“Did you know this place used to be a brothel?”
Kora Meredith suppressed an eye roll as she met the repairman at the front door of her bookstore. He handed her a business card and immediately turned his attention to the room while she propped the door open with a doorstop to allow in the fresh, autumn breeze. Hands on his hips, he made a slow circle, a pleased smile on his thin lips as if he’d won a prize at being allowed inside.
“I always wanted to see the inside of Estes Park’s most famous historical sex shop.”
“O-kay.” Kora did a double-take and crossed the large room to the counter. “The printer’s over here.”
She motioned to the outdated beast of a printer, but Earl, according to the embroidered patch on his We Know Electronics striped work shirt, started wandering the space with an awed expression. “You ever wonder what it looked like in here, you know, back then.”
He gave a scandalous upward bump of his eyebrows and moved around the mostly empty room as if he could imagine it.
“Not really. So, the printer—”
“Did you know, after it’s brothel days came to an end, this place was an orphanage. Yep. And then a religious cult took it over. I hear there’s a secret room where they used to perform animal sacrifices.”
Pulling a patient breath through her nose, Kora moved behind the counter, leaned her forearms on it and clasped her hands together. She’d been informed this place came with a lot of history when she’d purchased it four months ago. It was on the town roster of historic buildings, and though it had been remodeled many times since it’s brothel days, apparently the stain of its original purpose could never be fully removed. She’d only been informed of its past about twenty times now.
There were two hallways that held several rooms on the main floor, once used as bedrooms she supposed, which had been converted into office spaces by the previous owner. There was an upstairs loft she was in the process of converting into her main office. One of the contractors had excitedly informed her that a man had been hanged over the rail in the nineteen thirties when the place was a super-secret speakeasy. Everyone she’d met so far seemed to have a story about this place.
No way was she telling repairman Earl that the secret room was real.
“Thankfully, my new bookstore will most definitely not be sacrificing animals.”
She pointed to the printer. With a sheepish grin, he slid behind the counter and stared at it.
“This model is old as hell.” He winced and made an apologetic sound. “I mean, this model is old as heck.”
“I figured, considering this place has been locked up tight for years.”
Earl nodded. “An accounting firm was the last business in here. Old man Lacy owned it. Dropped dead at his desk right over there in the corner. Well, so the story goes.”
Jesus. Kora hugged herself. She hadn’t been told about that.
“Yeah, it was pretty awful. He died on a Friday while his wife was away, and no one found him until Monday morning. I hear the smell was pretty bad in here for about a—"
“So, anyway the printer stopped printing the other day and won’t do a thing. Just see what you can do. If it’s not fixable, I’ll have to replace it.”
She had the budget for new office equipment. The budget was the least of her worries. She hoped to open before the Christmas holiday shopping season began and there was a hell of a lot to do before then.
There were several deliveries being made today. Referencing the schedule on her clipboard, Kora checked off ‘printer repair and talk about a security system’ and noted bookshelves were next on the list. A rep from the local construction company she’d hired to install the shelves was supposed to stop by, as well as an electrician, and someone from the Board of Health to see about getting a license to install a coffee bar.
Earl began fiddling with the printer.
“It’s a shame this place has sat empty so long. After the cult sold it, I think it was turned into a surgery center and that guy—Dr. Holz—yeah, he’s something of an Estes Park legend and not in a good way. Used to kill off perfectly healthy patients and pass it off as natural causes, then sell their bodies to medical schools. He made enough dead body money to build the fancy Red Rock Mansion on the edge of town.”
Her eyebrows arched. Dead body money? She hadn’t known about that, either.
“I’m beginning to think I need to flood this place with Holy water.”
Earl pulled the front from the printer and looked thoughtfully into the air. “After that… hmmm, well, I’m not sure what was in here.”
“It was a morgue.”
Kora looked up at the new voice and immediately straightened. Damn it, she shouldn’t have left the door open. The jingle of the bell above would have warned her that an honest to goodness Viking was coming in. The newcomer was tall, broad, golden haired as the sunny day and wore an easy, confident expression as if he fully owned his presence in this world.
Larger than life, she thought. His commanding presence unnerved her, intrigued her. Her body was practically humming.
Earl looked over his shoulder, then made a full turn to face the man. “Hey, hey, look who it is! Desi Mitchell is home. Welcome back, son.”
“You doing some work for Ms. Meredith, too?”
Desi averted his gaze from the repairman and landed on Kora. Cold, electric shocks raced down her spine. She had the simultaneous urge to move closer and back away. “No. Just dropping off some paperwork from Dax.”
Kora stiffened as he approached with a manila folder in one hand. Her heart raced, her chest aching from the sudden uptick in her pulse.
She nodded, her mouth too dry and answer.
He handed her the folder. “I’m dropping this off from Mitchell Construction. I understand my brother Dax is doing some work for you?”
“Mmm-hmmm,” she nodded again and cleared her throat. “Yes, that’s right.”
He leaned against the counter she’d had installed last week and glanced around, then circled one strong finger in the air. “You’re really going to turn an old brothel into a kid’s bookstore?”
His voice was totally neutral, but she wondered if he was being judge-y. “Do you have some personal moral complications with that, Mr. Mitchell?”
He arched a brow, eyes twinkling good naturedly. “Moral complications? No, ma’am. I never struggle with my moral compass. Do you?”
She huffed an amused laugh. “I’m the one turning a brothel into a children’s bookstore, so what do you think?”
His hair had a military edge. Neat, short, perfectly trimmed. It made a stark contrast to the amount of stubble on his chin. His beard had a tint of strawberry blonde, where his hair was fractured shades of light blonde. Blue eyes gently assessed her. There was a wicked amount of intensity in his gaze. Fighting the urge to step back from him, even though a counter stood between them, she forced herself to relax.
Not interested. Not interested. Not interested.
She’d just dumped a worthless man and was not interested in trying her luck again.
“Good for you,” Desi said sincerely. “Just think of what you can do with the place over Halloween. A building with a creepy past, kids, costumes and a shit ton of candy.”
“Maybe some spiked punch for the grownups?” Earl pipped up hopefully. “And a grand tour of the secret room?”
Kora smiled. “I’m sure I can work something out. Besides, this isn’t just a bookstore for children. They’ll just have the largest section.” She didn’t acknowledge his comment about the secret room.
The possibilities for her bookstore excited her, as it always did when she thought about this new life she was creating. She had a new literary agent, was writing children’s books under a shiny new pen name. The psychological thrillers she wrote under her other pen-name were taking an indefinite back seat to fantastical stories about warrior princess, fairies, and wizards.
Oh, it felt good to be starting fresh.
Now, if only the Viking would leave so she could feel centered and focused again. She’d come to Estes Park for many reasons, and finding a man wasn’t one of them.
Desi lightly slapped a hand on the counter and pointed amicably at Earl. “Nice to see you. Good to meet you, Ms. Meredith and good luck with the bookstore.”
Earl put his hands on his hips. “You coming to the gala? Dance starts at eight.”
Kora’s curiosity piqued.
“You know Mitchell Construction wouldn’t miss it. My dad never misses an opportunity to get the business in front of the public. I’ll see you then.”
“Hey, before you go, Des.” Earl wagged a hand between them. “Ms. Meredith, weren’t you looking for a security system for the store?”
She’d inquired with We Know Electronics when she’d called to arrange for a repairman to come out. They said he could go over the options.
“Yes. I thought that was the other reason you’re here today.”
Earl shrugged one shoulder, then peered down at the printer as if he was totally confused. “Right, but I figure you might want an actual security expert. Desi here designed systems for the U.S. military. He’s got a shop on this block between you and the bakery, and he’s got all the high-end stuff businesses are after these days.”
Her pulse picked up, her body hyper aware of his presence. She’d been a bit relieved when she thought he was leaving, like her lungs were looking forward to taking a full breath again. He turned those blue eyes on her, and her chest squeezed harder.
This was a hell of a reaction she was having.
She dismissed him with a professional smile. “Maybe you could come back another day and we can talk about it. I’ve got deliveries coming any minute.”
His expression said he knew full well that she was brushing him off. “Yeah, anytime.” Fishing a card out of his back pocket, he handed it to her, then gave the place a sweeping observation.
“So, is the rumor about the secret room true?”
His profile was beautifully impressive, strong and masculine. Like a character she’d create. How would she describe him if he was a hero in one of her thrillers? Reincarnated Viking god about summed it up. He had to be at least six foot five. Her head would barely touch the center of his chest. The family resemblance to his brother Dax, who’d been here taking measurements last week, was strong. Both men were cut from the same gorgeous cloth.
Was it something about bear shifters in particular? Or were the genetics in this family line just extra sexy?
Kora realized he’d asked her a question.
He was looking at her again with quiet assessment. Alarm flicked in her chest at a hint of recognition in his gaze. Did he know who she was or was she just being panicky? She’d been in town for a few months now and no one had outright recognized her and she hoped it would stay that way. What had happened to her was old news and had only played nationally for a few days. Her name was different now. Her hair color black, not brown, though that had been by choice and not necessity. The past was the past, but damn, it was hard to shake. She’d tried so hard to ensure none of it followed her here.
“The existence of the secret room will remain a mystery, I’m afraid.”
Kora pulled back from the counter and his eyes followed her. One corner of his lips turned up.
Her fingers itched to grab a pen and make some notes about his profile. Would he be a hero or a villain? Both?
A thought popped into her head, unwelcome, but insistent. “What did you do in the military again?”
Earl swore quietly behind her as he tapped buttons on the printer.
“Security. I worked for a while after my enlistment ended, creating a security system for a top-secret military project which will remain as mysterious as your secret room.”
A smile reached her eyes. “Would that include a working knowledge of weapons, hand-to-hand combat, that sort of thing?”
His expression went from playful to full-on serious. “Depends on why you’re asking.”
“Right.” Kora spread her hands. “I was just curious if you did any consulting work, that’s all. I could use some references for a project I’m working on.”
The elves in her book were about to have an epic battle scene but the dynamics of hand-to-hand combat while wielding heavy metal weapons and wearing armor escaped her.
He lifted his chin. “So, the quiet bookseller is more than just a quiet bookseller. What kind of project?”
“That’s more of a one-on-one discussion after an NDA has been signed.”
Her cheeks heated. She needed to stop talking before she gave too much away. Though she’d switched genres from writing thrillers to young adult fantasy, a little bit of thriller always seemed to seep into her new work. So much for leaving that part of her life behind her. If she kept writing fight scenes, death matches, and digging into the psyche of the twisted antagonists in her new work, she was going to give herself away.
The assessment was back in his eyes, deeper this time. And so much more serious.
“I’ll let you reach out to me if that’s something you want to pursue.”
She immediately relaxed. He’d just put the ball in her corner as if he’d known she needed that control.
Earl stood back and assessed his work, or lack thereof. Desi moved to the printer, shut the top and closed the side.
“We had one of these on base that never printed like it was supposed to.”
“Right,” Kora breathed. “It just freezes up and nothing works.”
He made a fist and brought it down on top of the control panel. Once. Twice. The plastic creaked, the entire unit trembling from the impact. Earl gasped. Kora’s mouth dropped open.
The lights on the printer console suddenly lit up. Gears wound up and the printer began to spit out the papers she’d been printing two days ago when it choked.
Desi patted the printer like it was the top of a dog’s head and shot Kora a look over his shoulder with a playful grin. “I’ll bill you.”
He walked out, taking his huge presence with him. The air seemed smaller somehow after he was gone. His absence did nothing to slow her pulse.
Kora watched him out the front windows until he disappeared down the street and had the very distinct feeling that her life was about to change.
Kora rubbed a hand over her tired eyes.
Three hours of sleep wasn’t cutting it.
Crossing her arms on the counter, she leaned her head on them and observed the store. The bookshelves had been delivered, assembled, and affixed to the walls two days ago. New overhead lighting had gone up yesterday. The original oak wood floors had been buffed, polished, and resealed. She’d had drywall removed to expose the original brick interior when she first purchased the building. It looked amazing with the updates she’d done so far. A remarkable industrial blend of old and new. By the time she was done, the bookstore would be architecturally stunning, cozy, and a place people wanted to come back to. It was still sparce and messy, but she already had a hard time leaving.
It was just so exciting to see it all coming together. There was so much to do. Between the store and working, or rather, not working, on her thriller novel, she found it hard to sleep.
Turning to the sideboard she’d hauled in to hold a mini coffee station, she started a pot of strong, dark coffee. She watched it percolate for a few minutes, oddly soothed by the dripping sound. She really should close up shop and go home for a nap. There were no deliveries coming today or services scheduled, and it was almost supper time. It was the perfect time to play hooky before things got busy in the next few days with shipments of books scheduled to arrive.
She’d created a makeshift workstation with an old table she’d found in the loft, an ancient metal file cabinet from another room, and a new desktop and laptop along with office accessories. She’d eventually dump money into beautiful, matching office furniture but for now, this would do. The book cataloging software on her computer was as complicated as a foreign language crossword puzzle. Resigning to sit for a while and continue learning the program, she filled a mug with steaming coffee, kicked back in the ancient office chair and wiggled the mouse to wake up the desktop.
She was just about to toss her feet on the desk when a sound caught her attention. Her hearing perked up. The old building was prone to creaking and groaning, especially when the wind was up like it was today. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled but the sound didn’t happen again. Kora rolled her eyes at herself. She’d been working inside this building for weeks and hadn’t been spooked one single time. Considering the building’s dark past, it was surprising she’d tolerated being inside, alone. It helped that she wasn’t a superstitious person. No, she’d been faced with too much real-life spooky stuff to know the living could be more terrifying than ghosts.
Settling back in her chair, she lifted a foot onto the desk when a loud bang rent through the room. Coffee spilled over the side of the mug, burning her thigh as she lurched forward. With a curse, she looked toward the front of the store where the sound had come from. The door opened and a man stepped inside, the screen door catching in the wind and driving back against the frame. He hurried to grab the handle and gently closed it until it clicked on the latch. Damn it. She thought she’d locked the door.
The man was tall, thin, and clad in khakis and a blue polo shirt with the buttons done up beneath his chin. His brown hair was carefully styled and perfectly in place. Shoes, gleaming as if they’d just been polished. He had a dark leather satchel over one shoulder… and a dozen black roses in his hand.
“Good afternoon. Ms. Meredith?”
She lifted her chin and eyed him warily as she stood. What the hell was with those flowers?
“Can I help you?”
He advanced with one hand out. “Jonathon Baker. I’m the president of the Estes Park Small Business Association. We’ve spoken on the phone.”
She remembered. She’d called early in the process of purchasing this building to ask about permits and had been met with a passive-aggressive response. Perhaps she’d caught him on an off day that time, because he was all smiles right now.
“How can I help you?”
He let out an impressed breath as he glanced around. “Wow, this place is really coming along.”
There was a touch of envy in his tone. Curious, Kora moved to the end of the counter and crossed her arms.
“Have you been in the building before?” It seemed every local she’d met so far knew of the place but had never been inside. Despite rampant curiosity, people seemed to steer clear unless they’d had a cut and dried reason to come in. She hoped that theme didn’t continue once the bookstore was open.
“Oh, yes. Many times.”
She wondered if he remembered the fate of the poor accountant here before her. “So, you knew the accountant?”
His brow fell as he snapped her a look. Then he smiled again. “The accountant. Yes. I must admit that I was a bit surprised when you said you were planning a bookstore here.”
The pleasantness in his expression began to crumble. “Considering the history of this place. Why, it could be on par with the Stanley Hotel as far as macabre history goes. Perhaps you can do haunted bookstore tours.”
He thrust the flowers at her. “I thought these were fitting.”
She hesitated before accepting the bouquet, then set them on the counter. A tickle of unease bloomed inside her belly. He needed to leave. Instead, he began to wander through the bookcases. She lost sight of him a few times, but then he reemerged, hands in his pockets. He kept looking at the ceiling, as if the newly polished tin tiles were going to reveal a hidden message.
“Have you had any strange experiences since you’ve been here, Ms. Meredith? Or, may I call you Kora?” His eyes narrowed. “That is your name, isn’t it? Kora?”
He extended the ‘r’ in her name, as if playing with the sound on his tongue. This jack wipe was weirding her out.
“If you’ll excuse me Mr. Baker, I was just about to get ready for an appointment.”
Moving to the counter, he frowned with shoulders slightly hunched and fingers splayed.
“I have a proposition for you.”
The door opened again, making them both spin.
Desi Mitchell sauntered in. He paused and immediately zeroed in on Baker. Kora’s heart fluttered as a mix of emotions loped through her, mainly relief.
“Mr. Mitchell is my next appointment. We’ll have to do this some other time, Mr. Baker.”
“Please, call me Jonathon.” He swept Desi with an unabashed gaze, then gave her a wan smile. “Welcome to the neighborhood and have a nice day.”
He seemed to make a point of walking past Desi much closer than was necessary on his way out. Desi crossed his arms and watched the man go.
Kora swallowed and tried to process the interaction. She pointed a lazy finger in the direction Baker had gone.
“Do you know him?”
Desi shook his head.
“His name is Jonathon Baker and he's weird as fuck. Thank you for walking in when you did.”
He moved purposely to the counter and did a double take at the bouquet. “I’m not even sure what to say to this.”
“Yeah, me, either.”
Something moved on the petal of one of the roses. A small white insect squirmed from inside the rose head, it’s body stark in contrast to the flower. Kora wrinkled her nose and pulled back. “Is that a magot?”
Desi curled a lip. “What did you do to that guy?”
She laughed humorlessly. “Nothing. I literally just met him.”
“He’s definitely not invited to the Halloween party.”
Kora laughed, caught herself and rubbed a hand over her lips. Pulling herself together, she made a half turn to grab her coffee. “What brings you in?”
“I was just walking by and had the weirdest feeling there was a creepy asshole in here giving you magot flowers, so I figured I’d see if I could be your pretend next appointment.”
She paused the mug halfway to her lips. “Seriously?”
He laughed. “No. My brother is tied up at home with twin newborns and has been a little short on time. He wanted me to see if you’d filled out the contract forms for the construction project?”
“Oh, right.” She took a drink and gestured to the coffee pot. “Would you like a cup?”
He seemed to consider for a moment, then declined. Kora paused. Why had she just offered him coffee? The other day, all her senses went haywire when he’d walked in, but now, those tingly misgivings were curiously behaving themselves.
“I need to look at the blueprint more closely and imagine it all in my head before I sign. I’ll call him and see if I can have a few more days.”
Desi pursed his lips and cocked his head. “It’s for the secret room, isn’t it?”
She arched a brow and took another sip. “What secret room?”
He frowned and spread his hands. “Fine, fine. Be that way. But did you know that during prohibition, the mob hid moonshine, wine, gin, and ale in the secret room, and almost fifty years later, the Lacy’s found a stash of cocaine in the walls of not only this building, but four other buildings on this street? Seems the secret room had a tunnel system that ran through the basements of all four buildings.”
“Dax’s wife Allie owns Sticky Sweet Bakery on the end of this block. The previous owners had a drug bust after an employee found cocaine in the basement and called it in. It was traced back to the Mob Cocaine Incident of 1934.”
Jesus, now she was going to have to look for a tunnel. Kora took another sip, covertly checking him out over the rim of her mug. The black and white flannel he wore was basically melted to his arms, showing off massive biceps that really should be ripping through the fabric. Worn jeans, work boots. His hair gleaming in her pretty new overhead lights. Could he be any more attractive? Christ.
“The history of this place keeps getting better and better. Anyway, thanks for stopping by. I’ll text Dax about the papers.”
“Okay. Stay away from creeps, now.”
“Maybe you’d want to work as my bookstore bouncer?”
The words left her mouth before she fully thought them through. No flirting. No pretense of flirting. Just, no, Kora! This is how the trouble starts.
“I’ll think about it. Maybe we could have dinner and you can give me the full job description.”
Dinner. Now who was flirting?
The thing is, she wanted to.
“I really should get some work done at home.” Or, take that nap. “But, you know, we could talk about the security system.” It wouldn’t be a date if they talked business. There was nothing cozy and intimate about doorbell cameras and window sensors.
Desi seemed to consider this, then checked the time on his cellphone. “I’ll meet you at Donatelle’s Pub in twenty? It’s five blocks down on the right.”
Her stomach growled. “Sure.”
“Sounds good.” He moved to the front door and gave her a serious look over his shoulder. “Lock this door behind me.”
She hurried behind him to do just that. No more creeps, flowers, mobsters… or hot bear shifter security experts.
“You have a date? God, I’m jealous as hell.”
Desi snickered at his brother’s desperate voice. The sound of dual wailing pierced his ears through the phone in surround sound.
“Allie’s in the shower and I’d give anything—like, my right nut and possibly my left, to trade places with her right now.”
“It’s not a date.”
“Yeah? Then what is it?”
Desi thought about that for a moment. He’d asked the bookseller to dinner without really thinking about it. He’d felt called to do it, so he had. Just like something had grabbed him by the neck and pulled him into the store earlier today.
“I don’t know. It’s complicated.”
Dax scoffed. “You don’t know enough about her for it to be complicated.”
Right. He thought about mentioning the strange pull he felt toward the woman but dismissed it. Dax was up to his ears in baby vomit. This wasn’t the time to talk about it.
His brother made some soothing sounds, his voice slightly broken as if he were bouncing the babies. “Speaking of complicated, didn’t you just go out with Jennifer last week?”
“It was just drinks and catching up. That’s all.”
“Drinks with your ex is never just drinks dumbass.”
A low groan bubbled from Dax’s throat. He’d been away from home over six years, with only a short visit or two to break up the time. His longest stretch of four years in one block had been hard, and it had been the fatal blow to his relationship with Jennifer Stole. Not that they’d been hot and heavy to begin with. They’d satisfied a mutual itch and when it came to testing the relationship’s resiliency, they’d both failed. She’d moved on to someone else and he’d immersed himself in his work.
Being home and in civilian life again was a bit of a struggle, but it was refreshing. Unlike many of his friends who got out and regretted it, Desi was content with his decision to end his military career. He wanted a family, children, and he wanted to be present for them. The desire to start his civilian life was so strong that he’d been looking at property and house plans and thinking about the type of home a family might need.
He’d gone out with the newly single Jennifer to see if the spark was still there. It wasn’t.
It wasn’t unusual for shifter males to get the urge to mate. Sometimes it became all-consuming until they found the right woman. For others, the urge came and went. Desi wasn’t feeling desperate, but the desire was definitely there.
A woman to warm his bed, to help him build a home. Her belly swollen with his cubs. Even the ruckus his nephews were making right now pulled at him. He wanted a lifemate, a partner. A lover.
“Anyway, I called to tell you the bookstore lady hasn’t signed anything yet. She’s going to be texting you.”
“Her name is Kora. Kora Meredith. I'd hope you know that considering you asked her to dinner."
“Yeah. I know.”
But thinking of her by name made it feel different. She was a little stand-offish. She’d reacted to him with a healthy dose of wariness. Not the usual reaction he got from women. Her heart-shaped face appeared in his mind’s eye.
He got the feeling she came from money, considering the amount she was dumping into the bookstore. That, and her jeans and tee shirt had been designer labels. He only knew that because it was the same type of outfit tourists liked to wear around here when they wanted to flash their wealth without being overly obvious. But Kora’s teeshirt had been wrinkled and had a small coffee stain at the neckline. Her jeans were well-worn with a wear mark nearly busting across the right knee. Her leather loafers were scuffed.
Money or not, she wasn’t afraid to get dirty. Her presence snagged him the most, though. Her big brown eyes were cautious. Her countenance was soft. Unassuming. Practical. She wasn’t afraid to say what she thought and redirect things that made her uncomfortable.
There were two very different women at play inside Kora Meredith.
Somehow, he’d known she was upset by the visitor who’d brought her the fucking black roses before he’d even known what had occurred. Just thinking about it made him angry. He was going to have to stop by and pay Jonathon Baker a visit.
Something inside his head told him he had to walk into her store at exactly the moment he’d chosen to. He had, and the tension inside the room had snapped with her relief at seeing him.
Goosebumps rose on his forearms. What would have happened if he’d ignored that little voice and kept on walking after leaving Allie’s bakery? He could have turned left instead of right.
But he hadn’t.
“Let me ask you a question,” Desi prompted.
“Shoot.” Dax whispered low. The babies had quieted.
“When you first met Allie, did you somehow just know or feel things for her that you shouldn’t know or feel?”
“You’re a goddamned security expert for the United States military and this is the best description you can give me?”
Desi huffed a laugh. “Come on, man.”
“Yes, I know what you mean, and yes. It was like alarm bells going off in my head if I thought she was in trouble. Or my chest would ache if I thought she was sad. Like I could read her feelings even though I was miles away.” He paused, then came back with a knowing, surprised sound. “Ooooh, man. The bookseller?”
“You mean, Kora?” Huh. Her name felt good on his tongue.
One of the babies began to cry again. “Look, once that shit starts, you’re in trouble. I wish you luck. I gotta go.”
Dax ended the call, leaving Desi to stare at the late day sky. Okay, he wasn’t going to overthink this. He had lots of dating to do before he found the right woman. Yes, some shifters were lucky to find the one fated for them. But not all. Nothing ever came easily for him, so he didn’t expect finding a mate to either.
He’d already lined up two dates for next week. It was good to keep his options open and create a woman funnel. According to the dating app he was on, that was the way to go. Keep a steady stack of women and work his way through them until he found the one he most connected with. The trick, apparently, was not to get too intimate too quickly. Don’t rush things with any of them. Just see how it went.
Patience had never been one of his virtues. Then again, neither were stellar social skills. Des had no idea how he was going to work his way through a funnel of females. He hated small talk. He despised talking about himself. He frowned as the whole dating idea suddenly lost its appeal.
Tempted to take out his phone and delete the dating app, Desi ran a hand over his face and headed to the pub. The air was a nice blend of warm and cool, perfect for a stroll through town. Since setting up his security shop, he’d come to appreciate Estes Park in a whole new light. It was a grand historic town, with poignant reminders of its wild west and gold rush days. He never spent a lot of time in town growing up, preferring to stay close to his family home, The Lodge. He was rather enjoying getting to know this place on a different scale.
It would be a great place for raising a family.
The thought gave him a small smile as he pushed the double doors and walked into the pub. He homed in on Kora immediately, as if he’d already known where she’d be sitting. She was sitting in the last booth near a window. She made eye contact with him as he walked in. Something flickered on her face as he approached, but she didn’t smile.
“Hey,” he greeted.
“I didn’t think you’d show.”
Her brows arched. “Well, I’m hungry.”
And honest. Desi glanced behind him and then back to her. “Would you mind if I change seats with you?”
She cocked her head a bit as if surprised by the question. Yeah, he knew it was an odd thing to ask.
“I prefer to sit facing the door.”
So, you can keep your eyes on the door and observe who is coming and going. Curiosity pricked his brain. Most people didn’t have preferences for facing exits. That, and she was sitting with her back to a wall so no one could approach unexpectedly from behind. Interesting.
“Yeah, me, too,” he said lightly. His preference came from military training. Where did hers come from?
She cleared her throat and picked up a menu. No excuses. No apologies for doing things her way. He respected that.
A waitress appeared and flipped open an order book. “Can I get you drinks?”
Kora ordered a water with lemon. Desi, a beer. The waitress returned in record time, her focus solely on Kora.
“I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere.” She set the water down, openly studying Kora’s face.
Kora didn’t make eye contact. “I’m opening a bookstore a couple blocks away. I’m sure you’ve seen me around town.”
The waitress shook her head. “No, that’s not it.” She paused. “You’re not on television, are you? I feel like I’ve seen you on TV.”
A stunted laugh worked from Kora’s throat. It sounded forced and insincere. “No. No, I’m not.”
The waitress shrugged. “Weird. Are you two ready to order?”
“Separate checks, please.” Kora lifted her chin and gave her order and then quickly checked her cell phone, probably to divert any additional speculation from the waitress.
He was curious how she’d recover from the obvious lie she pulled over the waitress’ head. Maybe she wasn’t a television personality, but she was clearly trying to get the attention away from herself before the waitress pried any deeper.
“So, did you bring anything for me to look at for security systems? A brochure or something?”
Desi sat back against the soft leather seat. “No. I figured you can tell me what you have now, what you’d like to have implemented, and I can survey the property and give you my recommendations.”
She pondered this a moment, then picked at the corner of her drink napkin. “I need something for my house, too. The builder put in basic security, but I’d like something… stronger.”
“You live in town?”
Her eyes whipped to his. “Not far.”
“Within city limits?”
“Why does that matter?”
Desi leaned his forearms on the table and clasped his hands. “I’m going to need to survey your property in order to determine what’s best for you, and also to install it.”
Okay, now all his warning bells were going off. She had avoidance down to a science.
“Fair enough. I’ll give you my address if we get that far. Considering you came empty handed to a business meeting, I’m not feeling very confident in your ability to deliver.”
Nope. She wasn’t going to make anything easy between them.
He grinned, trying to determine if she was joking. The sides of her eyes crinkled just a bit, a sparkle in her big, brown eyes.
“Listen, your brother has been really fair and invested in working with me, so I’ll share with you that I’ve had security issues in the past and I can’t sleep at night because every little noise makes me afraid someone is breaking in.” She waved a hand in the air. “Despite my past issues, I can’t seem to remember to lock doors to save my life, literally. It’s an ineptitude that resulted in a dozen maggot covered black flowers now rotting in my garbage can.”
Her forehead scrunched and she looked to the side as if she was confused at the words that had just come out of her mouth.
“Fuck,” she said quietly.
Desi’s entire body went on high-alert. She hadn’t intended to say so much, to reveal as much as she had. Sliding his hand across the table, he ran his fingers lightly over the back of her hand. She startled, then went still like a deer hiding from prey.
“Hey,” he soothed. “I’ll get your house buttoned up so tight, if a fox sneezes too close to the property line, a missile will take it out.”
She did a double take, pulled her hand away, and smiled faintly.
The waitress returned and slid a plate in front of Kora. Kora stared at it, wide-eyed. Desi took the top bun off his burger, speared the tomato and flung it onto the edge of his plate. He was about to take a bite when he noticed she was still staring at her meal.
“What’s the matter?”
“W-what is this?”
“You ordered the miner’s steak and mushrooms.”
She nodded weakly. Her face paled. “It’s got a tail.”
Desi held back a chuckle. “That’s because it’s a beaver.”
She turned her lower lip beneath her teeth.
“The description under the miner’s steak talks about how beaver was considered a delicacy during the historic mining days. You didn’t read that far, apparently.”
She shook her head.
Good thing he didn’t tell her that some town historians argued rats had earned the moniker instead.
“That explains why the waitress didn’t ask how I wanted it done.”
He exchanged his plate for hers. “Here, have my burger.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m a shifter. I eat anything.”
She grinned again. A surge of warmth went through him. This woman had some serious walls, but he was poking through them. Each smile he drummed out of her made him want to try for another. She poked at the plate with her fork and speared the tomato.
“Just not these, I assume?”
He suppressed a shudder. “My brother Jett grows organic tomatoes bigger than my head. I’m the only one in the family who can’t stand them.”
“Well, thank you for switching.” She put the tomato back on the burger.
His eyes locked on hers and her face flushed. Neither of them looked away. She had pale freckles across her nose and gray specks in her eyes.
“Hey, that’s her! That’s definitely her.”
Desi turned toward the voice to seek find two young men looking their way. One was holding a well-used hardcover book with a leather backpack slung over one shoulder. His counterpart had a large video camera perched on his shoulder.
Cora did a double take as the man with the camera angle the lens directly on her face. She scooted to the left in the booth. Her expression completely changed when she realized she was trapped between the wall and the cameraman. Desi smelled her anxiety and fear.
The man with the notebook was beaming as if he had just won a prize. “I knew I’d catch up with you sooner or later.”
**I hope you enjoyed this peek at BEAR IN A BOOKSTORE. Keep an eye on your inbox for a special newsletter announcement on release day. What did you think so far? I'd love to read your comments below. Any questions about the story? I"ll answer what I can without giving too much away**