Teodora Vasquez threw her head back and let the slow spin of beer and music and crowd wash over her. She was almost there. Almost to the buzz that would let her forget the past week. The past month. Maybe the past year…
“Ted!” Tracey shouted at her from the other end of the bar. “Can you help me with this?”
The waitress was carrying two trays of empties and trying to maneuver behind the bar as patrons at the Cave called out orders. The blues rock band playing that night started another set and the volume just got louder.
She stood and made her way over to Tracey. “You know, I’m not working tonight.”
The waitress managed to put the tray on the back counter and turn to glower at the pushy patrons sitting at Ollie’s long oak bar. Ollie was at the other end, pulling pints and keeping an eye on the crowd. No one shouted orders at him. They didn’t dare. “I know,” Tracey said, “but Jena had to leave and I can’t imagine this is harder than surgery, right?”
Ted glanced at the rowdy crowd. “Not too sure about that.”
“Please?” The woman’s gaze was desperate.
“Fine.” She stepped behind the bar, and Tracey hurried to hand her a spare apron as Ted yelled at Ollie, “You owe me one!”
Ollie grunted, but didn’t look away from the taps.
Waiting tables and making drinks wasn’t harder than operating the small medical clinic in Cambio Springs. The buzz she’d almost caught had disappeared with Tracey’s plea, and Ted couldn’t think of anything better than the whirl of activity at the Cave to quiet her mind.
“You’re a lifesaver!” Tracey fixed her mop of wiry curls into a ponytail and washed her hands before she started mixing the list of drinks she’d written on her pad. “Sandra was supposed to work tonight. She was a no-show. I have no idea why Jena had to run out, but it must have been an emergency—Ollie, I need two Blue Moons and a cider—She didn’t even ask. Just told Ollie she was leaving—And a Fat Tire when you get a chance! He didn’t argue.”
He wouldn’t. Jena wasn’t a regular employee. Like Ted, she helped out when Ollie needed her and she wasn’t a flake. She was a chef and owned the only other restaurant in town, the Blackbird Diner. She also had two boys at home and another on the way, thanks to her hot-as-sin new husband, Caleb Gilbert.
“Hope it’s nothing serious.” Ted tried not to worry too much. If it were medical, her phone would already be ringing. She was the only doctor in town.
“I’m sure it’s fine.”
“He call anyone to help behind the bar?”
Ted grabbed a pad and headed out to the floor, nodding along to the music. It was a new band—some boys from Las Vegas—and they were good. The Cave was Ollie’s bar, but all of his closest friends helped out occasionally. It was fun to hang out on quieter nights, and they always drank for free. Jena and Caleb usually got a babysitter for the boys and were there on the weekends when live music filled the bar and things were busier. Jena waited tables and made drinks with Ollie, while Caleb would hang out and keep things from getting too crazy. Having the Cambio Springs Chief of Police in the corner of the room tended to keep out the wilder elements.
Well, the wilder human elements. There wasn’t anything they could do about the shapeshifters. The visiting humans mixed among the locals, never suspecting the large man who served them drinks was a bear on full moon nights. Or the lean guy at the pool table slid into a rattlesnake to sun himself on the hot desert rocks that surrounded the small town. The three brothers nodding along to the band howled at the moon on Friday nights.
And that wasn’t just a figure of speech.
She was picking up empties when she felt warm breath on her neck. She was about to turn and bare claws when she heard his voice.
Son of a bitch.
Alex McCann leaned down and gave her neck an obvious sniff. Ted tried not to roll her eyes. Wolves. It was all about the nose.
“What are you doing here, Alex?”
He took another deep breath and smirked. “Pissing you off and, apparently, turning you on a little.”
“I’m also helping out Ollie. He called and said Jena had to take off. He knew I wasn’t busy tonight.”
“Well, Tracey asked me to help, so you can go home.”
He looked around the chaotic bar and Ted tried to keep a straight face. They were still short-staffed. The Cave wasn’t a large bar, but that night, they were stretching fire code with all the people crammed in to hear the music and let loose on a Friday night.
Apparently, Alex thought so, too.
“I can stay.”
“Don’t you need to get home?”
He cocked his head. “No, I told you—”
“I mean Los Angeles.” She lifted an eyebrow. “Work’s done for the week. Shouldn’t you be scurrying back?”
He looked close, a quiet look of challenge on his face. “I am home, baby. You’ll get used to it eventually.”
She stepped on the toe of his boot and ground her foot down. “Don’t call me that.”
It didn’t do anything but bring up painful memories.
He clenched his jaw and Ted could see the faint golden glow behind his eyes. “Don’t go furry now, McCann.”
“Then keep your claws in, Vasquez.”
She stepped back and smiled. “You only wish my claws were in you.” She was fairly sure there was an old scar or two on his shoulders that proved it.
Alex stepped back, and people cleared a path for him. They always did.
“Patience is a virtue… baby.”
Ted turned back to finish picking up the tables.
Her tables kept her too busy to think about Alex. Too busy to think about their history or how she still—even after years apart—turned toward his side of the bed to reach for him at night.
She’d devoted years to her feelings for him. Years to making a relationship work that probably never should have started anyway. She’d loved him. Almost felt desperate with it sometimes, and Ted hated that feeling. The raw need for him still clawed at her when he was near, as if the wild cat inside her was tearing to get out.
To hurt him? To drag him back? She didn’t know. And she was a person first, not an animal.
Luckily she was too busy to examine it closely when she was balancing a dozen empty glasses on a tray.
Too busy to think about her struggling practice. Too busy to think about her family or the rumbling in the cat clan her mother and great aunt were trying to quell. And definitely too busy to think about the new spa resort Alex was building in the heart of Cambio Springs, the place the Vasquez clan had called home for generations.
Some in town hoped the resort would use the natural mineral springs that gave the town its name to draw wealthy visitors to the luxury resort that McCann Holdings was building. Others worried the secrecy the seven original families of the Springs had carefully maintained for over one hundred years would crumble, and humans would discover that one of the springs, the one hidden in the canyon walls, had turned the original town founders into shapeshifters.
Cats, wolves, snakes, birds, and bears. There had been others marry in, but the seven original families had passed on their strange quirk to their offspring, and now the isolated desert town was unique for more than just the mineral springs. It didn’t matter if your mom or dad married a human. If one of them changed into a bobcat on the full moon, you would too.
“Hey, can I get a beer here?”
“Another round when you get a chance?”
The shouts, laughs, and mild chaos around her had the odd effect of quieting Ted’s mind as she focused on the immediate task. It was what had made her so good in trauma. She’d been in her element during her time in the ER. Part of her hated that she’d had to go into general practice, but that was what the town needed.
And what Cambio Springs needed, Ted gave. That’s the way it had always been. And if giving that meant sacrificing part of her heart, she made the sacrifice.
“Why’s it so slow tonight?” a whiny voice at her next table asked.
“It usually isn’t. Oh my… He is so hot.”
Ted smiled at the table of clueless human women who ordered four margaritas and couldn’t take their eyes off the singer in the corner. He was cute, but Ted had to admit he didn’t hold a candle to the eye candy standing behind the bar, laughing and mixing drinks with a smile and a wink to the girls. Ted knew she wasn’t the only one who noticed.
Ollie and Alex had been friends for years, and while the men didn’t look a thing alike, the easy camaraderie was obvious. At almost six and a half feet tall, Ollie Campbell was a giant. Big arms. Big shoulders. His sun-darkened olive skin was covered with tattoos from wrist to collar. He’d trimmed his beard back to a thick stubble for the summer, and it was still growing out.
Alex, on the other hand, was getting scruffier. Not as tall as Ollie, he still stood an impressive six feet. His frame was leaner, but strong in a way that didn’t come from a gym. Sandy hair and piercing blue eyes. The Southern California business gloss was slowly wearing off of him the longer he stayed in town, and Ted tried not to notice how good it looked on him. It reminded her of when they’d been living together when she was in medical school. He’d had been working construction then, not closing real estate deals. Rough and callused, when he came home dusty at night, he reminded her of home.
That animal attraction hadn’t lessened between them, Ted had just gotten better at ignoring it.
She also ignored all the women flirting with Alex.
The Cave was the unofficial boundary line of Cambio Springs, so humans came in to drink the beer and listen to the quality bands that The Cave managed to pull in, but they didn’t linger in town. Most were just passing through. The few who showed more interest were quietly discouraged, mostly by Ollie or any of the other bears in her friend’s clan who acted as the unofficial guardians of Cambio Springs.
She saw Ollie smirk at her and knew he’d caught her watching Alex. She rolled her eyes and rushed to another table. Ollie may have been Ted’s second or third or fifth cousin, but he was one of Alex’s best friends, too. And he had opinions. Quiet opinions, but he hadn’t held them back.
“He’s back now, Ted. Work your shit out. You guys belong together.”
Simple problem. Simple solution. Typical bear.
Sure, Alex was back. Until the resort was finished, and then Ted had little confidence he’d stick around. He’d misled her too many times.
When are you coming home?
“As soon as I can.”
“Don’t say we need to move on.”
“Give me a little more time, Tea.”
“Soon” had turned into seven years. Seven years since Alex McCann had broken her heart. Then he came back and got her hopes up before he’d disappeared again. Ted had learned her lesson.
No more Alex. No third chances. Time to move on.
But Ollie wanted the people around him content and happy, and she knew he missed when Alex and Ted had been together. She was his family and Alex was his best friend. In Ollie’s opinion, the solution was obvious. Get over it and move on with their life together. The problem was, Ollie believed Alex was staying in the Springs—which Ted didn’t, even a little—and the bear’s heart hadn’t been broken one time too many by the wolf behind the bar.
She sidled up to the bar with a pad full of orders just as the band started in on an edgy rock cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Ted risked a glance at Alex. It was one of their songs. She remembered dancing in their tiny kitchen in Venice Beach, Alex singing the lyrics in her ear after a particularly bad day.
They’d grown up together, been friends before they were lovers. And sometimes, she missed that most of all.
“Take a break.”
He stood behind her; she didn’t even need to look to know. The band had taken off at midnight and someone put a Lucinda Williams tune on the jukebox. Fast enough to dance to, but slow enough to hold your partner close. Exactly the kind of music that Alex had always liked.
He knew what he was doing.
“Can’t.” The crowd had died down. She and Tracey were cleaning up the floor. It was after midnight, and her mind was clear. If she went home now, she’d sleep well. If she danced with Alex, she wouldn’t sleep well for a week. As much as she hated it, he still had that affect on her.
“Dance with me, Ted.” He slipped a hand around her waist to pull her back from the table she’d been clearing. “Just a… friendly dance.”
She scoffed. “Right.”
“Friends dance.” He leaned closer, his heat pressing against her side. She could smell more than a hint of bourbon on his breath and wished it didn’t draw her in. By the ease of his voice, he was buzzed and close to being drunk. At that sweet, goofy place that made him even harder to resist.
She patted the hand at her waist. “Make sure you get Jim or Ollie to drive you home.”
“You told me we were friends, remember?”
She had. In a moment of weakness, after Ted had loaded her oldest friend into her Jeep so Caleb could drive her to the hospital in Indio. In those moments when the prospect of losing Jena had terrified them both, she’d turned to Alex. Held on. She needed a friend, and he’d been there.
“Yeah, so? We can be friends.”
“Friends dance with each other, Ted.”
“Fine. One dance.” Just to prove that she could. She dropped the rag and turned to him, letting Alex guide her between the tables and toward the small open floor by the juke box. He held her loosely, and Ted set her hands on his shoulders.
One dance. Between friends.
She ignored the happy purr of her lion and tried to lean away from his body, but Alex still managed to surround her. With his arms, his scent, and that indescribable hum that always seemed to follow him. Like a live wire, her body reacted. She could feel the spark of awareness as he scented her.
He leaned in, his rough voice licking along her nerves.
“You smell good.”
“That’s surprising, considering how hot the bar is.”
His grin was lazy. “You always smell good.”
“You lived with me long enough to know that is not true. Are you getting senile in your old age?”
“Why are you so mean to me?”
So I don’t fall for you again.
“Why do I like it so much?”
He laughed, his chest rumbling against hers, and Ted felt her skin light up, ready for his touch. She could feel the hair on the back of her neck rising and her arousal spike. She started to push away, but Alex took a deep breath and pulled her tighter. He leaned down, his eyes narrowed on her face and his lips coming dangerously close. He blinked, and she knew he was feeling the bourbon he’d been sipping all night behind the bar.
“When we get back together, would you be okay with adding on to your house or should I look for a bigger place before we have kids?”
She dropped her arms. “Right. No more dancing.”
“This is your idea of a friendly conversation?’”
Even drunk, he still had a comeback. “Friends get married, have lots… and lots of mind-blowing sex, and procreate. Are you saying I shouldn’t look for a bigger house?”
“Friends don’t have sex.”
She didn’t even respond, just turned and walked back to the table.
“Ted!” He tried to follow her, laughing a little, only to trip over the leg of a chair that Tracey had propped up while she cleaned. Ted ignored him and darted into Ollie’s office, intent on escaping before Alex could catch up with her.
She almost ran smack into the bear. Ollie held up his hands in defense. “What’s chasing you, kitty cat?”
Only Ollie was allowed to call her “kitty cat” and survive. Mostly, because he could smush her, even when she was a hundred pound mountain lion.
“An annoying mutt you asked to help at the bar tonight.”
“Ah.” Nodding, Ollie stepped aside. “You know he misses you, right?”
“Yeah, it must be hard to lose your fall back plan.” She gathered her purse and grabbed for the light sweater she carried to ward off the night chill. She started pulling it on as Ollie stood in the hall.
“Is that what you think? Really?”
She didn’t say anything. Put on sweater. Grab keys. Ignore rational bear.
“Come on, Ted. Things are different now. Have you considered talking to him about it? You know he’s not moving back to LA.”
“No.” She gripped her purse in both hands and clenched her eyes shut. “I don’t know that.”
“He says he’s back for good. You don’t believe him?”
“No.” Even though a part of her heart wanted it to be true, she didn’t trust that part. Her heart had let her down too many times.
“I can take a lot of shit, Ollie.” Her voice was hoarse; she cleared her throat. “But I’ve been down that road before. More than once. I’m not setting myself up just to get knocked down again.”
Damn Alex. She’d come out tonight looking for a little peace among the crowd, not an emotional slap in the face. Ted shook her head and walked to the office door, only to see Ollie pressing a hand to Alex’s chest, holding his friend back. His friend who had obviously been listening to their whole conversation.
Ted ignored the bare pain on her former lover’s face.
She looked up at Ollie and whispered, “Thanks a lot. Don’t call me for a favor anytime soon.”
Neither one said anything when she walked out the door.
If the crowds didn’t work, then maybe wine would.
Ted took a long sip of red wine and leaned back in the recliner she’d stolen from her mom’s house. It had been her dad’s. On days she missed him, sitting in it felt like the big warm hugs that had filled her childhood. She’d closed her eyes for approximately thirty seconds when the knock came at the door.
“Oh, for the love of…” She swung her legs down and stood, marching toward the door.
If it was Alex, she was going to kill him. She’d done grunt work at the medical examiner’s office in LA. She read Patricia Cornwell. She could figure out how to kill someone and make it look like an accident. Probably.
If not, the jail time might be worth it.
“Alex, for the last time—” She realized it wasn’t Alex before the door swung all the way open. “Allie?”
The petite blonde’s face was swollen and red. She sniffed but said nothing. Her eyes shone with tears in the lamplight.
“Allie, what on earth?”
Ted started pulling her into the house, every protective instinct on alert. A car door slammed in the dark, then Jena was walking up the path.
“What’s going on? Is someone hurt?”
“Not exactly. Do you have wine? Please tell me you have wine.” She put a hand on her five months’ pregnant belly. “I’m out, and Caleb only drinks beer.”
Jena looked exhausted too, though not as wrecked as Allie. Both walked into the house in silence.
Ted said, “Will someone just tell me—”
“Joe left me.”
Allie’s voice was so soft, Ted barely caught it.
Her mind wanted to scream, Oh thank you, Lord. Finally!
Luckily, she held back.
“What happened? I mean, I knew you guys were having problems, but—”
“He just took off. Left me and the kids. Walked out while we were sitting down for dinner.”
“It was meatloaf.”
“You make excellent meatloaf.”
“He said he didn’t want to be married anymore. Like it was no big deal.”
Ted was going to kill him. But not before she neutered the scrawny coyote.
Jena said, “That’s why I left the Cave. Kevin called my cell.”
Allie started to cry. “What kind of man leaves his fourteen year old son to clean up his messes?!”
“A shit one.”
“Ted!” Jena said, making hugging motions with her arms and pointing toward Allie.
“What?” she hissed. “You know I’m not good at the comforting thing. Joe is an asshole, and Kevin is an awesome kid who shouldn’t have to deal with his father’s shit. He’s a douchebag.” She huffed out a breath. “Man, that feels good. I’ve wanted to say it for years.”
Jena said, “Glad to know it’s all about you, Ted.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“My babies…” Allie didn’t even hear her, but Jena glared. “Oh, God. He was a jerk to me, but they loved their daddy. What am I gonna do?”
It was true. Joe had gotten Allie pregnant her senior year and planted three boys and a girl in her before Allie finally said “enough” after the birth of Loralie four years before. Joe seemed to love being a dad, and Allie had four kids under the age of fourteen. Before the base had closed and he lost his job, they’d struggled, but they’d all still laughed a lot.
But laughter over the past three years had been scarce, and Ted had suspected more than once that Joe was stepping out on her friend. They’d been friends once. All of them. Close friends. But Ted hadn’t thought of Joe as anything but Allie’s asshole husband in a long, long time.
“Friends get married, have lots of mind-blowing sex, and procreate.”
Alex’s words—meant to tease—now taunted her.
Talk about a lesson learned the hard way.
No Alex. Never again. Even if he really did stay in town and they could manage to be friends, it could never be anything more. It wasn’t just about them, and the consequences of screwing that up were too severe for everyone.
She hugged a crying Allie to her chest as Jena grabbed a bottle of wine and a glass from the kitchen. But in the back of her mind, she heard Alex whisper.
“Dance with me.”