Gotta Have Faith

Extended Sample

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Wolf Mates, Book 3

Dakota Cassidy

Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.

ISBN: 978-1-62517-891-6

Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.

All rights reserved.

 

Chapter 1

I’m sorry. That was rude of me not to introduce myself. I’m Brock Adams. Derrick’s father—”

Brock stiffened the moment the words flew from his mouth, and quickly stepped back into the shadows, mentally reminding his just-along-for-the-ride fairy and one-time cellmate, Winston, to ramp up the spell they’d cast to cloak his true identity.

Winston! Do you remember the part of the deal I made with Lorelei that said I could never return to the pack? That I had to pretend to be dead? Ramp up the cloaking spell, buddy—pronto!

Winston squirmed in his shirt pocket. Sorrysorrysorry! I nodded off after exhausting myself trying to talk you out of this asshattery. And how many times have I told you I suck at witchcraft?

The fairy paused for a moment before Brock felt the slight pull of his skin, praying Derrick and his new mate hadn’t caught a clear glimpse of him.

And shit, shit, shit, Brock. You can’t tell them who you are, moron. You’ve been in Cedar Glen all of twenty minutes, and already you’re shitting all over everything you’ve sacrificed to accomplish.

Brock remembered that just before Derrick Adams blinked and shook his head then snaked a hand out and gripped the collar of his shirt, his blue eyes full of fiery confusion. “Hold on. For a second there, you almost looked… You’re not my father. Who the hell are you, and why are you claiming to be my father?”

Derrick’s nostrils flared and instantly he let him go, as though simply touching Brock was like coming into contact with the plague. Then he pushed a beautiful dark-haired woman behind him in a protective gesture.

Squaring his shoulders, Brock cleared his throat and assessed Derrick, his heart constricting in his chest. Tall and strong and clearly very angry with his father, judging by the granite expression. Derrick waited for an explanation.

He held up a hand, stepping out of the shadows. “My apologies. I meant, I’m here on behalf of your father, Brock Adams—who is your father, correct? You are Derrick Adams, aren’t you?”

Derrick’s face instantly tightened, his lips thinning, but his tone was cordial. “I am, and my apologies as well. You sounded just like my father for a minute.”

Close call, moron.

The pretty woman nudged Derrick from behind. “Maybe we should invite him in, Neanderthal? It’s freezing out there, Derrick.”

Derrick’s eyes hardened. “I don’t want or need a message from my father. So there’s no need to invite him in.”

His stomach tightened as the heavy snow battered his face. Jesus. He’d forgotten how cold Cedar Glen could get—and how cold Derrick could get when he was angry. Derrick had always withdrawn. He let his anger eat him up. He bottled it until the top popped off and he exploded.

That wasn’t what he wanted. This wasn’t how he wanted any of this. He just wanted to know what the hell was going on so he could fix it. And then he wanted to leave before he couldn’t leave. Before…

But he’d been so startled to see this woman answer the door. A woman Derrick looked at with so much love in his eyes. Brock lost his composure, and the million-and-one introductions he’d rehearsed over and over in his head moments before ringing the doorbell tonight vanished.

Staring into Derrick’s flaming eyes, Brock nodded curtly. “I understand. Sorry to have disturbed you. I should go.”

He turned to take his leave, but the dark-haired woman grabbed his arm and squeezed it. “You most certainly will not! If you’re a friend of Brock Adams, you’re a friend of ours. Please, come in,” she said with a welcoming smile, ushering him inside to the warm foyer and shaking her head at his protests.

Derrick folded his arms over his bare chest as the woman closed the front door. He was sending her signals with his eyes. Signals that said, “I have no father. He deserted me. He’s an asshole. How could you?”

But the woman wasn’t having any of it, and it was all he could do not to bark his laughter. Someone had tamed Derrick, and that someone was this lovely girl.

She flapped her hands at Derrick and gave him the evil eye. “Oh, knock it off, Derrick. Didn’t these last few weeks teach you anything about grave misunderstandings and the importance of family?” She paused a moment, waiting for Derrick to answer.

But he remained stone-faced—resentful—in a very Derrick-like way.

The woman stuck her tongue out at Derrick and rolled her eyes before looking at Brock and smiling again. “I’m Martine Brooks, Derrick’s mate. You are?”

He cleared his throat again, allowing her to take his coat, because he’d decided even being in a room with Angry Derrick was better than being in a room without him in it at all.

She peered at him from behind thick lashes. “You are…?” she coaxed.

Winston stirred in his pocket again. Yeah. You are? Jesus and hellfire, dummy! I told you this wasn’t a good idea. But no. Would you listen to me? Why would you listen to a jacked-up fairy? It’s like you have no ears where I’m concerned. And frankly, I’m sick to death of being ignored. Just because I’m small does not mean my ideas are. And this, you stupid, stupid man, was a bad idea. A very big, very bad idea.

As if on cue, there was his conscience. Winston, his ever-faithful, stalwart fairy, always available to give his opinion.

Pressing his hand to the pocket of his flannel shirt, he hushed his beleaguered fairy with a tap of his index finger. Only he could hear Winston, of course, something he still didn’t quite understand the logistics of, but his constant naysaying and reminders of imminent failure were like sharp little thorns in his side.

Okay, so where were they?

Your name, you oaf. Make up a damn name!

Brock instantly held out his hand and forced a smile. “I’m Kanye…er, Winston.”

Kanye? As in West? Like married-to-a-Kardashian Kanye West? Are you effin’ kidding me? Is this what you do while you brood all night, every night, since we found our freedom? Watch reality TV? Winston chirped, his tone judgy and condescending.

Maybe. Okay, sometimes.

But the dank studio apartment he’d managed to hole them up in for a few days while he did some maintenance on the plumbing only had a couple of good channels.

You can beat down the Kardashians, but don’t knock the Housewives, Win. I kinda like Lisa from Beverly Hills when she slam-dunks that Brandi in a British accent. It always sounds so polite when she tells her that her arse is full of shite. And I couldn’t help it, damn it. It was the first name that popped into my head, he mentally whispered back in defense of his grapple to stay focused.

Martine cocked her head, her smile evolving from warm to hesitant when she finally spoke. “Kanye? Like West? Kanye West?”

He rolled his shoulders and gritted his teeth. Running a hand over his temples, he apologized. “Sorry. That’s my middle name. It’s been a long day…”

Winston groaned, the sound of it pinging in his head. Lie down and die now, man. Just give it up, bro.

He needed to get it together pronto. “My name is Eli Kanye Winston.”

That doesn’t sound convoluted at all, asshat. It sounds like a perfectly reasonable name. In fact, if I ever have children, I’m naming them all Eli Kanye Winston.

He tweaked his shirt pocket, squeezing Winston’s tiny leg to hush him while he watched Martine and Derrick process his name.

Martine was the first to react by gesturing to the couch. “Would you like to sit, Eli? Maybe a cup of coffee to warm you while you tell us why you’re here?”

Yeah. The reason he was here. Why was he here? Why hadn’t he just stayed the hell away until he had a better plan?

Because that bitch gypped you and you want a refund? But before you get your refund, you had to come and torture yourself with what you can’t ever have if you intend to keep your part of the bargain with that nutbag she-devil? Because you actually think you can do something to fix this dang mess?

I had to know if it was true, Win, he answered, defending his actions for the hundredth time.

“Eli?” Martine nudged with a question in her tone. “Coffee?”

Brock rolled his head on his neck and nodded, forcing a smile to his lips. “Please.”

Martine grinned and waved a hand toward the living room, before twisting her hair up into a knot at the top of her head. “Grab a seat while I make some.”

Derrick didn’t protest, but he did grunt before following Martine into the kitchen, leaving Brock standing in awkward silence in the living room to cast a glance at the house Derrick lived in.

He’d done a really nice job of renovating since he’d last seen it. Had Martine had a hand in that?

Winston flicked his chest, leaving a sharp sting behind. You’re an idiot. No good can come of this. What message do you have from Brock? Have you given that any thought? Better think quick or that big hulk of a man is going to eat your face off.

Brock remained stoically silent. Win was right. Now what?

He cocked his head to listen to Derrick and Martine in the kitchen, but he couldn’t quite catch everything they were saying. Bits and pieces of terse words like “for a minute there he looked…” and “father” and “no-good sonofabitch floated in the air, followed by “don’t be a shithead and “he smells funny” were all Brock could catch before they were making their way back into the living room, where he still stood in uncomfortable repose.

Martine threaded her arm through Brock’s and led him to a puffy chair while Derrick unceremoniously dropped three mugs on a coffee table, making some of the liquid slosh on the shiny surface. “Make yourself comfortable, please, Eli,” she said through clenched teeth, narrowing her eyes at Derrick.

The weight of what he’d done was beginning to sink in. The impact of it washed over him like bath water. Brock began to back away, looking for his coat. “I really shouldn’t have imposed. I’m sorry. It was wrong of me. I—”

“Nonsense!” Martine said, her voice rising when she pointed to the chair. “You will sit and warm yourself. You’re soaked and I won’t have any friend of Brock’s catching pneumonia on my watch. Drop it like it’s hot. Er, please.” She followed up with another one of her dazzling smiles to cover the force she’d used in her tone as she plunked down next to Derrick on the couch.

Reluctantly, he dropped into the chair facing them, running a hand over his wet hair and accepting a steaming cup of coffee from Martine.

Derrick glared at him over the haze of steam coming from his mug, making sure Brock knew he was displeased by his presence without actually telling him he was displeased—likely he was holding back after a stern warning issued from Martine.

Thus, more awkward silence ensued in all its thick, oppressive glory.

Did I mention you’re a moron? Drink that damn coffee then get the hell out. We need to split before this Derrick makes Christmas dinner fashioned from your intestines.

He knew Win was right. Knew he should just make something up and hit the road, but even as angry as Derrick was, he was still a sight for sore eyes.

Martine leaned forward, her gaze meeting Brock’s from her place on the couch beside Derrick. “So, how do you know Brock and why are you here on his behalf?”

Brock swallowed hard before answering. “Did I say I was here on Brock’s behalf?”

Her head bobbed, but she still smiled. “You did.”

Fuck. He had.

Yeah, Winston chirped. You sure did.

To ease his discomfort, Brock stuck a finger in the collar of the flannel shirt he’d found at the Goodwill store, feeling the room begin to close in on him. “I did. Right.” He nodded his head, gulping more of the hot coffee and ignoring the burn of his throat.

The muscles in Derrick’s arms flexed, going rigid, signally the beginning of an angry simmer sure to boil over any second. “Look, buddy, what’s your deal here? You show up at my house in the middle of the night, claiming you know my father, and now you clam up? Get to the point, and get to it fast before I launch your ass right back out of here and into the nearest snowdrift.”

Martine’s eyes flashed wide when she grabbed Derrick’s forearm and squeezed, her knuckles whitening. “Stop. I mean it, Derrick. Stop. Right now. If Eli has information about Brock, I want to know what it is. Faith deserves to know what it is. Now quit being an asshole or I’ll be spending the night at your mother’s.”

Faith. Jesus, he’d give a limb just to get a mere glimpse of her.

Clearly Derrick wasn’t backing down this time, if the line of his lips and the set of his jaw was any indication. “Leave my mother out of this. The last damn thing she needs is to get her hopes up about my father. He left her five years ago. He left all of us five years ago. End of.”

Now Martine’s eyes flashed hotter than Derrick’s when she slammed her coffee cup on the table and turned to face him. “The hell I will! First of all, don’t tell me what to do, Farm Boy, because you’re scratching up the wrong post if you think that’ll fly. Second, if Eli has information about Brock—you know, the man your mother loves and misses desperately? —I absolutely will not keep it from her, no matter how small or potentially horrible. I have a really good relationship with your mother; one I have no intention of mucking up because you’re a dick about the subject of your father. So sit back, shut up, and get over your own issues long enough to think about someone else besides yourself!”

Brock winced. He didn’t want this. He didn’t want Derrick and his mate to argue over him.

Martine turned to face him again. “Sorry. I’m not going to beat around the bush and tell you Brock Adams isn’t a sore subject in these parts. Because he is. As sore as sore gets. Like open oozing-wound sore. Especially with my mate here.” She thumbed an agitated finger at Derrick. “Despite that, I want to know what you have to say, Eli. Please. And do ignore Derrick while you tell me why you’re here. You’ll do the world and yourself a favor if you just block him and all his crabby out, and focus on me.”

Brock gritted his teeth and gripped the mug harder. “I didn’t mean to cause a ruckus. I shouldn’t have come here,” was all he was able to manage. Partly because he’d never seen anyone shut Derrick up so effectively, and partly because he damn well shouldn’t have come here.

Martine snorted, settling back on the couch. “You didn’t. Cave dweller did. Now forget him and listen to me. So, you said you were here on Brock’s behalf? Where is he? Is he okay? I’ve thought a lot about him since I met Derrick and his family. Everyone always speaks so highly of him, even though his departure created so much speculation. I’ve entertained plenty of my own theories, in light of the kind words everyone uses in reference to Brock. Like maybe he’s been in a coma all this time? Or held hostage by some paranormal terrorist group. I know that sounds crazy, but I just know there’s a good explanation for his disappearance…”

As Martine rambled on, her words becoming a blur of sounds, Brock was hit square in the face with the ramifications of him showing up on Derrick’s doorstep. Slugged in the kidneys with the damage, the pain left in his wake.

And it all became too much. This had been an enormous mistake. He could have found out if the deal with Lorelei really had gone wrong some other way.

Maybe by going to Derrick’s bar and chatting up the locals. Or sneaking around like some skulking loner just passing through Cedar Glen with his ratty duffel bag and errant pocket fairy, listening in while crouched beneath Faith’s or Max’s windows. Anything but this.

“Eli?”

His head popped up and Martine came back into focus. “Um, sorry. You were saying?”

Martine cocked her head to the left and pursed her lips. “I asked how you know Brock and why you’re here in Cedar Glen?”

Winston snickered, the sound muffled by the fabric of Brock’s shirt, before he said, You do know there’s only one thing to do when caught in the glare of inquiring headlights, don’t you, Eli Kanye Winston?

My Bambi impression? Brock asked.

No, doofus. Think “we have ways of makink you talk!” Winston reminded in his best Hogan’s Heroes Colonel Klink impression. You know. Like what to do in case of intense interrogation? Like the stunt we pulled when we were on our way here and that drunken homeless guy in Santa Fe thought you stole his light saber? Think the possum maneuver, brainiac.

Oh, yeah.

“Eli?” Martine repeated, her eyes concerned.

Brock instantly let his face go slack, the coffee mug slipping from his fingers and crashing to the floor. Of course he’d replace it, but for now it was the only way to get out from under the eagle eyes of Derrick and Martine and their intrusive scrutiny.

He let his body slither down off the chair shortly behind the coffee mug, dropping to the floor and closing his eyes just as Martine was rushing from the couch with a yelp to Derrick to help him before he cracked his head on the coffee table.

When all else failed, when you owed money to someone you couldn’t pay, when you were in a tight corner—roll over and play dead.

Winston pinched his chest. Nice job, Kanye. Or should I say kudos, Eli Kanye Winston, aka Brock Adams. Better duck, ’cuz they’re going to lob Oscars at you for that performance. Now about that shitty reality TV you’ve been watching…

Chapter 2

Faith Adams propped her son Derrick’s door open with one foot while juggling the stack of gifts he and Martine had received from the townspeople of Cedar Glen for their mate, grunting as she kicked the door shut on the cold.

She paused when silence greeted her. Craning her neck and scanning the room, she called, “Derrick? Martine? Yoo-hoo, you guys home?” They had said today was a green light for dropping by, hadn’t they?

With a gasp for breath, she made her way to the living room and dropped the packages on the coffee table, flopping down on the big chair, exhausted from the run over here. God, she was out of shape.

Leaning back, she closed her eyes and sent up her millionth prayer of gratitude that Derrick had managed to survive the night of his mating, and that he’d found a mate as perfect as Martine. She loved Martine. She loved that somehow she’d managed to tame Derrick and convince him happily ever after existed. She loved that her son was so happy.

Happier than he’d been in a very long time.

She wiggled her nose as she burrowed into the puffy chair and sniffed the air…

Faith cocked her head, then shook it.

No.

She was crazy. All this mating and happiness had somehow caught her up in its whirlwind of love and romance and she was behaving like a melancholy idiot.

No, she noted, as she turned her head and took another, deeper whiff. She wasn’t crazy. That was definitely the scent Brock used to wear—woodsy, clean.

Tears stung her eyes, tears she immediately gave some hell as she swiped them away.

That smell was not Brock’s cologne, and even if it was, a million other men probably wore it. It wasn’t an uncommon scent.

But the other scent—the human one mixed with the cologne? Now that was odd. Did Derrick have some human friends over recently? Did he have any human friends at all?

She took a deep breath when her phone rang, and gripped one arm of the chair while reaching into her jacket pocket to pull out her cell, finding it was one of her closest, oldest friends in Cedar Glen.

Before she could even say hello, Cass began talking. “Don’t say a word, just listen,” she ordered in her sultry voice.

“If it’s about Gilroy Jones and his dowry of sheep, I’m out, Cass McCormack.”

Cass’s laughter tinkled in her ear. “Oh, stop. You behave as if you don’t remember the old days, when an offer of sheep for your hand in marriage was pretty enticing indeed.”

Her girlfriends were never going to stop razzing her about Gilroy Jones, hat in hand (literally), ringing her doorbell during a girls’ margarita and burrito night two weeks ago, asking her to marry him.

She sighed in exasperation into the phone. “But we don’t live back in those days anymore, Cass. We live in the twenty-first century. We even have this crazy thing called electricity nowadays. I’m not going out with a man who wants to pay my family in sheep for my hand in marriage. I don’t care if he does still have all his original teeth. I’d rather farm rutabagas.”

Cass snorted on her chuckle. “I can’t even believe you wouldn’t look at that as an asset, Faith. Pickins are slim here in Cedar Glen, Lamb Chop. A full set of teeth on a man as old as Gilroy is a mighty fine asset.”

Settling back into the chair, preparing her defense against taking up dating, she smelled Brock again.

No. She was just paranoid. Paranoid and raw from these last few months and the precariousness of her sons’ lives hanging in the balance. Raw because she’d had to face their possible deaths alone instead of with Brock by her side, the way they’d always planned when that awful time in her children’s lives arrived.

“I’m not on the market, Cass.”

“Why won’t you be on the market, Faith? The elders say you can officially find a new mate. Brock’s been gone for five years, sweetie, and that’s just the truth. I hate to see you pine like this. You’re vital and alive and dwelling on the absence of a man who left you and his family with no word since.”

Dwelling. That was fair. She was doing that—she was doing too much of it lately and trying to hide it from everyone. But there were times when she was wide awake in the middle of the night, when she allowed all the fears she swallowed every day to just eat her alive—to wrap their tiny tentacles around her nerves and squeeze until she shook.

Those were the times when her stalwart faith Brock would come back someday wavered the most, swaying like a rocking ship in rough waters. When she had to cling to it like a life raft in order to save face in front of her children.

“Faith? You still there? Or are you sulking because I’m telling you the truth? You do that. You sulk and get quiet when we try to tell you it might be time to move on.”

Never. She’d never allow anyone to see her falter. Not even her close circle of friends. Brock had been the best mate and the best father she’d ever known. Not a chance her children would ever have any other impression, at least not from her—despite her recent misgivings.

Faith closed her eyes and inhaled a biting retort. “I’m not sulking. I’m absorbing this conversation. One we’ve had a million times in the last couple of years. Brock was a good man. I’m not going to shit all over his memory by dating the first man who asks.”

She’d made a promise to herself that Brock’s leaving wouldn’t sway her belief in the legacy he’d left behind. She would not be bitter. She wouldn’t become one of those angry, man-hating women who cursed the opposite gender at every turn. Women who turned into rabid, angry feminist Nazis who grew so mired in their hatred, they twisted everything any male said until it was almost unrecognizable.

Yes, Brock had left to go on some curse-breaking mission he’d shared next to nothing about with her, and he’d hurt Derrick the most when he’d done it, but it didn’t change who he’d been when he’d run their pack. He’d been honest, kind…sometimes rigid and unbending like Derrick, and sometimes quieter and easygoing like Max.

He’d been a good pack alpha. The quintessential diplomat—no one would ever say otherwise as long as she was still able to tell them otherwise.

The silence over the line bit her eardrums before Cass said, “That’s not what I’m suggesting you to do at all, Faith, and you damn well know it. Don’t twist this to suit your own guilt about Brock. Moving on isn’t shitting on him. It’s moving forward.”

She clenched her eyes shut. Damn it all. Cass was right. She was defending an emotion no one was accusing her of having. No one but herself.

“I’m sorry. I’m touchy after the last few weeks with Max and Derrick. I guess I just missed Brock’s support and it’s showing.”

And she missed him with a ferocious ache. The mere mention of her dating, or whatever nonsense her daughters Avery and Nat kept coming up with to help her move on, made her want to crawl into her and Brock’s big bed, drag the covers over her head and never leave it.

They’d given her subtle nudges this last year about maybe moving on, but they’d picked up the pace since reading a letter from council she’d neither asked for nor inquired about, declaring she was officially considered a widow by pack standards and free to do as she pleased romantically.

She didn’t want to date. She didn’t want to make small talk. She didn’t want to have to get to know another man the way she knew Brock.

Could any man ever know her as well as Brock knew her anyway?

When Cass didn’t respond, Faith sighed. “I’m projecting my feelings onto all of you when you just want to help, and I’m sorry. Forgive me?”

Cass’s chuckle was soft. “Forgiven, and while I’m forgiving you, I’m running out the door. I have an important date with the dentist and a crown.”

“But wait, didn’t you have something to tell me?”

“Nothing that can’t wait, honey. Chat soon. Bye!”

The brightly wrapped packages came back into focus under a weak ray of sun as she clicked off her phone, shining in from the opposite windows, reminding her of when Derrick and Brock had built this house together and how much she wished he could see Derrick had filled it with love.

Then she realized she was really being maudlin today—reliving things better left alone. Brock was gone. She was here and growing more pathetic by the second for hanging on to his memory.

And no one would blame her for moving on. No one would likely even stop her. Brock had been gone long enough for the pack to consider a divorce. But…

But what?

But she wasn’t ready to give up hope. Yet she knew it was ridiculous to cling. She knew her pack talked about her situation all the time, which was part of the reason she put on such an outward show of unwavering calm.

Because the crazy she harbored on the inside—the worry, the anguish—could never be seen on the outside or they’d make her seek help. So she smiled. She pretended. She fought her anger with Brock daily, wherein she had entire conversations with him in her mind about exactly how angry she was that there hadn’t been a word from him in five solid years.

Not one.

He’d gone off to try to find a way to break the damn centuries-old curse their boys were under—and any male werepups the boys might have in the future—after becoming so eaten up with worry that neither of them could sleep at night.

Then he’d disappeared, and he’d left all of the worry to her. Every last heart-pounding, gut-clenching bit of worry, she’d shouldered alone, without even so much as a static-filled late-night phone call.

She’d known him almost better than she knew herself. They’d been married for centuries. And the Brock she knew didn’t just up and walk out. Not after everything they’d accomplished here in Cedar Glen.

There was a reason he’d done it. She knew damn well there was…but the reason grew dimmer with each passing day, making the anger shinier, more defined in its color and texture. And that would only make it harder to focus on keeping Brock’s legacy alive and in good stead.

Gifts, Faith. You came to drop off gifts and go back home, remember? You told Martine you’d drop them off today. Now knock it the hell off and get busy.

She slipped off the chair and rearranged the messy pile of gifts, grabbing a discarded T-shirt from the floor and making a face.

Poor Martine. Derrick was still leaving his clothes on the floor. The last thing Martine needed to worry about at this point was laundry. She had a relationship to work on, and Faith wanted her transition into the pack to be as smooth as possible.

Whatever concerns or worries Martine might have, she wanted to at least lighten her load with the trivial things like washing clothes.

Throwing the T-shirt over her shoulder, Faith made her way to Derrick’s laundry room to drop his shirt off in the basket. Then she had really pressing things to do—like plan the next five hundred years of her spinster life while she decided what to make for dinner.

God, she was as pathetic as pathetic got.

Head down, she plodded along the hallway, lost in her thoughts—until she noticed the wet footprints on the floor.

Her senses went on high alert when she heard a noise, but as she passed Derrick and Martine’s bedroom to find the door cocked partway open and the room empty, her defenses went up.

Faith’s eyes narrowed at the rustle of sound coming from the laundry room. Had someone broken in?

Well, someone was in for a surprise. Pausing at the doorway, she heard the slap of bare feet and took a quick peek, catching only a glimpse of sandy-brown hair.

Sandy-brown hair that absolutely did not belong to her son.

She decided the element of surprise was best in order to catch whoever this was off guard.

Knocking the door open with her foot, she growled, letting out a low, throaty warning before taking a running leap and pouncing on the wide back of the intruder.

The completely naked intruder.

* * * *

Faith forced her eyes to the far wall while the no longer totally naked intruder readjusted the towel now wrapped snugly around his lean waist. “And you are again?”

He cleared his throat, pulling one of the pillows from the couch to his chest. “Eli. Eli Kanye Winston.”

Eli Kanye Winston with the wide, thickly muscled back and matching thighs.

“And you’re a guest of Derrick and Martine’s?” she squeaked, turning her gaze to his feet. He had nice feet. Not overly large, sort of square, and his toenails were in good shape, too. Overall, nice feet.

“Um, an unexpected one. I’m leaving today.”

Finally, she forced her eyes to meet his, skipping his mid-section so quickly, it became a blur of bronzed muscle and skin. “Oh, you’re bleeding! I’m so sorry. You just caught me off guard. I wasn’t expecting anyone else in the house and…” And she’d clocked him but good in the jaw, scraping his lower lip with her wedding ring.

Oh, Jesus.

He nodded, pushed his wet, a-little-too-long-for-her-taste hair back from his face and smiled. A warm, almost-as-though-he-knew-her smile. One that stabbed her square in the heart, making it jump in her chest. “You have a good right hook. With a little training, you could be cage fighting in no time.”

She giggled, her face flushing hot. And then she caught herself because she sounded like a flirtatious schoolgirl. One who’d twirl her hair and pop her pink watermelon-flavored bubble gum while she did that smoldering eye thing her daughters did so well.

Making a break for the kitchen, she rambled as she went. “Let me get a wet towel for you and we’ll get you cleaned up. Really, I’m so sorry. I was supposed to drop some things off to Martine and Derrick and when they weren’t home, I was just cleaning up after my very messy son so his new mate…er, fiancée wouldn’t want to pitch herself from the roof of this very house because he can be such a slob and there you were—”

“It’s all right. I understand. You were just looking out for your son. Taking a shot at some strange guy in your son and daughter-in-law’s laundry room is exactly how I would have handled it. If I had a son and a daughter-in-law, that is,” he said from behind her where she stood at the kitchen sink. His voice—low, rumbly, silky and easy—slid along her nerve-endings, creating a delicious frisson of heat.

Faith took a deep breath and grabbed the kitchen towel, running it under some water before flipping the tap off and turning around to find herself but an inch or two from Eli.

Not-quite-naked Eli.

His broad chest was so smooth, the skin stretched tightly over his pecs, his nipples dusky and rigid from wearing nothing but a towel.

She swallowed hard. Wow, he was hot.

Like pass-the-fan-please hot. Nay. Pass two—maybe one of those industrial strength ones.

The next breath she took shuddered—shuddered and almost wheezed, but for her ironclad control. Standing so close to a man so virile was hard. He was the most amazing-smelling human she’d ever smelled.

And he was a human. Bringing up a million questions she’d thus far managed to keep to herself. But Derrick was in for some Law and Order-like interrogation.

Did this Eli know about them? Did he know she was a werewolf? That Derrick was a werewolf and Martine was a cat? She had to tread very carefully. The last time they’d dealt with a human—her son Max’s mate, JC—they’d almost screwed everything up.

If this scrumptious man was Derrick’s friend, she’d better warn everyone he was human before he interacted with others in Cedar Glen.

Eli reached a hand out and placed it lightly on her shoulder in reassurance. Surely it was indifferent, universal reassurance, no different than offering a quick hand of comfort to any random shoulder.

But it felt like everything. More than everything. His hand was wide, tanned, calloused at the palm, warm, exhilarating…and she could never run out of adjectives as she described his hand, which made her beyond pitiable—wretched might be a better adjective to describe her.

Yet, he stole her breath, made her heart pound and her nerves flutter like the shallow flapping wings of a butterfly.

His blue eyes glittered in the weak morning sun, pouring in from the kitchen window. “Really, it’s okay. I’m fine.” He held out his hand for the towel.

Faith swallowed hard and handed it to him. He was so close—so close with his high cheekbones, thickly fringed blue eyes, and strong jaw. He shouldn’t be allowed to be this close to anyone in the history of anyones.

She forced her tongue to slide over her gums and release her teeth from the inside of her lips. “Right. Good. I’m glad. So what brings you to Cedar Glen?” she asked, inching along the edge of the countertop until she was out from under his piercing gaze and away from his half-naked hotness.

Eli’s eyes went from light, to cloudy with a chance of hiding his emotions in a split second as he pressed the towel to his lower lip. “Just passing through.”

How casual and nonchalant. Who just passed through Cedar Glen? But she didn’t want to pry. She’d made it her mission to fringe her children’s lives as much as possible and not interfere unless it was absolutely necessary. Derrick could have as many human friends as he liked. In fact, he could have a whole roomful.

As long as they all didn’t look like Eli Winston. Because her ovaries would have to be removed and soundly run over by a truck to squash this kind of instant attraction.

Brushing her hands together, she vowed not to ask any more questions. “Well then, it was a pleasure to meet you, Eli Winston. If you’re here tonight, I hope Derrick will invite you to our family dinner. I cook, and there’s yelling and laughter, and even some bickering. But I promise the meal will be worth it.”

“I remember—” he muttered, then pulled his words up short, clearing his throat.

Alarm bells sounded in Faith’s head. “Remember?”

Scrunching the towel into a ball, he shook his head as though he were shaking cobwebs from his brain. Then he smiled again, making the deep grooves on either side of his mouth stand out. “I just meant I remember my own family dinner nights. They sound very similar to yours.”

Pressing her palms to the cool countertop, she forgot about her no-questions rule. “So you have family?”

His grip on the towel grew tighter, making the veins in his hands visible. “I did. I mean, I do. It’s just been a long time since I’ve seen them.”

Okay, no more prying. Remove thyself from the kitchen posthaste and take thyself back to thy house and knit something. Knit something to keep your cold libido warm.

But the words he spoke, the tone he used, left her wondering what lie beneath them. They weren’t overtly forlorn, but there was a hint of longing. One she was sure he was trying to hide, and for some random, unexplainable reason, that upset her.

That Eli was forlorn. No one should look so sad when they talked about their family.

Oh, God, she had to go home. “Then I really hope you’ll come to dinner tonight if you’re still here. It was nice to meet you, Eli—”

The front door to Derrick’s house burst open with a gust of wind and snowflakes and her son and his mate flew around the counter and into the kitchen, their hair wild, their eyes full of concern.

“Mom!”

“Faith?”

She hid her embarrassment by wiggling her fingers and smiling. “Hey, you two. Did you forget I was dropping off your mate…um, engagement gifts today?”

“You have no clothes on,” Derrick seethed, his fists clenched.

Faith bristled, looking down at her jeans, her cheeks flushing again. “I do so, young man.”

“Not you, him.” He pointed an angry finger in Eli’s direction, moving toward him with menace.

But Martine latched onto his arm and yanked him back to her side. “Derrick,” she said, jaw clenched. An obvious warning if Faith had ever heard one. Her future daughter-in-law’s face went suddenly bright when she turned her gaze to Faith. “So I see you’ve met Eli?”

Faith moved protectively toward Eli without even understanding why she felt the unwarranted need to protect him—or what she was protecting him from. Yet, she found herself compelled to create a barrier between this man and her son.

She put herself between Eli and Derrick and demanded an answer. “What’s going on here? Why are you treating your friend like he stole your favorite food processor?”

Derrick’s eyes bulged. “My friend? Is that what he told you?”

Faith poked a finger into her son’s chest, signaling him to back up, her brow furrowing as she did. “He didn’t tell me anything. I just assumed. I mean, he was here, in your house showering. What else would I think?”

Derrick clenched his jaw, reminding her so much of Brock. “He’s not my friend, Mom.”

Faith’s eyes narrowed, her lips thinning when she turned to look over her shoulder at a very sheepish Eli. “Then whose friend is he?”

“Derrick,” Martine warned in a low growl. “We discussed how to go about this. Don’t be the bull in the china shop.”

But Derrick shook his head. “There’s no easy way to do this, honey. So here goes. Mom? Eli says he’s a friend of Dad’s.

End of Extended Sample

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