Bear Shifter Games: A Four Story Paranormal Shifter Collection - AJ Tipton - ebook
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Welcome to the Shifter Games! This magical competition pits shifters of all kinds against one another in a magical, dangerous, and unpredictable race to the finish. This four book collection of stand-alone stories follows four pairs of sexy shifters as they learn, laugh, and love their way to victory.Coaching the Bear: A debonair billionaire struggling to improve his company. A voluptuous personal trainer with nothing left to lose. Can their passion save the people they love? If you like steamy romance, muscle-bound shifters, and magical action, then you’ll love AJ Tipton’s breathtaking book.Conquering the Bear: A shy billionaire hiding from the world. An easy-going hunk with a secret. Can they win the shifter games without losing each other?  If you like steamy romance, muscle-bound shifters, and unbridled courage, you’ll love AJ Tipton’s breathtaking book.Capturing the Bear: A billionaire bear shifter afraid to leave his business behind. A controlling rabbit shifter who wants everybody to have fun her way. Lost on a tropical island, can they save each other? If you like steamy romance, muscle-bound shifters, and tropical liaisons, you’ll love AJ Tipton’s breathtaking book.Christmas with the Bear: A billionaire bear shifter longing for his forbidden love. A brilliant inventor, unable to control her temper. When these shifters from warring families fall for each other, will the feud tear them apart? If you like steamy romance, muscle-bound shifters, and Christmas magic, you’ll love AJ Tipton’s breathtaking book.Bear Shifter Games is a series of standalone paranormal romance novellas, set in a contemporary world filled with unexpected wonders, magic, and suspense. If you like steamy romance, muscle-bound shifters, and magical surprises, you’ll love AJ Tipton’s breathtaking series.Buy Bear Shifter Games to get in the game today!

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Bear Shifter Games

A Four Story Paranormal Shifter Collection

AJ Tipton

Contents

Coaching the Bear

Conquering the Bear

Capturing the Bear

Christmas with the Bear

Letter from the Authors

Meet AJ Tipton

Copyright © AJ Tipton 2015 The right of AJ Tipton to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (or other similar law, depending on your country). All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author, except in cases of brief quotations embodied in reviews or articles. It may not be edited, amended, lent, resold, hired out, distributed or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s written permission. Permission can be obtained from a.j.tipton.author@gmail.com

This book is for sale to adult audiences only. It contains substantial sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which may be considered offensive by some readers.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and incidents appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is purely coincidental.

All sexually active characters in this work are 18 years of age or older.

Cover art photos provided by BigStock.com, Morgue Files, Flickr.com, and Upsplash.com.

Created with Vellum

Coaching the Bear

Katherine Kalani shook her head in disbelief as she gazed in awe at the bustling crowd; she’d never seen so many different shifters in one place. Every kind that Katherine had ever heard of was limbering up, changing from their human forms into foxes, bears, wolves, and dozens of other animals as they waited behind a single, glowing line marked, “START”.

“What is all this?” Katherine asked Sylvester. She stretched her long, tanned legs and tried to work out the kink in her neck. The six hour flight from Hawaii had left her rumpled and knotted.

“Welcome to the shifter games!” Sylvester opened his arms out wide, encompassing the crowded clearing in the woods. “These gorgeous specimens...” her friend gestured at the shifters, “will be running, jumping, flying, climbing, and doing whatever else they need to do to get through the course our badass game master has concocted.” He pointed at a pale woman with rose tattoos all across her chest standing atop what looked like a lifeguard stand. Her long black hair was tied up in dozens of braids all floating in the air, bobbing and nodding, seemingly on their own accord. “That’s Lola. Bartender, matchmaker, and game master.” Sylvester grinned. “Also bookie. She’s taking bets on the winner, if you’re interested in some action.”

“Sly, I didn’t fly all the way to the mainland to see a bunch of hunks run a race.” She laughed at Sylvester’s faux pout. “Not that I mind seeing a bunch of hunks run a race.” She scanned the crowd. “You said you were taking me to see Raymond Bellwether.”

Sylvester took Katherine by the shoulders and gently turned her so she faced the far end of the pack of participants. There, wearing a smarmy grin and nothing else, was Raymond Bellwether.

“That son of a--”

Strong arms wrapped around her middle and her feet left the floor as Sylvester captured her in a bear hug.

“Sly.” Katherine gasped. “Too. Tight.”

“Oh sorry!” Sylvester's jolly laugh rang loudly in her ears as he released her. “I just thought it might be a good idea to keep you from assaulting my boss. When I got your text yesterday, I thought you were joking.”

“What’s funny about any of this?” Katherine jumped as the starter pistol went off and the assembled horde of shifters dashed away. All of the racers ran nude so they could shift back and forth between forms without destroying their clothes. Her eyes followed Raymond's back, narrowing as he disappeared into the throng.

“You’ve been my friend for ten years and you know I adore you, but Kat, you’re a crazy person.” Sylvester said. “You’re here to give the CEO of Bellwether Resorts a lecture about how he shouldn’t have closed the Maui resort? What’s that going to accomplish?”

Katherine ground her teeth, hating the feel of the enamel scraping. “There’s no way the Maui Turtle was doing poorly. We were booked solid every single day. I would bet any money that somebody’s skimming off the top, and Mr. Bellwether is a part of it.” She clenched her fists. “At the very least, screaming in that rat bastard’s face will make me feel better.”

“And it’s a terrific career move,” Sly quipped.

“Let me worry about my career.” She wasn’t employed at the Bellwether resorts, in fact she wasn’t employed anywhere anymore. Until the resort closed, Katherine was a very successful personal trainer working at the Maui Turtle, the Hawaii branch of the Bellwether chain of resorts. She was well respected on the island, training rich regulars and vacationers visiting paradise. Her resort was a typical tropical getaway, decorated from floor to ceiling in palm trees and colorful leis. It might have been hokey, but it was home. Friends told her to set a private studio and charge much more for her personal training sessions, but working at the Maui Turtle hadn't been just about the cash.

Katherine still felt the shock that coursed through her body when she heard the Maui Turtle was closing. It was during the normal Monday morning staff meeting, and the news was presented so casually, most people thought it was a joke. Just thinking about their head of housekeeping, Mrs. Mahiʻai's, face when they began to read out the termination notices made Katherine want to bash in Raymond Bellwether’s face. The stark reality of the situation had become all too clear, then. Mrs. Mahiʻai had a seven-year old son with cancer in the hospital. Without her job, how could she possibly keep up with the hospital bills? And Mr. Kapule, one of the gardeners who helped Katherine in high school pass her AP Biology test, has five kids. Maui was a small island, there weren't that many jobs to go around.

The coworkers and friends who had been Katherine's surrogate family were already scattering to find work elsewhere. And it was all Raymond Bellwether's fault. Katherine's fists clenched and unclenched at her side

“Well fuck that,” Katherine mumbled as she struggled to get past Sly. “If the head of the company wants to ruin my friends'' lives, he’s going to have to explain himself to my face.”

“I know,” Sylvester said. “That’s why I brought you here. After the games, everyone drinks their faces off at the bar.” He pointed over his shoulder to a glowing sign reading AUDREY's. “Raymond is going to be exhausted and drunk. I figured that would be your best shot to get the truth out of him.”

“Solid plan.” Katherine tapped her foot as she waited for the race to end. “So tell me about these shifter games. I’m a personal trainer and even I think this is a little nuts.”

“Oh it’s great!” Sly nearly spilled his beer as he gestured enthusiastically. “Lola sets up a different course every week, and she sets it up so that no type of shifter has an advantage over the others; something for the big and small, fliers and the swimmers, stuff like that. The games are mostly won for bragging rights, but there’s also a prize and it’s always random as hell. One week it was a pack of breath mints, the next it was an all-expenses-paid Alaskan cruise, but you never know until after there's a winner.”

The racers were finishing up the course, naked men and women splashing out of the lake and dashing toward the finish line. She scanned the crowd, searching for Raymond, and her eye caught on a tall man emerging from the water, rivulets running across the toned muscles of his bare chest and abs. Her mouth went dry as she watched the droplets weave a path through the defined grooves of his musculature. The man's hair was neatly trimmed against his scalp and his skin was darker than even Katherine’s perpetual tan. Bulging muscles worked under his skin as he ran across the last field toward the finish line, still behind a few other racers.

“I can’t complain about the view,” she said. Even with so much skin on display, the tall man stood out above the rest.

“Watch it with that one, he's--” Sly’s warning was cut off with a deafening roar. Raymond had crossed the finish line, and the assembled crowd was going nuts. Katherine clenched her teeth. Of course the asshole won the race. Karma is a lazy bitch.

“For our conquering hero, a prize!” Lola’s magnified voice echoed through the clearing although Katherine couldn’t see any sort of microphone. Lola held up a tall white box tied with a shiny red bow.

“Now Lola, what am I going to do with this?” Raymond shouted as he opened the box and pulled out a crushed blue velvet hat, waving it at the laughing crowd.

“Wear it proudly as you buy the first round!” Lola placed the hat firmly on Raymond’s head and led the way back to the bar. A few of the shifters lifted Raymond on their shoulders and carried him, singing a warbling shanty as they went.

Katherine and Sylvester followed the rowdy crowd into AUDREY’S. Raymond had disappeared amongst the masses. Probably hiding out to avoid paying for the first round, the bastard, Katherine thought. She bit the inside of her cheek. She had flown all this way to give Raymond a piece of her mind, but he was always just out of reach. The man destroyed her home and scattered her family, he had to suffer consequences.

She scanned the room, waiting for him to reappear. It wasn’t just shifters seated at the long wooden bar and small tables scattered throughout the room; Katherine spotted some fairies, a few vampires, and even a massive troll talking, drinking, and laughing together. Sylvester kissed her on the cheek, saying he was going to sit with some friends.

"Stay out of trouble, Miss. Just remember that you do want them to reopen the resort and hire you again," he said.

Katherine waved him away, promising nothing. She walked up to the bar, hoping for a better view of the crowd. She didn't have much hope that the Maui Turtle would be reopened, but she wouldn’t leave the game until she'd played all her cards.

“What is this place?” she asked the bartender. Katherine settled onto her bar stool, feeling herself relax despite her rage. There was something about this bar that made anger hard to hold onto.

“Welcome to AUDREY's.” Lola poured an Old Fashioned, Katherine’s favorite, into a glass and slid it towards her. As the bartender spoke, her braids bobbed, almost like they were waving in greeting.

“Thanks?” Katherine could hear the wobble in her voice as she took in the spectacle. As a bear shifter herself, she was used to the extraordinary, but she’d never seen any place like this.

“You get used to it after a while.” The tall man Katherine had spotted coming out of the water at the games appeared at her side. His hair was still wet and his bare chest was streaked with mud. Katherine noted with a touch of disappointment that he had put on pants.

He nodded to Lola and she poured him a glass of whiskey with a splash of Coke and slid it across the table to him. He tasted it and smiled. Katherine was pleased to see it took his handsome face from a nine to an eleven. The man lifted his glass in salute to the bartender as he slid cash across the table.

“Perfect, as always." He turned back to Katherine. "Lola rarely takes a drink order.”

“Bartender knows best, dears.” Lola winked and walked down the bar to tend to a group of babbling centaurs.

“I saw you out there. Participating in the games, I mean.” Katherine lifted her glass, the cool condensation a stark contrast to the heat coursing through her body.

This isn't what you came here for, she reminded herself. He smiled again, this time directly at her, and Katherine felt herself blush. There was something so authentic about his smile; she couldn't help but return it.

Down girl. Mr. Kapule's youngest kid had wanted a swing, so he spent extra on a house with a tree tall enough to attach a rope set. When they defaulted on the mortgage, they were going to be lucky to end up in a cramped apartment if they wanted to stay on the island. Keep this professional, you're here to stand witness, not hook up with a random hot guy. She pressed the side of the glass to the side of her face.

“You weren’t bad, although if you worked on your balance you might have had a fighting shot at first place,” she said.

The man laughed, his chuckle low and melodic. “I’ll try not to be too hurt by that. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with second place.”

Katherine looked down into her glass. “Sorry. Professional habit.” She put her Old Fashioned down on the bar and reached out her hand. “Katherine Kalani, personal trainer.”

Walter grinned, shaking her hand in a firm grip. “Walter Bellwether, resort manager.”

Bellwether? Katherine clutched at the glass before it fell from her fingers.

“Little brother!” A large hand clamped down on Walter’s shoulder. Raymond was still wearing the ridiculous hat and holding an empty stack of shot glasses. He swayed slightly as he leaned close to Katherine, his tequila-infused breath wafting towards her. “And who do we have here?” He leaned close, his beady eyes never leaving her chest.

“You.” Katherine pushed every ounce of hate she felt into the one syllable. “I’m Katherine Kalani from the Maui Turtle.” She stood up off the bar stool and stared him down. “You know, the resort you just closed? Six hundred people just lost their jobs, and you’re sitting around playing games and doing shots. Those were loyal employees you fired, good people who had worked decades for your company.”

“What?” Walter jumped off his bar stool as well, facing Raymond. “You didn’t tell me we closed the Turtle.” He looked a little wobbly on his feet and Katherine grabbed his arm to steady him. Drinking after running, probably not a great idea.

“Calm down, little brother. Leave the business to the adults.” He rolled his eyes at Katherine as he dropped the empty shot glasses onto the stained bartop. “Listen, Miss, your resort was losing me money hand over fist. I’m not running a charity here.”

“That’s bullshit!” Katherine spat. “We were booked solid until you shut us down.” She raised an eyebrow suspiciously. “Look me in the eye, and tell me where the money really went.”

Walter moved between Katherine and Raymond, using his body to create distance between them. “Whoa, that’s a serious accusation.”

“The truth is, the Maui Turtle was a poorly-run piece of shit." Raymond pointed at her. "The staff was so incompetent, we couldn’t pay customers to be around them.” He grabbed another shot from the bar, and tossed it back. “Besides, it’s my money. I’ll do what I want.”

Katherine lunged at him, but Walter’s hands wrapped around her waist, holding her back.

"I got this." Walter stepped closer to this brother, his voice a low growl. "I can't believe you closed down an entire resort without cause. Those are our employees, we owe them our loyalty. This is Dad’s legacy we’re talking about."

Katherine looked at Walter in surprise. At least one of the Bellwether brothers wasn't a waste of space.

Raymond grabbed Walter’s drink off the bar and downed it in a single gulp. “I’ll run my company however I damn well please. Dad’s will put me in charge.” He belched.

"He didn't leave the company to you just so you could piss it all away like you did your trust fund!" Walter grabbed one of the shots that had appeared between them. Katherine looked around for where the shots had come from and saw Lola leaning against the back wall. The bartender winked. Katherine glanced between the two brothers, a sense of foreboding brewing in her chest.

"You think you're so much better than me, don’t you?" Raymond pushed at Walter's chest, bellowing, “You can’t even beat me at the shifter games, how can you possibly expect to do better than me at business?”

Walter pushed back. “I could totally beat you at the games!” And the next time we race, I will." He grabbed another shot and pounded it.

“Don’t embarrass yourself in front of the lady here.” Raymond slurred. “Besides, what do you have to bet?” He tried to bring another shot to his mouth, missed and spilled the liquid down his chin.

Walter stepped closer. “I know you want me gone. If I win, I’ll go run whatever far-flung resort you want and leave you alone to run this business into the ground.” Walter slammed his palm on the bar.

Maybe I still have a shot to save my home. Katherine stepped up. “And if Walter wins, he runs Bellwether Resorts. The entire chain.”

“Good one.” Walter toasted her. He turned to Raymond. “Yes, if I win...that.”

“You’re on!” Raymond hollered, steadying the ridiculous hat he was wearing.

“Make it official," Walter slurred. "We need Lola to--”

“Right here, guys.” Lola appeared behind the bar, holding a sheet of paper that let off a green glow. She winked at Katherine. “We have a lot of bets made in this bar.”

Katherine eyed the paper that seemed to be lit from within. “Is that a Binding Quire?” She poked experimentally at the document.

“You got that right, hon,” Lola said. “It’s got all the details of the wager. Once they both sign, Walter and Raymond are bound both legally and magically to fulfill these obligations.” She scrunched up her face. “The last guy who tried to get out of one of these ended up with an elephant trunk right in the middle of his face. It was a real turn off for the ladies.” She paused. “Well, most of the ladies, that is.”

“I’ll sign if you sign.” Raymond smirked. "Little brother."

Katherine held her breath.

“Give it here.” Walter pulled the document toward himself, and both brothers signed it with the overwhelming confidence of the truly inebriated.

Walter turned to Katherine, swaying a bit. “So...about that balance thing...?”

Walter’s eyes nervously flitted around the obstacle course Katherine had set up in the woods. It was really well done, as good as any of the courses Lola had set up for the official games. He thrust his hands into his sweatpants pockets to hide how they trembled. The training didn't worry him, but...

What the hell am I doing? He thought. I'm a professional adult responsible for the livelihoods of thousands of employees and I've put everything on the line for a stupid bet with my oafish brother. He pressed his hands flat against his thighs, forcing himself to focus.

I'm never drinking again.

"This is ridiculous. We shouldn't be doing this," he pleaded to Katherine as she finished setting down the last hay bale on the course. "I'll talk to Raymond, he'll be reasonable."

"Oh yeah?" She raised a perfect eyebrow at him and he felt the trembling in his hands subside. Just being around her filled him with the feeling that everything would work out somehow.

Katherine was tall, with strong curves visible under her dirt-covered sweatpants. Her wavy, brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, the smooth curls brushing the nape of her neck. The way the sun hit her skin made its natural glow more radiant, like she was lit from within. He shied away from the thought, all too aware of the stakes they were up against. This wasn't the time to think about asking his coach out for a date, no matter how much he wanted to take her into his arms.

She paced in front of him, her hands on her hips. "I’ve been researching your brother, finding out everything I can about how he runs the company. Reasonable is not an option with him." She beckoned Walter towards the course. "Besides, you two both signed a Binding Quire; you’d need a witch and both of you in agreement to undo it now. It’s no skin off my back if you turn into an elephant man. But…" she let the word hang for a second, "It’s unlikely your brother will back down. We need to make sure you're in the best possible position to win this race."

Katherine had a point. If Walter lost, the thousands of employees of Bellwether resorts were as good as unemployed. As much as he wanted to believe that his big brother would start taking his responsibilities seriously, it was highly implausible. In the last year since Raymond took over the company, the financial health of Bellwether resorts went into the toilet. If the business had any chance of survival, someone was going to have to start making some bold changes soon, and it sure didn't look like that person was going to be Raymond.

Katherine clapped her hands and Walter focused back on her. She gave him a stern look and crossed her arms over her chest, a move, he noticed, that pushed her breasts higher along the top of her tank top. He walked towards the starting line and looked over the obstacle course to keep from staring.

"I watched you at the race last week and you're not bad,” Katherine said. "I need to see how you run this course so I can assess your strengths and weaknesses. From there, we can set up a training regimen to target specific areas of improvement."

Walter sprinted off the starting line, leaping over hay bales as high as his chest, then bounding towards the thick ropes dangling from a tree branch. With one hand, he grabbed the rope and pulled himself up toward the branches, where the course continued. His feet slipped a bit on the thin tree branches as he dashed along, and Walter steadied himself by grabbing hold of the leafy twigs above him to keep from toppling off the thirty-foot drop on either side.

He reached his mark and dove out into the open space, nearly knocking the wind out of himself as his chest struck the trunk of the neighboring tree. He gripped the rough bark as tightly as he could as he climbed towards the ladder nailed to the side of the tree, before shifting to bear form. The larger form embraced him like a hug, his arms and torso bulking up with familiar strength. He shimmied down the tree with ease, his sharp claws guiding his rapid descent. His heart beat a merry rhythm as the ground hurtled towards him.

Walter felt optimistic as he approached the next obstacle: rope netting stretched above a wide pit about forty feet across. The crisscrossing ropes were set far enough apart that he would have to step carefully to not fall into the ten-foot deep pit beneath. He used his powerful hind legs to spring as far as he could onto the netting, shifting back to human form in mid-air. His fur receded, smooth skin replacing his rough pelt as his transformation completed. His lighter human form flew on the momentum from his jump as a bear, and he landed nearly at the far side of the netting. The rope cushioned under his feet, but he missed his footing, grabbing ahold of the rope at the last minute. For a moment, Walter hung so far down, the tips of his toes brushed the bottom of the hole. He gripped the rope and climbed out of the pit, resenting the time he was wasting on such a little mistake. Maybe I do have balance issues, after all.

Walter scrambled to his feet as quickly as he could, but he knew his fall would have cost him the win in an actual race. He picked his way across the rest of the ropes, then completing the course by jumping across the creek, scaling a boulder, and finally sprinting as fast as he could back to where Katherine was waiting with a stopwatch in her hand and a grim expression on her face.

His sides were burning, and his breath came in quick pants, as he lurched to a stop. "I know that sucked," he gasped. "I shouldn't have shifted in mid-air. It was stupid." He pulled out some exercise shorts and a shirt from his gym bag and pulled them over his naked body. He glanced over to see if Katherine was watching, but her eyes were critically scanning the course.

She made a small tsking sound. "Shifting like that was a bit flashy, but I've seen much worse. You have the strength and speed to win this. It's mainly your balance we’ll need to work on. If we can improve that, you can move faster through the trees and keep your footing over the ropes."

He nodded. "Okay, but how do we improve my balance? Isn't that a natural talent?"

She shook her head. "No such thing, anything can be trained. It's just going to take time and effort on your part. You ready for that, rich boy?" Her smile took a little of the sting out of her jibe, but he could tell she meant it. She didn't think he had the discipline to follow through.

She thinks I'm like Raymond. The thought was like a punch to Walter’s chest.

He straightened up, steadying his heartbeat and flexing his muscles so the definition showed. "I can handle anything you throw at me."

Katherine smiled. "Good. We're going to start with something simple: one-legged balances. Stand with your feet together." He clicked his bare feet together. "Now close your eyes, and slowly raise your right foot forward, heel down."

Walter wobbled a bit as he discovered keeping his balance with eyes closed was harder than he thought it was going to be. He flailed his arms and clenched his core as he adjusted his weight, trying to stay upright.

"Picture a string attached to the top of your head pulling you upward," Katherine said, her voice low, like she was guiding him through a meditation. Tension he hadn't realized he was holding dissipated at the sound of her voice, and he found he could raise his leg a little higher. "That's it. Now, without lowering your leg, move it to the right side so that it's stretched out next to you. You’ll have to compensate for the change in weight distribution, but don't forget the cord pulling you up, keeping you aligned all the way through your vertebrae."

He followed her instructions, the muscles in his thighs beginning to scream from holding his leg so high for so long. "Having fun over there?" He said through gritted teeth, trying to distract himself.

"A little. It's not every day I get to make a Bellwether sweat."

His eyes flew open. The image had popped into his mind before he could stop it: Katherine under him, his cock furiously thrusting into her, their bodies' sweat intermingling as she held him close and he felt her shuddering orgasm around him.

She's your coach, he told his cock, concentrating on picturing the faces of his friends who were closer than family at the resort. She's going to help you keep the people you love safe. He didn't have time to think about Katherine in that way. He didn't have time to think about how her eyes gleamed when she was telling off his brother at the bar, or how he admired how quickly she'd jumped in to help him pull off this mad scheme. She had as much as he did riding on the outcome of this race. Walter couldn't think of her as a woman, just as his coach.

Her gaze traveled up and down his body and he felt the fine hairs on his arms and leg prickle as she looked at him. He knew she was assessing his body as a professional, but it was so tempting to think she was checking him out. He tried not to wish the way she pursed her mouth and ran her tongue lightly across her bottom lip was because she was considering doing all the naughty things to him that he was thinking of doing to her. That was a dangerous train of thought.

This is too important. Don't think of her as a woman.

"How many more reps, coach?" he said.

"Switch sides, other leg. Straight out, then to the side."

Walter gritted his teeth and followed her commands, going through a series of other balancing exercises, swinging each leg back and forth, first while standing on the ground, and then while standing like a tight-rope walker, the balls of his feet on the knotted rope course. Sweat soaked through his shirt, the fabric clinging to his aching muscles, but he continued on.

Katherine finally called for a break after an hour, handing him a bottle of water and a towel. "I gotta' say, you're taking this much more seriously than I thought you would."

Walter shrugged. "It's for the resort."

She studied him, her expression unreadable. "You make it sound so simple, but I doubt your brother would say the same. How did you two end up so different?"

He took a long swig of water. "Raymond and me, we didn't grow up together."

"How so?"

Walter chuckled. "It's all so messed up.” He sighed. “I shouldn’t have made that bet. It was so stupid. If I lose and Raymond runs the company into the ground, so many people’s lives will be ruined. I should have found a better way. Raymond just makes me so angry sometimes."

He clenched his hand around the water bottle, bending the plastic between his fingers so far it almost broke. He looked down at the bulging plastic and placed the bottle on the bale of hay next to him.

"It's a long story." Walter studied her. Her expression was curious, but how much could she really care about his family's drama?

"I'd still like to hear it," she said.

"When we were kids, Raymond got to travel with Dad while I was left with a rotating door of nannies at the flagship resort. He was the oldest, heir to the company; it made sense that he would study at Dad's knee. I doubt the old man actually allowed Raymond to see any of the business in action, though. My father was a very hands-off kind of parent. From what I've heard, Raymond barely saw him more than I did.”

Walter ran the towel over her face. He usually hated talking about his family, but somehow Katherine was different. “Raymond became the stereotypical trust fund kid, running wild, wrecking everything he could get his hands on. It probably started as a way of getting our Dad's attention, but eventually I think it changed who he was: to understand something, Raymond always wants to know what it would look like broken. My toys, his toys, they all ended up shattered. It was the same with his relationships. After our father died, I hoped he would sober up and take the business seriously, but every day it looks like he’s trying to see what the whole company will look like in pieces."

"Growing up the way you did, so far away from your family, how did you turn out so…" she waved a hand across him. "Well adjusted."

Well adjusted? Walter grinned at the compliment.

"I lived at our flagship resort, and found my own family there. I grew up around the maids, gardeners and receptionists, and became part of this huge family, surrounded by the same familiar faces every day. The staff of the resort always had time for me, even if my Dad didn’t. They threw me birthday parties and cheered when I walked at graduations. They invited me to join them for Christmas and sit with them during Fourth of July parades. I didn't have a single Mom or Dad, I had dozens of aunts and uncles who all counted me as one of their own." He pushed down the familiar, quick stab of disappointment at missing out on having supportive parents, although he knew he couldn't dream of replacing the circle of love he grew up with. "They taught me everything I know: not only about the ins and out of running a resort, but also about respect, responsibility, duty, and caring about your work." He scratched the back of his head and directed his gaze to the dirt. “That sounds super cheesy when I say it out loud.”

Katherine smiled. “It’s a little cheesy, but I get what you’re saying. It was the same for me with the staff at the Maui resort. My mom was a single mom, who took me with her when she was a maid at the Maui Turtle. The staff there became my nannies and tutors, helping me with homework and encouraging me to pursue the fields I was interested in. After my mom passed away, the resort was my sanctuary, it’s where I could feel closest to her memory." Katherine's voice was low. For a second, Walter thought she might start to cry, but her eyes were dry and her jaw was set hard. "Since the resort closed, it’s all gone; my family is scattered trying to find new jobs. All because of your brother."

"Ray was just really unprepared to run the company." He knew it sounded like an excuse, but couldn’t help but defend his brother. "We all thought we had another few decades before Raymond would have to step up. Dad's accident shocked all of us."

Katherine opened her mouth like she was going to say something, then shook her head and paced a short distance away. She turned back. "Are you sure your brother is trying to help the business succeed? You said he likes to break his toys. This is the biggest toy he’s ever had. Do you think he could be driving this company into the ground on purpose?"

"Ray’s is an irresponsible hothead, but he's not a bad person." I hope. The thought popped up in Walter’s mind, uninvited. He barely saw his brother growing up, and their interactions as adults was mostly at the shifter games once every month or so. How well do I really know him? "He’s just unfit to run this company. When I'm in charge, I'll place him in a position where he can learn how to do more of the basics before entrusting him with more power."

Katherine bit her lip. "If Raymond is embezzling, would you help find the proof?"

Water frowned. "If he was embezzling, I would help. I don’t think that’s what’s happening; Raymond isn’t slick enough hide stacks of cash and get away with it."

"Fine," Katherine said, her tone implying the matter was far from settled. "So let’s say you win. Are you qualified to run the business? What will you do to turn the company around if you become the new CEO?"

Walter grinned. "Don't worry, I’ve been learning about the business all my life. I have degrees I can show you if you’re interested.” He chuckled, excited to have somebody to talk with about his ideas. “For the past few years, I’ve been putting together a comprehensive overhaul of our current client experience. I was hoping to pitch it to my Dad this year but...” He let the thought hang. “I'm going to rebrand the resorts. All of them. Instead of keeping them as high-priced luxury playgrounds affordable only to the super rich, we're going to open our doors. We’ll provide low- and mid-priced packages so people of all income brackets will be able to enjoy a resort." He sat forward, gesturing wide as he continued to describe his dream: full-time daycare and more children's play areas, investing in a wider variety of entertainment, more rooms in different sizes to increase capacity. "I’ve put together a whole action plan, approved by the company accountants and lawyers, ready for how we can not only save the resorts that are on the verge of closing, and also reopen the closed resorts in Maui and Hong Kong."

"That's fabulous!" Katherine cried, reaching forward to hug him.

Her body pressed against his and for a second his mind flashed back to a surround-sound, sexy, sweaty fantasy of pressing Katherine back against the hay bales, spreading her legs, diving his face between her legs and licking her cunt until he could feel her shudder in release. He kept perfectly still, carefully holding himself back from turning his head and pressing his lips against hers.

"Inclusivity as good business. I love it so much." She let go of his shoulders, but her face was still so close, all Walter could think about was kissing her. "I underestimated you. You’re not just another spoiled rich boy." She leaned forward half an inch and for one breathless moment, Walter thought she was going to kiss him.

I have to win this game. The thought splashed against his brain like a bucket of cold water.

He leaned back, got to his feet. "So...what's next, coach?"

She smiled and jumped up. "Squats."

He groaned, she laughed, and they got back to work.

The Bellwether Resort headquarters was exactly what Katherine imagined from Sylvester's numerous rants about Raymond's redecoration: tacky, expensive, and covered in way too many mirrors. Katherine had only been to headquarters once for a training when she was first starting out, when Raymond and Walter's father had been in charge of the company. Everything had been decorated in classic beige and navy blue, with Hamptons-like class and a wink of Jimmy Buffet fun. Now it looked like Raymond was spending a fortune to ensure he could have an easy view of his own face no matter where he looked. It made sneaking in especially difficult.

“This is ridiculous!” Sylvester hissed. He pulled at the collar of the dress jacket he'd pulled from the Lost and Found as a "disguise" to cover his distinctive toucan-print shirt.

“Hush, we’ve done way worse.” Katherine paused. “Nothing specific comes to mind, but I’m sure we have.” Sylvester had grown up with her at the Maui resort and was promoted to headquarters a few months before the Turtle closed. Even though he had a fancy job now coordinating resort entertainment, Katherine loved that she could still count on him for whatever mischief she asked him to do.

Sylvester took a look down the hallway leading towards the empty mailroom. “Fine. Get in.” He wheeled the silver mail cart towards Katherine, opening the interior cabinet that usually held larger packages. “If we get caught, I’ve never heard of you.”

Katherine beamed. “You’re the best!” She gave Sly a quick peck on the cheek before carefully folding herself into the cramped interior.

“I don’t even deliver the mail, they’re going to know I’m not the regular guy,” Sylvester whispered before he swung the cabinet door closed.

“Oh please, these big shots don’t look at the mail guy. Now go!” Katherine’s voice echoed a bit in the metal chamber.

How did this become my life? Katherine thought. It had only been two weeks since the Maui Turtle closed, and her life was already unrecognizable. Not that she was complaining; she got to spend her days making a gorgeous billionaire sweat.