Authors: Serena Pettus
Little Lilly came screaming into the world at a healthy eight pounds, two ounces and twenty-one inches long. She was perfect, like a little angel, and Ashe knew she needed to bring her home.
Traveling was no way to raise a child. They needed stability and a regular schedule, something to make them feel secure.
Hell, it would help Ashe too. There was no such thing as normalcy when on the road like she was, though she did quit using public transportation as soon as she knew she was pregnant, deciding to get a vehicle that would last her and her child for a long time.
In her shiny new SUV, Ashe had all but finished her list of sights to see before Lilly arrived. She’d picked up several things for the baby and her house along the way, mailing them all back home where her Uncle James had been holding them for her.
He’d been a sweet, affectionate man when she was growing up, but once her body began to mature, things changed. His kind looks would become heated, hugs lingered a little too long, and even her father did his best to make sure they never ended up left alone in a room.
James had never tried anything, but there was a certain uneasy feeling in the pit of Ash’s stomach whenever he was around. Unfortunately, he was the only person nearby who could get the packages and drop them off at the house.
After her father passed, James was around the house a
. He helped her to get through the funerals, and accompanied her to the lawyer’s office for the reading of the Wills.
At the time, she’d needed all the help and emotional support she could get, but it wasn’t long after her inheritance was announced that subtle changes began.
He inquired often about the house, and whether or not she wanted to live in such a large space alone. There was no secret he wanted to purchase it from her, as he’d already made several over-the-top offers, but Ashe just couldn’t part with her childhood home.
Growing up in the big house had been amazing. The two-story brick and stone house was like a fortress in the woods. Situated in a two-acre clearing, there was plenty of yard for a kid to play in, yet the woods provided a buffer to the outside world.
At nearly a mile from the road, the only noises around her home were the birds, crickets, and an occasional howl at night. It was perfect, and peaceful. Just what she needed while adjusting to her new mommy role.
Ashe lay back, sprawling on the plush carpet with a groan. Her breasts were aching, a sure sign that Lilly was due for a feeding. Deciding to wait and not wake her, she got up to pump. At only five weeks old, Lilly was such a good baby. She ate and slept at regular times, and only ever cried if she was dirty or overly tired. She absolutely
being outside too.
Just that morning, Ashe had finished feeding Lilly and went out onto the front porch to sit on the swing and enjoy the fresh air. She watched her daughter’s eyes as she took in the outside world, laughing at how Lilly’s whole face would light up when a bird flew off a branch, her pudgy little arms swinging.
She was so observant, always checking out her surroundings. Tomorrow’s shopping trip would be loads of fun. Between the clothes she needed to buy, to the groceries on her list, she’d have her hands full.
The sound of fabric rustling over the baby monitor had Ashe quickly capping off the bottle of fresh milk and heading to check on her little princess. Sure enough, she was awake, kicking her legs and frowning. Scooping up a clean diaper and some wipes, Ashe set about getting Lilly a fresh bottom before collecting her bottle and going out to the swing again.
She was just burping her when she saw her uncle’s truck coming up the driveway. Much to her annoyance, he rarely announced his visits. It wasn’t like she didn’t have any means of communication. Hell, everyone had a cell phone these days.
Of course, the last time she’d pointed that out, he scolded her for her sassy mouth. Too bad she didn’t give a shit what he thought. Her mouth, and how she chose to run it was her business, and besides, he was at
Struggling to keep her irritation from showing on her face, Ashe plastered on a smile and greeted him as nicely as possible. “Hey Uncle James, what brings you out here?”
It was a valid question. He lived on the other side of town, so it wasn’t like coming by was on his way anywhere.
“Oh, I just thought I’d check on my two favorite girls,” he called back, hoping down from the cab. “I figured you’d be too busy to bother cooking, so I picked you up some dinner.”
Great, now I feel bad
, she thought, eyeing the bag from her favorite chicken place. “Thank you. I’ve been assembling baby furniture yesterday and today. Figured it would be a good idea to get the nursery set up and ready.”
“Need any help?”
Knowing it would be rude to take the food and send him away, Ashe relented. “Well, the changing table is in pieces on my living room floor…”
“Say no more. You go eat and I’ll handle it.”
With that said, she watched him walk right in, put her dinner on the kitchen table and go straight to the mess she’d left.
The thing was, he came off as a genuinely nice guy most of the time. He always offered to help her with anything that needed to be done. The very same day she came home, he showed up with his mower and had her yard looking pristine by the time the sun went down.
Despite all of that, Ashe still couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling she got every time his stare lingered.
Memories of her father and his constant presence whenever her Uncle James was over plagued her mind. Had they been afraid he’d do something to her?
So far he’d been the perfect uncle, and he adored Lilly. He doted on her, buying little stuffed animals and such for her to play with, even though she couldn’t even hold her own bottle yet.
Regardless of her father’s reason for his caution, Ashe trusted her gut, and her gut was practically
that something wasn’t right. She’d keep her guard up, and the first sign of trouble, she’d show him what five years of working in bars had taught her.
With Lilly in her life now, she’d need to be extra diligent in whom she allowed to come around. So far, her uncle hadn’t done anything inappropriate, just staring every once in a while, so she’d let it slide. With her ample chest, she was beginning to notice that most men stared anyway.
“So have you heard anything from Lilly’s dad yet?” he asked as he continued to piece the changing table together.
“Not a peep. I’m not sure if he’s back here in the US, or if he’s still overseas. He could even be hurt and unable to contact me.” It was a concern that often kept her lying awake at night. With a sigh, Ashe looked down at her bright-eyed daughter. The thought of her never meeting her father always choked her up.
Every little girl needed her daddy.
“Did you consider the fact that he may have died in the line of duty? I’m not saying this to be mean, but you may want to prepare for the possibility.”
“I don’t really see how anyone can prepare for something like that. I know the risks he’s taking by being over there, and I pray daily that he somehow manages to find me, even if it’s only to say goodbye. All I really want is closure, I guess.”
Ashe watched as he set the table on its side to screw in the shelves. He was considering his words—that much was obvious—and it left her waiting in nervous anticipation. To say she wasn’t the best at checking her words before she spit them out would be an understatement, so she hoped he didn’t set her off. Sleep deprivation had left her bullshit fuse pretty short.
“Have you thought about moving on? Not that you have to right away, but Lilly is going to need a stable male figure in her life. You know, a father figure. It’d be easier to find someone while she’s small. Once the terrible two’s hit, you’ll be hard pressed to find a man willing to take
Well, he started off well enough, but the last part had her blood heating. Cuddling Lilly a bit tighter, Ashe slowly began counting down from ten in an effort to calm down.
“I appreciate you looking out for us. I mean, it’s what family does, but I’m okay on my own. I’m content to focus on Lilly and myself for now. If at some point I meet someone, then great, but I don’t have to have a man to be okay.”
“Not when you’ve got me around,” he smirked, puffing his chest out.
Seriously, the man was nearing fifty, and had more padding than a football uniform. He played in his younger days, and liked to brag that his extra padding was simply there to keep his muscles safe. Kinda like how rednecks pat their beer bellies and claim that their six-packs are chilling in the keg.
“Like I said,” he continued. “There’s no rush. I’m ready, willing and available to help you with
Was that a wink?
Ashe struggled to keep the look of disgust off her face, and what she’d ate of her lunch in her stomach. Was he actually referring to…nah, surely not. “Um, thanks, I guess.”
“No problem at all. I’m almost done with this. Where would you like it?”
“Oh, I’ll bring it into the nursery later. I’ve got to rearrange some things first.”
“Come on then. We’ll knock it out and you can relax later instead.”
Seeing as he was already lugging the thing down the hallway, Ashe decided arguing would be pointless. Instead, she followed and they managed to get the room set up in a little over an hour.
Lilly watched it all from the comfort of her swing, and now that it was all done, Ashe noticed her eyes were drooping a little more with every blink.
“It looks like she’s ready for another nap,” James chuckled.
“Most likely. I think I’ll try for one too. I’m going into town later today or tomorrow to stock up on a few things. Eventually I’ll get to the upstairs rooms, but there’s no real rush.”
At the mention of clearing the upper rooms, Ashe noticed how her uncle perked up.
“I’ll come help. You just let me know. That’s a lot for you to take on, and there’s no use going it alone when there’s an able-bodied man around to help.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d jumped at the chance to go up there, or inquired about her dad’s office. Kind of made her wonder what was up there that he wanted so badly.
“I’ll let you know,” she hedged, settling Lilly into her crib. “Right now, I just want to rest for as long as she’ll let me.”
“Okay, okay, I can take a hint. You just give me a call whenever you’re ready to tackle those other rooms and I’ll be here.”
“Alright, I will.” Ashe knew she was lying to his face, but she wanted—no
—to go through her parents belongings on her own.
This was their private space, and with the two being as free-spirited as herself, she had no idea what she’d find. No matter what was up there, Ashe still felt the need to protect their reputations and ensure that anything embarrassing was removed and either destroyed or stored away from prying eyes.
With James gone, and her baby monitor in hand, Ashe trudged to her bedroom and sprawled out. A good few minutes of shut-eye would do her good. She’d worry about the store later.
He couldn’t believe it. His alpha thought he needed backup? To say he didn’t take the news well would be beyond an understatement, but luckily he refrained from completely showing his ass.
The truth was, Luke knew his own alpha urges were eventually going to push him to challenge Aiden for the position. It was the reason he also knew he couldn’t come back.
Figuring he’d find somewhere to make a fresh start, Luke packed up his things, loaded his SUV down, and hit the road with a promise to keep in touch.
He had no idea who Aiden had conned into being his wingman, but Luke hoped he could tolerate him. He’d been extremely testy lately, so Lord help the poor bastard if he tried to boss him around.
All Aiden would say was, “I have it on good authority the two of you will be able to work together. Don’t worry so much.”
Easy for him to say. Luke’s wolf was pretty much spoiling for a fight at this point, and he’d already decided to go for a run soon after he arrived. Maybe if he allowed his beast to run off some energy, he’d be less likely to bite the head off the guy saddled with assisting him.