Loaded for Bear (Bear Country Grizzlies Book 2)(8)

By: Layla Nash & Callista Ball

Couldn't. Breathe.

The air was too stale, recycled. Closed off. The lights buzzed and hummed, flashing and irritating, and she took a shaky breath, trying to reason her way back to calm. Everything would be fine. Just fine. She could get outside any time she wanted.

Ethan tensed, kicking off his shoes, and bent down so he could peer at her face. "What's wrong?"

"Can't — breathe," Kira managed to say, squeezing her eyes shut as the room started spinning and she felt suddenly cold, clammy and sweaty. She didn't want to barf on him again, but pressure built in her chest. Oh Lord. "It's too — hot."

"Got it," he said, and she braced for some kind of oxygen mask, something that would feel even more claustrophobic. But instead, he picked her up like a baby and carried her down a short hallway, muttering to the mop kid before Ethan kicked open a screen door.

And then — glorious air. Kira took a deep breath of the crisp air, carrying a hint of pine and wood smoke, and everything tense and tight in her guts relaxed. The jaguar part of her eased back from panic and took a waiting stance, still measuring and weighing the man who carried her. The jaguar liked him, but Kira couldn't figure out how much.

As Ethan paused near a fire-pit, Kira realized her arms looped around his neck like a damsel in distress. She started to untangle herself from the near-embrace, feeling off-balance. "Thanks. I just need to sit for a second."

"I know how you feel," he said, glancing around before carefully lowering her into a battered Adirondack chair next to the cold fire-pit. He retreated a few steps to sit on his heels, watching her. "Sometimes it's hard to breathe inside. Too many walls."

Kira didn't want to like him. She didn't. Liking him would make leaving much harder, and she definitely had to leave. But there was something about his quiet watchfulness that appealed to the jaguar, that felt comfortable and familiar. Kindred. He moved like he knew how to walk through the wild parts of the world without leaving a trace behind, without disturbing the other wild inhabitants who shared that space. And he was definitely more handsome than his initial scowl implied, with the beard shading red more than blonde when the fading light caught it.

She blinked as he started to smile, and flushed more as she realized she was openly staring at the poor guy. She cleared her throat, wincing as she touched the knot on her chin and jaw where the swelling still worsened. It hadn't started healing yet, and the headache only got worse. "Sorry about your boots."

"Waterproof and been through a lot worse," he said, waving her concern away. He studied her, though, and Kira started to get nervous.

So she closed her eyes and tilted her head back against the chair, reveling in the fresh air and remarkably cooler temperature. She'd never spent any time in the mountains, but she definitely could. Maybe once she'd proven to Dr. Reston that she could manage the camera traps in remote locations, she'd get more assignments in the wilder national parks. Retreating to a mountain hideaway far from everything seemed like a perfect plan. Jaguars were usually solitary hunters. Loners.

Except during mating season. Her cheeks warmed at just the thought. She wouldn't have minded a little company in her mountain hideaway, particularly someone who could chop a remarkable amount of wood and had medical skills to boot... She tried to bite her lip to keep a nervous laugh from escaping, but yelped as she bit down on a loose tooth and the ragged cut.

Ethan's husky voice reached her through the blaze of pain. "Everything okay?"

Kira managed to squint at him through teary eyes. "Just forgot about... thith," and she gestured at her face.

It looked like Ethan smiled but tried to hide it, wiping at his mouth as he looked down at the ground. He traced shapes in the dirt near his bare feet, then glanced up at her. "Well, I have to keep you awake for a little while yet, so why don't we go over the plan for the trip?"

"Sure." Kira started to push to her feet, trying to ignore the warning grumble in her stomach — it could have been hunger or more nausea. Either way, she didn't want to go back inside.

"Just stay here. I'll get one of our maps." He waited until she nodded to straighten and walk back to the door, completely at ease and unhurried, though he glanced back at her a couple of times to make sure she didn't budge. Kira wanted to smile as he almost ran into the doorframe, but her jaw ached too much.