Hero Bear: BBW Paranormal Bear Shifter Romance

Chapter One

 

 

Caleb Bentley was getting used to cooking supper for two, and he didn’t like it one bit. He put the bowl of turnip greens on the table next to the mashed potatoes, then went back to the oven to get the cornbread out. He hardly limped anymore when he walked. Nobody would know anything was wrong with him unless they knew him.

The problem with living up in a tiny town like Salem Creek was that everybody knew him already, and what had happened to him. But none of them knew the full story, just Dalton, his brother.

“You’re gonna make somebody a hell of a wife someday.” Dalton came into the kitchen, drying his wet hair with a towel. The two brothers shared the same blue eyes and dirty blond hair, but Dalton had the wiry frame of someone who worked hard for a living, and Caleb looked like what he was: a jarhead who’d spent a lot of time in weight rooms.

“Never happen.” Caleb shook his head. “Can’t make cornbread unless it’s from a mix.”

He tilted the hot bread out of the skillet onto a plate and cut the round into wedges. The skillet he carefully set on the stove for now— that cast-iron beast had been in the family for fifty years and he wasn’t going to be the one to ruin the seasoning on it.

“You hide the Martha White bag and no one will ever know. Git down, Lucille.” Dalton spoke the last to his brown and white spotted beagle, who’d hopped in a chair and was sniffing the air hopefully. Lucy gave Dalton a mournful look but jumped back down.

Dalton started helping himself to the plate of pork chops while Caleb sat. With just the two of them, it was probably silly to dirty serving dishes when they could eat out of the pans just as easy, but Mom had always been dead serious about how supper was served.
“Family eats together at the end of the day. If you’re anywhere nearby, I better see you around this table come six o’clock.”
She’d taken Caleb’s deployment hard, but as far as he knew, at least Dalton had never missed a supper.

As soon as Caleb was off his feet, the pain hit in his left foot. He grimaced while they both bowed their heads so Dalton could say grace. His foot felt like it was on fire. Caleb opened his eyes and looked at it under the table. Stupid thing was made of plastic and metal, it
couldn’t
hurt. The real thing was long gone, turned into a red mist on the side of a road in Iraq. He made himself focus on the prosthetic coming out of his shoe.
Not real. No nerve endings.

He missed the end of grace and belatedly muttered “Amen,” then started to eat. The fire in his imaginary toes started to fade away, but not before Dalton caught what was going on.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” Caleb buttered his cornbread. Martha White was never going to be as good as Mom’s, but it wasn’t bad. Better than that yellow, sweetened shit they served to Marines and called cornbread. “Just hurts some. Doc said it was normal.” It was mostly true. The docs at the VA hospital told him that phantom limb pain usually went away after a few months, but it was going on a year, and it was still happening.

“Dinner’s good.” Dalton changed the subject. “Bet you could go to cooking school if you wanted to.”

Caleb snorted. “Can you picture me hulking around some little kitchen?” He could, though, and damn Dalton for seeing through him. Caleb didn’t want anything fancy, just maybe a little diner somewhere, some place for home cooking. He might as well wish for the moon. “You got a gold mine hidden somewhere you haven’t told me about?”

“You know, Dylan Ellis was sayin’ that the GI Bill covers all sorts of school. And you know they’ve got a program over at Pikeville—”

“No.” He wasn’t going to go that route. That wasn’t why he was a Marine.

They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Dalton said, too casually, “Saw a sign up that says Smithson’s is hiring.”

“Yeah?” Caleb was ready to go back to work. Eager to, even. Problem was, the biggest employer in town was East Kentucky Coal, and they weren’t about to hire a guy missing half his left leg. Didn’t matter that he could do the job— he knew he could. He’d worked in the mines with Dalton and their dad the summer before he enlisted; he knew what it took.  But about a week after he’d come home to stay with Dalton, the foreman at the mine had shaken his head and apologized. No openings. Wouldn’t be any for months. A week later, four new men started the day shift. So if he had to apply to be a cashier or a stockboy at a mom and pop grocery store— well, he would. “I’ll stop by there tomorrow after PT.”

“How’s that going?”

“Good, real good.” He’d been working with Marty at Salem Creek Rehab for two months now, and even though the pain was still there, his strength and balance with the prosthetic leg were worlds better. Marty was a good guy. He knew how it was for vets. “You going hunting tonight?”

“Reckon I might.” Dalton had slowed down eating, like he wasn’t about to starve to death anymore. “Got any requests?”

“Not possum.” Most folks around Salem Creek supplemented their groceries with a gun or a reel, but not the Bentleys, nor any other family in up in Bear Pine Holler. They didn’t need either. Lucille was just for show, too. She’d never been hunting in her life. The Bentley men all had a bear spirit deep inside them— at least that’s what their granddad had always said. They could take the form of a bear as quick as you please. Among other things, it was a huge advantage for hunting. “Deer?”

“Not in season,” Dalton said.

“Not like you’re gonna get caught, now is it?” Caleb didn’t think about running in the woods under the moonlight, feeling the earth under four paws, scenting the breeze.

“Yeah, but what do you think is gonna happen if I show up at Jensen’s with a deer for him to process?”

Caleb forced a grin. “Tell him I hit it with the truck.”

“No deer.” Dalton was a stickler for the rules sometimes.

“Well don’t whine at me when we run out of venison before fall.” Caleb stole another piece of cornbread and buttered it.

“You sure you don’t wanna come with me?” Dalton said it with the same casual tone he’d mentioned the job. “You’re better at scenting than I am.”

“No, somebody’s gotta stay here and look after your smelly old hound.” It was what he’d said every time since he came home, and Dalton laughed, like he always did.

“Don’t talk mess about my dog, she’s sensitive.”

“So’s my nose, and she
stinks
.” They grinned easily at each other and silently agreed to ignore the real problem: Caleb’s bear was gone, and had been since Iraq.

 

 

“You can do this,” Michaela Baker told her reflection. She straightened her scrubs and double-checked her hair. She’d been lucky to get the job at Salem Creek Rehabilitation Center. Right now it was mostly fill-in and emergency work, but she had hopes of having her own patients soon. She’d taken the chance anyway. It was a small miracle anyone had hired her at all. No way she could mess it up on the first day. She checked the time and scooped up her keys and gave one last look around her small townhouse. It wasn’t a bad little place. With a little more time she could make it nice and homey.

She walked out her front door and waved to her neighbor, Miss Harvelle. The townhouse was part of a duplex, and the two women shared a wall and a laundry room in the basement.

Miss Harvelle was watering the flowers in front of her stoop. “You ready for your first day?”

“If I’m not, it’s too late now.” Michaela locked her door behind her. “Flowers are looking good this morning.” Miss Harvelle was old enough to be Michaela’s grandma. Her two passions in life were her garden and her neighbors.

“You stop by when you get home, I’ve got some tomatoes ready for you out back.” She gestured with the hose, splashing the lawn.

“Yes, ma’am.” Michaela unlocked the door to her weary old Buick and got in. “Have a good day!”

So far Salem Creek was exactly what she’d hoped for when she moved here a month before: quiet, friendly. It matched the stories her mom used to tell her about her own hometown, a little to the east over in Virginia. Finding a clinic to work in out here had been a godsend. After what happened in Louisville, her career as a physical therapist could have been over forever. All she had to do was just keep her nose clean and she could put the whole ugly business behind her.

You don’t say anything, and we can forget this ever happened
, taunted a voice in her head.

There wasn’t exactly a rush hour in Salem Creek, so fifteen minutes later, Michaela was pulling into the parking lot Salem Creek Rehab shared with a nail salon and a dollar store.

“And here she is! You ready to go, honey?” Dottie was the clinic manager, receptionist, and all-around woman in charge. Middle-aged, with improbably red hair, she knew everybody in town and kept things running.

“Morning. I am, just point me in the right direction.” Michaela didn’t have any regular patients yet, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t have work to do.

To prove her right, Dottie said, “Marty called out today, his boy is sick. Do you mind covering for him?”

The question was purely rhetorical. “Not at all.”

Dottie beamed and handed her a stack of files. “Here’s who you’ll be seeing. Nothing too complicated.”

That was a lie too— Michaela already knew that Marty was the one who got the tough cases: long-term chronic pain, recalcitrant patients. When she’d come in for her interviews, Marty was the one who was always busy. It was going to be a hectic day. She was grateful— that was exactly what she needed for her first-day jitters.

She took the files and settled into the clinic’s one office to catch up on who she’d be working with. Arthritis, slipped discs, bursitis, rheumatism— the average age in Salem Creek was pretty high, and the records showed it. Her attention was snagged by the one outlier: a twenty-seven year old amputee. She’d worked with amputees back at Silverwood Clinic in Louisville, and most of them had been veterans like Caleb Bentley. She could expect one of two things: either he’d be arrogant and stubborn as hell, or he’d be grimly determined, the grimness maybe camouflaged by humor, maybe not. Either way, she could see why he was Marty’s client.

The day started off easy, working with a local teacher and her slipped disc, showing someone’s grouchy old grandpa how to exercise his arthritic hands. She didn’t mind the grouch— she knew the type. These stoic old mountain men hated like hell to show any sign of weakness, and admitting pain to a twenty-five year old girl was their idea of hell.

The work kept her busy and happy, and she’d forgotten all about Caleb Bentley until he walked into the door. Her first thought was surprise that he didn’t have to duck to get through the doorway. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall, had to be. His shoulders filled the door frame. It was like seeing a mountain move. Nobody was ever going to call Michaela petite, on any scale, but she felt dwarfed. Every bit of it was muscle, too. If that weren’t bad enough, his face was perfect: square-jawed with clean angles, bright blue eyes, a nose just slightly crooked— she’d bet he’d broken it at least once— all framed with close-cropped blond hair. A gargantuan Adonis just walked in, and he was all hers. Sort of.

She shook herself and gave her unprofessional thoughts a scolding, trying to focus on what was important. His gait with the prosthesis was solid and strong— he’d learned to trust it. Below the knee amputations were easier to deal with, often, and he was no exception. His file said he had problems with phantom limb pain. Michaela sure didn’t see any other problems he had to work with.

“Hi, I’m Michaela.” She stepped forward, offering her hand. “I don’t know if Dottie mentioned it, but Marty’s out today, so I’ll be working with you, if that’s all right?”

His hand engulfed hers, and the sensation of heat was nearly overwhelming. It wasn’t like she hadn’t had attractive clients before, but lord have mercy, not like this. He looked her over appraisingly. Michaela knew she’d come up wanting. She was cute enough, if you liked them round and a little bit mousy, which he wouldn’t. Finally he let go of her hand. “Haven’t seen you around here before.” God, even his voice was perfect, not the slightest bit out of place, rumbling out of that enormous body. His accent was pure Kentucky boy, the edges softened by what she assumed were years away from home while he was serving.

“Today’s my first day,” she chirped, then winced, rushing to add, “not my first day as a physical therapist. My first day here, I mean. You might have to show me the ropes.”

He barely cracked a smile at her joke. Great. He’d be the humorless type. “Where are you from?”

She led him over to the equipment and started to set it up. “I moved here from Louisville about a month ago.”
Yeah, that’s right, I’m an outsider. Are you going to have a problem with it?

“City girl,” he said, and finally gave her a glimmer of a smile.

She’d work with that. “That’s right, so you better watch out for my evil ways. Now. Tell me how things are going. Are you still having pain?”

“A little.”

Lucky thing, Michaela’s translator from Marine to normal human worked just fine.
A little
probably meant the pain he felt would bring a civilian to their knees. “I see Marty’s had you doing visualization exercises. Have you ever done any mirror therapy?” She gestured to the bench and stood by as he climbed onto it, ready to assist if he needed— whether or not he wanted it.

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