There’s more than one way to outsmart a fox…
Trust Julia Easton to screw up Sheriff Ty Roderick’s March Madness plans. The pixie-faced vixen might be the picture of feminine perfection, but she tests his innate sense of order to its limits. Weeks ago, he let his conscience turn down a proposition his body still burns to accept—then she vanished. Now he’s in the middle of Nowhere, Washington, racing to rescue her from danger.
There’s risk in leaving Cougar Falls, but it’s the only way Julia can hope to save her sister from making the same mistake she almost made with Ty. Settling down and having kits is one thing, but it can’t be done with a human, especially one from a hunting family. Unfortunately, her sister isn’t budging, and the fiancé’s brother won’t take Julia’s no for an answer, either.
When Ty comes riding to their rescue, Julia plans to use him and lose him. No way is she throwing herself at that alpha jerk’s feet in gratitude. Then Ty gives her the answer her heart still longs for: he wants to spend the rest of his life making things right. Now if only she can find the courage to say yes.
This title has been previously released
The middle of Nowhere, Washington
Ty swore under his breath as he dodged yet another pothole in what passed for a paved road in this crappy little town. For all that folks complained about Cougar Falls, the town council would have been caught dead before letting their streets look like this.
On either side of Main Street people parked pickup trucks and four-wheel drives next to the occasional sedan—all American-made. A diner, grocery store and pharmacy sat on the east side of Main, while the local hardware, sheriff’s office, hunting lodge and bar took up the west. On the few side streets in this less-than-picturesque small town, eclectic shops attempted to capitalize on the area. But from what Ty had seen, the surrounding lake, forest and mountains gave Nowhere, Washington its real grandeur.
His stomach grumbled again, his high metabolism making it nearly impossible to go too long without food. Unfortunately, instinct told him if he didn’t find Julia soon, the damned woman would find herself in more trouble than she could handle. Hunters. God almighty. Thoughts of the stubborn redhead awakened his libido from the hibernation he’d endured in her absence. So not what he wanted right now, not with his family’s constant pressure to procreate. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was missing the game tonight at Burke’s place.
“Trust Julia to screw up March Madness for me,” he muttered as he left the main town behind and turned into a neat little convenience store. Thank God this place had a paved lot. After filling up the fuel tank on his truck, he hurried through the bitter wind.
Inside the store, Ty grabbed packets of jerky, some trail mix and a water.
“That it for ya?” an older man asked and rubbed his grizzled cheeks. He wore a plaid flannel shirt with a nametag pinned to the pocket—Bart, owner and operator.
“And the gas.” After Ty paid, he took out a picture of Julia and shoved it across the counter. “You seen this woman?”
He stared down at the same feminine perfection the old man studied. Thick, auburn hair covered her shoulders and framed a pixie-like face. Her light brown eyes flashed with humor in the picture, and he remembered her laughing at something Gerald had said. Of course, that was several months ago, back when the blasted woman had a sense of humor. Now he was lucky to get even a glare, and all because he’d done the right thing.
Fuming about a night he wished he could redo, he asked again, “You seen her or not?”
The old man smiled. “Yeah.” He said nothing more.
“Where is she?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“She’s a friend of mine.”
“Then shouldn’t you know where she is?”
Ty gritted his teeth. The wily old coot might as well have been Ac-taw. He danced around words as fine as any shapeshifting silver fox Ty had encountered.
Ty wanted to flash his badge and demand answers, but he had no jurisdiction here. And explaining Cougar Falls and its citizens to any outsider without council permission would not only bring danger to the people Ty had sworn to protect, but it would get him kicked out of his clan in a heartbeat. A Shifter without a clan had no place in Cougar Falls. Ty couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Ever.
He could force the old man to answer, but Ty didn’t believe in bullying when a cagey fox could handle a challenge in a far better way. Nothing satisfied him so much as matching wits and coming out the winner. Especially since he couldn’t afford to lose.
Ty rubbed his throat, feeling the press of responsibility tightening around his neck. He glanced at Julia’s picture again, worry for the slight woman increasing his urgency to find her and make sure of her safety.
Pretending to play the old man’s game, he sighed and settled on as much truth as he could. “Her name’s Julia Easton. She has two sisters, and they both look like her.”
“Pretty,” Bart murmured, a twinkle in his eyes.
“Very. Truth of the matter is that if I don’t play things right, I’m screwed. Woman just doesn’t understand I was doing it for her own good.” She treated him like he had the plague.
“Woman problems. I knew it.”
Woman problems. Ha. Try shapeshifting-vixen problems. Ty wished he had Julia here to shake some sense into her, but that would mean putting his hands on her pretty, pale, soft skin. Arousal centered in his groin.
He vented his frustration to the old man. “I’ve been wanting to get my hands on this particular woman for years. She’s cool, calm and unattainable. Never even looked at me twice while half the assholes in town are drooling all over her. Frankly, I just don’t have the time or energy to fawn over the woman.” Not that a Roderick should have to fawn. Dammit.
“Like that, is it?”
“Unfortunately, yeah. Then out of the blue, she gets drunk and propositions me. What was I supposed to do? Take advantage of her?”
“Right. So I gently turned her down. That was four weeks ago. Stubborn woman won’t give me the time of day anymore.”
“That’s too bad.”
Ty appreciated Bart’s sympathy. God knew his friends and family weren’t giving him any. “My father thinks it’s funny. My mother’s on my case to settle down and have kits—kids. How can I if Julia won’t even speak to me?”
“Now that’s a problem.” Bart tapped the picture, his shrewd gaze on Ty’s face. “You planning on taking her back with you when you go?”
“Yes, I am.”
Bart shook his head. “Then things are going to go to hell in a handbasket sooner than I’d thought. Your pretty gal is with her sisters in Maude’s cabin on the hilltop. Another mile and a half down, make a right. Take the dirt road to the end and you’ll see a blue cabin.”
“Okay, thanks,” Ty said slowly.
“No, thank you. I can’t wait to see Ned Williams’ face when you try runnin’ off with his fiancée.”
“Rumor has it the wedding’s set for next week. Good luck, fella. You’re going to need it.”
“It’s amazing to me we didn’t abandon you at birth.”
“Julia!” Gabby gasped in shocked laughter. “Really.”
“Really,” Julia grumbled, aiming her glare at her youngest and most troublesome sister, Meghan. “I’ve been out here a half dozen times in the last four months at least, thanks to your nifty little note to the family. And that’s not counting all the trips I took to visit you at college. What were you thinking, Meghan? Aunt Lynn is in fits, Uncle Harry won’t speak to me—thanks for that, at least—but keeping quiet about you in love with an outsider is giving me ulcers.”
“So who asked you to keep quiet?” Meghan retorted.
“You’d rather the clan cut you off and force you to leave town? Choosing to go is one thing, but not having a choice to return is another.”
“But she’s in love…” Gabby trailed off when she saw Julia’s real anger.
“Love? What does the brat know about love?”
“I’m not ‘the brat.’ I’m twenty-two years old! My name is Meghan,” Meghan shouted and threw a pillow at Julia. “Just because you’re a few years older does not make you my mother.”
Julia dove in headfirst. “No, our mother is right now rolling over in her grave because you’re crushing on some kid fresh out of college. A miracle, really, since his backwoods family makes the possibility of a Deliverance sequel all too real.”
Meghan fumed. “Shut up, Julia. You’re such a snob.”
Julia’s eyes widened. Meghan couldn’t be serious. “I’m a snob? Meghan, they have mounted animals on their walls! Bears, mountain lions…foxes.”
Meghan sniffed. “It’s not like that stuffed fox was Uncle Pete, for cripes’ sake. We’re predators too, Ms. High and Mighty.”
Gabby shifted, clearly uncomfortable with the all-too-common disagreement. “Actually, Meghan, that kind of freaks me out too. I like Jason, but I’m worried about you.”
Gabby liking Jason seemed to ease some of Meghan’s tension. Julia’s doubled. She’d thought Gabby was on her side.
“Don’t worry about me. I know what I’m doing.” Meghan tossed her hair and flounced out of the room.
Gabby rolled onto her back on the bed and stared at the cracked ceiling. “Oh yeah, that went well.”
“‘I like Jason?’ What the hell, Gabby? I thought we were in agreement. Meghan doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s twenty-two going on twelve. She’s in heat for some boy and she thinks it’s love. If he doesn’t screw her over for some bimbo in a few years, his family will hunt her down and mount her to their wall.” Outsiders were nothing but trouble.
“Come on, Julia. He’s not that bad. Jason’s kind of nice. He’s a year older than Meghan, but he acts a lot more mature. And he’s not the hunter his family is.”
“Thank God for small favors. Still doesn’t change the fact he’s close to them. How long do you think Meghan can hide herself from Jason? The minute she tells him she’s Ac-taw, he’ll tell his family. And you can’t tell me you like any of the Williams men.”
“Ah, no, I don’t. And speaking of which, that sounds like a truck. Ned’s truck, I bet. What did you do to the guy to make him so hot and bothered for you?”
Julia paused, cocked her head and heard Ned Williams speaking over the rumble of his muffler. Through the window of the bedroom she saw him park his truck and approach the house. Oh, please, not now. She’d been hoping to avoid him on this trip, since her last visit to Nowhere had ended in a near mauling when she’d refused his offer of a quickie behind the Gas An’ Go…again.
He strutted ahead of his two younger brothers, Itchy and Snitchy, as she’d nicknamed them. Bob Williams scratched his crotch whenever the need hit, and considering how often his hand strayed to his zipper, she wondered if he had a venereal disease. Dave Williams couldn’t keep his mouth shut to save his life. She now knew more about Ned than she’d ever wanted, including how many times he jacked off when he thought about her. That Ned found it natural to share such information gave her pause. Just how the hell close were these brothers?
She cringed. That thought she could have totally done without.
Half of the Williams family made a living at the local garage and hardware store, while the other half worked at the nearby lumbermill. Cutting down trees seemed right up their alley along with shooting wildlife, bullying the townsfolk and bothering strangers who wanted nothing to do with them. Well, except for Meghan. She apparently loved Jason Williams, the baby of his family, and a piece of the Williams puzzle that didn’t seem to fit.
Unlike the burly, bulky Williams men, Jason was tall but slender. He trimmed his facial hair, looking less like a wild mountain man than a thoughtful, attractive college student. Like Meghan, he’d recently graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle. Little had Julia known that Meghan’s foray away from Cougar Falls would turn into a permanent one.
Julia and Gabby had spent a year trying to convince their sister to leave Seattle behind and return home. Meghan talked about nothing but Jason. Jason this, Jason that, until the young fox had mentioned an engagement and a permanent move to the West Coast in the same breath.
But until Meghan received permission from the clan to marry Jason, she’d never be welcome in town again. Julia wasn’t sure, but rumors about the magical totem that protected the town from outsiders led her to believe the Silver Fox Clan could actually make it impossible for Meghan to come home again.
To most Shifters, family and clan meant everything. For years, Julia had done her best to provide for her sisters, her only real family. Her uncle and aunt tolerated her because it was expected of them, and it made them look good in the eyes of others. Were it not for her desire to make her sisters’ lives better, she would have left the Silver Foxes long ago.
Then again, Julia and her sisters needed the security belonging provided. No clan, no life in Cougar Falls. And if the rest of the foxes knew the truth about her mother and father, which her sisters, aunt and uncle dutifully protected, the Easton girls would be ass-out in no time. Just one more stressor she didn’t need to dwell on, not with Ned knocking on the door.
“Yo, honey, open up.”
Gabby snickered and rolled off the bed. She nudged Julia out the door into the living room. “Go on, honey. Tell your man to get lost.”
“You know, you’re becoming as big a pain as Meghan,” Julia grumbled. Meghan, she noted, ignored her and talked to Jason on her cell phone—the same cell phone Julia paid for on a monthly basis. Perhaps the time had come to play hardball. Meghan wanted to act like an adult? Fine. She could start by paying her own bills.
Julia opened the door, needing the confrontation to get her mind off her baby sister wanting to marry. Damn Jason and his need to bond with family before making a permanent move to Seattle. He and Meghan had visited back and forth over the past six months. Her sister and an outsider. What was Meghan thinking?
And now another outsider thought he could charm her—a silver fox from Cougar Falls? Not just no, but hell no. Studying Ned from his shaggy brown hair to the tips of his steel-toed boots, she snarled. “Terrific, another headache. Just what I don’t need.”
Subtlety had never worked on the man. Apparently obvious loathing didn’t either.
He grinned and leaned against the doorframe. “Come on, baby. Let’s hit the church and you can meet Pastor Reynolds.”
Julia frowned. “I’m sorry?”
Ned grabbed her in a bear hug before she could move. He outweighed her by a hundred pounds at least. When he squeezed, he choked the breath out of her. “I knew you didn’t mean all those things you said. Damn, you smell good.” He changed topics like the wind, unable to hold a thought in his stubborn head. Trying to convince him she couldn’t stand him had gone from difficult to downright impossible.
“I’m not sorry. I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. What pastor? What church?” Oh God, had Jason and Meghan already set a date? She could have sworn Meghan had mentioned a prolonged engagement.
“You and me, baby. I think I get it now. No sex without a ring. Heard that a time or two,” he said with a laugh. “And I’ve been thinking on it. You know, I think it’s time for me to get hitched.”
Meghan closed her cell phone and stared in shock. “Julia, I had no idea you and Ned were dating. And you have the nerve to talk about me and Jason.”
“I’m not dating Ned,” Julia snapped, and prayed for patience. She wiggled until Ned dropped her to her feet and put some distance between herself and the large man. “I’m here to drag you home where you belong. Ned, back off. I’m not marrying you today, tomorrow or any other day of the week.”
But Ned being Ned didn’t hear her. “The boys are here to help Meghan with whatever she needs. Geekboy is at the mill until five.”
For all Ned’s faults, he was loyal to his family. Though she sensed he didn’t understand his youngest brother’s need for a higher education, he didn’t degrade him in front of others. In front of family was another story. Jason had told Meghan horror stories about how nasty Ned could be when he didn’t get his way, and he hadn’t wanted Jason to go to school. He’d recently begun to support Jason’s decision to graduate college, but only because of the money Jason made running his own programming company, money Jason shared with his family.
“Come on. Let’s spend some time getting to know each other better.” Ned tried to drag her from the house.
Finally, even Meghan looked worried. Everyone knew Ned had a temper, but they’d yet to see it unleashed on them. Jason, however, had warned them to be wary of his oldest brother. As much as Jason loved his family, he was smart enough to understand and acknowledge their faults. Bullheaded tenacity was one of them. Their love affair with guns and hunting anything on four feet another.
Gabby reached for her arm. “Ah, Ned? We really need Julia’s help with Meghan’s wedding planning.”
Meghan hurriedly added, “Maybe you could see her another time?”
In another lifetime, maybe. Ned and Gabby tugged on Julia’s arms, making her feel like a piece of rope in a tug-of-war. She growled and yanked her arm back.
He dropped his hand and rubbed his chin, considering. At times, his gruff features bordered on attractive. Rough, thick, but pleasant. Until that obstinate glint lit his dark eyes. He reminded her of a bear, but without the true bulk and smarts of a grizzly to back him up.
Foxes, she reminded herself, made do with their smaller size by being smarter than the average predator. Hell, she couldn’t beat him, but maybe…
The answer to her prayers arrived in a streak of speed. He shoved Itchy and Snitchy out of the way and slid past Ned with the ease of a skilled predator.
Gabby announced with breathless reverence, “Ty Roderick?”
Julia stared at her nemesis with equal amounts of desire, frustration and grudging relief. She threw herself into his arms and met his astonished gaze with a determined one of her own.
“Ty, sweetie. I didn’t realize you were coming today. I’m so excited to see you.” She kissed him quickly—ignoring the hum in her blood—and stepped back, pleased at this solution. Even Ned couldn’t fail to realize she was taken now. Maybe that would make him leave her alone.
Except Ned didn’t appear to care.
“This is your boyfriend?” He huffed and gave Ty a disapproving once-over. “Funny, you never mentioned him before.”
Ty stood a few inches smaller than Ned but still topped Julia by a foot. Strength and vitality vibrated under the breadth of his chest and tightly muscled arms. He smelled like chocolate, and she chalked up her sudden need to sniff him again as hunger and not desire.
Ty narrowed his silver eyes, glaring at Ned with a meanness that didn’t bode well. The sheriff was hard to rile, but when angry, Ty could tear a strip off a bear. “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m her fiancé. Who the hell are you?”
“Fiancé? No way in hell.”
Meghan interrupted, “Actually, Ned is Jason’s brother.”
Gabby gave a nervous laugh. “Meghan’s fiancé. His family’s from Nowhere. Long line of Williamses in this area. All of them hardworking men who practically own the town.” Her subtle warning did nothing to sway Ty’s anger.
“Hunters?” he asked straight out.
“Hell, yeah. I hit anything I’m aimin’ at,” Ned bragged. His brothers nodded behind him.
Ty’s eyes flashed with more than anger, but with a fury that really worried her.
It took Julia a moment to understand, and she quickly corrected Ty’s misapprehension. “His family hunts, with a lowercase h.”
Ty’s gaze swung to her. “You sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Do you really think I’d be standing here so calmly if I wasn’t?” she asked, not happy he would question her common sense in front of her sisters.
Ty didn’t say anything, but his tension eased considerably. He turned his gaze back to Ned.
Julia had had enough. Meghan was damn well coming home with her, this instant. Ned could go to hell. Ty could lecture until he was blue in the face, but this wasn’t his problem, and—
He jerked Julia into his arms. “Well, well. Congrats, Meghan. I can’t wait to see what your aunt and uncle think of Jason.” He gave a tight laugh. “You know, Julia, it’s tough to keep up with all these hearts you keep breaking. Why, just a few weeks ago you wanted me. Now it’s Ned?”
If she’d had a gun, she might have shot him. “I don’t want—”
“To fight, I know,” he said smoothly and hugged her tighter. “I came to tell you I’m sorry. You want me? I’m yours. I think we should start with you moving in to my place, though. You know how much my folks want grandkids. Now how about we grab your sisters and head home in time for the spring festival?”
Gabby and Meghan watched the spectacle with their mouths open. Julia wasn’t sure what to do. Agree with Ty to leave? Or try to wrestle back control of the situation?
“What in the hell are you talking about?” Ned roared. “You ain’t leaving. The family reunion is next week, and Mama wants to see the gals at dinner tomorrow. Jason has to bring Meghan, and I’m bringing Julia.” He curled his meaty hands into fists, and that quickly Ty went from teasing to lethal.
He pushed Julia behind him. “You want her, you go through me.”
Ned took a step closer, apparently saw something he didn’t like on Ty’s face, and stopped. “Hell, I’m not going to fight you in front of the women. But none of you is leaving until after the reunion. You need anything, Meghan, call Jason. Julia, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He gave Ty one final glare and left, his brothers in tow.
Through the front window, Julia watched Itchy and Snitchy climb into the cab while Ned grabbed a rifle from his truck. Lightning fast, he shot out each of Ty’s tires, as well as the tires on Julia’s SUV, leaving them stranded. With a one-fingered salute to Ty, Ned jumped into his truck and spun his wheels as he left.
“Uh-oh,” Meghan murmured. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere anytime soon.”
As one, she and Gabby turned slowly to regard Ty, who gripped Julia’s shoulders hard enough to leave marks. As if sensing her pain, he let go, and she faced him.
“Well, well. My two-timing girlfriend and her troublesome sisters. Now how about one of you pretty ladies tell me what the hell is going on before I turn feral and bite you?” His eyes smoked as they settled on Julia. “And not in a good way.”