Page 18

As if she read his thoughts—or more likely the way his body tensed—she froze. Still basking in her postcoital bliss, she blinked a couple times as she stared at him, as if trying to clear her head. But he could see the wariness creep into her eyes.

It grew each second that passed. Her hands loosened their death grip on his shoulders and she rocked back. Still straddling him, she put a few inches between them and yanked the jacket closed, covering herself. Though the distance was small, it might as well have been the Grand Canyon.

A slight tremor shook her and she looked almost like the proverbial deer caught in headlights as their gazes clashed. He saw regret in an instant.

His throat clenched at the thought that she felt any sort of remorse for what had just happened. He wanted to say something to soothe her, but was afraid that whatever words he chose would be the wrong ones. Some sort of battle was raging in her head right now and he couldn’t get a read on her emotions.

Too many scents swirled off her. Pleasure, wariness, and fear all vied to overtake each other.

“Kat,” he murmured, not sure what he planned to follow it up with. Whatever it was, he would never know.

Wordlessly she shoved off him and stripped off his jacket. He had only a moment to appreciate her smooth, toned skin before she shifted to her animal form and ran deep into the woods.

Away from the ranch and away from him.

He wasn’t sure what had just happened and he didn’t know how to make it right. If he went after her now, he’d be taking away what little control she had over this situation. That would only increase the chasm between them.

His inner wolf clawed and ripped at his insides, begging to be freed to run after his woman. But despite the loud voice in his head demanding that he follow her, he ignored it. For now he would leave the next move up to her.

* * *

Erin grasped the takeout bag she’d just brought from Big Earl’s Diner and quickened her pace. Not long after Jayce had run off during their training, she’d gotten a call asking if she could pick December up from her store. Liam had needed to meet with someone—more real estate stuff. Considering how much Liam had been running around lately, she had a feeling that Connor was buying up all sorts of interesting property.

She could have asked someone else to head to town, but she knew that the reason Liam had asked her was because December felt more comfortable around her. Hell, she hadn’t even had time to shower since her workout with Jayce, so she was more than ready to get home and clean up. But December had been craving a Greek salad, and since that was one of the few things the pregnant shifter could keep down, Erin had had no problem getting it for her. Well, she hadn’t wanted to leave the store, but it would have taken forty-five minutes for them to deliver, which was silly when she could just jog the few blocks and get it.

Plus December had been running her end-of-the-day reports and had promised to keep her door locked. Twinkle lights adorned a lot of the streetlamps, giving downtown Fontana a winter-wonderland kind of feel. As Erin hurried down the sidewalk she blinked when she realized that December was standing outside the store, her purse held defensively against her chest as a taller woman with dark brown, unkempt frizzy hair stood in front of her.

What the hell?

Setting the takeout bag next to a lamppost, Erin stepped off the sidewalk and ducked behind one of the few cars. Quickly, she crept behind the next couple of cars until she came up behind the woman. She could hear the conversation clearly and wanted to strangle the stranger for upsetting December. Before she could make a move, December shot her an almost imperceptible look that told her to back the hell off.

Okay then. Erin unzipped her jacket—she’d had to strap her blades to her chest instead of leaving them hooked to her belt—and slowly removed one blade. She would hold off for now, but if this woman made one wrong move, it was on.

“You need to get out of this relationship while you can. What were you thinking, marrying one of those animals?” the stranger hissed.

A low growl emanated from December, taking Erin by surprise as she held her position barely a few feet behind the unaware woman. “That animal is not only my husband but my mate and I’m carrying our child. Also what you would consider an animal. You need to back the hell off right now.” Her voice was deadly calm. Another surprise.

Erin was livid just hearing the stranger’s hateful words.

The woman held out a hand, but December immediately took a step back. “Don’t touch me.”

“I just hate what you’re doing to yourself. To your brother. You used to be such a respectable girl. Always volunteering at the literacy center. Always going to church.”

“I still do those things,” December said.

“If you’d just listen to me.” She reached into her purse and Erin tensed, ready to spring, but the stranger pulled out what looked like a flyer and shoved it in December’s direction. “This is a place for people like you to meet and talk about what’s been done to you.”

December flicked a glance at the paper, then back at the woman. “Done to me?”

“You know, the brainwashing.”

Erin couldn’t help it. A bark of laughter escaped and she had to force herself not to double over clutching her stomach. Liam might have done a lot of things to December—none of which Erin wanted to know about—but brainwashing wasn’t one of them.

The stranger whirled around and gasped as the paper fell from her hand, silently fluttering to the icy sidewalk.

Erin took a menacing step forward and grinned when the woman noticed her blade. “Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back. If I see you anywhere near this store or December again, I’ll do a lot more than brainwash you.”

The stench of fear that spiked off the woman was so potent it almost made Erin gag. Without another word the stranger sprinted down the sidewalk, throwing a few fearful glances over her shoulder until she disappeared around a corner.

December groaned once they were alone. “You probably made things worse.”

Erin shrugged as she sheathed her blade and zipped her jacket. “Whatever. I wasn’t actually going to hurt her, but if that fucking lunatic actually believes you’ve been brainwashed, then nothing I say will make a difference. Who was she?”

December’s lips pulled into a thin line, but she didn’t answer.

Realizing why, Erin rolled her eyes. “What, you think I’ll go after her?”

A grin tugged at December’s lips as she let out a sigh. “You’re hard to read and you get the same angry look Liam does when he’s being unpredictable. . . . Her name is Mary Katze and she’s definitely harmless. A little nutty, yes, but I’m not worried about her. She lives with a bunch of cats and doesn’t seem to have a solid grasp on reality.”

“Why were you standing outside with her? You promised—”

December threw her hands up and Erin felt a little bad about harassing her; she was pregnant, after all. “I know! I hadn’t planned to open the door, but she kept knocking insistently and it felt rude when she could clearly see me inside. Up until recently she’s been a very loyal customer.”

Erin rubbed a hand over her face. December had an innate need to be polite to people because of societal norms and the way she’d been raised. Something Erin didn’t suffer from, but it was also something she was trying to understand. Instead of arguing, she asked, “You ready to get out of here?”

December nodded and held up her keys. “Yes.”

“Let me grab your food.” Erin hurried down the street to grab the bag she’d discarded. As she turned back, the sound of squealing tires made her jerk around. A truck had screeched to a halt in the middle of the road right in front of December’s store.

“Shifter-loving whore!” a male voice called out as he threw something.

Everything funneled out around her as Erin sprang into action. She could see two people in the truck. Both likely male—at least the one hanging out the passenger-side door was. Diving in front of December, Erin realized the guy had thrown a rock. The arc was high and obviously intended to shatter the store window.

Using all the strength in her legs and lightning-quick reflexes, Erin jumped in the air and caught it. The rock slammed into her open palm with a smack. She barely felt the sting since she was so pumped up on adrenaline.

She heard a low, angry curse from one of the males as her boots thudded back onto the sidewalk. As the truck took off she ran after it, hauled her arm back and threw the rock right at the back window. It shot through the air like an arrow until it struck its target.

As the back window exploded, she grinned. After waiting a few moments to make sure the truck didn’t come back, she turned toward December and froze. The pregnant shifter’s face was pale and she looked exhausted. “Are you okay?” God, the question sounded so lame. Of course she wasn’t okay.

Swallowing hard, December shook her head. “No. Yes. I don’t know. It’s been a long day and I’m tired of dealing with so much hostility. After that shifter attack last night people have been weird today. I just want to go home.”

Erin wasn’t good at the comforting thing, but she nodded in sympathy. “I’ll call one of the guys to hang out in front of your store tonight. Make sure those little punks don’t come back.”

“Were they teenagers?” December’s voice actually sounded hopeful. As if the fact that they weren’t adults made the situation better.

“I think so. Let’s not worry about it, though. There’s been no damage to your store and you’re tired and hungry.” She once again picked up the fallen takeout bag. “It’s only salad, so I’m sure it’ll still taste great,” she said as she handed it to December. “Come on. I’ll follow you back to the ranch.”

“Thanks.” Some of the tension eased out of December’s shoulders as she took the bag.

Once she was back in her car, Erin immediately called Connor and told him about the incident, then called Liam. Liam was livid, but he would be in a better frame of mind by the time he got back to the ranch, and that was the most important thing. December needed a calm mate right now.