Copyright © 2023 by Kimber White/Nokay Press
All Rights Reserved
Please Note: This is an unedited work in progress that has not gone through proofreading. The final, published version may undergo significant changes.
For twenty years I’ve had to listen to how beautiful this woman was when all I could think about is how much I hated her. I could kind of see it now though. The dark arch of her brow against porcelain skin. Full lips in a permanent pout. Black lashes so thick you could hardly make each one out. I resisted the urge to brush away an unruly lock of hair that curved around her temple. The rest of her russet curls fanned out across the satin pillow where she rested.
Yes. Everyone else was right. She was beautiful. Leave it to Diana Dorran to make death look stylish.
I had to see her for myself. It would have been easier not to come. Only I knew what this woman was capable of. A spell. A trick. Had she finally succumbed to the darkest magic? I reached out, brushing my pinky against the back of her cold, waxen hand.
I let just enough of my wolf out, feeling the sharp edge of my fangs, drawing blood against my own lips. Using all my senses, I searched for the scent of her. That crackling energy that could fill the air in her wake. But she was gone. Really and truly gone.
No. This was no spell. This was real, sobering, final, death. Diana Dorran, wicked witch of the Midwest. Her magic had finally run dry.
A firm pat at the center of my back came with enough force to nearly knock me across her casket if I didn’t already have a ferocious grip on the arm rest. Doyle Burnett heaved himself into the space on the kneeler next to me.
“Hey, Doyle,” I said under my breath, tapping my fist against his.
“You’ve been up here awhile, man,” Doyle said. “People are gonna start to talk.”
I looked around. The line behind me snaked through the room, out into the lobby and around the parking lot of Ridley’s Funeral Home. I wondered how many of the throng actually grieved for Diana. Ten? Twenty? Those that came were Chicago’s elite from every faction. The mayor. A former Vice President. Seventeen federal judges including a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice. There was even the head of two of the Midwest’s largest covens. My skin crawled. Besides Doyle, I was the only wolf shifter here. This would be a damn good place for an assassination.
Doyle and I we pushed ourselves away from the kneeler together. I turned and steeled myself for the gauntlet of people in line behind me. I got downturned eyes, tilted heads and fake smiles as many reached out to clasp my hand in theirs.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Such a great, great, lady, your mother.”
“It’s such a tragedy. We’ll keep your mother and your whole family in our prayers.”
“You’ve been such a good son to her.”
I bit the inside of my cheek, straightened my back at every reference. I’d lost my mother, yes. But that was almost thirty years ago. The woman in that casket had no claim on me even though we shared a last name. That was my father’s choice, not mine. Never, ever mine. A political marriage only. A way to unite what was left of the Dorran pack to a powerful coven in the face of threats from the fae.
To this day, I don’t know how my father stomached it. And now, my real mother…my father’s one true fated mate… would lie in a cemetery not far from here while they slid Diana into a marble vault next to my dad. I’d never get away with moving him where he belonged. Even in death, Diana could still take things away.
I followed Doyle down the hallway. He led me past the coatroom and out a side door to the parking lot. We ended up right behind the dumpsters and it was perfect. No gawkers, reporters, or false mourners back here. Doyle reached into the breast pocket of his dark brown suit and pulled out a flask. He offered it to me.
I took it, raised it in salute and downed two quick shots. It would be enough to take the edge off for about an hour and I could have kicked myself for not thinking of bringing my own supply. As it was, I could see the humor in the situation.
Doyle apparently did too because he picked that moment to slap me on the back again and break into his rich, deep bark of a laugh. His inability to keep it quiet had gotten us into trouble when we were kids. “Shit doesn’t ever change, does it?” he said.
It didn’t. It had been at least five years since I’d been back in town. Not since the Shifter War fully ended. Not since they’d opened the borders for good and driven out the the fae once and for all. Chicago was being rebuilt from the ground up.
Doyle had keen gray eyes and a pointed jaw that gave him a devilish quality. He accentuated that by sporting a goatee and thin mustache. His laughing eyes were permanently creased now, but thank God he was here. He knew. I didn’t have to explain to him who the real Dorran pack was. He was there when I buried my mother and sister after a rogue tiger clan loyal to the fae hunted them down and killed them.
“Thanks for coming,” I said, toying with the idea of downing more of Doyle’s bourbon.
Doyle took the flask away from me then and caught up with me. When he finished, we each did another shot to kill the thing and it was enough to make my head good and light. It would only last for maybe an hour though. Sometimes I wished I could just be human for a day.
“You really holding up okay, man?” Doyle asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “I just hate these things no matter who’s in that box.”
Doyle nodded. “Still, I think people are expecting you to be in there with Grayson. Put up a family front and all.”
I had the momentary urge to let my wolf out and punch a dent into the dumpster in front of us. Doyle must have sensed it.
“You don’t have to explain anything to me. You know that. Grayson can still be a dickhead. I get it. But … he is the one who really lost his mother today. You’re gonna have to talk to him.”
“Yep,” I said through clenched teeth. “He’s not even here yet. He’s the only real family she’s got left, I think. Everybody’s in there looking at me like I’m supposed to be in charge of this thing.”
“Yeah,” Doyle said after lighting up again. “A lot of ’em in there were more friends with your dad, maybe.”
I shook my head. I lost my father over ten years ago, though he’d only been dead for seven of them. In the years before that, dementia had eaten away at his memory to the point he hadn’t known who I was. It didn’t have to get that bad. Diana insisted I upset him when I came. He knew he should know me but when he couldn’t remember, he got too agitated, she said. I had my suspicions. Had she cast a spell on him? Weakened him? I could never prove it. Back in those days, it had been too dangerous for me to enter the city limits. Long ago, I’d been labeled a threat by the fae. A subversive. My very presence in Chicago put my father at risk. Too many shifters in one place was considered an act of aggression. As governor of Illinois, Diana Dorran held all the cards.
Doyle stiffened when the next mourners came out of the building in front of us. One woman wore a flowing blue cape and pushed an ancient man in a wheelchair. The man was frail and gaunt with only a wisp of white hair at the crown of his head. But he had keen blue eyes that took in everything through his famously crooked glasses.
“Wow,” Doyle said when they’d crossed out of earshot. “Is that …”
I handed the empty flask back to him as I nodded. “Former President Forsyth himself,” I answered. The man had been installed as a puppet president by the fae in the middle of the Shifter War. He never held any real power. Just the title. I fought to keep my rage in check. How many shifters “subversives” had been rounded up and sent to slave camps under Forsyth’s reign?
My wolf rumbled beneath my skin. It would be so easy to kill him. Avenge the hundreds of innocent lives that had been lost for merely existing. As Forsyth left the building, a black stretch limo rounded the corner.
“Come on, Theo,” he said. “That’s gotta be Grayson. Leave it to him to be late to his own mother’s funeral.”
I walked back into the lobby of the funeral parlor just before Grayson got out of his car. “For fuck’s sake,” I murmured to Doyle behind me. Grayson actually made his driver come around and open the door for him.
“Cut him some slack,” Doyle whispered. “You can handle it for one day.”
I turned and shot Doyle a look, but he wouldn’t back down. Fine, I thought. One day. As soon as I talked to Doyle’s father, the last living member of my father’s old pack– I’d charter the next plane the hell out of Lake Bliss, Illinois.
He stepped out of his limo while smoothing down the front of his black three-piece suit. He looked slicker than the last time I saw him. More confident. I suppose women found Grayson attractive now. He was tall, lanky, with a thick mass of blond curls that he was currently brushing back with a manicured hand. But to me he’d always be a gawky, pimply teenager who followed behind me like an overgrown Labrador Retriever rather than the wolf shifter he was. We were nothing alike. Not physically, not in personality. Yet, I had to stand here again and let people call him my brother.
He saw me. His eyes narrowed for just an instant then widened as he rushed over opening his arms. I slapped him on the back and shook his hand. Cut him some slack. Just for one day.
“Sorry, Grayson. I really am,” I told him. I’d told him the same thing on the phone three days ago when he called to break the news of Diana’s untimely demise. She died in her sleep. A stroke or a heart attack. Never knew what hit her. Grayson had been calmer than I would have guessed. There’d been a hitch in his voice but he had been way more unglued seven years ago when my father died.
“I’m really glad you came out,” he said. “I don’t even know where to start with half of this. If it weren’t for Mom’s staff I would have been lost. I should introduce you to some of them.”
“Later, Grayson,” I said. “You need to get in there. People have been lined up looking for someone to console. Old President Forsyth was here but already had to leave.”
“Right,” he said. There was still something off about him and I chalked it up to the fact that he was about to walk into a room where he’d find his mother in a casket. Doyle was right. Cut him some slack. Grayson was thirty-six years old. I had been sixteen when I had to look at my mother’s lifeless body. But she had died from violence. Diana had been the lucky one.
“Come on,” I said, slapping him on the back again, because I’m not a complete asshole. “We’ll go in together.”
We started to walk and Grayson stopped up short when we heard a woman’s voice calling his name in a low but urgent tone. “Wait. Oh, hell, I’m sorry.”
I turned to place the source of the voice.
She was small. Couldn’t be more than five foot three. She was beautiful, but stood with a fierceness – her back rod straight, her chin jutting up. Her thick black hair hung in a straight sheath around her shoulders. She had pale green eyes rimmed with dark lashes and soft, full lips painted in rose. She took a step forward and extended her hand toward mine.
“You must be Theo,” she said. Her voice was feminine, but deep, with a smoky quality I normally heard from women much older. I couldn’t place her age and I was usually very good at this. Twenty-five? Thirty-five?
“I must be,” I said, taking her offered hand. She shook mine with a firm grip and I couldn’t stop staring. She was working something out behind those almond-shaped eyes of hers. She darted them between Grayson and me and back again. She settled on Grayson and her luscious lips curved into a smile.
Fuck. My wolf stirred. It felt as if an electric current arced between us. My vision went pure white. I knew it meant she could see my silver wolf eyes flash.
“I’m Brynna,” she said, letting go of my hand; she gripped a small black clutch purse in front of her, her body hidden behind a long black trench coat. “Brynna Carrington.” Brynna, I thought, testing the sound of her name in my head. Brynna.
“Nice to meet you, Brynna,” I said. “Are you a friend of Grayson’s?” I jabbed an elbow into Grayson’s side, hoping to jar him out of whatever ill-mannered stupor had overcome him.
“She is,” he chimed in. “She’s mine.” He growled the last bit. His own wolf eyes flashed gold.
Brynna tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and smiled again, but I saw the slightest flinch when Grayson said the word mine. She took a step forward and put a quick kiss on Grayson’s cheek while patting him on the arm. “I think he means to say I’m his fiancé.”
It felt like my heart and my dick went straight down to my shoes. Grayson had a fiancé? And she looked like her? I took a quick check behind me. This seemed like the kind of intel Doyle should have disclosed. It seemed like the kind of thing Grayson should have disclosed.
“Well,” I said, shooting her a friendly wink. “Congratulations. I’m sorry we’ve had to meet for the first time under these circumstances. Grayson, I really think you need to get in there.”
Brynna smiled and stepped forward, taking Grayson’s hand. They walked in together, making their way toward Diana’s casket. The crowd parted and the murmuring died down. I know it was partly out of respect for Grayson, Diana’s true son. But I knew most of the people in that room had their eyes on the marvel that was Brynna Carrington.
I found Doyle quickly enough and jabbed him in the ribs. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me about her?”
Doyle shook his head. “Uh, didn’t occur to me that Grayson hadn’t.”
“How did he? When did he …”
“Score a knockout like that? Believe me, I’m not sure. She’s sweet as hell too.”
“Are they fated?”
“I don’t know,” Doyle said. “Everyone kind of assumes so. Otherwise, what does she see in him?”
She unsettled me. Deeply. Grayson’s driver had made his way behind them and quietly tapped Brynna on the shoulder. She smiled up at him and peeled off her coat. He draped it across his arm and blended back into the crowd.
She wore a bright blue dress with a silver zipper in the back that went all the way down over the curve of her perfect round ass, making the fabric hug her tight. She turned, shook hands, leaned in for quick, meaningless hugs and I couldn’t stop staring at her pert breasts, straining against the fabric of that dress. It was cut square across the top of them; they were barely contained. Why the hell did she wear something like that to something like this?
Good God, I thought. I needed to get a grip, find a woman. She was with Grayson?
“I know what you mean, buddy,” Doyle said at my side, though I hadn’t voiced any of my thoughts. Clearly he was having some version of the same ones. “We’ve all been thinking it since the moment he brought her around. So yeah. Either their fated or Grayson's already marked her.”
White hot rage poured through me at the thought…at the imagined vision of my step-brother sinking his teeth into the base of that girl’s neck. Then, I imagined doing it myself. She would taste so sweet. So pure. I shook my head, forcing the vision to fade.
“Yeah,” I said. “When was that? When did he start bringing her around?”
“What is this, March?” Doyle answered. “Not that long ago, really. Right before the holidays Diana had her annual pre-Christmas fundraiser gala. Grayson brought her to that.”
“Any idea what Diana’s take on her was?” I was dying to know. Diana had a long history of cock blocking Grayson. No one was ever good enough for him. She’d been grooming him for political office since the war ended. She wanted him with future First Lady material. It would never happen, I knew. Grayson was impetuous. Not overtly bright but that alone wouldn’t preclude it. But he wasn’t cut out for politics. He’d always gone along with whatever Diana wanted. I wondered what would happen now that she wasn’t around to smooth things over for him. A part of me felt a little sorry for him. He had no idea how much his life would change.
Doyle shook his head. “She was working as a secretary or file girl or something in Governor Dorran’s..er…Diana’s office. When Diana found out he tapped it, she went ape shit and pulled some strings to get Brynna fired. It backfired though because they’re still a thing. He’s pushing for a quickie wedding. I don’t know, maybe she’s knocked up.”
Grayson and Brynna had made their way to Diana’s casket. Grayson’s shoulders shook but he managed to steady himself with a hand just above Brynna’s ass as they took their place on the kneeler.
“I need some air,” I told Doyle “I really need to get the hell out of here. Any chance I can do that without looking like a dick?”
“Not really,” Doyle said. “But why don’t you go hang out in Ridley’s private office. Third door on the left down the hall. There’s a study in there. Fireplace. Big comfy couch. Think he’s even got a beer-stocked fridge. I’d go with you, but my folks just pulled up. Go chill out for a little while and I’ll come find you. You should say hi to them.”
“You’re a good man.” I punched Doyle in the arm. “No matter what anyone else says.”
Ridley’s private office was as good as Doyle promised. Clearly he used it as a sanctuary away from Mrs. Ridley. The place was lined with stocked bookshelves; he had an ornate wooden desk with a banker’s lamp on it and a small cube of a fridge. At the center of the room was a large fireplace surrounded by plush recliners and a long couch. I plopped down on the couch in front of the fireplace and jammed my thumbs against my eyelids. I had the makings of a bitch of a headache. I hated this place. Hated funerals in general. Hated coming back to Lake Bliss.
I cracked one of Ridley’s beers. Mixed with my earlier shot of bourbon, I was good and buzzed and started drifting off after about two minutes. I had a fleeting thought that I hoped Doyle kept his word and came after me. I was comfortable enough now I might sleep through to the morning.
I might have. But later, something crashing into Ridley’s desk jarring me awake. I would have got up, announced my presence … I swear I would have. But the voices I heard made me freeze.
“Grayson,” Brynna whispered, her voice a sultry tease. “Not now. Not here.”
Grayson growled. “Come on, baby, tell me you did what I asked. Let me feel.”
“Grayson!” she whisper-shouted. More fumbling, the ruffling of clothes.
Grayson growled again. “That’s my sexy little whore,” he said. “No panties for you, ever. Got it?”
“Not now,” she said. More fumbling.
“When?” Grayson whined. “That’s what you always say. Make this easy. Let me mark you.”
My entire body began to vibrate with the urge to shift. With the urge to rip Grayson limb from limb.
Dammit, I couldn’t help myself. I edged up on the couch as much as I dared. I was able to peek one eye over the top. Grayson had Brynna perched on the edge of Ridley’s desk with her legs wrapped around his waist. She kissed him, but something was off. Brynna’s eyes drifted to a point over his shoulder as she kissed him. When Grayson pressed against her harder, she spread her legs even wider, pulled him close to her.
But I saw her eyes. When she didn’t realize anyone was watching, she looked like she wanted to be anywhere else but here. While Grayson was clearly in it to win it, Brynna Carrington was about to fake it.
One hour earlier.
If Diana could see what I looked like today, she’d call me a whore. Again. It wasn’t my choice. I had a cream-colored suit picked out, had even put it on before Grayson made me take it off in favor of the blue dress that was at least one size too small. Now we were late because of it. It made him happy, though. Now, more than ever, it was important that I keep Grayson happy.
The limo driver took the long way because Grayson liked to drive along the lake. He said it calmed him. Today he clearly needed it. He sat beside me wringing his hands between his knees, head down.
I leaned over, running a hand over the back of his head. “Are you going to be okay?” I asked. He tapped out a nervous beat with his heel against the floor of the car. It made his whole body shake. He struggled today, as I knew the two parts of himself struggled for balance. Half wolf shifter. Half water mage. Beings that for years, could not coexist. Maybe I could have felt sorry for him in another lifetime. Not today. Not ever. His family had taken too much away from me.
“I don’t know,” he answered, his voice sounding small, boyish. With every hour that passed since he’d taken the call that Diana collapsed, he seemed to grow younger.
I peered down, bringing my face within an inch of his. I smoothed a hand over the crown of his head; his hair tickled my fingers. He smelled of gin badly masked by mouthwash. “Baby? You can do this. These people are here because they cared about your mother, right? Then they care about you. I care about you.”
He clamped a hand over my knee, digging into my flesh as if I would float away if he didn’t hang on. “Nobody cares about me but you. They only care about her. Her power. Her connections. And not even her. They care that they get credit for making an appearance. They want to see me screw this up somehow. See me fall flat on my face.”
What the hell was he talking about? It was a funeral home.
“The worst part’s almost over, baby,” I said. “There’s just this evening and the services tomorrow and the cemetery. We’ll take it one step at a time.”
“Just don’t leave me,” he said. “Don’t ever leave me. I can manage if you stay with me.” His fingers dug into my flesh. Hot and cold. Sometimes, Grayson literally had ice running through his veins. A contradiction with the part of him that was wolf. I could feel his magic brewing. Volatile. Unpredictable.
I took his chin in my palm, drawing his head up until he was looking at me, his deep set blue eyes filled with dread and hope all at once. Why do so many men in my life look at me with that exact expression? I did what I always do: I tried to give him what he thought he needed. I smiled, caressed his cheek and leaned in to kiss him.
Grayson’s lips were stiff at first, unyielding. But I persisted, drawing him out, pushing my tongue past his lips. It was a dangerous play but he took the bait. He focused on me, his hands coming up, running across my rib cage. He cupped my breasts, pinching my nipples under the fabric of my too-tight dress until I winced, my cry muffled by his lips. I pulled back, panting to catch my breath.
“You’re perfect in that,” he said. “So sexy. Thank you for changing.”
“Your mother would have hated it,” I said and instantly regretted it. Grayson’s eyes clouded over even as his focus went to some distant memory. I needed him present. I put a hand on his knee. “Baby?”
He shook his head. “I say it’s perfect. You’re perfect, Brynna, and you’re mine. I want everyone to see how hot you are. Everyone will be in there and they’ll see. Say it.”
I smiled. “Grayson …”
“Say it.” His tone became more urgent.
“I’m yours,” I said. “You know that.”
“I just can’t believe this!” Grayson shouted, his mood shifting on the dime as his wolf won out. He tore through his hair with his fist.
“I know,” I said, putting my hands back in my lap. “It was so sudden. Have you talked to the coven elders again? Did they tell you anything else?” I hoped I hit the right tone. If Grayson got any angrier I would have to ask the driver to take another once around.
“No,” Grayson said. “You know everything I do. We left her house around eight that night, her housekeeper said she went to bed around nine. She missed her alarm and was dead when the housekeeper went back in to check on her. Some kind of seizure and she stopped breathing. She was too far gone for any spells to save her. They tried. The coven won’t talk to me. They said they don’t now anything and there’s nothing they can do. They’re scared. They’re cowards. They said it was lucky it happened while she slept. If she’d have driven in to work that morning, she could have killed someone.”
“I’m still so sorry, baby,” I said. The limo had pulled up to the curb in front of the funeral home. Grayson was staring off into space and didn’t seem to be aware of it. “Do you still need a minute? We’re here.”
“What?” He looked around. “No, I’m good. Let’s just get this over with.”
Grayson tapped the seat back and made a circular motion with his index finger to the driver. The driver slid out of his seat and came around to open the curb side door. Grayson slid out. I waited a second, thinking he’d offer me a hand to help me out but he was already distracted by something or someone at the funeral parlor entrance.
The driver, a heavyset man named Larry, who I liked very much, gave me a shrug and a half smile as he reached in to help me out. It was a good thing; the dress stretched so tight around my thighs I wasn’t sure I could have managed without crawling.
“Good luck in there, Miss,” Larry said, shooting me a wink. I pulled my trench coat closed and quickened my step to catch up to Grayson.
His back was to me. He had stopped, drawn into a quick embrace by the man standing closest to the door. The two of them started walking away together and I cleared my throat and called out after Grayson.
They turned together and I got my first look at the man Grayson had nearly left me alone for. I already knew who he was.
He turned to face me. Grayson called him his brother but it was obvious to anyone with working eyesight they shared no DNA. Theo was taller, broad shouldered with dark wavy hair that curled at the ends just where it brushed his collar, the slightest touch of gray at the temples. He had an anvil sharp jaw with a deep cleft in his chin. His face split into a devilish smirk as he looked me over with piercing brown eyes like he could already see what was under my coat.
And then his eyes changed. A shiver went through me as I saw his wolf. Just a flash of silver in his pupils. I sensed his strength. His power. My blood quickened as I stepped forward and took his hand. So much heat. It was as if my skin sizzled under his touch. It took my breath from me.
I said my name, I think. I heard Grayson make sounds but had no idea what he said. Whatever it was, Theo’s eyes narrowed, his smile froze before he gave me a quick nod and said it was nice to meet me.
Then Grayson was at my side again. Larry came up behind me as well and gestured for me to let him take my coat. Traitor. He was kind to me but he worked for Grayson. He’d heard the conversation in the car and knew Grayson wanted everyone here to see me in this dress.
I peeled off my coat and handed it to Larry. Grayson’s hand was at my back, pushing me forward as the line of mourners closed in. They said things to Grayson, but they all looked at me. Most of them at least tried to conceal their reactions. The women gave me condescending smiles. Most of the men never made it that far, their eyes plastered at the center of my chest.
Somehow, we made it to the front of the room where Diana lay. We knelt together. Grayson’s hand felt hot against my back and I felt his fingers curl. His claws came out and he dug them into me to keep me there. Even in death, Diana’s face seemed disapproving. I couldn’t help but smile a little at that.
It doesn’t matter Diana. Your opinion was never the point.
I don’t know how I got through the next half hour. Grayson introduced me to other members of the Governor’s staff. Diana’s people. I wasn’t interested in them. I found myself searching the room, looking for Theo. He was nowhere. This surprised me. In the six months since I met Grayson, he brought Theo up a lot. He measured himself against him and I knew he didn’t even realize it. But even without Grayson’s comments, I knew as much about Theo as he did … had memorized the details of the whole Dorran family.
Theodore Edward Dorran, Jr. Thirty-seven years old. Only son of Theodore Sr. and his first wife, Emily Baker Dorran. Aged sixteen when his mother and fourteen-year-old sister were assassinated by a tiger clan during the shifter wars. Immediately afterward, his father had arranged safe passage for Theo into northern Michigan. He stayed in hiding with the Wild Lake Wolves for five years, then joined the resistance. He would have been imprisoned or executed if he’d ever been caught. Theo Sr. had somehow brokered a pardon for him. Somehow…
It was Diana. As Governor of Illinois, she held the power. What had Theo Sr. offered in exchange for the bounty on his son’s head being lifted?
“Brynna.” I jumped when Grayson nudged me with his elbow. “Say hello to Senator Jeffries, and his wife.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, extending my hand. Senator Jeffries looked to be about a hundred and eight years old. His wife, even older. He kissed my hand with dry lips and his eyes never moved up from my chest. Mrs. Jeffries did; she openly scowled at me. The Jeffries were old money. Old power. But human. They’d donated millions during the war to help persecuted shifters and mages.
“Lovely to meet you, dear,” Mrs. Jeffries said, her tone crackling with sarcasm. “I’m sure Diana found you delightful.”
“Thank you,” I said.
The rest of the hour was much the same. They offered Grayson condolences and I got thinly veiled sneers. I could endure it. Let them all look. Let them all judge me. What was Diana Dorran’s heir apparent doing with a mere human girl with no connections? No money. It only mattered that I made Grayson happy. I thought he was, at least with me. But it was obvious that he was growing more agitated at having to stand in a room with his dead mother just a few feet away. He finally said as much.
“I just need a break,” he whispered, nipping my ear lobe with his teeth. “Follow me. I know where we can hang out for a few minutes.”
He took my hand and led me down a darkened hallway. One of the doors had a crack of light underneath and Grayson opened that one, ushering me in before him. It was a cozy office with furniture surrounding an unlit fireplace; books lined the wall from floor to ceiling. Before I could get my bearings, Grayson had his hands around my waist and pushed me backward until I sat down hard on the top of a wide mahogany desk.
“Grayson!” I whisper-shouted.
He wedged his knee between my thighs, parting them.
“I can’t take it, baby,” he said. He had one hand at the small of my back, pulling me toward him, his other hand roamed up my front. He hooked a thumb under the bodice of my dress and set about freeing one of my already straining breasts. “I just need a distraction. I’m going out of my mind in there. I’m going to shift. I can feel it.”
He ran his tongue across the column of my throat, and I put my hands around his shoulders as he spread my legs even farther apart. I put a hand down to steady myself and knocked over a small tin holding pens and pencils. They made a loud crash as they rolled over the desk and onto the floor.
“Grayson,” I said. No. No. No. Not here. Not now.
Grayson nipped at my ear and made a growling noise. “Come on, baby, tell me you did what I asked. Let me feel.”
“Grayson!” He nearly knocked me over the edge of the desk.
Grayson grew more insistent. “That’s my sexy little whore,” he said. “No panties for you, ever. Got it?”
“Not here. We have to wait. You know this. We’ve talked about it. Soon, my love. At Samhain during the full moon. I promise I’ll be worth it.”
I thought I heard a noise. Was someone coming? Was that Grayson’s plan? To have someone spy on him, see me servicing him right here and now? How far would I go to keep him happy? I knew the answer was very, very far and that dark part of me responded, moistening the juncture between my thighs. I could close my eyes and pretend it was someone else. He would never know. I’d kept him at bay for months waiting for the most perfect time to let him mark me. When the moon’s power was at its zenith. When I knew his mark would give me greatest access to his mind.
“Baby,” I said. “It’s okay. I don’t know how you … how anyone could deal with all of this. Give yourself time to process this, okay? I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. We have all the time in the world.”
Grayson backed away from me, his expression unreadable. “I just need a drink or something. Something to take the edge off.”
I bit my lip. I’d seen what Grayson drank before we left. If his edges got any more rounded, he’d be laid out on the floor. I said none of it. I kept my lips in a soft smile as I readjusted my dress and slid off of the desk. I put my hands flat on the lapels of his jacket and leaned up to kiss him. Smile, don’t make him angry. Don’t let him see.
“One more hour,” I said. “Why don’t you go out there and find your brother or one of your friends? Maybe you should plan a guys’ night with them. You’re always telling me how much of a blast everything was when you were kids. You can all shift together. Hunt. Get out in the woods.”
He nodded. “Right,” he said. “I could do that.”
I felt the tension go out of my shoulders.
“Good,” I said, giving him a playful swat on the ass. “Just give me a minute to put myself back together and I’ll join you out there.”
Grayson nodded, reached out and squeezed my breasts one last time before he turned and left me alone. My skin was blotched where he grabbed me. If I went out there now, everyone would see.
As soon as the door shut behind him, I started to tremble. I hadn’t had more than a minute alone since the news came about Diana’s death. He’d been at my side, watching me, testing me, baiting me ever since.
It was then that I noticed a small silver refrigerator in the corner of the room. The kind you’d find in a college dorm. There were liquor bottles on top of it. I crossed the room and grabbed a vodka bottle. My fingers were shaking as I unscrewed the lid and downed a shot. It was cheap, it was awful, it was perfect. I took another shot and headed for the couch. The second shot started doing the trick. I felt it warm in my belly and spread, dulling me. I just needed a few more minutes. Would one more shot be too much?
I stepped around to the front of the couch, intending to sit, and got a hell of a shock. I wasn’t alone. Theo Dorran slowly rose to a sitting position, his face flushed, his eyes flashing as his full mouth curved into a smile.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice deep and rich, sending vibrations through my already frayed nerves.
“Why didn’t you say something?” I asked.
He stood, shaking his head. “That wouldn’t have been very tactful, would it?”
He had me rattled. “Who are you hiding from back here?”
His smile dropped and I regretted saying it except I wanted to know the answer. Theo took a step toward me. We were close, just a few inches apart so I could feel his breath coming hot. I had the urge to touch his face. Run my fingers along the rough stubble that was beginning to shade his square jaw down the line of his chin to the sexy cleft he had there. His brown eyes flashed to silver. In my mind’s eye, I swear I saw his wolf. Huge. Gray. But no, that wasn’t possible. I shouldn’t be able to sense him like that. Unless…
“I could ask you the same question. I’d say you hated it out there as much as I did.”
Careful, I thought. I must be very careful. “People have ideas about me,” I said. “Grayson and I haven’t been together very long and his mother was very … um … protective.”
The laughter came back into Theo’s eyes and I found that I loved it there. Careful. Be very careful, indeed. “His mother could be a stone-cold bitch,” Theo said. “I can imagine what she thought of you.”
“Really? And what do you think of me?”
“Why do you care?” He took another step forward. Theo was close enough that I had to crane my neck up to maintain eye contact. He was so much taller than Grayson. If I stepped into his arms, my face would only come to his chest level. And I thought about what it would feel like to step into Theo’s arms.
Something must have showed in my eyes because Theo’s expression changed. Alarm bells went off in my head and it seemed harder to breathe. What would he do if I touched him? What would I do if he touched me? I felt beads of sweat forming at the center of my back. Could I draw him in too? Would that be the smart play?
“You’re not exactly the kind of girl I pictured Grayson would end up with.”
“Brynna,” he said. “That’s an interesting name,” he deflected. “How did you meet Grayson?”
I’ve been through this gauntlet before, but right now, standing this close to Theo … the last thing I wanted to do was talk about Grayson. It was the alcohol, I told myself. I was losing focus. The smart thing to do would be to turn my back and walk out of here. “Office romance,” I answered. “I got hired as a filing clerk at the Crane Law Firm.”
“Ah,” he said. “That’s the rumor I heard.”
“I’m sure you’ve heard plenty,” I said.
“When’s the wedding?” Theo asked. My heart tripped in my chest. Something about the way he looked at me. Like he could see right through to every lie I told, could lay me open with just a glare. I needed to get the hell out of here.
“Samhain,” I said. “Three weeks. We want to do it under the full moon.”
Theo bared his teeth. His whole body began to rumble. “You’re going to let him mark you right away?”
“Grayson doesn’t want to wait,” I said.
“Hmm. I don’t believe I got my invitation to the ceremony.”
“An oversight. Easily corrected. Does that mean you’re staying in town that long?”
“For a little while,” he answered. “There are some things I need to clear up with my father’s affairs now that Diana’s passed.”
It was the right question to ask. Theo tried to cover it by flashing a smile, but I saw something darken his eyes for just a brief second when he spoke of his father. I knew about the bad blood between Diana and Theo over his father’s affairs. I didn’t think Theo had any of the information I needed, but before he left town I would have to make sure. I could figure out how later.
“Well, I’m glad,” I said. I took a step back from Theo, exploiting the opening so I could end this conversation without him turning those inquisitive, wolfish eyes back at me. “Grayson and I would love to spend some time with you before you go. Since it looks like I’m about to become your sister, in a manner of speaking.”
That seemed to unsettle him and I knew well enough to quit while I was ahead. “It was very nice to meet you today, Theo.” I leaned forward to give him what I thought would be a quick, sisterly embrace. He responded, pulling me against his chest for just the briefest of seconds as he leaned down to kiss my cheek.
His touch seared me and I pulled away, but half a second later than I should have. I smiled awkwardly and headed for the door, not daring to look back at the penetrating eyes of Theo Dorran.
When Brynna Carrington turned her back and walked out of the room I was sure of two things. One, she wasn’t in love with Grayson. Two, I wanted her. What I would have to decide is which of those two things I might dare to do something about.
I was still thinking about her when Doyle made his way back to the study to find me. From a distance, Brynna Carrington looked the part of the trophy that I now realized Grayson made her up to be. That dress: it was just the kind of thing Grayson would have picked out so he could show her off. She was smoother, cooler and smarter when you saw her up close. I couldn’t stop thinking about her pale skin. She had a dusting of small freckles across her chest where it showed above the top of her dress and I wanted very much to know how far they went down.
It was one of the mysteries about her I wanted to puzzle out. Twenty minutes earlier, if Grayson had asked me to stick around for the wedding, I would have found a way to blow him off. I wanted to meet with my father’s former lawyer and get the hell out of Dodge. Now, I could think of at least one reason why I might extend my stay for at least a day or two.
“You about ready to head back out there?” Doyle poked his head through the doorway. I picked up the bottle of vodka Brynna left behind and set it back up on Ridley’s fridge.
“Yeah,” I said, still staring at the bottle. The rim bore a small pink smudge where Brynna’s lipstick had brushed off. I ran a thumb across it to wipe it away.
“You okay?” Doyle knit his brows together.
“Yeah,” I said again.
“You sure, man?” Doyle persisted.
I shook my head, trying to clear it from thoughts of Brynna’s scent, how she felt when she pressed against me for that brief instant when she leaned in to kiss me. I wanted to feel more of her. I reached down and adjusted my fly. It wouldn’t do well to walk back out into the funeral parlor sporting the hard on that I knew would come if I kept up this line of thought.
“Yeah,” I answered Doyle again, reaching back to flick off the lights to Ridley’s study. When we headed down the hallway, I was sure of one more thing.
I wasn’t done with Brynna Carrington.