Hot and Badgered Excerpt
Berg slapped at the hand rubbing his head from the tree limb above him. “Stop messing around and get back to work.”
“I have been working. For hours! And now I’m tired,” Dag complained. “And hungry.” He patted Berg’s head again.
Fed up, Berg grabbed his brother’s arm and yanked him from the tree, slamming him to the ground. He was about to lay into him when Charlie called out, “You guys hungry?”
Berg ran over his brother’s chest to get to the metal table on the patio right outside the back of the house. There was a plastic, red-checkered tablecloth spread out and fresh food in big aluminum trays. A lot of food.
Berg had almost reached the table when Britta stepped in front of him and shoved him back with her shoulder.
“Me first,” she said, smiling.
“Sit,” Charlie offered, her hand indicating the metal chairs.
“Did you make all this?” Britta asked.
“I made the call that brought all this food here. That’s kind of the same, right?”
Britta, a consummate food orderer herself, laughed and sat down.
Max brought out another platter of food and Charlie glanced back at her, tossing over her shoulder, “You guys go ahead and get start—”
She stopped talking when she saw that the Dunn Bears had already started. Food was piled on their plates, mouths already full, chewing having already commenced.
“Oh.” She blinked a few times. “All right.”
“Sorry,” Berg said around his food.
“No need to apologize.” Charlie sat down on the bench opposite them. “You’ve done so much work, I’m not surprised you’re hungry.”
“The place looks great,” Max said, straddling the bench. “I had no idea we had a pool.”
“All bear homes have a pool. Or a hot tub. Some have both. Most of us really like water.”
“This is a bear home?” She gave a small frown. “You barely cleared the doorways.”
“The house was originally built for black bears. You’ll find a few fox homes down the block . . . I practically have to crawl through their doorways.”
“Where’s Stevie?” Charlie asked.
Max, reaching for a premade honey salmon sandwich, shrugged.
Charlie forced a smile. “Excuse me a moment.”
She went inside and, for a few seconds, there was nothing but silence. Then yelling. Lots of yelling.
Three minutes later, Charlie returned. She had her arms around her sister’s waist and was carrying her like a panicked cat she was trying to take to the vet. Stevie’s arms and legs stuck straight out. And there was hissing.
“Put me down!” Stevie demanded.
“You need to eat.”
“It’s not my diet I’m worried about!”
“You’re being overdramatic. Stop it.”
“I will not stay out here!” Stevie screeched, legs and arms now swinging wildly. “I will not be eaten! My brain is too important for future societies to allow it to be eaten!”
If Max noticed any of what was going on, she didn’t show it, focusing instead on her sandwich and the bag of honey barbecue chips she’d opened. But Berg and his siblings were fascinated.
“Look,” Charlie ordered her sister, aiming the woman at the Dunns. “They already have food. There is no reason to eat you.”
“Are you insane? They’re bears!”
“J’accuse!” Max suddenly announced; then she laughed. Berg got the feeling she was having her own conversation in her head.
“Stevie, I would never let anyone hurt you,” Charlie calmly reminded her sister. “Not now. Not ever. So please. Eat something. You haven’t eaten all day, and I really don’t want to do that intravenous thing again, do you?”
“You sure she took her meds?” Max asked, not even glancing at either sister.
“Stop acting like I hear voices,” Stevie said.
“I have a panic disorder, not schizophrenia.”
“Then act like you’ve got some sense and sit down.” Max slid down the bench and Charlie placed Stevie in the open spot.
She was a cute little thing. Not like her sisters at all. Max was petite but powerfully built. And there was something about her that screamed “sex!” He wasn’t sure why. Berg wasn’t attracted to her. To be honest, she scared him a little. The way that she looked at the world . . . it was like watching those full lions on the Serengeti. Like she was an apex predator and the rest of the world was just her available prey.
And Charlie . . . she really seemed less shifter than any of them. If Berg couldn’t smell it on her and hadn’t seen her in action in Milan, he’d never guess that was what she was. She was too calm. Too reasonable. And definitely gorgeous. All those soft brown curls framing her perfectly proportioned face; those dark eyes that looked at everything with curiosity and warmth; and that strong but soft body that he knew could handle all sorts of things . . .
Nope. Nope. He had to stop thinking about all the things her body could possibly do. Especially with his sister and brother sitting on either side of him.
But Stevie wasn’t like either sister. Medium height but so thin. He had the feeling her sisters often had to force her to eat. Was she one of those sad women who worried about their weight constantly? Who flipped out when they ate a whole muffin or counted every calorie, not for health reasons but because, God forbid, they should gain a pound in a world of “thigh gaps” and giant asses that had to be medically enhanced because those women didn’t eat enough to get an ass like that on their own.
Her blond hair reached past her shoulders but she clearly dyed it that color, because the roots were returning to their natural brown, white, and . . . wait, orange? Did she naturally have orange hair? The only breed he knew who had that color hair if they were particularly unlucky were tigers.
Was she part tiger?
Tiger and honey badger together? What did that mean about little Stevie? Frail-looking, easily panicked, but surprisingly sharp-eyed Stevie.
“Want me to ladle out your food for you?” Max asked Stevie.
“I can get my own food, thank you very much.”
“You sure, sweetie?” Max gently patted her sister on the back and Berg could tell it did nothing but irritate Stevie. “I can spoon-feed you, if you’d like. Make plane sounds and everything!”
“I have hated you since I met you!” Stevie screamed in her sister’s face.
“You have no idea what true hate is!”
While the pair screamed, Charlie took it upon herself to put small amounts of food on a paper plate and place it in front of Stevie. The youngest of the sisters began eating while still yelling at Max, unaware that Charlie had put together her meal for her.
“Drinks!” Charlie said, realizing what she’d forgotten. She pointed at a cooler. “I bought a bunch of stuff since I didn’t know what you guys would want. There’s iced tea, bottled water, soda, beer, and wine.
Dag jumped up and went to the cooler. “Beer!”
“Wine,” Britta said, holding out her hands for Dag to toss her a bottle.
Berg was in the middle of swallowing a big bite of his sandwich, so he didn’t answer right away, assuming he could just get what he wanted once he was sure he wouldn’t choke on the food.
“Don’t you want something to drink?” Charlie pushed, appearing concerned. Did she think he was like her sister and needed someone to put food on his plate? “If there’s nothing you like in there, I can get something else. We have other stuff in the kitchen. Or I can order more stuff. If you want.”
Berg, still chewing, gazed at her. He’d never met a fellow shifter so . . . helpful before. It was as if she couldn’t stop herself.
“Well?” she pushed again when he didn’t answer.
Berg pointed at his mouth, chewed a few more times, and finally swallowed. “Water’s fine.”
She smiled, almost in relief. “I have water. Sparkling and flat.”
“Uhhhh . . .”
Dag slammed a bottle of water in front of Berg’s plate before sitting down in his own spot and getting back to his food.
Berg pointed at the bottle. “This is fine.”
“Are you going to sit down and eat?” Britta asked, taking her wine opener off her keyring and pulling the cork from the bottle.
“Then do it,” Berg said. “I want to see you sit down and eat.”
“What? You don’t think I can?”
“No,” the Dunns replied as one.
Max and Stevie had stopped fighting, and now watched their sister, their expressions curious.
Charlie looked from one to the other until she’d examined the entire table. “None of you think I can just sit down and enjoy a meal?”
“No,” they all said. Even her sisters.
She glanced over her shoulder and Berg was guessing she had planned to go back into the house and do something else once she got everybody eating and drinking.
Giving them all one more look, she slowly—oh, so slowly—sat down on the bench beside Stevie.
“Need us to make a plate for you, dear?” Stevie asked.
Narrowed eyes glared. “I can get my own food, thanks.”
They silently watched as Charlie put food on her plate and got up so she could grab a beer from the cooler. She used her bare hand to remove the beer cap and took a swig. But it wasn’t until she took a bite of her steak sandwich that they all went back to eating their own food.
As Charlie predicted—to herself anyway—Stevie finally relaxed around the bears once she got to know them. Contributing to the conversation just like a person who had an average IQ.
Of course, that’s what Charlie always loved about Stevie. She might be one of the smartest humans in the known universe, but around “the normals” as Max called everyone else, she didn’t act superior. She seemed like anyone else who had a panic disorder and the occasional bout of deep depression that required additional medications.
But Stevie hadn’t had a bout of that depression in quite a while. Thankfully.
“Okay,” Britta said, nursing her third glass of wine. “You’re half wolf and half honey badger. And you’re half tiger and half honey badger?” Stevie nodded. “Really? Because you don’t seem like either.”
“Pray you keep thinking that way,” Max muttered and Charlie looped her arm behind Stevie and smacked their middle sister in the back of the head.
“I think of myself as kind of a liger,” Stevie explained. “Even though ligers are composed of two of the strongest apex predators in the world, they are surprisingly gentle and sweet natured. Despite their enormous size.”
“So the badger and tiger cancel each other out?”
“Mostly,” she replied, which made Max snort.
Again, Charlie slapped her sister in the back of the head.
“But not you?” Britta asked Charlie.
“But not me what?”
“Did your two sides cancel each other out?”
“I wouldn’t say that. It’s more like they found a way to work together.”
“Like uranium and Oppenheimer!” Max crowed.
Stevie pointed her bottle of water at Max, eyes narrowing. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do I really have to explain it? To you, I mean.”
“So you’re all bears,” Charlie quickly interjected before her sisters could expand their bickering to a full-blown knife fight with the plastic cutlery.
Britta smirked because she understood exactly what Charlie was doing, but the two males frowned at her.
“Uh . . . yeah. We’re bears,” Berg said.
“And triplets. That’s rare, isn’t it?”
“For bears . . . or people?”
Charlie thought a moment before replying, “Both, I guess.”
“Triplets are very rare for both,” Stevie said while eating her salad. “Unless your mother had in vitro fertilization.”
The triplets shook their heads.
“Then, yes,” Stevie went on. “Very rare. In fact, statistically—”
“I don’t want to hear statistics,” Max rudely cut in.
Stevie’s right eye twitched. “Maybe everyone else does.”