June 2021 Newsletter
HOT AND BADGERED
“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.”
And boom. They started yelling at each other again, but it was so hysterical and stupid that Charlie couldn’t even make out what they were saying.
“Any sign of your father?” Berg suddenly asked when there was a brief pause in the yelling, and Charlie wanted to kiss him. Because if anything could waylay a Stevie-Max fight, it was their idiot father.
Charlie shook her head and went to the cooler to get another beer. “Unfortunately, no.”
“He’s a true weasel,” Max stated. “I’ve never met anyone who can weasel their way out of more bad situations than our father.”
“I couldn’t believe he wasn’t in that morgue,” Charlie said, sitting back down in her spot. “I was so disappointed.”
Stevie let out a small sigh. “Me, too.”
“Is he really that bad?”
“Britta,” Berg said low, shaking his head at his sister.
“What? It was just a question. I’m curious.”
“Don’t be. It’s none of our business.”
“Charlie doesn’t mind talking shit about our father.” Max opened a jar of honey-covered peanuts. “It’s like a pastime for her.”
“I don’t go out of my way to talk about him.” She closed her eyes as that angry feeling washed over her. “But he makes me so crazy!” She pointed her finger at the three bears. “And I refuse to live a codependent existence with that man.”
Max snorted. “She learned that word in ninth grade and she hasn’t let it go since.”
“I haven’t let it go because it perfectly explains why he is the way he is. Everyone has a codependent relationship with that idiot and that’s how he keeps starting shit. And getting into shit. And I refuse to be a party to that. And I’m not letting you two be a party to that. And the way to avoid it is honesty. People ask me what my dad’s like, and I tell them, ‘He’s a scumbag.’”
“We all have issues with our parents. Don’t get me started on my mother—”
“Please don’t,” Berg suddenly begged, both he and Dag imploring Britta with their eyes.
Britta nodded. “Fine. But what terrible thing, exactly, has your father done to you guys?”
“Everything,” the sisters said in unison.
“Oh, come on. You’ve gotta be more specific than that.”
“Britta,” Berg growled as Dag reached over and took the wine bottle away from her.
“I wasn’t done with that,” she complained.
“Yes, you are,” Berg muttered.
“You want to know what my father’s done?” Charlie asked.
Berg shook his head. “You don’t have to say—”
But she didn’t let him finish, instead flipping her hand over, palm up, and gesturing to Stevie.
Her baby sister shrugged. “He ruined my credit by the time I was six.”
Britta cringed. “Oh. Okay that’s—”
“When my mom died,” Charlie explained, “she left each of us some insurance money. Mine was for college. Dad asked to borrow it . . . I never went to college. Not even community.”
“He used my baby picture,” Max announced, “to sell nonexistent Asian babies to infertile couples desperate to adopt.”
“Oh!” Britta’s expression became even more horrified. “Oh, my God!”
“He’s the reason Max’s mom is in prison,” Charlie tossed in.
Stevie took another sip of water. “As my legal guardian—”
“Which he wasn’t,” Charlie added.
“—he sold all the rights to my early music. Music that is now worth millions and millions of dollars. I haven’t seen a cent from any of it.”
Max popped more peanuts into her mouth before noting, “You hear her music in expensive car commercials all the time.”
“And he sold it for . . . what was it, Charlie?”
“Right. Fifty grand. Fifty grand that I never saw a cent from.”
“Because he was going to pay it back to you after he got his business off the ground,” Charlie reminded her.
“Oh, yes. The can’t-fail business that turned out to be a pyramid scheme that also bilked the elderly out of a few million.”
“None of which he managed to make any money from,” Charlie added.
“But he also managed not to get any prison time.” Max chuckled. “Everybody else went to jail but him.”
“Yeah,” Britta finally agreed. “That is definitely the worst—”
“And remember that time he ‘accidentally’”—Max asked her sisters, making air quotes with her fingers—“sold me into domestic slavery?”
“How the fuck did he do that accidentally?” Dag demanded.
“How did he put it again, Charlie?”
“Uh . . . that he thought he was just hiring you out as a playmate for their children.”
“Yeah, like they were fourteenth-century Russian princes,” Stevie replied.
“But,” Max continued, “as soon as he dropped me off at the family’s house, they handed me an iron, a basket full of clothes, and told me to get to work.”
“You poor thing.” Britta shook her head. “How long before someone got you?”
“No one came to get me.”
“Wait.” Charlie raised her hand. “Let’s be clear here . . . we didn’t have time to get you.”
“That’s true,” Max admitted with a smile. “As soon as they handed me that iron, I beat the husband with it, and then proceeded to tear the wife’s face off with my claws. I left them crying, screaming, and bleeding with the kids trying to call the cops.”
Berg and his siblings stared at Max until Berg asked, “How old were you?”
“Eleven,” corrected Stevie, the keeper of all specifics. Not hard with her brain.
“I went through puberty a little early,” Max added to explain an eleven-year-old shifter with claws.
“What happened after you got away?”
Max shrugged. “No idea. Dad took off with the thirty grand he got for me and I walked back to the Pack house in Wisconsin.”
“Where was this family?”
“You walked back by yourself?” Britta asked.
“It wasn’t the first time.”
But Charlie didn’t want to talk about that long-ago incident. That was one story the three sisters didn’t really discuss with anyone but each other. The story about her mom’s death. Not now. Not ever. It was too close to their hearts.
“And yet,” Charlie pointed out to change the subject, “our father is the only con I know who never makes any money from his cons.”
“How is that possible?” Berg asked.
“Because he’s an idiot. I thought we made that clear.”
“But what about the money he stole from you guys?”
“Well, that thirty grand he got for me only lasted him about a week,” Max said. “I think he blew it at the greyhound track in Florida. And probably on some hookers.”
“He does love prostitutes,” Charlie sighed.
“And the money he got for the adoption scam . . . dear old Freddy got scammed out of that by the woman he was working with.” Max sighed. “Because he is that stupid.”
“Plus, because of that particular scam, he’s no longer allowed in Florida,” Charlie said, trying to remember.
“You can be banned from a state?” Britta asked.
“Don’t know. But when you have enough warrants for your arrest and enough loan sharks desperate to see you dead . . . I’d say you’re not allowed back into a particular state.”
“He’s also not allowed in Budapest, or France, or Germany,” Stevie added.
“God, Budapest.” Max shook her head. “That turned into an international incident.”
“And, yet,” Charlie said, throwing her hands up, “he still managed not to make any money.”