a free North Woods shifter short
Brianna and Nate’s short story was first featured in Edie’s May 2014 newsletter.
A Note from the Author
“When I was 17, an adolescent black bear climbed up on the deck of our cabin, interrupting my reading of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Terrified, I ran into the bathroom and locked myself inside, sitting in the tub, clutching my book. Eventually, I worked up the courage to peek past the door and call the resort’s front desk, but by the time they arrived, the bear had disappeared back into the woods. To this day, my family teases me about my ‘alleged’ bear encounter, which is probably why I have more black bear-themed paraphernalia than your average city girl.”
in the North Woods…
The back of my neck prickled as I leaned against the deck railing and stared unseeingly into the dark shadows of Minnesota’s northern woods. I’d left the lights inside the cabin turned off, hoping my eyes would adjust to the blanket of true midnight, but the minutes ticking by as blindness slipped away seemed interminably slow. Especially when I knew what waited for me, out in the darkness.
Not what—who. Long years of suspicions, of guessing and research and telling myself I was a paranoid, delusional idiot, but deep down I knew. And tonight was the night I would find out, for sure, if I was right about him.
The tingle over my skin grew more intense the longer I stood on the deck. It may have been the first week in August, but the evening air carried a distinct chill that even my fuzzy purple Northwestern sweatshirt couldn’t chase away. Or maybe my shivering had something to do with clouds parting around the stark moon hanging low in a perfect starry sky…and moonlight, bright and true, catching on a gleaming pair of eyes.
I froze, watching those eyes, knowing that wild gaze was locked on me with the unrelenting focus of the predator it belonged to. “That was fast,” I murmured into the darkness, unconcerned with raising my voice. He would hear me. “I’ve barely been here an hour.”
Nothing, not even the rustle of leaves.
Swallowing past the nervousness threatening to steal my courage, I crossed my arms over my chest. A defensive stance—but then, I needed all my defenses against him. “I came alone. It was a long drive, all on my own.” Six hours, as a matter of fact, but worth the aching back and stiff shoulders to be in my family’s small cabin off Lake Superior all by myself. It was the first time I’d made the journey without Mom and Dad and Jenny, and while it felt odd to be here in our annual vacation spot without them, I’d had my reasons for keeping this trip exclusive. “I listened to J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy on audiobook the entire way. You know I couldn’t come here without a little Rowling to keep me company.” My jaw firmed as the confession slipped out.
But it was the truth—our truth. Silly, as most elements of the early stages of falling in love often are, but I couldn’t think of Harry Potter without thinking of the owner of those glowing, unblinking eyes. Ten years ago, I’d been lounging on this very deck, a hardback copy of The Half-Blood Prince clutched greedily between my hands, when we had first met.
I say “met,” but “terrified me by appearing out of nowhere and scaling the deck rails to join me in the sun” would be more accurate. Our meeting was memorable, at the very least.
Memorable, and impossible. I cleared my throat, forcing my mind from the sentimental and back into the reality of the present. “Do you know why I drove all the way up from St. Paul by myself?”
That nothingness was starting to anger me. Dropping my arms, I gripped the railing and let the rough wood grain dig into my palms. “I came here for you. To tell you that this is it. This is the last time.”
A growl, low and decidedly displeased, emanated from the tree line.
Finally, a reaction. My lungs seized. This meant…it meant— “I’ve got a life in the Cities now. I just passed my one-year anniversary at the law firm. I have this great apartment in one of the older historic neighborhoods, and I’m thinking about getting a dog. Or a cat.” I shrugged. “Something furry and cuddly, you know?”
No growl this time, but I heard him shift his weight, twigs cracking underfoot.
“But every time I think about settling deeper into that life,” I continued, voice growing hoarse with the emotion I fought to keep in check, “you pop into my head. I get sucked into these thought loops until I spiral, wondering and worrying and just…just wishing I knew.” My knuckles whitened as my grip on the rail turned bloodless. “So I’m here to let you know that I’m done. I’m done waiting for you to decide if you trust me enough to give me your secrets, because God knows I’ve already given you all of mine.”
Silence. When I needed him most to speak, he gave me silence.
I couldn’t take it. My head fell forward as a shuddering sigh escaped, heavily laced with encroaching tears. I squeezed my eyes shut as the cherished mental images I’d collected over the past decade flashed across my vision at lightning speed.
A tall, lanky teenager dressed in the khaki slacks and blue polo shirt of the lodge’s dining waitstaff, setting an orange juice on the table in front of me and staring at me with intense eyes the color of pure black coffee.
That same boy in jeans and a white tee hauling kayaks from the lakeshore, his dark-honey skin stretched taut over sleek biceps I had wanted to stroke more than anything in the world.
A year later, leading lodge guests on an easy mountain hike and catching my gaze where I walked behind my little sister, and the smile that had curved his lips when I blushed under his scrutiny.
Another year, or perhaps two, and finding ourselves alone in the steaming swimming pool long after the sun had set. He’d let me touch him, strong fingers curling around my wrist to draw my hand to his bare chest. His flesh had been warmer than the water, his torso packed with lean muscle. It had been the most exciting experience I’d ever had.
Until the next year, when I was finally old enough to buy my own booze, and he’d walked into the townie bar which I’d decided to frequent that summer. Swagger in every step as he had made his way straight from the door to where I perched on a stool nursing a bottle of Bud Light, before he’d halted. His arms had bracketed me, trapping me between the bar and his long body, but damn, there had been no place I’d rather be.
That was the night he’d kissed me.
My lips burned even now with the potent memory of our first kiss, but my soul was cold with the wash of remembrances that followed. I hadn’t lied when I said I’d given him everything—he wasn’t just my first love, but my first lover, as well. Every secret thought and dream and fear, they had all spilled from my lips to his ears. I’d been distraught to leave him at the end of our vacation.
When the next summer had finally rolled around, I was a nervous wreck of thwarted hormones and brilliant emotion, and I hadn’t been able to hold back when I’d spotted him strolling down the shoulder of the road. After demanding my father pull over to let me out of the back seat of our SUV and promising I’d return to the cabin in short order, I had run headlong toward the boy I loved—except he was no longer a boy, but a man. And that man had caught me with open arms, kissing me with a frantic passion I hadn’t understood.
Hell, I still didn’t understand.
A few more lovely years, a few more sensual summers, until the last one. Last year, Jenny had brought her fiancé Jason with us…along with Jason’s aggressively single cousin, Paul, who had touched me at every opportunity. An arm around my shoulders on a hike, a hand on my waist as we walked to dinner at the lodge, and once, after a few too many drinks at the townie bar, an unwelcome grope of my ass and his tongue in my ear, sloppy and gross.
Meanwhile, the man I wanted all over me had spent the short weeks we were in the North Woods glowering at me from a distance. As though I had betrayed him by not punching Paul in the face and then flinging myself prostrate at his work-booted feet.
He never once approached me last summer. He broke my heart.
Jenny and Jason had gotten married only last month, at the beautiful basilica in Minneapolis, and it had marked the end of an era. No more family vacations—though I’d made Jenny promise that if there were to be any more vacations to never again invite Paul—and I’d thought I was okay with the idea. Work and Jenny’s wedding had kept me busier than I’d ever anticipated, so busy that I completely lost track of time…until the summer had slipped by and I realized I wasn’t going to see him if I didn’t do something about it.
So here I was. Doing something about it. “I missed you last year. I missed you all winter. I miss you,” I whispered. “But I’ll find a way to stop missing you unless you do something about it. Right now. Last chance.”
Then I heard it. Rough breathing, the occasional sub-vocal growl, and I lifted my head in time to see a large bear lumber out of the trees and into the moonlight.
Oxygen was no longer an option. Neither was movement. Hope and fear merged in my chest as the bear approached me at the deck rail before lurching up onto its hind legs. One staggering step, then another, its massive claw-tipped paws coming to rest next to my hands on the railing. At an easy seven feet tall, it had no trouble leaning in and gently bumping my nose with its cold snout, affection and reprimand in one.
Tears tracked over my cheeks as relief swamped me. Because intermingled with those memories of the beautiful boy—and the gorgeous man he’d become—were the memories of the playful black bear who had climbed over this very deck railing while I was reading Harry Potter and scared me half to death. That same black bear had proceeded to seek me out when I wandered alone through the woods or along the lake’s winding shoreline. Every year, the bear found me, bigger than the year before…and more piercingly intelligent. Or so it seemed.
It had never made any predatory moves toward me, never charged me or attempted to maul. In fact, it had sat acquiescent when I’d eventually worked up the courage to touch the top of its head. My fingertips had sifted through coarse fur, and I would have sworn it purred, leaning into my palm until I was laughing at the wonder of the improbable situation.
Half of the joy I’d found in my summers here was tangled up with one crazy black bear who refused to leave me alone but only found me when I was, indeed, alone. I had been unable to ever think of the bear as a pet, though; the awareness in its eyes had made me start believing in the unbelievable.
And so I found myself standing here, nose-to-nose with a forest beast and not worried in the slightest that I might find myself bitten. “Does this mean you’re ready to trust me, Nate?”
It was as though he drew the darkness around himself as he leaned away from the rail, a thick cloak made of starless midnight skies and dangerous smoky shadows. The bear disappeared in a silent swirl of depthless black, and in the animal’s place stood a man, tall and muscled and deliciously naked.
And looking as though he wanted to strangle me. “God damn it, Brianna. Why did you make me do that?” He vaulted smoothly onto the deck beside me, expression forbidding as he inched closer, forcing me to tilt my head back to maintain eye contact. “And why the hell aren’t you running away screaming right now?”
As my younger self had in the swimming pool, I laid a hand on his chest, fingers automatically flexing against the evidence of barely contained male strength. Raw power surged beneath his rich-hued skin and zinged into my body, lighting me up like a firecracker in July. “Because you’re mine. I’d never run screaming from you.”
Though he sucked in a harsh breath at my declaration, he curled a strand of my hair around two of his fingertips, tugging lightly. “You did at first.”
I pushed against his chest, euphoria making me giddy, teasing, flirtatious. “Which was a normal reaction, by the way. Bears aren’t supposed to just randomly show up on people’s decks.”
“City girl.” But the words were fond, his gaze warming with each passing second. “I remember how you dashed into the cabin, slammed the sliding glass door in my face, and hid in the bathroom for ten minutes.”
“And then I remembered I’d left Harry Potter out on the deck.”
Nate chuckled as he tightened his grip on my hair, trapping more of it in his fist. “You braved the scary black bear for a kids’ book about wizards and magic. Little did you know….” Leaning down, he pressed his forehead to mine, a shuddering sigh escaping him when I shivered.
All of his body touched all of mine, and it was as though my jeans and sweatshirt didn’t exist at all. What did skin-to-skin matter when you could be soul-to-soul? Never again would I let him deny us this intimacy. “I know now.”
“Bri.” A warning.
“Nate.” A taunt. But I relented and brought my other hand up to curve around the side of his strong neck. My thumb stroked over the taut tendon connecting throat to collarbone. “I didn’t begin to put two and two together until after we first slept together.”
His swallow shifted my fingertips. “Oh?”
I nodded, allowing our noses to brush—both human this time—and glad that he couldn’t see my blush in the darkness. “Suddenly, the bear was everywhere…except when the boy was around.” Not only that, the bear had been excessively protective, and a dash proprietary, too. Herding me where he wanted me to go, nudging me to sit leaning against a tree so he could take a nap with his big bear head resting on my lap, all while I petted him into contented slumber. Then had come the night when I’d snuck from the cabin to meet Nate for a tryst—and he’d led me to the exact same tree in the forest, seducing me out of my shorts before he took me with my back to the trunk. “I thought I was crazy.”
He nuzzled me, quiet pride in his voice as he said, “Most folks would think you are.”
I understood why he was proud of me. After all, I’d accepted the truth of who and what he was, long before I’d witnessed tonight’s irrefutable proof. “You’re magic.”
He tsked and began drawing me away from the rail. “And yet I never received my letter from Hogwarts.” Sliding open the screen door, he tipped his head toward the cabin’s lightless interior. “Inside, Bri.” It wasn’t a request.
I bit my lip, silently preceding him into the cabin. The door closed, and then he was behind me, arms encircling to pull me back against his chest. His chin rasped over the top of my ear, sparking a full-body tingle that turned my limbs to butter, my bones to ash. I melted into him. “You are mine, aren’t you, Nate?”
It shouldn’t have been possible—he shouldn’t have been possible, and yet he was. And if I hadn’t loved him, so deep and so true for so many years, I wouldn’t have believed the words with which I’d dared him to reveal himself. I wouldn’t have trusted my eyes when he shifted from an overlarge black bear into a towering human male. In fact, the whole situation might have caused my mind to break—as Nate must have feared it would, all this time.
“I’m yours. I’ve belonged to you since the day I first caught your scent. It wasn’t random chance that I chose this cabin’s deck railing to climb.” His arms tightened around me, and I felt the press of his arousal at the base of my spine. “God, baby, I never thought I’d get to hold you again.” A tremor wracked his strong body as he nuzzled my hair, my throat.
Anger sparked, muted by the joy I found just by being in his arms. “Last summer…I sought you out, but you avoided me. Every single time.” My breath hitched as I fought the hurt emotion welling within. “I m-missed you.”
Gripping my shoulders, he turned me around. His face as he stared down at me was shadowed, stern. And utterly wrecked. “I’m sorry, Bri. I’m so sorry. I wish I could tell you that I had a good reason, but—” He broke off, shaking his head even as his long fingers dug into my shoulders. “I would’ve killed him.”
My eyes went wide. “Killed who?”
“The guy. The guy with his hands all over you.”
A fierce growl rumbled in his chest. “Paul,” he spat, with such venom that I found myself fighting a smile. But I immediately sobered at his next words. “I didn’t have control. My bear wanted out, was just…just clawing at my skin to rip him apart, and I would have.” Nate gave me a gentle shake. “I would have shifted right there in public and destroyed him, if I’d gotten near enough to smell him on your skin. So I had to stay away.”
“That sounds like a good reason to me.” My palms settled on his bare chest, fingertips reflexively testing the hard muscle beneath. “He’s no one, you know. My brother-in-law’s cousin. He’s nothing to me, but you…you’re everything.” Unable to handle any more distance between us, I rose onto my toes and fitted my lips to his.
With a groan, he lifted me against him, urging my arms to loop around his neck as his mouth opened over mine. His taste, heartbreakingly familiar and dearly missed, overwhelmed my senses with each stroke of his tongue, each scrape of his teeth. Within seconds, I was panting, breathless and needy, and the sweep of his hands over my body didn’t nothing but ratchet that need higher.
Yanking at the hem of my sweatshirt, he drew it over my head, quickly discarding it and the camisole underneath onto the cabin floor. My jeans were next, along with my panties, and then I was as naked as he was, skin burning hot enough to catch fire with every touch of his callused fingers. Finally, he cupped my face in those large, capable hands, and laid his forehead gently to mine. “How much time do we have?”
“Together. How much time do I have with you before you—” His tormented voice broke lower, raspier. “Before you leave again?”
But I shook my head and placed my own palms against his cheeks. “I’m not leaving.” A slight jolt shook his frame, and I finally permitted myself to smile, though my blood continued to thrum hot and wild through my veins. Because it had been so long, so very long. “I had a plan, you see, for if you admitted the truth. The Department of Natural Resources is hiring in-house legal counsel, based out of Duluth.” I shrugged. “It’s a better commute than from here to St. Paul. And I figured…I figured you probably couldn’t come to me, or you would have already.” Though that was only a guess. A hope.
“It’s not safe for me to leave the North Woods. Not for any length of time. You…you understand?”
Relieved to learn I hadn’t been wrong about him, about us, I nodded, capturing his lips for another kiss—this one a promise. This one an I love you. Because of course I understood.
He broke the kiss with a soft groan that had every part of me clenching in sudden need. “I had never hated what I was, until it kept me from chasing you.” His thumbs swept over my cheekbones in a sweet, soothing caress as he met my gaze. “I could use animal terms and call you my mate, but ‘mate’ barely covers it. Brianna, baby, you’re my heart.”
His heart. “And you’re mine.” After that, there was no longer a need for words.
2014, 2016 © by Edie Harris