Alexis Gentry tugged at the top of her strapless bridesmaid gown as she paced across the dance floor toward her sister. She could count on one hand the number of times she’d needed a formal dress in her life, and Macey’s wedding made number three. After barely scrounging up enough money to pay for the two-hundred-dollar dress, the thought of only getting to wear it once had made her cringe.
Macey had chosen a beautiful burgundy satin number, though, and if Alexis found herself needing to attend another formal pack gathering in the future, thankfully, this dress would do the trick. Not that she ever planned to attend another pack meeting. With her sister mated to the alpha, she was already closer to this pack than she’d intended to get.
A pair of crystal chandeliers illuminated the hotel ballroom, and hundreds of people milled about the massive space, dancing and drinking to celebrate the alpha’s wedding. Had she ever been in the presence of this many werewolves at once? She shook her head. Macey’s human friends didn’t have a clue.
Plush carpet squished beneath her shoes as she stepped off the wooden floor and approached her sister. Delicate beadwork accented the top and bottom edges of Macey’s simple, white gown, and a pair of satin stilettos added four inches to her petite height.
“You’re the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen.” Alexis hugged her, and a strange pressure formed in the back of her eyes as her throat thickened. She released her hold and straightened the top of her dress again.
Macey smiled as she brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. She’d piled her long, blonde locks on top of her head in elegant curls, and a few shiny spirals cascaded around her face, accenting her eyes. “Thank you. That gown looks gorgeous on you.”
Gorgeous, but completely impractical. If she wasn’t careful, the damn thing might end up around her waist before the night ended.
“I’ve got you to thank for that.” She returned the smile and scanned the room, hoping to catch another glimpse of Macey’s sexy detective partner, Bryce Samuels. She’d met him several months ago, when she and Macey had first reunited after a twenty-year separation, and her wolf had insisted she at least say hello to him every time she’d swung through town since.
Her duties as maid of honor had kept her too busy to speak to him so far, but now that the formalities had ended, she could placate her wolf with a short conversation with the man. When she couldn’t find him, an odd mix of disappointment and relief spiraled through her chest and came out as a sigh.
Macey touched her elbow. “Are you going to be in town when I get back from my honeymoon?”
“Oh.” She bit her bottom lip. “No, I found a job a few towns over that will take me a while to complete. Room and board are included.” That last part was a lie. She wouldn’t room with the person offering if he tripled the payment. She’d learned her lesson with Eric two years ago, and she would never go back to that abusive bastard again. But she couldn’t resist the money he’d offered, and small-town motels were cheap enough. Or she’d sleep in her car; she was accustomed to both. Either way, she’d do the job, get the money, and get the hell out.
Her sister’s brow pinched. “You could stay at my place while I’m gone, and then work for Luke when we get back. If you need money, I can—”
“I don’t need a handout.” The last thing she wanted was for her little sister to think she couldn’t take care of herself. “Anyway, I’ve already agreed to do this job. It’s not that far away; I’ll stop by and see you when I can.”
“You know you’re always welcome—”
“So…” She couldn’t bear another second of their current conversation. Macey only thought she wanted her to stick around. “What’s it like working with Bryce? He seems a little cocky.” And too hot for his own good. Why did she always find herself attracted to men like that? “Does he get on your nerves?”
Macey sighed. “He is a little sure of himself, but he’s got a big heart. I love him like a brother.”
“He doesn’t wear a wedding ring. Does he have a girlfriend?” She clamped her mouth shut. Her voice had sounded way more hopeful than she’d intended.
Her sister cut her a sideways glance. “Bryce hasn’t had a relationship that’s lasted past the third date as far as I know. We don’t share a lot about our personal lives.”
“I remember.” Bryce didn’t even know Macey had a sister until a few months ago. Alexis gritted her teeth to quell her irritation, reminding herself she had been the one to run away. She couldn’t expect Macey to tell her partner about a sister she hadn’t seen since she was ten. “You spend all day with the guy. What do you talk about?”
“Work. Shallow stuff. We joke around a lot.” She shrugged. “Bryce has lost most of his family. He’s not the most emotionally open person, but I can’t imagine working with anyone else.”
A man with baggage, emotional scars, who didn’t like to share himself. He sounded exactly like her type, but she was done with men. Especially men who needed saving. She’d spent her entire adult life trying to heal people’s wounded souls, thinking that maybe if she fixed someone else, she could fix herself in the process.
Her enhanced healing powers only worked on physical wounds, though, not emotional ones, and she should have learned that lesson by now. She was attracted to damaged men because she was damaged beyond repair herself.
But she couldn’t ignore the flutter in her stomach as she caught Bryce’s eye through the balcony window. Her lips curved into an involuntary smile, so she pressed them together and lowered her gaze to the floor. “Good thing he’s your partner, then. You don’t have to work with anyone else.”
“He won’t be for long.”
She glanced at Macey. “Is he moving?”
“He’s up for a promotion to sergeant, and he’s applied for a position as a negotiator. He’s been studying for it, so I know he’ll get it.” Her shoulders drooped. “I’m going to miss him. Everything in my life seems to be changing.”
“Change is the only constant in my life.” The one thing she could depend on.
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Hell of a party, ladies.” James sidled next to them and tossed back the contents of his glass. “Can I buy you a drink?” He winked before raising his dark brows.
Alexis laughed. “At the open bar? Sure. Why not?” She smiled at Macey. “I’ll talk to you later.”
Taking a deep breath of relief, she followed James toward the bar. “Thanks for that.”
He paused and turned to her. “You looked like you needed a little help. Family squabble?”
She cast her gaze to her sister as Luke swept her into a spin on the dance floor. The band belted out a slow version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” and she chuckled at the appropriateness of the song. “Not a squabble. She expects me to drop everything in my life and settle down in New Orleans to be with her. I can’t do that.”
James shuffled toward the line at the bar. “I hear ya. You’ve got a life to live too.”
“Exactly. I’m a rogue. Always have been. She can’t expect that to change. People don’t change.”
He rubbed at the scruff on his chin. “That’s where you’re wrong. People can change if they want to.”
“Situations change. People don’t.” She’d learned that the hard way. Several times.
He arched an eyebrow as he stepped toward the bar. “If you say so. What are you drinking?”
James turned to the bartender, and Alexis gazed toward the window where she’d seen Bryce, but he was gone.
“Excuse me, ma’am, would you care to dance?” Bryce’s deep, rumbly voice came from right behind her, and she jumped.
Her heart fluttered, and she pressed a hand to her chest as she spun to face him, discreetly running a finger over the top of her dress to be sure nothing had popped out when she’d startled. A quick glance down assured everything was in place. “Do you always sneak up on women like that? Trying to shock me into saying yes?”
Shrugging one shoulder, he grinned and held out a hand. “Whatever works.”
His dark suit accentuated his broad shoulders, and he wore a gray shirt with a charcoal tie. Alexis pressed her lips together and glanced at his outstretched arm before looking into his eyes. That was her first mistake. The little brown flecks in his hazel irises seemed to sparkle with his smile, drawing her in and holding her. Mistake number two happened when she placed her hand in his and let him lead her to the dance floor.
She hadn’t thought about it. Her arm acted of its own free will, extending toward his until their palms touched and his fingers closed around hers. By the time she realized what she’d done, Bryce’s right hand rested on her hip, and his left hand held a firm grip on hers.
James caught her gaze as he sauntered toward the dance floor with two glasses of whiskey in his hands. He grinned and tossed back one of the shots before taking a sip of the other and winking. What had she gotten herself into?
“It was a nice wedding.”
Bryce’s voice drew her attention, and she glanced at his lips before looking into his eyes. Mistake number three. No lips should look that inviting. She swallowed the dryness from her mouth. “Yeah. It was.”
He chuckled. “I never thought I’d see the day Macey got married.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She never was one to share much about her emotions. I’m glad to see she finally let someone in.” He tugged her closer as he eased into a spin.
With her face this close to his neck, she couldn’t help but take a sniff. He had a masculine, woodsy scent with a hint of citrus that made her mouth water. Damn it, why did he have to smell so good? She cleared her throat. “Funny. She said the same thing about you.”
“She knows me better than anyone.” As the spin slowed, he loosened his grip, putting some much-needed space between them. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you.”
“You’ve seen me every time I’ve been in town.”
“You should be in town more often then.” He looked into her eyes, and a familiar sensation stirred in her soul.
A sense of longing tightened her chest—a feeling that seemed to grow stronger every time she was near this man. The same words coming from her sister would have irritated her, but for some reason, when Bryce suggested she should be around more often, something deep inside her wanted to agree.
Snap out of it. She needed to put an end to these stirrings right now. She was done with emotionally unavailable men. Why did she keep having to remind herself of that? “I’m a busy woman. I stop by when I have time.”
He nodded. “I respect that.”
Sure, he did.
“Do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow night?” So much for respecting her busy life.
No, she definitely did not need to have dinner with him. “I’m leaving town tomorrow. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“How about tonight then?”
“We already ate.”
He pursed his lips as if he were thinking. “How about this? After this shindig is over, we’ll go to Café du Monde for a café au lait and maybe split an order of beignets. Will that work?”
The man was persistent; she’d give him that. “I prefer my coffee black.”
He grinned. “Got it. Café without the lait. No problem; we can do that too.”
Why was she having such a hard time telling him no? Half of her wanted to say to hell with the job she had lined up and stay in New Orleans so she could have that dinner date with Bryce. The other half—the logical half—wanted to turn tail and run out the door right now. She didn’t need yet another man’s emotional baggage weighing her down, trying to drown her. She’d been there, done that too many times already.
Maybe spending some alone time with Bryce would wake her up to the fact that he was no different than any other man she’d tried to save. He was damaged goods, like all the guys she’d fallen for, and that would never change, no matter how hard she tried to fix him. Then she could squelch that nagging message her wolf had been trying to wriggle into her brain since the moment she met him.
“I do love beignets, but it will be awfully late.”
He shrugged. “I don’t mind if you don’t. I work nights, so I’m used to it.”
“Not for long, I hear. Macey said you might be getting a promotion.”
He eased her into another spin, and his masculine scent danced in her senses again. Having coffee with him would also satisfy the half of her that wanted to get to know him better. Well, that half wouldn’t be completely satisfied until she’d gotten to know what was beneath his tailored suit, but that would never happen. Not if she could help it.
Sliding his arm around her waist, he tugged her closer so their hips touched, and against her better judgment, she didn’t pull away.
He grinned triumphantly, as if he thought he’d broken down one of her walls, but he had no idea who he was dealing with. Her walls were fortified with titanium.
“Did Macey use the word might? Surely she thinks more highly of me than that.”
She fought her eye roll. If he kept up the cocky attitude, she’d have no problem telling him goodbye after coffee tonight. “I didn’t mean to bruise your ego. What were her exact words?” She gazed at the ceiling, feigning deep thought.
He let out an irritated hmph. “It takes a lot more than that to hurt my pride.”
She narrowed her eyes at him. Something told her he wasn’t as tough as he pretended to be. “She said you were up for a promotion and wouldn’t be her partner much longer.”
His grin returned. “That’s more like it. I knew she had faith in me. I’m going to be promoted to sergeant.” He straightened his spine, inclining his chin like he had no doubt the job was his. “A spot as negotiator opened up, so I applied for that too. I want to get into community policing—be present at the area schools, get to know the kids. Hopefully I can save a few lives so no one will have to investigate their deaths later.”
“That’s noble of you.” And a little bit hot.
He shrugged. “Being a homicide detective is noble too, but this is what I’ve always wanted to do. My life’s purpose.”
The song ended, and as she stepped away, Bryce tightened his grip on her hand. The band played a cover of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” and he tugged her to his body.
“One more dance? I love this song.”
“Sure.” And there she was telling him yes again, when she should have said no. His muscles were firm beneath his suit, and as he slid his arm tighter around her waist, she leaned into him, allowing herself…at least for the moment…to enjoy the feel of his strong arms wrapped around her.
She’d never dated a human before. Maybe Bryce would be different since he wasn’t a werewolf. Maybe without an animal side, he… No, no, no. She’d made a promise to herself, and she intended to keep it. No more relationships.
The song ended, and she stepped away before he could pull her into another inviting embrace. “I need to use the restroom.”
He walked with her to the edge of the dance floor. “No problem. I’ll find you again before the party ends.”
She flashed a weak smile, turned on her heel, and strode out of the ballroom. And hopefully out of Bryce’s life forever.
* * *
Bryce shoved his hands in his pockets and watched as Alexis strutted away. Her maroon dress hugged her curves in all the right places, and her hips swayed in time with the music as she drifted through the door. What a woman.
He couldn’t fight his smile. He’d jokingly asked her out a few times…well, every time he’d seen her since they first met, but she’d never taken him seriously, especially since Macey was always around when he did it. After a pep talk from Chase’s wife, Rain, on the balcony, Bryce had gathered up the courage to ask her out for real this time, and his pulse was sprinting from her answer.
Wait…she hadn’t exactly said yes, had she?
She hadn’t said no either, though.
Alexis was mysterious, and he liked that about her. Most of the women he’d dated wanted to spill all their secrets and load him down with their problems before they’d gotten to second base. Not Alexis. She was a woman who knew how to handle herself.
He’d had to fight the urge to slide his fingers into her silky, blonde hair while they were dancing. She smelled like cinnamon and vanilla, and she’d fit in his arms perfectly. He could get used to holding a woman like that.
“You’re smiling.” Rain grinned as she and Chase moved closer to him from the dance floor. Her long, dark curls swished across her back as her husband spun her under his arm before pausing in front of Bryce. “I guess it went well?”
He tried to flatten his mouth into a neutral expression. “We’re having coffee tonight.”
“Good for you.” Rain waved as Chase led her into another turn.
His own smile returned as soon as she looked away, so he sauntered to the bar and ordered a Jameson. Sipping his whiskey, he kept an eye on the door, watching for Alexis to return.
He couldn’t explain the way he felt about the woman. There was something about her that made him want to dive into her mystery and swim through her soul. Independent and strong, she didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought of her. She was who she was, and she made no apologies. He could learn a lot from a woman like Alexis.
The band played three more songs, and Bryce ordered another drink. After another three numbers, she still hadn’t returned, and a sinking feeling formed in his stomach.
Grabbing his third drink from the bar, he found Macey sitting at a table near the wall. He strolled toward her and settled into a chair. “Congratulations, again.”
She smiled. “Thanks. Thirty more minutes, and we can get the hell out of here. I’ve dealt with enough people for one day.”
He chuckled. “I bet.”
“I saw you dancing with Alexis.” Her brow puckered, her eyes holding way too much concern.
His stomach sank a little further. “I’m supposed to take her out for coffee after this is over, but I haven’t seen her in a while.” He set his drink down and drummed his fingers on the cloth.
Macey reached across the table and stilled his hand. “She left.”
He blinked. “She went to the restroom. She’s coming back.”
“She left fifteen minutes ago. Said she wanted to make the drive to her new job tonight so she’d be fresh in the morning.”
“She…” He let out a heavy sigh. “She didn’t tell me that.”
Macey squeezed his hand before leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms. “Her excuse was a load of bull if that makes you feel any better. Between me trying to get her to stay at my house while I’m gone and you asking her out, we probably scared her away. What else did you talk about?”
“Nothing really. I was my usual charming self. Don’t think I’ve ever scared a woman away before.” He tossed back the whiskey and focused on the burn it caused on its way down to his stomach. At least that was a welcome burn.
“She’s skittish. It may not feel like it now, but it’s better this way.”
He arched an eyebrow.
“She ran away when she was thirteen. I didn’t see her for twenty years, and now she’s been in and out of my life so many times in the past year that I’ve lost count. I love her, but…Alexis always leaves. It’s the only dependable thing about her.”
There had to be more to it than that, but if the woman didn’t want to go out with him, he wouldn’t push it anymore. Despite what he led people to believe, he was no stranger to rejection. It had been a while since it had happened, but he’d get over it. He always did.
Plastering on his most confident grin, he straightened his spine. “She’s still pretty, though.”
Macey rolled her eyes. “You’re impossible.”