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Connected (Gem Creek Bears Book 5)

Connected (Gem Creek Bears Book 5)

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Click To Read The Synopsis

Sometimes tragedies force us to fully live.

After the death of her mother, Penny Daniels leaves Opal Pine and heads to Gem Creek Campground. There, with the help of her best friend Tris, she hopes to heal and figure out what her next step in life should be.

What she finds is trouble.

Penny wasn’t looking for love or danger but somehow finds both. A certain bear shifter has been working his way into her heart since she arrived and someone has been watching the clan, waiting to strike. When they do, Penny finds herself caught in harm’s way.

Click To Read Chapter One

Grief was a nasty bitch, but cancer was worse. It weakened the strong until they became a fragile shell of their former selves, leaving their soul the only courageous thing about them. Sometimes having a strong soul was enough to win. Others, it wasn’t.

In my mom’s case, it wasn’t.

I crept down the hall, listening to the sound of my sandals slap against the hardwood floors as I walked. Knots formed in the pit of my stomach as a creepy crawly sensation rushed along my skin.

This house was no longer home.

I’d known it the second I stepped inside after my mom passed. A foreign coldness I couldn’t describe lived here now. This space was unfamiliar and devoid of my mother’s presence. 

My eyes burned with the threat of tears, but not a single one fell. I was supposed to cry, to mourn my mother, but I hadn’t cried since her death. I’d gone into autopilot mode. I was unable to feel or think—locked inside a perpetual state of numbness. 

I glanced around the living room as I exited the hall, soaking in my childhood home. The walls were bare, and the space was devoid of furniture. Memories still surfaced, though. Mom and I settled on the couch for a late night TV binge with buttery popcorn and chocolate. The two of us decorating the Charlie Brown Christmas tree she bought from a thrift store years ago. Us playing board games at the coffee table while she sipped a glass of wine. 

The corner of my mouth twitched at the memories, but a smile never formed. 

I wasn’t sure it was possible for me to smile anymore. Mom was gone. I’d never be able to see her again. There would be no more Christmases setting up that ugly tree with her. No more binges on the couch with popcorn and chocolate. No more game nights at the coffee table while she sipped wine.

I was alone. Utterly alone.

My eyes burned with the threat of tears again, but nothing fell. My cell chimed with a new text, pulling me from my sadness. It was a text from Tris.

Have you left yet?

I stared at her text, realizing that I wasn’t alone. I still had her. I still had my best friend. Heck, Tris had always felt more like a sister than a best friend. 

Now even more than ever.

She’d spent the week after my mom passed with me, making sure I ate something each day to keep up my strength and that I drank plenty of water. She’d helped with my mom’s funeral preparations and with the reception. I couldn’t have done it without her.

I tapped out a response to her text and hit send.

Not yet. I’m taking one more walk through the house, and then I’m leaving. I need to stop for gas, though. - Penny

Normally, I’d be happy to be on my way to visit her at the campground. This time, I didn’t know how I felt about it. Tris didn’t want me to be alone. Frankly, I didn’t want to be alone either, but I also didn’t want to be around people. All anyone did was look at me with sympathy in their eyes and ask how I was doing. I was sick of it. Honestly, I wanted to throat punch the next person who asked how I was or said they were sorry for my loss. 

Okay. Drive safe. Can’t wait to see you.

I will. See you soon. - Penny

I pocketed my cell and pulled in a deep breath as I headed for the front door. The only thing left here were memories, but thankfully, those I could take with me wherever I went.

After I pulled the door closed behind me and locked it, I placed my key in the lockbox for the realtor. Tears stung my eyes again, but never fell. I swallowed hard on the way to my car. It was surreal that was the last time I’d be inside that house. 


People in town said I was crazy for putting the house on the market so soon after my mom’s passing, but it felt like the right choice for me. I could never live there without my mom, and there was no way I wanted to rent it to someone. Selling was the only option. Besides, with my mom gone, and Tris living in Gem Creek, only pain remained for me in Opal Pine.

I needed a clean break.

Selling the house gave me the opportunity to keep my memories and the freedom to discover my next step.

I paused at my car and shifted to look at the house. My gaze drifted along the front, soaking in the gray-blue siding and white trim. I took in the large windows along the front, half expecting to spot my mom standing in one of them, waving goodbye. If she was—in spirit form, of course—I wasn’t able to see her. 

“Goodbye, Mom,” I whispered.

I slid into my car and cranked the engine to life. A hollow sensation festered in my chest, making it hard to breathe. My ribs were tight, and my stomach had tensed. I thought I might finally cry, but no tears came. I shifted into reverse, but before I pulled away a ladybug landed on my windshield. 

I stared at it.

For the first time in weeks, a smile tugged at the corners of my lips because I knew this was a sign from my mom. She always said ladybugs were a symbol of good luck. Anytime one landed on her or she saw one, she always smiled and reminded me what they symbolized.

When the ladybug flew away, I eased out of the driveway and onto the road, my smile still intact. The ladybug had to be from my mom. It also had to be a sign of good luck, which I could use a heavy dose of right now.

As I drove, memories of my mom filled my mind. Her singing to the radio at the top of her lungs anytime a song she liked came on. Her deep belly laughs. Her silly dance moves. The way she loved to stare at a star-speckled sky. How she never folded the corners of the books she read, but instead, always used a bookmark.

God, I missed her.

My mind continued to flood with memories of her, all the little things I didn’t think I’d remembered about her but had. By the time I cut into the gas station, warmth had settled in my chest. I pumped my gas, and bought a bottle of strawberry-flavored water and my mom’s favorite chocolate bar to eat on the ride. In under fifteen minutes, I was back on the road.


It was after eight when I turned down the gravel road that led to Gem Creek Campground. I was glad I knew where to turn this time. The last time I’d been here, I’d missed the makeshift sign for the place. From the main road, it looked like someone’s driveway. 

I turned the radio down as I continued along the gravel road. There were a few small potholes, but nothing like most of the roads in Opal Pine. 

Liam and his brothers took care of this place. 

A bubbling sound came from my dash. Then, my car sputtered and jolted forward, and smoke poured from beneath the hood as she slowly died.

“Freaking great,” I muttered. “Just what I needed, Myrtle!”

The car spewed smoke from beneath its hood. A gargling, popping noise sounded again, and my stomach tensed as my heart kick-started. 

“Don’t you blow up with me inside,” I shouted while unbuckling. 

My heart pounded as I climbed out. After I put some distance between us, I placed my hands on my hips and stared at the white smoke billowing from beneath the hood while listening to the sizzling popping sounds.

That couldn’t be good.

“Crap. Well, thanks for at least getting me to the campground before deciding to quit on me.” I sighed, glancing around. Movement in the woods across from me caught my attention.

Something was there, watching me. 

While I couldn’t make out exactly what—thanks to the rays of the sun streaming through the treetops and all the smoke coming from my car—I knew the possibilities of what it could be. Gem Creek Campground held secrets. Shifter secrets. There was a good chance whatever had caught my eye in the woods was one of the bear shifters who lived at the campground.

“Excuse me. Could I get a little help here, please?” I called, placing my hand over my eyes to block the sun.

A strangled huff sounded, and then a large shadowy figure came into view. As it stepped closer, I noticed thick brown fur. Definitely a bear. My teeth sank into my bottom lip. 

Were Tris and Liam’s clan the only bear shifters in the area?

Surely they’d be the only ones this close to the campground. Right? I didn’t know how the dynamics of the shifter world worked, but I imagined they were territorial like real animals in the wild were.

The bear stepped closer. Now that its big head was blocking the rays of sunlight behind it, I was able to see its eyes. They were deep brown and familiar. They reminded me of someone, which made the tension ease from my muscles.

Whoever it was, they were clearly from Tris’s clan.

Myrtle made a popping sound again, followed by a low hiss as the last bit of breath left her. I jumped, my attention snapping back to her, and then frowned as I remembered my current predicament. When a heaviness filled the air, I knew immediately what it was—shifter magic—and forced my eyes back to the bear.

Goose bumps prickled across my skin.

The logical part of my brain told me I should run. However, my gut said I was safe. I listened to my gut since whoever the bear was felt like someone I knew. My eyes widened as the bear in front of me changed shape. It morphed and shrank in size until a guy stood where the bear used to. I blinked.

It was Rafe, a very naked Rafe.

My cheeks heated. I averted my eyes while trying to keep a neutral expression. He moved and my eyes found their way back to him to see that he’d covered his junk with cupped hands.

“I never thought you were one for modesty.” The words flew from my mouth before I could stop them. 

A slow smirk twisted across his face. “I’m not. I just didn’t realize I had something you wanted to see so badly.”

His grin grew as his eyes narrowed playfully seconds before he removed one of his hands. I snapped my eyes shut and shook my head, holding up a hand. 

“Nope. No. I’m good. Keep it covered,” I said.

Rafe chuckled. It was a deep rumbling sound that made my breath catch.

“I can do that,” he said. “If it’s what you want.”

“It’s what I want.” I opened one eye and peeked at him, making sure he was still covered.

“And here I thought you were more fun than that.”

I rolled my eyes. I was. Or at least, I used to be.

“Anyway. What are you doing running around in bear form?” I asked. “Aren’t you worried someone might see you?”

“That they might see what? A bear? It adds to the ambience of the place. Bears roaming the woods are expected.” He ducked behind the thick foliage to his left. When he came back into view, he wore a pair of athletic shorts and carried a pair of running shoes. “Most of the campers are curled up by their fires, roasting marshmallows or drinking beer. This is one of the safest times to shift and let my bear roam.” He bent to slip on his socks and sneakers.

“Which is clearly something you do often, considering you have shorts and sneakers in the bushes.”

He glanced up at me, that same sexy smirk twisting his lips again. “You disappointed about that?”

I narrowed my eyes. He was cocky, arrogant, and cute.

“Nope. Not disappointed. Just amused,” I said.

“Right. Keep tellin’ yourself that.” He winked as he stood and then sauntered to the hood of my car. He popped the lever and lifted the hood. “So, what’s going on here?”

I stood on the tips of my toes and peeked under the hood from where I was. Tiny wisps of steam and smoke trickled into the air, followed by a hissing noise. It sounded like water dripping onto something extremely hot.

“Be careful,” I said as he placed his hands on either side of my hood and leaned over to glance inside.

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” he insisted. “I’m a shifter, remember? We heal fast. Also, Tris is our Mystic.”


How could I forget my best friend was the Mystic to his clan and could heal him with magic? How can I even forget he was a bear shifter when I’d just watched him change from his bear form into his human one? Most people wouldn’t be able to forget something like that. Heck, they’d probably feel awkward around someone with abilities such as his.

I didn’t, though.

“I don’t know much about cars, but I think it might be your radiator,” Rafe said. He reached into touch something, and then jerked his hand back, wincing when it was too hot. “Damn, that’s hot. I’d say it doesn’t have any water in it. It might be cracked. It could also be that your water pump is busted.”

I shifted around on my feet and blew out a long breath. Myrtle breaking down wasn’t something I needed right now. I had the money to have her fixed—thanks to Mom’s life insurance policy—I just didn’t want to deal with the hassle of it.

“You might as well be speaking a foreign language. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t even know my car took water.” I folded my arms over my chest and glared at Myrtle like she’d betrayed me in the worst of ways.

“Uh, all vehicles need water.” Rafe chuckled. 

My face grew impossibly hot. “Good to know.”

“I can have Cato look at it for you. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. He works at a repair shop in town.”

“Cool,” I said. “Thanks. How much do you think it will cost me to have it towed to his shop?” There was no way anyone would be able to drive her, not in the state she was in.

Rafe slammed Myrtle’s hood down. She rocked back-and-forth and made the same hissing sound as before.

“I’m not sure, but I bet Cato would work out a deal with you if money is an issue.” Concern glinted in his chocolate brown eyes when our gaze locked.

I averted my eyes to Myrtle, figuring sympathy wasn’t far behind. That seemed to be how it went these days—first came concern, then sympathy, then the words I’m sorry for your loss.

I didn’t want to hear it. Any of it.

“Money isn’t an issue, but thanks,” I said, sounding harsher than I intended.

“Good to know. Is there anything I can help you carry to camp? Anything that you need right now?” he asked, ignoring my snotty tone. I was glad. “If not, we can walk back to camp and pick up my truck. I’d be more than happy to help you load your stuff in my truck and get you settled in. I’ll even give Cato a call and see if he can bring the wrecker to get this out of the road.”

“Myrtle, her name is Myrtle.” Why was I being so dang bitchy? I really needed to simmer down.

Rafe cocked his head, another smirk gracing his lips. “You named your car Myrtle?”

“Yep.” I flashed him a slight smile. “Like Moaning Myrtle from Harry Potter.”

“Why would you do that?”

“When I first got her, she made this weird noise. I can’t remember what it was that needed to be fixed, but I had to drive her around like that for a couple of months before I could save up enough money to get her fixed. One night, Tris and I were out on a junk food run when I called her Moaning Myrtle and it just sort of stuck.” I shrugged.

“That’s hilarious. It makes me wish I had a cool name for my truck.”

“We should name it, then.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Rafe asked. He flashed me a lopsided grin that showcased a dimple in his right cheek I hadn’t noticed before.

“Yeah. Why not?”

He pursed his kissable lips together. “Okay. Sure. Sounds like a plan.” He motioned to Myrtle again. “So, was there anything you wanted to grab before we head to camp for my truck?”

“Is it safe?” I asked, eyeing Myrtle.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I don’t think she’s gonna bite you.”

I rolled my eyes. “I know that. If anything, she’d bite you first. I’m just saying safe—as in she’s not going to blow up?”

“That only happens in movies.” He waved my words away.

While I didn’t think that was true, I believed Myrtle might be okay enough for me to grab my phone and purse without an issue.

“Thanks for your help,” I said once we headed toward the campground on foot. Thankfully, we didn’t have far to walk because thin flip-flops on a gravel road wasn’t the most comfortable thing.

“No problem. I could never leave a damsel in distress. My mom would roll over in her grave.”

My heart dropped to my stomach. Somehow I’d forgotten Rafe had lost his mother. His father, too. Tris had mentioned it once, that he and his brothers had lost both of their parents to the shifter sickness.

I cast a quick glance at Rafe. His eyes darkened with the sadness he carried, one he knew I carried too. We had more in common than I’d thought. 

We were connected in an undesirable way.

Sometimes tragedies force us to fully live.

After the death of her mother, Penny Daniels leaves Opal Pine and heads to Gem Creek Campground. There, with the help of her best friend Tris, she hopes to heal and figure out what her next step in life should be.

What she finds is trouble.

Main Tropes

  • Found Family
  • Bear Shifters
  • Small Town

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