Loaded for Bear (Bear Country Grizzlies Book 2)(10)

By: Layla Nash & Callista Ball

"I hope we see something," she said, glancing up as Cooper reappeared with water, sodas, some snacks, and a fresh ice pack. He winked at her and Ethan wanted to growl, but the kid retreated fairly quickly, so Kira had to call her thanks after him as Cooper disappeared inside. She took a deep breath and tapped the map with conviction. "Or that the cameras have seen something. I can't write up a study on the territory and ranges of wolverines in the Pacific Northwest if we don't have any data."

"Wolverines?" Ethan wanted to laugh. "That's what you're studying?"

"They're noble animals," she said, lifting her chin and looking imperiously at him. With the swelling in her jaw, it made for quite an impression. "Well, they're scavengers. Fierce. One of the scariest animals in the world, and very few people ever see them. Well, outside of comic books and the movies – but admiring the animal on a movie screen doesn’t always translate to protecting them in real life. They were almost hunted to extinction, and even now we estimate fewer than three hundred live in the lower 48." Kira took a deep breath, shaking her head as she went back to looking at the map, and her voice lowered. "When I look at them, I see all the endangered predators. All the at-risk populations that humans have driven out of their natural habitat. It's scary to think that some day, there won't be wolverines in the world. There might not be wolves or bears or mountain lions. And wouldn't that be lonely?"

Ethan's breath caught at the sadness in her tone. Lonely. As if the loss would be a personal one. And he wondered why she felt that way. He felt the same, though it was more from the fear of losing other bear shifters, since they, too, were endangered. He and Simon and the rest of the bears at the Lodge all faced the peril of a world with no other shifters. Since humans discovered shifters lived among them, it seemed as though the two-natured were being targeted in some parts of the country and were dying out faster than age and injury could account for. She had a big heart, to feel so deeply for animals.

And part of him hoped she might feel the same way about shifters, if she even believed they existed.

He managed to nod, suddenly aware of how long the silence had stretched. "It would be, very much. Some people find it creepy when the wolves start howling at night, but I always thought it was... friendly. They're calling their loved ones. Sharing news."

Kira smiled more as she looked at him, and relief washed through Ethan as it looked like the swelling retreated from her jaw. The anti-inflammatories must have kicked in. He glanced at his watch, then tilted his head at the Lodge. "Are you hungry?"

She took a deep breath and started to stand, grimacing a little as she said, "Yep. Sometimes I think I'm always hungry."

But the way she looked at the door to the Lodge made it clear she didn't want to set foot inside. Ethan didn't mind. He didn't want to share her with Simon or the guys or even the guests. He wanted to monopolize her time, to save the music of her voice for himself, to be the only one who made her smile or huff that soft laugh. So he pushed to his feet first and gently nudged her to stay in the chair. "Nah, you hang out here. It'll be crowded in the dining room, with all the guests who showed up today. I'll grab a couple of plates and bring them out here, if that's okay with you?"

She practically beamed at him as she sprawled across the massive chair, suddenly more relaxed than she'd been since she arrived. Ethan would have purred in satisfaction but tried to act naturally as she smiled. "That would be great."

"Right. Okay," he said, a little gruffer than he intended, and he headed for the kitchen.

Inside, voices and clattering silverware made quite a ruckus coming from the dining room, and Ethan exhaled in relief to know he didn't have to sit through another group meal. Simon stood in the kitchen, frowning at a pot of boiling water, and glanced up as Ethan strode in and started collecting dishes. "Everything going okay?"

The tone of his voice made Ethan pause, once more suspicious of Simon's intent. He faced his friend and battle buddy, trying to trust the man. "Spill already. What the hell are you up to?"

Simon leaned against the counter and nodded at the boiling water. "Coop thought Kira wouldn't be able to chew much, so he put some potatoes on to boil in case mashed potatoes were easier to get down."

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