His to Protect: Chapter One
Axel Jackson surveyed the land on the ridge and all he and his brothers had accomplished in the last nine months. The individual cabins tucked among the trees where he and his brothers lived, the barn that held a few trail riding horses and of course the main Lodge—the Den they called it—that housed the guest rooms and main gathering spaces. They’d worked hard building a place they could call home.They’d had to.
More than that, they’d created a place they could build a life. If you called banishment from everything they’d known, a life. But he did. As the eldest brother, and the alpha, there was no other choice.
He held the letter from his grandfather in his hand. The same letter he’d carried with him for almost a year. The patriarch of the clan, Gordon Jackson was still old school when it came to communication. But it didn’t matter how he chose to communicate, the message was just as old school.
Axel read the words he already knew by heart. “Your failure to protect your clanmate, your sister, has resulted in your banishment from Jackson Valley. Until which time you and your brothers are able to return Kira, unharmed to her proper clan, you will no longer be welcome in the Valley or in the Clan.”
He should rip it up and throw it into the wind. Instead he folded it carefully along the time worn crease lines. And just in time.
“I told you to throw that damn thing away,” his brother, Luke growled as he joined him on the ridge in his bear form. His preferred form. As shifters, they lived by a different code. Another reason why the brothers had chosen the ridge to settle away from the others.
“Better yet,” the youngest of the Jackson brothers, Kade said, coming to stand by Axel. “Burn it.”
Axel tucked it away into his pocket and Luke scoffed. “I don’t know why you bother,” he said. “The old man doesn’t give a shit about us. We shouldn’t care about him.”
“He’s still family. Our family.”
“No,” Kade said. “Family doesn’t disown family because of a choice their sister makes.” He winced and looked out over the ridge. Talking about Kira was hardest for Kade. As her twin brother he felt the most that he’d let her down. Or perhaps that she’d been the one to let him down by choosing a mate in the first place. She’d known the consequences of her actions, alpha females in the Jackson clan didn’t choose their own mates. Period. It was important to protect the lineage of the clan, and it was about more than producing cubs, it was more a business transaction between clan leaders than anything else. Which meant the alpha chose the mate. Not that it had mattered to Kira. She’d fallen in love. No matter what the cost had been to her brothers.
“Bear families do.” Axel knew he was wasting his breath. It was the same argument they’d been having for months. Ever since they’d tracked Kira the way they were told to, but instead of bringing her back to the clan the way their grandfather had commanded, they’d left her to live with her mate and his Kodiak clan. Forcing her to come and leave her mate would have been devastating to Kira. Never mind the war it likely would have sparked between the clans. None of the brothers were willing to do it. They’d decided then and there that together they’d accept whatever punishment their grandfather doled out.
No one had expected banishment.
Axel ran his hands through his thick hair. It had been months since he’d had it cut. A benefit to living on the ridge as far as he was concerned. The bear in him preferred to live a bit wilder. Just not as wild as Luke who was still sitting next to him in his imposing bear form. Luke was much harder to tame. The ridge lifestyle suited him most of all. He’d had the easiest time making the transition. Except when it came to potential mates.
A mate would calm the bear in all of them. And as the wildest of the three, Luke stood to benefit the most from mating. But that was part of the sacrifice. There were no females on the ridge. They were alone. Mating was less and less of an option.
Whatever. He shook his head to focus on the task at hand. There was no point dwelling on what couldn’t be changed. “Is everything ready?”
Kade turned back to face him. The quietest of the three, sullen and almost angry. He’d become even more withdrawn in the last nine months. His dark eyes always looked a little haunted, a little sad. It was the loss of Kira. Twin bears had a unique bond, one even Axel couldn’t hope to understand. It would be better if he let himself grieve her loss. If he’d let himself feel anything. But Kade seemed to have inflicted his own brand of punishment upon himself. “I brought the last of the supplies up on my last run to town. Everything should be in place. All we need now are guests.”
When they’d decided to stay on the ridge, the brothers had come up with the idea to create an eco-tourism lodge that focused on hiking in the summer and back country skiing in the winter. It would be the first of its kind in Montana. Rugged enough to appeal to the adventurous spirit, but cushy enough to be an upscale destination. It was the perfect compromise for the brothers. They may not be able to go home to Jackson Valley to the lives they’d left behind, but it wouldn’t stop them from creating new ones.
“It’s taken care of,” Axel said with a smile. “We have some registered guests coming later in the week, but you guys are going to love this…”
“What are we going to love?”
“Put your bear away,” he said to Luke. “Because I secured a travel journalist from LA who’s going to write a feature on Grizzly Ridge for Lifestyles Magazine.”
“No shit?” That impressed Luke the way Axel knew it would.
“It’s true. And she’s going to be here in the morning with a guest. So seriously, put your bear away.”
Luke grumbled and snuffed into the air, but Axel knew he’d do as he was told. They may have chosen the ridge for its remoteness and ability to shift into their bear form whenever they needed to, but now that there would be humans around, everyone was going to have to be a lot more careful.
* * *
Harper Bentley pulled into her garage and closed it behind her before getting out of the car. The thought of staying inside with her vehicle running flashed through her brain for a second. But only a second. She wouldn’t give that asshole husband of hers the satisfaction.
Well, maybe not yet. But soon. Very soon.
Harper slammed the door to the garage and entered the relative peace of her home. Relative being the key word. Nothing about her house was peaceful. It was cold and glass and…decidedly not hers. It was Trent’s. He’d designed and built it for appearances. Just like everything else in his life.
With a sigh of disgust, Harper grabbed a bottle of wine from the rack, quickly popped the cork and poured herself a big glass before once more pulling the newspaper from her purse. It was already open to page four. The society pages. Where everyone who was anyone made an appearance. That’s what Trent always said and look at him now. By the size of the photo, it was clear that Trent Bentley, co-owner of Bentley Images and Public Relations, was definitely someone. A very gay someone. She tipped the glass back swallowing half the contents easily in one gulp.
Trent’s coming out was already a social sensation. Everyone was talking about it. Too bad they were also talking about her and how as the operating partner of Bentley Images, Harper Bentley clearly didn’t have any kind of handle on image or public relations. It hadn’t taken long for the media to spin everything in favour of Trent the sophisticate and trendy gay man, braving society and coming out with his boyfriend, Blake Johnson, which meant that same media had also done a superior job portraying Bentley as the dumpy, unaware and completely clueless public relations representative who obviously couldn’t handle any of her high profile clients if she couldn’t even handle herself. It had taken less than an hour after Trent’s big reveal to go public for her phone to ring with five of her biggest clients dropping her.
“No doubt to go to the dark side,” she muttered and finished off the rest of her wine. And it hadn’t taken long for the reporters to get a hold of that information, too. Professional, she was effectively dead. Never mind personally, not that Trent’s sexual orientation had been much of a surprise. However, his betrayal had been. Harper grabbed the bottle to pour herself another glass. “Oh, screw it.” Forgoing the glass, she tipped the bottle up to her mouth.
The voice startled her and she choked on the wine, sending her into a coughing fit. When she recovered, she turned and glared at her best friend, Nina. “That wasn’t nice.”
“I’m the least of your problems,” she said. “Besides, you gave me a key for a reason. I wasn’t about to let you drink yourself into oblivion by yourself.”
Harper pushed the bottle away. Nina was right. She was infuriating, but she was right. There was a reason they’d been best friends for years. “How did you know?”
“About the drinking? Or Trent?”
“Both.” She thought better of her hasty decision and reached for the bottle again, but Nina held it out of reach.
“You know I’ve known about Trent for years.” Harper nodded and didn’t look up. They’d both known. But not right away. At first if just seemed like he just hadn’t wanted to have sex. He was too tired, or not feeling good, or had a bad back. But then it was other things, too. On the rare occasions they actually did have sex, it was terrible. More than terrible. Harper may not have had a lot of experience with men, but she knew enough to know it was supposed to be better than that. They’d only been married two years when Trent finally admitted he’d married her as a cover. She’d been hurt certainly. But not enough to leave. Not when their business was finally taking off. They were successful, getting more clients all the time.
Together, they worked well together. They were partners and their relationship was good.
Except for that one small detail.
She should have known once he’d met Blake it would only be a matter of time. He’d had boyfriends over the ten years they’d been married. Most of them discreet, but Blake had been different. Dammit. She should have been strong enough to leave him years ago. On her own terms. She should have been—“Give me the wine.”
Nina shook her head. “No deal. I know this sucks and you’re probably sitting there thinking of all the things you should have done differently.” Harper shrugged. “But getting drunk isn’t going to help.”
“It’s not going to hurt.” She glared at her best friend. “But you’re right. It’s not the solution.” The actual solution came to her in a flash and she pushed up from the chair heading for a fridge. “It’s not like I have an image to worry about anymore. I’m going to eat whatever I want. Starting with this.” She pulled out a half a cheesecake that Trent had brought home a few nights before. Likely to torture her. Knowing she couldn’t eat it on her diet. Her perpetual diet. It didn’t seem to matter what she did, she had curves. Too many curves for Los Angeles, that was for sure.
Screw it. Her career was already circling the drain. Harper grabbed a fork and dug in, savouring the first bite.
“Well at least share with me.” Nina took the fork from her hand and took her own bite before handing it back. “Because I have just the medicine you need.”
Harper raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know if drugs are really the answer right now, Nina.”
“Stop it.” Nina smacked her and laughed. “I’m totally serious.”
“And what is the medicine you offer exactly? Because I need something.”
“I have an assignment to do, and the offer was for two people. You’re going to be my plus one.” Nina was a travel writer and always jetting off to fabulous places where she was wined and dined. And got paid for it. Harper could definitely go for some wining and dining. Especially if it was far away from Las Angeles. Nina grabbed the fork again, but instead of taking another bite, she tossed it in the sink. “Come on. You have to pack, we’re leaving first thing in the morning.”
“What?” Harper let herself be dragged into the bedroom. She had neither the strength or the desire to stop it. Especially if it meant a lavish holiday. “Where are we going.”
Nina turned and grinned. “Manitoba, baby.”
* * *
Something was in the air.
Axel hadn’t been able to sleep and it wasn’t just the anticipation of their first guests. It was something else. Something in his blood that had kept him up. His bear was restless. He had too much to do, and the helicopter was due to land in less than an hour with the journalist. He couldn’t afford to run off into the woods to satiate the animal inside him. There wasn’t time.
Still…he couldn’t afford not too.
Naked, Axel stepped outside into the dewy summer morning. Even on what would be a hot day, the mornings in the mountains were still cool. Perfect. He left behind the steps of his cabin and shifted seamlessly into his bear as he took off for the woods in long, lumbering strides.
He wouldn’t be gone long. Just long enough to calm his bear.
As soon as he hit the trees, he increased his pace, pushing himself further, harder, faster. The exertion was just what he needed to quiet his brain and soothe his spirit.
He scented his brother Luke somewhere in the distance but he wasn’t surprised. Luke spent as much time as possible in his bear form and with the impending arrival of guests on the ridge the opportunity to shift wouldn’t be as forthcoming. Not that Axel was worried about it. They’d all lived among humans in the valley. It had never been a problem. Well, not really.
Where Luke was concerned, there was always a problem or two. All he needed to do was minimize them, at least while guests were around.
Axel growled and snuffed the air as he continued to lumber through the woods. He slowed his pace and pulled up as he arrived at the edge of the forest where the sky opened up to the valley below. The view never failed to calm him. Whenever he was worked up about something, he somehow always found his way to the edge of the mountain to find perspective. He sat heavy on his haunches and inhaled the fresh morning air. The stillness he’d hoped for didn’t come right away. He took another breath. An eagle shrieked as it soared through the valley.
Still, his bear couldn’t be calmed. Not the way he needed it to be.
And he knew why.
At thirty and the oldest of the brothers, Axel was due to take a mate first. If fact, he should have found one years ago. It was the only way for shifters to keep their animal inside satiated. But even before banishment, he hadn’t found a female that was right for him. Of course his grandfather, the alpha of the clan, had tried to impose upon him a deadline to find his own mate, or he’d be mated to a female from a neighbouring clan. The bloodline had to be preserved. Not that it mattered.
Since the banishment, it hadn’t been an issue.
Except it was.
As the oldest, and the alpha of the ridge, Axel’s brothers wouldn’t be able to find a mate until he did. They were all going to have to find a way to distract themselves for the time being. At least until a solution presented itself.
Just then, Axel’s ears tuned in to the sound of a helicopter. Perfect. Their first guests would be just the distraction he needed.
It started as a grumble deep inside, but quickly built in strength and intensity until Axel opened his impressive jaws and let out the roar inside until it echoed against the valley walls as the helicopter dipped and flew directly over head.
* * *
“Did you see that?”
Harper had been staring out the window from the moment they’d taken off. She’d never been in a helicopter before and the view was incredible. She whacked Nina on the arm in an effort to get her attention, but she was still intently focused on her phone and was frantically tapping a message on the tiny keyboard.
“Nina.” Harper shook her sleeve. “Seriously. There are bears out there. Look!”
She pointed again to the ridge and the giant grizzly she’d seen a moment earlier up on his hind legs. Obviously, she couldn’t hear anything, but Harper knew the grizzly was roaring. It sent a shiver through her entire body and straight to her core. Wow, it had been awhile since she’d been laid. The fact that she could find a wild animal, a bear, even slightly arousing was definitely a sign that she needed to scratch an itch. In a very bad way. And that’s just what she’d do…as soon as she was done on the mountain with Nina.
Who was still on her phone!
“Nina! Seriously. Look at that bear.” She pointed out the window where the bear in question had turned and started running back through the woods. As the helicopter flew overhead, the animal almost seemed to keep pace. Harper knew she was having a once in a lifetime experience. To be able to see a grizzly so close up was amazing. And oddly exhilarating. “He’s gorgeous!”
“Gorgeous?” That got her friend’s attention. “Only you would talk about an animal that way. You’re such a horn dog. You seriously need to have sex. With a man,” she added and Harper rolled her eyes. Nina leaned across Harper and looked out the window. “You’re totally right though. That is a magnificent specimen.”
Harper laughed. “Now who’s a horn dog?”
“I’m just saying.” She shrugged. “Maybe we’ll get to see one in person. It is called Grizzly Ridge after all.”
“I hope we don’t,” Harper said even though she did secretly hope they’d see a bear up close. “They’re dangerous and that’s not exactly the type of holiday I was hoping to have.” In fact, she hadn’t been hoping to have the kind of holiday where she was stranded at the top of a mountain in a lodge in the middle of nowhere Montana, either. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. And even if it wasn’t one of Erin’s posh spa assignments, she’d take it. Anything to get away from her life for a bit. Harper turned to look back at the bear, but she couldn’t spot him again. He must have been swallowed up in the forest as the helicopter moved toward the landing pad. It was a good thing anyway. Bears were dangerous. It was probably for the best if he kept his distance.