© 2023 by Jordan Summers

ARCTOS CHAPTERS 1-3

CHAPTER ONE

Arctos smelled her before he saw her. He’d been watching the polar bears play when the soft flowery, feminine scent reached his sensitive nose. The aroma had been so fleeting that he’d almost ignored it like the bears had, but something inside him had urged him to investigate.

He found the girl hiding in the snow a quarter mile away. She had small hands and equally small feet. Standing, she’d barely reach his chest. She was a tiny speck of a thing barely noticeable against the sea of white. He glanced at the bears in the distance.

What was a child doing so far from the nearest town and so close to danger?

Protective instincts spurred by bone-deep honor prompted him to act. Arctos took a step in her direction to find out, when the child shifted to the side. The small, seemingly insignificant movement revealed lush round curves. The kind of curves that could only be found on a woman in her prime. He stumbled in surprise. Her scent came again, this time stronger. The delicious aroma filled his lungs, leaving Arctos breathless and achingly hard. How could he have made such a mistake?

Arctos watched as the woman wiggled her butt and burrowed into the high snowdrift. He’d yet to see her face, but she now had his undivided attention. He couldn’t seem to pull his gaze away from the round little globes as they twitched from side to side. His hands itched to touch them, taste them, stroke them, and squeeze them. He clenched his fists, fighting the sudden urge. The beast snarled inside of him, demanding to be let out. It wanted to see this woman for itself. Scent her. Mark her. But Arctos forced the beast down to keep his presence cloaked and continued to observe.

What was she doing out here all alone? Didn’t the woman understand the danger she’d put herself in? Arctos did and he didn’t like it. Anything could sneak up on her like he had. Wolves, bears…other men. His muscles tightened and his jaw clenched as anger washed through him. She should take better care.

The woman reached into the bag tucked at her side and pulled out what looked to be a weapon. Arctos stared in disbelief as she pointed the device at the white bears in the distance. Surely she wouldn’t…

She pressed the trigger and a rapid-fire sound filled the air. Arctos’ hearts clenched and his ardor quickly cooled. This was notthe type of female he wanted as a mate, no matter how intoxicating she smelled. If he wanted a bloodthirsty mate, he would’ve found a nice Phantom female from the Blood Clan to settle down with. It mattered not that the women on his planet were few in number.

Arctos glanced at the bears and waited for their large bodies to drop into the snow, but nothing happened. He looked back at the woman and frowned in confusion. Had she missed the shot? It seemed unlikely given the range and the lack of obstructions, but it was always possible. She raised the weapon again.

He growled, a deep rumbling sound that seemed to come from the depths of his bowels. No way would he give her a second chance to make a kill.

Caitlin Kelly hunkered down lower in the snow-bank to ward off Northern Alaska’s biting wind. She raised her equipment and gazed through the scope, focusing before taking careful aim. Two polar bears wrestled in the fresh powder, flashing deadly claws and powerful teeth as they vied for dominance and the mating privileges of a nearby female. Funny, she could’ve sworn there’d been four of them earlier.

She set the scope down and replaced it with an even longer lens, then fired. The click, click, click rattled out in quick succession as she captured the bears’ every move. “Big payday, here I come,” she murmured.

Caitlin had made sure to stay down wind, since polar bears weren’t exactly known for their sunny dispositions.

Unlike most bears, polar bears loved sneak attacks. It wasn’t uncommon for them to come up behind their prey and be on them before the prey even knew they were there. It helped that they blended seamlessly in with their environment. There’d only been one fatal polar bear attack in decades, but Caitlin had no plans to become number two.

She focused on her prey and continued to shoot. “That’s right, smile pretty.”

Caitlin kept her attention glued to her subjects, watching for any sudden changes in behavior that would indicate that they’d detected her presence. Risk wasn’t a job requirement for a nature photographer, but it was certainly an occupational hazard.

She switched out lenses on her camera and fired off a few more shots. “Come on, baby, show me some claws.” With any luck, she’d make enough on these photos to pay for this unexpected trip to Alaska. Caitlin had only planned to stay for a few days, but four weeks had passed in a blink. She’d somehow missed her last rent payment and what little savings she’d had, had now dwindled to dust.

Caitlin had her old college roommate, Allie to thank for her current financial crisis. At least partly. Allie had called last month in a panic, leaving a cryptic message. She’d dropped words like ‘severe pain’ and ‘not getting better’ into the voicemail. When Caitlin tried to phone back, she couldn’t reach her.

After replaying the message a dozen times, Caitlin decided there must have been some kind of an accident. That could be the only explanation for the brief message and the lack of further contact. Even though she’d recently lost her job, Caitlin had thrown her things into a bag and rushed to the airport. It had been the longest nine-hour flight of her life—and the most expensive.

Caitlin had arrived in Alaska haggard and beyond worried. She’d been so out of it that she’d walked right by Allie at security. There were no slings, scars, or broken bones visible when her friend stopped her. In fact, Allie appeared to be in perfect health. Caitlin’s anger over the deception had lasted all of five minutes, before quickly being replaced by relief.

It turned out that Allie had phoned because she was heartbroken…

Heartbroken over the fact that despite there being a ton of single men in Alaska, she hadn’t been able to snag a husband yet. She was convinced that if Caitlin came to help that she would somehow succeed.

As if that was ever a goal worth achieving, Caitlin thought, then rolled her eyes.

As the child of multi-divorced parents, who put the capital ‘B’ in bitter, she had learned early on that marriages weren’t worth the paper they were notarized on. Prince Charming didn’t exist. And if he did, she’d tell him to get back on that white steed and move along. This princessdidn’t want any part of him and she was way past believing in fairytales.

Caitlin had tried to tell Allie this, but her friend wouldn’t listen to reason. She was convinced the man of her dreams was out there somewhere waiting to be found or worse yet, searching for her. Pathetic! Caitlin shook her head and sighed.

It was more likely that he was somewhere sitting on a couch, scratching his ass, tossing back a few cold ones, while the delightful aroma of beer farts filled the air.

Ah, romance…

She glanced once more through the camera lens. The bears were still frolicking; two balls of white against a blanket of soft powder, but it no longer mattered since sometime during her musings she’d lost the light. Go figure. If Caitlin didn’t get some cash soon, she’d have to resort to waiting tables.

She shuddered at the thought. Allie had given her a ‘worst waitress ever’ ribbon when they were in college. Caitlin had no plans to repeat the experience if she could help it. Nope, she’d just have to come back tomorrow and try again. She wasn’t looking forward to the long hike back to her snowmobile or the freezing twenty-mile ride into town.

It’s either that or camp here. Your choice.

She stared at the endless sea of white. So not happening.Caitlin lifted the camera and put it in the bag. She’d just zipped it up, when a deep rumbling growl sounded behind her. Her breath locked in her lungs. It couldn’t be. She’d kept them in sight the whole time.

The sound came again. This time louder and closer.

The blonde hair on Caitlin’s neck stood on end and she froze, too frightened to move, too scared to blink. Maybe the bear hadn’t seen her yet. Even as the thought crossed her mind, Caitlin knew she’d never be that lucky.

Bears had an exceptional sense of smell. She put her camera bag down and slowly turned to find a thousand pound male polar bear standing twenty-five feet away, panting and watching her.

With her white coat and matching pants and gloves, Caitlin had no doubt he thought she was a chubby oversized baby seal, a delicacy for a polar bear. She knew enough about bears to know there was no way she could outrun him. And the rifle she’d brought wasn’t going to do much at this close range, even if she could reach it in time. She’d never been a good shot on the best of days. Panic wouldn’t help her aim.

He took a step forward, his massive paws making soft crunching noises in the snow. He snorted and lowered his head. Crap! This was not how she’d planned to die.

I’m never going to make the cover of a national magazine. Never going to get my own Discovery show. Never going to get the chance to…fall in love.

Caitlin whimpered and scooted deeper into the snow bank, praying it would somehow protect her, but knowing in the end that it wouldn’t. She pulled her camera bag close to her chest and hugged it. The bear lunged. Caitlin screamed and threw up her hands in front of her face in a pathetic attempt to ward off the attack.

There was a loud thud followed by a roar of anger. Caitlin’s eyes flew open in time to see a silvery white monstrosity flying through the air toward them. Another bear. Oh God, now there were two.

Arctos could still sense the woman, but he could no longer see her. Had the bear managed to reach her? Was she lying in the snow bleeding to death? She moaned. He felt his two hearts jump into his throat. He didn’t dare take his eyes off the hungry bear that was doing its best to rip his guts out for a chance to eat such a tender morsel.

Too bad. He’d seen her first.

The male bear—though large—was no match for a Phantom Warrior in his prime. Twice as thick and a good half-foot taller, Arctos was part of the Tooth Clan on Zaron. His people could shift between bear and wolf-like creatures and disappear at will. They were the largest of the Phantom Warriors and the fiercest when it came to battle. He didn’t want to hurt the bear, but he would if it didn’t give up and leave its intended prey.

His long claws swiped at the polar bear’s snout, leaving a streak of red behind. The bear grumbled and rose to his hind legs. Arctos did the same in a show of dominance and aggression. The bear bellowed and waited. When Arctos didn’t back down, he dropped to the ground and rushed him in a flurry of teeth and deadly claws.

Arctos braced for impact.

A thousand pounds of bear slammed into him, sending him skidding across the icy snow. Sharp claws connected as the bear turned and attacked with surprising speed. Warmth trickled down Arctos’ side. He ignored it and kept fighting. There was far more than a meal at stake for him.

Swipe for swipe, they scratched, bit and wrestled with each other. The polar bear stumbled, but came at him repeatedly determined to run him off. Arctos could tell the bear was tiring. It wasn’t moving as fast as it had earlier. With any luck, it would give up soon and leave. Very few fights ended in death, but Arctos would kill him if necessary.

The male gave up several minutes later, but not before he’d managed to spill more of Arctos’ blood. The bear ambled off, glancing over his shoulder from time to time to see if his perceived rival was still guarding the food.

Poised for another battle, Arctos watched him go. Once the thick musk of bear cleared the air, a more familiar coppery odor reached his nose. He glanced down at the crimson snow beneath his feet. It was only then that he saw the claw marks marring his silvery white fur and recalled the trickle of warmth. Arctos took a step and swayed from blood loss. The wound wouldn’t kill him, but it would definitely slow him down.

He ignored the pain and concentrated on breathing, waiting for his head to clear. The injury wouldn’t completely heal when he shifted back, but at least the transformation would seal the wound enough to stem the bleeding, giving him time to get the woman to safety.

Arctos sucked in a deep breath and prepared to change form. Pain seared his flesh as he temporarily shimmered out of existence. His wound stretched, ripping wider, then quickly knitted together. Naked, Arctos stumbled as he adjusted to his human form once more.

He brought his hand to his tender side. Only the faintest streaks of blood remained. Gone were the deep furrows from where the bear had struck. It would be fine as long as he didn’t put too much strain on the injury.

He closed his eyes and concentrated until his uniform appeared, then turned to check on the woman. She was slumped over like she’d fallen asleep in the snow. Arctos’ hearts pummeled his ribs, when he saw the ugly scarlet stain spreading across her white coat. He’d failed.

The thought was almost incomprehensible. Arctos had never failed at anything in his life. Ever. He’d always been a fiercely fast hunter, one of the best fighters, and a strategic planner. Nothing went unchecked. His safeguards had their own safeguards. He prided himself on his preparedness. He was always ready for anything. Almost anything.

He’d been so focused on the woman and her movements that Arctos hadn’t seen the creature until it was nearly on top of her. He thought he’d reached her in time, but the metallic aroma swirling in the air told a very different story. He stared at the ever-growing pool of blood in bewildering disbelief. He’d failed her. The woman moaned, snapping him out of inaction.

Arctos pushed his shame aside and rushed forward. With trembling hands, he brushed a wisp of golden hair out of her face. His breath caught as he released the silken strands.

The woman’s cheeks were pale pink from the cold and so were her lips. The fading color accentuated the tip of her upturned nose and her pointy little chin. Taken separately, her features were nothing to contact the ship about. He’d seen Phantom and Atlantean women who were stunning by galactic standards. Their beauty commanded armies and ruled over kings.

This woman wasn’t like that. She’d neverbe like that. She was…

Arctos brushed more hair away and looked again. Taken together, her ‘ordinary’ features formed a rather interesting, some might say intriguing, combination. Strong, yet soft. Foreboding, yet alluring. She drew him in, while somehow remaining aloof.

His fingers hovered over her cheek. Even without touching her, he could feel the heat draining from her supple skin. It wouldn’t be long before her life-force followed. He had to get the bleeding to stop. Arctos curled his hands into fists, then forced them to open. He had to examine the wound.

Arctos found the opening to her clothing and slid the metal down. It hissed in the silence. He peeled the material back and swallowed hard before lifting the shirt beneath. Claw marks gouged her pale flesh, slicing deep. Humans couldn’t shift and he had no way of closing the wound. Even if he somehow managed, the injury would likely become infected—that’s if she didn’t bleed to death first.

He’d wanted to give her a choice. Heck, he’d wanted to have a choice, when it came to deciding his future, but an Earth beast had taken everything away. The irony was not lost on him. The stain continued to spread. He had to act now or lose her forever. There was only one way that he knew of to save her.

The proposition was risky. If he succeeded, it would change both their lives forever. If he didn’t pass through her, sharing his essence and genetic material, then she’d die for sure. Arctos knew that even if he did there was a chance that she wouldn’t make it. He hadn’t been able to test her to see if she was compatible to mate with a Phantom Warrior. What if she wasn’t?He shoved the thought away, refusing to accept it as even a possibility. She had to live.

Arctos concentrated on the woman. “Please forgive me,” he whispered, pressing a chaste kiss upon her lips. His form shimmered, then faded to nothingness so he could pass through her body and back out again.

The woman’s eyes flew open, storm gray and piercing. She stared at the sky, her gaze unfocused, then slowly closed her eyes once more. The blood trickled, then stopped. That was a good sign, right?

Arctos nudged her shoulder. The woman didn’t move. Not a flinch, not a whimper. He frowned. From the rise and fall of her chest, he could see that she was breathing. So why wasn’t she moving? The transference meant that they were partially bound. Had it somehow failed, too?

Humans were fragile by nature. Women even more so. The smallest injury could result in a fatality. Fear and panic gripped Arctos for the second time in his long life. Something inside of him that he never knew existed, threatened to burst. He couldn’t lose her. Refused to lose her.

“You will not die. Do you hear me?” Arctos ran his hands over her body. Nothing appeared to be wrong other than the now healing bear scratch. Had he missed something? He decided to check again to be sure. At least that’s what Arctos told himself that he was doing as he slowly re-inspected every inch of her.

Definitely not a child.The inappropriate thought crossed his mind before he could stop it.

He cleaned the blood off using his intense body heat to melt the snow. He didn’t want the stain to frighten her when she awoke—if she ever awoke. Helplessness swamped him. Arctos didn’t know what else to do.

“Live!” The choked command sounded more like a plea.

The woman’s lashes fluttered open. She looked at him and at his hands, which were resting near her breasts, then said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Arctos jerked his fingers back. “I—” was all he got out before her soft gray eyes crossed and she passed out again. “That went well.” He shook his head in disgust. He didn’t even catch her name. This was not how he’d envisioned their first introduction to go.

What did you expect? You are a stranger to her and unworthy of her regard.

He grit his teeth and reached for her. Grateful at least that she was no longer bleeding. Arctos’ muscles clenched as he lifted her and held her against his chest. She was light for a female, barely a wisp of air in his arms. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t even notice her. But this situation was turning out to be anything but normal. He closed his eyes.

“Goddess give me strength.” He inhaled.

The sweet musky scent of her skin teased his sensitive nostrils. Arctos forced himself to loosen his hold for fear that he’d bruise her, then readjusted the woman so she sat higher against his body, making it easier for travel. Her warm breath brushed his neck, tickling his ear.

Ignore it. Ignore her. At least until you know she’s truly okay.

She exhaled again and gooseflesh raced along his spine, settling heavily in his groin. Arctos cursed under his breath. This wasn’t going to work. There was no way he’d be able to travel quickly with her caressing his ear and taunting his body.

He juggled the woman again until she was hanging partially over his shoulder, then reached down to gather the bag she’d been clutching to her chest. He glanced at her rifle and quickly dismissed bringing it. As long as she was with him, she wouldn’t need the gun. Guilt settled heavily upon his chest once more. His best efforts hadn’t been enough to keep her safe.

“I will protect you with my life,” he vowed. “I’ll die before I’ll allow anyone or anything else to harm you.”  He may have failed her once, but he’d never fail her again.

Arctos turned in a slow circle and extended his senses. Like a beacon of energy crashing upon him, he felt the pulse of the nearby population. Many life-forms resided there. She’d likely come from that town. He locked the location into his mind. “West it is,” he said, and began to walk.

Caitlin awoke cocooned in warmth and gently rocking from side to side. She snuggled deeper and her nose came in contact with hard warm flesh. She sniffed, then sniffed again. A slightly musky, not entirely unpleasant aroma greeted her. Why did her whole body ache? She cracked one lid open just enough to peek at her surroundings and saw nothing but a wall of black material. She frowned as she tried to recall where she was.

Steady breathing and the squeaky crunch of boots hitting packed snow reached her ears. Her eyes flew open, but all Caitlin could see was the wide back her face was smooshed against. She pushed away and the world tilted. Her stomach lurched and she nearly threw up. Fortunately panic set in and saved her from embarrassment. She thrashed wildly, kicking with her feet and flailing her arms in an attempt to get away.

“Easy, you’ve been injured,” a deep male voice said, without breaking stride. “If you don’t stop struggling, you’re going to hurt yourself.” His grip on her firmed.

“Let go of me,” she demanded, straining to remember the details of the last few hours. Had it been hours or minutes? She couldn’t recall. Where was she? How did she get upside down? Her thoughts scrambled then reassembled themselves into working order.

There was a bear. A really bigbear. And another bear. Then pain. Lots of pain. Followed by a tingling sensation like all her limbs had gone to sleep at once, then nothingness. Her heart began to thump wildly in her chest. What had happened to the bears?

She craned her neck to look around, catching a sideways glimpse of the man carrying her. There was something familiarabout him. Had they met? She couldn’t recall. Where had he come from? Better yet, how had she gotten away? It was all a blur of white fur, teeth, claws and blood. Caitlin began to shake uncontrollably.

“Listen, Caveman, I really must insist that you put me down immediately,” she said through chattering teeth.

The man stopped, then shifted her until he could look into her face, but otherwise made no move to oblige her request.

A snowflake landed on her nose. Caitlin looked around, then glanced up at the sky. It was snowing. Hard. The man didn’t seem fazed by the steadily falling powder. In fact, he wasn’t even breathing hard.

Caitlin stopped struggling and took a good look at her…rescuer. His face was harshly beautiful with tantalizing sharp cheekbones, a sensual mouth, and dark unfathomable eyes. Trapped by his gaze, she continued to stare. She’d never seen anyone quite like him.

Her attention shifted to his hair. At first she’d thought it was covered in snow, but now Caitlin realized it wasn’t snow at all. His hair was white, so white that it would probably glint like silver tinsel in sunlight. They definitely hadn’t met. He wasn’t the kind of guy that a girl forgot.

She licked her suddenly dry lips and asked, “Who are you?”

He continued to stare at her, until she felt unnerved by the rapt attention.

Caitlin cleared her throat. “I asked you a question.”

His lips quirked and a dimple winked out from his cheek, softening his features. Such a simple movement, not even one of conscious thought, but it still managed to do strange things to Caitlin’s insides. How could she have found him harsh-looking only moments ago? A woman would have to be blind not to realize the man was gorgeous.

It had to be the shock from the bear attack, she thought. What else could it possibly be? Caitlin prided herself for having a level head. She wasn’t prone to bouts of lust. She’d never fallen for a pretty face. It just didn’t happen.

“My name is Arctos,” he said, staring at her like he’d never seen a woman before.

“Arctos.” She rolled his name over her tongue, testing the sound of it. Caitlin looked at him again. Despite the oddity of it, the name did somehow fit him. He didn’t look like a John or a Steve with that strangely colored hair and those sharp assessing features. “How did I get here? Actually, strike that last question. Where are we?”

“I found you. You were hurt.” He broke eye contact. “As to where we are, we are heading toward a denser population. Though the snow is making the journey… difficult.”

Difficult? Try impossible.Caitlin looked up at the sky. It was still daylight, but wouldn’t be for much longer. Soon the temperatures would start to drop, reaching dangerous levels. Already a chill rode the air, promising a quick death.

She stared at Arctos. The outfit he had on wasn’t thick enough to ward off the oncoming cold. Hers might, but not without shelter. She shivered as a breeze swept the falling snow into her face. “We need to get inside before nightfall.”

“Do not worry. I have excellent night vision,” he said, puffing out his impressive chest. The man winced as he did, but his expression remained stoic.

Caitlin looked at the snow near his feet. Red spots dotted the ground. She reached out and touched his side. Her white glove came away covered in blood. “You’re hurt,” she said, gently touching him again. “How bad is it?”

He sucked in a breath as her padded fingers probed. “It is nothing,” he said through gritted teeth.

She held her glove up to his face. “This doesn’t look like nothingto me,” she said, watching him closely. “You need a doctor. How far are we from town?”

“I believe the term is a mile. Perhaps five,” he said.

 She glanced around at the falling snow. With the wind, the steady snowfall was drifting and morphing into a blizzard. “We might be able to make it,” she said, even as doubt set it. Without markers, it was so easy to get lost in a storm. Heck, even with markers an experienced hunter could get turned around. If that happened, a mile or two could be the difference between life and death. “Mind putting me down? We can make better time if you don’t carry me. It’ll also take the strain off your injury.”

Arctos looked like he was about to refuse her request, but at the last second, he acquiesced. “As you desire, but at the first sign of distress, you’re going back.”

Distress? Was he serious? She wasn’t the one bleeding into the snow. Caitlin kept her thoughts to herself as he carefully put her down. The loss of warmth was instantaneous. She bounced from foot to foot to get the blood circulating and so he wouldn’t see her shiver. “You’re sure it’s a few miles to town.”

“Yes.” He paused and glanced up as if in thought. “Definitely more than three, but less than six.”

Snow quickly filled his footprints. How had he covered fifteen miles? “You carried me the whole way?”

He looked at her as if she’d suddenly sprouted snakes for hair. “Of course, you were injured.”

She glanced down at the front of her coat and saw a huge blood stain. The world tilted for a moment before righting itself. Caitlin unzipped her coat and yanked her shirt up. Four pink ribbed lines scored her abdomen.

“It must have missed,” she said, but the amount of blood told her otherwise. She forced her brain to focus on something else, anything else.

When she’d found the polar bears, Caitlin had been over twenty miles from town as the crow flies. She’d needed a snowmobile to reach the spot. She’d left it parked a half a mile away, afraid it would spook the bears. How had Arctos moved so quickly without a vehicle or at least sled dogs? It just didn’t make sense. He was injured for Pete’s sake. Caitlin was about to ask, when a howl rose on the wind. The hair on her neck bristled.

“We’d better hurry,” she said. “Don’t want to get caught out in the open by the wolves. They probably smell our blood.”

Arctos’ eyes appeared to flash from brown to red and back again. “I won’t let anything harm you,” he said with such conviction that Caitlin actually believed him.

The howl came again. This time it was the wind warning of the approaching storm. “We might be able to outrun the wolves, but we won’t outrun the storm. Not with injuries,” she said.

He arched a brow. “Your concern for my well-being is…unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary?” She balked. “You saved me from being eaten by polar bears. I’d say that I owe you. And I always repay my debts.” Caitlin glanced around, scanning the horizon through the blowing snow for any manmade objects. “Look over there and tell me what you see.” She pointed at something a couple hundred yards away, hoping it wasn’t just a clump of trees.

Arctos looked. Blinked a few times, then said, “It’s a dwelling of some sort.”

There weren’t any lights on, but that didn’t mean anything in Alaska. A few miles outside of a small town meant no electricity. If someone was home, she didn’t think that they’d be turned away, but it paid to be cautious, since everyone in Alaska tended to be armed.

She shielded her eyes and looked again. “I can’t tell if the structure is sound from here, but at this point it’ll have to do. We need to get out of this storm.”

Arctos stared at the small shelter in the distance. He sent his senses out, searching the area for threats. The wolves were closing in from two sides, but they were still a great distance away and would pose no threat. They smelled the blood on the wind, but what they hunted was bigger game like the caribou herd making their way across the tundra a half a mile from their location. Arctos sent out a warning, alerting the pack that there was a larger predator in the area. It would be enough to deter them from pursuing them.

That done, he turned his attention back to the cabin. It was empty and might serve as the perfect place to rest for the night. He chastised himself for not making better time. He should’ve had her safely tucked back with her people by now.

He glanced at the woman. He’d been right. She barely reached the center of his chest. Nowhere near big enough to defend herself. He was amazed she’d managed to survive this long without protection. Was she who the Goddess had chosen for him? Bitterness rose. He’d never know for certain now that the first bond was in place.

“What is your name?” he asked, pushing aside the useless emotion. In his haste to get her to safety he’d allowed his manners to slip.

She blushed, her cheeks turning even pinker. “Caitlin. Caitlin Kelly,” she said. “We’d better get moving.”

Caitlin. Her name tasted sweet on his lips and suited her small stature. Arctos watched her march out into the snow toward the structure. Not only did she not look like the women he’d known on Zaron, she didn’t behave like them. Her diminutive size belied her hidden strength. She was not a woman used to being coddled. That much was abundantly clear when she’d demanded to be put down.

Other than her initial panic from finding herself in a stranger’s arms, which was understandable, Caitlin didn’t appear fussed by their present situation. Her bravery was admirable. If anything, she’d responded practically. First seek shelter, then tend to his wound. Arctos wasn’t quite sure what to make of her.

The women he’d known would’ve been screaming about the cold and demanding that he find them food and shelter immediately. Instead, Caitlin had been the one to spot a dwelling and make the decision to spend the night.

How utterly…fascinating.

Arctos followed at a short distance—which was a mistake, because it gave him a clear view of her small bottom as it swished from side to side with each step. Caitlin didn’t seem to notice as she picked her way over the snow. Arctos could do nothing but pay attention. It was as if she’d strapped a hunk of raw meat on her luscious ass.

Mesmerized by the gentle swaying motion, his hungry gaze devoured every inch of her. Despite the pain in his side, his shaft hardened, demanding release. He shouldn’t want this woman…but he did, and Arctos was beginning to think that it had nothing to do with the bond he’d forced upon her. He growled in frustration.

The deep rumbling sound traveled on the wind. Caitlin jumped and let out a little squeak, then picked up her pace. Her focus became single-minded as she rushed toward shelter. Had Arctos not been watching, he wouldn’t have believed she could move so fast.

Don’t run! The plea echoed in his mind.

Arctos wanted to scream the command as his body instinctively reacted. He took a step and froze, balanced on a blaster’s edge, as centuries of training and breeding spurred him to give chase. He shuddered as the bear roared inside his skull. Sweat broke out across his forehead a second before sharp incisors burst through his gums. His beast struggled for its freedom, no longer content to wait for its mate, determined to run her to ground.

Claws sprung from his fingertips as he fought the urge to hunt, to catch, to claim. The warrior in him knew Caitlin wasn’t running from him. She was scared and hurrying toward the structure. Arctos latched onto that thought and clung to it, even as his raw instincts demanded action.

He raised his head and inhaled. Her warm scent wafted past him before being carried away by the wind. “Patience,” he growled, forcing his claws and teeth to recede. Far easier said, than done.

CHAPTER TWO

The snow was coming down hard by the time they reached the rickety shack. The structure looked even worse up close than it did from a distance, which didn’t seem possible. Caitlin stared at the wooden hut wondering if they’d fall through the floor upon entry.

Wind whistled through the trees, whipping her hair around her face. If nothing else, the place would block out some of the cold. She climbed the two steps up to the door and knocked, then waited.

“There is no one inside,” Arctos said. His warm breath teased her ear, making it tingle.

Caitlin shrugged in a lame attempt to brush the sensation away. “How do you know?” she asked.

“I know,” he countered, then pushed the door open.

The hinges creaked as the door swung wide. Caitlin stepped forward, her eyes squinting to adjust to the darkness. Arctos put her pack down near her feet, then walked inside, his big body brushing hers as he did so. She sucked in a breath as a shiver skittered along her spine, turning her nipples into hard points. Caitlin chalked it up to the cold, refusing to acknowledge that it could be anything else.

Arctos moved silently in the shadows. Given his impressive size, Caitlin was surprised by his agility and stealth. She couldn’t see exactly what he was doing until a flame flared to life, nearly blinding her. She blinked away the spots, then scanned the shack as he continued to feed the growing fire.

The cabin turned out to be in better shape than it appeared from the outside. Despite the Spartan furnishings, the dwelling somehow managed to be cozy with its small table for two and over-sized chairs situated near the hearth. An elk pelt covered much of the floor, keeping the cold from seeping into bare feet.

A neatly stacked pile of wood, enough to heat the place for the night, stood next to the now crackling blaze. A thin, crude mantel had been erected over the hearth. It housed a row of well-worn paperbacks that clung precariously to its narrow ledge.

Caitlin recognized several of the titles. At least they’d have something to do, while they waited out the storm, she thought. Her traitorous gaze slid of its own volition to Arctos’ wide shoulders.

She cleared her throat and tore her eyes away, focusing instead on a small door on the left toward the back of the cabin. “I’m going to see what else is here. Check if they have any…uh…blankets,” she said, not waiting for a response.

Caitlin poked her head inside the room and saw a decent sized bed and what looked to be a primitive bathroom. She’d kill for a hot bath. Excited, she rushed toward the room and threw open the door, only to find a porcelain washbasin, a freestanding claw-tub, and a portable self-contained flush toilet. There was a cast iron pot next to the bathtub with a set of potholders wrapped around its metal handle.

Her heart sank. So much for having a hot bath. Unless she wanted to melt snow in the fireplace and fill that tub, it wasn’t going to happen. Caitlin supposed she should be grateful that whoever had built the shack had at least sprung for the toilet or she’d find herself making several trips outside. She shuddered at the thought of squatting in the snow.

Despite her chosen profession, Caitlin wasn’t much for roughing it. Sure, she’d camp if she had to, but onlyif she had to. She much preferred taking day trips. That way she could work all day and sleep in a real bed at night. At least there was a bed, she thought. Caitlin spotted a rusted first aid kit under the washbasin. It looked old, like it hadn’t been replenished in a while. Didn’t matter. It would have to do.

The tinkling sound of her cellphone reached her. Tearing out of the bathroom, Caitlin rushed into the main room, only to find Arctos standing over her bag with some kind of weapon drawn. His eyes were narrowed and his muscles tense.

She skidded to a halt. “What are you doing?” she asked, not daring to get any closer for fear he’d fire and kill her bag.

Her gaze shifted to the weapon once more. The size of a small stun-gun, it didn’t have a discernible barrel. Caitlin did not recognize the gun model, but that didn’t mean anything. She was in no way a weapons specialist. She’d only learned to shoot a pistol and a rifle because of her job. A camera was her weapon of choice.

“There is something inside your belongings,” Arctos said, his gaze never wavering from the pack.

Caitlin would’ve laughed, if he hadn’t looked so serious. “It’s just my phone. What you’re hearing is the ringtone for my friend, Allie. A little odd maybe, but hardly suspect.”

The cell rang again.

“I really need to get that.” She pointed to her bag. “Allie’s probably worried sick that I haven’t returned.”

His brow furrowed. “It’s a communication device?”

“Yeah, like I said, it’s my cellphone.” Caitlin put the first aid kit on the table, then took a step closer. “I promise it won’t bite.”

His gaze met hers. Arctos studied her as if gauging the truth of her words then lowered his weapon.

Caitlin reached into her bag and rummaged around for her phone, praying she got to it before it went to voicemail. “Hello?”

“Where are you?” Allie shouted over thumping music. “You were supposed to meet me at Rob’s party. Mike’s here already.”

Caitlin scrambled to remember. Party? Party? Party? She recalled Allie mentioning something about a fireman fundraiser. Was that tonight? She searched her brain. Oh crap, it was and she’d agreed to go with Mike. Ugh! Caitlin knew she should’ve never let Allie talk her into going on a double date. “I—”

Allie cut her off before she could say another word. “No more excuses. I let you out of the last two parties. You promised. I told Mike that you would be here. Youtold him that you’d be here. He’s stoked to get to know you better. Told me to pass along that he thinks you’re cute.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Caitlin didn’t mean to sound cynical, but in her experience ‘cute’ was code for small. Most guys used her size as an excuse to not take her seriously. Some went out of their way to convince her that she needed someone to take care of her. They didn’t realize that she’d been taking care of herself since she was nine years old.

Something sloshed and Allie broke into giggles. “Cat, you won’t believe how many smoking hot men are here tonight. The room is full of hard bodies.”

“A firemen pun, seriously?”

“Gosh, I just realized what I just said.” Allie laughed harder. “Sorry, it was an accident. Now are you coming or what?”

Caitlin grimaced at the phone. Her friend had started the party early by the sounds of it. She’d never been big on parties. The idea of making small talk for hours was about as welcome as butt hives. She much preferred quiet dinners and casual lunches to loud music and shouting. “I can’t,” she said, not feeling an ounce of remorse.

“What do you mean you can’t?” Allie shrieked.

“Hon, try to use your indoor voice. You don’t want those hot guys thinking you’re a screeching harpy”

Allie scoffed. “Can’t or won’t? Do I need to remind you that you promised?” She lowered her voice to less ear-shattering levels.

Caitlin sighed. “I know I did, but some things are beyond my control. Have you looked outside lately?”

“No, why? Hang on.”

She could hear shuffling as Allie made her way through what sounded like quite a crowd. Everyone in the small town must be there. The noise slowly died to a dull roar.

“I’m back,” she said, then gasped loudly. “It’s blowing like stink out there. Where did you say you were?”

Caitlin paused. All she knew for sure was that she was a few miles from town, but that could be in any direction. “Um, I’m in a cabin.”

“Whose cabin?” Allie asked.

She turned her back on Arctos. “No idea. We just needed to find shelter from the storm.”

“What do you mean ‘we’? You had better not have stood Mike up for another guy. Even I wouldn’t do something like that,” she said, indignantly.

Caitlin glanced over her shoulder, but Arctos didn’t appear to be paying any attention to her. “It’s not like that,” she said. “You know I’d never do anything so rude. Not on purpose anyway.” She scrubbed a hand over her face. “Listen, it’s been a long day and I’m beat.”

“I get it. You don’t feel like going through the whole story. That’s cool. Give me the condensed version,” Allie said, sounding more sober than she had moments ago.

Caitlin took a deep breath. “I was attacked by a polar bear. Arctos saved me. We almost made it back to town, but we got caught in the storm.”

“Who’s Arctos? Is that an Inuit name?” Allie asked.

Caitlin glanced at Arctos’ silvery white hair. “No, definitely not Inuit. Maybe Norwegian. I don’t know for sure. Not really important.”

“Does this Arctos have a last name?” Allie asked, sounding more than a little perturbed, which was her normal tone when she began to worry.

Caitlin frowned. She hadn’t asked. Weird, that would normally be something that came up right away. Instead, she’d felt at ease in his presence. Enough so that she’d looked past her usual dating protocols. Where had that thought come from?She and Arctos were noton a date. “I think you missed the most important part of the story. The guy saved me from being a polar bear snack,” Caitlin said a little too defensively.

Allie sighed. “I’m grateful that he did. Beyond grateful. But where is he from? Does he live around here? I’d feel a whole lot better if someone here knew him and could vouch for him.”

Caitlin felt her face heat. She hadn’t even asked. “I don’t know,” she whispered.

“What am I going to tell Michael, when he asks where you are and why you aren’t here? I can’t exactly tell him you’re in a cabin with another guy. That’s not going to go over well. He really likes you, Cat.”

 “He doesn’t know me well enough to say that,” she said.

“Just because you don’t believe in love at first sight doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist,” Allie said.

It wasn’t like she’d planned to get trapped in a cabin with a stranger. It just happened. Caitlin didn’t know why she was arguing. Arctos wasn’t even her type. He was far too good-looking and outdoorsy. Not to mention huge. Because of her size, Caitlin had always avoided big men. She didn’t like feeling helpless—ever.

“I have a question for you and I want you to really think about it before you answer,” Allie said. “If you haven’t asked for coordinates, then how do you know you’re close to town? You could be miles away. Shoot, for all you know, it’s his cabin you’re standing in.”

Fear clamped onto Caitlin’s shoulders, sinking its steely fingers into her bones. Was that why Arctos knew no one was home? Her knuckles turned white as she gripped her phone. Had she been wrong about him? Caitlin inhaled and did a quick soul search, then slowly let the breath out. The fear disappeared with it. She wasn’t wrong about Arctos.

“Cat, are you still there?” Allie asked.

“I’m here,” she said.

“Do you want me to contact the State Troopers? I think there’s a few of them here tonight at the party. It might take a while before they can find you, but at least they could start searching now. I’d hate to have you trapped in a cabin with a crazy toothless wild man.”

“He’s not toothless,” she said absently. Caitlin glanced over her shoulder again. Arctos stood by the fire, his gaze focused on the storm raging outside. Even in repose, he exuded power and savage grace.

He carried you for miles,she reminded herself. Would a crazy mountain man do something like that? Her gut said no way. If he wanted her dead, she’d already be dead.

“I’m fine,” she heard herself say, knowing it was the truth. “Don’t call out the troops just yet. I’ll be back tomorrow as soon as the storm dies down.” Caitlin snapped a picture of Arctos with her phone and emailed it to her friend. “Please apologize to Mike for me. I’ll make it up to him when I get back to town.”

“Cat, I don’t mean to alarm you, but I just heard someone say that the storm is expected to last for days. Do you have enough supplies?”

“Yep,” Caitlin said automatically, knowing it wasn’t the truth. She hadn’t checked the kitchen yet, but she couldn’t imagine there’d be much in the cabinets. Food tended to attract bears. And she was pretty sure all she had in her pack were a couple of protein bars.

“Hang on, my phone just beeped,” Allie said. A second later she returned. “Whoa! Is that the crazy mountain man? Mike is so not going to be happy, when he sees this.”

Caitlin sighed. “He’s not crazy. Geez, give me a little credit. Please don’t show the picture to Mike.” Even as she said the words, Caitlin knew it was only a matter of time before her friend spilled the beans. Allie had never been able to keep a secret. Not that Arctos was a secret, but still…

“Who cares if he’s crazy if he looks like that!” Allie said. “I swear you have all the luck.”

Caitlin flushed. “I wouldn’t exactly call this situation lucky. I was almost eaten by a polar bear and now I’m trapped in a cabin with a stranger.”

“If I were you, I’d make the best of it, even if it is hisplace. He’s yummy. I bet his got a big—”

“I’m not…It’s notlike that,” Caitlin said, cutting Allie off before she could finish that statement. Who knew how many people were standing around her, listening in. “Pull your brain out of the gutter. He’s not interested in me and I’m not interested in him. We’re just riding out the storm together.”

“You could always get him interested. With a body like that, I bet it wouldn’t take much,” Allie said.

“I can’t,” she said.

Allie snorted. “That’s a shame. Truly a waste a perfectly good man. Sometimes, Cat, if I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you were a nun in a past life. You need to try to loosen up and live a little. You can start by doing him.”

“Thanks for the advice, Mom. I’ll keep it in mind—for when I get back to town.”

A deep male voice interrupted before Allie could respond. “Hey darlin’, want to dance?”

“Hey yourself,” Allie purred.

“Sounds like Rob has found you,” Caitlin said, rolling her eyes.

Despite her friend’s assertions, Caitlin wasn’t uptight. She was choosy. There was a difference, even if it didn’t exist in Allie’s world. Just because she didn’t jump every man who made a play for her didn’t mean that there was something wrongwith her. She went out with plenty of men. Just the other day she’d gone out for coffee with Michael. Okay, so maybe Allie had been there, too, but it had been pleasant.

So maybe it hadbeen a while since Caitlin had dated someone steadily. And so what if she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a man spend the night. She had been busy working, trying to build her career. Dating didn’t pay the bills. And neither did photography apparently.

Allie should be grateful that she’d agreed to meet Mike for another date. It hadn’t exactly been on her list of priorities. He was a nice enough guy. Said all the right things and made all the right moves. Definitely more her type than Arctos, but there’d been something missing. There wasn’t that indefinable spark that promised passion. Since Caitlin wasn’t looking for any other promises from a man that spark was absolutely mandatory.

“Hon, I have to go,” Allie said. Caitlin could hear Rob pouring on the charm in the background. “Sure you’re going to be okay?”

She glanced at Arctos. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Just remember to tell Mike that I’m sorry.”

“Here, I’ll let you tell him yourself,” Allie said, then giggled.

“No!” she shouted.

“Hello?” Mike said.

Caitlin stared at the phone as if it had suddenly grown purple tentacles. How could Allie do this to her? “Uh-hi Mike,” she said, plotting how to kill her friend.

“Where are you?” he asked. “I thought you’d be here by now. You didn’t forget, did you?” Hurt colored his tone.

She tapped her forehead with the cellphone, then crossed her fingers. “No, I didn’t forget.” The lie slipped from her lips. Caitlin didn’t want to hurt his feelings anymore than she had to. “I’m stuck in the snow,” she said, glancing at Arctos.

No longer fascinated by the storm raging outside, he’d turned his attention to her, his expression unreadable.

“I was really looking forward to seeing you again,” Mike said.

Caitlin walked across the small space toward the kitchen. “Yeah, me, too. Sorry.”

“Where are you?” he asked.

Why did everyone want to know where she was? “I’m in a cabin. Had to get out of the storm.”

“Are you close? I could come pick you up. I have a snowmobile at the house,” he said, sounding hopeful.

“Um, that’s okay. It’s really blowing out there. I don’t want you getting caught out in the storm, too” she said. “Let’s just plan to get together when I get back to town.”

Undeterred, he said, “I don’t mind. Just tell me where you are and give me an hour. I’ll come get you.”

A large hand closed over hers, disconnecting the call before she could answer. “Hey! Why did you do that?” Caitlin turned to find a very unhappy looking Arctos glowering at her.

Arctos watched her beneath heavy lids, rage simmering below his calm surface. He’d listened carefully to the conversation. Partly to gain insight into the woman that he’d saved, but mainly to see if the partial bond had begun to take effect.

He hadn’t been prepared for Allie’s hurtful allegations, but he understood why she’d made them. Caitlin was her friend. She wanted to protect her. Not surprising. He would’ve dismissed the whole conversation had it not been for Allie next words.

Caitlin had been promised to another male tonight. And not just any male. One named Michael.

The anger over the news struck like a blow to the head, leaving him dizzy and more than a little confused. It had taken every fiber of Arctos’ being to control his shift, when his instincts demanded that he hunt this ‘Mike’ down and destroy him.

The urge was made worse by the fact that Caitlin had dismissed him outright, and then made plans to see the male upon her return. He could’ve handled all that, but then the male in question spoke. He planned to come and take Caitlin away. Arctos couldn’t allow that to happen. Not now. Not ever.

Arctos hadn’t realized that he’d moved until his hand closed over hers, effectively ending the call. It shouldn’t matter that Caitlin wasn’t interested in him in that way, but it did. He wasn’t used to being dismissed by females. Quite the opposite in fact. Women found his appearance appealing and were quite eager to share his bed. Well, all but one woman. The most important one. His mate. Arctos stared at Caitlin, hoping to read her thoughts.

Maybe she’s not yours, the thought gave voice to his fear.

She shifted under his regard and crossed her arms over her chest. Her defensive posture only stoked his anger and sudden insecurity.

Arctos opened his mouth to tell her the truth about what had happened today. Guilt stilled his tongue. How could he explain that he’d not only taken away her future by saving her life, but soon he’d be taking her away from this planet? He couldn’t. Not yet.

He wandered over to the lone window at the front of the cabin. Snow fell in sheets, blotting out the growing darkness. Somewhere out there Michael was waiting for her. Did she love him? The thought lanced his hearts. How could he live with a mate that longed for another? Would fate be so cruel? Arctos sighed and glanced back at Caitlin. In the end, it would not matter for she was his now. The bond could not be broken.

Arctos allowed himself to take one last long look at her. Huddled by the kitchen, she appeared so tiny and defenseless. Anger had brought color back to her face, giving her cheeks a rosy glow. Perhaps not so defenseless, he mused.

At some point, she’d pulled her hat off. Her tangle of golden hair glistened in the firelight like the myriad of stars that surrounded Zaron. He longed to run his fingers through it. To feel its softness once more.

“If you wanted me off the phone, all you had to do was say so,” she said, avoiding his gaze. “Thanks to that little stunt, Michael is going to be worried sick. I wouldn’t be surprised if he puts together a search party to come find me.”

He could try, but there was no way Arctos would let the man anywhere near her. The Goddess might not have spoken, but his actions had sealed their fate. Something primal rose inside of him, snarling and growling, determined to fight to keep its claim. Arctos watched her closely, then quietly said, “He would be a fool to start a search in these conditions.” Though he knew that had their positions been reversed that he’d stop at nothing to find her.

“Mike’s not a fool. He’s a very smart man. In fact, he’s a teacher,” she said. “It was rude of you to hang up on him.”

“I didn’t,” he said. “You did.”

Her mouth dropped open. “I did no such thing.”

“He did not know of my existence. He will believe that you acted of your own freewill.”

She snorted. “By now, he knows all about you, including what you look like. Allie’s probably shown your picture to everyone at the party,” she said, her gray eyes melting into worry.

Good! Arctos was glad that Mike knew, but he made sure not to show it.

Caitlin glanced his way. “Maybe I should phone him back and try to explain.”

“And tell him what?” Arctos asked. “That you intend to spend the night with me? Perhaps the males here react differently than where I’m from, but I would not like to hear that my mate was staying with another man,” he said. “Even if it was a man that she has no interestin.” His voice dropped to dangerous levels, all but daring her to deny the truth.

So much for being stealth on the phone. Yay me.

Her jaw opened and closed a few times as one excuse after another flitted through her mind.  In the end, Caitlin groaned in frustration. “I liked you better when I was asleep,” she snapped.

CHAPTER THREE

Caitlin slipped off her mittens and unzipped her coat, revealing a pink, form-fitting long-sleeved shirt. She dropped the coat and gloves into a nearby chair, then unlaced her boots and toed them off, before shimming out of the bottom of her snowsuit. The movement so similar to the movement she’d made when he’d first come upon her. Those softly rounded globes once again had his full attention.

Arctos’ mouth went dry as he feasted upon the lush curves hidden beneath her protective clothing. He’d known they were there, but he’d greatly underestimated their scale and impact on his senses. His nostrils flared as he inhaled. Her sweet musky scent had returned, banishing the sourness that had arose during her phone conversation. The delicious aroma now permeated the small space, leaving him hard and aching. Self-preservation made him retreat.

“I’ll get us some food,” he said in a low rumble. He hoped the hint of anger disguised his true condition.

Caitlin flinched. “Do you want me to check the kitchen first?” she asked, pointing to the cabinets behind her. “Could save you a trip.”

“I already have. There’s no meat,” he said. “It contains something called beans, but there’s not enough to sustain us if the snow continues to fall.” Arctos rushed past her. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“Wait!” Caitlin grabbed his arm before he made it to the door.

His whole body tensed at her gentle touch and didn’t relax until she released him. Arctos forced his gaze to meet hers. Big gray eyes locked with his and something inside of him melted. “You have nothing to fear from me. I am not crazy,” he said, before he could stop himself.

“I know.” Caitlin’s cheeks bloomed with color. “Sorry that you heard that. Allie can be pretty dramatic, but you didn’t have to hang up on Mike. It wasn’t his fault. He was only trying to help.”

He nodded and started to leave, but she stopped him again. Arctos swallowed hard and desperately tried to ignore the warmth from her fingers seeping into his arm.

“Be careful. Okay? You don’t want to have to tangle with another polar bear,” she said, glancing into the darkness. The sharp tang from her fear burned his nostrils.

Arctos grinned. He couldn’t help it. She may not want him, but she wasworried about him. It was a start. He’d never had anyone worry about him. Not since he’d come of age.

Her concern was unwarranted, yet it still warmed his two hearts. He brushed her face with the back of his knuckles. Arctos didn’t know why he’d done it, only that he couldn’t resist. He’d needed to touch her like he needed his next breath.

Caitlin quivered on contact, but made no move to get away. 

Interesting…

Arctos slowly pulled his hand back, his fingers tingling from where they’d touched. “Do not fear for my safety, Little Cat,” he said. “Any bear should know better than to tangle with me.”

Caitlin’s face glowed with the fire of a thousand suns as she watched him melt into the darkness. Even though the cabin was tiny, she had hoped that Arctos hadn’t heard her mainly whispered conversation with Allie.

Sure her friend had brought up a lot of good points. Caitlin didn’t know anything about Arctos, including his last name, but he wasn’t crazy. Rude maybe, but not crazy. Why had he hung up the phone on Michael? It didn’t make sense. Maybe he was just tired of listening to her talk about him. Okay, so maybe she hadbeen the rude one.

The fact that he’d told her that she had nothing to fear only made her embarrassment worse. He’d looked so hurt when he said it. God, she sucked. Talk about ungrateful.

Caitlin covered her face with her hands and shook her head. Somehow she’d managed to hurt two men’s feelings in one day. First Mike and now Arctos. It had to be some kind of record. She stared at the cellphone and thought once more about phoning Michael back.

Arctos was right. What would she say to him if she did call? Hey, I’m spending the night with a hot mountain man. I’ll catch you later. So not going to happen. She’d just have make it up to Mike once she got back to town. Her heart sank. Suddenly the idea of seeing him again didn’t seem as appealing as it had before. What was wrong with her? She’d never been fickle in her life. It had to be the stress of the day. She’d worry about it, worry about him later.

She had more important matters to consider…like how she was going to apologize to Arctos. There had to be something she could do to make it up to him. He’d saved her life after all.

Caitlin glanced around the small cabin. Her gaze locked on the two cupboards at the back of the room. He’d mentioned something about beans. She crossed the few steps it took to reach the kitchen and threw open the cupboard doors. One held plates, a few cups, a thermos, and silverware. The other had some coffee, a few cans of chili, beans and dried noodles. More than enough for a meal.

“Chili-mac it is,” she said, racing into the other room to retrieve the cast-iron pot.

Pot in hand, Caitlin stared at the door to the cabin as she slipped her boots back on. As much as she wanted to avoid going outside, there was no way around it. She needed snow. She forced herself to cross the room and open the door. Wind whipped her hair around, temporarily blinding her.

Caitlin pushed it aside and scanned the darkness for predators, but it was impossible to see in whiteout conditions. How would Arctos find his way back? Her heart leapt into her throat, choking off her air. What if he was lost in the blizzard? What if he was lying out there now, freezing to death? Don’t think about it. He said he’d be fine.

She clung to that assurance as panic wrapped its vicious fingers around her neck. He’ll be back. He has to come back. Caitlin forced her feet to move. She quickly filled the pot, packing it tight with snow, then slipped back inside, slamming the door behind her. Tears welled in her eyes. She scrubbed them away.

Get a hold of yourself.

She waddled under the weight of the big pot as she made her way to the fire. A small hook inside the fireplace poked out of the brick. Caitlin hadn’t noticed it before, but there was no doubt what it was used for. She hooked the pot handle over the hook, added a couple of logs, and waited for the snow to melt.

Within an hour, she’d downed five cups of coffee and bitten all her nails to stumps. More time passed. Caitlin had never been good at waiting. She much preferred action to sitting around. The wait would’ve been bad enough, but coupled with worry, it became interminable. Caitlin couldn’t remember the last time she’d been thisworried. Not even when Allie had called her and she’d thought there’d been an accident had she been this concerned.

Why?Something was definitely wrong with her. She barely knew Arctos. In truth, she didn’t know him at all. Yes, he’d saved her life. And yes, she was grateful, but he was a stranger. So why all the fear and panic? Was this some kind of weird Stockholm syndrome? It just didn’t make sense.

The door handle jiggled and her heart jumped. A second later the wooden door swung open. Arctos looked like a ghost coming in from out of the snow. Without his snowsuit, he would be impossible to spot…just like the polar bears. A shudder ran through her.

Arctos walked into the room and dropped two large rabbits onto the floor. Their eyes met briefly, then he looked at the table she’d set and frowned. Not exactly the reaction she’d been hoping for. It didn’t bode well for the apology she had planned.

Caitlin looked down at the plate in front of her. The setting wasn’t fancy, but she’d taken care to make it as nice as possible. She had found a clean sheet in a trunk in the bedroom and some candles in the bathroom. Caitlin used the sheet as a tablecloth and lit one of the candles, placing it in a glass to create a pseudo-centerpiece. It was in no way fancy, but she’d thought it looked nice.

Arctos shut the door behind him, but otherwise hadn’t moved from the entryway. “What is this?” he asked, in obvious confusion.

“Dinner,” Caitlin said, her voice losing some of the confidence she’d felt earlier. “I wanted to apologize for earlier.”

“Apologize for what?” he asked.

He wasn’t making it easy. “The phone call, Allie, Michael, everything,” her voice trailed off.

His brow furrowed even more. “What is that smell?”

“Chili-mac.” Maybe he wasn’t a fan of chili-mac. “If you don’t like it, I can try to cook one of the rabbits.” Caitlin had never cooked a rabbit in her life. Her culinary skills were better suited to canned goods and microwaves, than fresh foods. The mold growing in her refrigerator at home could attest to that, but she’d give it a try if that’s what he wanted.

Why was she working so hard to please this man? He was a stranger. After tonight, she’d probably never see him again. For some reason, that made her feel even worse. She had to be exhausted. There was no other logical explanation for why she was behaving this way.

Arctos looked at the pot over the fire, then back at her. “I’ll wash up and be right in,” he said, then walked back outside to scrub his hands in the snow.

Caitlin shivered as she watched. Arctos didn’t seem to notice the cold or if he did, he certainly didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get out of it. Which meant that the only reason he’d stopped earlier was because of her. Caitlin’s heart sank. She’d botched this day up and good. Before he walked back in, she planted a smile on her face and dished up the food.

She’d prepared food for him like a mate would do. Arctos had tried to cover his shock, but he’d failed miserably. While he’d been hunting, he’d convinced himself that the Goddess was mistaken in her choice of mate for him and that the bond had not formed. It made sense given that this woman was already spoken for. He’d heard the man with his own ears. He’d seen her reaction to him.

Arctos had been determined to come back and keep his distance, then he’d smelled the food. Its aroma had wafted on the wind, drawing him to its source. It didn’t take long before he realized the scent was coming from the cabin. Stubbornness alone kept him from acknowledging the truth. He’d purposely stayed out an extra hour to prove that she meant nothing to him. And it had worked…until he laid eyes on her again.

Caitlin had looked so happy, almost relieved when he’d stepped through the door. Her gray eyes had sparkled in the firelight and she’d scooted to the edge of her chair as he walked into the room.

And how had he responded? He’d froze like a deer trapped by a wolf pack. Even his breath had stuttered in his lungs, as his brain fought to catch up with what he was seeing. Arctos knew that cooking him a meal didn’t mean anything to her. At least not the same as it meant to him. But he was having a hard time convincing his beast that was the case. Caitlin now had its full attention and that was never a good thing.

Arctos used the time needed to wash his hands to recover from the surprise and get his beast under control. Breathing deeply, he let the cold embrace him. Even in his human form, he could barely feel it. His body was made for harsher temperatures than the Earth could produce. He scrubbed his hands and arms with snow until they turned bright pink. Knowing he couldn’t put it off any longer, Arctos turned and walked back into the cabin.

Caitlin was smiling when he entered, but her scent didn’t match her expression. She had dished up the food while he was out. It smelled different than anything he’d ever eaten, but he was willing to give it a try for her sake.

“What did you say this is called?” He took a seat across from her.

“Chili-mac,” she said, then picked up her fork and speared a bite.

Arctos watched her chew. She made little humming noises in the back of her throat while she did so. It made him wonder what kind of noises she’d make if they made love. He shifted as his flight suit tightened against his groin, then sniffed the food once more. Caitlin continued to watch him, her gaze reserved, but hopeful.

“Have you ever had chili-mac?” she asked, taking another bite.

“No.” He met her shimmering eyes.

“It’s pretty good, if you like chili.”

Arctos didn’t know if he liked chili, but it didn’t matter. Caitlin had prepared this meal for him and he intended to eat every bite. He lifted his fork tentatively. “Smells good,” he said, not wanting to hurt her feelings. In truth, it smelled odd. The predator in him wanted meat. Though he detected some kind of meat, it wasn’t anything he was familiar with. “What are the red things?” he asked, pushing them around his plate.

“Beans,” she said and frowned a little.

He poked at something else. “And the long pale skinny things?”

“Noodles,” she said slowly. “You’ve really never had noodles and beans before?”

He shook his head. “No, this is the first time. My diet is made up of mainly protein.”

“Ah.” She laughed and her shoulders relaxed a little. “You’re one of those kind of guys.”

Arctos took a bite and chewed it quickly. It actually tasted far better than it looked. Sweet, yet spicy and full of flavor. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, watching her closely. Did she suspect his true nature? Without the final bond, he didn’t know for sure.

“True carnivores,” Caitlin said as if that was obvious.

Arctos nodded in agreement. She had no idea how accurate that statement was.

“I’ve met a few guys like you, but not many,” she said around another bite.

His lips twitched. He could almost guarantee that she’d nevermet anyone like him, but he wasn’t about to correct her. Instead, Arctos plunged his fork into the food and looked at her. “I admit I do love succulent meat. The sweeter, the better,” he said, allowing his gaze to slowly scroll over her from head to foot, before reversing direction. By the time he finished, Caitlin’s ears were glowing.

She cleared her throat. “Yes, well, I’m glad you like the chili-mac.”

“Thank you for making it,” he said. “Had I known you were planning to prepare a meal for me, I wouldn’t have hunted the rabbits.”

“How did you catch them by the way?” Caitlin asked. “I didn’t see any holes, so you couldn’t have used your gun. Did you use a trap?”

Arctos shifted again. He’d caught them with his teeth and claws. He didn’t want to lie to her, but he could hardly tell the truth. “Neither was necessary,” he said, noncommittally. “What are you drinking?”

“Coffee, want some?”

“Sure.” He watched her pour the dark liquid into his cup. It was hot and bitter to the taste, but strangely good. Arctos finished his cup in record time and asked for another.

Caitlin was only too happy to oblige. Arctos seemed to be genuinely grateful that she’d cooked for him. For a minute, she’d thought she had made a huge mistake. Fortunately, when he’d returned from cleaning his hands, he’d been in a better mood. It had bolstered her confidence enough to actually enjoy the meal.

She still couldn’t believe that he’d never tasted beans or noodles. Where had he been living, under a rock? Caitlin would never be able to survive on meat alone. She loved noodles too much.

“So.” She pushed her empty plate back. “Do you live around here?”

Arctos put his fork down. “No, I’m just visiting.”

“Me, too.” She grinned.

“You do not live here?” From his perplexed expression, she could tell he was surprised by her answer.

“Why would you think that?” she asked.

“Because of the bears and Michael. You said--”

She held up her hand, cutting him off. “I don’t want to talk about Mike. Okay? I feel bad enough about the situation. I’ve never stood anyone up before.”

Arctos looked like he had no idea what she was talking about, but nodded in acceptance anyway. “What would you like to discuss?” he asked.

“You,” she said. “I mean you saved my life, but I don’t know anything about you.” Caitlin played with the edge of the material covering the table to give her hands something to do.

“Does it matter?” he asked, his expression serious.

Surprised by his question, she paused. His gaze didn’t waver. If anything it grew even more intense.

“Yes,” she said. “It does to me.”

He sat back and crossed his leg until his foot rested on his knee. “Very well, ask away. I will do my best to answer your questions if that is what you truly desire.”

She dished up more chili-mac onto his plate, then scooted back, mirroring his actions. “How did you get me away from the polar bear?”

“I challenged it,” he said matter-of-factly. “The bear wasn’t about to give you up without a fight…and neither was I.”

Caitlin’s stomach fluttered at his unexpected confession. She pushed the odd sensation aside, not wanting to get sidetracked from the most important point. “What do you mean you challenged it?”

He picked up his fork and took a bite. The tension stretched between them. Caitlin thought for a moment that Arctos wasn’t going to answer, but he surprised her again.

“I fought it in order to protect you,” he said quietly.

Caitlin’s heart sped in her chest. He couldn’t be serious. She’d never had anyone fight for her. Not even on the playground. She wasn’t the type of woman that men fought over, much less took on a bear for.

Sure, she cleaned up well, but Caitlin knew deep down that she’d never be anything but blissfully average. She’d learned that long ago and made peace with it. “Thanks,” she said, knowing it sounded lame and rather unsubstantial under the circumstances.

“Don’t thank me,” he snapped. “I failed.”

Startled by the veracity of his claim, Caitlin slowly looked down at her body and said, “Doesn’t look like you failed to me.”

“You were injured. Horribly,” he croaked, as if it hurt to say the words.

Caitlin didn’t understand where his pain was coming from. They’d survived the ordeal. He should be happy or at the very least grateful. “Without your help, I’d be dead,” she said. “So I’m going to call it a win.”

They fell silent once more. Caitlin took the opportunity to mull over what she’d learned thus far. Not much, she decided, since it was obvious that there was more going on here than she realized.

Arctos cleared his plate. “The meal was delicious.”

“No, it wasn’t, but thanks for saying so.” Caitlin picked up their plates and deposited them in the sink. She just couldn’t let it go. She had to know. “I don’t understand how you managed to fight off a polar bear and only get a scratch.”

“Is it important?” His dark eyes held so many secrets, so many promises. Secrets she was dying to know, but didn’t think she was ready to hear.

“No.” Caitlin shook her head, then added, “It’s just that I’ve never had anyone do something like that for me.”

“I’m sure Michael would’ve done the same in those circumstances,” Arctos said. There was an edge to his voice that hadn’t been there before.

“Doubtful,” Caitlin replied without thinking, then glanced at his side. She hadn’t managed to get him patched up yet. She should’ve done that before he went out hunting. The last thing they needed was for the predators to follow the blood trail back to the cabin.

She might have gotten a scratch, but he’d been injured during the encounter with the bear. Injured defending her. Fighting for her. It was probably why she had so much blood on her jacket. Even though it went against everything that she believed in, Caitlin felt a small thrill from Arctos’ heroics. “Take your shirt off,” she said, reaching for the first aid kit.

Arctos stilled at her uttered command. In his current condition, he didn’t think undressing was a good idea. “Why?” he asked, wondering what she was up to.

“I need to bandage your wound and put some salve on it. We don’t want it to get infected.” She rummaged around in the small metal box.

“It won’t,” he said.

Caitlin stopped what she was doing and looked at him. Her brow rose as she stared. “Don’t tell me that you’re afraid of a little ointment and a bandage. You can take on a bear, but not some medicine that might sting.” She laughed, then went back to gathering materials.

Arctos’ body tensed. He wasn’t afraid of anything—or at least he hadn’t been until he’d met her. He rose slowly out of his seat, then grasped the corners of his flight suit and pulled it apart, baring himself to the waist.

“That’s bett…” The word died on her lips as her gaze locked onto his chest. Her throat worked convulsively as she struggled to speak.

Had he known this would be the effect, Arctos would’ve removed his clothing long ago. It took all of his training as a Phantom Warrior to keep him rooted in place as Caitlin drank her fill.

The last time a woman had looked at him like that she’d ended up on her back with her legs spread wide and his face buried between her thighs. If Caitlin kept this up, she’d find herself in a similar position. The thought was beyond tempting.

He gripped the material to keep from reaching for her. “You asked me to remove my shirt. I have done so,” he said, feeling the hot lick of her hungry gaze caress his overheated skin.

Caitlin cleared her throat. “S-so I did,” she said, breathlessly.

“If you like, I can remove more.” His gaze pinned her in place, daring her to ask for what she so obviously desired.

Her eyes widened and her hands shot out in a halting motion. “No! I mean, no, that’s quite enough. I should be able to take care of everything this way.” She indicated to his side, but her traitorous gaze kept returning to his chest.

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