“Good. You’re finally awake.” She turned at the sound of a cold, male voice.

The rolling sound had been a large wooden exterior door. As she stared at him, confusion settled over her. “Greg? What’s going on?” She occasionally worked with the blond-haired ski instructor.

As his dark gaze raked over her, she felt as if she were naked. Exposed. The look of lust in his eyes made her want to puke. She swallowed hard. “What are you doing?”

Finally he looked her in the eyes. “I’m just supposed to watch you until the boss shows up, but we’re going to have some fun.”

The way he said “fun” made her gut roil. “You’re one of those APL members.” It wasn’t a question.

“And you’re a shifter-loving whore,” he spat.

As he came toward her, she kicked out at him with her socked foot. She missed him, but the gleam in his eyes told her he didn’t care. He wanted her to fight.

When he came at her again, she managed to kick his shoulder. He grunted in annoyance and cursed under his breath, but it didn’t faze him.

He just kept coming. Without her hands it was hard to defend herself. No matter how many times she kicked at him, she didn’t have much strength behind the blows. He’d strung her up so she was poised on the tips of her toes. Her shoulders felt as if they were about to pop out of their sockets. Arched like that, she didn’t have a good position and the more she tried to kick, the more she hurt and the more out of breath she became.

As she kicked out at him again, he grabbed her calf and used it as leverage to get closer. His viselike grip didn’t lessen on her leg as he slammed his body against hers. She tried to use her other leg as a weapon, but he pinned her against the wall with the full force of his weight.

“If you don’t fight, I’ll go easy on you,” he whispered in her ear. His unmistakable erection pressed against her abdomen.

She dry heaved at his words. Her reaction evidently pissed him off. He punched her hard in the stomach. She coughed and tried to catch her breath, but it was impossible because he hauled off and punched her again.

It was as if someone had slammed a two-by-four across her middle. She tried to bite it back but the cry escaped regardless. Tears rolled down her cheeks when he slapped her across the face.

When he grabbed the front of her sweater and ripped it fully open, she managed to kick out again, but it was useless. Using his weight again, he pinned her back against the wall as he unbuttoned her jeans and shoved them down.

Kat screamed as loud as she could, even though instinct told her they were alone in the woods somewhere. When she did, he slapped her again, but she didn’t stop. She couldn’t stop. She lashed out again and this time managed to clip him in the groin.

“I told you I’d go easy on you!” he shouted at her. “Now you’re going to pay,” he growled, sounding angrier with each word.

The pain in her stomach had lessened, or maybe she was becoming numb, but her face still throbbed as she watched him. He strode to the other side of the barn and picked up something. When he turned to face her, she realized he was holding a whip of some sort.

The long, brown cord uncoiled and hit the hay-covered dirt with a soft thud. He lifted it and cracked it once against the ground.

She flinched at the slapping sound it made, because she knew what he planned to do. She could see the coldness in his soulless eyes. When he lifted the whip and struck out at her, she tried to turn away the best she could.

The end sliced into her outstretched arm and down the side of her rib cage. As her skin tore away, she screamed again. She might not beg for her life, but she couldn’t stop the screams. She managed to twist around even more, but he just continued beating her. The edge of the whip sliced across her back and legs. Over and over. A merciless torture without end.

With each blow she screamed until she realized she was screaming Jayce’s name. But he never came for her.

Chapter 17

Liam watched the barely perceptible rise and fall of December’s chest. Sleep hadn’t come easy for either of them last night and after he and the rest of the pack had returned home, he’d gotten only a couple hours.

The thought of Kat out there, at the mercy of a bunch of crazy radicals…He didn’t know how Jayce was dealing with it. December had told him the enforcer had left to hunt for her. He still wasn’t back as far as Liam knew.

Reaching out, he gently pushed back a curl that had fallen across her face. She stirred but didn’t wake up. She looked so peaceful with her bright red hair pillowed around her face and her pink lips slightly parted.

His throat constricted as he stared at her. Last night it could just as easily have been her. The knowledge shredded his insides with razor wire. If he’d never walked into her store, never pursued her so insistently, she’d still be safe. The APL wouldn’t have a reason to target her. This was his damn fault. She’d told him she didn’t want anything to do with him and he hadn’t listened. Instead he’d listened to his most primal side and now she was on the radar of some crazy assholes. The threat to her before had seemed manageable somehow. Now it just felt insurmountable. What if these maniacs never stopped coming for her? His pack was making some progress in ferreting out the local group’s intentions, but that might not be enough.

He and December hadn’t talked much about a future. Sure, they’d made a big step in their relationship, but she’d never said she wanted to become his bondmate. If she did that, she’d turn into a shifter and have the same longevity as him. But if she decided to stay human, she’d always be weaker. If someone else decided to come after her again, who was to say he could stop it? Despite the fact that he’d like to be her permanent shadow, he knew he couldn’t always be there for her. Not every second of the day. And neither of them would want to live like that anyway.

No wonder Jayce had questioned him if he’d ever worried about his involvement with a human. Bringing a human into their world was insane. Now Kat was paying the price. He would never forgive himself if something else happened to December.

How could he have been so stupid? So blind? For the first time ever, he finally understood why his brother had walked away from Ana half a century ago. He’d done it because he loved her and had wanted to protect her. That was real love.

What Liam had done had been selfish. By barreling his way into her life, he’d put December in mortal danger. Last night was proof enough he couldn’t protect her all the time.

Once they killed these APL bastards—and he had to believe they would—there would be someone else filled with rage and hate ready to take the place of them and hurt anyone he cared about.

“What’s wrong?” December’s soft voice sliced through the quiet room.

His head jerked at the direction of her question. She stared at him with heavy-lidded eyes, as if she hadn’t quite woken up yet. He hadn’t even realized she’d stirred. Clearing his throat, he shook his head. He wouldn’t voice his fears to her. “Nothing. I’m going to be leaving soon.”

She sat up and clutched the sheet to her chest. “Are you going to look for Kat? Take me with you,” she said before he could answer her first question.

He shook his head. “I can’t. The APL guy I caught behind the Dumpster of your store a while ago is getting out of jail. He was very cooperative before. I want to see if I can get him to open up again.” And if he didn’t, the guy would pay. Worse than last time. A broken thumb would be the least of his worries.

“I can’t just do nothing all day. Kat’s my friend and I feel so helpless. Let me help.” Desperation laced her words.

He understood the feeling. They all did. Whoever had taken her had been smart enough to mask their trail. Or maybe they’d just driven around in so many circles it had masked her scent anyway. Even though he and his brother had been on the hunt, it was as if Kat had fallen off the face of the earth. “Believe me, I understand. I talked to Connor about it and we think you should open your shop today.”

Her eyes widened in horror. “What?”

“Whoever took Kat still likely wants you. Erin is going to be inside the store with you and I’ve got another pack member who will be right out front the entire time. If they get a hint of either of the male scents from last night, it could give us a lead.” Sending December out in public was the last thing he wanted to do right now, but with Kat’s life at stake, this might be the only lead they got. They could do nothing and hope for the best, but eventually someone would come after December again. He wanted to stop that before it ever happened. And no one’s guard would be down right now. The pack was primed and ready for action. If anyone tried anything, that person would be answering to any number of the Armstrong pack members.

Without hesitation, she nodded. “I’ll do it.” Some part of him had wanted her to say no. That she was too afraid to go in to work. It would have given him an excuse to tell his brother she wouldn’t be going into town. But when she stuck her chin out, almost mutinously determined, he knew she’d do anything to get her friend back. There was no way he’d let her go to work without his pack’s protection. Even letting her go without him made his canines ache. Especially with Kat’s kidnapping so fresh in his mind.

He wanted to lean over and kiss her until neither of them could think straight. But he didn’t. Thinking about letting her deeper into his life made him crazy. He couldn’t let what happened to Kat happen to December. If pushing her away was the only way to accomplish that, he’d do it. No matter how much it tore him up. Turning his back to her, he slid out of bed and began getting dressed.

After he laced up his boots, he headed for the door.

“Uh, Liam?” December still sat on the bed clutching the sheet, looking a little lost.

And it was his fault. He knew he was pulling away from her. If he didn’t do it now, he didn’t know how the hell he could walk away from her. From what they had together. But if he didn’t, she’d be a target the rest of her life. How could he do that to her? Ask that of her? His inner wolf screamed at him to walk over and kiss her. Soothe her. Hold her in his arms. Tell her everything would be all right.