Once he’s over the initial shock of hearing his father hasn’t been dead for the past twelve years, J.D. Decker vacillates between joy and anger until he returns to Los Lobos to find the father who sent him away threatening Bree Redmond, the only other person he’s ever cared about as much. After years of living under a harsh alpha, Bree Redmond is intent on experiencing everything life has to offer and ignoring her family’s wishes that she settle on a mate and help rebuild the Tao pack. When J.D. Decker jumps out of his truck and back into her life, she realizes why she’s never been eager to settle. One look at J.D. and independent-minded Bree is howling at the moon and questioning her usual need for nothing more than a sexy romp in the woods. The handsome construction worker is a blunt force and rough around the edges, but he ignites all of her deepest desires with his single-minded determination to claim her.
Bree’s family isn’t happy about her budding romance with the son of a man they feel is responsible for the death of one of their own. Old wounds are reopened, and as tempers flare, Bree must decide whether to let a dark secret from the past separate them, or defy her family and accept J.D. as her mate.
Ray Decker’s red-rimmed eyes narrowed to angry slits in his gaunt, rage-twisted face, and Bree Redmond knew she had maybe two minutes before her furious neighbor started to grow fangs. She might outrun the older, three-pawed wolf, but he’d lived long enough still to have a trick or two up his sleeve.
She cautiously lowered the heavy, brown wicker picnic hamper she’d carried two miles, and hoped the rotted boards of the wide front porch she stood on didn’t collapse.
If possible, he looked worse than he had a week ago when she’d left a pot of vegetable soup, a loaf of freshly baked bread, and a dozen chocolate chip cookies. Two days later, while she’d been out, he’d returned her sparkling-clean kettle, along with a small packet of generic ginger snaps. She’d taken it as a good sign, but she’d been mistaken.
A slight breeze whipped his shoulder-length graying hair over his sharp, pale cheekbones and dry lips. His tattered flannel shirt and baggy gray pants hung off his lean frame, making him resemble a weathered scarecrow, long past its prime.
“Why do you keep coming around here? I don’t need your pity, and I damn sure don’t need your charity.”
“Think of it as my way of being neighborly, Mr. Decker. I thought you might remember me from when I spent summers down the road, with my Aunt Edie. I usually make more than I can eat. I figured, why not share?” She smiled and tried not to feel discouraged when he didn’t bother returning her attempt to be friendly.
Ray shook his head and sneered. “Did Gunnar put you up to this? Spy on the crazy old man, so his mate stays safe?” His growl surprised her. He took a step forward and raised his fisted left hand. “Just leave me alone.”
Oh, hell. She inched back, but she wouldn’t be able to go much farther without smacking the railing. She should have waited until he wasn’t home before she’d left another offering.
“Nobody put me up to this. Luna understands why you were angry when she came home, but she isn’t responsible for what Magnum ordered her father to do.” She forced herself not to glance at the empty cuff, where Ray’s right hand should be, and realized his attention had shifted to the sound of grinding gears and a laboring car engine.
An aged, rust-pitted, light-blue pickup with a black hood and green driver’s side door, with a dirty, white camper shell covering its bed, turned into the yard. The thing appeared to be held together with bubblegum and baling wire. The windshield wipers had swiped a mud-streaked half-moon and must have allowed the driver to see at least a portion of the road and enough of the yard to stop before he reached the porch steps.
The driver, nostrils flaring, barreled out of the truck as soon as the engine died. Bree glanced at the lean, dark-haired man wearing worn jeans and a clean white T-shirt, and experienced an unsettling moment of instant recognition. The same dark, curly lashes surrounded his smoky topaz eyes, but time had carved cheekbones into the youthful face she hadn’t seen in twelve years.
His mouth worked for a few seconds, and then he yelled, “What the fucking hell!”
Wherever he’d been, he’d acquired some interesting vocabulary skills.
His fist still raised, Ray glared at the interloper, and she knew he didn’t realize who’d challenged him.
“Jacob Donovan Decker.” She sounded like a schoolmarm addressing him by his given name instead of J.D., but she would have done anything to break the tension.
Ray’s glare withered. He lowered his arm and smoothed his good hand over the wrinkled placket of his grubby, dirt-brown flannel shirt, but nothing would make it cleaner or less wrinkled. He opened his mouth. Nothing came out but a short, shallow hiss. A study in abject misery, he slumped against the battered screen door and hung his head. His chest heaved in an attempt to stifle a sob.
J.D.’s confused gaze settled on her for a moment, and he raised one dark brow. “Hello, Briana Hortensia Redmond. You want to step off of the porch and tell me what the hell is going on here?”
“We were discussing the merits of being neighborly. If you want to know anything else, you’re going to need to ask your father.”
She sidestepped the hamper, and Ray mumbled, “Take your stuff,” as she passed.
“J.D. can return the basket when you’re finished. There’s plenty for both of you.”
He slipped inside the cabin and let the screen door whoosh shut behind him.
Without being able to focus on Ray, she didn’t have an excuse for avoiding the calculating gaze of J.D. Decker. Judging by his expression, he hadn’t forgotten how, when she’d turned twelve, she’d caught him skinny-dipping and stolen his clothes. Of course, she hadn’t forgotten he’d planted a sign in her front yard declaring she had freckles on her butt, either. Their war had lasted all summer. By the time fall had arrived, their childhoods had been swept away by a budding attraction neither had acknowledged and the reality of how dangerous life in the Tao pack had become.
“Where have you been?”
“Wherever I could find work and someplace to run. Imagine my surprise when Drew Tao tracked me down and told me my father needed me. Something the man himself has never bothered to do,” he shouted, loud enough for someone in the next county to hear.
She glanced at the door but couldn’t see Ray. “Look, things got bad around here for a long time. After you left—”
“He sent me away.”
Ray had never explained J.D.’s disappearance, but it had probably kept him safe during those mad, bad times. “Then you were lucky.”
His angular jaw firmed, and she got a glimpse of how handsome Ray must have been at twenty-five.
“I’ve spent twelve years thinking the only reason he didn’t come after me was because he was dead. Still think I’m lucky?” His fury simmered below the surface.
She couldn’t imagine coping with the pain of losing a parent now, let alone when she’d been a kid, but he’d missed the point. “Since you’ve been gone, we’ve all learned to be grateful for every piece of happiness we could manage, so yes, I think you’re lucky. You still have a father you thought you’d lost, but he needs help. He isn’t eating, and I don’t think he’s sleeping. I thought I was making a little headway by getting him to accept an occasional pot of soup or plate of cookies, but I guess not.”
He frowned, and his gaze drifted toward the cabin. “How long has he been like this?”
“Since Luna Sinclair came home.”
“What’s Luna Sinclair got to do with all of this? Drew would only tell me he had part of the story, and he wants it all.”
“I suggest you ask Ray. Without his side, anything I tell you would only be speculation, and I think he deserves more.”
“Did it occur to any of you his part of the story might be a place to start?”
“Has it occurred to you only knowing part of the story might be the problem?”
J.D. watched Bree for the few moments it took her to stride across the bare yard and reach the rutted lane leading to the cabin where she’d spent long-ago summers with her Aunt Edie. The faint sweet scent of vanilla, apples, and caramelized sugar clung to her skin and swirled through the hot summer air with enough energy to make him dizzy.
She looked like a gypsy, with her silky dark hair held away from her face with a lime-green bandanna, and her purple tie-dyed skirt brushing her turquoise cowboy boots. He could hear the tiny bells on her bracelets as she waved farewell. An uncertain grin curved her full mouth, and the mischief he remembered always lighting her big dark eyes had been replaced with concern.
Bree had been the first female he’d ever been viscerally aware of, and he’d held onto the memory of their innocent time together, until he’d realized he’d probably never return. His reaction to seeing her threatened had shocked him. He’d literally seen red and wanted to tear apart the man who’d dared raise a fist to her, until he’d realized it had been his father.
He hadn’t wanted to believe the father he’d remembered for the past twelve years had turned into a monster, but the angry old man he’d confronted might fit the bill.
Solving the mystery of why his dad had gone off the deep end and snapped after all this time had been Drew’s only reason for calling him home. He could stay afterward, but the choice would be his. Why wouldn’t he want to stay in Los Lobos? It had been his home for the first half of his life.
Sick of wandering and never belonging, he’d always wondered why his father had roused him in the middle of the night twelve years ago, ordered him to run with fifteen-year-old Finn Somers, and not come back unless he sent for them.
He trudged up the rickety steps of the home he’d lost hope of ever seeing again, hefted the wicker hamper, and resisted the urge to smooth his fingers over the door’s peeling paint and mended screen—tattered and battered, like the old man inside.
His father had built the two-bedroom cabin with its open kitchen and living area as a present for his new mate, and crafted most of the furniture, including the scarred, pine kitchen table where he sat now.