Sneak Peek—Hers for the Season

Read the first chapter of Hers for the Season!

Available October 7, 2019!

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Chapter One

 

Snow blanketed the forest in a thick, pristine layer of white that sparkled in the mid-afternoon sun. With the boughs of pine draped over the wooden fences, the oversized bright-red bows tied among them, the massive wreath that welcomed visitors through the front door of the main building, and the lights that would be twinkling as soon as the sun went down, Grizzly Ridge was the perfect place to celebrate Christmas. A place that would welcome you with candy canes, eggnog, and hot apple cider around a crackling Yule log in the hearth. Like a scene directly from a Hallmark holiday special movie of the week, the eco-lodge high in the Montana mountains was the epitome of Christmas magic.

If you were into that kind of thing.

And Liam Jackson was decidedly not into that kind of thing.

He trudged through the almost knee-deep snow, uncaring that he was disrupting the perfect snowy blanket that covered the meadow behind the main lodge that his cousins who ran Grizzly Ridge called the Den. His family had been working so hard to create the perfect holiday atmosphere, that he really should be more appreciative. Especially since they’d invited—no, all but insisted—that he join them for the season. Even though he hadn’t deserved it.

Not even a little bit.

Liam turned to look back at the house and his thoughts went back to the night before. He’d finally relented to his little sister Natalia’s harping about him coming over for the decorating of the Christmas tree. The only real reason Liam had agreed was because he owed Nat. After the way he’d behaved only weeks earlier when their grandfather was dying and he’d almost killed her—accidentally, but still—showing up for a party was the least he could do.

The very least, really.

He’d expected the eggnog, the Christmas carols, and the ridiculously large tree his cousins had chopped down and hauled inside. The holiday cheer he was prepared for. What he had not been prepared for was walking in the front door of the Den and having every cell in his body light up as if he’d been asleep his entire life. And something else coursed through him…something he couldn’t even begin to explain.

Liam replayed the moment in his mind, the same way he had at least a hundred times since the night before. The moment he set foot inside the room, all of the noise and activity silenced as he homed in on the only unfamiliar face in the room.

Strawberry-blonde, curvy in all the right places, with eyes so green they reminded him of emeralds. And…human?

As a grizzly bear shifter, Liam had an innate sense for other shifters, especially bears. But with this woman, he couldn’t scent anything. Except an intoxicating mixture of sweet almonds.

It was the biggest cliche in the world, something straight out of a B movie, but there was no other way to explain it: when their eyes met, time seemed to stand completely still. The entire room fell away and it was just the two of them. He should have moved; he should have gone to her, introduced himself, asked her name, anything. But then, just like that, the moment was gone. She shook her head and turned at something his sister, Natalia, said to her. She gathered up some Christmas stockings—of all things—and left the room. He’d waited for her to come back, but she never did. More than once, Liam had considered going after her, but there was no way. Not really. He was already on shaky ground with his family. He couldn’t do anything that might be perceived as…well, it was probably just better if he spent time with his family.

Liam shook his head to clear the memory of the night before, although he already knew from experience that the thoughts of the strawberry-blonde beauty would linger, the way it had all day. He turned back to the direction of the forest and continued his trek across the meadow toward the adventure center, where his oldest cousin Axel, the alpha of Grizzly Ridge, was waiting to speak to him.

“You know, you could have taken the path,” Axel said with a shake of his head when Liam walked into the timber-framed building where they stored the equipment like cross-country skis, snowshoes, and mountain bikes for the guests they usually hosted at Grizzly Ridge. With two of their family members due to give birth almost any day and the holiday season upon them, the Jackson family had made the decision to close down to guests for the season, making it much quieter than usual at the ridge.

Liam shrugged and stamped the snow from his boots. “This seemed quicker.”

“You know Harper is going to kill you for wrecking her perfect snowy field.” Axel laughed. But they both knew it was true. Axel’s mate was a half grizzly shifter who’d been raised as a human and had some strong feelings about maintaining traditions like weddings and the holidays. Liam didn’t pretend to understand any of it, but Axel was right, and he probably didn’t have to be a dick about their differences.

“I’ll apologize to her,” he said, suddenly regretting his recklessness with something that, no matter how silly, was important to Harper. “I’ll offer to hang some more lights or something.”

Axel laughed. “I’m sure she can get behind that. There will never be enough lights as far as she’s concerned and she was saying something just this morning about stringing some over the gate at the end of the road.” Axel reached into the beer fridge that they kept stocked. “Drink?”

“Absolutely.” Despite the fact that it was barely after noon, he accepted the drink and had hardly cracked the top off when his cousin got right to the point of why they were there.

“Last night,” Axel started. “You said Tonia was back in Jackson Valley.”

Liam nodded and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket. “I thought you knew.”

Tonia was Liam’s aunt, and the mother of Axel, Luke, and the twins Kade and Kira. As far as Liam—or anyone else—knew, his cousins hadn’t seen their mother since she’d taken them to live with their grandfather Gordon in Jackson Valley when they were kids. The story, as far as Liam knew it, was that Gordon hadn’t approved of his daughter’s choice of mate and cast her out. Years later, when she returned with a dying husband and four children in tow, he’d given her the choice to stay with her children, but her mate wasn’t welcome.

He was sick and she wouldn’t leave him to die alone, but had instead left her children to be raised in the clan. Despite knowing the story, Liam had never asked any of his cousins how they’d felt about it. No one had. It was just the way things were. But years later, when their grandfather cast Axel, Luke, and Kade out of the clan for failing to bring Kira back from an unsuitable mate, it was as if history were repeating itself.

“I didn’t know,” Axel said. “And I haven’t told the others. Not yet. I wanted to…” He turned away for a moment before once more looking at Liam. “I don’t know what I want.”

Liam didn’t know what to say. There was a time not that long ago when they’d been close. When he would have said something supportive or even given Axel a hug. Just because they were all massive men didn’t mean they didn’t need a good hug now and then. But those days felt like a lifetime ago. So much had happened.

After his cousins had been exiled, they’d gone on to build Grizzly Ridge and all four of them had found and fallen in love with their fated mates, a fact that drove their alpha grandfather crazy. Liam’s siblings Ryker and Natalia had managed to stay on good terms with everyone, but Liam had sided strongly with his traditional grandfather. His strong feelings had almost cost him his family.

Almost.

He was determined to fix things between all of them. Besides, he did feel differently now. A lot differently. Liam took a deep breath and a step forward. Tentatively, awkwardly, he put a hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “I know I don’t deserve to say this, or to say anything really after what I’ve…what we’ve all been through, but…”

Axel looked at him, waiting for him to finish, to say something that might make up for all the hurt between them. From trying to stop his wedding with Harper, to trying to take over the clan, to almost—accidentally—killing his sister Natalia. He opened his mouth but closed it again and pulled his hand away. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

It was lame and lacking and they both knew it.

But Axel nodded. “Thanks. I will. In the meantime, though, do you think maybe you can not say anything to the others?”

Liam nodded. “Sure. I won’t—”

“I mean, I know it won’t be a secret for long,” Axel interrupted him. “I’ll tell the guys. And Natalia obviously knows. But with Kira’s pregnancy being so hard and with her on bed rest, I don’t think we should tell her about…well, not right now. I don’t think it’s safe.”

“I agree. I won’t say a word.”

“Great. Thanks.” Axel drained the rest of his beer and tossed the empty can into a recycle bin. He moved to leave, but turned back one last time before he did. “I’m glad you decided to come for Christmas, Liam. Really. We all are.”

The comment took him so off guard, Liam couldn’t even formulate an appropriate response before Axel turned and disappeared into the crisp winter day. It was long after the wooden door had swung shut again when Liam finally nodded and said, “Me too, cousin. Me too.”

* * *

It was barely two in the afternoon and Bree Brooks was more than ready to close down her shop, Bree’s Knees, for the day. Not that it was an option. Not so close to Christmas. Between her online orders and her walk-in customers, her shop was busier than ever. Which was exactly why she couldn’t afford to be off her game. But for the life of her, Bree couldn’t seem to find her focus. In fact, that had been her problem since the night before at Grizzly Ridge when…

“No!” Bree shook her head and forced herself not to allow her thoughts to stray. Again.

She clicked over to her email, and tried to lose herself in questions from customers. So close to Christmas, she wasn’t sure how many more orders she could fill and still promise shipment before the holiday, but she was determined to do her best. Her online business had exploded in the last year with the addition of her custom-made pieces. Having a boutique in a small town in Montana wasn’t exactly the prime location for a booming business, especially when you catered to the curvy girl. But when she started to offer pieces online, it turned out there was a gap in the market for comfortable, but cute and completely original fashions and she’d been busier than ever.

Normally, Bree liked to be busy. It helped the days fly by and she absolutely loved what she did for work. But today she was running on almost no sleep, and when she finally did give in and just got out of bed that morning, her brain just flat out refused to cooperate with her.

She moved to her packing table and started to fill a few of the orders that had just come in. She folded, wrapped tissue paper, and carefully packed each item. But still her mind drifted.

Golden eyes.

Dark hair.

Strong, broad shoulders.

Liam Jackson.

She hadn’t even spoken to him. The night before, she’d gone to Grizzly Ridge to deliver her gift of hand-sewn stockings, one for each member of the Jackson family. Except Liam. She hadn’t expected him. Hell, she’d never even met him.

She hadn’t met him the night before, either. Not really.

Besides staring at him like some kind of star-struck schoolgirl, and asking Natalia about him before running away, she’d had no contact with him at all. Maybe that’s what was bothering her. The way she’d run away from the ridge and the tree decorating party. Harper would be so upset. She had such high expectations for what Christmas was supposed to look like, especially because it was the first one for her baby girl, Lily.

Bree hated to disappoint Harper. She was like a sister to her. In fact, her relationship with the Jacksons had grown since they’d moved to the ridge a few years earlier. She knew they were grizzly shifters, but it didn’t bother her. Not really. They were good people and although she’d managed to keep their friendship at arm’s length for a while, in recent months, they’d become even closer. It was fair to say that the Jacksons and all of their mates had become her family.

Bree glanced at her cell phone. Maybe she should call and apologize to Harper for taking off? Of course, she couldn’t tell her it was because Natalia’s brother Liam had made her…what?

Feel something?

No. She couldn’t say that.

Before she could make the decision to pick up the phone or not, the bells over the door jingled, announcing a visitor to the store. She pasted on a smile. “Good afternoon.” She turned. “Welcome to Bree’s Knees.”

Her smile grew into a genuine grin when she saw her friends Chloe and Nina holding a tray of coffee cups.

“We brought you one of those eggnog lattes we keep hearing about,” Chloe said. “I hope you’re not too busy for a quick visit.”

“Not at all.” It was partly true. It’s not as though she were getting much work done anyway. “What a nice treat.”

The three women moved to the upholstered chairs Bree had set up at the back of the store in the changing room area. She took the cup that Nina offered from the tray.

“I’ve been dying to try these,” the woman said as she took her first sip. She closed her eyes and made a dramatic show of enjoying the taste.

Bree couldn’t help but laugh. “They are pretty good. Thanks again, ladies. This is absolutely the perfect way to get me through the afternoon.”

They spent a few minutes chatting about what they were going to be getting their mates for Christmas. “Christmas was never a huge deal for my family,” Chloe said. “Except for the presents part.” She laughed. “Ask Zoe. We were all about the presents under the tree. But mostly it was a quiet affair, with just our family.” Chloe, mated to Luke, the second oldest Jackson brother, was a black bear, whose little sister Zoe had recently joined them at the ridge. She’d fallen in love extremely quickly with Bree’s good friend Gabe Wilder, a local police officer and single dad. She was happy for her best friend, for sure, but she couldn’t help but miss hanging out with Gabe and his son Ashton as much as she once had. It helped that she liked Zoe so much. She was absolutely the best match for Gabe and the most perfect stepmom for Ashton.

“Well, Christmas was huge for my family,” Nina jumped in. “But it was more about the party and the food. We had huge family get-togethers where everyone would bring something. Mom would put the music on and we’d dance all night before finally the kids would fall asleep on the couches and they’d have to carry us up to our rooms.” Bree laughed. Nina wasn’t a shifter of any kind, and besides Harper, who was her best friend, she definitely had the most human of traditions. She’d only very recently discovered her fated mate in Ryker Jackson, but despite being new to the whole world of shifters, Nina had adjusted very quickly.

“How about you?” Zoe turned the question on Bree. “What was Christmas like for you?”

“Yes, Bree.” Chloe leaned forward in her chair. “I don’t even know anything about your family.”

Bree took a deep sip of her drink, taking longer than necessary to lower the cup again. Chloe didn’t know anything about her family, because there wasn’t much to know. At least, there wasn’t much that Bree felt like sharing. She’d done a good job building a relationship with the Jacksons while sharing only the most basic of details about her own life. And it had worked because Bree was one of the few who knew they were shifters and it didn’t matter to her. They seemed to just generally accept that she wasn’t much of a sharer.

She should have known it was only a matter of time.

“There’s really not much to know.” She shrugged. “It was only my grandparents and myself, so the holidays were pretty low-key.”

There must have been something in her voice, or maybe Chloe sensed something else that Bree wasn’t saying. But whatever it was, her friend looked at her with a tilted head and for a moment, Bree thought she might say something more.

But then she smiled and said, “Well, that’s even more reason for you to say yes to what I’m about to ask you!”

 

 

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