Nate Landry is living a whopper of a lie.
He's an otter shifter, that much is true. Folks say he's the best river guide in the region, with an uncanny knack for finding the hottest fishing spots. And he has a good friend again, a guy he likes more than he ought to.
Everything will be fine, as long as nobody—especially Mac—finds out he used to be Charlie Beauchamp, a covert-ops rescue swimmer who failed to save the one person he loved most.
Then the real Nate Landry shows up, dragging Charlie's grief and guilt out of the depths.
McKinley Greer knows how to keep a secret.
Like where a bear shifter might find the best honey trees. Or why he brews beer but doesn't drink a drop of it. Or why the vids he watches at night feature guys who look a helluva lot like his best friend.
But suddenly Nate isn't Nate—he's a freaking hero named Charlie—and when he begins to share his own secrets...
It's only a matter of time before all the things Mac's stashed in the darkest den of his heart get hauled into the light.
EMBRACE THE BEAST is the 3rd novel in the GRIZZLY RIM m/m shifter series.
Brace yourself for a bear with a sweet tooth, an otter who knows how to use maple syrup, some very sticky sheets, and...well...it's not called Grizzly Rim for nothin', y'all.
Tropes: friends to lovers, secret identity, size difference, introvert vs extrovert
Content Notes: This story includes depictions of sibling grief, alcohol sobriety, memory of alcohol abuse, a high-water rescue, and self-harm (cuts and scrapes) as a result of loss of control.
Originally published in 2016 as a novella, this novel edition of EMBRACE THE BEAST has been extensively revised and expanded for republication in 2019.
Release date: November 7, 2019
Print pages: 206
Content advisory: depictions of sibling grief, alcohol sobriety, memory of alcohol abuse, a high-water rescue, and self-harm (cuts and scrapes) as a result of loss of control
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Embrace the Beast
Three, two, one, go.
Mac twisted the rubber stopper from the brewing flask and, leaning close to the open neck, took a deep breath.
The ale greeted him, as smooth and bitter as an ex-lover.
On his next inhalation, he made himself imagine taking a sip, how the malt would curl sweetly around his tongue even as the hops tweaked his salivary glands. How the heat trickling into his belly would slip into his bloodstream, loosening his muscles and easing his mind of all its cares. He let all the sensations flow through him, around him.
As he exhaled, he imagined them draining away through the grate in the brew room floor. Imagined himself standing strong in their wake.
Because he was strong. He had to be.
After the initial sniff, he was able to pick out individual notes in the ale’s makeup—caramel, toasted walnuts, a hint of black pepper—and decided it was on track. He replaced the cork and stepped to the next flask, and the next, and on, moving through his daily routine, detachment like a lifeline hooked to his belt. When he finished, he stood a moment in this space he’d built, and closed his eyes.
He’d survived another night, another morning. But on the short list of things he couldn’t let himself touch, beer was second. Number one would probably stop by the pub today. He usually did.
And Mac might let himself imagine, just for a moment, reaching out and stroking his fingers across that smiling mouth or those dirty blond curls.
Then, like the imaginary sip of ale, he would let the thought go. Because he had to.
Closing the brew room door behind him, he crossed the pub kitchen to his stereo and turned on the music, and then got down to the business of prepping for lunch.
Balancing the tin of cookies on one arm, Nate pulled the front door of his riverside shack closed. It latched—sort of—and he carried his offering down the rickety porch steps to his truck. The bottom of the tin was warm. He should have let them cool completely but he’d tasted one out of the oven and really wanted to see Mac’s face when he did too.
Some things were worth hurrying for.
When he reached the pub, the parking spots out front were taken. There’d been a time, five years before, when all those vehicles and their owners had seemed foreign and surly, and he’d had his hands full trying to adjust to what Alaska considered a climate. He’d known enough to follow the traffic, though, which had led him to Mac’s place. The first time he’d pushed through the front door…
He’d taken one look at the brewer’s calm, bearded face and known that he would be okay here, eventually.
He parked around back now. Mac had given up paying him grief for it. There was space for two vehicles, and the pub didn’t get deliveries on Fridays. Besides, they were such an unlikely pair, his beater pickup and Mac’s Trans Am; Nate never got tired of seeing them parked next to each other.
As soon as spring started doing its thing in Grizzly Rim, Mac kept the bar’s kitchen open to the air, just the cheap screen door pulled to. The thump of the music he liked to cook to—ABBA Gold—drifted outside, and Nate grinned. “Atrocious,” he’d told his friend one day, but secretly he liked it because if he was patient and a little sneaky, he might catch Mac shaking his ass. And he was pretty sure nobody ever got to see that. Friendship had its benefits.
Sure enough, Mac stood at the range, his burly shoulders bouncing while his butt punctuated the beat. It was pretty damn cute.
As the screen door slapped shut behind him, Mac looked up. “Hey.” He was distracted after just one syllable by the tin in the crook of Nate’s elbow. “What’s that?”
Nate smiled and crossed to him. “Cookies.”
Mac’s brow furrowed skeptically above his glasses. “You made cookies?”
“I’m not just a river guide, my friend. I have other talents.”
He loved the dare in Mac’s eyes because he could tell he really wanted to try the cookies. He was a guy for sweets. With a flourish, Nate popped the lid off the tin, waving it so the scent would blast Mac in the face.
He needn’t have worried. The bear had the scent already. He reached for one, then sniffed at it.
“Just eat it, fool.”
Mac nibbled at one edge. His dark eyebrows rose in surprise and then half the cookie was gone. He chewed on it, frowning at the other half. “What is it?” he mumbled.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full. Manners.”
Mac swallowed. “Well?” He popped the rest of the cookie in his mouth and took another from the tin.
“Pecan sandies. My grand-mère’s recipe.”
“Where’d you get pecans?”
Busted. Their little grocery in the Rim only carried jarred peanuts during the winter, and the stray bag of whole walnuts if someone bartered with one. “Shipped ’em in.”
Mac’s eyes narrowed again. “Why?”
“I like sandies,” he hedged. “And I wanted to run something by you.”
“Mmm-hm.” Mac snatched the tin. “What?”
Mac sighed and turned to the prep table, stowing the tin on the top shelf. “I told you no.”
“Nooo, you said it sounds like a lot of work.”
“Nah, man, listen.” He looked longingly at the tin, wishing he’d nabbed a few before Mac took them. “If the auroras are as crazy as they were last year, tourists are gonna be flocking here in droves.”
“Flocking in droves?”
“Hush, nerd. Think of all the beer you could sell. You always have more than you can even offload on the locals—”
“Come on, you know what I’m saying.” He grabbed a slice of cheese from a pan nearby and slapped it on the sandwich Mac was building. “Who’s this for?”
“Sweet.” He grabbed three banana peppers from another pan and tucked them under the turkey.
“Come on. It’ll be funny. Besides, he might like it.”
Mac scowled at him. “Stop fucking with my menu.”
“It could use some hottin’ up, dude.”
“This is Alaska. Nobody wants it hotted up.” He frowned out the back door. “Warm enough already.”
Nate snorted. “Spoken like a grumpy-ass bear.”
“Skinny bastards don’t get it.”
“Damn right. I, for one, can’t wait for summer.”
“Come on, Fourth of July?”
“Exactly. Live music. Burgers and boudin on the grill, kids runnin’ under sprinklers.” He piled lettuce on the meat and cheese. “Pretty ladies in bikini tops?”
He glanced up to see Mac’s reaction, which was to scowl at the sandwich.
He’d known the guy for five years, and in all that time, he’d never gotten a bead on his druthers. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Mac with a woman. Or a man. Or anybody. As far as he knew, the guy just kept to himself. He brewed beer, ran his pub, and played a little hockey in the winter. The rest of the time…
Well, he didn’t actually know how Mac spent his off-hours. Brewing more beer, maybe. He’d spied a book behind the bar now and then, but whenever he’d asked about them, Mac clammed up, as if Nate was going to rib him for reading them. He’d never even been inside Mac’s house, a little place attached to the rear of the pub that turned the building into an L. He’d have given almost anything to see what the inside of Mac’s pad looked like.
Nate snapped back to present. “What?”
Mac waved the plate at him. “Take this to Thierry?”
Nate took the plate and covered Mac’s mouth with his other hand. “Don’t say no.”
Mac’s lips firmed up under his fingers as he glared at Nate.
But he didn’t say no.
Nate headed for the swinging saloon doors that led to the front. “I’m gonna grab a beer, ’kay?”
He wheeled around, nearly flinging the sandwich from the plate. “What?”
“You heard me.”
“Customers pay three!”
Nate sighed. “You want one? I’m buying.”
“Nope.” Mac pointed to his ever-present water bottle. “Covered.”
Nate shouldered into the pub. He’d show the guy. Brew Fest would be awesome. And he would do most of the legwork himself. All Mac had to do was brew the beer.
He delivered the sandwich. Not that Thierry noticed, or Dmitri. It was still so weird to see D all smitten. For as long as Nate had known him, Dmitri Sernov had prowled the bar for hookups. Then, last winter, Thierry had shown up from Québec in all his dazzling glory. How the guy had played hockey for a living and not lost any teeth was a fucking wonder. Nate didn’t know what Frenchy did to make Dmitri look love-drunk all the time, and frankly he’d rather not think about it too hard. And not because he was jealous.
Because he wasn’t. No, he hadn’t really gone out with anyone in the time he’d been in the Rim. Hell, he hadn’t even hooked up, despite D’s best efforts. But he had friends, and he had Mac, and if the big grizzly shifter never invited him into his den, it didn’t matter. Nate and his right hand were fuckin’ best friends. He was just dandy.
“Y’all are gross.”
Dmitri and Thierry grinned at him and nuzzled some more.
He settled in with his beer and tried to ignore them best he could. D’s dad was due in for a visit and a guided fishing trip. As soon as Nate hammered out the details, he could go into the kitchen and steal back some cookies.
Lex Sernov arrived soon after and sat down next to Nate with a groan.
“Not bad. Ferry was fine. Roads are a bit mucky with the melt.”
That was putting it mildly, but everyone up here tended to downplay the crap conditions. Mac was one of the worst for doing that. Nate had long since stopped complaining about the weather because Mac would never get it. He was a big guy, strapped with broad shoulders and a little extra in the belly region, and, as far as Nate could tell from his forays into the hockey locker rooms, curly hair all over. Mac was made for Alaska. Nate had his share of fur—most otter shifters did in human form—but he only really felt warm enough when he shifted. With his oily pelt and the nice layer of fat under his otter skin, Nate could swim in the most frigid water this state could throw at him. Even Mac wouldn’t do that.
Nate knew—he’d tried. Mac never wanted to play in the rapids with him.
Mac came over now and took Lex’s order. His eyes twinkled as he glanced from Lex to Dmitri, and Nate was dying to follow Mac into the kitchen and share the joke: that when D got older, he was gonna look like that dude in the beer commercials, the one who did all the cool shit and then lounged around draped in women.
But he couldn’t. He was practically hosting, since Dmitri and Thierry were quietly making out behind Lex. The fuckers.
He toasted Sernov. “Ready for a little fishing?”
Lex nodded. “Hope you don’t mind if I shift. It’s been a while since I ran these parts.”
“Schedule still free a few days from now?”
“Wide open—don’t get much business during the spring melt.”
“Sounds peaceful. Gimme a few days, then.” Lex leaned close. “I need to figure out how this happened.” He tipped his head subtly toward Dmitri and Thierry. “I mean, I get what Thierry brings to the table, but Dmitri…” He shook his head, bemused, and Nate chuckled.
“You find out, you gotta spill for the rest of us.”
“Deal. Say, I met another Landry.”
“That so?” Back in Louisiana, where he’d grown up, seemed like every third person was a Landry, or related to one. They had a big-ass family reunion every year, and apparently it was a sight. “Where was that?”
“On the ferry up.”
Lex nodded. “Said he was headed to Grizzly Rim, so I gave him a lift for the last leg. Nice fellow. Real sharp at the edges. Coast Guard.”
Nate’s skin frosted over, as if the clock had suddenly turned back three months.
Or five years.
He reached for his beer and took a shaky gulp. When he set it back down, the glass smacked the bar, and beer sloshed over the rim. He grabbed a bunch of bar naps to mop it up.
Shit, Lex was looking at him funny. “You okay, son?”
Something in his voice must’ve carried ’cause then Thierry and Dmitri were staring at him too. D asked something and Lex turned to respond, but the only thing Nate could hear was the blood rushing through his veins in a panic.
There was only one Landry in the Coast Guard who’d have been on that ferry. Only one who’d be bound for this particular village out of all the thousands in the state.
Then the front door swung open, and there he stood, backlit by the blinding springtime sun.
The real one.
“Gotta go.” He slid off his barstool. Where was his truck? Didn’t matter, he needed to get outside. He hustled toward the light.
Landry reached for him. “Hey—”
He jerked his arm away. “Not now.” His voice sounded high and thready in his ears. “Not yet.”
Not fucking yet.
Mac almost missed it.
He’d just come back from the kitchen to ask Dmitri’s dad if he wanted pickles on his Reuben, when Nate slid off his seat and practically ran for the front door. He looked…panicked, as if there was some emergency outside, but nobody else was moving to help. The only person who said anything was a guy Mac had never seen before. He stood in the middle of the place, a duffel strap across his chest. Black guy. Tall. Thin. He reached out to grab Nate’s arm.
“Not yet,” Nate said.
The two words knocked around Mac’s brain. Not Leave me alone, or Go away.
Not yet. As if Nate had been expecting him.
Mac stepped around the bar, ready to stop the guy if he tried to follow, but he didn’t. After a moment, he turned back around, his chest rising on a deep breath.
Mac fought to keep his fists to himself, and he wasn’t even sure why. “You know Nate?”
The man stared at him, blank, then frowned. “Nate?”
Who was this joker? “The guy who just freaked out.”
“You mean Charlie?”
What the fuck? He looked at Dmitri, who shrugged. The floor of the bar was starting to feel like quicksand. He didn’t like it one fucking bit. He turned back to the stranger. “Charlie?”
The guy glanced around, nodded to someone. His eyes when he turned back to Mac were serious. “Can you tell me where he lives?”
“Not ’til you tell me who the hell you are.” He needed to get a grip. Something about this guy made him want to throw punches.
Then he opened his mouth. “Lieutenant Nathan Landry, United States Coast Guard.”
Mac stared at him. Nathan Landry? But…Nate was Nathan Landry.
“I’m afraid I bring bad news.”
“What’s your name?”
“Mr. Greer, may we speak in private?”
Mac led him around the bar and into the kitchen. His skin felt like it was jumping all over. “What’s the deal? Why do you and Nate have the same name?”
“I don’t know why he’s using it. Listen, I need to speak to him. I can give him a little while, but I have to leave tomorrow. So I need to know where to find him.”
“Is he expecting you?”
Landry looked at him for a long moment. “You didn’t know his name is Charlie, is that correct?”
“Yes, that is correct.”
“Did you know he used to serve in the Coast Guard?”
The fuck? “No.”
“Well, the details aren’t important, and they’re his to share. But Charlie’s brother also served. He drowned about five years ago, but his body wasn’t recovered. Well, until a few weeks ago.”
“Jesus.” Nate had a brother? Who’d drowned? He’d never said anything about it.
“Yeah.” Landry’s demeanor softened to something almost pleading. “Mr. Greer, I’m here to confirm it for him, and he knows it. I have to do it in person. Can you tell me where to find him?”
“I’ll take you to him.”
Landry looked around. “I don’t want to wait until closing.”
“I’ll take you. Just a moment.”
He left Landry standing in the kitchen and stepped out into the bar. Dmitri and Thierry looked up as he approached them.
“What’s the matter?” Thierry asked.
Mac looked to Dmitri. “Can you watch the bar for a little while?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“That guy’s got some shit news for Nate. I’m gonna drive him out to the river.”
“We can do it,” Thierry offered, standing.
Mac held up a hand, then got tongue-tied. “I want to,” he said finally.
Dmitri nodded. “Of course. Go ahead.”
“Everything all right?” Dmitri’s father asked.
D would have to field that one. When Mac turned around, Landry was watching from the kitchen door. Mac pushed past him. “This way.”
It wasn’t a long drive. The main road through town met up with the river half a mile out, then followed it upstream for several miles before crossing it. Snow still stood in patches among the trees on either side of the road.
“I expected more mountains,” Landry said.
“Mountains are a little ways off. Couple hours. This is more river country.”
He felt Landry look at him. “Must be why he stopped here.”
Mac glanced over, but Landry was looking out the window again. Then he sensed it, the slight underscent of a shifter. Mac turned back to the road.
Landry was a shifter. Mac couldn’t tell what kind. He tried to stop his brain from going down the path it was headed because that route was littered with all the comments Nate had made over the years about how otters only mated with other otters. He’d said that mostly when Dmitri was hitting on him, but still… Was this Landry an otter?
Whatever he was, he didn’t seem inclined to talk anymore. Just as well. Mac was too roiled up in the guts to talk.
The little cabin Nate rented lay just a mile or so up the river. It stood on posts, right at the edge. Just enough space for one person. The Nate he knew didn’t spend much time indoors. He loved being outside, preferably in the water. The cabin was mostly for when weather was really bad, or he wanted to sleep in a bed. He slept floating sometimes, which freaked Mac out a little.
He pulled off the road near the cabin, and they climbed out. Landry was studying the structure, and Mac didn’t like the way the guy seemed to be judging it. Then he realized Landry was looking at the man seated on the shallow front porch, edged up against the building with his knees drawn up tight. Mac wasn’t sure if he should follow Landry, but he couldn’t help himself.
Nate looked up as they approached. He shot Mac a look of betrayal that almost stopped him in his tracks. Then Nate’s gaze snagged on Landry, and it was like he couldn’t look away. The man halted at the foot of the steps, Mac a few yards behind him.
Slowly, his friend unfolded himself and stood. Holding on to the railing, he clumped down the stairs. He stood on the damp ground, his fists clenching. His eyes were red, and when he spoke, his voice sounded like it had been sanded. “Nate.”
Everything in Mac wanted to step around the stranger and wrap his arms around his friend, but when the fuck had he ever done that? Just this morning he’d brushed him off. Like he always did.
“They found him?”
Nate took a deep breath. He looked for a moment as if he’d be okay, as if he would invite them inside, but then he lifted his arms and crossed them over his face.
Landry dropped his duffel bag and within a second was holding Nate up. Mac stood there, helpless, as an awful, hoarse sound tore out of his friend. The rush of spring melt in the river did nothing to mute it. After a few seconds, Nate’s arms, trapped against Landry’s chest, came up and around his neck, clutching at him as he sobbed. He was saying something over and over, but nothing was making sense to Mac anymore.
Landry seemed to sense his dumb, lumbering presence and looked back over his shoulder. With a curt nod, he efficiently thanked Mac for the ride and dismissed him.
Unable to respond with anything but retreat, he shuffled to his car, got in, and drove back to the bar.
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