Chapter 1

December McIntyre managed to smile at her date as he pulled out her chair for her. Her cheeks hurt from all the fake smiles and forced laughter. She should never have agreed to this date when she’d rather be anywhere else. With someone else. But she and Liam had no future, and going out with a random guy was the only way to show Liam and herself that she was serious about that.

“Have you been here before?” her date—Mike something—asked. As a tourist from the nearby ski lodge, he wasn’t a local of her smaller mountain community, so it made sense he’d never eaten at the cozy Italian restaurant.

She nodded. “The bucatini puttanesca is really good. So is the pollo caprese. Actually, everything on the menu is good.” The Russo family had settled in Fontana, North Carolina, decades ago, many years before she’d been born, and Russo Ristorante had become a staple in the mountain community. The locals loved it and so did the tourists. Occasionally they even got tourists from not just Fontana Mountain but their neighbors, Beech and Sugar mountains.

Almost immediately after they ordered drinks, her date excused himself. He was a broker or something and had to take an important call. Normally that would have bothered her in a date, but she didn’t really care about this one. The brief reprieve was fine with her. She wanted to get through the meal, get home, and just go to bed. Going out with this guy had been a colossal mistake no matter how nice he seemed to be. She’d known it the second after she’d said yes. Regret had surged through her, but it had been too late then.

All she could think about was Liam. Liam with his broad shoulders, dark hair, and coffee brown, deep, knowing eyes. When that man looked at her, she got shivers. The good kind. Heat bloomed between her legs when he was around. He didn’t have to do anything other than train that heated gaze on her and she wanted to melt into his arms. He might be built like a linebacker, but his hands were gentle. At least the few times he’d caressed her face, they had been.

Her image of him was so clear she could almost see him now. In front of her. As she stared into space, she frowned. Then blinked. Good God, he was in front of her. Walking straight toward her.

“Crap,” she muttered. Tensing, she braced herself. She’d thought if he saw her leaving her bookstore—because she’d seen him watching—with another guy on a Friday night, he’d get the hint and leave her alone. If it was anyone else, she might think he was acting like some sort of creepy stalker, but she knew him better than that. As one of the few lupine shifters who lived in their town, Liam had tried to warn her about some crazy fanatic group that wanted to hurt humans involved with shifters. At twenty-eight she’d been taking care of herself for a long time—and besides, they weren’t involved, so there was no reason for some fanatics to come after her.

Should have known Liam wouldn’t give up so easily. The maître d’ led him and another huge guy directly to the table next to hers. There was a decent amount of space between them, but for the way he was drilling his gaze into her, he might as well have been sitting at the same table.

“Hello, December.” Liam’s deep, intoxicating voice forced her to acknowledge him.

She flicked a quick look at his dark-haired friend, who cracked a small, almost amused smile until she glared at him—then she focused on Liam. “What are you doing here?” she asked through gritted teeth. It wasn’t for the damn food. That much she knew.

He shrugged as if it should be obvious. “Eating.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You know what I mean. I’m on a date, Liam.”

At the word “date” those espresso eyes of his got even darker. Under normal circumstances she might have thought it was the light playing tricks on her, but she knew better. She’d seen him enraged once before when a man had tried to mug her. His eyes had changed then. The whites had almost disappeared and she’d found herself staring into not-quite-human eyes. He’d later explained that it sometimes happened when his inner wolf wanted to take over. It had scared her then but not now. She knew he wouldn’t hurt her. Not physically. He might be dominating and sometimes too pushy, but he cared for her. In another world she might allow herself to care for him too. But they had no chance and she wasn’t going to risk getting her heart broken and losing her only family due to involvement with Liam. Especially when anything that happened between them couldn’t last. He barely looked thirty, but she knew he was over a hundred years old.

“Get rid of him.” He didn’t raise his voice, but there was a razor-sharp edge to it.

Maybe his tone should have made her nervous, but it just infuriated her. He infuriated her with all his arrogance. “Or what?”

“Or I’ll do it for you.”

She balled her hands into fists under the table. “You are so…so…”

In a fluid, graceful motion that reminded her he was more than human, he stood up and slid into the chair across from her. As if he had every right to do so. He half smiled and her traitorous libido roared to life. Why did the soft candlelight have to play off his features, making him even better looking? “Charming, handsome—”

His smart-ass response annoyed her even more, but it also allowed her to find her voice. “Arrogant and annoying,” she said in a loud whisper, barely containing the need to shout at him. “Why would you think on any level of normalcy that it was okay to interrupt my date when I’ve made it perfectly clear nothing is going to happen between you and me?”

His eyes darkened. “I’m not interrupting. I’m just eating. Or don’t you think shifters should be allowed in the same restaurants as humans?”

His words were like a slap. Shocked, she jerked back. She had issues with his kind—issues he didn’t even know about—but the thought of restricting someone, anyone, access to a public place was horrifying.

Her dismay must have shown because he cursed under his breath. “I didn’t mean that, December. I know you don’t think like that.”

“Then why’d you say it?”

“Because you’re driving me crazy, woman. Why are you out with this loser?”

“He’s not a loser.”

“He’s a fu—loser for leaving you all alone. And he’s not me. He’ll never be able to give you what I can. I can smell how much you want me even now. Just give us a chance, December.” His voice dropped slightly, taking on that sensuous quality that made her legs tremble and heat spread across her lower abdomen.

“Liam, we’re—”

“Too different. Yeah, that line is getting really old, Red.”

A flush hit her cheeks. “Don’t call me that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too…familiar.” Unfortunately she very much liked the intimate way the nickname rolled off his tongue. And that was bad.

“I plan to get very familiar with you soon, Red.” He reached out and fingered one of her bright red curls.

Her stomach muscles clenched with need as his knuckles brushed against her cheek. As his masculine, earthy scent rolled over her, she struggled to remind herself why things would never work between them. When he looked at her with those captivating eyes, it was hard to remember her own name.

The sound of a man clearing his throat jerked her back to reality. Her date stood next to the table, looking between her and Liam with slightly narrowed eyes. “I didn’t think I’d been gone that long,” he said semi-jokingly.

“I’m sorry…” Oh God, what was his name? “…Mike. This is a friend of mine. And he’s leaving.”

Liam snorted loudly and glared at her. “Friend?”

He wasn’t going to make this easy for her. Holding her breath, she waited for him to move.

After what felt like an eternity, he finally stood. Completely ignoring her date, he looked at her. Anyone else would have said a few polite words or excused himself, but not Liam. It wasn’t in his DNA. He wouldn’t be civil or polite if he didn’t mean it. “This isn’t over, Red.”

Mercifully, instead of sitting back down, Liam nodded at the guy he’d arrived with. His friend dropped a bill on the table and they left without even having touched their drinks.

As her date slid back into his seat, she blew out a shaky breath.

“Ex-boyfriend?” Mike asked.

She shook her head. “Not exactly. I’m really sorry that happened.”

He shrugged but she could see the annoyance in his expression. Not that she blamed him. In his position she’d be ticked off too. When their server came back to take their order, she knew she couldn’t sit through a meal with this guy. Seeing Liam had shaken her to her core and made it clear she wasn’t interested in dating anyone else. Until she could purge him from her system, she might not ever be ready. Just knowing he was out there and available made everyone else pale in comparison. After asking their server to give her a few more minutes, she looked at her date. She was ready to bail, but he beat her to the punch.

“You want to leave, don’t you?” he asked, his voice wry.

Embarrassment flooded her but not enough that she changed her mind. She nodded and pulled a few bills out of her pants pocket. Removing one, she dropped a twenty on the table. It would more than cover their drinks. “I’m so sorry to have ruined your evening. There’s no excuse for my behavior. I know you don’t want all the details and I’m just…sorry. Would you mind taking me back to my store?” She’d let him pick her up there instead of home mainly because she’d wanted Liam to see them leaving together, but also because she didn’t like giving her address out to too many people. Curse of being a cop’s sister, she supposed.

“It’s no problem and you don’t have to pay.” He placed a clammy hand over hers. His hands were soft, unlike Liam’s callused, roughened ones. She didn’t know what it was, but the feel of this guy touching her made her feel ill. He slightly tightened his hold and something akin to fear jumped inside her. Which made no sense. He seemed like a nice man. He’d held open her doors and pulled out her chair and been perfectly polite. But he wasn’t Liam.


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