For a moment, her nails protracted and slightly dug into December’s palm.
December bit back a startled cry at the same moment Kat dropped her hand and stared at her, horrified.
“I’m sorry,” Kat whispered.
December shook her head and reached for her hand again. A ghost of a grateful smile played across Kat’s lips before she focused on Connor again.
“It sounds like we’re on the same page, then,” he said. “We don’t want the local cops involved any more than you seem to want them. We killed five—technically six—humans tonight and no matter that we were trying to save you, it will look bad that they’re all dead, especially the ones at the main house. We broke into that house and it’s obvious two weren’t killed in self-defense….” His voice trailed off as he looked at December. “Are you going to tell your brother about any of this?”
She was surprised by the bluntness of his question, but maybe she shouldn’t have been. Lying to the police or her brother specifically wasn’t something she’d ever thought she’d do. Of course she’d never thought to be targeted by crazy radical hatemongers either. December shook her head. “I’ll never speak about what happened tonight to anyone.”
Connor looked at her for a long moment and must have been convinced of her sincerity, because he nodded once. Then his attention turned to Kat again. “If you’re willing, I’d like you to go with Aiden to the police station tonight. No offense, but you look like shit and if you come in with a story of how you escaped two kidnappers and were found in the woods by one of our pack members, it’ll be more believable now than if you come in fresh faced a day or two from now. And the longer you’re here, the bigger chance someone has of finding out you’re not currently being held anywhere.”
Kat nodded. “What’s the story, then? Why did these two men kidnap me and where was I held?” Her voice shook on the last word.
Connor’s expression softened. “Keep it simple. You were held somewhere in the woods, but with all the snow falling you have no idea where or for how long. They were holding you for ransom and wanted to blackmail your father into paying for your release. Since they wore masks the entire time, you have no idea who they are or what they look like. Plenty of people saw you being kidnapped at the hospital and you have no reason to lie to the cops. Since the men who actually took you are dead, the cops will eventually close your case as a cold one.”
Kat looked at December with raised eyebrows. She seemed so unsure of herself it made December’s heart ache. “What do you think?”
December nodded. “It’s a believable story, and like he said, you have no reason to lie.”
Kat lightly bit her bottom lip before turning back to Connor and Liam. Dropping December’s hand, she stood, her expression resigned. “If Aiden’s ready, I want to go now. I just want to get this over with.”
Connor and Liam both stood, but only Connor led her out of the room. Once the front door shut behind them, Liam finally spoke, but he didn’t sit back down or make a move to comfort her. “How is she?” His voice was ragged.
December had no answer. “I honestly don’t know. She hasn’t said much since she’s been back. I think she’s in a mild state of shock. Considering…whatever happened to her, I think she’s holding up okay.”
Liam let out a string of violent curses before meeting her gaze again. “I’m so sorry I dragged you into all this.”
She frowned at him, not understanding why he was obviously keeping his distance from her. “This isn’t your fault. None of it.” It wasn’t anyone’s fault except that of some ignorant people so consumed with their own hatred they couldn’t see anything clearly.
He shook his head sharply, as if she hadn’t spoken at all. “After Kat was taken, I realized how selfish I’ve been. If I’d never forced my way into your life, you’d never be in danger. You’d never know”—he spread his hands out helplessly in front of him—“all this shit. Crazy people wouldn’t be after you. You’d be safe.”
Her heart rate sped up as she started to digest his words. The reason for his distance at the barn and now here at the house was suddenly all too clear. “So what are you saying?”
He cleared his throat almost nervously. “I think you need to leave town for a while. Maybe take a long vacation.”
“Excuse me?” What the hell was the matter with him? They’d just taken care of the leader of the local APL group and now he wanted her to leave. Now, when her friend was in so much emotional pain it was practically a living thing inside her. And now when December needed him more than ever.
Liam nodded resolutely. “We’ve got a list of all APL members in the area now. There aren’t many locals and with these guys dead…I don’t think you’re going to have a problem anymore, but I want to be sure. You need to be far away from me.”
Like hell she did. “I’m not running away from anything. Especially not my home. When I was seventeen, my brother and I packed up and ran away from our problems. I’m not doing that ever again. There will always be problems or violence. Leaving is not the answer.”
He swallowed hard, his gaze haunted. “This time it is. You can’t be associated with me anymore. It will only bring you pain and suffering.”
“What the hell are you trying to say? Spit it out, Liam.” She had a feeling she knew what he meant, but she wanted to hear it.
His expression completely shut down. “There can’t be an ‘us’ anymore. I’m sorry, December.” She might not be able to read his face, but he actually sounded like he was sorry. All pitiful and pathetic and it just pissed her off even more.
“You are a coward.” She bit out each word. “You pursued me like there was no tomorrow and now that I’ve finally given you what you want—given us a chance—you think pushing me away makes sense?”
“It’s the only way to keep you safe.”
“Bullshit. It’s the only way you can lock up whatever feelings you have for me and cling to some noble idea that you’re protecting me. But you’re only trying to protect yourself.”
When he didn’t respond, she wanted to scream. He simply stood there, his face impassive, as if he’d already made the decision and she had absolutely no say whatsoever in it.
“So you’re not even trying to deny it?” she demanded.
“This has nothing to do with me. I want to protect you.”
She gritted her teeth, fighting back the surging, bubbling anger coursing through her. Was he really going to do this? Kick her out of his life? “I can’t believe you seriously believe the crap that’s coming out of your mouth.”
He said nothing.
Which only infuriated her even more. “Don’t think you can come crawling back to me when you finally pull your head out of your ass!” Giving Liam one last lethal stare, she turned on her heel and stalked from the room. She’d be staying in the guesthouse tonight—technically this morning—but she doubted she’d get any sleep. Not when she was so wired. Despite the exhaustion overwhelming her and the lingering fear she had for Kat even though her mind knew her friend was safe, she felt ready for a fight. But if Liam wouldn’t fight back, she couldn’t make him. The only thing she knew for sure was that this conversation wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. After he stewed on his asinine decision for a day or two, she’d confront him again and see how ready he was to shove her out of his life.
Three days later
December steered into her driveway and automatically glanced in the rearview mirror. She’d been overly cautious of her surroundings lately. Sure enough, one of Liam’s packmates had followed her home as Connor promised.
After talking to the police, Kat had insisted on leaving the ranch. She’d quit her job at the ski lodge and she didn’t want to be anywhere near Jayce or anyone really, and even though Connor and Liam had fought her decision, Connor had eventually relented as long as Kat accepted protection from the pack. December didn’t exactly like being home considering there were still possible APL threats out there, but right now her friend needed this and Kat didn’t want to be at the ranch. If it would help Kat heal, December could deal with it, though. Considering there were pack members constantly watching the house and she had a new top-of-the-line security system courtesy of Liam, she wasn’t losing much sleep at night over safety issues. Well, she was, but that was because of a certain pigheaded shifter who thought he could make decisions about their life because it suited him.
For all of Liam’s crap about keeping his distance and staying out of her life, he sure had a dumb way of following through. She knew she’d seen him outside her place last night with a team of guys watching her and Kat. While she might appreciate that, she felt as if he’d ripped her heart out, then stomped it into tiny pieces. He wouldn’t even return her calls. As if what they’d shared together meant so little to him. It might not be true, but it was what it felt like each time he ignored her.
Even though thoughts of him consumed her day, she had other things to worry about. Kat wouldn’t leave the house or even talk about what happened. Her pain was obviously still fresh, and even if she wouldn’t talk to December, she really wished her friend would talk to someone.
When December entered the house, the subtle scent of chili teased her nostrils. She pressed a hand to her stomach as bile rose in her throat. Normally she loved chili, but the smell made her nauseous.
Shrugging off her jacket, she hung it up, then headed for the kitchen. She found Kat at the stove, still in her pajamas. Her friend glanced over her shoulder at her. Her eyes were red and puffy, likely because she’d been crying most of the day.
“Hey,” Kat murmured.
Pushing down the unexpected nausea, she stepped farther into the room. She’d planned to wait until later but decided to plunge ahead. “Hey…listen, I know it’s not my business but I was thinking maybe it wouldn’t hurt to talk to a professional. Maybe not in Fontana, but we can find a doctor in a nearby town and—”