When December smiled at him like that, Liam forgot to breathe. He felt like a jackass admitting he’d never tried to impress a woman before, but he figured if he screwed up, maybe she’d be more forgiving if she knew he was trying.

He’d always thought human traditions were stupid until now. His inner wolf still wanted to claim and mark her more than he wanted his next breath, but he wanted to get to know her better first. His brother had been right. Hearing her story last night about a dog named Bubblegum still made him smile. Though his canines ached even now to sink into December’s soft flesh, she deserved to be courted and treated right. As he tried to think of something semi-intelligent to say, she beat him to it.

“How come your pack is called the Armstrong-Cordona pack but some of the men you introduced me to today have different last names?” She asked the question so fast, as if she’d been practicing it for a while.

He eyed her curiously. “Is this normal date talk?”

Her cheeks flushed. “Nothing between us has been normal, so why start now? Besides, I’m curious.”

He shrugged. “There’s no big secret. It’s true that most packs are families—like Ana and her sisters and cousins—so they usually carry the same family name, but that’s not always the case, like with our pack. My brother and I decided to form one with other lone wolves, but joining a pack doesn’t mean you lose your identity. And having an Alpha means you always have someone to protect you.”

“So you’re not an alpha too? Could’ve fooled me,” she murmured. Her breath curled in front of her, mixing with the rising heat of the hot drink.

“I’m an alpha in nature but not pack Alpha. There’s a difference. I might disagree with my brother sometimes, but Connor is my leader and he’s one of the best Alphas I’ve known.”

She thoughtfully chewed her bottom lip for a moment. “So, what about betas and warriors…and the enforcer? ‘The enforcer’ is a new term, but I’ve heard the others before. What do they mean?”

“Betas are simply weaker shifters in their animal form. They’re not as big as everyone else and they depend on alphas and warriors to protect them. Warriors, on the other hand, are guardians for everyone. Born fighters.”

“You’re a warrior, right?”

Smiling, he nodded. “Yeah.”

“So you’re an alpha but you’re also a warrior?”

Again he nodded.

“So all warriors are alpha in nature, but not all alphas are warriors?”

“You got it.”

“Then what about Kat’s ex? The…enforcer? What’s his deal? Or what is he?”

That was an interesting question and not one Liam was sure he had the answer to. “Ah, enforcers are…sort of a different breed altogether. Each shifter Council around the world—whether ursine or feline or whatever—has the equivalent of an enforcer working for them. Some have more than one—and in Australia, the lupine Council has two—but here in North America all we have is Jayce. They’re similar to warriors but tougher, harder to kill, and born to that role. I don’t know all the science behind it or even how he gained his title, but I do know that he’s at least five hundred years old and really hard to kill.”

Her brow furrowed slightly. “I see.”

He figured she didn’t completely understand what he was saying and he didn’t want to talk about himself anyway. He wanted to know about her. “How long have you lived in Fontana?”

Her head tilted slightly to the side at his question, sending a waterfall of her thick, red hair tumbling over her shoulder. “Since I was seventeen.”

“Why’d you move here?”

She dropped his gaze as she answered. “Because my brother got a job here.”

There was more to it than that and he wanted to know exactly what. “Where’d you move from?”

A subtle mask slid into place, making her expression completely unreadable. “I don’t want to talk about it. Tell me more about your family. What happened to your parents?”

Something dark settled in his chest. He didn’t like talking about the past and it was obvious she didn’t want to talk about hers, but if he wanted her to open up to him, he needed to give her a reason to trust him. Give and take, he reminded himself. “My father died when I was eight. If it wasn’t for Connor, I wouldn’t have survived.”

Now her face was an open book. He hated pity, but that wasn’t what he saw on hers; it was sadness and…understanding. “I didn’t think your brother was that much older than you.”

“He’s two years older.”

“And he took care of you? Didn’t you have any other family?”

“Our entire pack was killed.” He managed to keep any inflection out of his voice, but he could tell she wasn’t fooled. The pain of losing his father and the rest of his pack still tore at his insides. Time might have healed most of the wound, but the scar was still there.

She set her cup down and scooted a few inches closer. Placing her hand on his, she didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask how they died. But her touch was exactly what he needed. His inner wolf craved the soothing contact. Her silence made him want to open up. “Connor and I were out playing. We lived in the Highlands at the time and as the cubs of the pack Alpha, we had freedom to run and play as long as we stayed within a couple miles of our home. My mother…died a year before and it broke our father’s heart. It’s like he lost sight of protecting his pack and when a group of fae decided they wanted our territory, the pack was too weak to defend itself. Everyone there was slaughtered.” If they hadn’t been out playing that day and if their father hadn’t telepathically warned them to stay away, they’d be dead too. Some days Liam hated his father for turning so weak after their mother died. He’d emotionally abandoned them a year before his death, but actually losing him had ripped Liam’s heart out. But he didn’t tell her any of that. Some things he couldn’t bear to say out loud.

December’s hands suddenly squeezed his, the action a soothing balm over emotions he thought he’d buried long ago. “I lost my parents when I was eight too. Car accident, nothing as violent as what happened to your pack, but I actually do understand what it’s like to feel so alone at such a young age.”

His own heart twisted for her loss. He didn’t know much about her family life, but she’d only ever mentioned Parker and it was obvious they depended on each other. “At least you had your brother.”

She paused, then nodded. “I did. He’s the best big brother.” He was under the impression she was going to say something else, but instead she pursed her lips together, as if forcing herself not to speak.

For a while neither of them spoke. He wasn’t sure how much time had passed. It was hard to care when she stared at him with those intoxicating blue eyes that seemed to darken each second that ticked by.

It started out as a trickle, but as time stretched out between them, her lust was almost a live thing as it wrapped around him, strong and seductive. Everything male inside him flared to life at the scent.

He fought to breathe and to contain his inner wolf. This wasn’t how today was supposed to go. “December—”

With surprising speed, she cut him off as she leaned forward and brushed her lips over his. For only a brief second he thought about pulling away, but when her tongue teased his lips, he buried that idea fast. After what he’d just shared with her, he felt raw and exposed and the feel of her kissing and touching him soothed his most primal side.

He cupped the back of her head tightly, letting his fingers tangle in that thick mass of hair. Her tongue invaded his mouth with surprising insistency. Damn, the spicy scent of her need was so potent it enveloped all of him and seeped into his pores. It made him burn with the desire to touch all of her.

Her hands clutched his shoulders and she slid onto his lap, straddling him where he sat. Normally he needed to be on top, to assert his dominance, but the feel of her writhing over him like this was more than he’d fantasized about. He liked this side of December, but he had to know he wasn’t taking advantage of her.

Somehow he pulled his head back but kept his hand on the back of her head. “I don’t want you to regret what you’re doing, Red.”

Her expression softened at the use of his nickname for her. “I won’t,” she said simply.

“I was serious earlier. I think…you’re ovulating, which basically means you’re in heat for my kind.”

“I think you’re right.” Her quiet answer surprised him.

He needed her to understand exactly where he stood on this. “When I take you, I’m not letting you go. Do you understand?”

A blend of anticipation and uncertainty clear in her eyes, she nodded shakily. He knew she didn’t completely comprehend what he was saying, but the most selfish part of him didn’t care. December was his. Now he was going to show her exactly what he meant.

When she began moving over his erection, his grip on her head tightened. The need to claim her was overwhelming, but he fought back his inner wolf. He was the one in control, not it. With one hand, he reached for the zipper of her jacket and tugged it down. Once it was free, he slid a hand under her thick sweater.

The feel of her soft skin made him groan and as he reached one of her breasts, she moaned into his mouth. Her fingers twisted wildly in his hair as she held on to him with equal urgency. As he pulled one of her bra cups down and tweaked her nipple with his thumb and forefinger, she jerked against him.

After last night he shouldn’t be surprised, but it still awed him how reactive she was to everything. He barely touched her and she was panting for more. Not that he was any better. His cock pressed mercilessly against his jeans, demanding to be unleashed.

But first she needed to be naked. He quickly shoved her jacket all the way off. As he started to lift her sweater, she shivered. There wasn’t snow on the ground, but the sky was overcast and the weather was right for snowfall. Pausing, he held his hands still on her waist.