Excerpt: Loaded for Bear
(c) 2018 Bianca D'Arc. All Rights Reserved.

Chapter One

 

Amelia Ricoletti—Mellie, to her friends—ran down the hallway, holding her breath. Billows of smoke followed her, along with the blaring beep of the fire alarm.

“Shit!” she whispered, angry at this latest fumble at potion-making. No way she could hide this failure. She could hear her sister’s feet pounding up the stairs from the bookstore to the apartment already.

 

Sure enough, Urse burst in the door, worry on her face. She waved her hands and said a few words, and the smoke cleared, the siren stopped beeping on the smoke alarm, and Mellie could breathe fresh air again as the windows opened seemingly of their own accord. Urse might be frowning at her, but sometimes, it was good to have a spell-wielding witch around.

 

Mellie leaned one hand against the back of a chair and sighed in defeat. She’d been so close this time. At least… She’d thought she’d been closer to the right combination of ingredients for the complex spell she wanted to cast through her potion-witchery. The fact that the mess had burst into flames meant she’d been utterly wrong.

 

Urse came over and put her hand on Mellie’s shoulder. “You okay?”

 

“Yeah.” Mellie looked up to meet her sister’s eyes, afraid there would be condemnation in her gaze.

 

They’d both been tasked with making Grizzly Cove safer for the shifters and other magical folk who sought shelter here. So far, Urse had done a bang-up job casting wards that kept evil creatures of the deep away and protecting the waters of the cove itself. Her ward was both permanent and immensely powerful. Everyone agreed Urse had done an amazing thing, and she’d found true love at the same time.

 

Her older sister was now mated to the Alpha bear, John Marshall, whom many people called simply Big John. Mellie liked her new brother-in-law a lot. He was a good man, and he’d made Urse happier than Mellie had ever seen her. Everything had turned around for Urse. Her life was really great.

 

It was Mellie’s that sucked. She’d been given the simple task of creating a potion that she could put into the water that would hopefully drive the evil leviathan and its minions even farther away from the mouth of the cove. Simple, right?

 

Yeah… Not so much.

 

Mellie had been working on this for months now and failing every time. This latest batch had been a rather spectacular failure. It was broad daylight, and everybody had probably seen the billowing smoke coming out of the windows.

 

Great. Just great. Mellie was quickly becoming the town joke.

 

“Some all-powerful strega I turned out to be,” she mumbled.

 

“Aw, honey…” Urse put her arm around her younger sister’s shoulders and squeezed. “It’ll work out. You’ll find the right recipe. I know it. You’re one of the most powerful strega in generations. We both are. I do spells and wards, but you, my dear sister, are a potion master. But let’s face it. You’ve taken on probably the hardest problem you’ll face in your lifetime. Roma wasn’t built in a day.”

 

The sisters were of Italian descent and were hereditary witches steeped in the traditions of Italy. They were a special breed of witch, known as strega, as had been many generations of women in their family before them. Urse and Mellie had found their niche in Grizzly Cove, and a purpose for their magic-craft. Protecting the people who called this place home had become a mission both sisters shared.

Urse had already done her part. She’d cast powerful, permanent wards around the town and the cove. Nothing of evil intent could cross over that boundary, and it would remain so forevermore. That was Urse’s special gift. Her superpower, as Mellie thought of it.

 

Mellie’s own magic was much more prosaic. Kitchen magic, her nonna called it sometimes. Mellie instinctually knew which substances to brew together to create powerful potions. She was an herb witch, kitchen witch, or potion witch. There were many names for her rather unglamorous calling.

 

Urse got to do the fancy chanting and light shows while Mellie got stuck in the kitchen, mixing up batches of noxious stuff. Okay. She wasn’t really being fair. The things she cooked up weren’t always noxious. In fact, most of the time they were really rather pleasant. Yummy, some of them, or just fragrant and luxurious.

 

Mellie created all sorts of balms, salves, elixirs and tonics. She’d also learned how to create her own skincare lotions and treatments, which saved the girls a bundle on cosmetics, sunblock and moisturizers. It was only when her potions were brewed with specific intent—as in this case—that they sometimes tended toward the explosive.

 

“At least the fire department didn’t show up this time,” Mellie mused, trying to raise her own spirits. She’d never get it right if she kept being so depressed about her failures.

 

They both heard the heavy tread of feet up the stairs that led to the apartment above the bookshop. There were at least two of the big bear-men on their way up at a fast clip. That meant it wasn’t just John, coming to pick up Urse early.

 

“Um…” Urse looked chagrinned as a loud knock sounded on the door, followed by a query.

 

“Everything all right in there?”

 

The voice didn’t belong to Urse’s mate, John. Nope. This particular bear shifter was easy to identify by his light Russian accent. Peter. Grizzly Cove’s newest deputy, owner of the butcher shop and part-time fireman. Mellie’s own personal nightmare because of the way she kept making a fool out of herself in front of the man.

 

Mellie groaned and hid her head in her hands while Urse went to answer the door. She let them in. At least it wasn’t the full team this time. Just Peter and Sheriff Brody, who was hefting a large red fire extinguisher.

 

“I know John installed a few of the smaller extinguishers up here, but I grabbed this out of the station when I saw the smoke coming out of your windows. Is the fire out?” Brody asked, moving into the apartment and heading down the hall toward the room Mellie had turned into her laboratory-slash-spell chamber.

 

“Don’t cross the threshold!” Mellie shouted after him. “There wasn’t really that much fire. Just a bad reaction that produced a lot of smoke.” She caught up with him just outside the door and scooted in front of him. “It might not be safe for you in there,” she warned him as Brody scowled.

 

“Why not?” Brody looked instantly suspicious. He was the town’s sheriff. She supposed he had a right—and a predisposition—to be wary.

 

Mellie looked at Peter. Maybe he could help explain this in a way that wouldn’t get Brody mad at her.

 

“I had him under magical sedation, but the smoke must’ve woke him up, and his tail twitched, stirring the contents of the cauldron before it was ready,” she explained to Peter, who was the only one aware of the lengths she’d gone to for her ingredients.

 

Peter stepped forward. “Is he on the loose in there?”

 

She cringed. “Maybe.”

 

“Is what on the loose in there?” Brody nearly shouted.

 

Mellie looked back at the sheriff. “A komodo dragon,” she admitted. “A big one.”

 

“Mellie!” her sister chastised her, frowning.

 

“The ancient potion grimoire Nonna sent said I needed dragon blood. I figured a komodo dragon was the best I could do under the circumstances, and believe me, that wasn’t easy to get. Peter had to source this guy from a private collection, and he’s only on loan. We have to get him back before the owner misses him.”

 

“Is it dangerous?” Brody turned to Peter.

 

“Not really.” Peter frowned and stepped forward. “Is the room otherwise safe?” he asked Mellie.

 

“Yeah. The potion didn’t work. It fizzled and caused a lot of smoke, but the reaction is spent. The only thing dangerous in there now is the lizard,” she told him.

 

“I’ll take care of the animal,” Peter told Brody, and the sheriff backed off, but only by a few feet. He put himself in front of Urse and looked like he wanted to protect Mellie, as well, but she refused to back down. This was her problem, after all. She’d created it. She’d damn well help resolve it.

 

Peter opened the door slowly, and a little residual smoke puffed out around their feet. As the door swung wide, Peter launched himself, quick as a shot, into the room, moving almost too fast for Mellie to follow. He was on the floor, wrestling the giant lizard into its cage when she finally got a good look.

 

“Why did you have to let it out of the cage?” Brody asked as he watched Peter work. He’d come closer, to stand at her side.

 

“I needed its blood. I had to have access to get a needle into him. Plus, I had it under control magically until the bad reaction from the potion wrecked all the magic in the room. It was asleep. Docile.” She shrugged, watching as Peter won the battle to get the animal into its large cage.

 

Peter stood and dusted himself off. “Do you still need blood from this creature or can I return him?”

 

Mellie shook her head. “You can take him back. His blood didn’t work for this potion, and frankly, I’m at a loss to figure out what to do next. I either have to try something else or find an actual dragon.” She chuckled morosely. “So…something else, it is. Only, I’m not sure there is anything left to try. I’ve been working on this forever. I’ve tried everything I know, and nothing’s right.”

 

Dammit. She was whining in public. She didn’t want the men to know how close to insanity this little project was driving her. She clamped her lips together and refused to say anything else. She’d said quite enough already, thank you very much.

 

Urse came over and put an arm around her shoulders, walking her back down the hallway toward the living room. Urse understood. She’d been Mellie’s confidant all her life. Urse had been trying to help Mellie, but it was no good. This was Mellie’s task. She had to find the answer on her own…and she had to find it soon. She was letting everyone down each day she struggled to find the answer to the problem that had been set before her.

 

Urse had already done her part and made the town and cove safe. Now, it was up to Mellie to move the leviathan and its minions farther away, if she could, so that the fishing boats could go outside the protected waters of the cove. So that the mer folk could once again hunt in the ocean. So that the magical folk living along the coast would be safe from the evil prowling along the shoreline just outside the mouth of the cove.

 

Peter came down the hall, followed by Brody, who eyed the cage as if it might independently open and let loose a pissed off komodo dragon to rain terror down on Mellie’s apartment. It would be funny, if Mellie wasn’t feeling so morose. Of course, she noticed the way Peter’s muscles bulged as he carried the heavy animal crate like it weighed nothing at all. Bear shifters were strong, and Peter seemed stronger than most.

 

Mellie might be feeling blue, but she’d have to be dead not to notice scrumptious Peter as he walked past, heading for the staircase. Brody was with him. He nodded at them before he followed Peter out of the apartment.

 

“Well, there goes that attempt, complete with public humiliation. I’m really batting a thousand lately.” Mellie spoke her thoughts, no longer censoring herself. It was only her and Urse now, and her sister knew how difficult Mellie was finding this mission.

 

“Not that public. I don’t think Brody would tell anyone other than John—and then, he’ll probably only mention the exotic lizard. You know John doesn’t spread tales. Your Peter won’t talk either.”

 

“He’s not my Peter,” Mellie protested sulkily.

 

“Are you sure he knows that?” Urse asked, arching one eyebrow.

 

“Pfft.” Mellie made a shooing motion with her hands at her sister.

 

While it was true she had been attracted to Peter from almost the first moment she’d seen him, he hadn’t really given her any indication that he felt the same. Much as she wanted to attract his attention, Mellie was also in the midst of what could be the most important spell work of her life—and failing miserably. This was no time to start dating a new guy.

 

She had to keep her eye on the ball. No time for distractions. The entire town was counting on her, not to mention the colony of mer folk in the cove and all the innocent creatures out at sea just beyond the border created by Urse’s powerful ward.

 

Urse had done her job. Easy peasy. She’d set tremendous permanent wards all around the town, protecting it from all sides, including the waters of the cove itself. An intense magical wall prevented anything with evil intent from swimming in past the mouth of the cove. It also prevented evil beings from entering the town, and much of its environs—including the forest all around them. Urse had done an incredible job.

 

Mellie? Not so much. In fact, Mellie felt like a total failure in comparison to her older sister. Not only had Urse cast her wards with amazing impact, she’d also managed to capture the heart of the Alpha bear while she was at it. John Marshall—the mayor of the town and the Alpha of this group of bear shifters—was Urse’s true mate. Their happiness was beautiful to behold, but it also made Mellie feel a little jealous. Not in a bad way. Just wishing she could find that special something with a special someone, like her sister had.

 

That Peter… Yeah, he was the kind of man fantasies were made of. He was a bear, but different from the others in town. For one thing, he was Russian, with a faint accent left from the land of his birth. It made him sound exotic to Mellie’s American ears. He was also built on the massive side—as were most of the men around town—but Peter was a bit of a giant, even among his friends.

 

He’d always been a gentle giant with her, though. While Urse had been in danger and spell-crafting for all she was worth, Mellie had been basically under house arrest. The first couple of times Urse went out to cast her spells, she’d warded the apartment so Mellie couldn’t get out until Urse came back. The stinker.

 

Then, when Urse had almost been lured away by the evil song of the leviathan and Mellie had been trapped in the apartment, John had sent Peter over to babysit. His job had been to make sure Mellie didn’t try to leave and go help her sister. According to their grandmother, who had a gift of clairvoyance, each of the girls had to do their tasks completely on their own. If one tried to help the other, it could all fail.

 

That didn’t mean Mellie was content to just sit and watch while her sister went into danger time and time again. She’d wanted to be close in case of disaster, so maybe she could help save her sister’s life. But the bears of Grizzly Cove weren’t allowing it. At Urse’s request.

 

Double stinkers.

 

Peter had been sent to sit in the apartment with her to make sure she wouldn’t circumvent Urse’s desires and the Alpha’s orders. As if Mellie would deliberately cause problems for her sister. All she’d wanted to do was be nearby, in case everything went wrong and Urse needed her. But no. Urse had decreed Mellie couldn’t be anywhere near and had to be watched like some kind of prisoner, under house arrest.

 

Mellie still hadn’t quite forgiven her sister for that. In fact, their relationship had been a bit strained since Urse had saved the cove and Mellie had been failing at every attempt to do her part. It didn’t help Mellie’s mood that her sister—her best friend—had found her mate and was totally wrapped up in John.

 

Not that Mellie wasn’t happy for them. She was. She really was. John was a great guy, and Mellie couldn’t have asked for anyone better for her only sister. It’s just that seeing them so happy… When Mellie was failing so badly every time she tried to brew a potion… It was hard. Urse wasn’t there in the middle of the night when Mellie needed to talk.

 

Urse had moved out of the apartment above the bookstore and moved into John’s house—his den—farther up the cove. She wasn’t all that far away, but she wasn’t there for Mellie the way she always had been. Mellie was having a rude awakening about just how much she’d come to depend on her older sister. She hadn’t realized it, but she was coming to appreciate it now more than ever.

 

Mellie was feeling lonely and a little left out of her sister’s life. She knew it was a bit selfish to feel like that, but she couldn’t help it.

“Here.” Urse set a steaming cup of tea down in front of Mellie. She’d been so wrapped up in her own morose thoughts, she hadn’t really heard Urse rustling around by the stove, making tea. Chamomile, by the delicate fragrance of it.

“Thanks, sis.” Mellie truly loved her sister, even if she was having a hard time adjusting to the new dynamic of her sister being married.

Urse came over and sat down across from her at the kitchen island, sipping her own mug of steaming tea. She let Mellie enjoy the tea for a moment before she spoke.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” It was the same question Urse had been asking for weeks, but Mellie didn’t have a new answer. She just shrugged. “I’m sorry, hon. I really am.”

“I know.” Mellie sipped her tea again, feeling calmer and a bit sad. “I’m stopping for today. I’ll have to clean out the laboratory and bless everything all over again. There’s a new moon tonight, so it’s a good time to do it. Then, I guess I’ll start fresh tomorrow, but I have no idea how. I’m sort of at a dead end here.”

 

“But I thought the grimoire Nonna sent had the potion you needed,” Urse said quietly.

 

“It does. At least, I think it does, but it’s so ancient. Some of the ingredients I have to guess at because we don’t call them by the names listed anymore. I’ve had to do a lot of research, and I think I’ve got everything right, but there’s one ingredient—a really important one—that I just don’t understand and can’t figure out.”

 

“The dragon’s blood thing, right?” Urse asked, familiar with the problem Mellie had been kicking around for the past few days. “Are you sure there’s not some obscure herb or potion that goes by that name?”

 

“I’ve tried everything. I’m at the point where I think there might actually have been dragons around at the time the grimoire was written.” Mellie chuckled at the thought. Real dragons? Yeah, right. Pull the other one.

 

“Well, it is pretty old,” Urse offered uncertainly.

 

Mellie looked at her sister in disbelief. “Seriously? You think there really were dragons?”

 

“Well, you know the old saying. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. I mean, we have all these old stories about dragons. So, why couldn’t they have been real at some point?” Urse shrugged, sounding unsure of her own theory.

 

“I thought they were just stories ancient people made up when they found dinosaur bones and couldn’t explain them,” Mellie offered. That idea had always made sense to her.

 

“I’m not so sure,” Urse told her. “I think you should talk to Lyn Ling tomorrow. There are lots of stories about dragons in China. Maybe she knows something.”

 

“But the grimoire is from Italy,” Mellie protested weakly.

 

“And Marco Polo traveled the silk road,” Urse fired right back. “What if there really were dragons in China? Didn’t you tell me some of the other potions in the grimoire used ginseng and other Asian herbs?”

 

“Ginseng also grows in the United States, you know,” Mellie said, just to be contrary. She really wasn’t in a good mood. Not after this latest humiliation. But she knew Urse was trying to help, so she tried not to be too bitchy.

 

“Okay. You’re proving my point, you know. If the ginseng in the grimoire is from the U.S., then why couldn’t it also reference dragons from China? Ancient people traveled and traded, you know. It just took them longer to get where they were going.”

 

Mellie wanted to growl but bit it back. Urse’s heart was in the right place, even if Mellie wasn’t in the mood to hear it right now.

“I’ll go to Lyn’s shop tomorrow,” Mellie conceded. “Find out what she knows. I promised to bring Daisy some new books anyway.”

 

Urse smiled. “Good. Now, that’s settled, I’m heading home.” Urse stood and put her empty mug in the sink. “Will you be all right on your own?”

 

Urse asked her that every afternoon when she headed home from the bookstore they ran together. Mellie would take over for a couple of hours—not that they were inundated with customers, but there always was a chance of someone stopping by—then she’d lock up and retreat to the apartment above the shop to do a little work on her potions before heading to bed.

 

More often than not, she’d eat dinner all alone. It was getting on her nerves, but she wouldn’t tell Urse that. Not for the world. Mellie had always had Urse in her life. They’d cooked together all the time and spent a lot meals laughing and talking with each other. Now, Urse was off doing the happy couple thing, and though she’d invited Mellie to dinner many times, Mellie hadn’t wanted to horn in on their newlywed period.

 

Maybe it would become easier in time, but for now, Mellie was spending a lot of time alone, thinking about how lonely she was. It was circular thinking, she knew, but knowing that didn’t always help stave it off.

 

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” she assured her sister. “Go. Tell John I said hi. I’m just going to finish my tea, then I’ll head down to the bookstore.”

Urse left a few minutes later, and Mellie did as she’d said. She left the mugs in the sink for later and headed downstairs. She would spend an hour on the computer downstairs, doing more research into the ingredients she needed. She spent a lot of time doing research these days.

 

She was scrolling through a website devoted to dragon lore when the bell above the door to the shop tinkled, breaking her concentration. She looked up to find Peter walking into the shop.

 

“Back so soon?” Mellie asked, guessing Peter had driven the komodo dragon straight out of town and back to its owner.

 

“It’s been hours,” Peter told her. “It’s well past your usual closing time. I saw your lights still on and figured I’d stop by to see if everything was okay.”

 

Mellie looked past him to see out the front windows. Son of a gun. It was dark out there. The street lights were on, which meant it was pretty late.

 

“Wow. I guess I got caught up in my research.” She sat back and stretched the kinks out of her lower back. Judging by how much her spine hurt from sitting in one position for too long, she probably had been hunched over the computer far longer than she’d realized.

 

“What are you researching?” Peter asked conversationally.

 

He wasn’t usually one for small talk, so his question was a little out of the ordinary. Was he making an effort to be more friendly? If so, she was all for it. She’d like to get really friendly with him, in fact, but she didn’t want to get the cart before the horse. Peter had been a bit aloof with her since Urse had done her work, and Mellie didn’t want to chance that he’d scamper off again.

 

“Dragons, of course,” she told him, laughing weakly at herself. “Urse has got me half convinced that there were such things as real dragons once upon a time.”

 

“But there were.” Peter’s statement set her back. He sounded so certain.

 

“Seriously? How can you be so sure?”

 

“There is dragon blood in my family line,” he told her.

 

“Wait. What?” Mellie shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around what he was saying. “You mean dragons like…shifter…dragons?” Suddenly, it was as if a light bulb came on in her mind. “Why didn’t I think of that before? Dragons were shifters?” She stood and started to pace. “Stars! Do any still exist? Why didn’t you mention this before?” She turned her questions on Peter. “You have dragon blood? How far back?”

 

“My grandmother’s grandfather was a dragon, or so she claims. He died long before I was born, of course, and I don’t personally know anyone who can shapeshift into a dragon. These days, with the rise of human technology—especially radar—they’d probably be living in secret, in very remote locations, if any still exist. Dragons were hunted, you know. Not just in stories, but in real life. My great-great-grandfather lived in secrecy, too. Only the family knew what he was, and I understand there was great rejoicing when the children of that union all turned out to be bears and not dragons.”

 

Mellie thought hard about what he was saying. “But you still have dragon blood. At least a little. I wonder if I tried the potion with a drop of your blood…”

 

Peter squirmed a bit, which was unusual for him. “I’m willing to try, but I’m a bear, Amelia. One of my distant ancestors was a dragon, but I don’t think that really counts because my animal side is bear all the way. At least, that’s how it feels to me.”

 

“Look.” Mellie sighed heavily as she moved to stand before him. Her tone and demeanor were as serious as she ever got. “I don’t have much choice here but to try. If you’re willing, I’d love to give this another shot. Who knows? It might work.”

 

“Or, it might not, and the entire fire department might show up next time,” he cautioned her.

 

She didn’t like the reminder of her failures, but he did have a point. She shook her head. A little more embarrassment was a small price to pay. And there was a small chance it could work this time. It was worth the risk.

 

“That’s a chance I’ll have to take,” she told him. “I’ve got work to do cleaning out the lab and purifying it tonight when the new moon rises. Come by tomorrow afternoon, and we can start brewing, if you haven’t changed your mind.”

 

Peter shook his head, much the way his bear form sometimes did. “I haven’t changed my mind. I’m always willing to help you, zvyozdochka. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up too high. My dragon ancestor is very distant.”

 

“You’re the best I’ve got, Peter,” she told him, realizing that was true on many levels.

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