Liam’s Bride

Clan Conroy Brides #1

Secrets. Desire. Surprise Pregnancy.

Curvy Meredith is hiding in plain sight. A gardening teacher for troubled teens, she needs the new owner of the old YWCA building to renew her lease. Her non-profit after school program can’t fund a more expensive location. Steeling herself for a confrontation, she discovers the owner is Liam Conroy, the Alpha Bear whose father was murdered fifteen years ago…

Liam doesn’t know his mate is the daughter of his father’s killer. All he knows is he wants the gentle, courageous beauty- and that she is an answer to a problem plaguing his Den. Only he senses she is hiding something from him, something that could threaten their fledgling matebond.

When he discovers her deception, will he reject her… and their baby?

A 41K standalone steamy werebear shifter romance suited for readers who like BBW and tall, dark and handsome alpha males. First in the Clan Conroy Bears series.

CHAPTER ONE

Meredith sank to her knees, plunging her hands into moist earth. Closing eyes the same shade as the frothy carrot tops in her basket, she inhaled astringent sunshine and leafy greens. It steadied her, soothed nerves blasted raw by the call from the penitentiary earlier.

“Meredith?”

She pushed aside the Director’s pained voice, wet seeping through the knees of her jeans. She didn’t care. It anchored her to the present, reminding her why she hadn’t left this small town and the troubling memories it held from her childhood. Memories courtesy of the person locked up over one hundred miles away- though not anymore. Her chest squeezed. He wasn’t locked up anymore.

“Meredith!”

The snap in Sheane’s voice jerked her out of a spiral of panic. Meredith blinked, feeling the blast of afternoon warmth on her cheek, wondered where she’d left her wide brimmed hat. Teenagers laughed several feet away, the tone of one sulky voice warning her she’d have to intervene in a moment or lose an entire crop of carrots. That girl used any weapon at her disposal to defend herself. Even an innocent urban garden.

Meredith looked up. “Sorry, Sheane.”

The Director’s brow furrowed, thin lines marring the natural beauty of large, loamy eyes. Meredith always thought Sheane belonged somewhere tropical and exotic- somewhere not a small city in Washington, surrounded by apple orchards and coyote and dense stretches of forest preserve.

“I can feel you’re… upset, Meredith. But this isn’t a problem that can’t be solved.”

Meredith laughed. One of her after school students glanced over, alerted. She altered the tone of the laugh. Protect the children. They had enough stress in their lives, they didn’t need hers. She was sometimes the only island of calm among the adults they dealt with.

“I don’t have the funding to solve this problem,” Meredith replied, fingers twisting viciously in the soil, ripping handfuls of weeds from the roots. “If the new owner plans on converting this place into a culinary school- a Bear shifter culinary school, then where does that leave us?” As lunch? She had plenty of meat on her bones.

She surveyed the rows of neatly cultivated plants in various stages of growth, shoulders slumping. Melons ready to pick, seedlings to prepare for the fall garden. Fluffy greens and vines of tomatoes so juicy people traveled from nearby towns to their farmer’s market stall just for those, and the relish the kids prepared from the excess fruit.

Sheane sighed. “I understand and I wish there was something more I could do. I’ve explained to the new owner who the current tenants are, but he’s adamant. Maybe you could try talking to him yourself. Your passion is contagious. It might help.”

The slump turned to a hunch. Him. Ugh. She didn’t want to talk to a him. She didn’t want to go anywhere near a him who had the money to buy an entire building and convert it into a fancy cooking school. Especially if the him was… a Bear. Shifters were big, growly, and… just big. She’d avoided dealing with a big man since her father had gone to jail. Remembering why he’d gone to jail reinforced the reason she shouldn’t have any contact with a Bear.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Sheane shifted, the abrupt movement signaling her irritation. “Look, Meredith, I understand your issues. Believe me I do. The years I spent working at the women’s shelter-”

“I’m nothing like those women,” Meredith said, unhunching her shoulders. “I’m not… abused.” The yelling, the anger her father inflicted on them during her youth she’d never tolerate from any man. And since most men had temper and ego issues- the bigger the man, the bigger his issues- she avoided them altogether.

Sheane said nothing for a moment. “Meredith…”

“I’ll talk to him,” she said, wiping the dirt off her hands. Rubbing it off. Dirt was dirt. It had no protective qualities. A movement caught her eye. She glanced past the teenagers, through the rough wood fence and into the parking lot. A car door slammed as a tall man walked away from a slick new SUV. A broad man, even from this distance. Dark hair and stern expression, strides eating pavement as he disappeared from view.

“That’s the owner,” Sheane said, following Meredith’s view.

“It figures.” No suit, but all that meant was he made enough money he didn’t have to fit himself into an executive image. Kind of like a Mark Cuban.

“Why don’t you go talk to him?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. I need time to think about what to say.”

“Take time, Meredith,” her friend replied, Meredith straining to hear her words. “But not too much time. Sometimes we have to push ourselves, even when we aren’t ready. Otherwise you won’t grow past your fears.”

Meredith excused herself and went inside on the pretext of getting a glass of water. She sat in the worn chair of her tiny office after closing the door and pulling the blinds. The air conditioner worked this year, so the subtle chill iced the stress in her blood right away. Lowering her head onto her arms, she closed her eyes, focusing on her breath.

First problem, the call from her father letting her know the penitentiary released him on parole and he needed a place to stay. The awful frozen panic when she realized he wanted to come stay with her.

Inhale, exhale.

She wasn’t a girl any longer, she was a grown woman. A grown woman with a life and friends and teenagers who depended on her. A role in the community. No one remembered whose daughter she was- not to look at her with anger or with pity.

A knock on the door forced her out of her dark reverie. Straightening, she called out. Brick walked in, too slender defiance in cargoes and an oversized flannel shirt.  As if she were saying fuck you to the heat. Meredith’s eyes zoomed in on her face. Second problem. Pain blossomed on the side of her cheek, vision going dark.

We don’t play with Bears, her father roared. Bears aren’t safe. They aren’t human.

“Mere?”

Meredith forget her problems- shoved them to the back of her mind- rising to walk around her desk. “My God, what happened?”

Brick shrugged, pale eyes flicking over Meredith’s shoulders.

“Fight. Just checking in cause I’m late.”

Shadows marred the girl’s face- bruising inflicted by multiple strikes.

“Do you want to talk to Sheane?”

Brick’s lip curled. Meredith sighed. She sympathized. No one liked being labeled a victim- which talking to Sheane, a former domestic violence counselor, was almost like doing.

“Let’s at least go to the kitchen and put ice on it.” Meredith pushed with her hand on the door, something occurring to her. “Are you going to get in trouble with your case worker?”

“Only if someone reports it.”

Meredith stared at Brick, who stared back, impenetrable as the nick name she’d chosen. Meredith had learned the hard way not to call the girl Rebekah.

“And you don’t expect the other person will?”

Brick smirked. Meredith grimaced. “Right. But you can’t get into another fight. If you get caught-”

“Yeah, I know. Whatever.”

Meredith waffled a minute, then sighed. “Let’s go to the kitchen.”

“There’s people in there, you know.”

She opened the door, stepping aside so Brick could precede her. “Oh? Well, we won’t be long.”

“Dudes. Big dudes.”

Oh. Well, that was different. “Huh. Maybe we can-”

She caught the look on the teenager’s face before Brick could disguise it under her usual half-bored, half-contemptuous mask.

Okay. Fine.

Meredith turned and marched down the hall, heading to the kitchen with Brick on her heels. They entered, Meredith poking her head in to look both ways. She heard a murmur of voices coming from the direction of the pantry. Good. They were going the opposite direction.

“Come on.”

She led the girl to the industrial sized refrigerator, opening the freezer door and grabbing a bag of ice. She rummaged through supplies to find a plastic sandwich bag and measuring cup to scoop the ice- it wouldn’t be nice to put bare hands over something others would drink later.

“Here,” Meredith said, sealing the baggy and turning towards her student. “Put this on your face.” She fixed Brick with a stern look. “Now, tell me what happened. You know you aren’t supposed to get into fights, Brick. You could go back to the detention center.”

“Only if you tell on me.”

Leave it to a teenager to zoom in straight to the point. She knew she was obligated to report the incident, but she couldn’t help feeling there was something more to it than Brick would say. Meredith had read the girl’s file. The violent incidences in her past were precipitated by someone else attacking her, either physically or verbally. Brick never attacked first. Meredith didn’t condone the use of force for verbal assaults- but no one had a right to put their hands on anyone else. Ever. So if the girl was defending herself against real harm, Meredith wasn’t going to blame her.

Especially when she wished she’d been strong enough as a child to do the same.

* * *

“This is bullshit,” Liam said, crumpling the letter in his hand.

Boden grinned at him. “They emailed a copy of the notice, too.”

“You agreed to the lottery,” Alphonso said, dark gold eyes calm. He leaned against a shelf, arms folded, long raven braid over a shoulder.

“I didn’t think my name would get drawn,” Liam growled.

“Stop whining.” Boden said. “Find a hot human honey, settle down and have cubs, get hailed as a hero for bringing new genes into the Clan.”

“You haven’t seen some of the cubs born with the defects,” Alphonso said.

Liam looked at him, attention reluctantly caught by the quiet gravity of his friend’s voice. His resolve hardened. He’d seen the cubs, had just asked the parents to keep his visits on the down low. The Mother’s Circle may have ended the bickering among the Nation about the best course of action to take, but that still didn’t mean any perceived show of public support for this new, radical solution wouldn’t stick in the jaws of some of the more vocal opponents. And he didn’t need to lose precious time spent managing his business by arguing with his Den over his decision.

Too many cubs born in the last several decades with too many genetic defects caused by what boiled down to… inbreeding. Their Nation was small. It was rare to open the Den directory and not be able to find a relative, even a distant one. The best long term solution was to bring fresh genes into each individual Den to strengthen the Clans. Since he was not only Alpha of the local Den, but a member of the family that ruled Clan Conroy, he had a duty to set a good example.

Liam sighed. “What were the goddamn chances? Only ten males per Den drawn from the pool.  It was supposed to be a long shot.” But he’d promised his mother that if his name was drawn he would comply. Be one of the ten males per Den required to find human mates, the sooner the better.

“Someone’s here,” Boden said, head turning towards the door. They were closeted in the pantry off the kitchen- mostly because it was stocked, they were hungry and it was as good a place as any to have a quick snack and a quiet conversation since the offices weren’t yet cleaned out to prepare for the remodel.

“Relax,” Liam said to his younger brother. It wasn’t as if they were talking anything top secret, and as soon as Bears started popping up with human mates all over the country, the jig would be up. The occurrence of a Bear-human marriage was rare enough that the media would eventually take notice when there were several. “There are still groups renting space in the building- they have ninety days to vacate.”

Boden pushed the door open a sliver, peering out into the kitchen. “Hey, it’s women. Cute women.”

“I said-“

“I heard you.” He left the pantry, moving towards the women.

Liam’s fingers itched to settle around his brother’s neck. Always distracted by a female. And human females at that. He scowled and walked after him. Boden leaned against a counter, body angled towards two women staring at him.

“I’m Boden,” his brother was saying. “You ladies must be on staff here.”

Liam snorted. He grabbed his brother’s shoulder. “Stop harassing the humans and come on.”

He stopped speaking, inhaling. An elusive scent of lavender and… carrots tickled his nose. Beneath it something earthy, tantalizing and quintessentially female. Boden shifted slightly as Liam moved forward, looking down at the female now in his line of vision. He stared, forgetting ire as he met wide eyes the color of chopped herbs. Loose waves of achiote colored hair appeared natural. His fingers twitched. The woman tore her gaze away from his, looking back at Boden, her curvy body stiff as she backed away, grabbing the teenager.

“We were just getting some ice,” she said in a low voice. “We’ll get out of your way.”

Liam stepped forward, Alphonso approaching behind him. “No problem, you weren’t disturbing us. What’s your name?”

Rosy lips thinning, she refused to look at him. “I’m Meredith. Program director of Teens and Greens.”

“Meredith.” He stuck out his hand, a silent demand. “I’m Liam. The new owner of this building.”

Her shoulders hunched forward, a small tell she controlled instantly, but not before the drapey neck of her pinky tunic flowed around her ample chest, giving him the barest glimpse of smooth flesh. It hugged her body, deceptively modest but accentuating curves before covering her jean clad hips and bottom. The earthy scent sharpened, and Liam realized she was afraid of him. Was it because he was a man, the new owner… or a Bear? Or any combination of the three?

But she took his hand, raising her eyes to his with a suddenness that brought a curve to his lips. She was forcing herself to confront him.

“I know who you are.”

She squeezed his hand, strength in the grip. His smile widened. He wasn’t attracted to weak women. Especially weak human women. But what was he thinking? His Bear was reacting to her scent like she was a chunk of dripping honeycomb. Her attention shifted to the male behind him. He saw recognition flit through her eyes, but she addressed Liam.

“I’d like to talk to you about your plans for this building,” Meredith said, attempting to pull away. When she tugged a third time, he let her go. Slowly. She twitched; he followed her, shoulders angling so he could lunge and catch her if she should try and flee him.

Liam forced his lip, rising in a snarl, to smooth. Hell. What was wrong with him? Even Bear females didn’t allow the males to pick them off and walk away anymore. Well- at least not without the male guaranteeing her cooperation beforehand.

He released her and stepped back. Fresh air. Fresh air would help. “Call my office, the receptionist will set up time for you.”

Liam made himself turn away, grabbing his brother by the arm and pulling him along. Every step felt as if he were pulling nails from his fingers. Boden watched him, more interested in Liam now than the women.

“I don’t believe it,” Boden said, expression half speculative, half incredulous.

Liam ignored the two Bears, striding out of the kitchen. They would follow.

“You were damn near quivering when you saw that female. Liam, get her number. Damn, man. Your Bear-“

“Shut up, Boden.”

“See?”

Liam saw his brother’s smirk out of the corner of his eye, deciding now would be a great time to tackle and pummel him to the ground. It had been a while; Boden was due for some punishment. “Alphonso, tell him.”

Alphonso was looking back the way they’d come, eyes narrowed slightly.

“What is it?” Liam asked.

After a moment the male shrugged. “She comes into the bar sometimes- always hanging out with Tamar. That hair is hard to miss.”

“I’ve never seen that color before. It’s-” he cut himself off before he said ‘beautiful.’

“Guess it won’t be so hard for you to get over this prejudice you have against humans,” Boden said, smug. “The Mother’s will be pleased at how obedient you are.”

Liam lunged. He was an Alpha. He was not obedient, even if coincidentally, one little human woman made his Bear stand up and roar. Alphonso caught him around the waist.

“The children,” the quieter man murmured. They were outside by then, halfway across the lot from where a group of curious teens paused their work in the vegetable and herb garden to watch the men almost fight. Liam had enough time to approve the neatness of the rows and healthy looking plants before shrugging free of his friend.

“I am not prejudiced. I just don’t want anything to do with a human female.”

“No choice, now.”

No, there wasn’t was there? But damned if he would admit to Boden that he was right, and after a scent of Meredith, his fate didn’t seem quite so bad anymore.***

“What do they feed them?” Brick asked, staring after the three tall, wide men as they left the kitchen.

The one whose hand had enveloped Meredith’s in an inescapable grip, night sky eyes fixed on her with the pitiless intensity of a carnivorous predator, made her nervous. She’d lost her breath for just a moment, a tingling low in her stomach when he inhaled, nostrils flaring and broad chest widening. She knew about Bears. And she knew Liam was Alpha of the local Den- the collection of closely related families that were a part of a bigger Clan. She’d made it her business to know after- Meredith pulled her mind away from her old guilt.

“They’re born big,” she said.

Brick glanced at her, alerted by the short tone. “You don’t like them cause they’re Bears, or cause that’s the guy taking the building away from us?”

Meredith frowned. “How did you…?”

The girl snorted. “I have ears.”

Sighing, Meredith made another ice baggy to swap when the first melted. The man wasn’t what she’d expected. She’d read every newspaper article mentioning him for years, before graduate school and the program forced her to get a life. In her mind the picture of some dismissive executive had formed. Instead, a new age Henry Cavill type in a banded collar shirt, expertly frayed cargoes and leather sandals greeted her, staring at her as if she was lunch. Weren’t new agers supposed to be happy pacifists? This male was too… dominant for pacifism, consistent with his Alpha status. The other men would be aggressive, but an Alpha- they were both protective and aggressive and unusually territorial.

“Well, I’ll have a talk with him and see if we can stay here.”

“I’ll do reconnaissance. Don’t go in blind.”

“Uhh… thanks, but I think I can handle it.”

Brick said nothing. Now Meredith had something else to worry about, a teenager already prone to trouble playing detective.

She pressed a hand to her stomach. It still hadn’t settled, her mind forcing the image of the dark man behind her eyes, taunting her. Because for the first time in a while, she was attracted to a man. Attracted and afraid, years of her father’s teachings she’d worked hard to reverse strumming her nerves. Wonderful. So when she spoke to him again- and from his abrupt withdrawal, she felt convincing him to let her teens stay in the building wouldn’t be easy- she’d have to fight nerves, attraction and her instinctive fear of Bears in order to speak coherently. Best thing she could do was start practicing now.