The Siberian’s Winter by Lucy Farago
Winter had seen men doing a lot of dumb things in her life, but what exactly did frozen nuts prove? Now, survive an Arctic storm with nothing more than your skivvies and that was impressive. But given the fine ass emerging from the icy lake, she might just have to make an exception in his case. Yup, no shrinkage there. She guessed she should turn around and give him some privacy as he jammed wet, perfectly formed thighs into cargo pants, but, hey, who told him to get naked where she could stumble on him? She just wished she meant that figuratively.
She could accidently trip, roll down this hill, and be on him in six, maybe eight seconds, tops. But she wasn’t that kind of girl. With one very unhappy exhalation, she opted to be decent and averted her eyes, waiting for the far-too-hunky hiker to finish dressing.
She’d carved a well-worn path through this part of the Rocky Mountains with her morning jogs, so, clearly, this wasn’t a secluded spot down to the lake. Given his proximity to FUCN’A, she’d have to question him. The Furry United Coalition was using the guise of an animal rescue to hide the newbie academy behind its stone walls, and it wouldn’t do to have a stranger discover it was a training facility for new cadets. Humans weren’t ready to know they weren’t alone on this planet. Humans weren’t ready for a lot of things.
Winter leaned against a tall oak, using it as a scratching post when a back itch overtook her. She moaned, the relief from the rough bark penetrating her sweat-sodden T-shirt and nylon jacket. She was actually a little jealous of the dude in the lake. She missed the feel of nature against her naked flesh, cool earth beneath her claws. But shifting wasn’t an option. No one knew what she was, and she was going to keep it that way. Thankfully, her skills had proven she wasn’t human or FUC would never have hired her.
“Um, should I give the two of you some privacy?”
The hottie, sadly now fully clothed, had snuck up on her and stood some five feet down the incline to her right, regarding her with a far-too-amused smirk for someone who’d risked shrinking his junk to something a mouse wouldn’t envy. Fair enough, given the smile on her face when she’d stumbled on him swimming, er, bathing, or whatever he was doing in the cold-enough-for-frostbite lake.
“Sometimes a stiff tree is better than a stiff man,” she tossed at him, peeling her back off the oak and standing her full six feet. Nothing said “don’t fuck with me” like a tall woman towering over you.
He smiled as if amused at her attempt of intimidation. “Clearly, you haven’t met the ideal man.”
His grin turned so cocky she’d be tempted to wipe it off his face if he wasn’t so damn…right. She snorted anyway, not wanting him to think she agreed. He’d be one-upping her, and no one, let alone a stranger, one-upped her. “And clearly you don’t know you’re on private property.”
“I do know that. I have an appointment up at ARSHOL.”
Winter bit back a smile. It had taken her a full year—and stern admonishments from Director Cooper—for her not to laugh at that ridiculous acronym. But damn, who came up with them?
“You have an appointment?” she repeated. Did he mean with Alyce Cooper, her boss and the academy’s director, thereby making him a shifter, or did he actually think he had business with the Animal Rescue Special House of Learning?
From time to time, locals, who thought the wild animal they’d trapped would benefit from obedience training—insert eye roll—would pop by. In her mind, it was the humans who needed the education, but, hey, it wasn’t part of her job description to tell them.
“Yeah. You know the place?”
Being the distrusting soul that she was, Winter wasn’t giving anything away. But they had found each other in the middle of the forest, by a lake not three kilometers from the Academy, so telling him she had no clue what he referred to would paint her stupid. And stupid she was not. Besides, she’d just called him out for trespassing. “Would I be standing here…on private property…if I didn’t know the place?”
He smiled up at her, unoffended by her sarcasm.
She glanced back at the shoreline, wondering if perhaps he’d dragged some poor woodland creature with him. He hadn’t. Wearing a proper late winter coat, hiking boots, and work-grade cargos, he dressed the part of an experienced outdoorsman, even though the duffel bag slung over his back gave her pause. With no animal in tow, he was either a new recruit or a new hire. Seeing as he was closer to thirty-five than twenty-five, she guessed the latter. A new instructor perhaps?
“No car? How did you get up here?”
“You a ranger or something?”
“Or something. Answer the question. Please,” she added, remembering Cooper’s reprimand. “You have to learn to tone it down. Not everyone is an asshole.” That remained to be seen.
“I caught a ride from one of the locals. He dropped me off at the mercantile. I decided to hike the rest of the way, rather than find another ride.”
“That’s over twenty miles from here.”
He rubbed his palms together with a goofy grin. “It was good exercise.”
Remembering she’d seen what lay beneath his clothes, she knew he worked out. And if he was a shifter, twenty miles was nothing. “How about I show you where it is?” she said, not giving him much of a choice. It would be wise to follow him back, just in case she’d read him wrong and he had some fuckery planned.
“I wouldn’t want to interrupt your run,” he said, pointing to her shoes.
“I’ve finished my 10K for the day.” She’d done forty, but if he wasn’t a shifter, telling him her usual morning routine would sound ridiculous. “Let’s go.”
She motioned for him to finish the climb up the hill then moved out of the way so she could walk behind him. She was pleasantly surprised to see he wasn’t as short as the incline had made him appear. He was a three-inch-heel guy. Finding a suitable date where she wasn’t forced to wear ballet flats was hard enough, but finding someone who could accommodate a sexy pair of strappy shoes was even harder.
Having him walk ahead of her gave her two advantages. She had a switchblade in her pocket and was really well versed in using it, should she have to. And she got a closer look at that now clothed, but still sexy ass. In defense of her voyeurism, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d let a man in her bed, and this guy was a painful reminder that her distrustful nature was an impediment to alleviating that dilemma. So resorting to ogling strange, but hot men while they bathed in an icy lake she must.
She had to ask. “So, do you prefer your testicles blue or just frosty?”
It was a good laugh. The kind that made a girl tingle all over.
“If you’re going to ask personal questions like that, we should probably introduce ourselves. Sirius,” he said, turning to extend a hand.
She let the silence between them linger until he dropped his hand. Touching strange men wasn’t in her repertoire. Then again, neither was watching them swim naked. “They named you after the constellation?”
“No…because I’m seriously cute.” He gave her a flirty grin that she’d bet made women drop their panties.
“Most men don’t like to be referred to as cute,” she said, pretending to be unaffected by his pearly whites. “It has an…unmanly connotation.”
“A few seconds ago, you implied my jumping in the lake was macho bravado.”
“It was a fair assumption. And you never did answer my question.”
“And you haven’t told me your name.”
“Like the season?” he said, trying and succeeding in being cute.
“My parents like snow.” And it was far better than her sister’s name. Living in a cold climate, her mother had missed flowers in the spring. Super corny. Who called their kid Tulip?
Sirius laughed. “Good thing they didn’t name you Blizzard.”
“Nah,” she said, waving the comment off. “They opted for Tempest with my other sister.” The baby of the family had counted herself lucky to have been born last.
She’d already told him too much, and until she knew for certain he was meeting with Cooper, she wasn’t telling him anything else. “Let’s go. I have a shower calling my name.”
“Do you live far from the Rescue? I wouldn’t want to put you out,” he said over one shoulder.
“No, I don’t live far.” Her cottage at the Academy was the farthest she could find. It wasn’t that she was anti-social but that she preferred her solitude. Growing up the way she had, personal space was a luxury, and now that she had it, she didn’t like giving it up.
From her vantage point behind him, she took in his walk. Shifters had this grace humans didn’t, and this guy had it in spades. If only her sense of smell didn’t suck. Her kind had never been granted the evolutionary ability to really fine tune it, the way others had. They lived in snow, and more snow. She was a better tracker than any one of her siblings, but throw in a bunch of confusing flora, fauna, and whatever else Mother Nature had to give, and it was equivalent to someone plugging up her nose.
But she had an advantage. She didn’t smell. Literally. Her kind didn’t emit a scent. If Sirius were a shifter, as she believed, he wouldn’t know what she was. The giveaway, if he had a brain, was that she gave off no scent. Everything had a smell. Everything except her. All shifters had a party trick. This was one of hers.
“So, you going to tell me why you were in the lake? This time of year, it’s cold enough to frost beer mugs…or other things.”
There went that laugh again. If he was sticking around for a while, she was going to enjoy making him laugh.
“It was a long hike. I wanted to be fresh for my meeting.” He slowed so they now walked side by side as they weaved through the worn path.
She guessed that made sense. Lucky for her, he wasn’t a breed of penguin. Not her favorite creature in the world because those she could smell. Nothing said breathe-through-your-mouth like a stinky bird.
“Besides,” he added, “a cold dip gets the blood moving. You should try it sometime.”
Winter laughed. Mostly because she’d long ago discovered hot showers and wasn’t giving them up, but partly, well, if he only knew... “I’ll stick to jogging.”
“You jog every day?”
“It’s that or seriously hurt people.” She wasn’t kidding. People drove her crazy with their stupidity.
He laughed, but when she didn’t join in the merriment, he gave her a sideways look that said her words had their desired effect. She wasn’t a woman to be trifled with.
“Okay then. Note to self, don’t fuck with Winter.”
Now it was her turn to look at him askew.
“Oh, shit… No, that’s not… That came out wrong. Well, it didn’t come out wrong,” he said, continuing to flap his gums worse than a sad fish gulping for air.
Amusing as it was, she put him out of his misery. “I know what you meant.”
“Oh good. ‘Cause, you know, you’re a beautiful woman. A guy would be thrilled to—”
“We just met, and you really need to zip it.”
“Yeah, right, zipped. Sorry,” he said, turning a cute shade of pink.
She wasn’t sure how she refrained from smiling. It was funny, this big burly guy tripping on his words and getting all embarrassed. But she didn’t want to encourage him. She firmed her expression, increased her pace, and forced him to keep up. If she was correct, and they might work together, having something to hold over his head was a bonus. If she was wrong, and he was a new cadet, it was even better.
It wasn’t until they’d reached the end of the dense tree line that Winter slowed their progress. The Academy would soon be visible on the horizon. Where her nose failed her, her eyes didn’t. If a single hair on this dude’s body twitched, she’d see it. Gauging his physical reaction on seeing the old building would go a long way in her trying to figure out if he was friend or foe.
While the building was far too Oxford-like in architecture to present as an animal rescue, they’d made sure locals got a good look at the occasional bandaged bear or lame fox—care of cadets with two…or four…left feet—to ensure no one questioned the authenticity of their claims. Newcomers, however, always asked how such a building came to be a sanctuary for injured wildlife. FUC circulated the story that the former owners, an elderly couple who clipped their snowbird wings to stay south, donated the estate. Truth was the old guy was a moose shifter who’d married a dolphin and she was tired of swimming in cold lakes or their indoor pool. Shortly thereafter, a right and left wing were added, giving the place an academic appearance.
“There it is.” She pointed to the old girl.
Sirius whistled. “Nice architecture.”
She’d been about to tell him it was designed by John Smith Archibald in 1934, who, sadly, died before he ever got to live in his wilderness hideaway, when the sound of a twig snapping alerted her. She spun to find Loki coming out of the woods to her left. She opened her mouth to berate the dog for sneaking up on her, but he spoke first.
“You’re late,” he said, and, lucky for him, she realized his foul temper wasn’t directed at her.
She turned her attention to Sirius. “You know each other?”
“For me.” Loki snorted.
“Ha, you’d be dead if it wasn’t for me.”
“I wouldn’t have been put in that situation if it wasn’t for you,” he countered between clenched teeth.
Not that two very attractive men going at it, getting all dirty and sweaty, would bother her much, but she stood between them and didn’t want blood splatter on her favorite pair of running shoes. “Can you handle your unresolved love-fest when I’m not around? I’ve already gotten my fill of machismo this morning, and I really want a shower. I don’t have time to break the two of you.”
“Break us up?” Sirius said, giving her that laugh again.
Damn, he was going to be hard to resist. She smiled, unable to resist his cheerful laughter.
“No, it’s not what she means. Don’t fuck with her,” Loki said. “She’s mean.”
“Only to people I like,” she corrected, tucking a strand of hair that had escaped her ponytail behind her ear.
Sirius opened his mouth to speak, but Loki cut him off. “No, you don’t want to know what she does to people she doesn’t like. Let’s go. You’ve kept Cooper waiting long enough.”
“Lead the way.”
Winter stepped back, allowing Loki to pass.
“Are you coming?” Loki asked her.
“Shower,” she said, fairly certain she’d already whined about needing one. She turned, ready to finish the jog back to her cottage.
“Wait.” Sirius grabbed her arm. “You work here?”
She glanced over at Loki for confirmation, wanting to make certain this man could be trusted.
Loki nodded. “Count yourself lucky, Winter. If things go according to plan, you’ll have two Siberians to annoy you.”
She ignored the dog and extended a hand out to Sirius. “Winter Fable, survival specialist.” He had a firm grip. This earned him a brownie point She hated nothing more than a man shaking a woman’s hand like she was made of glass.
“The cadets call her Miss P.”
“Isn’t Fable spelled with an F?”
“It is,” Loki said. “That’s not why they call her Miss—”
“Loki, shut up. Or are you forgetting I’m mean?” She gave him her best scowl, but nothing stopped him when he was on a roll. Siberians never listened to anyone. Stupid dogs.
“Mean and a little loco. Don’t worry, Winter, Siberians never forget. Come on.” He slapped Sirius on the back. “I’ll tell you on the way.”
“I thought the two of you hated each other,” she shouted after them.
“Nothing brings two guys together better than dishing shit about a woman,” Loki hollered back.
If he wasn’t Mia’s fiancé… and damn, before she forgot and made her best friend mad at her… “Thanks for the birthday gift.” It had been, dare she say it, a thoughtful gift. Turning twenty-five sucked, but nothing unsucked it as well as a souped-up ATV.
Loki turned and gave her a bow. “Anything for you.”
Sarcastic asshole. But she wisely kept that to herself. It was a cool machine, and no way was she giving it back. It gave her the freedom she craved and an excuse to search out the occasional solitude she’d discovered she really loved.
She gave Loki the finger, because that was how their relationship went, and resumed her jog. If Sirius were here to teach, then he’d find out sooner or later why the cadets had given her the nickname. Besides, she had that shower waiting for, and after spending all this time with that much testosterone, she was going full throttle on her showerhead.