Big thanks to all the hardworking people of Polar Bears International for their invaluable assistance on my research and specifically to Barbara Nielsen for answering my goofy questions and leading me in the right direction without laughing at me once.
Please note that any instance of my hero veering wildly from normal polar bear behavior is completely down to me and my edgy, barely-leave-my-house-to-walk-the-dog author lifestyle.
Brutal, undeniable pain. The kind of pain that could kill a man. Maybe it had. Maybe the pain throbbing in his head right at this moment had killed him and he’d have to spend eternity feeling like this. Like warmed-over shit melting in the hot desert sun.
The worst part about all this? It was his fault. He had no one to blame for this but himself—and those damn Jell-O shots. He should have stayed away from them. He knew better. All that alcohol in those delectable little jiggly squares ... what was he thinking? And now he could barely move without pain. Brutal, undeniable pain.
Lou “Crush” Crushek tried to open his eyes, but that only made things worse. It was morning and that light coming through the window was destroying any brain activity he had left. If he were home, he’d simply go back to sleep for a few more hours, but he wasn’t home. He could tell. The scent was different. He smelled feline. Everywhere he smelled feline.
Crush snarled a little. That’s whose fault this was. That damn cat. Male lions. Never trust a male lion! Sure, this particular male lion was married to a fellow NYPD detective and was from one of the wealthiest Prides in Manhattan, but he was also the asshole who’d brought the tray of Jell-O shots around, in their innocuous-looking little cups, and said, with that feline grin, “Go on. Try one.”
So ... Crush had tried one. Then another. And another. After the eighth ... well, he didn’t remember much of anything after the eighth.
What Crush did remember was making the mistake of going over to Detective Dez MacDermot’s house for a “small get-together with some friends” that turned into anything but. Normally, when parties or events became something he didn’t want to deal with, Crush would find the first exit and head on home to his TV and his quiet life. At least the quiet life he had when he wasn’t working undercover, pretending to be a merciless drug dealer, biker, and occasional hit man. But honestly, Crush didn’t leave the stupid party because he was, for lack of a better, manlier word, depressed.
A word he rarely used about himself. He wasn’t much for sitting around, feeling sorry about his life. He was a bear, after all. A polar bear specifically. No, not one of those guys who insisted on swimming in the Atlantic during the middle of winter to prove how virile he was. But a guy who could swim in the Atlantic during the middle of winter and never worry about dying of hypothermia. A guy who could shift into an eight-foot, twelve-hundred-pound polar bear anytime he wanted to. And, as a polar bear, sitting around being depressed wasn’t really his thing. Instead, Crush lived like most of his kind. Being curious. Asking too many questions. Staring blankly at people until they became terrified and ran away. Eating whenever he was even slightly hungry. The usual.
Too bad, though, Crush had discovered something that all bears found distressing. He’d discovered there would be change. Change was coming Crush’s way and he hated change. He liked to know things were going along as they should, and when that didn’t happen, he became depressed. He still hadn’t recovered from the closing down of his favorite deli five years ago. Or that six years ago they’d moved his favorite shoe store—needless to say that as a six-nine, three-hundred-pound guy, he couldn’t exactly pick up his boots and sneakers from the local sports store—and Crush still walked to where the old shoe store had stood, gazing into the window, wishing things were like they once were, until the customers inside the tea shop called police about the “crazed meth dealer lurking outside the door.”
So no, Crush didn’t handle change well, but he didn’t see that there was anything he could do to prevent this change from happening. Not after one of his old partners had called him and given him a heads-up. The man wouldn’t have called unless he was sure. So now Crush was just waiting for the anvil to drop.
Unfortunately, it felt like that anvil had already dropped right on his head.
He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t sit here in a coworker’s house, waiting for the hangover and migraine he had to go away. No, he just needed to get a move on. He had to get up. He had to deal with the pain. He had plans anyway for the afternoon and he wasn’t about to miss out on them. So he had to get up.
But there appeared to be a little problem with him just leaping from bed and facing the day. And that problem was the naked female sprawled across his chest.
Uncaring about the brutal pain it would cause, Crush opened his eyes and looked down. Yep. That was a female all right. A—he took a sniff—feline female. Crush’s lip curled. Another feline. The most untrustworthy of species in his opinion. And since he was naked, too, he could only assume that they’d ... well ... you know.
Christ, what was wrong with him? This wasn’t like him. Crush didn’t get drunk and sleep with random people. He just didn’t. It wasn’t in his DNA. It wasn’t just the NYPD who called him “By the Book” Crushek, either. He had classmates from junior high, high school, and college who called him that as well.
Yet a little depression, a few too many Jello-O shots to drink at a house party, and here Lou Crushek was. Naked. With a feline.
Who was this female anyway? Anyone he knew? Crush didn’t think so. He knew lots of felines, but he didn’t spend time around them because they were, as he’d already stated and everyone knew, totally untrustworthy. It was a fact. Look it up!
Too bad Crush couldn’t be one of those guys who drunkenly slept with a woman only to sneak out before she woke up. It would definitely make his life a whole lot easier, but that would bring him to a new level of tacky he couldn’t handle. Just because he felt his life falling apart around him—he hated change!—didn’t mean he’d allow it to actually fall apart. And part of keeping his life together was doing the morally right thing.
Man, it sucked being a good guy all the time.