Chapter One

Some mistakes sneak up on you like a mosquito, sucking you dry, and you don’t realize it until it’s too late. Others, Candy thought as she juggled the shoes and purse in her right hand while pulling the bedroom door closed with the left, hit you like a Mack truck. The blond, beautiful, and funny man she’d left lying in bed was the latter variety.

The bedroom door closed with a soft click, and Candace Murphy finally exhaled, but not too loudly. No… Mr. Sexy Cat-Man might spring out of bed and keep her in his admittedly kick-ass flat. The sleek bookcases filled with actual record albums, books, and pictures of his family were cool, but her favorite were his barstools shaped like giant cupped hands. Quirky and a tiny bit weird. Just her style. Which was exactly why she had to get out of there.

Walking into the midst of hungry carnivores dressed like a juicy steak last night had been intentional. Candy’s mission when she sashayed through Sanctuary’s doors was to get laid and forget her loss for just one night. Sanctuary was a bar. How hard could it have been? But that man behind the bedroom door had been the wrong man. Not because he’d been anything other than perfect. Not because in the one night she’d known him, Wyatt had managed to make her laugh and push every one of her buttons, but had remained a champ when she’d given him shit back.

No, Wyatt Edwards was the wrong man because he made her feel again, when all she wanted to do was forget.

One look at the silver pen and pad set on his desk sent a twinge of something close to guilt through her, because she sure as hell hadn’t planned on wasting any time executing her great escape. But he deserved a note. He’d been kind, funny, charming, and unfortunately—a perfect gentleman. Yeah, screw the note.

Candy had finally reached the door and unlocked the bolt when a pair of strong hands appeared on both sides of her head. Then a mere two seconds later, six feet of lean muscled man pressed against her back.

Why did he have to smell as good as he looked?

“Good morning.” Wyatt pressed a warm, wet kiss against the side of her neck. “Please tell me you felt at least a little bad sneaking out of my bed.”

“I didn’t want to wake you.” She plastered a fake, hey-new-friend smile on her face and turned. Big mistake. Mr. Perfect was shirtless, reminding Candy of what a hot piece of man-meat she was walking away from. Candy looked up into a pair of stunning eyes that reminded her of a brown topaz pendant she’d picked up at an estate sale. “Well, you’re here now, so goodbye.” She nodded expecting him to back up.

He didn’t.

Then Candy made the mistake of looking at his mouth. That wicked, beautiful, and very talented mouth and sighed.

“What was that for?” One side of his mouth quirked up.

“I have a ton of things to do today. The movers are coming in a couple of days, and I’m already behind schedule.”

“Let me get dressed. I’ll help.”

“Absolutely not.” She slid her arm through her thin purse strap like it was seduction-resistant armor.

“Chicken.”

“Look,” she said, leaning the back of her head against the door and trying not to act like a besotted fool. “I’m not good at the hookup thing. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”

“Not an issue.” Wyatt rubbed the side of his eye, and it made him look younger, more vulnerable. “Plus, I’m pretty sure hookups include sex, so you’re still not good at them.”

“About that—”

“Is this where you tell me I’m a nice guy.”

“Oh, you’re not nice—not at all.” Candy smiled, remembering the dancing and shots of tequila. Impulsively, she kissed his slightly pointed chin. “I had a wonderful time last night. Thank you.” Placing her hand on the short light blonde hair on his chest, Candy allowed herself one last touch. “But I have to go.”

“Two questions,” Wyatt blurted out.

“Then you’ll let me go?”

“Just tell me there’s no one home waiting on you, wondering where you are.”

“It’s a little late to be asking that isn’t it?”

“We haven’t done anything bad enough to send you to confession.” He bit down on his lip “Yet.”

“Maybe according to the logic of Wyatt. But how would you feel about me waking up with another man?”

“You wouldn’t need to be with another man. I’d bust my ass to make you happy.” He ran his hand across one of her two flat braids. “Nice. So why were you sad last night?”

“I wasn’t sad. I was drunk.”

“Not at first. What were you trying to forget?” He tugged the dangling end of her braid, then wrapped it around his finger. “Or should I say who? I can kill him if you want.”

Candy jerked as if she had been punched. Unknowingly Wyatt had just delivered a right jab to her heart. Before she could stop herself, she whispered, “Too late.”

He was already dead…

They all were.

Bryce, her lover and friend, along with his team had gone on one last mission without her and had never returned. There was no mending the wound his absence left in her heart. There wasn’t enough booze or sex to wipe his memory away. Because she sure as hell had tried. A couple of guys over the last ten years had wanted to make a go of it, have a real relationship, but no matter how hot the sex, her heart remained untouched.

“Oh, sweetheart.” Wyatt took her purse and shoes and tossed them to the side, then enveloped her in what had to be the best hug she’d had in years. “I’m an ass. I’m so sorry.”

What kind of shifter voodoo did Cat-Man wield? Once again, she couldn’t stop herself. Candy planted her face against Wyatt’s chest, squeezing her eyes shut, needing that dam to hold tight, because once she…

A lone tear escaped, rolling along the side of her nose before tracing the curve of her lip. Then it was over. Candy shuddered, and the pain she’d shoved deep down in the recesses of her soul escaped like a weed bursting through concrete.

“It’s okay. I got you,” Wyatt whispered, then gathered her in his arms as if she weighed no more than a bag of sugar. “I know what it’s like to lose someone you love, but I had people to share my grief.” He sank down onto the mahogany-brown couch. “I get the feeling you didn’t.”

She wasn’t sure if he wanted an answer, but she wrapped her arms around Wyatt’s shoulders, tucked her face against his neck and shook her head.

“I’ll be your person, if you’ll allow me,” he whispered, then kissed the side of her head.

That was all it took. Ten years of pain and longing, one hundred and twenty months of what-ifs leaked not only from Candy’s eyes, but from her soul. She refused to believe that memories were a terrible thing, but the agony… the agony was like a boil that had grown and pressed against her until she needed to have it excised.

How long they sat on the couch, Candy wasn’t quite sure, but as the tears slowed, she felt freer, lighter, and absolved of the guilt she’d not confronted until that afternoon on a stranger’s couch.

She’d been their pilot. Candy was supposed to fly the last of the team’s missions before they separated from the Army, but for some reason that hadn’t happened. A small part of her believed that if she’d been there, the crash could have been avoided. Not because she was a better pilot, but even back then, Candy had premonitions—knew things.

Things like the team shouldn’t have stepped foot onto a helicopter without her at the stick.

“How you doing?” her sexy savior asked.

“Better.” They were lying on the couch now, with her resting on top of him. “I bet you wish you would have let me leave.” Candy wiped her eyes and whispered a small prayer of thanks that she hadn’t snotted all over him.

“Not a chance.” Wyatt’s hug tightened before he kissed the top of her head.

That felt nice and his arms safe. It had been far too long since she’d allowed anyone close enough to be comfortable sharing vulnerable moments. Maybe it was time to let go of the guilt and the grief. She hadn’t died with Bryce and Shane. Maybe it was time to start living again.

“I know you have a busy day ahead, but what about your night? I’d love to cook you dinner or take you out to eat if you prefer.”

Candy pushed up and looked down into Wyatt’s kind, handsome face. He was everything Bryce hadn’t been. Even though Sacramento was landlocked, Wyatt had the whole tousled blonde hair, tawny-eyed surfer boy thing going on, whereas Bryce had been darker and dangerous in a way that people had teased him about always measuring his adversaries for a coffin. Despite Wyatt’s almost happy-go-lucky attitude, she suspected a layer of steel lay behind that smile. And damned if it didn’t turn her on.

“What was that look about?” One of his dark-blonde eyebrows quirked up.

“Don’t be so suspicious.” Candy laughed, and it felt… real. She rubbed her nose against his and wanted to do something that she could afford or risk. Allowing Wyatt to sweep her off her feet and give her the fairytale, even for a little while, sounded tempting.

Too bad happy-ever-after wasn’t in her future.

But hey, happy-for-now was almost as good. Candy pushed herself up, holding her torso up with her arms. This was a man she wanted to know. Even if they didn’t work out, which they probably wouldn’t since shifters tended to mate and marry their own, Wyatt could be her training-wheel relationship. The rebound guy. “If you’re not working, I’d love to spend the day with you. I can finish packing tomorrow.”

“I’m going to make this the most memorable day of your life.”

“I bet you will.”

Chapter Two

When the elevator doors slid open, Wyatt wrapped an arm around Candy’s waist and led her into the garage beneath Sanctuary. The Sacramento Pride may not have been the richest shifter group in the area. Hell, they were solidly blue-collar, upper middle-class business owners, but thanks to the bar, solid investments, smart improvements, and strategic alliances, the pride was one of the most powerful groups in the city.

Row by row, the sensor activated fluorescent lights clicked on as they moved deeper into the garage.

“Does having your work and private life in the same building get old?” Candy asked, looking around the side of the garage that held the pride’s vehicles. “I mean… it’s probably super convenient for things like picking up women.”

Her voice held a playful tone, but it didn’t take a nuclear physicist to know she thought he was a player. “To answer your first question, it has its advantages. Unfortunately, it makes it too easy for everyone to find me when something goes wrong. In a bar, it happens frequently.”

“I bet.”

“As far as the second part,” Wyatt stopped by a black Ducati and pulled Candy in front of him cupping her neck with one hand while gripping her waist with the other, “I’m no saint, but I don’t use the bar as my personal meat market.”

“You don’t owe me an explanation. I planned to use you for your body too, remember?” She turned her head and dipped her face, placing a kiss on his wrist.

Wyatt wondered if she knew that allowing a kiss on a vulnerable area like the wrist or throat were signs of trust amongst most shifters and supernatural groups. It sounded corny, but Wyatt knew the moment he spotted Candy, that he wanted her on the back of his bike. And in his bed. He was just glad it had happened sooner rather than later, and that they’d made it to his bike without sex complicating matters.

He just… liked her. Of course, the fact that she had the most perfect heart-shaped ass he’d seen in ages was a bonus.

“I hope speed doesn’t scare you.” He winked, then jogged to the cubbyholes holding mostly motorcycle helmets. Candy’s excited laughter followed him. Watching the unbridled joy in her eyes made his chest do funny things. Wyatt always thought the whole recognizing your mate the moment you saw them was bullshit. Now… not so much.

“I take it that’s a yes?” he asked when he stood in front of her again.

“Sweetheart, you have no idea.” She ignored the helmet he offered and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Of course, if you let me drive, I could show you better than I could tell you.”

“I don’t think so.” He chuckled at her crestfallen look. “Tell you what, when we get out of the city, if you can handle her, I’ll let you take my baby for a spin.”

“You’d be surprised at what I can handle.” Candy took the helmet and slipped it on. As she fastened the straps she said, “Just so you know, I plan to take you for a spin later, too.”

“I have no problems with that.” Wyatt smiled, nodded, then said, “None at all.”

Chapter Three

Bryce stood on the back porch of the pack house, not seeing the rising peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, nor the trees and cabins on the two-hundred acres he called home. No, watching the motley crew he considered pack and family was what filled a chunk of his heart with pride.

Even the jackasses unfortunate enough not to be born wolves. That made Bryce chuckle. Barron, Alexander, and their mates had long ago declared that bears were too cool to be in a pack. Yet somehow they rarely missed barbecues, runs, or the mandatory weekly pack breakfast.

“Oh mighty and benevolent alpha, are you going to come play, or just gonna hang out up here looking like king of the mountain?” Rose, looking like a red-haired Valkyrie, grinned up at him from the yard.

“About time you acknowledged my greatness.” In a pack filled with former Special Forces soldiers, Rose held her own. Hell, she did more than hold her own, she helped come up with innovative ideas to reinforce their lands, some of them magical. The wards and traps Rose and some of the women placed around the property were both practical and fantastical.

Rose took the six porch stairs two at a time before coming to a stop beside Bryce and nudging his shoulder with her own. “Sorry to break it to you, pal, but you’re only in charge because the women took a vote and decided your wolves needed too much work.”

They both laughed, a frequent sound around the pack these last few months. Not that the men hadn’t been content before the Norcal Pack adopted Rose and her group of human women, but the influx of estrogen had altered the dynamics—in a good way.

“How’re you doing?” Bryce smiled down at the no-nonsense woman and felt a not so pleasant twinge of jealousy that one of his closest friends had found his mate in her.

“I’m good.” Rose shifted, half sitting on the thick white railing, one leg dangling. She chuckled and pointed at her very pregnant sister, Iris, glaring up at her mate Barron. “Way better than him, the poor bastard.”

“Don’t feel sorry for him, he probably deserves it.” Bryce jerked his chin. “Plus, look at him. He’s loving every minute of it.” Iris, with her dark hair and the sweet half-sleeve of tattoos on her arm, reminded Bryce of Tinker Belle’s curvier sister. The stubborn woman had a huge heart and enough sass to keep both of her mates in line.

And there went another twinge in the center of his chest. Not all of Bryce’s years in the Army were great. Despite how it ended, overall, there were more good years than bad, and a fuck-ton of adventures. But nothing compared to the joy and turmoil that Lieutenant Candace Murphy, brought with her when she walked through the doors of his last unit. Bryce frequently relived every moment he’d spent with Murphy, the good and the bad. Over the last ten years a ton of questions haunted him, yet he had only one regret—not fully mating her when he had the chance.

“You’ll find her,” Rose whispered.

Shit. He didn’t bother looking at the always-blunt Rose. Pity, even from her pretty hazel eyes, didn’t sit well with him. “From your lips to the goddess’s ears.”

“I’ve never met anyone more deserving of happiness. Look at this.” She motioned to the back forty with a thumb. “Look at what you’ve created. Don’t think it’s not appreciated. That you don’t make a difference, because you do. Me, my sister, Sherry—”

“Please don’t remind me about that one.” They both chuckled. It had taken her a while, but Sherry had finally shifted. And when her beast had appeared, it hadn’t been a grizzly bear like her mate Alexander. No, the insane woman had been gifted with her mother-in-law’s animal—a freaking polar bear.

“I’m sure she’ll get tired of prancing her big ass around, reminding us all how special she is.” Rose’s voice was painted with humor and a whole lot of love.

Those three women had gone through hell and back to find their mates and each other. From the looks of things, they’d done well.

“I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a person so happy to be in their animal form.” Bryce looked out at his people as they enjoyed the last days of summer. Some played cornhole and volleyball, the cheers, jeers, and laughter making the day even more perfect. If perfection was thing. On the far left side of the yard, a hog roasted in a pit while a couple of the guys battled over who’d tend the grill.

The only thing missing were cubs. But thanks to Iris and her mates, their pack was poised to have the first wolf cubs born in Northern California in years. Or she could have a bear, or hell, even something in between.

Too many had already discovered that psychic human women were compatible as mates. When word got out about their ability to carry a pregnancy to term, all hell would break loose. Not only would the women in his pack face increased danger, but all human women would, too.

Bryce’s packmate and second in command, Shane, jogged onto the porch. “You two planning to gab all day, or are you going to play the reining cornhole champions?” He huffed air on his fingernails then buffed them against his dark-blue T-shirt.

“Goddess, save me,” Rose muttered, rolling her eyes.

“Too late. I already did.” Shane wrapped his large hand around the back of her neck and kissed his mate.

Shane, the big, burly, dark-haired second in command, liked to chide the women that he’d rescued them. But the women had saved themselves from the pack of werewolves who’d purchased them like cattle for future mates. Evan and Barron had found the injured Iris in the woods, and after nursing her back to health, had learned that she and other women with psychic abilities had been abducted and sold. Thankfully, some of the women found their way to the Norcal Pack and safety. Not everyone had been so lucky.

On more than one occasion, usually after a few beers, Shane had privately shared with Bryce that Rose had freed him from a life of loneliness.

Good. Shane deserved good things. They all did.

Bryce interlaced his fingers, extending his arms in front of him and rotating his hands until his knuckles cracked. “What you think, Rose? I hate seeing grown wolves cry, but I can’t allow this challenge to go unanswered.”

She elbowed Shane in the stomach and hopped off the railing. “I say we just give them a beatdown.” Rose slipped into a fighting stance and threw fake punches at Shane.

Bryce walked off the porch knowing exactly where this was headed. Never had two more competitive people been mated. Rose would make a great alpha female. In many ways she served as alpha female of the pack, taking on some of the jobs Bryce’s own mate would have filled. Bryce was just glad Shane had no desire to leave and form his own pack.

“You can spank me all you want, as long as you kiss it better after,” Shane murmured.

“Shane,” Bryce said, laughing but speeding up his walk to the cornhole board. “That was more information than I ever wanted to hear.”

Yeah, Bryce’s life was good, but it was about to get better because he finally had a solid lead. He planned to go to Sacramento tomorrow and find his lost mate. How in the hell had she been so close, yet their paths never cross? Call it fate, serendipity, or pure shitty luck, but none of it mattered now. Candace Murphy was born to be his other half. Bryce was going to get his mate back and pity the male who tried to interfere.

Chapter Four

Wyatt looked over that the impulsive, funny, and oddly sweet woman, hating that she was an entire foot away from him. After having her soft body pressed against his back the last hour, Candy was too damned far for his taste.

Every and any day was a wonderful time to visit Napa Valley, but September had to be wine heaven. The vines were heavy with grapes, the weather pleasant, and with harvest about to begin, most of the wineries were abuzz with happy tourists. Except for the one he and Candy planned to spend a couple of hours visiting. Usually, he’d take a moment to drink in the rolling hills, but for the life of him, Wyatt couldn’t stop appreciating everything that was Candy.

Fuck it. He reached out and grabbed her hand, interlacing their fingers as if they’d known each other a lifetime rather than less than twenty-four hours.

“What are you doing?” She kept hold of his hand but leaned her torso away from him.

“Trying to impress you.” He stroked his thumb along her inner wrist, trying his damndest not to grin at the scent of her growing arousal. “Is it working?” Hey, horny loved company.

“Not sure yet.” Candy winked. “Don’t worry though, I’ll keep you posted.” She stopped walking at the top of the gravel path, studied the landscape, then sighed. “It’s beautiful. If I actually liked people, I would have considered moving to Calistoga.”

“You don’t like the unwashed masses?”

“In small doses, yes, but to have to smile and be friendly for extended periods of time? Not so much.”

“Remind me not to offer you a job at Sanctuary.”

Candy snorted.

“So what kind of work do you do?”

“In a former life, I flew helicopters. I thought I told you that.”

“You may have, but I was a little distracted by the tears.” Ones he hoped never to see again.

“That was…” She turned away from him, but not before he spotted the flush on her dark cheeks.

“Something you obviously needed.” Unable to resist holding her, Wyatt pulled Candy in front of him, then wrapped his arms around her waist. “It’s okay to not be strong all the time.”

“In theory, but we don’t all have a choice.”

“You do now.” This was nice, holding a woman outside of his pride for something other than sex. Soothing her gave him a sense of power that had nothing to do with fangs or politics. That she would allow him to witness her vulnerability more than once was probably a minor miracle. While Wyatt hadn’t known Candy long, spending his life in a bar was a PhD in human behavior. Candy was a woman used to dealing with her problems on her own.

He pressed his cheek against her hair, which was still in two long braids, and inhaled. Candy’s skin conjured images of sunshine and laughter. That was all nice, but if Wyatt held Candy much longer, he’d be tempted to skip lunch and go straight to dessert. And what he had in mind wasn’t served in a restaurant.

“We’re late.” He kissed the back of her neck, then stepped back and smacked Candy gently on the ass, and he was rewarded with a wink and a wicked smile.

Interesting.

They strolled further up the gravel walkway, veering right when they reached the massive wooden double doors that led to the tasting room and gift shop. The large stone building and the accompanying vineyards were amongst the oldest in the area, and their wines the most expensive.

“Wyatt, this place looks closed,” Candy whispered, despite the abandoned parking lot.

“Come on… Don’t you trust me?” His phone buzzed in admonition, and Wyatt ignored it.

“Uh… No. I don’t know you like that.”

“Yet yours was the first face I saw this morning.”

“And your point?” She reluctantly followed him around the side of the building, staring at the ivy-covered brick. Occasionally, she’d brush a finger along the leaves of a bush. “You don’t know me either, I could be a—“

“Doesn’t matter. I’m close to the top of the food chain, I think I could handle it. Besides, that’s what today’s about.” He paused, and his gaze drifted down to her lips. “I may not know much about you, but I do know that you’re loyal and love hard and deep.” Wyatt smiled. “It would be nice to have someone care about me like that.”

Candy’s eyes grew wild, and her scent spiked. The scorched scent of panic replaced her delicate lemony smell. Wyatt ground his teeth. Great, now he’d freaked her out.

“Come on.” Wyatt grinned, hoping to ease her discomfort, then tugged the handle of another massive door and stood aside to allow her to pass through.

It was hard to decide which he liked more: her scent, which had returned to normal, or catching another glance at those perfect fitting jeans. They were faded and baggy enough that she didn’t look as though she were trying too hard to impress, but tight enough to appreciate what may be Northern California’s best ass. With a hand at the small of her back, Wyatt guided Candy through the employee area, followed by a couple of lefts and rights until they reached the lobby, where he was supposed to meet his hook up.

When they stopped, Candy looked up at Wyatt, her head adorably tilted to the side, and studied him. This was an instance that he wished he could read minds—at least hers. What did she see when she looked at him? A man who’d sacrificed and lived for his people? A player? Or the pampered prince who wanted one thing—one woman who belonged solely to him.

“Hey, everything alright?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “It is.” Wyatt’s phone vibrated, for what must have been the tenth time since he left Sacramento, but he chose to give Candy the attention she deserved—all of it. “I’m glad you agreed to spend the day with me.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, her voice soft, lips curved in a tiny smile. “Where’s the restroom?”

“Over there.” He pointed past the empty tasting bar to a small alcove with grapevines painted over the arch. Before she moved from his side, Wyatt placed his hands on her hips and gave her a kiss so light, their lips barely touched. “I’ll wait right here.”

“Okay,” she whispered.

Damn.

When the bathroom door closed behind her, Wyatt scrubbed a hand down his face. His beast demanded he go protect his woman, mark her before a male challenged for her hand. But the man… What the fuck was he doing? His future, from the morning he slid screaming into the world, was pre-destined. Wyatt’s one purpose was to lead his people and to find an acceptable mate to create future generations.

Where did Candy fit into that picture?

Hell, it was clear that for him, Candy was a dangerous distraction, but damned if he could walk away. The phone vibrated again. Well, he had a couple of minutes, it couldn’t be that bad. Wyatt reached for his cell, then balled his hands into fists. No. No way in hell would he allow work, the pride, or even his family to interrupt. Not today. They could have him tonight, but this afternoon belonged to him and Candy.

“Wyatt.” Tina Chow, one of the beautiful and deadly owners of The Chow Winery, walked across the iron catwalk, her high heels tapping a staccato tattoo as she strolled down the stairs like a Chinese-American Scarlett O’Hara. “I was surprised to see you on the books. Why didn’t you call?”

“I’m here for personal reasons, but it’s… not that kind of visit.”

“Ah, which is why you called my brother.” She glided closer, which put every bit of the grace and danger of her tiger on full display. “And how is Bryce?”

Wyatt looked down at the six-foot tall Tina, who with the addition of sky-high heels, was almost his height. There was a reason tigers didn’t form large packs or join mixed groups like his; they didn’t play well with others. Especially the women. But Tina was funny, with a wicked dry sense of humor, and was clear about what she wanted in both the boardroom and the bedroom.

“He’s good.”

“Wyatt, good to see you.” Tony, Tina’s twin, called out as he crossed the lobby, clasping Wyatt’s hand and pulled him in for a hug.

Tony might have looked like the masculine version of Tina, but in temperament, he was her opposite. Where his sister was cunning and cool, Tony was laid back and warm. Until you pissed him off and he ripped out your throat.

Tony released Wyatt and looked at his sister. “Don’t you have small children to terrorize or something?”

“That sounds like a lovely idea.” Tina grinned.

The smile was one that would have scared the hell out of villagers in the days of old. Not just the flash of teeth, but the intention in the green irises with streaks of brown.

“Anyway, call me when both you and Bryce are in town and have time for that kind of business.” She kissed Wyatt on the cheek.

A small gasp made Wyatt curse silently.

Wyatt looked at his date, forgetting about Tina. Not to compare the two women, but Candy was just as beautiful in the fitted yellow t-shirt and jeans. She didn’t need heels and designer clothes to stand out. “Candy,” Wyatt said, tugging her to his side and kissing her temple. “This is Tina. Her family owns the winery.”

“Hi.” Instead of going straight to bitchy, or tucking herself against Wyatt’s side, Candy smiled. “I haven’t seen much, but the grounds are beautiful.”

“Thank you. I’m Tony.” He stepped forward and shook Candy’s hand. “And she was just leaving.”

“Enjoy your date and our winery, Candy.” Tina looked at Wyatt. “Tell your partner in crime not to be a stranger,” she said over her shoulder as she left.

“Will do.” Wyatt slipped his hand in Candy’s back pocket.

“Come this way.” Tony led them past the bathrooms and through a pair of wooden doors inlaid with stained glass decorated with harvest scenes. If anyone bothered to look close enough, they’d see a tiger or two.

“I’m surprised you’re closed on a Saturday,” Candy said, looking around the cavernous room with large stainless-steel vats which held the first stages of what would be spectacular wine.

“We have a private event tomorrow, and they paid for both days.” Tony shrugged. “Hey, it’s their money to waste.”

“In other words, Wyatt got lucky.” Candy nudged Wyatt with her hip.

“Which is what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Wyatt raised her fingers to his lips and kissed her soft knuckles.

“I was trying to get lucky last night, but you were playing hard to get,” Candy whispered.

Tony snorted.

“Please tell me he didn’t hear that,” Candy muttered, then scrunched her face as they walked down a wide set of stairs.

As they descended, Tony gave Candy the abbreviated history of the winery, not the sanitized version he typically gave the masses, but the version that explained how the family created a business that kept them out of the public eye and the difficulties of being not only shifters, but Chinese shifters in nineteenth century California.

“And… here we go.” Tony opened another door, this one more functional than ornate.

The scent of wine was as thick as blood, and probably worth more than a gallon of O-negative from the veins of a thirty-year-old virgin. Hey, vamps had peculiar tastes. The last thing Wyatt wanted from a woman was blood. But looking at Candy’s slender neck, he could see the appeal of claiming his mate with a bite.

Wait, where the hell had that come from?

Candy stepped into the room and gasped. “Wyatt… this is—” she didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, she spun around, face- planted against his chest, and wrapped him in her arms. “Thank you.”

Wyatt returned the hug. The gesture was so honest and pure, it choked him up. Instead of candles and simple food, Candy responded as if he’d showered her with her weight in gems. As he pressed his cheek against her hair, he knew he’d give her the world if it were in his power.

Tony cleared his throat. “I’ll ah… leave you guys to it. Wine and appetizers are on the table. I’ll let the staff know you’re here.”

“Thanks, man.” Wyatt slid his hands down to Candy’s waist. “I owe you one, Tony.”

“No, you don’t. Happy is a good look on you, Wyatt. Don’t screw it up.” Tony walked toward the door.

“Thank you, Tony.” Candy turned and rested her cheek against Wyatt’s chest.

“You’re welcome. Oh, and don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll put out tonight.”

Wyatt couldn’t see Candy’s expression, but whatever it was made Tony chuckle.

“Oh, I can see why you chose to keep this beauty to yourself. Text if you need anything.” Then he closed the door behind him.

“Keep me to yourself?” Candy looked back at him. “What’s that about?”

“Nothing.” Wyatt led her to the table. “Let’s see what we got here. I hope you like goat cheese, because—”

Candy stopped walking. “Grief isn’t the only reason I date infrequently.” Candy shook her head. “You know what? Never mind.”

“No, I want to know, because unless you have some Dr. Jekyll going on, I’m having a tough time understanding why you’re single.

“This is our first time hanging out, let’s keep it light.”

“Correction—anytime candles and wine are involved or you’re on the back of my bike, it’s definitely a date.”

“Alrighty,” the small wrinkles between Candy’s eyebrows eased and her voice softened, “it’s a date.”

The voice, the smile, and damn, everything about her hit Wyatt right in the chest. Shouldn’t he be excited to share his joy with Bryce, his best friend? They had talked and dreamed about finding a woman and sharing a true mate over the years. When Evan, a wolf from Bryce’s pack, and Barron, a bear, had rescued and fell in love with their true mate, a distant dream had become a possibility.

But sharing Candy with anyone—even his best friend—left a bitter taste in Wyatt’s mouth.

“Have you ever been in love?” Candy asked.

Wyatt shook his head.

“Well I have, and it exposed me to the kind of hurt I wouldn’t wish on the vilest of people. Maybe I’m just one of the select few destined to live a life alone. That, or my man-picker is broken, since it usually points me to men who cheat, lie, or die. Did that answer your question?”

“That…” he scratched the back of his neck, “sucks. But I have no intention of doing any of the above.”

Chapter Five

Wyatt looked over that the impulsive, funny, and oddly sweet woman, hating that she was an entire foot away from him. After having her soft body pressed against his back the last hour, Candy was too damned far for his taste.

Every and any day was a wonderful time to visit Napa Valley, but September had to be wine heaven. The vines were heavy with grapes, the weather pleasant, and with harvest about to begin, most of the wineries were abuzz with happy tourists. Except for the one he and Candy planned to spend a couple of hours visiting. Usually, he’d take a moment to drink in the rolling hills, but for the life of him, Wyatt couldn’t stop appreciating everything that was Candy.

Fuck it. He reached out and grabbed her hand, interlacing their fingers as if they’d known each other a lifetime rather than less than twenty-four hours.

“What are you doing?” She kept hold of his hand but leaned her torso away from him.

“Trying to impress you.” He stroked his thumb along her inner wrist, trying his damndest not to grin at the scent of her growing arousal. “Is it working?” Hey, horny loved company.

“Not sure yet.” Candy winked. “Don’t worry though, I’ll keep you posted.” She stopped walking at the top of the gravel path, studied the landscape, then sighed. “It’s beautiful. If I actually liked people, I would have considered moving to Calistoga.”

“You don’t like the unwashed masses?”

“In small doses, yes, but to have to smile and be friendly for extended periods of time? Not so much.”

“Remind me not to offer you a job at Sanctuary.”

Candy snorted.

“So what kind of work do you do?”

“In a former life, I flew helicopters. I thought I told you that.”

“You may have, but I was a little distracted by the tears.” Ones he hoped never to see again.

“That was…” She turned away from him, but not before he spotted the flush on her dark cheeks.

“Something you obviously needed.” Unable to resist holding her, Wyatt pulled Candy in front of him, then wrapped his arms around her waist. “It’s okay to not be strong all the time.”

“In theory, but we don’t all have a choice.”

“You do now.” This was nice, holding a woman outside of his pride for something other than sex. Soothing her gave him a sense of power that had nothing to do with fangs or politics. That she would allow him to witness her vulnerability more than once was probably a minor miracle. While Wyatt hadn’t known Candy long, spending his life in a bar was a PhD in human behavior. Candy was a woman used to dealing with her problems on her own.

He pressed his cheek against her hair, which was still in two long braids, and inhaled. Candy’s skin conjured images of sunshine and laughter. That was all nice, but if Wyatt held Candy much longer, he’d be tempted to skip lunch and go straight to dessert. And what he had in mind wasn’t served in a restaurant.

“We’re late.” He kissed the back of her neck, then stepped back and smacked Candy gently on the ass, and he was rewarded with a wink and a wicked smile.

Interesting.

They strolled further up the gravel walkway, veering right when they reached the massive wooden double doors that led to the tasting room and gift shop. The large stone building and the accompanying vineyards were amongst the oldest in the area, and their wines the most expensive.

“Wyatt, this place looks closed,” Candy whispered, despite the abandoned parking lot.

“Come on… Don’t you trust me?” His phone buzzed in admonition, and Wyatt ignored it.

“Uh… No. I don’t know you like that.”

“Yet yours was the first face I saw this morning.”

“And your point?” She reluctantly followed him around the side of the building, staring at the ivy-covered brick. Occasionally, she’d brush a finger along the leaves of a bush. “You don’t know me either, I could be a—“

“Doesn’t matter. I’m close to the top of the food chain, I think I could handle it. Besides, that’s what today’s about.” He paused, and his gaze drifted down to her lips. “I may not know much about you, but I do know that you’re loyal and love hard and deep.” Wyatt smiled. “It would be nice to have someone care about me like that.”

Candy’s eyes grew wild, and her scent spiked. The scorched scent of panic replaced her delicate lemony smell. Wyatt ground his teeth. Great, now he’d freaked her out.

“Come on.” Wyatt grinned, hoping to ease her discomfort, then tugged the handle of another massive door and stood aside to allow her to pass through.

It was hard to decide which he liked more: her scent, which had returned to normal, or catching another glance at those perfect fitting jeans. They were faded and baggy enough that she didn’t look as though she were trying too hard to impress, but tight enough to appreciate what may be Northern California’s best ass. With a hand at the small of her back, Wyatt guided Candy through the employee area, followed by a couple of lefts and rights until they reached the lobby, where he was supposed to meet his hook up.

When they stopped, Candy looked up at Wyatt, her head adorably tilted to the side, and studied him. This was an instance that he wished he could read minds—at least hers. What did she see when she looked at him? A man who’d sacrificed and lived for his people? A player? Or the pampered prince who wanted one thing—one woman who belonged solely to him.

“Hey, everything alright?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “It is.” Wyatt’s phone vibrated, for what must have been the tenth time since he left Sacramento, but he chose to give Candy the attention she deserved—all of it. “I’m glad you agreed to spend the day with me.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, her voice soft, lips curved in a tiny smile. “Where’s the restroom?”

“Over there.” He pointed past the empty tasting bar to a small alcove with grapevines painted over the arch. Before she moved from his side, Wyatt placed his hands on her hips and gave her a kiss so light, their lips barely touched. “I’ll wait right here.”

“Okay,” she whispered.

Damn.

When the bathroom door closed behind her, Wyatt scrubbed a hand down his face. His beast demanded he go protect his woman, mark her before a male challenged for her hand. But the man… What the fuck was he doing? His future, from the morning he slid screaming into the world, was pre-destined. Wyatt’s one purpose was to lead his people and to find an acceptable mate to create future generations.

Where did Candy fit into that picture?

Hell, it was clear that for him, Candy was a dangerous distraction, but damned if he could walk away. The phone vibrated again. Well, he had a couple of minutes, it couldn’t be that bad. Wyatt reached for his cell, then balled his hands into fists. No. No way in hell would he allow work, the pride, or even his family to interrupt. Not today. They could have him tonight, but this afternoon belonged to him and Candy.

“Wyatt.” Tina Chow, one of the beautiful and deadly owners of The Chow Winery, walked across the iron catwalk, her high heels tapping a staccato tattoo as she strolled down the stairs like a Chinese-American Scarlett O’Hara. “I was surprised to see you on the books. Why didn’t you call?”

“I’m here for personal reasons, but it’s… not that kind of visit.”

“Ah, which is why you called my brother.” She glided closer, which put every bit of the grace and danger of her tiger on full display. “And how is Bryce?”

Wyatt looked down at the six-foot tall Tina, who with the addition of sky-high heels, was almost his height. There was a reason tigers didn’t form large packs or join mixed groups like his; they didn’t play well with others. Especially the women. But Tina was funny, with a wicked dry sense of humor, and was clear about what she wanted in both the boardroom and the bedroom.

“He’s good.”

“Wyatt, good to see you.” Tony, Tina’s twin, called out as he crossed the lobby, clasping Wyatt’s hand and pulled him in for a hug.

Tony might have looked like the masculine version of Tina, but in temperament, he was her opposite. Where his sister was cunning and cool, Tony was laid back and warm. Until you pissed him off and he ripped out your throat.

Tony released Wyatt and looked at his sister. “Don’t you have small children to terrorize or something?”

“That sounds like a lovely idea.” Tina grinned.

The smile was one that would have scared the hell out of villagers in the days of old. Not just the flash of teeth, but the intention in the green irises with streaks of brown.

“Anyway, call me when both you and Bryce are in town and have time for that kind of business.” She kissed Wyatt on the cheek.

A small gasp made Wyatt curse silently.

Wyatt looked at his date, forgetting about Tina. Not to compare the two women, but Candy was just as beautiful in the fitted yellow t-shirt and jeans. She didn’t need heels and designer clothes to stand out. “Candy,” Wyatt said, tugging her to his side and kissing her temple. “This is Tina. Her family owns the winery.”

“Hi.” Instead of going straight to bitchy, or tucking herself against Wyatt’s side, Candy smiled. “I haven’t seen much, but the grounds are beautiful.”

“Thank you. I’m Tony.” He stepped forward and shook Candy’s hand. “And she was just leaving.”

“Enjoy your date and our winery, Candy.” Tina looked at Wyatt. “Tell your partner in crime not to be a stranger,” she said over her shoulder as she left.

“Will do.” Wyatt slipped his hand in Candy’s back pocket.

“Come this way.” Tony led them past the bathrooms and through a pair of wooden doors inlaid with stained glass decorated with harvest scenes. If anyone bothered to look close enough, they’d see a tiger or two.

“I’m surprised you’re closed on a Saturday,” Candy said, looking around the cavernous room with large stainless-steel vats which held the first stages of what would be spectacular wine.

“We have a private event tomorrow, and they paid for both days.” Tony shrugged. “Hey, it’s their money to waste.”

“In other words, Wyatt got lucky.” Candy nudged Wyatt with her hip.

“Which is what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Wyatt raised her fingers to his lips and kissed her soft knuckles.

“I was trying to get lucky last night, but you were playing hard to get,” Candy whispered.

Tony snorted.

“Please tell me he didn’t hear that,” Candy muttered, then scrunched her face as they walked down a wide set of stairs.

As they descended, Tony gave Candy the abbreviated history of the winery, not the sanitized version he typically gave the masses, but the version that explained how the family created a business that kept them out of the public eye and the difficulties of being not only shifters, but Chinese shifters in nineteenth century California.

“And… here we go.” Tony opened another door, this one more functional than ornate.

The scent of wine was as thick as blood, and probably worth more than a gallon of O-negative from the veins of a thirty-year-old virgin. Hey, vamps had peculiar tastes. The last thing Wyatt wanted from a woman was blood. But looking at Candy’s slender neck, he could see the appeal of claiming his mate with a bite.

Wait, where the hell had that come from?

Candy stepped into the room and gasped. “Wyatt… this is—” she didn’t finish the sentence. Instead, she spun around, face- planted against his chest, and wrapped him in her arms. “Thank you.”

Wyatt returned the hug. The gesture was so honest and pure, it choked him up. Instead of candles and simple food, Candy responded as if he’d showered her with her weight in gems. As he pressed his cheek against her hair, he knew he’d give her the world if it were in his power.

Tony cleared his throat. “I’ll ah… leave you guys to it. Wine and appetizers are on the table. I’ll let the staff know you’re here.”

“Thanks, man.” Wyatt slid his hands down to Candy’s waist. “I owe you one, Tony.”

“No, you don’t. Happy is a good look on you, Wyatt. Don’t screw it up.” Tony walked toward the door.

“Thank you, Tony.” Candy turned and rested her cheek against Wyatt’s chest.

“You’re welcome. Oh, and don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll put out tonight.”

Wyatt couldn’t see Candy’s expression, but whatever it was made Tony chuckle.

“Oh, I can see why you chose to keep this beauty to yourself. Text if you need anything.” Then he closed the door behind him.

“Keep me to yourself?” Candy looked back at him. “What’s that about?”

“Nothing.” Wyatt led her to the table. “Let’s see what we got here. I hope you like goat cheese, because—”

Candy stopped walking. “Grief isn’t the only reason I date infrequently.” Candy shook her head. “You know what? Never mind.”

“No, I want to know, because unless you have some Dr. Jekyll going on, I’m having a tough time understanding why you’re single.

“This is our first time hanging out, let’s keep it light.”

“Correction—anytime candles and wine are involved or you’re on the back of my bike, it’s definitely a date.”

“Alrighty,” the small wrinkles between Candy’s eyebrows eased and her voice softened, “it’s a date.”

The voice, the smile, and damn, everything about her hit Wyatt right in the chest. Shouldn’t he be excited to share his joy with Bryce, his best friend? They had talked and dreamed about finding a woman and sharing a true mate over the years. When Evan, a wolf from Bryce’s pack, and Barron, a bear, had rescued and fell in love with their true mate, a distant dream had become a possibility.

But sharing Candy with anyone—even his best friend—left a bitter taste in Wyatt’s mouth.

“Have you ever been in love?” Candy asked.

Wyatt shook his head.

“Well I have, and it exposed me to the kind of hurt I wouldn’t wish on the vilest of people. Maybe I’m just one of the select few destined to live a life alone. That, or my man-picker is broken, since it usually points me to men who cheat, lie, or die. Did that answer your question?”

“That…” he scratched the back of his neck, “sucks. But I have no intention of doing any of the above.”

Chapter Six

Bryce and four other members of his pack strolled past the line of hapless humans waiting to enter Sanctuary. A few months ago, this would’ve been another Saturday night where the entire Norcal pack came to Sacramento to get drunk, laid, and loaded up on supplies.

Those days were over. With Iris expecting and the other human women now a part of the pack and their lives, most of them stayed behind at the pack house and made their own fun.

Tonight, they still planned to get drunk and dance, but Bryce wasn’t sure about the laid part. Lindsey, one of the new humans, had invited him to share her bed. That would make life too complicated for his taste. Oh, he could give her tons of orgasms, but love? Not going to happen. Because Bryce couldn’t get Candace Murphy out of his head. She’d never been far from his thoughts, but lately, he’d become obsessed.

The lead he’d chased down on Murphy turned out to be a bust. It wasn’t her at all, and the address he’d gone to had been empty for years. But Bryce found Murphy’s mother’s maiden name in a pile of papers. Using an assumed name to purchase real estate to stay under the radar was something Murphy would do, but why?

Maybe it was time to stop chasing that dream.

“Stop snarling,” Lindsey said, nudging Bryce with her shoulder. “You’ll never fill your dance card. Wait…” Lindsey tapped her chin. “Then again, keep doing that.”

Bryce smiled at the feisty female. She really was a beautiful woman. The strawberry-blonde hair and splash of freckles across her nose made Lindsey appear soft and innocent—but he knew better. The woman was like a honey badger. She’d try to avoid trouble, but if you brought it to her doorstep, be prepared to pay the price.

They walked through Sanctuary’s thick double doors and Bryce grinned. Ah… his second home. The bar had grown from a small corner pub in a solid blue-collar neighborhood, to the hub of shifter and supernatural nightlife in Sacramento. All were welcome and all were safe. The rules were simple: no bloodshed, no magical coercion, and no harming the humans. Breaking those rules could be fatal.

Too many had learned the—

Bryce froze. A sweet, haunting, and familiar scent rocked his world as it wafted past his nose.

“Please tell me you’re not one of those guys who refuses to dance?” Lindsey asked, raising her voice over the dance music.

Bryce shook his head and inhaled again, and as if he’d imagined that unique scent of lavender and woman who wore it, the scent disappeared.

“Nope,” Bryce finally answered, “I have theories about men who don’t dance.” Memories of him and Candy dancing until they were damp with sweat brought a wistful smile to his lips and a phantom ache to the area where his heart used to reside.

“You’re thinking about her again…” Lindsey stepped closer and lowered her voice. “We all have our shit, Bryce. There’s no reason the two of us can’t deal with ours together.”

“Yeah, but things could get messy when we’re done.” He lowered his chin. “And make no mistake about it—we would end.”

“It’s just sex, Bryce. Nothing more, nothing less.” Lindsey accepted two beers from Jake, one of the pack members, with a nod of thanks, then handed one to Bryce. “There’s no shame in finding comfort in a friend’s arms.”

Maybe Lindsey was right, but he didn’t want comfort. Bryce wanted his fucking mate back. Want was too weak a damned word. It was almost like his life was a ticking bomb, and the clock was about to run out.

Bryce took a long hard pull on his beer, then really looked at Lindsey. Fucking her, at least tonight, was not a line he was prepared to cross, but dancing, that he could do. Bryce finished off his pilsner and sat the bottle on the counter. “Okay, Ms. Lindsey, let’s see what you got.”

She walked in front of him and tossed the words casually over her shoulder. “I hope you can handle it.”

So did he. So the fuck did he.

Bryce’s gaze drifted down to Lindsey’s slim, but very nice ass, and he thought that maybe, maybe they could be a match. She already had the respect of the women in the pack, and she hadn’t shown any interest in any of the other pack males. He could do far worse. Lindsey was strong, capable, and quite resourceful. And had he mentioned ruthless?

Yet despite her positive attributes, Bryce and his wolf refused to give up on their mate. But this was one of those instances where the man was in charge. Maybe ten years was long enough.

Fuck it. He and Lindsey had reached the middle of the smaller of the three dance floors, when Bryce wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her back against him. “Are you sure you want to cross that line, Lindsey?”

“Don’t be afraid,” she said, patting his arm. “I’ll be gentle.”

“Smart ass.” He spun her around. Looking down into those lonely hazel eyes. He decided to take the leap, hoping like hell this didn’t go bad. “I’m not marking you.”

Lindsey shook her head. “If you think I’m asking for love, don’t. I don’t know that I have it in me to give.”

Damn, he already liked Lindsey as a person, but in this she was wrong. A woman willing to sacrifice herself to save her sister or kill to protect her small band of captives was not a woman incapable of love. Lindsey, like him, was wounded.

Yeah, he could definitely do far worse than Lindsey. They danced for another couple of songs, and Bryce was beginning to imagine what she’d look like naked, when it happened again.

This time, the familiar scent was accompanied by… laughter. Bryce would recognize that lusty alto chuckle anywhere. When he’d first met Murphy, it had driven him mad with lust. Then later, when the team had been held captive, the memory of that laugh was all that had kept him sane during the darkest days before the escape.

“Be right back,” Bryce whispered in Lindsey’s ear before walking off.

As he pushed and wove through the crowd, the scent grew stronger and the memories more vivid. Candy piloting her helicopter, the grin on her beautiful face as she flew like a madwoman, and how fucking sweet she looked sleeping, with those plaits all over the place and her face relaxed.

He remembered everything.

Ten years. Ten motherfucking years he had been looking for Murphy.

Yesterday, the private detective had given Bryce an address. Earlier today he’d gone to an empty apartment. Tonight, his prayers had been answered.

Must she look so damn… happy?

Had she not suffered?

The way Murphy laughed, her thick hair swaying as she danced with Wyatt’s sister, Michelle, and a couple of the other cougars from the pride, it appeared she had not a care in the world.

As if she wasn’t aware that she held his heart captive.

Michelle spotted him and grinned. Then she waved and leaned closer to Murphy saying something.

Lt. Candace Murphy turned.

Bryce’s wolf howled in elation.

And the man?

The man was flummoxed. Holy fuck. If he thought she’d been beautiful at twenty-five, the woman she’d become was magnificent. Her hair… long and loose… damn. The memory of burying his fingers in her soft curls took center stage. And her lips. Oh fuck.

But those lips, the ones he’d imagined kissing every morning when he awoke, instead of widening into a smile, tightened then turned down at the corners.

Did she even care?

Bryce moved. Each step closer to his target drove his anger higher, darker, deadlier. All of her talk of love, had it all been a lie? Three feet felt like three years, but finally, he reached her, breathless as if he’d run a marathon.

He inhaled, and… what in the holy fuck?

Wyatt’s scent was all over her. Unacceptable.

So what did he do? Kissing her would have been a good start. Wrapping her in a hug to make sure she wasn’t an illusion would have worked too. Instead, Bryce tried to wound. “Well, I guess Jake was right, you always do manage to land on your feet.” She frowned, and he decided that wounding wasn’t good enough, so he added, “or should I say on your back?”



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