“You do what you have to do, Sheriff. I’ll do what I have to.” Liam leaned back against the couch casually, but every line in his body was tense. He was like a coiled snake, ready to strike.

December fought off an unexpected shiver, drawing Liam’s attention to her again. “You okay?”

She didn’t like the feeling of being under a microscope and she really hated that he read her so well. It made her defenses go up without warning. “Fine,” she said through gritted teeth.

Parker started gathering his folders and stacking them into a neat pile. “Liam, you can clear out of here. I’ll be staying the night.” His voice was dismissive.

Her brother’s words hung heavy in the air. December wasn’t going to fight him if he wanted to stay. Parker had been looking out for her since they were kids. He was her one constant in life. Her family. She loved him more than anything. The thought of telling Liam to leave, however, punched a hole in her chest. She didn’t like imagining the hurt look on his face.

Sometimes he was hard to read, but other times he let her see exactly what he was feeling, and it was usually when she’d said something to reject him. If she told him to leave now, he’d take it as a personal affront. It was simply the way he was hardwired. From the overprotective way he’d been acting the past few weeks, she had no doubt he wanted to stay with her and protect her. Just like he’d done last night. If she chose her brother over him, it would hurt him. Even if she didn’t exactly understand why, she knew it deep in her core.

Before she could think how to formulate a response, Liam stood. “I’ll call you tomorrow, December.”

Her eyebrows pulled together as she looked at Liam. She searched his face trying to see what was going on in his head, but she got nothing. His expression was blank.

She flicked a quick glance at her brother. “I’m going to walk him out.”

Once they were at her front door, Liam grabbed his coat but didn’t make a move to leave. Instead he reached out and gently cupped her jaw.

Her heart pounded wildly against her chest. After the kiss they’d just shared, she desperately wanted a repeat even if the voice inside her told her it was stupid.

Instead of kissing her the way her body craved, Liam leaned forward and lightly pressed his lips to her forehead. “I’ll be thinking about you all night,” he murmured.

His words sent a ribbon of awareness curling through her, straight to the ache between her legs. By his knowing smile, she had no doubt he could smell her desire. Stupid extrasensory abilities.

“I…” She didn’t want to return the sentiment. Didn’t want to let him know how much she was beginning to care for him. “I will too,” she whispered.

His dark eyes glinted under the foyer light as a half smile formed on his lips. And then he was gone. Taking all his warmth with him. Closing her eyes, she sagged against the front door. She shouldn’t miss him. She’d wanted him gone. Had wanted her house and her life back to herself. Now that he wasn’t under the same roof, she wished he were. Hell, she wished he were in her bed right now and that instead of just kissing, they were making love. Hot, wild sex that would leave them both panting and begging for more.

“What kind of future do you possibly think you have with him?” Parker’s voice caused her eyes to snap open. He leaned against the entryway, his arms crossed over his chest.

Feeling self-conscious under his scrutiny, she shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

She started to protest when he cut her off.

“I don’t know what’s going on between you two, but I’m not stupid. I see the way you look at him, so I’m telling you this now so there’s no misunderstanding later. If you mate—or bond, or whatever the hell they call it—with him, I’m out of your life. I won’t stand by and watch you bind yourself to someone who will only bring you heartache and violence.”

Her brother’s words were like a slap. She straightened against the door. “What?”

“I’m not saying Liam’s a bad guy, but getting involved with one of them is stupid. There are some things I can’t…” His jaw clenched and he got this faraway look that was all too familiar.

Parker was thinking about Brandon, their dead brother. A balloon of guilt rose, then popped inside her, every time she thought about their younger brother. How her stupidity and naïveté had gotten him killed. If she’d never made friends with Allison, a shifter who had attended her high school, her friend’s drugged-out feral brother would never have latched on to December’s scent and followed her home. And her brother wouldn’t have died trying to protect her. She pressed a hand to her stomach to quell the nausea. She wanted to snap at Parker and tell him he was being stupid, unreasonable. But it was her fault Brandon was dead, and Parker had looked out for her their whole lives. He was her only family. “I understand, Parker.” Without another glance at him she hurried up the stairs.

Once inside her room she didn’t bother with washing off her makeup. She took off her boots and climbed into bed wearing her clothes. It was stupid but she could smell Liam on her and didn’t want to lose that scent. That knowledge scared her. Her brother would never accept him. Something she’d known deep down inside her, but now she had no doubt in her mind.

When it came down to it, family was family. After everything her brother had sacrificed for her, she owed him. Fighting back tears, she closed her eyes and pulled her comforter over her head. Getting tangled up with Liam would break her heart in too many ways to count. Staying away from him seemed to hurt just as bad. She didn’t want to have to choose between her only brother and the man she was falling for.

Liam hated the sense of loss he experienced at having to leave December’s house. But he’d seen that look in her eyes. The one that said, “Don’t make me choose between you and my brother.” Yeah, he’d have lost that one. That much was clear. And she hadn’t wanted to cause Liam pain. He wasn’t sure if that made him feel better or worse.

Thankfully Ryan and one of his other packmates had dropped his truck off at December’s earlier. Otherwise he’d have been walking because he sure as hell wasn’t asking her brother to take him home. The drive wasn’t long but it seemed to stretch on forever. All he could think about was that kiss.

What it had felt like to have December plastered to him as he tasted her. He’d been so close to sinking his fingers inside her heat. She hadn’t made a move to stop him either. She’d been urging him on with those hot little moans and the way her body had moved against him. If her brother hadn’t shown up, he had no doubt that tonight he’d have sunk more than his fingers inside her.

He slammed his fist against the steering wheel as he reached the gate to the ranch. After unlocking it and steering inside, he quickly relocked the gate before parking in the building next to the main barn. He could scent a few of his packmates out patrolling the land, but other than the normal ranch smells, everyone else was in for the night.

Instead of heading to the cabin he shared with four other male warriors, he walked toward the main house. Connor lived there with his mate, Ana; her sister Noel; Erin; and Vivian, a jaguar cub they’d adopted. Liam frowned as he realized that Jayce might be coming to the ranch because of Vivian’s presence in addition to everything else. Lupine shifters’ adopting feline shifters was unheard of. Apart from the species’ differences, lupine, coyote, and ursine shifters lived in North America and most feline shifter packs were located in South America. There were always exceptions to the rule, but it didn’t happen often. As enforcer, it would make sense for Jayce to check on the new feline shifter living on lupine land. But if he or the Council had a problem with her, Liam knew his entire pack would go to war for the adorable little cub.

After stomping the snow off his boots and without bothering to knock, he opened the front door. Voices trailed from the kitchen. According to his nose, it was Ana and Connor.

Liam found Connor sitting at the table and Ana was in his lap, nuzzling his neck. The sight was nauseating. He didn’t like the spike of jealousy that ran through his chest. It made him feel small and petty because he truly was happy for his brother. Connor had walked away from Ana fifty years ago as pure self-sacrifice. If anyone deserved love, it was his brother.

Ana glanced up and smiled. “Hey, Liam.”

He grunted.

“Uh-oh. Lady problems? Didn’t you take my advice and chill on the possessive crap?” she asked.

Next to her, Connor tightened his grasp and pulled Ana even closer to his side. “What’s wrong with a little possessiveness?” Connor murmured against Ana’s neck.

She playfully elbowed him and the pain inside Liam intensified as he watched their interaction. His brother had pined over Ana for so long. To see them finally together as bondmates made Liam happy, but at the same time it was like a dagger embedded in his chest. He wanted that same thing with December so much he ached for it. And he wouldn’t ever settle for just mates. He wanted to be bonded with her. If she let him make love to her under the full moon and sink his canines into her neck, bonding them for life, it would link them telepathically and give her the same longevity as him.

“That’s not it.” He grabbed a beer from the fridge and downed half of it, wishing it would take the edge off but knowing it wouldn’t. Nothing could do that except maybe a fifth of whiskey.

While he was guzzling his beer, he heard Ana murmur something about waiting for Connor upstairs.

Once Ana was gone, he slammed the bottle down on the counter and turned to face his brother.

Connor raised his dark eyebrows. “What’s going on?”

He didn’t feel like explaining to his brother how close he’d been to making love to December before they’d been interrupted. “Just frustrated, that’s all. Did you tell everyone that Jayce will be here tomorrow?” He’d texted Connor earlier to let him know about Jayce. After the poisonings at the ranch, their neighboring Alpha’s recent death from Connor, and the possible issues with the APL, they’d been expecting his visit, just not so soon. The Council liked to take their sweet time unless problems directly involved shifter relations with humans. With the APL’s recent attacks on them maybe that’s exactly why Jayce was there early. Then again, maybe not.