Copyright © 2012 Jodi Redford
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Hope Falls—the closest thing resembling a town in this Hicksville, USA wilderness—consisted of a post office, a grocery store and a bowling alley with a bar attached. The one and only time Lilly had ventured inside the bar, she’d witnessed a couple of local boys going at each other with bowling pins, proving once and for all that a fifth of Jim Beam, a full moon and redneck werewolves were a recipe for disaster.
She coasted into the grocery store’s parking lot and took the first cleared parking space she came across. Winding her scarf tight, she dashed toward the sliding doors. Inside the store, the PA system still piped Christmas music. Someone needed to tell the manager it was the freakin’ end of January.
She yanked a shopping cart from the corral—hopefully not the one that’d reveal a squeaky, uncooperative wheel somewhere around aisle four—and made a beeline for the pharmacy. The selection of vitamins and herbal supplements was woefully inadequate, but she managed to find two bottles of black cohosh. It worked for hot flashes—hopefully it’d help with her damn hormones. Of course, her metabolism would easily burn through both bottles by the end of the week. If things went well, she’d be long gone by then, with the deed to sixty prime acres in hand.
This mission meant everything. She’d be contributing to the advancement of the Lynchat Foundation by single-handedly acquiring the property necessary for building their private retreat. Plus, Kinsey would be forced to eat crow and admit sometimes baby sisters knew a thing or two about wheeling and dealing. That alone was worth all those tense, unpleasant encounters with Dante Morgan.
Well, maybe not all of them.
Her cheeks burning, she recalled the unmistakable bulge tenting the fly of Dante’s jeans as he lay sprawled in the snow earlier. Great, heat was the last thing she needed her body manufacturing more of. She clutched the shopping cart’s handle and wheeled around the corner of the aisle. Her cart bumped noses with another cart exiting the canned-goods section.
“They should consider putting traffic signals in this place.” Lilly’s smile froze in place when the opposing cart’s owner leaned into view.
Dante Morgan propped an arm against the end rack of canned tomato sauce, his biceps appearing impossibly huge within the confines of his blue-and-white flannel shirt. His full, masculine lips lifted in a faint grin, bringing attention to the dimple barely discernable beneath his dark, neatly trimmed goatee. “What’s the matter, Lilly? Cat suddenly got your tongue?”
Like she hadn’t heard that one from him a few dozen times before. Digging deep to steady her nerves, she gave him her most haughty expression. “Using the same lame joke more than once is pathetically unimaginative.”
“Oh, I’ve got a ripe imagination. I just don’t waste it on useless small talk.” Dante’s gaze dipped, lingering on the slight thrust of her breasts under the baggy parka, before drifting lower. “Then again, there’re some things I don’t exactly have to imagine.”
Awareness, hot and dizzying, ricocheted through her. Yeah, she’d have to be blind not to acknowledge he was a gorgeous, sin-on-stick male, but she’d never really thought of him in a blatantly sexual way before today. Well…mostly not. The fact he was an egotistical, chauvinistic werewolf with a major alpha complex usually made it easy to overlook his limited charms—namely his hot bod.
So what made today different?
Hormones. Wrinkling her nose in self-disgust, she attempted to edge her cart past Dante’s. He stubbornly remained blocking her, and she shot him a glare. “Do you mind? I’d like to finish my shopping.”
His gaze flicked down to her cart. “You plan on staying long?”
She easily read between the lines. “What you mean is will I hound you to death while I’m here, and do you have any prayer of making a quick getaway? The answer is yes and no. Respectively.”
Irritation mixed with resignation in Dante’s dark eyes. “Don’t waste your breath. I have no intention of selling.”
“Would you stop being so bullheaded? Unloading sixty measly acres won’t kill you.” Cripes, the guy owned close to a thousand. How greedy could one person be?
His eyebrows slashed low. “No, but having a s**tload of feminist lynchats invading my land will.”
“Is that your problem? You’re afraid of females?” Lilly knew she was needling the big bad wolf, but she couldn’t help herself.
Dante’s lips curled upward, revealing gleaming white incisors. “You’ve got it wrong, baby. I’m all about the ladies.”
The sight of that wicked, predatory grin almost did Lilly in. A tickle started low in her belly, and she grabbed the nearest bottle of black cohosh and wrestled the lid off. Ignoring Dante’s amused gaze, she popped several of the tablets in her mouth and gulped them down dry. She made a face when the god-awful taste didn’t immediately dissipate. “I’ll stop by your house after I drop off my groceries. We can discuss negotiations then.”
He rumbled a low growl. “We’re not negotiating anything.”
“Look, either you deal with me, or the two-hundred-plus lynchats who’ll descend on your property after I make a few well-placed calls.” Lilly cocked an eyebrow in challenge. “Choice is yours.”
A vein visibly throbbed in Dante’s forehead. “Be there by six, damn it.”
Dante slammed the sack of groceries on the kitchen counter, toppling the salt and pepper shakers in the process. He glanced down and caught Chevy’s eager expression. “Boy, you’ve got some nerve begging for treats after the stunt you pulled this morning.”
Chevy’s tail thumped.
“You really have no shame, do ya?” Snorting, Dante pulled the package of jerky from the sack and ripped it open. The loose floorboard outside the kitchen entrance creaked, and he turned as his cousin Shane sauntered inside the room.
“You talking to that mutt again? Think it’s a sign you need a wife.”
A grunt snuck from Dante. “Jesus, you’re as bad as my father with his unsubtle hints regarding Anna Gifford.” Just mentioning her name was enough to give him heartburn. Anna, eldest daughter of the Gifford pack’s leader, would love nothing more than to sink her claws into him and assert her queenly rights as top alpha bitch. He gave Shane a telling look. “Regardless, we both know as long as my father and Anna keep scaring the competition away, no way a female pack member is gonna touch me with a ten-foot pole.”
“The old man’s still trying to weasel the pack merger, eh?”
“Yep. Not gonna happen though. I’d sooner marry Satan’s daughter.” Dante indulged in a wry grimace. “Hell, what am I saying? Anna is Satan.”
“Amen to that.” Shane shook his head before straddling one of the barstools flanking the granite-topped kitchen island. He snagged an apple from the burlwood bowl and polished the fruit with the tail of his shirt. “Weatherman’s predicting a big storm this weekend. Interested in plowing with me and the crew?”
“Damn, I can’t. Got a meeting down state with my distributors first thing Saturday morning.” Morgan’s Wolf Premium Dog Foods was less than a month away from going global. Even while he was ecstatic over the growth of his company, the frequent trips he’d have to make to Ann Arbor were a whole other matter. Morgan’s Ridge was his home. His sanctuary. The one place where his father’s constant demands couldn’t penetrate. Most of the time.
“Your loss,” Shane said, breaking through Dante’s morose thoughts. “There’s nothing like freezing your balls off in subzero temps while shoveling three feet of snow.”
“Always my favorite pastime.” Dante pulled the remaining items from the grocery sack and lined them on the counter. Chevy’s nose nudged dangerously close to the rib eye wrapped inside the butcher paper, and Dante edged the steak toward safety.
“Grilling tonight? Looks like I stopped by just in time.”
“Sorry, no can do.” Dante ripped open the package of oranges and tumbled the fruit into the bowl so they could make neighborly with the apples. “Lilly Prescott is due to show up in less than an hour. Best if you’re outta here before then.” Didn’t need any witnesses if he gave in to his desire to strangle the pain-in-the-ass hellcat.
A strange gurgle popped from Shane. Dante looked up and noticed his cousin gaping at him.
“You’re having dinner with Lilly?”
The suggestion provoked Dante’s humorless laugh. “I’d rather give myself a root canal. Without Novocain.” He tracked Shane’s gaze to the rib eye resting on the counter. “That’s for me and Chevy. Lilly will only be here long enough to state her case for the thousandth time before I send her packing.” Maybe she’d listen this time and stay gone for good. S**t, a guy could hope.
“Why don’t you just sell the land? It’d keep Lilly and the rest of the lynchats off your back.”
Dante scowled. “Whose side you on?”
“Yours, you stubborn jackass.” Shane ducked when Dante lobbed an orange at his head. The fruit rolled on the tiled floor, and Shane lifted from the barstool with a chuckle. “I better scat before you start throwing cantaloupes or something.”
“Good idea.” Dante’s narrowed gaze centered on his cousin’s retreating back.
“Give Lilly a big ole wet kiss for me.” An obnoxious smooching noise shot from Shane.
Gritting his teeth, Dante eyed the bowl of oranges. Lobbing another was tempting—almost tempting as taking Shane up on his suggestion. Bad f**king idea. His lips didn’t need to be anywhere near Lilly’s mouth. Or any other part of her.
His c**k stiffened when he recalled in Technicolor detail the one part of her body that’d been foremost in his thoughts for the past three hours. Without exerting much effort, he conjured the image of her wet, glistening p**sy.
Jesus, it’d been too long since he’d gotten laid if he was obsessing about Lilly, of all people. Folding the grocery sack, he stalked into the pantry. After depositing the sack in the recycling bin, he grabbed Chevy’s chow bowl and scooped kibble from the bin. He drizzled gravy on top and left Chevy to gobble up the bounty.
The metallic thunk of the dog bowl banging against the baseboard provided a noisy backdrop as Dante stored the rib eye in the fridge and ambled to the woodstove. He ignited a block of fatwood and tossed a couple logs on the firebrick. Soon the earthy scent of wood smoke filled the room. Turning, he caught Chevy watching him with his big head cocked to the side. “Don’t give me that look. The fire’s not for atmosphere. It’s damn cold in here.”
Chevy’s curled lip resembled a mocking sneer. Grumbling beneath his breath at his astute and judgmental dog, Dante dropped in the chair fronting his workstation and booted his laptop. He pulled up the file with his most recent concoction and scanned the ingredient list for Chevy’s Chicken Chow. “What’d you think of the diced carrots I added to the last batch?”
A low groan snuck from Chevy before he hightailed it from the kitchen with a scurry of clicking claws.
“No carrots.” Dante deleted that item from the list. For the next twenty minutes he immersed himself in the monotonous chore of updating his recipe files. When the doorbell chimed, he actually jumped at the unexpected sound. Scraping back his chair, he strode across the kitchen and living room, stopping just long enough to nudge Chevy away from the front door. He swung it open and blinked at the sight of Lilly standing on the other side, swaddled from neck to mid-calf in an enormous, poofy silver coat. She reminded him of a Mylar balloon…or better yet, the Goodyear Blimp.
She stomped her feet on the porch, either out of impatience or lack of circulation. With Lilly, he was willing to bet on the former. She blew on her fingers and gave him a peevish look. “What’s with the surprised expression? You did say six, right?”
He glanced at his wristwatch. “It’s only ten till.”
One blonde eyebrow arched. “Look up anal retentive in the dictionary sometime. Might learn something.”
Gritting his teeth, he toed the door closer to the wall. “Fine, come in.”
“Your grudging hospitality leaves me all warm and fuzzy.”
“You’ve got a few things that leave me all warm and fuzzy too.” The words slipped free before he could lasso them.
Lilly jerked to a halt halfway across the threshold. Her icy blue stare pinned him in place. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Get in before all the hot air escapes.” He waited for her to make an appropriate crack and was slightly disappointed when she didn’t. Her sarcastic tongue was precisely the tool he needed to wipe the image of her tempting body parts out of his head.
She sailed past him, and he caught a whiff of sweet floral, underscored by the faintest hint of the intoxicating musk that’d short-circuited his brain earlier in the woods. His c**k stiffened like a divining rod that’d struck pay dirt. He slammed the door shut, rattling the frame. Lilly turned, granting him another imperious lift of her eyebrow.
“Wind caught the door.” Smothering the urge to offer any further lame excuses, he stepped around her.
Fabric rustled behind him as Lilly removed her oversized coat. The imagination she’d accused him of not possessing kicked into overdrive as he pictured her dropping the garment to the floor and standing in his living room wearing nothing but stilettos and a smile.
On second thought, ditch the smile. A snarl was more Lilly’s style.
“I see you still have your Shetland pony.”
He turned and noticed Lilly eyeing Chevy warily. Oblivious of the reaction his enormous size elicited, Chevy continued snuffing Lilly’s ankle with loud, excited snorts. Dante recognized the signs. His dog was two seconds away from making Lilly’s leg his new girlfriend.
“Get your butt in the cage. Now.”
Looking slightly ashamed, Chevy skulked into the kitchen. Despite his annoyance, guilt niggled at Dante. Could he really blame the dog for his natural urges? Dante grimaced. Particularly since he’d been mighty tempted to hump Lilly himself—and not just her leg. Tightening his jaw, he held out a hand. “Here, I’ll hang your coat on the rack.”
Her shocked expression bugged the hell out of him. Christ, it wasn’t like he was some bad-mannered asshole. Yeah, but there were plenty of times you didn’t offer to take her coat, dickhead. He shook off his annoying inner voice. Hell, it shouldn’t be considered bad manners when someone showed up uninvited—like Lilly had insisted on doing in the past. She handed him the coat, and he walked to the antler rack near the front door and draped the garment over one of the points.
“Where do you want to do this?” she asked from behind him.
Something about her perfectly innocent question stirred up all sorts of wicked thoughts. He scrubbed a hand over his goatee. I need to get a f**king grip. “Kitchen.” He didn’t entirely trust Chevy to stay in his cage with the deliciously odiferous Lilly in such close proximity. Still, he trusted himself even less if they sat on the sofa.
Lilly sashayed ahead of him, and his gaze slid down the back of her white sweater, zeroing in on her heart-shaped ass. He knew the enticing sway of her hips wasn’t designed to make his mouth water—but day-um—he loved a female with curves. And Lilly had them in spades. Licking his lips, he followed her into the kitchen. She strode to the dining table and plopped in a chair.
“I’d like to get straight to business, if you don’t mind.” Lilly tucked one knee over the other and pinned him with a stare while he hunkered in the seat adjacent to her.
“Don’t mind at all. In fact, I’ll make it fast and crystal clear for you. I’m not selling.”
Her scowl slipped into place. “You know damn well the sixty acres rightfully belongs to my family.”
“Know what I think?” He leaned back in his seat and casually stacked his arms on his chest. “You’ve got a stick up your butt over the fact your grandfather didn’t know how to play a hand of poker. No one forced him to bet the land.”
Fire flashed in her eyes. “Maybe, but your father had no place egging my grandfather into doing it.”
No. But his father was a bastard that way. Any means to the end Foster Morgan wanted was fair game.
Lilly leaned into the table, drawing his gaze to her chest. “I’ve talked it over with my colleagues. We’re willing to raise our offer by fifty thousand dollars.”
Her words were a hollow drone inside his head. For the life of him, he couldn’t concentrate on anything but the soft breasts showcased above her stacked arms.
“Hello? Anyone home?” Lilly’s sarcasm sailed straight over him.
I wonder if her nipples are the same rosy pink as her—
An outraged gasp broke from Lilly, jarring him from his trance. He lifted his gaze and locked on her sizzling glare.
“Are you ogling my breasts?”
He saw no point in denying the obvious. “Yep.”
His admission seemed to rattle Lilly. It took her a minute to find her tongue. Once she did, her lips pinched together. “What sort of Neanderthal openly stares at a female’s breasts when she’s trying to conduct business with him?”
The kind who’s seen way more than your boobs and can’t get either out of his head. His jaw clenched at the reminder. “Lilly, I’m a male. It’s what we do.”
“You never did it before…” The unspoken part of her accusation hung heavy in the air.
“Honey, we both know the reason why. Don’t blame me because your pretty little sweet spot’s branded in my memory.”
Awareness, hot and thick, shimmered between them. She swallowed, and he tried not to imagine her throat muscles working the length of his c**k. “First of all, don’t call me honey. Or sweet thang. Or sugar t*ts. And the various other sexist caveman comments that make me want to hurl. Secondly, I damn well will blame you.” She gave a pronounced tug on her sweater that did nothing to de-emphasize the tempting swells of her breasts. “You had no right to spy on me in a private moment.”
“I wasn’t spying. You were parked on a public road bordering my land. The scene looked suspicious, so I decided to check things out.” He deliberately omitted the part about charging to her rescue. Didn’t need her thinking he gave a damn.
“Exactly how long were you standing there checking things out?”
Long enough. Again, something she didn’t need to be apprised of. “Babe, I’m going to lay it out for you straight. You took the risk. If you don’t want to advertise an entertaining show, keep the self-lovin’ to the bedroom.”
Lilly’s chest lifted with a sharp intake of breath. Damn, was she trying to kill him?
“I wasn’t giving you a show. Furthermore, your logic is ridiculous.”
“It is what it is. Which happens to be right.”
Dante swore he detected steam funneling from the top of Lilly’s head. “Let me see if I’m clear on this. In your book, any private acts carried on outside the sanctity of the bedroom are fair game for prying eyes, even if uninvited?”
Of course he didn’t think that. “Yep.”
He expected her to argue. Or slap him. Storm out of his house, at the very least. Instead, she remained stubbornly planted in place. For several tense, awkward moments they glared each other down. Finally she averted her gaze and blew out a peeved breath. “The least you could do is apologize, you know.”
A dangerous growl crept from her throat. “For spying on me!”
“Aw s**t. Are we back to that again?” He tossed up his arms. “Damn it, woman, I told you that wasn’t what I was f**kin’ doing.”
“You could have been a gentleman and left once you realized what was going on.”
Yeah, he could have. Too bad he wasn’t a gentleman. “Will it make you feel better if I apologize?”
She hesitated. “Probably not.”
Hell, he’d never understand the female race. “Then what’s the damn point of me saying it?” He tweaked the bridge of his nose. “It won’t miraculously change what happened. You did what you did, I saw what I saw. Let’s be adults about this and leave it be.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one who was caught with their pants down.”
S**t and damnation. This argument was gonna be the death of him. “What do you want me to do? Drop my drawers so we’ll be even?”
She stared at him for a long moment before her lips curved upward in a cagey smile. “Okay.”
He blinked. “Okay what?”
She nodded toward his lap. “Unzip your jeans, wolfman. Time to settle the score.”