He shrugged but looked just as uncomfortable as Kat had. “Ah, it’s a long story.”

She lifted an eyebrow at him as she sat at the table. “I have time.”

“I can’t tell you and I’m not going to lie to you.” He placed her plate in front of her.

“Excuse me?”

“We met under…illegal circumstances.”

“Illegal? Kat?” They hadn’t been friends long and she was really private about her past, but her friend volunteered most of her time when she wasn’t working at the ski lodge as an instructor. And once a spot opened up at the local elementary school, Kat planned to start teaching again. December couldn’t see her engaging in anything bad.

“I didn’t say she did anything illegal. Just that the circumstances were…. Listen, I don’t want to lie to you and I can’t tell you, so let’s leave it at that.”

Pushing down her annoyance, she speared a piece of sausage with her fork. Did he think his answer made her any less intrigued?

“I didn’t sleep with her, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I know,” she muttered.

“How do you know?”

“Because I asked her.” Damn it! Admitting that was as good as telling him she cared.

A wide grin spread across Liam’s face. He looked positively smug. At least he didn’t respond. The man was smarter than that.

Edward moved closer to the fireplace. The heat in his house had kicked off last night and the place was only now starting to warm up.

“Attempting to take the Saburova woman is crazy. Do you know who her father is?” Joseph asked.

Of course he knew who the criminal was. Years ago Edward had lived in Miami for over a decade. Even though he hadn’t run in the same circle, anyone who lived there knew who Dimitri Saburova was. The man was one of the most violent, brutal bastards Edward had ever come across. That was saying something.

Dimitri’s daughter had cut ties with her father, but that wasn’t why Edward wanted her. Katarina Saburova had been intimately connected with Jayce Kazan, the enforcer for the North American Council of lupine shifters. Katarina and Jayce had dated for many months until she’d moved to North Carolina.

Edward had almost had her captured a few weeks ago. The two idiots he’d enlisted to kidnap her had accomplished that much with relative ease. But then they’d been killed because they hadn’t followed his instructions. Instead of bringing her straight to him, they’d apparently locked her up in some cage on their property. Then they’d gotten themselves arrested for going after Connor Armstrong’s mate in the middle of the day during a drunken joyride. That had made them a bright shiny target for the Armstrongs. If they hadn’t gotten themselves killed, Adler would have done it anyway.

Those fucking Armstrong brothers, Liam and Connor, had interfered. He couldn’t prove it but he knew they’d helped Katarina escape. That bitch hadn’t killed those two goons on her own. The cops might have bought her story—because they had no reason not to believe her—but he had a video recording of the Armstrong brothers searching Felix’s house. The same day and around the same time the woman supposedly killed Edward’s two guys all by herself. Unfortunately he didn’t have video from the shed where they’d died. It was where they’d taken their victims, and Edward hadn’t known about its existence until too late.

Edward straightened. “I know who Dimitri Saburova is. She hasn’t spoken to her father in a year. He won’t be a problem.” The heat was nearly suffocating now, so he stepped away from the fire.

“I don’t know, man. I knew this guy who went to Coleman Penitentiary instead of flipping on Dimitri. The Feds offered him protection and everything and he still chose maximum-security prison.” Joseph wiped a hand across his sweaty brow and Edward knew it had nothing to do with the warmth of the room.

“Taking her will be a triumph for us. What do you think the boss will be able to do with her?” They could bring the enforcer to his knees and turn him into a mindless killer.

Joseph looked confused and shrugged. “I dunno.”

Edward clenched his jaw. While he appreciated the enthusiasm of these new recruits, they were more or less ignorant thugs. Or wannabe thugs. Which was often worse. They thought they were bad enough to take on anyone. He cleared his throat and tried to keep the disdain out of his voice. “Forget about her father. This bitch dated the enforcer.”

“So? They broke up.”

He sighed. “It doesn’t matter. Those animals are very territorial. He’ll come for her. If we take her, he’ll trade his life for hers.”

Joseph frowned. “You’re sure?”

He probably would trade his life for hers, but that’s not why they wanted him. If they lured Kazan into a trap where they held Katarina, he’d kill any human in the near vicinity who he thought was involved with her kidnapping. Joseph would likely be one of those humans and if Adler could get it on tape…He smiled at the possibilities. Once that happened, the APL could officially launch their media campaign against all these shifter abominations. “Why do you keep questioning me? Haven’t I given you a place to stay? Didn’t I take you in when you had nowhere else to go?”

Immediately Joseph’s eyes dropped. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Soon that bitch will—”

“Tsk, tsk.” Brianna walked into the room carrying a tray of cookies.

Immediately Edward felt like he was a kid again. “Sorry, Brianna.”

“If you want to teach these recruits, you also need to teach them manners.” Her soft voice was authoritative.

“Of course. I’m sorry.” Petite, blond, and damn near perfect, Brianna was the only woman on the planet who got away with talking to him that way.

She was also the only woman he’d ever stand for. Hurrying toward her, he took the tray and laid it on the middle of the coffee table. He desperately wanted to please her and hated himself for it. “These look great.”

A slight smile touched her full, pink lips. “I have three more trays of finger foods in the kitchen.”

“We’ll help you get them.” He nodded at Joseph, who immediately disappeared into the other room.

Before he could move, Brianna patted the side of his face. The hideously scarred side of his face. He tensed, as he always did, but she didn’t pull back. The disfigurement never seemed to bother her. “You’re better than all of these men combined. You just have to act like the leader you are. Cursing is for ignorant thugs and you’re not one. Remember that,” she whispered.

In response, he nodded. It was difficult to talk around her. He wanted to hate her, but he didn’t. He just wanted her approval so much.

“I’m going to shower before the meeting, but you’ll make sure everything is laid out properly?” she asked in that genteel voice.

Again, he nodded.

She disappeared up the stairs and only when she was out of eyesight did he breathe again.

“Man, I don’t know why that bitch thinks she can tell you what to do,” Joseph said as he walked back in carrying a tray of sandwiches.

If he hadn’t been carrying food Brianna had prepared, Edward would have struck him. “Don’t you ever talk about her like that. She does a lot for the APL and deserves our respect.”

Joseph faltered, likely because of the deadly edge in Edward’s voice. “I’m sorry, man. I just don’t like to see her treat you that way.”

She did so much more than that, but Edward wasn’t going to bother explaining that to this nobody. After joining their organization, Brianna had gotten so much intel for them by simply using her innocent appearance. Not her body, though. She had a way of talking to people and getting them to open up. When she’d been evicted from her apartment, he’d offered her a place to live over a month ago. At first he thought he’d made a mistake, but she’d given his life order in a way he hadn’t thought possible.

She was like the mother he’d never had. No, she was better. His own mother had abandoned him and his father. Brianna wasn’t a whore either. She didn’t spread her legs for anyone. She was perfect.

He’d gotten hard once when he accidentally saw her coming out of the shower. It was the only time in his life he’d ever felt shame. But it wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t been deliberately trying to taunt him. Besides, she looked at him. Really, truly looked at him. She never turned away from his scarred face. Which was more than he could say for anyone.

As he felt his body get hot, he inwardly cursed his own thoughts. When he realized Joseph was staring at him with a curious expression, he backhanded him. The kid had to learn not to question him. Brianna was right. If he was going to be a leader, he had to start acting like one.

Chapter 4

Kat smiled at the man who held the door open for her at Gwen’s Bakery. Since moving to Fontana, she’d tried to immerse herself like a local. There were only two decent bakeries and while Dee’s Doughnuts had good doughnuts, Gwen’s had the biggest and best assortment of petits fours she’d ever had. She’d lived in Paris for a few months one summer during college, so that was saying something.

The small mountain town was a far cry from warm and sunny Miami, her last home, but she’d grown up all over the world thanks to her father’s business. She could adapt to almost any situation. But she truly liked Fontana. The friendly people, the fresh air, and the tolerant attitude of most of the town.

A pack of shifters lived on the outskirts of town and from what she could tell, most of Fontana had accepted them. There were always exceptions, but moving here had been one of the best decisions she’d ever made. It had allowed her to make a clean break from her father’s shady dealings and it was far away from Jayce Kazan. That man technically didn’t have a home. Well, not a permanent one. He was the enforcer for the North American Council of lupine shifters and his job took him everywhere, so he lived out of hotels. Some days she wished she’d never met him, but others…she couldn’t imagine not having known him. And she hated him for that.


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