bright room, when she opened her eyes. They were sorely mistaken if they had expected her to fight the meds they were giving her and stay awake. The man standing over her in a white lab coat asked her if she had any allergies. Sunny pointed to the band around her arm. Everything was listed there. Waking again, she thought this was just getting stupid—she was able to talk. However, the feet, all she could see from her position, asked her to please lie still. He was stitching her up. “I hit my head. That clump—person hit me with a cane or something.” He said he’d been told that, but he was only there to make sure her head was stitched up. “I have a body cam. I’m required to wear it when I’m out because I have issues with clumps—uh, people.” “What do you call them? People?” She told him. “Clumps is a good name. Especially when they’re clumped together like they do at times.
Crazy Clump, the one that hit you, is a braying jackass if you ask me. She’s telling everyone at the station house that you hit her first. I’m telling you that because we saw the body cam when you came in. The rangers are having a look at it.” She asked him why. “Like I said, she’s saying you hurt her first, and she had to defend herself. You have a wound on your shoulder, Miss Meadow. They’ve decided not to stitch it just yet until the X-rays come back. Your collarbone is broken, and you have a concussion to the back of your head. When I’m finished here, they’ll take you back to X-ray to get a few more pictures of your head. All right?” She had so many people she needed to contact right now that she couldn’t think where to start.
When asked, she was given a little bit for the pain, and it took the edge off enough that when she looked down, the feet there had her remembering that a ranger had brought her down the hill. The boots, army issue, were dirty and used. Just the way she’d expect them to be. “My name is Ranger Mark Cross. I’m not going to take your statement right now, Miss Meadow, but I would ask that if you think of something important, you relay it to me at once. Mrs. Hardgrave has been—” She asked him who that was. “Gibb said you called her Crusty Clump. She’s in jail for assault. I’m assuming you will want to press charges.”
“Yes. Please.” She thought about the people she had to contact. “I’m going to need a cell phone soon. I’m not just here for pleasure, though I’d stay if I could. This place is beautiful. I’m working, and I can’t not check-in.” “Officer Anderson was notified as soon as your name was put into the system as a search for next of kin.” She thanked him. “No need for that. You must be pretty important if they contacted him not ten seconds after he spelled your name in the search line.” “No, not so much.” She didn’t tell him more but thought he’d never pass it on if she did. Sunny had no idea how she knew that, but she did. “I’m not human. I mean, mostly I am, but I’m not really.” “Elite shifter. I got that when they asked us to go to your aid. I suppose shifting would have taken care of your wounds, but we need it for court since you said you were pressing charges. I could smell it on you.”
She said that while she was an elite shifter, she didn’t heal like others did. “I’m sorry for that. It’s come in handy a few times over my life. Is there anything I can do for you?” “Just my bike, which I was told is being taken care of.” He told her that his brother Gibb was taking it to his house. “Okay. Then when can I get out of here? The sooner, the better.” “I can give you a cell phone to use. Yours, unfortunately, was broken when you were knocked back on your bottom. But as for leaving, since you can’t heal, they’ll need to keep you a few days. As I said, you can use a cell for your calls, but you have about two hundred stitches in your head alone.” She asked him if he’d said two hundred. “Yes, I did. You hit your head once the first time, but when you tried to get up, you fell back twice more, and from what we can ascertain from your body cam, you hit your head three more times. There was a sharp protrusion there, and you managed to hit it each time you fell back.” “Christ.” He chuckled a little and told her that was the way he reacted. “I’m going to take you up on your offer of the phone, Ranger. I do have to check in once a day with my boss, or I’m toast.”
“I’ve spoken to him.” When his feet disappeared, she heard the door close to wherever they were. “I was told to make sure you had all the help you needed, including a gun, should you not have one on you at all times. I was also told to make sure you knew he has watched the recording of your morning and isn’t concerned with that at the moment. He did tell me you’re not just caustic, as you told my brother, but you’re a pain in the ass as well. Mr. Rugby told me you were here to find an escaped prisoner. And that if anyone could bring her in, it would be you. You’re related to her.” “She’s my sister-in-law. So I guess I’m technically related to her, but thank goodness I’m not blood-related. She killed four men in Ohio and has killed one more on the way here that I know of. The reason I’m telling you this is nothing I can figure out. I keep my mouth shut like a virgin at a Friday night football game keeps her legs closed.” Mark laughed, and she smiled. “The only thing I ask of you, Mark, is to stay the hell out of my way. She’s fucking dangerous and won’t hesitate to kill whatever or whoever gets in her way.”
“Your brother and sister.” She didn’t answer but was surprised David had told him so much. “I’ll help you in any way I can. My entire family works here in this park, so we can keep our ears and noses open for you. We’re all bears, black bears, who live on the mountain. Also, I was told to tell you that if you get hurt again, David was going to kick your ass and bury you in the backyard of his home. He said he knows you’ll believe him too.” “You know, he only uses that tone with me. I don’t know what it is that I’ve ever done to him to warrant such threats, but he does it time and time again.” The man laughed again. “I’ve been on disciplinary leave for a month now. I’m, as you said, caustic to work with. However, once the big shits got their heads out of their asses and looked at the tape, I was released from it. I liked the class, however, so I finished the course. It’s all in the way you think rather than the way you react. I usually react first, feel really good about it, then get into trouble. And if you ask me if I ever feel any remorse for what I do, I’ll tell you what I told the shrink.
No fucking way.” Mark was still laughing when she heard the door open again. “Miss Meadow, we’re going to take you to surgery in a few moments. The doctor will be in to see you soon.” Panic took her breath away. She didn’t want to be put under. Didn’t want to feel like she wasn’t going to be able to handle herself when she was out. The meds she’d taken earlier had been just for the pain, and her lack of sleep had put her under. But with surgery, she’d be deep under and— “Sunny, take a breath.” She heard the voice of Mark but couldn’t focus well on it. “Sunny, I’m going to hit you to make you breathe if you don’t do it soon. You’re scaring the nice nurse here, and she is going to be sick. Breathe right now.” The compulsion of his order had her breathing again. His face, a nice handsome one, appeared in front of her. He was laying his head on the floor and looking up at her. His smile and charm had her thinking this man thought he was all that and a bag of chips, but she knew handsome men like him. All bark and no talk. “Breathe in and out. All right. I’m talking to you this way because you can’t be rolled to your back just yet. Are you still with me?”
She said she was. “All right. When you were hit with the cane, not a sword, Cranky Clump broke your collar bone, and there are several chips of bone in your muscle. They’re going to repair your shoulder without using any kind of screws or such and take out the small pieces. The small pieces are going to be put back on the broken bone with some kind of stitching, so you’ll be able to shift when you need to. So far, so good, right?” “Yes. Are you making fun of me?” He said his wife would have his head if he tried that shit. “You’re very charming. I didn’t want to be caught up in your bullshit, but it sounds like someone has your ass. Too bad, I was thinking about how handsome you are.” “Maybe we’ll be related in some way. I have five brothers. You’ve only met three of them so far, so our chances of—” “Nope, and no fucking way, no. I don’t want a mate or a husband, or even a wife if that’s the way things go. I got enough shit going on in my corner to last about fifty lifetimes. No thanks.
Keep them away, and we’ll call it even on you having my back.” He said he didn’t think that was going to be possible. “Make it possible, or I’ll hurt you. Believe me when I tell you, neither you nor your bear will come out on top if you try something.” “I believe you.” He didn’t move while they put an IV in her arm for the surgery. “They’re going to take you up to the second floor right now, and you’ll be in a room with others until your surgery is finished. After you’re okay to leave recovery, they’ll send you on to your room. I’ll be there waiting for you. I’ll have you a gun for when you’re able to take it as well.” “Thank you. I’m better now.” He still didn’t move, and she felt bad that he had to lay on the floor. “Get up, you moron, before I spit on you, and it lands in your mouth. Go on. I have shit to do, and you’re not going to get any brownie points for laying around.” She was moved into an elevator while he was still laughing. He did ride up to the third floor with her and even told her good luck when she was taken beyond where he could go. Christ, what a waste of a nice man.
She certainly hoped his wife knew the kind of man she was married to. Ten minutes after arriving on the surgical floor, she was wheeled into a bright white room and put under. Her panic didn’t seem to be as bad this time. ~*~ Mark was still in the waiting room when Jamie contacted him. She’d been working on her last job for the agency, and he was thrilled for her. She told him she was going home, having a nice nap in the sunshine. Be careful, honey. It’s supposed to thunderstorm soon, and I’d hate for you to be caught up in it. She told him that he was a party pooper. I am at that. I have to tell you about this woman I’m babysitting right now. She’s the kind of woman you only read about and wish you could just simply say the things that she does at a moment’s notice. He told her everything that had happened since she’d been picked up.
Nothing about her being here to find her sister-in-law, but everything else. When she laughed with him about her calling people clumps, he told her he loved her. And I love you. I’d like to meet her. Or do you think she’s only talking this way because of the pain? Mark assured her she was the real deal. Good. I hope she’s one of your brother’s mates. Not that any one of them could handle a—what did you call her? Caustic. And I was thinking the same thing. She needs to have someone strong enough to put up with her daily. Jamie agreed with him. I have to stay with her.
Not only is she here on business, but she is a little higher on the food chain than I am. I don’t know what she does for a living, nor what branch, if any, she might work with, but I’ve been assigned to make sure she has what she needs when she needs it. Gibb said she was not one to hold back when she had something to say. At least you’ll be able to have a little fun with her. Not too much, but just enough. Oh, before I forget, Bobby’s family arrived today. They’re a nice couple of people. I think they’re a little shocked by him and his sisters being around. They’d not even been told there had been a marriage or kids from it. I’m glad someone is going to be taking care of them. He said he was too. Also, I heard from the prison where Williams is.
He’s in solitary confinement and still causing trouble. The thing is, he’s bragging that it took anyone so long to find him. Some people are just nuts, I guess. We should have him locked in a cell with Sunny. I’m betting she can take care of his ass for us. I’m betting she’d come out on top even if he was armed. They talked for a little while longer, and she told him she really needed a nap. He didn’t blame her for that. Mark had been keeping her up most nights making love, and she’d gotten up early this morning and gone out to California to do a hunt for a cadaver. Then on top of all that, Molly, her oldest dog, had died in her sleep. She’d been about fourteen years old. It had broken her heart bad enough that he’d had to hold her all night.
Not that it was a hardship for him to hold her, but he had hurt for her. The other two took it hard as well. Sidekick, the youngest, hadn’t left Jamie’s side the entire night. He didn’t know what she’d found when she was called out. Rarely did she tell him anything about the bodies she was looking for. But he did know she was looking for a missing person from about six years ago. The family wanted to cash in the insurance policy that had been on hold, and the company wanted to make sure the woman was indeed dead. He’d have to find out from her what she’d found out. Stretching out his legs, he was happy when Dexter joined him with not just a few bottles of water but some dinner as well. They said the surgery would be about four hours—to him, that seemed a long time—but that recovery would be about the same time. Eating his sandwich, Dexter told him what he’d been able to find out about the owl he’d been sent to see.
“He was hurt, just like the camper said. However, I have a feeling he wasn’t hurt until the camper saw him. Poor thing looked like he’d gone from sitting up in a nice perch to being tossed around in the dryer for a load or two. I’ve sent him on to the vet, but I don’t hold out much hope of him getting better.” That sucked, too, Mark told him. “Yes, I think so too. But without proof, whoever hurt him is going to get away with it. Tomorrow morning I’m going to see if I can find his home. I don’t know if he might have a mate around, but if he and his mate are sitting on some chicks, she’s going to need some help with them. At least until another mate comes along.”
“If you need some help, ask Jamie’s dad to go with you. He’s becoming quite the outdoorsman. Last night I saw that he was looking through some of my old books and reading up on the park. He would enjoy that, I believe.” Dexter said he’d give him a call. “Grannie told me he’s doing well at work. She thinks he’s a funny man by the way he doesn’t raise his voice when he’s making a point. I like hanging around with him too.” “Yeah, and his daughter isn’t so bad either. Right?” He laughed and said he loved her. “Well, duh, you moron. Of course, you do. I have to get going. I have about fifty things to do before I can get to bed. Laundry, for one thing, and packing me something to eat on the trail tomorrow. I hate taking just a bunch of those nature bars. Yuck.”
After he left him, Mark pulled out his phone and played a few games of solitaire. He’d rather play the real thing, but the phone kept him entertained in a pinch. When the nurse came to tell him that Sunny was in recovery, he thanked her and called her boss. He had a feeling this was the man’s personal cell phone number, as he only answered it with “Hello.” He told him what he knew, which wasn’t much. “She’ll be in recovery for four hours or so, they told me. Once she’s finished there, she’ll be moved to a room.” He said he was sending guards to decorate—not to guard, but to decorate—her door. “I don’t know what she does for you. Or what you do, for that matter.
Should I be concerned?” “Not so long as you keep your head about you and don’t piss her off.” He said he had a feeling she was easily pissed off. “She is at that. However, when she’s pissy, and you don’t deserve it, she’ll apologize to you. But that doesn’t happen often. Just keep her safe while she’s there alone. I’m sending you a picture of her sister-in-law so you can know who to look for. Show it to whoever you trust. The woman is dangerous. Armed or not, she can kill without hesitation.” “Which one? I’m thinking you’re talking about the sister-in-law, but I also think that could pertain to Sunny too.” The man laughed and said that was right. “I’m going to remain in the dark until something happens, aren’t I?” “Yes. It’ll be safer for you if you are until such time as I get something back on you and your family that tells me otherwise.” Mark figured as much but didn’t say anything.
“I will tell you this one thing, and you’re to take it to your grave—Sunny isn’t a typical anything. Not woman, shifter, or someone that works for me. She’s more than just a little special, and I want you to treat her like she’s a national treasure. Don’t coddle her or try to change her mind. If she tells you something, you can consider it gospel. You’ll die if you don’t. And that is from me.” Even after talking to her boss, Mark didn’t know what was going on. But as the man had indicated, it was really none of his business unless she got hurt. He was really glad he’d not blamed him for her being hurt this time. However, now that he thought about it, he wondered what was going to happen to the clumps that had hurt her. Only time would tell, he supposed.