The sultry croon of “Santa Baby” blaring through the crowded cabin might as well have been nails on a chalkboard to Gunner Thoren. The eggnog and holiday cookie smorgasbord only added to his irritation. For the hundredth time he questioned his motivation for coming back into the fold. He’d walked away from a good thing in Las Vegas, to return home to the wolf-pack town of Ushers Run, Iowa. “Eventually you all come home.” Gunner shook the pack-elder’s voice from his already crowded mind. He’d met with the old man along with the pack-leader, Ambrose. It was a lofty position for his best friend to ascend to in Gunner’s absence. Then Ambrose blindsided him with a compulsory invitation to attend the festivities this evening. It was intended for the younger members. Some crap about pack bonding.
Gunner just wanted to enjoy being in nature. It was the only part of being home that he looked forward to after a decade of self-imposed exile. The bright lights of Las Vegas lacked a forest for his wolf to run in. Wolves didn’t belong skulking through back alleys and desert landscapes. At least Ambrose picked a nice spot in the woods for the cabin he’d designed for the pack’s use. Too bad it was currently being overrun with someone’s bastardized idea of Christmas cheer.
From his spot in the corner, Gunner sneered at the garish holiday sweaters covered in ice skating reindeer and penguins decorating evergreen trees. The pack he was born to, or at least this generation of it, might be happy to prance around like drunken fools, but he wouldn’t be caught dead participating in such stupidity. His brother, Asher, loped toward him from across the room in the easy way that came with overstimulated youth. Battery-powered twinkle lights wrapped around the kid’s snowflake-covered sweater. It must have come out of their grandmother’s closet.
Asher grinned up at him. “You aren’t in party gear, bro!”
Gunner growled and hunkered down in his corner, unwilling to acknowledge the fool. This kid was why he gave up fighting and the title shot he had worked for years to achieve. Now he would run his family’s business—the local gym. With their father’s passing, his mother needed the help keeping it from going under and his kid brother from tearing down half the town with his idiocy. Less than two years until he graduated and Gunner could take off again. He was already counting down the days.
“Never fear,” Asher said, undaunted by Gunner’s stoicism. “I knew it would happen, so I brought an extra.”
Asher slapped his brother’s back and gave him an ineffective shove that left the kid rubbing the sting out of his hand. Gunner stood still as a mountain, which he was as a middleweight fighter. He fought at 185 pounds but walked around closer to 220 between fights.
“Nothing’s wrong with my sweater,” Gunner groused. He’d worn a normal sweater, a traditional Scandinavian pattern in grey and navy. A respectable sweater, not some castoff thrift store reject.
“You’re not getting into the spirit,” Asher said, his tone sullen and accusatory.
Feminine laughter that was equal parts wicked and ethereal rose above the chaotic jumble of voices and crappy Christmas pop-music. Gunner tuned out the useless prattle that continued to dump out of his brother’s mouth, searching for the owner of that laugh as if it was a homing beacon meant to draw him in.
“You’ve got enough for both of us.” Gunner answered his brother to stop the distracting noise. He searched the nameless faces. The laughter had stopped but he knew he hadn’t imagined its siren song.
That’s when Gunner saw her. The reason he left town in the first place—Noelle Hiver. She moved like a Nordic goddess come to life—a young and beautiful version of the Norns—as she stood in front of a tinsel-draped tree talking with her hands as if they were weaving a tapestry to illustrate her words. The multicolored lights that reflected off the metallic decorations shone on her like a rainbow spotlight.
The little vixen was a dangerous temptation. Her white sweater dress embroidered with silver poinsettias hugged her lithe curves in places he knew his eyes shouldn’t linger—but he couldn’t stop himself, just like before. No one should look at the pack-leader’s half-sister that way, not if he wanted to keep his eyes. His illicit gaze continued the treacherous journey north to wild platinum blonde hair that skimmed her slender shoulders. He wanted a closer look, perilous as it was. He needed to know if she still wore feathers braided in the riotous curls.
Noelle again laughed at something her companion said, a woman who didn’t exist as far as Gunner was concerned, and it rang like bells calling him home. She glanced his way and his heart nearly stopped. Those eyes, guarded aquamarine glaciers, bored into him from across the room and he was curious what the pack abomination had made of herself.
He’d never called her that, but nearly everyone they knew had. A half-breed shifter witch was not welcome among purebred werewolves, but her brother Ambrose, Gunner’s best friend, had changed that when he took over, hadn’t he? At least for this one pack he had. Gunner had never worried about any of that as she was just Noelle to him.
He closed his eyes against visions of the past that clawed to the surface of his mind and realized his brother was still talking. “Bro, hotties heading our way. It’s too late to fix you now.” This time when Asher shoved, Gunner moved as his eyes flew open. Just a step closer to her but it was as if he jumped a chasm.
Noelle sauntered toward him, her friend in tow. A sweet smile spread across her pouty pink lips. A knowing smile. Gunner steeled himself against its impact. He knew this would come when he made the choice to return home. He just wasn’t ready to see her tonight or for her to see him. But those lips brought a flash he’d give anything to forget, just to relieve the torture.
An image of her broke through, unbidden, from the past. That same smile as she sat waiting for him in the passenger seat of his Camaro on another winter night, reaching for something other than the gear shift, or at least not the one that belonged in his car.
“Gunner, fancy seeing you here.” Noelle’s silken voice pulled him out of the past.
“You’re brother’s invite clearly stated that I didn’t have a choice.”
Noelle smiled at the growl in his voice, clearly finding some kind of perverse pleasure in his words.
Asher glanced from Gunner to Noelle. “Dude, you know her?”