When he nodded, she continued. “I still don’t know what happened, but he must have liked something about me or my scent, because he followed me home. We lived with my uncle at the time….” She trailed off as her thoughts took another turn. The man did not need to know her entire family history. She’d already opened up to him enough as it was. “Anyway, my brother died trying to save me from being attacked. It’s why Parker doesn’t like shifters.”

Liam stroked his hand down her back in a soothing gesture. “I’m surprised you even talked to me when you realized what I was,” he murmured.

She cupped the side of his face. It was only midafternoon and he already had stubble covering his jaw. “It was part of the reason I was freaked-out when we met, but I don’t want there to be any more secrets between us. I’m not ready to bond or mate or whatever it’s called, but I only want to be with you. I don’t want to date or see anyone else.” She figured if what they’d just shared didn’t make her intentions clear, telling him would.

“Can I kiss you?” His voice was low and sensual, and increased the ache between her thighs.

She slightly shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re asking.”

As he leaned forward, her phone rang. “Ignore it.”

She did. He invaded her mouth with his tongue and the hand that had been caressing her back cupped one of her breasts and gently squeezed. She moaned into his mouth when her cell rang again.

They both pulled back at the same time. He slid out of bed and grabbed her purse off the rocking chair in the corner of the room. After he handed it to her, she fished around until her fingers grasped her phone.

She paused when she saw the number. “It’s the police station…. Hello?”

“December. Thank God.” It was Parker.

She mouthed it to Liam, who nodded and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She didn’t want to get into anything with Liam so close. With his supersonic hearing she had no doubt he could hear every word her brother said.

“Why are you staying at the Armstrong ranch? I stopped by the store today and Kat said you’d been hurt.”

She cringed. Hopefully her friend hadn’t said anything else. “I’m not hurt. I just needed a day off.”

“Don’t lie to me. Why are you at their ranch?” The way he said “their” dripped with disdain.

She motioned to Liam that she wanted privacy and, without bothering to put on clothes, hurried to the attached bathroom. “What I do with my private life is my business. I like Liam. A lot. I know you don’t like it, but you’re going to have to get used to it. He’s already done so much for me—something you know. If you’d just give him a chance, you’d see he’s not like the shifter who killed—”

“Don’t fucking say his name,” he growled.

“Why not? He was our brother and he deserves to be remembered.”

Parker swore under his breath. “I know that. Why the hell are you staying at the ranch—and don’t give me a bullshit story about wanting a day off. Did something happen?”

She bit her bottom lip. She and Liam hadn’t talked about it, but neither of them had mentioned contacting the police. It was sort of like they had an unspoken agreement about the whole thing. The guy had worn gloves and the cops couldn’t do anything anyway. Mainly she didn’t want to involve her brother because she knew he’d want to put her under lockdown and she’d rather stay with Liam. And strangely enough, she trusted Liam to figure out what was going on. “I already told you. I wanted to spend some time with Liam. A lot has happened in the past couple weeks and I needed a break.”

“So that’s it? You’re shutting me out over some shifter? A fucking stranger?”

“Don’t do this,” she begged.

“Do what? Make you choose? I won’t, little sister. Have your fun with him, but don’t come crying to me when he hurts you.” The phone line went dead.

Fighting back tears, she sagged against the counter. The tile floor was cold under her feet, but she barely felt it. An acute ache pushed at the middle of her chest with the force of sharp daggers. She’d known Parker would have a problem with her and Liam, but she hadn’t expected that vehement reaction. He’d always been there for her. The one person she could count on. But she couldn’t continue to live her life for him.

Staring blindly at the floor, she tried to catch her breath. Parker would get over this. He had to.

Chapter 15

Parker glared at his phone. As if that would do any good. What the hell was his sister thinking? He shouldn’t have been such an asshole, but she was being an idiot. He’d already fielded calls from a few citizens concerned about December’s association with the Armstrong pack. Not that he gave a shit about some small-town busybodies.

Anything could happen to her out on that ranch and he’d be helpless to stop it. Pushing back from his desk, he grabbed his hat and shoved his phone into his pocket. He was going to give them a visit right now. He and Liam could finally hash this thing out once and for all. While Parker appreciated all the help Liam had been giving him in watching December, it was time to draw some clear boundaries. He’d convince December to temporarily move in with him. Or maybe get her to take a vacation. Anything to get her away from here.

A quiet knock on his half-open door caused him to look up. Natasha, his receptionist, tucked a dark strand of hair behind her ear. “Hey, Parker. Uh, got a call from Edith Hopper, but if you’re leaving—”

He shook his head. “Is her husband smacking her around?”

Natasha’s mouth pulled into a thin line. “Sounds like it. And she seemed really scared this time.”

“I’m on my way.” He palmed the keys to his cruiser and shook his head as he left the building. He’d been to their house so many times over the past year, but Edith kept refusing to press charges. Maybe she’d finally come around this time, though he doubted it. Parker wasn’t sure where they’d moved from, but he hated dealing with Stephen Hopper. Wife beaters were the absolute worst. Fucking cowards. He’d arrested him a few times for resisting arrest and for battery against a law enforcement officer, but the state kept letting him out. And he kept using his wife as a punching bag.

When he pulled into the driveway, he assessed the house and the ones surrounding it. A few neighbors stood on their porches watching, which likely meant the Hoppers had been fighting out in the front yard earlier.

The neighborhood was typical middle-class and their two-story brick house was immaculate outside. In the winter, Edith covered all her rosebushes and other plants and kept everything neat and trimmed.

The blinds were shut on all the windows and the house was dark. As he got out of his car, he unsnapped the strap over his gun. Stephen Hopper had gotten violent too many times for him not to be careful.

As he strode up the sidewalk, he braced himself for a heated confrontation. He knocked once and when he didn’t get a response, he banged on the heavy wood door again. “Police. Open up.”

He heard shuffling sounds inside, so he stood off to the side and knocked again. “I can hear you. Open the door, Stephen. We need to talk.”

“We ain’t got nothing to talk about. Get the hell off my property.”

“I can’t do that and you know it.”

“Why’re you here? I didn’t call. Did that bitch wife of mine call?” he shouted.

A pained, female cry sounded but was quickly silenced.

Parker’s muscles tensed. What he wouldn’t give to clock this guy across the face. “I got a call from one of the neighbors. You know I’ve got to check up on it. Why don’t you come out here so we can talk face-to-face?”

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”

Parker keyed his radio, intending to call for backup. This definitely wasn’t going to be easy. Stephen was likely drunk and Edith’s face probably already sported multiple bruises as evidence.

As he spoke into the radio, a huge hole exploded through the door. Wood fragments flew everywhere, dusting the front porch in splinters. The loud blast was definitely gunfire.

“Shit.” Parker dove over the pristine white porch railing into a cluster of bushes. Another explosion sounded and a sudden, gripping pain fractured through Parker’s shoulder.

Looking down, he stared at his body as if it weren’t his own. As if he were somehow detached from it. A crimson stain spread across his tan shirt as quickly as the pain lapped across his arm and spread down his chest. Holy shit, he hurt. Even though he wore a vest, the bullet had slammed into the nonprotected part of his upper shoulder and the blood was gushing. Clutching his wound, he crouched lower and crawled to the edge of the house.

He drew his gun and held it tight as he crawled away. Sirens blared in the background. Either a neighbor had called or the dispatch had heard the blasts through the radio. He didn’t care which. He just wanted to take this son of a bitch down.

As he finally reached the edge of the house, two strong hands grabbed him. He started to struggle when he realized it was Ed Dean, the Hoppers’ neighbor.

“The bastard went back inside. Help’s on the way. Come on,” he whispered. Pulling him to his feet, Ed looped his arm under Parker’s shoulder and assisted him across the yard. Once they crossed the thick line of bushes separating their properties, Parker couldn’t fight the dizziness anymore.

As he swayed, Ed helped him to his knees. Parker knew he was saying something because his mouth was moving, but he couldn’t make out the words. Everything was getting dark. He couldn’t tell if it was because the sun was setting or if he was losing consciousness. Before he could dwell on it, blackness engulfed him.

Edward’s heart rate increased as he listened to the scanner he’d bought a year ago to eavesdrop on the local police. So far he hadn’t been able to use any of the information he’d gleaned, but today Christmas had come early.