“Chloe?”

 

She blinked, her Fox yowling in desire at the sound of that deep, masculine voice. “Jim.” She turned, smiling weakly. He’d been gone for a week this time.

 

Not that she’d been stalking him or anything.

 

Erm.

 

Maybe a little.

 

“How are you?” The way he gazed at her, his hazel eyes glittering, his smile warm, had her wondering what the hell he was up to. Jim never looked at her like she was a yummy treat he was dying to lick.

 

“I’m fine. How are you?” She wasn’t going to throw herself at him. She had that much self-respect.

 

“Better.” He glanced behind him and grimaced. “Listen, I don’t have time to talk, but—”

 

“Bye.” Chloe opened the door to Wallflowers, leaving Jim standing there, his mouth hanging open. Sort of like he’d left her hanging for so long.

 

Score one for the Fox.

Chloe rattled the bag. “Food!” She set the bag on the table and hastily backed away.

 

But unlike Cynful, where a hungry group of hyenas would descend on the bag like a ravaging horde of Vikings confronted by naked, nubile women after a year at sea, the ladies at Wallflowers simply walked out of the back room like, well, normal people.

 

Of course, they were the farthest from normal she’d ever met in her life. And that was saying something, considering her family.

 

“Thank you, Chloe.” Emma Cannon, the Curana of the Halle Puma Pride and new mother, settled down on the sofa next to a blue-checkered car seat. She transferred the sleeping babe from her arms to the car seat. “God, I’m starving. I could eat a rhino.”

 

“No you wouldn’t.” Sheri grimaced. “They’re an endangered species.”

 

“Besides, they’re way too chewy.” Becky glanced around when everyone went silent. “What?”

 

Emma shook her head. “I swear, Becks, you never cease to amaze me.”

 

“It was a joke.” Becky rolled her eyes.

 

“Uh-huh.” Emma’s expression turned sly. “Sort of like the time you bought Simon a corset and stockings?”

 

Chloe blinked, trying to picture the very masculine glass artist dressed as someone from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She started laughing as she pictured fem-Simon singing “Sweet Transvestite”.

 

“I never understood why he didn’t find that funny.” Becky sat next to Emma, cooing down at the blue-wrapped bundle of baby shifter before turning to the bag. “Did you want something to drink, Chloe? You can go in the back and get anything you want.”

 

“Thanks.” Chloe shifted past Sheri, who’d sat in one of the chairs across from the cream Victorian sofa, her seeing-eye dog waiting patiently next to her. Jerry was a Golden Retriever and had been with Sheri for years. “Can I bag anything for anyone else?”

 

“Pepsi, please. I needs caffeine, my Precious.” Emma gave her puppy dog eyes, no mean feat for the queen of the kitties.

 

“Would you bring me some water?” Becky pulled an apple out of the bag and sighed. “I still can’t eat these. Too many bad memories of eyeballs and evil bitches.”

 

“Huh?” Chloe had no idea what Becky was talking about.

 

Emma and Becky exchanged a quick glance before Emma replied, “Someone drugged Becky. She wound up having hallucinations and landed in the hospital. That person…is no longer a member of the Pride.”

 

“I’ll take it.” Sheri held out her pale hand. “And could you bring me some water as well, Chloe?”

 

“No problem.” Chloe, who’d been a waitress before the attack, could easily remember the drinks they’d asked for. It was carrying them that was the problem, but she solved that by putting them in a plastic bag she found in the back and carrying it with her good hand.

 

When she returned from the back room, she could see Jim outside, speaking to a man in a wheelchair and gesturing toward the entrance of Wallflowers. “Huh. Wonder what that’s about.”

 

“What what?” Emma looked up from her sandwich toward the plate glass window of her shop. “Hey, Jimmy’s back!”

 

“Yeah.” Chloe was determined to ignore her wayward mate, instead focusing on the new addition to the Pride. She might not be a Puma, but she lived in Halle, and the Pride had accepted her as one of their own. As far as she was concerned, she was an honorary Puma. “How’s Felix?”

 

“Demonic,” Emma grumbled, biting viciously into her sandwich.

 

Becky cupped her hand over her mouth, laughing silently.

 

Sheri shook her head. “I still can’t believe you named him Felix.”

 

Emma shrugged. “Garfield was too obvious.” The fact that she said it like it made perfect sense was all Emma. “And Heathcliff was too tragic.”

 

“I think you should have gone with Nermal. I mean, look at him.” Becky smiled down at her godson with a besotted expression.

 

Emma just stared at her. “He looks like Winston Churchill and Lady Gaga had a drunken one-night stand.”

 

Chloe almost sprayed capicola and salami all over the table. “Emma!”

 

“What?”

 

The bell over the door jangled, announcing they had a customer. Chloe turned to find Jim and the wheelchair man coming into the store. Jim held the door open for the man, who quietly thanked him. “Geez. You didn’t say it was like estrogen central in here, Jimbo.”

 

Jim rolled his eyes, but Chloe could see the nervousness in his expression. “They’re going to love you, bro.”

 

Emma started. “Um.” Her brows rose as she stared at Spencer. “Bro?”

 

Jim nodded, smiling shyly. It was oddly endearing. “Yes. This is Spencer, my half brother.”

 

“Yo.” Spencer waved. He then hitched his thumb toward Jim. “This is my brother from another mother.”

 

Jim totally face-palmed at his brother’s irreverent words.

 

“Wait a sec.” Emma held up her hand. “You’re serious?”

 

Jim nodded, lifting his head from his palms. “Dad had an affair with a woman in Chicago about twenty-five years ago. Twenty-four years ago this weirdo was spawned.”

 

“We didn’t find out about each other until about a year ago. Seems Daddy wanted nothing to do with me when Mom died. Lucky for me, this big galoot found out about me and came for a visit.”

 

The sour expression on Spencer’s face was not echoed by Jim, who patted his brother’s shoulder. “I’m glad I did, or I would never have met you.” Jim’s gaze darted toward Chloe. “We need to talk.”

 

“Hallelujah,” Emma muttered.

 

“About damn time.” Becky glared at Jim.

 

“Hmph.” Sheri crossed her arms over her chest and sniffed.

 

Chloe ignored them all. She continued to eat her sandwich, studiously avoiding making eye contact with either Jim or his brother.

 

Jim sighed. “There’s a lot more going on than you know.”

 

“You said that fast time.” Chloe caught a glimpse of the confusion on Spencer’s face. Jim must not have told him about her paraphasia.

 

Jim sighed. “And we were attacked, remember? I never got to tell you what you…no, what I needed to.”

Chloe refused to feel sorry for the son of a bitch. Being changed against your will, being bitten by a shifter who wasn’t your mate, was an extremely painful way to be turned. But if he’d just accepted their mating none of that would have happened to him. He would have been a Fox instead of a Wolf, mated to her before the attack.

 

“Chloe? Are you ever going to speak to me again?” His tone was soft and disappointed.

 

As if he had the right to be anything but on his knees, begging for forgiveness. She sniffed. “I’m tinkling about it.”

 

Spencer held up his hand. “Can I explain?”

 

Before Jim could reply his phone rang. Unable to stop herself, she glanced at his expression long enough to see him wince. “You’ll have to.”

 

“Uh-oh. I know that tone, bro. Is that who I think it is?” Spencer frowned, holding his hand toward Jim.

 

“Yeah. I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

 

Spencer watched his brother leave the shop, then turned with a determined look and wheeled himself until he was next to Chloe. “Let me tell you about the birds, the bees, and a little thing called CIDP…”

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Dana Marie Bell.

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