Markus Reussmin is a wolf shifter who’s worked as a Stone Ridge deputy for over a decade. Over the last couple of years, he’s had a few people comment on how he doesn’t look as if he’s aged a day, but he’s always laughed it off as good genes. After all, he isn’t ready to go into hiding so he can reappear after a decade with a new reinvention of himself.
When the sheriff’s department receives a report of smoke in a remote part of the forest, Markus is dispatched to check it out. He hikes into the area and discovers a rudimentary campsite. That’s not all. The site is occupied by none other than his mate…judging by the delicious scent pervading the area.
With the help of his shifter nose, Markus locates the hiding human—Ronan Dyer—who turns out to be wary and untrusting of law enforcement. That makes sense, since he’s hiding from the government. Can Markus convince the skittish human he’s not the bad guy so he can help him, even as he explains the complexities of shifters and matings before his pack’s mountains are invaded by government stooges?
Whistling softly, Markus Reussmin strolled down the street. He peered around town, taking in the morning bustle. All around him, Stone Ridge was coming to life, and he loved watching it.
Shopkeepers waved to each other as they unlocked their doors. There were several parents holding their young children’s hands as they escorted them into the elementary school. Even a couple of brave souls sat at outdoor tables drinking coffee and exchanging gossip.
Miss Martha’s Muffins was already in full swing, and the delicious aroma of pastries and hot coffee pervaded the street. He knew many of the parents would pass through their doors after dropping off their youngsters. It was a hot spot for locals to catch up on the latest news. As he passed the bakery, the bells on the door of the small shop jingled as a customer hurried inside, getting out of the spring chill.
Turning to look back, Markus spotted Miss Martha herself—who was really Misses Martha Warren—standing in the doorway. The middle-aged woman’s husband had passed away three years before. Her shop had been her saving grace, keeping her occupied and surrounded by supportive friends, family, and townspeople.
According to the local gossip, Martha had even been making noise about starting to date again.
Markus wished her well in her search for a new husband.
Martha held up a cup of coffee and wiggled it. “Coffee, Deputy?” Then she must have spotted the travel mug Markus carried in his left hand, for her features morphed into a teasing pout as she started toward him. “So that’s why you didn’t come in.” Then she lifted her other hand, which held a small paper sack. “But surely you don’t want to skip out on a morning bear claw?”
Taking the few steps necessary to reach her, Markus smiled at the blonde-haired woman. While she was a little overweight, probably from enjoying a few too many of her wares, she had a friendly smile. Her brown eyes glimmered with happiness, and her cheeks were a rosy color, maybe from baking.
“Thank you, Miss Martha,” Markus stated, reaching for the bag. “That’s awful nice of you. I’ll be in to pay for it on my lunch break.”
“Oh, don’t you even worry about that,” Martha responded, shaking her head. “How about I meet up with you for your lunch instead?”
Well, fuck. Guess those guys passing on the rumors were actually warning me.
“I appreciate the thought, Miss Martha,” Markus began slowly, racking his brain for a nice way to let the human down. “But I never know where I’m going to end up during the day or even what time lunch could end up being.”
As a wolf shifter, he knew by scent that she wasn’t his mate. He had no desire to lead her on, since Fate could bring his mate to him at any moment. Besides, he preferred male company to female, not that he advertised that since he didn’t date…anyone.
For a second, disappointment creased her features. It disappeared almost instantly to be replaced by a beaming smile. “Well, since you’re so busy, you should let me know what time you get off work. It sounds like you could use a home-cooked meal.” When Martha swept her gaze over Markus’s frame, a definite gleam of interest lit her brown eyes. “Although, you don’t look like you’ve aged a day in the last ten years.” Meeting his gaze, Martha fluttered her eyelashes at him. “When you come over for dinner, you’re gonna have to tell me your secret.”
Markus chuckled uncomfortably. “Uh, well, I can tell you now,” he told her. Before she could counter, he quickly added, “I keep a small herd of animals and have a large greenhouse. For the most part, I only eat what I butcher or grow.” Holding up the bag, Markus smiled as he added, “Of course, your wonderful bear claws are the occasional exception.” Then he turned and took a step in the other direction. “Thanks again, Miss Martha. I’ll be in when I can to settle up. I gotta get on with my patrol now.”
“Oh, of course.” Martha moved to stand beside him once more, holding the coffee. “Did you want me to pour this into your travel mug? It’s black, just how you like it.”
“No thanks, Miss Martha,” Markus declined. “My mug’s still almost full.” It was a good thing humans couldn’t scent lies like shifters could. The mug was actually almost empty. “See you later, ma’am.”
Markus hoped using honorifics would get his disinterest across.
No such luck.
Martha laughed and waved as she called, “Call me Martha, Markus. You’re making me feel old.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” Markus told her, although he recalled the other four times she’d told him that. Guess that should have been a sign. “Have a good morning.”
Then Markus reached the crosswalk and hurried across, feeling relieved that there wasn’t any traffic to hold him up. As he resumed his patrol, he placed the bag in his left hand, tucking it between a couple of fingers. That allowed him to hold the bag and mug at the same time. Markus needed his right hand free in case he needed to access the walkie-talkie on his shoulder…or his service weapon.
Of course, if that ever happened, Markus would just toss the stuff in his left hand and retrieve it later.
Markus would never tell Martha, but he didn’t care for how she brewed her standard cup of coffee. Her iced lattes were good, however, but it was too cold for them. As he held the bag in his hand, he had to acknowledge that nothing beat her bear claws.
Well, maybe Brad’s cinnamon buns, but I sure as hell would never tell her that.
Brad Nadeau was a polar bear shifter who ran a bakery in Colin City, a town almost forty-five minutes away on the windy mountain roads.