His second chance at love needs a holiday miracle.
Becoming a werewolf messed up Gunner’s plans for the future. He’d pictured getting married to his high school sweetheart, popping out a few kids, and growing old and chunky, loved by his family.
In reality, he went to war, got bitten, became a werewolf, and ditched his past, including his fiancée because he’s convinced he can’t have a normal life.
Or so he thinks.
Seeing his Lycan brothers finding their happily ever after has given him hope. Maybe if he’s willing to try, he can have a second chance.
Kylie isn’t interested. As far as she’s concerned, he messed up big time and she’s moved on. Luckily for Gunner, fate intervenes, and when danger threatens, Kylie has only one person to turn to. One man she can trust.
Can this lone wolf save Christmas?
It was Christmas, and Kylie couldn’t wait to see her presents under the tree. To an often neglected eleven year old, it was the one holiday she could look forward to, the one time a year when her parents almost got along. Why just last night they’d snuck off early and played music loudly in their room. She’d rather not dwell on what happened other than it wasn’t yelling of the bad kind. To avoid being traumatized for life, she wore earphones to bed, the soothing ocean sounds lulling her to sleep.
She woke early and full of excitement. This year wouldn’t be the letdown of the last one when her dad got laid off and they didn’t even have enough money for a turkey. He’d gotten a better job soon after, and just last week, she’d overheard her daddy telling Mommy that he’d left an envelope with cash to pay the bills with enough left over to get Kylie some gifts.READ MORE
The hallway outside her bedroom remained quiet, the door to her parents’ room partially ajar. Still sleeping? She didn’t check. She hit the stairs and did her best to not race down. She wanted to savor the moment. She hit the last step and headed into the living room, only to halt, foot partially off the floor, frozen in disbelief.
The tree lay toppled, the angel that crowned it broken in pieces on the floor. Ornaments scattered all over. Most of them just broken shards.
Her mother sat sobbing and red-faced on the couch, bundled in her ratty pink robe, her mascara of the night before smeared around her eyes and running black streaks with her tears.
“Are you okay, Mommy?” Kylie treaded very carefully. Having seen her mom like this before, she knew her mood could swing a few ways. Most of them bad for Kylie.
“I’ll be fine now that the bastard’s gone.” She honked her nose on the Christmas blanket lying over the couch.
“Daddy left?” That wasn’t good. He acted as the calm parent, the one that shielded her if Mom got into one of her screaming fits.
“You going to whine about it? You shouldn’t. He’s a shit husband. A shit father. And a shit provider. I told him I needed more money for presents. But he said he gave me enough. And now see what you get? Nothing.”
The claim led Kylie’s gaze to the downed tree, which didn’t have a single wrapped present under it. A glance to the dining table showed it stacked with several cartons of cigarettes. Enough to last Mom a while.
She’d get to inhale secondhand smoke as her gift. Great.
Rather than explode, which wouldn’t end well for her, she took off, ignoring her mother’s yelled, “Don’t you go whining to anyone about this, you hear me?”
Kylie heard. She saw. She wasn’t stupid. Dad left because Mom selfishly blew their money on booze and smokes. Nothing new and yet it still stung. Not so much her mom’s actions but the fact he’d left Kylie behind.
The chill in the air outdoors meant Kylie paused long enough to shove her feet into her winter boots and snare her jacket from a hook. Then she was out of the house, a house they’d bought for cheap when she was little because someone got killed in it. It was nicer than the trailer, but she still hated it with its gross brown and crunchy carpeting. Hated the bathroom with its pink and black tile. Hated her room with peeling wallpaper depicting trains. She hated trains. Hated her life.
Snow crunched underfoot as she traversed her backyard to exit through the gate that led into the park. She aimed for the swings that someone forgot to remove until spring. She threw herself onto a seat and swung her legs, the creaking of the chain loud and ominous. It matched her mood as she pumped, wanting to escape. Eyes shut, she pushed herself harder and harder, wanting to feel the lightness of almost flying.
She almost crashed as a voice startled her.
She lost her concentration, the chains twisted, and she dumbly let go. As she dropped, she suddenly found herself caught by a boy. A tall boy, who held Kylie for a second before setting her on her feet.
“You okay?” His expression creased in concern. Her luck that a cute boy would be the one to ask.
“Yeah. Thanks.” She eyed the ground rather than him. What must he think of her outside alone on Christmas?
He stammered as he said, “You must think I’m like a weirdo for being in the park instead of with my family. I just couldn’t do it anymore. They were folding the paper from the presents. Which were books. And not the fun kind but science and history books,” he lamented.
“At least you got something. My mom bought cigarettes.”
“You smoke?” he asked in a startled tone.
He grimaced as he grasped what had happened. “Sounds like we’ve both got epic parents.”
“I can’t wait until I’m old enough to escape.”
“Let’s make a pact to escape together.”
That was the first time she and Gunner met. The Christmas miracle she needed. It became a regular occurrence after with them becoming fast friends initially, but as they got older, and hormones started to rage, they fell in love.
They formed a plan of escape. He’d enlist while she went to college, that way they could both concentrate while they worked toward their future.
A future where they’d be together.
It worked well at first. He saved money and bought her a ring. Popped the question. She said yes. They agreed to wait until she graduated and he’d finished his current tour.
Only he went missing. Frantic, she called for updates. Her messages went unanswered. When someone took pity and finally told her he’d either been captured or killed, she just about died.
When he was recovered, she’d felt such elation.
It didn’t last.
He didn’t contact her. No phone calls, no emails or texts. Just a single letter received on December twenty-fourth where he broke up with her.
A holiday miracle would be tooting handy around now. Kylie planted her hands on her hips as she glared at her kitchen ceiling. She’d just had the upstairs tub fixed, had done a passable job patching the drywall, and now the toilet was leaking.
It never ends.
To those who said congrats on owning your own house, she’d like to present the repair bills and the hours spent trying to maintain this cesspool by herself while also dealing with her precociously smart nine-year-old, Annabelle, aka Squishy.
Not thusly nicknamed because she had the most adorable cheeks as a baby—she totally did—but because of her obsession with the stuffed version sold in stores. Not that Kylie had bought many in her collection. Money was too tight for that. But Annabelle’s father—her official ex for more than six months now—wouldn’t stop buying them.
He thought love could be bought. And maybe he was right. His daughter adored him, but Kylie wanted more than gifts when he was an ass. “You didn’t iron my pants.” “Where’s my dinner?” “What do you do all day?”
The misogyny only increased the longer they were together. It was during one of his berating sessions—where she eyed her toes, her head bent in contrition to appease—that she noticed her daughter watching. Did she think this kind of behavior was normal?
What kind of example did Kylie set? Her husband, Howard, treated her like chattel, and it was during a lecture on how she should dress nicely for when he got home from work that she realized she had to leave.
I should have never married him.
In her defense, she’d still been heartsick. A year after Gunner dumped her, she knew she had to move on. During her summer break at home, she met Howard, a wealthy young man whose family owned the local winery. She worked at a restaurant at the time, and she’d been flattered by his courteous request for a date. One date led to another. Why not? He was courtly, a true gentleman who held out her chair, insisted on paying for their dates. Didn’t push her for sex, even though they went out for months.
She liked him but didn’t love him. Despite doing her best to not compare him to Gunner, in her heart, he came up short. And it made her mad. Hence why she decided to sleep with him.
It was okay. She’d not planned to repeat it, only she got pregnant. Totally meant to abort it, only he saw her in town heading into the Planned Parenthood clinic. Since she couldn’t lie, she told him the truth. To her surprise, he asked her to reconsider the abortion. After all, it was early in the pregnancy. He then whirlwind courted her. He was charming and sweet, and the sex got better. She dropped out of college when she decided to keep the baby.
They married before she showed too much. His snooty parents never approved. She’d thought it wildly romantic that he went against their wishes. She used to think it was a compliment when he’d boast, “You should count yourself lucky to have me.”
Not knowing any better, she believed it. She could slap her younger naïve self. They really needed to give some kind of lesson in school about how to recognize gaslighting and abusive traits. By the time their relationship progressed from gentle correction to harsh—and what he called, constructive—criticism, she was too firmly entrenched to easily escape.
No skills. No job. No money. And a child she wouldn’t abandon.
She might still be married to Howard if her mom hadn’t given her the chance to get out.
A stage-four lung cancer diagnosis sent her mom to hospice, and while not the kindest woman in life, when Kylie visited, she told her what to do. “Anyone can see you’re miserable. Leave the prick. Now. You need to start the process before I die.”
“Wait, are you telling me to divorce Howard?” Kylie had exclaimed.
“Yes, and quickly. Then he can’t get his hands on your inheritance.”
Which turned out to be a mortgage-free house, a surprising seven grand in the bank, and a way to escape his hold since he wouldn’t let her have a job. Heck, he wouldn’t even let her get a cell phone.
Getting out wasn’t easy. The moment she said, “I want a divorce,” he threatened to take Annabelle from her. Thankfully his family didn’t own the judge and custody got split fifty-fifty, which he was always trying to poach on.
“Mommy, are we going?” The light of her life uttered a plaintive query. Squishy had been looking forward to this day for three weeks now. The town’s Santa Claus Parade. Nine years old and still pretending to believe. Kylie loved that about her child.
“Such an impatient Squishy. Yes, we’re going. Get dressed in your warm stuff. It’s cold outside. That means snow pants.”
“But there’s no snow,” Annabelle grumbled as she kicked her way to the front door, lower lip pouting.
“Just because it’s late doesn’t mean it’s warm. You’ll thank me later.” Northern Georgia could be nippy this time of year.
“Why don’t you wear snow pants?” Squishy hollered as she sat on the floor to pull them on over her leggings.
“Because I’ve got more chunk than you.” No longer the svelte teenager, she’d put on enough pounds to be considered curvy. Her ex hated it. Had constantly harped on her eating habits, advice that often came with choice names too. She, though, rather liked her shape just fine. She ate what she liked, and she could keep up with her kid and job at the restaurant.
“No fair,” an exasperated Squishy sighed.
“How about some hot cocoa to make up for it?”
“With mushmallows.” Squishy refused to call them marshmallows from a young age, always insisting they were mushy, not marshy. It stuck.
“I will bury a mountain of them in there and give you a fat straw.” Kylie might be broke, but she would never let her daughter miss out. Kylie remembered how the little things her mom did meant so much, especially since they were few and far between. Unlike her own childhood, she wanted her daughter to have a plethora of happy recollections.
“You are the best mother ever,” Squishy declared as her abominable butt opened the door.
“Wait for me, missy. I’m almost done.” Kylie poured the cocoa into an insulated mug. The mushmellows started melting the second they hit the hot, sugary brew.
She set it down for a moment while she pulled on her stuff. Warm gloves, a scarf, mitts, boots, and her long coat. The Santa Claus Parade was a slow-moving thing of good will and lots of cheer more than anything else.
Kylie loved it. Just like she’d loved it as a kid. It took having a child of her own for Kylie to regain the love of the holiday after Gunner and his letter on Christmas Eve so long ago ruined it.
She shut the door behind her and heard Squishy exclaiming. “Hurry, I hear the band.”
They had only two blocks to walk, and a good thing since Kylie couldn’t afford to buy a car quite yet. Even if she did have wheels, it would have been tough. The road was packed on both sides, as people parked on every spare inch and walked over.
As she went to join Annabelle, she noticed her child had forgotten a scarf. “Give me a second,” she hollered, heading back inside to grab it.
“Last one there is a rotten egg!” Squishy cried out as Kylie leaned inside for the scarf on the hook.
Only to drop it as she heard the squeal of tires.
It had been more than a decade, and yet her house looked just the same if a bit more faded, the blue siding more gray than white, the trim showing a bit of rot where the paint had peeled. The roof had been patched with no care to matching, but it appeared solid and not dipping or tilted.
The little bit of digging Gunner had done showed this was Kylie’s house now, inherited from her mom who’d died after Kylie filed for divorce.
Divorce because she’d married another man. Even had a kid.
It hit him hard. It was supposed to be me. He should have been the man she’d spent the last decade with. The child she’d borne should have been his.
But he hadn’t had a choice once he’d been captured and changed from a regular man to a werewolf. He’d had to walk away. Or so he’d believed. Now… Now he wondered if he should have stayed and fought for her.
A young girl came flying out of the house, bundled head to toe, and yet not hampered by her layers. She sported a big smile and a joyful laugh. “Last one there is a rotten egg!” she cried out as she sprinted for the sidewalk. His heart tugged. She reminded him so much of another young girl.
The child headed for the sidewalk. Call it instinct, or just plain luck, but Gunner was moving, striding across the road, his eye on the cyclist riding his bike out of season, hamming it for a camera held on a stick. The kid hit a bump, and his bike jumped sideways off the sidewalk into the road just as a car crawled past. They both swerved. The cyclist veered into a parked vehicle while the car in motion rolled up on the curb where the child had been standing until Gunner swept her aside.
No one got hurt, but the little girl stared at him wide-eyed.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“You saved me.” Her lips parted to show off a gap-toothed smile. “I’m Annabelle. Who are you?”
Before he could reply, a woman came flying from the house. Kylie, who’d haunted his dreams, took one look and snapped, “You have a lot of nerve showing up at my house, Gunner Hendry.”
He wanted to run away from the condemnation he deserved in her gaze. The key word being deserved. He’d done her so fucking wrong. He’d also never stopped loving her. Seeing her he realized he’d do anything for her to love him again.
“Hi,” was his weak start to gaining that affection.
Her look lasered him. “What do you want?”
Not the right time to ask for a do-over.
“He saved me, Mommy.” The little girl stared at him with adoring eyes. “I was almost a Squishy for real.” She pointed to the car reversing from the curb.
“Hey-zeus, Matilda, and Johnson.” Kylie’s attempt at polite swearing had him blinking. What happened to the potty-mouthed girl he knew? “I told you to wait.”
A lower lip pouted. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to miss Santa.”
“The parade is today?” Gunner asked with surprise. It would explain all the cars.
“Yes, so if you don’t mind.” Kylie strode past him, snaring her child’s hand in passing, a clear brush-off, but he’d been a coward long enough.
“I’d like to talk when you get a chance.”
“About what?” Kylie snapped, letting her child pull free from her hand to join others as they headed for main street.
She snorted. “There is no us, and there’s nothing to say. As you can plainly see, I moved on fine without you.” She glanced pointedly at her daughter’s wooly-hat-covered head. As if sensing their gaze, the kid paused and smiled over her shoulder at them. “Hurry up, slow poke.”
He cleared his throat. “First off, I need to apologize. Some shit happened to me—”
“Watch your language.”
He clamped his mouth before uttering a surprised, “What?”
“I try to avoid cussing around Annabelle.”
“Uh, seriously?” He couldn’t stop the incredulity.
The daughter in question turned around, rolled her eyes, and said, “Better listen. Last time I said a bad word, I lost screen time.”
“Oh. I’ll be careful, then.” His awkward attempt at apology. The girl seemed satisfied and returned to skipping. He glanced at Kylie. “You’ve changed.”
“Life does that to a person. Goodbye, Gunner.”
Wait, was she seriously going to walk away?
He couldn’t, so he stood at the back of the thin crowd. Mostly people he no longer knew. A few he did and tried to avoid eye contact.
His gaze kept straying to Kylie and the little girl.
The tidbits he’d gleaned about the girl’s father was his name was Howard Keeler. The last name sounded familiar, and further digging reminded him that when he’d lived here, the Keeler family ran a winery that specialized in ice wines. They’d expanded since he’d been gone.
A hearse went by emblazoned with a giant and intricate K with a big red bow on its hood and an upright coffin decorated as a tree on its roof.
Then it was a dry cleaner, Keeler’s Jiffy Clothes. The racks were hung with holiday suits being groomed by paper mâché elves.
Then a tow truck, Keeler Wreckers, with lights that danced.
The crowd murmured in excitement when it came time for Santa, waving from his big red sled pulled by actual reindeer. On the side of the sleigh, emblazoned in fancy script: Keeler Winery.
But it was the man beside Santa that drew his eye.
Good-looking guy, blond hair trimmed short, wearing an expensive-looking suit and long wool coat. A fucking yuppy. That’s who Kylie married. The polar opposite of Gunner.
Annabelle hopped up and down and clapped, squealing, “Daddy’s helping Santa.”
His gaze went back to the dude, aka the target. Despite knowing Kylie filed for divorce citing irreconcilable differences, he had to wonder. Did she love the guy? Was there a chance they’d get back together? They did, after all, have a child.
“Careful, Squishy,” Kylie admonished, her hand on the girl’s shoulder.
Keeler spotted her and grinned broadly as he leapt from the sleight. “Ho, ho, ho, where’s my girl!” He held open his arms.
No way anyone could have the heart to stop the little girl from racing to her father. He boosted her into the sleigh, where she beamed. What child wouldn’t, given a chance to ride with Santa?
Kylie didn’t stop it, but Kylie also didn’t like it. She pushed out of the crowd, stalking in the direction of the parade’s end point.
Gunner matched his stride to hers. “You okay?”
“Fine. Go away,” she spat through a clenched jaw.
“You don’t look okay.”
She whirled to glare at him. “And if I’m not? It’s none of your business what I am. Leave me alone. You’re good at doing that.”
“I’m sorry for what I did.”
She snorted. “Sorry was ten years ago. Now I don’t give a cr—” She caught herself and said, “Cock-a-doodle-doo.”
He couldn’t help it. He laughed. “What the fuck was that?”
Her sour expression went with her stomping. He didn’t have a hard time keeping up to her shorter stride.
“Your kid is cute.” He tried for a different angle.
“I know. I made her.”
“I never had any.”
“As if I care,” she huffed.
“Never got married either,” he admitted.
“Imagine that. You dumped me and then remained a bachelor. Sounds like your dream come true.”
He didn’t know what to say. She kept twisting everything. “Your husband must be important to be riding with the big man.” He wasn’t about to admit he’d looked into her and knew she was currently single.
“Who says I’m married? Maybe I had a child out of wedlock because, you know, this isn’t the dark ages.”
“Why are making this so awkward? Like what do you think you’ll accomplish?” she accused.
Probably too soon to admit he’d come to win her hand in marriage. “My therapists”—also known as his meddling army buddies—“seem to think I’m stuck in the past when it comes to relationships.”
“Don’t you dare lie and say you’ve been pining for me.”
“I said no lies,” she huffed, giving him a dirty side-eye. “No way you’ve been celibate this entire time.”
He felt his cheeks heat. “Not exactly. But it was never as good as with you.”
She outright laughed. “Now you’re laying it on thick.”
“It’s true. I never stopped loving you, Lily.” His name for her because he’d always thought her a delicate bloom.
“Sounds like a you problem because I did move on. I married, had Annabelle, and made myself a life that doesn’t include you.”
They arrived at the parade’s end and only a few seconds ahead of Santa. He saw Kylie’s expression freeze when she saw her ex-husband’s glance boring in her direction.
“You should leave,” she softly advised.
“You’re scared of him.” It hit him with shock.
“He’s looking for an excuse to take my daughter away. I have to tread carefully.”
He knew that her custody agreement gave her a fifty-fifty share at the moment. “Want me to make him disappear?” he offered.
She blinked at him. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“That man is threatening you.”
“That man is the father of my child. Now if you’ll excuse me.” She turned her back on him. But his chance to escape vanished as he heard the high pitch of a little girl saying, “… saved me from a car that tried to drive on the curb.”
The claim led to a dark gaze settling on him then a fake, if charming smile from Keeler. He couldn’t run now.
“Hello, Kylie. Who is this friend of yours to whom I owe thanks for saving our unattended daughter from being run over?”
“She wasn’t unattended,” Kylie muttered.
“Gunner Hendry.” He held out his hand, and to his annoyance, the other man had a firm shake. Not a pushover.
“Isn’t this the guy who practically left you at the altar?” A mocking tone followed by an insult. “I should have paid attention before taking the plunge in your stead.”
“Not in front of Annabelle,” Kylie murmured as the child’s lips turned down.
Keeler set her down. “Go see my assistant and ask her if she has any leftover candy canes.”
“’K.” Annabelle ran off, and the man lost any veneer of kindness as he turned on his ex-wife. “If you are incapable of monitoring our child when in your care, perhaps I should have those privileges revoked. I know you failed at being a wife. Is it too much to ask you to be a diligent mother?”
Had there not been a crowd, Gunner would have made the guy swallow his teeth. He chose to use words instead of his fists. “Hey, man, that’s a little harsh. What happened was a fluke, and luckily no one got hurt.” Gunner interceded and drew Keeler’s ire to him.
“You aren’t involved in this. Nor will you get involved.” Then to Kylie, “This man isn’t to be allowed around our daughter. You know those ex-military types can’t be trusted.” Keeler’s insult wasn’t entirely wrong.
Lots of veterans came back with issues, but with a bit of help, they could surmount them.
Kylie ducked her head and nodded.
The submission had Gunner hissing, “Listen, asshole, maybe you’ve forgotten, but as Kylie’s ex, you don’t get to tell her shit anymore, and that includes who she sees or doesn’t.”
Keeler’s brows lifted. “Is that what you think?”
“Gunner, you aren’t helping. Just go away.” She lifted her chin to Keeler. “I don’t want to fight. I’d like Annabelle to have a nice Christmas.”
“I’m glad to hear that because I’m taking her tonight.”
“What? You can’t do that. I’m supposed to have her until Friday.”
“There’s a city hall thing tonight that I’m expected to show for with activities for the children.”
“She has school tomorrow,” Kylie argued.
“It isn’t supposed to finish late. Tomorrow, after her holiday school concert, I’m taking her to the company Christmas party. I’ll have her back to you the morning after.”
“You can’t do that. It’s not part of our agreement,” she insisted, and it was all Gunner could do not to hit the guy in the face for upsetting her.
Keeler’s smirk widened. “An agreement that can be changed. Never forget that.”
With that, he turned and strode off, leaving Gunner to mutter, “What a prick.”
“Takes one to know one,” she replied before she stomped away.COLLAPSE