AUTUMN SACRIFICE


“Hey, brat.”

A warm body slid onto the hard, wooden pew next to Brenna Alten. She inhaled deeply, filling her lungs with the sharp smell of autumn leaves and the spicy musk of warm man. Caleb Mahingan. She’d recognize that voice and scent anywhere, and they still sent desire fluttering through her middle. So much for outgrowing that particular reaction. She hadn’t seen him in nearly three years, but apparently, the sound of his deep, gravelly voice and masculine rumble still caused a screaming case of insta-lust. In church, no less.

He pulled her into his embrace, tugging her firmly against his chest. She wrapped her arms around him, returning his hug.

“Hey,” she said, pulling back slightly. Not the brightest of replies, but really, it was all she could come up with when she looked at him. She wasn’t sure it was possible, but he was even more gorgeous than she’d remembered. Keeping up with him via email and phone calls hadn’t prepared her at all to see him in person again.

He stared at her, curiosity and surprise clear on his face.

“What?” she asked.

He studied her for a moment more then shook his head as if dismissing a stray thought. “I was hoping you’d make an appearance,” he murmured, his voice carrying slightly over the sound of the arriving guests.

She had the feeling there was more to it than that, but she shrugged. “How could I miss Roxy’s wedding?”

He arched a brow and glanced pointedly toward where her father sat several rows ahead of them. “Well, you’ve managed to miss just about everything else around here in the last few years. Email’s just not the same as actually seeing you and having you nearby.”

She shifted in her seat and faced forward. “Let’s not go there, okay?”

He opened his mouth, but before he had a chance to answer, Caleb’s younger brother, Ethan, slid into the spot on the other side of her, and strong arms wrapped around her from behind. Jake—the youngest of the Mahingan boys.

“The prodigal daughter returns,” Jake whispered, his lips skimming her ear.

“Hey, guys.”

Her gaze shifted and she glanced quickly at Ethan then turned to peek at Jake. The sharp jolt of lust she’d felt when she’d seen Caleb, increased exponentially. Hell, all the Mahingan men were too damn gorgeous for her own good—tall, broad shouldered, tightly muscled with black hair and copper skin, their Native American heritage evident in their high cheekbones and dark eyes. Their gazes were bright with amusement and something else she wasn’t sure she wanted to examine too closely. They all watched her.

She quickly faced the front of the church again. This wedding couldn’t be over soon enough. She needed to get out of here, preferably before she made a fool of herself with these guys.

“You’re trying to figure out how soon you can take off, aren’t you?” Caleb murmured in her ear.

Color rose to her cheeks. Was she still that easy to read? Thankfully, the soft strains of the piano began, quieting everyone as the bridal party made its way into the small church. Was it too much to hope that the wedding would distract everyone long enough for her to hug her cousin, meet her new husband and make her escape?

Brenna’s father glanced over his shoulder, his expression growing cold when he saw her. He turned away, dismissing her as if she were a stranger. She tried to ignore the sharp stab of pain, and her eyes burned with tears she’d swore she’d never cry again. She’d thought he’d lost the power to hurt her with nothing more than a glance. Apparently not.

She didn’t know why she’d expected, no matter how briefly, anything else. He’d lost interest years ago when it had become apparent that she’d never be what he wanted. From the corners of her eyes, she glanced at the men on either side of her. They were what he wanted—wolves—shape-shifters. From the time they’d come into their power, considerably earlier than most shifters did, she’d known she’d been replaced in her father’s affections. Not that she’d ever had all that much to begin with. Maybe things would have been different if her mom was still around. He’d definitely gotten worse after she’d died.

Blinking rapidly, Brenna willed away the tears and looked toward the front of the church where the bridesmaids and groomsmen had assembled.

“Are you okay?” Caleb asked.

Nodding, she forced a smile she was far from feeling and stood as the bride walked down the aisle. Caleb’s hand settled warmly at the small of Brenna’s back, chasing away the lingering sadness. Or at least overshadowing it slightly. Her stomach flip-flopped nervously. She wasn’t sure if it was the anxiety she felt at being home again or the sensation of Caleb’s thumb brushing rhythmically along her spine.

A slow, languorous heat spread throughout her body. How was it that such an innocent touch could make her want all the things she couldn’t have—namely Caleb and his brothers? And a life in her hometown. Pushing aside her ill-timed melancholy, she focused on her cousin and the reason she’d returned home.

It was impossible to ignore the wall of men around her, but she still managed to pay attention to the ceremony, discreetly wiping away tears as Roxy made her way back down the aisle with her new husband. Her cousin didn’t even bother waiting for the receiving line before making a beeline to Brenna’s seat and leaning over Caleb to hug her fiercely.

“I was so afraid you weren’t going to make it,” Roxy whispered as she squeezed her.

Guilt swamped Brenna as she returned the other woman’s hug. “I was just telling Caleb, I wouldn’t have missed it.”

Roxy pulled back and gave her a stern look. “And you’d better not take off until we get a chance to catch up.” She glanced at Ethan and the others. “Keep an eye on her, will you? At least, until after the reception. I don’t want her to leave before we get to visit.”

After introducing her husband, she took her place in the reception line, and Brenna moved to exit the pew, but Caleb was blocking her way. “And where do you think you’re going?”

Brenna rolled her eyes. “Seriously?”

“We’ve been given our orders.” A slow, wicked grin spread across his face and she was glad she was still seated. She’d forgotten how tummy-fluttering the sight of his smile was.

Ethan scooted closer behind her and settled his hand on her waist. The tremors in her stomach increased at his touch, and she shifted nervously.

“How about if we walk you to the reception?” Ethan offered.

“Great idea,” Jake said.

Caleb continued to smile, appreciation shimmering in his gaze has he looked at her. “Yeah. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

Brenna’s breath caught in her chest as she lost herself in the heat in his expression. She needed to get out of here before she jumped the man in the middle of the church and made her cousin’s wedding that much more memorable.

She’d always found all three brothers attractive, but Caleb had made her insides melty since she’d first figured out what lust felt like. And she’d had an unrequited crush on him ever since. Much to her annoyance, she’d compared every guy she’d ever dated to him. And unsurprisingly, none had ever measured up.

Taking her hand, Caleb gently tugged her from her seat and led her out the side door, into the late afternoon sunshine, with Jake and Ethan following close behind. Her heart loosened slightly as she took in the sights of Calumet, the small town where she’d grown up. She hadn’t even realized how much she’d missed her home and her friends until she’d come back. Maybe, this wouldn’t be the awkward homecoming she’d feared.

Still hand in hand with Caleb, Brenna rounded the corner and nearly ran into her father.

Heart in her throat, she backed up a step and tried to pull her hand free of Caleb’s, but he refused to release her.

Having no choice but to stand her ground, she forced a smile in her father’s direction, hoping he’d surprise her. Maybe enough time had passed that he was ready to move on, too. It wasn’t as though she didn’t want to have a relationship with him. “Hey, dad. How are you?”

Her father eyed her up and down. “I’m surprised you bothered to come,” he finally said.

Hope deflated like a balloon in her chest. So much for thinking that maybe things could be different. He turned and walked toward the parking lot.

“Good to see you, too,” she said, finally finding her voice. She had no idea if he heard her or not.

She made the mistake of glancing at Caleb. He looked confused and more than a little horrified.

“What the hell?” he demanded.

She shook her head, blinking back the stupid burn of tears.

“What was that all about?” he demanded again.

She scowled at him. “Don’t act like you don’t know.”

“Know what?”

Brenna studied him. He really did look genuinely confused.

He stepped closer to her and brushed her hair from her face. “I know things weren’t great with you two before you left—”

“It’s not up for discussion.”

“Brenna, I—”

“Please, just…don’t.”

Glaring after her father, Caleb started to follow him, but she grabbed his hand and pulled him back toward her.

He stopped and frowned but put an arm around her, pulling her against his side. “We’re talking about this, later,” he murmured into her ear.

Ignoring his pronouncement, she watched her father get in his car. “So…do you think the reception has an open bar?