Pepper stood in Samantha’s childhood bedroom and waited while Sam fussed with her hair. Kade was on his way back to the airport to pick up his brothers who were arriving from Scotland within the hour. Sam had surprised Pepper with the news that she and Kade would be married in Savannah instead of trying to plan something from overseas. The family was all meeting in Savannah for the wedding. Kade’s sister, Fiona, and Fiona’s close friend, Payton, were sitting on the bed reading a gossip rag while Pepper sat at Sam’s desk. Sam released several curse words as she tried to “fix” perfection.
“Kade just left you ten minutes ago,” Pepper said.
Sam scowled at her in the mirror. “Your point?”
Pepper crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “My point, strange one, is that you can’t look any better than you already do, and your fiancé wouldn’t care if you shaved your head. He’d still look at you like you’re the only woman on the planet.”
“I agree,” Payton piped in.
“Are you suggesting I shave my head?” Sam retorted.
Pepper giggled. “Oh, I’m not suggesting, Sammi…I’m saying.”
Sam smiled and opened her mouth to say something just as Pepper’s cell phone rang. Seeing her mother’s name pop up on the screen, Pepper ignored it.
“Your mom?” Sam asked.
The phone pealed again and Pepper let out a frustrated groan.
“Just answer it, Pep. She’ll keep calling, especially if she’s drunk.”
Pepper nodded and answered the call. “Hi Mom.”
“Persephone Moonbeam Brooks, where’s Morris?” her mother slurred.
Pepper cringed at the ridiculous middle name her mother had adopted. She shouldn’t, she knew it was a joke…her real middle name was Esther…but the memory of many embarrassing moments came flooding back whenever her mother used it.
“I don’t know where your cat is, Mom. He’s probably roaming.”
“Uh-uh. I’s got a note here…is says you know.”
Pepper’s blood went cold. “What do you mean?” she asked as she stepped out of the room.
“Ith says, Morris is gone. Ask Pepper why,” her mother relayed.
Pepper walked down the hallway. “Mom, are you alone in the house?”
“Are the doors locked?”
“Of course they are. I’m not stupid.”
“Okay. Just stay there. I’ll be home in a few.” Pepper hung up and would have left right away, but her purse was still in Sam’s room. She made her way back inside. “Hey. I need to take care of something. Can you do without me for a bit?”
Sam nodded. “Sure. Everything okay?”
“Yeah. Mom’s melting down. I’ll be back by dinner.”
“Can we do anything?” Fiona asked.
“No. She does this a lot,” Pepper said.
Sam hugged her. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes.” Pepper forced a smile and disengaged from Sam. “Now, enjoy your man. I’ll see you later.”
She made her way downstairs and into her VW Rabbit. She did her best not to speed home, but she was terrified that Morris might have received the same fate as Rover.
* * *
Connall Gunnach sat with his brother Brodie in the family jet and waited for the plane to taxi to their gate. His brother-in-law, Angus, snored in the seat in front of them. They’d spent the last week in Iceland and Scotland dealing with family issues, and were now free to celebrate the “wedding” of Kade and Samantha. The couple had already bonded in the way of their people, so the ceremony would be performed for the benefit of Samantha’s family and friends.
He and Brodie were discussing the events of the next few days when irritation and then panic hit him square in the chest. “Shite.”
“Con?” Brodie asked. “You okay?”
Connall shook his head and tried to breathe. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong. He quieted his mind and tried to listen as he took a series of deep breaths and just as quickly, his panic eased. “Damn it.”
Connall raised his hand in an effort to get Brodie to quit talking. He needed to focus.
“Do I need to call Kade?”
Panic hit him again. “Brod! Haud yer wheesht!”
Brodie said something Connall didn’t catch, although, he figured it wasn’t complimentary.
“It’s my mate. She’s close.” Connall rubbed his forehead. “And in trouble.”
* * *
Pepper parked in the driveway and rushed into the house. She found her mother unconscious on the kitchen floor, a nasty bruise forming on her cheek. She knelt beside her and felt her pulse. It seemed steady, but she couldn’t wake her. Grabbing the house phone, she tried to dial 9-1-1, but realized quickly that the phone was dead. Stupidly, she’d left her cell phone in her car and she couldn’t find her mother’s.
She grabbed the biggest knife in the knife block and headed toward the front door. Before she reached it, however, it flew open and a dark figure stood in the doorway. With a scream of determination, Pepper made a run for the person standing in the doorway.
She didn’t get far.
Her wrist was grasped and her arm pulled behind her. The knife clattered to the ground before she could do any damage and she couldn’t stop a whimper, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt she was dead.
“Shhh. It’s Dalton.”
Pepper squeezed her eyes shut.
“I’m going to let go now. Don’t kill me,” he whispered.
She fell against him when he released her arm and turned her to face him. His dark hair was swept away from his face and his deep-set chocolate brown eyes showed concern as he stroked her face. “Take a deep breath.”
Pepper focused on him as she tried to steady her heart. Despite her attempts, she couldn’t stop her attraction to him. The man was gorgeous to a fault. His chiseled jaw and tall physique captured the epitome of the all-American hero. “Mom’s unconscious, Dalt. She’s in the kitchen.”
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer. “Okay, we’ve got help on the way.” She tried to push him away, but he squeezed tighter and shook his head. “Just let me hold you for a minute.”
“I’m good, Dalt.” Pepper pushed harder. She hated to be hugged.
He dropped his arms and frowned. “Are you sure?”
She nodded. “Yep.”
Awkward silence reigned as they stood in the foyer and several agents swarmed her house. Pepper crossed her arms and leaned against the wall.
What’s happening? Where are you?
Pepper glanced at Dalton. “What?”
He smiled. “What, what?”
“You just asked me a question…in a weird accent.”
Dalton shook his head. “Babe, I haven’t said a word in almost five minutes. Rare for me, I know, but still the truth.”
Pepper rubbed her forehead. “I must be hearing things.”
Where are you, lass? I’ll come to you.
“Dalton, stop it.”
“Pepper, I’m not doing anything!” he said.
“Agent Moore, we’ve got something,” one of the men called from the kitchen.
Dalton jabbed a finger toward her in warning. “You stay put, got it?”
Will you tell me where you are? Please?
“Huh?” Pepper looked up, but she was alone in the foyer. “It’s the stress. It must be.”
It’s far more than stress, lass. You’re terrified. Where are you?
No, no, no. I’ve finally gone nutso. Great. I have a stalker and now I’m hearing voices.
You’re not crazy. I just want to know where you are.
Pepper took a deep breath and pushed away from the wall. A knock on the front door brought the EMTs and Pepper led them to where her mother lay groaning on the floor.
Pepper knelt beside her. “Mom? The paramedics are here. They’re going to take you to the hospital.”
Pepper didn’t know if her mother was sober enough to understand her, but she was pulled away and watched as her mom was loaded into the ambulance.
“Okay, great. Thanks,” Dalton said, and hung up his phone before focusing back on Pepper. “Pack a bag, Pepper, you’re going to stay with Samantha.”
“No, I can’t.” Too dangerous.
What’s dangerous, lass?
Pepper let out a frustrated squeak. Go away!
“Pepper, it’s not up for discussion,” Dalton continued.
“I can’t go to your parents’, Dalton. It’s not safe.”
He closed the distance between them. “That’s why you’re going to stay at the hotel.”
“Just go pack a bag, okay? The less you know the better.”
Biting her lip, she gave a reluctant nod, then rushed to her bedroom and threw a few things into an overnight bag, just wanting to get out of the house as quickly as possible. The suitcases she planned to take to Scotland were stacked against the wall, but they’d have to wait for now. She wished she didn’t have another six weeks before she could escape this ridiculous place. She wanted to go now.
She made a quick stop in the bathroom for her toothbrush and makeup and then met Dalton by the front door.
“Ready?” he asked.
She nodded. “Sure.”
* * *
Dalton pulled his car up to the Gastonian and Pepper groaned. “Dalton, I can’t afford to stay here. You guys know that.”
“It’s covered,” Dalton said. “Kade’s rented the whole place.”
“But Sam said the hotel was full. They have a huge family, right?” She wrung her hands in her lap. “I should just go to the hospital and wait with my mom.”
“Babe.” Dalton grasped her hand. “It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay. We didn’t catch the guy tonight, but we will. He’s not perfect. He’ll screw up. But I need you to stay away from your mom right now. One of my agents is with her and has promised to keep me posted on her situation. I’ll tell you if anything changes.”
She disengaged from his touch. “What do I do until then?”
“You come inside and spend the evening with your best friend and her fiancé’s family.”
“Are you coming too?”
“Absolutely.” He grinned and Pepper couldn’t help but smile back. He really was charming. “Leave your bag in the car for now. I’ll grab it for you after dinner.”
“Thanks.” Pepper slid from the car and followed Dalton inside.
A small group stood talking in the lobby. Kade had his arm firmly around Sam and three other men stood with them, along with Fiona and Payton. Pepper assumed two of them were Kade’s brothers…they looked quite a bit alike. The other man had dark red hair and appeared attached to Fiona, so Pepper assumed he was Angus, Fiona’s husband.
Pepper found herself drawn to the taller of the two other men. Blond, with pale skin, he wore dark jeans, a soft, long-sleeved T-shirt, and boots. He was nodding at something the other was saying, until he locked eyes with her.
Like magnets drawn together, he approached her and smiled as he held his hand out to her. “Pepper…lass.” His voice covered her like silk and her stomach clenched in response.
“Yes,” she said.
How did he know?
“I’m Connall,” he said.
Pepper’s heart raced. It was the voice. The one in her head. She blinked up at him as he took her hand and squeezed it gently. She calmed instantly. Gone was the fear that had permeated every fiber of her being for the last few weeks. Gone was the worry of what might happen in the coming weeks…or days.
She felt safe. She felt home.
She smiled. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Are you well?”
The question was layered and she knew exactly what he was asking. She licked her lips and nodded.
Still holding her hand, Connall turned and led her back to the small group, all eyes now focused on them. Dalton hugged Samantha and turned back toward them, his eyes wide, his expression questioning. Pepper frowned up at him, willing him not to say something snarky.
“Con, this is Samantha’s brother, Dalton,” Kade offered.
Connall kept his hand on Pepper’s lower back as he shook Dalton’s hand, but dropped it when Samantha hugged Pepper.
“You’re getting so much better at hugging back,” Sam whispered.
“Might I point out, you just saw me less than two hours ago.”
“And?” Samantha hugged her tighter and swayed from side-to-side.
Pepper sighed. “Yes, yes…it’s a losing battle. You have to hug or you will die.”
“Um, hello, you’ve had a scare,” Sam said, releasing her. “I’m trying to make you feel better.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, fine. I’ve had a scare too. Hugging you may not make you feel better,” Sam admitted. “But it makes me feel better.”
“Can we talk for a sec?”
Pepper pulled Sam aside, hoping they were out of earshot of the group. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to stay? I thought the hotel was full.”
She glanced over Sam’s shoulder, concerned Connall might be “listening” in on her conversation, but he seemed to be deep in conversation with Kade, so she shook off her irrational thoughts and focused back on Sam.
“There’s always room for you, Pep.” Sam smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I don’t want to put anyone out.”
“You’re not. Come on.” Sam led her back to the lobby desk.
* * *
Connall watched as the confusion played over Pepper’s features. He “listened” to her concerns and forced himself not to step in and reassure her as she spoke with Sam.
On the plane, when he’d felt her panic and honed in on her mind, he’d been shocked to discover his mate was Samantha’s best friend. His surprise was quickly followed by arousal. He’d seen pictures of Pepper and knew how gorgeous she was. Of course, the photos hadn’t done her justice.
When she walked into the hotel, his initial impulse was to pick her up and take her somewhere private. Somewhere no other man could see her. She was stunning. Her light blonde hair was pulled away from her face and secured with a simple comb. When she’d turned away from him, he had to force himself not to run his fingers through the soft curls cascading down the middle of her back. She wore black jeans, and a low-cut periwinkle blue sweater with something black and lacy underneath. The color of the sweater matched her eyes and Connall was instantly captivated. She had pale, flawless skin and wore very little makeup.
His need to touch her trumped everything else, but he knew he had to proceed slowly. He couldn’t appear possessive or rush their connection. The simple fact that Samantha’s brother hovered was irritating, but Connall wouldn’t react. He’d rise above and do everything he could to make his mate feel safe.
He smiled as she and Sam made their way back to the group. He settled his hand back on Pepper’s lower back, the universal Cauld Ane action toward his mate. She didn’t object, which bolstered his confidence.
“How far away is the restaurant?” Kade asked, wrapping his arm back around Sam.
“Not far. Fifteen minutes maybe,” Sam said. “It’s just outside of town.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow. “Are we going to Big Daddy’s?”
“Yep.” Sam grinned. “Kade wants to try authentic barbeque. I figured his is the best in the area.”
“It’s certainly authentic.”
“Shall we go?” Dalton asked. “Pepper, do you want to go with me or Sam?”
“Why don’t you go with your sister, Dalton,” Connall suggested. “No point in taking another car. Pepper can ride with me…if that’s all right with you, of course,” he added, and smiled at her.
Pepper looked at him somewhat confused, so he focused back on Dalton, hoping he wouldn’t argue. He didn’t want to have to kill his mate’s friend, at least not on the first night of meeting him.
Dalton raised an eyebrow, but lucky for him, he didn’t challenge Connall. Although, he did turn to Pepper. “Are you okay with that?”
Connall had his hand flat against Pepper’s back and the contact calmed them both, but he still held his breath, unsure how he’d feel if she said she wanted to go with her friends.
“Um,” she said, and then nodded. “Sure, that’s fine.”
Before Pepper could change her mind, Connall ushered her from the hotel and out to the awaiting cars.
* * *
Connall led Pepper to a black Mercedes parked on the street and held the door open for her. She slid inside and waited while he climbed in beside her, trying not to react to the gorgeous giant of a man sitting next to her. Despite feeling safe with him, she would not be taken in. Someone this good looking could only be up to no good. She’d need to keep her guard up.
“Are you buckled, lass?” Connall asked.
She nodded and forced a smile.
Must stay guarded, must stay guarded. I will not fall for the accent…I will not fall for the accent.
“I have the information in the GPS, but if you think I’m making a wrong turn, let me know, okay?”
My word, he’s magnificent. Dang it. I’m pretty sure he’s too pretty to have any kind of personality.
“Hmm?” She forced a smile. “Oh, yeah. Sure.”
Connall grinned and guided the car behind Kade’s. Pepper turned to the window and tried to calm her heart. She hated being a burden to anyone and didn’t like that someone might have to give up their room in order to accommodate her for the night. She also wasn’t too sure about the fact that she was hearing voices. Wasn’t that the first sign of insanity? Or was it if the voices answered back? Either way, she was definitely screwed.
Then there were the accommodations going forward. After tonight where would she go? She couldn’t stay with Sam’s parents. She didn’t want to draw her stalker to her surrogate family. She couldn’t stay with Dalton, ’cause that would just be weird, so she’d more than likely just have to go back to her mom’s house.
“Hmm?” she glanced at the Scottish, Roman, Greek god.
No that’s not right. Sam mentioned they were originally from Iceland. Yep, he’s an Icelandic god…no, Norse. Norse god. Talk about having no gods before Me. She gazed at the roof. Sorry, Lord, but you made him.
“Are you concerned about where you’re going to sleep?” he asked, a goofy grin on his face.
How did he know?
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” she lied. “But yes, you bring up an interesting point. I thought the hotel was full.”
“Oh, it is. But we’ve adjusted.”
“Max is bunking with Brodie and you’ll take his room.”
“Close friend.” He checked his side mirror. “You’ll meet him at the wedding.”
“Oh,” she said, realizing she’d let out a deep breath.
He glanced back at her. “You sound disappointed.”
“Aye.” He raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t think we’d share a room, did you?”
“What?” Pepper gasped and shifted in her seat. “Of course not!”
“Well, that’s a relief.” He gave her a mischievous grin. “Because we just don’t know each other well enough.” He shifted into top gear and then added, “Yet.”
When he chuckled, Pepper stopped her squeak, sort of, and stared out the window again, willing her cheeks to cool.
Well that’s just great. He has a sense of humor. Now what the hell am I going to do?
Big Daddy’s neon sign came into view and Connall pulled the car into the parking lot. When she reached for the door handle, he laid a hand on her arm. “No, lass. Let me.”
He slid from the car and made his way to her door, opening it and holding his hand out to her. When they touched, Pepper felt the overwhelming desire to give him every part of her. The connection was undeniable. Not like Dalton. Her attraction to Dalton seemed like puppy love compared to her pull towards Connall Gunnach.
She glanced up at him. He was looking at her with a strange expression. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing. I was just thinking how lucky I am to drive such a beautiful lass to dinner.” She felt the heat creep up her neck and then Connall smiled. “Will you spend some time with me later? To get to know one another?”
She bit her lip. “Let’s get through dinner first, hmm?”
He grinned. “Fair enough.”