Bear Home for Christmas

By: Ariana Hawkes

(Christmas Bear Shifter Romance Book 1)


Chapter One




The girl stepped down from the Greyhound, shivering as an icy blast of wind lashed her in the face and forced its way beneath her winter coat. She pushed her face into her scarf and fastened her coat belt more tightly around her waist as she shuffled over to the luggage hold to retrieve her bag. The ground was frozen, and she regretted yet again that the soles of her boots were so worn. It was too late to buy any new ones – as if she had the money for them anyway. The luggage guy grunted as he lifted every piece of luggage out, including hers, although it only weighed a few pounds.

“Name?” he snapped.

“Noelle Hollis,” she said, waiting for him to make a sarcastic comment, but he just nodded and passed her the bag. She hated her name. Her parents had picked it because she was born on December 25th, and it was a constant reminder of a time of year she’d rather forget.

“Thank you, and merry Christmas,” she said, far more perkily than she felt. He glanced at her over his shoulder, silently, and his expression chilled her to the bone. It was desolate, completely blank, lacking in any human warmth or optimism. I guess there are people out there who hate Christmas even more than I do, she thought. She threw her duffel bag over her shoulder and started walking.

She hadn’t been back to Northwood in almost 12 years, but she hadn’t forgotten the way. She passed through the dark, narrow streets that surrounded the dingy bus station, and quickly entered the heart of downtown. Her spirits lifted a little at the sight of the pretty town center. It wasn’t quite as she’d pictured it, the heavy snow covering every surface, transforming it into an alien world, but she still recognized it as the place where she’d felt happiest during her difficult and angst-ridden teens. Every residential window was illuminated with festive lights and decorations – the signs of cozy, loving homes. A huge Christmas tree stood in the middle of the central square, twenty feet tall and laden with baubles and tinsel. There was a tiny ice rink on one side of it where kids, well wrapped up in colorful scarves and coats, laughed and shrieked as they zoomed around chasing each other, knocking their friends over. Their parents watched them on the sidelines, glowing with pride. On the other side of the square was a German Christmas market, with bright stalls wafting delicious smells of mulled wine and sausages into the freezing air.

Noelle didn’t slow as she passed it. Christmas was for other people, people with normal lives. Not her. She turned onto a bustling street full of shoppers rushing to buy the last few gifts before the holidays, and followed it for ten minutes until the stores thinned out and it led to a quieter, suburban neighborhood. Her pulse quickened as she turned onto a narrow street and followed the house numbers, until she reached the one she’d been looking for: Number 34. A festive wreath decorated a white door that had been added since she’d last been there. She tried to remember the old door, but it was indistinct in her memory. She vaguely recalled her hand brushing some old, splintering wood and flaked red paint, but then the impression was gone again. Maybe that had been somewhere else – one of the many other places she’d lived in her teens.

She hung back, chewing her lower lip. No-one was expecting her, and although she’d been traveling all day to get there, she was now nervous to knock. Instead, she surveyed the front of the house. The small garden was transformed by a covering of snow – the lawn, the shrubbery and the potted plants, all concealed beneath a flawless white blanket. She’d played in that garden in summer many times, but it seemed unreal, like a snatch of somebody else’s memory had been implanted into her head. The window frame was new as well. It looked like an expensive job. The net curtains were closed, but they finished an inch above the windowsill, and there was a glow of orange light showing from inside the room. She crept closer, bending until it was at her eye level, and peered through cautiously. The sight of a human figure made her jerk backwards, as guiltily as a peeping Tom. I’ve got no reason to feel like this, she reminded herself, and looked again. It wasn’t either of her old foster parents. It was an elderly man, sitting in a rocking chair. He appeared to be asleep, a newspaper open on his lap. Who is it? She searched her memory. The parent of one of them? An uncle? She couldn’t recall anyone that he could feasibly be.

Her stomach tightening, she walked up to the front door. For a moment, she was tempted to walk away, but she’d come all this way. It would be stupid to leave without trying to see them. She lifted the knocker and rapped three times. It was an empty, hollow sound, seeming to echo into the quiet house. She waited, counting the seconds. At 71, heavy footsteps sounded in the corridor and the wreath trembled as the door was snatched open. A woman in her late forties, with tightly-curled brown hair, thin, compressed lips, and deep grooves running from her nose to the sides of her mouth looked out at her. Her eyes widened slightly as she discovered that she didn’t recognize the girl on the doorstep, and she twisted her lips into a polite smile.

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