She felt the kiss. Everywhere. Any fleeting thought she’d had of refusing him vanished. Emotions clogged her throat, thoughts of her mother, missing her, missing the comfort and safety of her parents, danced over her heart. Gray understood what she’d lost. He understood what she needed. She couldn’t refuse him, even if she’d wanted to.
His lips were strong, but so soft. His tongue traced along her bottom lip, teased her tongue, coaxing it into his mouth. And when she slipped it through his lips, he actually made a noise like a purr. The sound vibrated through her body straight down to her sex.
His big hand cupped the back of her neck, kept her pressed to his lips. The position was awkward, leaning over her bent legs. She didn’t care. This felt too wonderful. Tingles rippled over her skin from head to toe, her body warmed so fast she felt flushed.
One hand braced on the table, she reached the other to his cheek. He’d looked clean-shaven but she could still feel the coarse texture of fresh growth beneath her fingers. His cologne filled her nose, sweet, manly, mixed with the earthier scents of nature. Intoxicating. She breathed him in, let the smell of him make her dizzy.
She could taste a hint of scotch on his kiss. Together with his scent and the fast rush of her pulse, it was all Maizie could do not to swoon in his arms.
She shifted, pushing up to her knees and he rewarded her with a harder, stronger kiss. It was so easy, the kiss, the desire. Her body seemed to recognize his touch, warm at the very possibility of it. On her knees, she was a bit taller than him and his hand slipped from her neck to her waist. Still he pulled her to him, as though she’d never be close enough.
Holding her, his free hand smoothed over her ribs to her breast. Maizie’s breath caught even before his palm cupped her, before his fingers squeezed. Every muscle in her body worked for more, more pleasure, more sensation, more.
A quiver tickled through her belly. Her thighs trembled, the muscles in her sex pulsed, flexing wet and needy. She wanted to straddle him, to press her pussy against him, to make it clear what he did to her, what he made her want. What he made her need. The dress was too tight, she’d been lucky to get to her knees.
His hand massaged her breast, found her nipple hard and wanting. He toyed with it, coaxed it to harden more, to press undeniably through the fabric of her bra and dress. Maizie moaned and leaned into his touch, her hips pressing her groin against his chest. She didn’t care where they were, who he was, what he’d done. She wanted him. Now. Filling the emptiness between her legs.
His fingers pinched hard so Maizie threw her head back, gasping. She arched her back and felt his mouth hot and wet through her dress, his teeth nipping the pebbled nub. Her body curved the other way, arms circling his neck, cradling his head against her chest.
Gray scrambled to his knees, gathering her into his arms, pressing her whole body to his. The hard line of his cock through his pants pushed against her thigh, teased her mercilessly. He took her mouth again, frantic, hungry. The finesse of his first kiss lost to an explosion of passion.
One arm around her back, he dropped the other hand to her ass. He squeezed, hard, lifted her, pressed her pussy against his cock. His want of her was clear, as clear as her own.
She tried to spread her legs wider, but the dress caught at her thighs. It wouldn’t give and she couldn’t get her hands down to hike it up.
“Too many damn clothes.” She’d mumbled it into his mouth, though it barely registered in her brain. The next instant everything changed. Gray’s whole body went stiff. His lips pulled from hers.
“Jeezus.” He was breathless, still holding her flush to his body. “What the fuck am I doing?”
Maizie opened her eyes. He looked horrified, his pale eyes scanning her face, brow tight, as though searching for some shred of understanding. He released her and got to his feet so fast she nearly fell over from the force of it.
Gray paced the rug, wiped her kiss from his lips with the back of his hand, then roughly shoved his long waving bangs from his face. He held his hips, storming back and forth, eyes down, scowl set.
Was it something she’d said? What did she say? Maizie’s lust-drunk mind raced to untangle the mystery. Bewildered, she sat back on her pillow, her hand wiping the wetness rimming her bottom lip. The brush of her finger tingled along her mouth, her whole body too sensitive for idle touches. What had happened?
“That’s not why I brought you here.” Gray didn’t look at her. He kept pacing. “I’m…sorry.”
“Sorry?” For what? Kissing her senseless or stopping?
He stopped, his angry eyes slamming into hers. “Yes. Of course I’m sorry. You didn’t think I wanted that…”
He must have read something in her expression, disappointment, embarrassment, doubt. He seemed to rethink his words. “I didn’t mean… Hell. Obviously, I wanted… I mean, I’m the one who… Dammit, Maizie, something about you makes me…mindless.” His gaze softened, hoped.
Maizie forced a smile, not big, but the best she could muster. She could accept “mindless”. It was better than “sorry”.
Gray grunted at their unspoken truce and started pacing again. “This should’ve been a simple thing. Textbook. A picnic lunch. Seductively understated. All the women’s favorites. A little harmless flirting to get her seeing things my way. I didn’t expect to like…”
Maizie shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “ Mission accomplished.”
“What?” Gray stopped, looked to her.
“If all this was to try and convince me not to coax Granny to sell her land, then you’ve been seducing the willing. So to speak.”
He blushed and looked away for a moment, but rallied quickly. “Easy enough to say, but everyone has a price, Maizie. What’s yours?”
She tried not to feel insulted. Maizie knew the kind of man Gray Lupo was. A wheeler and dealer, a playboy, wealthy, powerful, he got what he wanted no matter the means, no matter the little redhead who got caught in his way. The glimpse of the tender-hearted Gray, the boy who loved spending time with his mother, the man who shared her pleasure, was gone.
She was insulted. She was hurt. And it was taking too much damn energy to deny. She stiffened, let her temper boil over her wounded pride. “My price? My grandmother’s happiness. If she wants the land, wants to protect that pushy wolf that runs around up here, then I’ll keep the land.”
He blanched. She didn’t care why. “If she wants to sell every last square foot, then I’ll sell it all tomorrow. I’ll do what I have to do to make her feel secure.”
Maizie pushed to her feet, smoothing her dress. “I’ll let my shop go bankrupt. I’ll move back into that isolated cottage. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you’re not pretending to be my dead father, trying to convince Granny to sell the one thing that means the world to her.”
She took a breath, tried to calm the anger and hurt that shook down her arms. She fisted her hands. “So you see, Mr. Lupo, my price is simple and nonnegotiable. Happy?”
She folded her arms under her chest, chin high. Her belly rolled and pitched, her knees were shaking and a flood of tears clogged at the back of her throat, but damn him if she’d let any of that show.
Gray met her gaze, his hands still propped on his hips, jacket snagged behind his wrists. Silence settled between them like a referee calling a time-out.
His nostrils flared with each breath, his muscled chest swelling and shrinking. A soft wind fluttered the ends of his hair over his collar as his gaze traveled down her body. The study was so intense she could almost feel its path. She’d swear he was pissed. Who wouldn’t be after that tirade? But the look in his eyes, the heat, that wasn’t anger.
He growled, his hands dropping from his hips. “Hell with it.”
His long strides ate the ground between them in a blur. All at once she was in his arms, scooped up against his hard chest, one hand around her waist, the other behind her head. And then he froze.
His warm breath bathed her lips, so close she could imagine the feel of his kiss. But he didn’t kiss her. He stood, holding her. After a heavy moment, pregnant with anticipation, Maizie squirmed.
Gray’s arms tightened around her. “Sshh.”
She met his gaze, his eyes distant for a moment before they focused on hers. He didn’t say a word, but she understood the meaning in his look. He wanted her to listen. Something wasn’t right. They weren’t alone.
Maizie straightened, pushing from Gray’s embrace. She kept her eyes on him, but her mind searched her senses, listening, smelling, tasting the air.
A snap of twig off to the left, then a rustle of leaves farther over. The hairs at the back of her neck bristled, invisible fingers thrumming down her back, icing her spine. “What is it?”
“The pack. Wolves. They think it’s a game, but they’re too upset. It’s not safe. Things could get out of hand.”
“Well, let’s go back to the car.” She turned to leave, but he caught her arm, pulled her back.
“We won’t make it. My house is closer. They’ll think clearer there.”
Gray caught her chin between his fingers, brought her gaze to his. “Stay with me. You’ll be fine. Don’t look back. Don’t look around.”
“Don’t. Just…trust me.” His voice was soft and steady, utterly confident. She let the sound of it wash over her, calm the jittery nerves tingling her muscles, edging an instinctive panic.
Without taking his eyes from hers, he reached down and took her hand, his big palm swallowing hers, his fingers holding tight and firm. The simple touch did more for her than any drug. She was safe. No matter what.
Without another word, he turned and used his full long stride to lead them into the forest. Barefoot, their pace never faltered, yet remarkably each step found soft pliable ground.
The paths she’d always been so aware of were nowhere to be seen. Gray made his own way, somehow slicing through low branches, tumbled trees and prickly brier patches without effort. Without pain. The forest floor should be rough against her feet. It wasn’t. Why?
They were moving fast, Gray’s strides a half step longer than hers, but she managed to keep up with little effort. Her body was light, easily pulled and turned like a kite on a string. On either side of her the trees blurred, the forest becoming a smear of green, flashes of light, a tangle of browns.
Wind hissed past her ears, raking through her hair so the loose bun tumbled free, strands snagging on branches. She kept moving. It wasn’t hard. Like a drop of water tumbling down a river, a part of the whole but separate. The scents and sounds of the forest cascaded over her, honeysuckle, a crow’s caw, pine sap, a burrowing rabbit. Everything mixed and melted into her, through her, around her. She was the forest, every bit of it, and the forest was her-one and the same.
And then they stopped.
She nearly rammed her nose into his shoulder. She held his arm for a moment, her head against his back, waiting for her mind, for the world, for time itself to catch up. She peered over his shoulder.
“What the hell was that?” she asked. “Felt like we were doing some low flying. That’s not possible. Right?”
Gray glanced over his shoulder at her. “I’ll explain later. Okay?”
He looked worried, or like he had bigger things to worry about at the moment and he hoped she wouldn’t add to it by insisting on answers. She could do that. For now.
They both turned back to the mansion?
Maizie blinked, her brain struggling to reconcile what she thought possible and what her eyes were seeing before her. “No way. Cherri was right. You do have a mansion hidden in the forest.”
Three stories tall, the size of a small hotel, the huge gray-stone monolith was nevertheless dwarfed by the surrounding forest. Maizie glanced behind them, the forest’s edge was at least ten feet back, dense and shadowed. She could imagine walking within feet of the clearing to Gray’s yard and not seeing the enormous mansion through the foliage.
Gray tugged her hand and Maizie stumbled after him up the cascade of stone stairs to his patio. Three enormous glass doors opened the lower portion of the house to the patio and offered a clear view into the room beyond.
At the back of the room, carpeted stairs filled the far wall. She could see a huge stone fireplace, a big sectional couch and a smoky mirrored bar. Maizie watched as three pairs of silky long legs descended the stairs into view.
The women were lovely, the second two a slightly younger version of the woman to her right. The oldest and youngest of the trio had hair the color of brown sugar while the woman in the center was a shimmering corn-silk blonde. They wore matching green kimono-style robes, with lapels and sash a complementing blush-pink, radiant against their tawny skin.
The women sauntered out in order, curvy feminine hips swaying. The middle woman turned toward the small patio bar in the corner the moment she passed the threshold. The other two walked a determined line toward Gray. Maizie tried to wiggle her hand free of his, but he held her.
“Gray, my sweet boy,” the older woman said as she neared. “Back from your outing so soon? We missed you, dear.”
“Mother Joy,” Gray said, by way of greeting.
Clearly the oldest of the three, Joy still looked years younger than Gray. Her soft brown hair fell in long waves over her shoulders and down to midback. Her skin was flawless, her body tight, shapely. There was a thickness about her though, a way of walking, speaking, which comes with experience if not simply age.
She pressed her hands to his chest, pushed up to her toes and kissed his cheek. He stood as he was, body stiff, head straight, scowl firmly in place.
“She’s my guest, Joy.” He stared straight ahead at nothing, as though he didn’t want to look at her. “I expected more from you. Couldn’t you make the slightest effort to behave, set an example? At the very least dress…your age?”
The woman laughed, a soft chuckle, and playfully slapped his chest. “We were just curious, sweetheart, and Lynn had us convinced you were keeping secrets from us. Said you’d chosen a mate. You can imagine our disappointment.”
“That’s what had all of you worked up?” His gaze flicked to the woman at the bar. “You should know better than to go out in that state of mind. Could’ve gotten out of hand fast.”
The older woman rolled a shoulder. “Yes, well, you could’ve told Lynn about your flavor of the week here and saved all of us the trouble.” Her bright blue gaze shifted to Maizie. “No offense, dear. I’m sure you’re perfectly pleasant.”
Maizie shook her head, though she had no idea what they were talking about. The woman couldn’t be more than forty-five and Maizie wasn’t sure what about her dress or behavior Gray had taken issue with. If Maizie looked that good at forty-five, she’d wear skimpy silk robes too.
Joy turned away and found a seat on a wood chaise lounge. The youngest of the threesome sauntered across the stone patio to Gray, not as graceful, her pretty face marred by the pucker of skin between her furrowed brows.
“Save your breath, Uncle Gray. Totally don’t need a lecture. It was Mom’s idea. And we were just looking. Y’know this kind of thing wouldn’t happen if you’d stop bringing these human skanks around.”
She looked at Gray’s tense expression, his jaw muscles flexing with restrained anger.
Her gaze shifted to Maizie then to Gray and back again. “What? Was Mom right? Something different about this one? No. Of course not. Whatever.”
The young beauty stretched to her toes, her hand smoothing up Gray’s chest to his neck, forcing him closer. Her pretty pony-tailed hair swished across her back as she kissed Gray’s cheek, leaving a fresh pink smear of lipstick behind.
The junior femme fatale stepped back, pouting. The silken robe slipped loose, flashing a flat belly to her navel. At least her breasts managed to stay hidden, nipples tenting the luxurious fabric like erect little soldiers. Maizie glanced at Gray. He stood as stiffly as before, his eyes focused straight ahead, lips a flat line.
Shelly joined Joy lounging on the wood patio furniture, their robes falling open as they may. Gray didn’t seem to notice or care, his attention shifted to the third woman.
She stood next to the little cart, holding a glass and stirring the clear iced liquid with her finger. Obviously enjoying the attention, she pulled the finger from her drink and sucked it dry with long draws and red painted lips.
“Oh.” Maizie swallowed her gasp. She knew this woman. This was the woman she’d seen having sex in the woods. Maizie’s cheeks warmed. What’d happened to the man she was with? The bite mark she’d seen on his neck had looked bad, though it hadn’t bothered him enough to keep him from screwing her brains out.
“Bad move, Lynn,” Gray said. “You overstep your bounds.”
She laughed, soft and pretty, her long blonde hair blanketing over her shoulders. In her midtwenties or so, Lynn ’s body was at its prime. She hadn’t even gone to the trouble of tying her robe’s sash. She strolled toward him, her curvy hips swaying, the edges of her robe flashing bare belly, brown thatch and firm thighs.
“Have a lovely day at the lake, Gray?” she said.
“If any harm had come to her- The smell of frightened prey, you know how easily that could’ve gone wrong, gotten out of hand. You led the rest out there knowing how upset they’d be when they saw she wasn’t my mate.”
“Just proving a point, dear brother, same as you.” She snatched his shirt at the collar, fisting it in her grip. A hard yank pulled him to her, reflex opened his hold on Maizie. She let her hand drop to her side, watching.
Lynn took Gray’s mouth with hers, her jaw stretched wide, tongue driving deep into his mouth. And Gray took it. Not a muscle on the rest of his body responded, but he didn’t deny her the kiss. As deep and long as she wanted, he obliged.
She released him with a small shove, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and took a sip of her drink. Her gaze drifted to Maizie. “Besides, if you were so worried we’d lost our senses and were truly hunting her, why’d you bring her here? She’s a liability, just like Shawn.”
“Wrong. This was business,” Gray said. “And why wouldn’t I bring her here? This is my home. I expect my family to behave like civil human beings here, if nowhere else.”
“But of course.” Lynn slinked toward Joy and Shelly and the last unused chaise lounge. The fluid movement of her body was mesmerizing. “Business, you say? Really? Only if your business is seducing ignorant little girls. Or maybe she gets faxes through her ass and that’s why your hand was on it.”
Lynn laughed at her own wit, looking to the other women who smiled indulgently, though Joy seemed tired by the display. Lynn lay back, her robe slipping down the sides of her body, leaving her completely exposed. She raised one knee, shielding her trimmed bush and showing off the smooth round of her ass.
“This is Ester’s granddaughter.” He stepped toward them, growing the distance between himself and Maizie. “She has influence with her grandmother. I did what I had to. And the rest of you will not interfere.”
“You did what you wanted. Like you always do.” Lynn set her drink on the side table between her and Joy. “We’re the only ones held to archaic rules and codes.”
Gray took another step, his face flushing with anger. “There’s reason behind our rules.”
“Yes.” Lynn sat straight, body rigid. “And we were just illustrating those reasons, like you did for me. You were vulnerable, Gray. She made you slow and stupid and vulnerable. You couldn’t protect her in this form. You couldn’t protect yourself. And your feelings for her, your fear of her reaction, stopped you from doing what you should’ve done. What you would’ve done without thinking if it weren’t for her.”
Gray glowered at her, his jaw muscles twitched. Then suddenly a strange calm washed over him, as though he’d chosen the demeanor rather than achieving it. His hands slipped into the front pockets of his pants, deceptively casual.
“It is not for you to educate me. You were my wife’s sister. But don’t delude yourself. Push me on this and I will strike you down. Mind your place, Lynn, or I’ll put you in it by force.” His voice was low. His words were precise and the sound of it sent a chill racing down Maizie’s spine.
“Her place, Uncle Gray?” All eyes turned to the stunning young man pushing through the far glass door onto the patio. “Oh good. Let’s discuss places. Hierarchy.”
His naked body, carved perfection, glistened with a thin sheen of moisture, his short spiked hair dappled with water. Each casual stride swung his cock, semi-hard, growing harder when he noticed Maizie’s stare. A smile rippled across his lips, then he shut it down, attention shifting back to Gray.
Maizie blinked to stop her gawk, looked away at…anything. But Gray had noticed, saw her eyes widen on the young man. She could feel his muscles tense but he didn’t say anything to her. “Don’t start, Rick.”
“Start? Uncle Gray, when I decide to, I won’t just start, I’ll damn well finish and there’ll be nothing you can do about it. Trust me.”
Gray growled his words through his teeth. “This is business, Rick. Stay out of it.”
“Right. Business. Why am I not surprised?” Rick’s blue eyes, an exact match to Shelly’s, shifted to Maizie. “Did you bother to tell the girl? By the looks of her, I’d say she’s just as hopeful as the rest of us were. The difference is, we know you. We’re used to you playing at taking a mate and always falling short. Whatever. If you won’t take her, maybe I will. She seems pretty open to the idea.”
Gray glanced back at Maizie, caught her gaze stuck on Rick’s cock before she flicked her attention to his face, her cheeks blazing red. Her mouth gaped in protest. “What? I was just… You’re naked. I’m not dead. I’m also not an animal. I don’t jump anything that crosses my path and looks ready and able.”
Rick’s brow rose, a smile lifting one cheek. “Not an animal? You hear that, Uncle Gray?”
It was obvious the young upstart was getting off on her attention, wrinkles smoothing, his cock growing as she watched. Dammit, why’d he trust his family would act human in front of Maizie if she met them here instead of in the woods? It was always a competition with Rick. He wanted to be alpha despite the worries and protests from the women in their lives.
Lynn, Joy and Shelly had begged Gray not to step aside, not to walk away and hand the pack over to Rick. As much as Rick might want it and as much as Gray would like to give it to him, he couldn’t do that to the kid.
They were right. Rick was too young. He’d get himself killed by a stray mutt inside a week. Sooner, if he kept trying to use Maizie to get his way. Gray would see to it himself.
Gray straightened, not moving but blocking Rick’s path to Maizie by sheer will. “This isn’t a game, boy.”
Rick stopped short, his gaze shifting from Maizie to Gray. “You’re damn right. This is life, old man. You bring a prime female back to the den and think you won’t have to fight for her? You’re the one who’s delusional.”
He patted Gray’s shoulder, chuckling, and stepped around him. There was no mistaking the challenge in his eyes, though Gray knew it had less to do with wanting Maizie as his mate than it did with wanting to lead the pack. He should’ve seen this coming. Bringing her to the house was a mistake. He hadn’t realized things had gotten so unstable.
“Prime female? Really?” Maizie’s tone was dripping with indignation and shock.
Gray also knew if by some miracle Rick managed to defeat him in a fight, Rick wouldn’t pass on his right to take his opponent’s mate. That wasn’t going to happen. Not with Maizie. Not ever.
“You don’t want to do this, kid. Not now. Not her,” Gray warned.
Rick’s conquering stare faltered, dimmed, but he battled back. “Tell me she’s the one. Tell us you’re ready to be the alpha this pack needs, and I won’t try and take it from you. If she’s not your wolf’s choice, then why would you care if I took a little taste?”
Frustration itched across his shoulders, knotting his muscles. It was a simple thing. Announce that he had a romantic interest in Maizie, that he claimed her as his, and make everyone happy. Hell, his family would be thrilled. Having a mated alpha meant security for the pack.
The alpha mates alone proved the pack was vital and alive. A lone male alpha with no hope of producing strong male heirs told outside males the pack was dying. The viable females, Lynn and Shelly, would be pursued, encouraged to join healthy packs. Or killed. Gray wouldn’t, couldn’t, let that happen.
So why couldn’t he claim Maizie as his? Because there was something about her, something different he’d never felt before, compelling, addictive. He wanted none of it. He’d been married once, had his chance at love. Donna was his wife, alive or dead, he’d made a commitment. His human-half wouldn’t let him turn his back on that, not for the woman whose family had killed her.
“It’s business,” Gray insisted.
Rick looked to Maizie, intent renewed. “Is it true what they say about redheads?” He brushed past her shoulder, leaning in to whisper in her ear but loud enough Gray could hear. “Are you a wild and wicked hellcat in the sack?”
Gray’s hands balled to fists. He told himself Rick was just a kid, young by werewolf standards. He didn’t fully understand the danger, the instinct his actions triggered in Gray. But the battle between intellect and primal demands was faltering. Gray’s nails dug deeper into his palms, a low growl rumbled in his chest.
Maizie held her expression, calm indifference, and slid her eyes to see him askew. She caught his gaze. “Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
Rick feigned a laugh. “Why don’t you ask her? She’s sitting right over there.”
Maizie’s gaze shifted to the three women. Gray knew none of them looked old enough to be Rick’s mother. Lynn politely raised a hand, wiggling her fingers, and Maizie’s eyes stretched, mouth gaping. “That’s not…that’s not possible.”
He’d forgotten how shocking his family appeared to humans. “Ignore them, Maizie. My nephew likes to tease. He’s a little insecure and thinks irritating his uncle will get him what he wants.” Gray speared Rick with a withering glare. “He’s wrong.”
Rick threw back his head, barking a laugh. “You think? At least I’m willing to do what needs to be done to protect this pack. She’s Ester’s granddaughter. She already knows, or she would if she let herself believe. What more do you want? If you won’t bite her and make her the alpha mate, I will. You can’t expect to stay single and lead this pack.”
“Bite me? You bite people?” Maizie’s too-wide eyes swung to Lynn. “You bit that man, didn’t you? I thought…I thought it was one of the wolves. But it was you.”
Gray glanced from Maizie to Lynn and back again. “What’re you talking about? What did you see? What man?”
“Nothing,” Rick answered for her. “She didn’t see anything. You’re both just trying to delay the inevitable.” He reached for Maizie’s arm.
Gray didn’t know what he meant to do. Not that it mattered. His primal reflex took hold like the snap of an overstretched cord. He punched out, connecting solidly with Rick’s chest so fast his own mind couldn’t track it.
Rick sailed backward through the air. His young muscled body slammed against the stone wall of the patio at least eight feet away. His head and shoulders whipped back over the edge then forward, his hands clutching his chest as he slumped to the floor.
Gray stood between them, his shoulders heaving, his hands fisted at his sides fighting to rein in his anger, tamp down the pure male adrenaline humming through every muscle in his body. He’d been dreading this, fighting to avoid it, for a long time. Regret warred inside him.
If it’d been any other woman he could’ve kept his self-control. But not Maizie. Maizie was his, had been since the night he gave her back her life. He hadn’t realized it until that singular moment. Gray had kept her at a distance, tried to ignore her existence, but all the while he’d seen her as his.
A replacement? Payment for what he’d lost? He wasn’t sure. His wolf-half didn’t care. With Maizie thrust into the mix of the growing tensions between him and the young male pack member, Gray’s tightly leashed instinct broke free. The wolf’s need to defend what was his ruled him mind and body.
Lynn jumped between them, shoving Gray hard enough at the shoulders that he staggered back a step. “What was that? Huh? What was that? I asked you to keep him safe, and you practically break his neck.”
She went to her son, pulling the edges of her robe together, kneeling beside him, cradling his head and shoulders to her chest. Rick pushed up the wall with his elbow, his legs still sprawled in front of him. He rubbed the back of his neck, a sideways smirk hiking the corner of his mouth.
“Maybe she is the one. Just make up your mind about it soon or I promise you, I will.” He pushed away from his mother and got to his feet.
The kid thought he’d succeeded in distracting Gray. He had, but only for a minute. He turned to Maizie who stood stunned in silence. Jeezus, she must think she’s stumbled onto the set of Deliverance the way his family behaved. He told himself it didn’t matter what she thought. Never mind that he didn’t believe that for a second.
“What did you see, Maizie?” he asked. “What did you see Lynn do?”
Maizie blinked those pretty green eyes at him as though restarting her brain. “They were in the woods. They were making love. The man’s neck was torn, like he’d been bitten. It was covered in blood, his neck, his chest. I thought he’d been attacked by wolves, and I couldn’t understand how he could make love right there in the woods after such a brutal attack.”
“Who was it?” Gray pushed. “What did the man look like?”
Maizie shook her head as though she was still struggling with all she’d heard and seen. Then her gaze slid toward the house and she pointed a finger. “Him. It was him.”
Gray turned and his heart nearly stopped. “Shawn.”
He tugged Maizie behind him without thinking and took a menacing step. “What the hell’s going on, Lynn?”
The father of Lynn ’s children, Shelly and Rick, the man who’d cheated on his wife, the man he’d forbidden Lynn to turn, stood bolder than he had any right to. Lynn was at her lover’s side in a heartbeat, putting her body between her alpha and her certain ruin.
She held up a hand, as though she could ward off Gray’s outrage. “I turned him. I needed someone, Gray, and you were too busy running around the woods with little Red Riding Hood there to do the job.”
A menacing growl vibrated through Gray’s chest and he edged forward. It was an excuse and they both knew it. The guy was no good for her. He could feel it.
“He left his wife,” Lynn said in a rush.
“Before or after you made it impossible for him to stay with her?” Gray asked, teeth clenched.
“What difference does it make? He’s mine,” she said. “You told me to find a mate. He’s the one. He’s always been the one.”
“He’s a cheat. He’s weak willed. And he smells like betrayal.” Gray looked at his sister-in-law, a woman he’d sworn to protect-his family. “He’s not good enough, Lynn. He’ll hurt you and the pieces he’ll leave behind won’t be big enough to put back together.”
“No. It doesn’t always end that way, Gray.” Joy moved between him and Lynn. “I know Donna’s death destroyed a big part of you, but that doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion. Sometimes love feels good.”
Gray blanched at that, snapped his mouth shut. Did they really think his objections about Shawn were some sort of transference of his own hang-ups? They weren’t.
Gray exhaled. None of them understood. Love was a fleeting untrustworthy emotion, never the same from one day to the next, twisting into something unrecognizable from where it’d begun. He knew better than anyone you can’t base life decisions on love.
“It’s not like I’m a stranger.” Shawn edged forward, hand out as though he could wipe the tension and misunderstanding from the air. “I mean, I’ve known Lynn for years now, and the kids, well, I’m their father. She’s told me everything about your family. Explained how it works. I…I love her.”
Gray eyed the man. He looked older than Lynn by at least three decades, but Gray knew the difference was a lot less than that. “What about your other family? Your other kids?”
“When I learn enough control, I’ll work out a custody arrangement with my ex. I didn’t leave because Lynn made me one of you. I left because I realized I love her. I’ve been miserable without her all these years.”
Gray scoffed. What better proof did he need that the guy wasn’t good enough than a statement like that? “Made by a beta. He’ll never be strong enough to make a challenge.”
“I know,” Lynn said. “I don’t care. I just want…him.”
“If you love him, if you’d already gone and claimed him as your mate, why have you been pushing so hard for me to take up the role?”
Lynn blushed, her cheeks bright red, and looked away. She shrugged. “Habit maybe. I’ve been angry with you so long it’s hard to know how not to be. I don’t know. I didn’t want you to find out about Shawn too soon. I knew what you’d do, knew you’d kill him before he was strong enough to defend himself.”
“I still might.”
She looked at him, her expression hard. “And I wanted you to pay. All those years alone, all the heartache. I just…I just couldn’t let the anger go.”
“And now?” Gray asked.
“Obviously I’ve still got some things to work through where you’re concerned. It’s taking some time, but Shawn’s helping me put it behind me. With his help I’ll get there. I know it. Let me have him, please, Gray.”
Gray huffed, too close to a wolf’s snort. “It’s done. He’s pack or he dies. Show him his place, or I will.” He headed for the closest door, his hand tight around Maizie’s, tugging her away as fast as he could.
He didn’t care anymore, about Lynn and her poor taste in men, about Rick and his drive to lead the pack. He didn’t care about any of it.
All he cared about was getting Maizie away from any possible threat, getting her someplace safe. He led her up the stairs into the grand foyer, with its black marble floor and grand sweeping staircase. And no werewolves.
“Mr. Lupo.” Annette breezed in from his home office to the left, her legs carrying her petite body faster than a person twice as tall. “I didn’t realize you were back.”
She held her ever-present notepad with a letter clipped to its envelope on top. She pushed at her brown-framed glasses, too big for her small face, but somehow fitting with her upswept hair, buttoned-up shirt and fitted skirt. Her gaze shifted to Maizie. The corners of her thin lips swept to a pretty smile. “Ms. Hood. You’re here. How wonderful. Does this mean-”
“What is it, Annette?” He recognized that glint in her eye. She had an inconvenient tendency to romanticize things when it came to Gray. It wasn’t hard to imagine the leaps she’d make having seen him and Maizie walking hand-in-hand.
“Yes. Of course, Mr. Lupo. Sorry.” Annette stiffened, all business. She read from her notepad. “You received the information you’ve been waiting for from Judge Woodsmen.”
“Thank you. Leave it on your desk and I’ll get to it later.” Damn, he hoped he wouldn’t need that information.
“Yes, sir. Also, Ms. Pi called from the bakery, for Ms. Hood. She said, and I quote, ‘Smoky Joe finally kicked the bucket and took a chunk of firewall sheeting, the Pearlman bar-mitzvah cake and half the dirty-girl pastries for the Richmen bachelorette party with him.’”
Maizie whispered an oath then moved to Annette. She took her hands, leaning close. “Annette, is it? You have to get me out of…” She glanced back at Gray. “I mean, I need to get to my shop. Help me get out of here. Please. No. Wait. My shoes.”
“Thank you, Annette,” Gray said, stepping beside Maizie. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders, jerked her close. “I’ll make sure Ms. Hood makes it out of the forest. Personally.”