Julian Stanton was eating breakfast and rethinking his life as a PI when a stranger walked into the diner looking for Tess O’Rourke. Julian felt the hackles rise on his neck. He wanted to take his gun out and blow this guy’s head off for no apparent reason other than he didn’t like him. He’d never had an instant dislike for a person before. He didn’t know who Tess was, but he was going to make sure this stranger didn’t find her.
Tess was at her wit’s end. Dexter had once been her best friend, now she couldn’t get far enough away from him. He was everywhere, attacking her at every corner, emptying her bank account, and now he was after her baby daughter, Ruby. Only the Lord knew what he’d do to the baby if he got his hands on her.
Sent by his parents to help, Julian was to be Tess’s escort to the family home for dinner. The hotel was no longer safe since Dexter had found her there too. When she opened the door, she shoved the most precious squalling baby girl into his arms that Julian had ever seen. And when the woman walked by him, her scent hit him like a brick.
The job went from a favor to personal in the blink of an eye, and Julian would protect the girls in his life with his own if necessary.
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Dane had no idea who she was. She’d been shot and couldn’t even remember who she was hiding from. All she did know was she needed help, and when Julian Stanton found her, he took her to his family.
Brayden Stanton was just tired of everything. It was time to leave Africa and go home to family. He called his dad to tell him that he was fed up with the job and he was on his way home, and he was bringing a fiancée with him. She wasn’t his mate, but he was going to make it work. He realized his mistake the moment he proposed.
Danger comes at every turn. The women in Brayden’s life are surrounded with it. Both are lethal, but one has Braden’s heart from the beginning. The question is, can the family survive it?
Being a country lawyer was something Christian Stanton had always wanted to do. Taking a client he really didn’t want to represent was not what he had in mind.
Allie had been hired to teach the Stanton men hand to hand self-defense. She loved her job and was quite good at it. She knew about shifters, but had never really worked with them before. And when the big cat shifted into a very naked man proclaiming to be her mate, Allie wanted nothing to do with him.
When it came to Allie, Christian was in big trouble. She was no pushover and the sooner he figured that out the better off he’d be….
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Julian was enjoying his breakfast at the little diner when the man walked in. There was something about him that made Julian want to pull out his gun and blow his head off. No reason that he could see right now for such a violent reaction, but he hated the man on sight. Taking his handgun out of his pocket, he laid it on the seat next to him. There wasn’t a safety, but had there been one, he would have taken it off as well. Something—something very bad was surrounding this man. “I’m looking for a friend of my son’s. Tess. Tess O’Rourke. She’s some kind of doctor.” Sally told him she didn’t know her but did know Ericson O’Rourke. The man’s voice was off too. Like he was trying his best to project a woman’s voice. Odd, even to him. “Yeah, that’s her granddad. Where is he?” “I’m sorry, but I don’t know you from Adam, and I’m not going to tell you that.” She went by him with a pot of coffee in her hand. When he was close enough to touch her, Sally, a wolf shifter, stepped back when he grabbed her. “You touch me without my permission and they’ll be picking up pieces of you out of this place for the next fifty years.” She poured the coffee for the table next to Julian’s, then came to him. He could tell that she was upset, but all he did was lay his gun on the table. For that reason alone, he was sure, she looked relieved. Saying nothing and going back to the counter, she asked the man if he wanted anything to eat. “I already told you want I wanted. Now, either call him up or send some kid to find him, but you’re to do as you’re told.” Sally cocked her brow at him. “You heard me. I’m not in the habit of repeating myself to people. Get him or face me.” Finished with his meal now that this ass had interrupted it, Julian wiped his mouth with his napkin, picked up his gun, and put it to the back of the man’s head when he stood up. Julian winked at Sally before speaking. “Sally, honey, if you’d be so kind as to call the police, I’d surely appreciate it. If I have to kill this man for simply being a rude fucktard, then I want them here to make sure that I did it by the law.” The man started to lunge, to where he had no idea, but Julian popped him hard in the back of the head and the man fell like he’d had strings cut that were holding him up. “Now look what you made me do. Sally, tell them we’re going to need the wagon too. I hurt him.” When the police arrived, not really in any kind of hurry since Sally had told them it was Julian, they took one look at the man on the floor and laughed. Apparently, he’d been all over town ordering people to do his bidding. “Mr. Merkel, he’s none too happy with him either. I guess when he was busy with another customer, this guy here swiped his hand over the counter, breaking his wife’s best glass of tea. The glass, not the tea.” Julian laughed with them. “Have you ever had her tea? Good God oh mighty, don’t, if you haven’t. It’s sweet enough that I’m betting she uses five pounds of sugar in it to make it that sweet.”
The medics brought the man around, and after a few minutes he finally stood. But when he looked around, trying, no doubt, to figure out who had hit him, his gaze settled on the man at the table, one of the nicest men in town. He was also Julian’s father. “You touch him, and it will be over before you can get all your fingers wrapped around him.” The man looked at Julian, then at his dad. “He didn’t hit you. Not that he might not have, but I did it. For being an ass. In this town, we don’t order people around, nor do we suggest they fetch and do as told for an asshole.” “Julian, behave.” He told his mom he was sorry, but he didn’t take his eyes off the man. “Come sit with us and let the police handle this one. Perry is doing a very good job as our new sheriff. That man there is unbalanced.” “Listen here, bitch—” He got no further because Julian’s sweet little mother got up and punched the stranger in the face. Then she sat down and picked up her menu. “I think I’m going to have the eggs and bacon today, Denny. Julian, I said come away from there before you have to hurt that man again.” She laid her menu down and smiled at him. “I do not usually resort to violence, but he drove me to it. Now, what are you having, Denny?” Julian might not have ever believed it if he’d not seen it for himself. His mom was taking some self-defense training from Allie, and it seemed to be paying off. Julian had thought his mom was scary before; now she was simply terrifying. He sat back down as the man, still the only thing he knew him by, was taken out. “We can’t arrest him for being a dick—pardon, Mrs. Stanton—being a bad-mouthed man, but we’ve told him to move on. I don’t think he will.” Julian told Perry, his brother-in-law, that he didn’t believe he would either. “We’ll just keep an eye out for him. You’ll help us out, won’t you, Jules?” Lately, just in the last couple of weeks, he’d been having his name shortened. He didn’t hate it as much as Brayden did; he actually thought it was nice. Friendly. As he drank a nice cup of tea with his parents, who had entered the diner when the man was out, he asked them if there was a Tess around. “Oh yes. I think that’s her name. She’s the granddaughter to my buddy, Ericson O’Rourke. He’s going to be working on that vet that came in with the bullet in his head. Why no one tried to remove it when he was hurt is beyond me, but he’ll be operated on in the morning, I guess.” Julian nodded and sipped his tea while his mom took up where Dad had left off. “The young woman, Kendal Wayne’s wife Sandra, she’s been helping out at the veteran’s office. I’ve never seen anyone so organized before. When the donations started coming in, she had them all in the proper order in no time. So, we put her in charge of procurement. I thought it was a nice title. And she’s being paid.” Julian said that was good. “But this man, what does he have to do with Tess?” “Don’t know. I guess, according to Perry, that he’s been all over town asking for her—well, you heard him—demanding her to come to him. I don’t know what his deal
was.” Mom told him that she wasn’t married. “Don’t set me up. I have enough going on right now without trying to untangle myself from a woman that you think is pretty.” “I’ve never met her yet, as a matter of fact. But I was saying she wasn’t married because whoever this man is, he’s not her husband.” He told her he was sorry. “But would it hurt you to go to see her to see if she is your mate? I heard that she’s as sweet as pie, too.” “Mom.” Mom laughed when Dad did. “I sign on my house in the morning. Also, since you did ask me, the furniture comes with it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all of it, but for the most part, I’m going to keep it. Sort of swap it out for something that I find while keeping the house looked lived in.” Julian had an apartment too, one that he’d never released when he’d been working. For some reason, he didn’t want to let it go. There might be a good reason for him keeping it someday. “Mom, do you think that Dane or Allie would want the baby stuff that was left behind? There is a lot of it. Girl stuff.” “I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. But I think that Allie and her parents are having a good time getting the nursery ready for the baby. And Dane will more than likely hurt you if you suggest that she needs pink in her baby’s room.” He laughed with his dad, saying that camo would be better for any child born to Dane and Brayden. “Oh good heavens, you don’t really think that’s what she’s doing, do you? Camo? Oh my.” “I’ll just leave it then. It’s not like it’s bothering me.” But it was. He had no idea why, but he had the most incredible urge to not just fill the nursery, but the house too. Telling his mom and dad he had to go, he left them there. The streets were cleaned of the early morning snow now, but he didn’t care. There was a feeling of hope in the air too. The new year was here, the stores were getting ready for spring, and he had an interview with a police force in the next town over. It would be a good drive, about forty minutes, but he thought it was better than just sitting around the house and being bored. His cell phone was ringing when he got into his truck. Julian was startled to hear screams first, then shots fired. Perry asked him to meet him at the local hotel, and he was to come hot and ready. “Fucking hurry.” He did, and when he pulled up in front of the place, he saw three people that he didn’t know, as well as child services. Not having any idea what he was walking in on, he decided that safe was better than sorry. Taking his gun out, he approached the man from the diner. “What the fuck are you doing now? I thought we had this conversation not ten minutes ago.” The man turned and swung, and Julian dodged it. The man went down, and Julian put his boot on his back, glad to see that he’d landed in some mud. “Now, this is what you’re going to do. Tell me what the fuck is wrong with you?” “She’s not supposed to have that kid. No kids, no kids, no kids. I told her she didn’t need them.” Not sure who he was talking about, he looked at Betty Cobb, the town social worker. The man continued speaking. “Tess is a terrible mom; she’s a whore that
doesn’t need to have children. I’ve seen her beating that baby and leaving it out in the cold. Just let me have it and I’ll make sure that it’s taken care of.” Whatever the man meant by his statement, it made Julian feel sick to his stomach. A combination of the woman-like voice and the way he said “Take care of it” made his skin crawl too. Julian would rather die than to give that kid over to this person. He looked at Betty. “The baby is fine. But we’ve taken her to the hospital with her mom.” He asked if she was all right. “Yes, but the baby is a little upset, if you can imagine. No indication of any marks on her, and she’s a chubby little thing too. Cute as a button.” “He do anything to hurt them?” Betty told him that Ruby, the baby’s name, had a cold, but that they were checking her out because of what he’d said. “And what is he doing here? Father? Brother?” “Nuisance.” Julian looked at the older gentleman when the idiot under his foot struggled to get away. Julian just pressed him harder into the mud until he was gasping. “He’s not any relation to us, but he has it in his head that he needs to have the baby for some reason. I know this man; this isn’t like him at all. Usually he’s so quiet and timid. And he doesn’t want my Tess, just her baby. Like I said, I don’t know what’s come over him. This isn’t him. Oh, by the way, my name is Ericson O’Rourke. You have to be related to Denny.” “His son. Julian Stanton, third son to them. And you’re the doctor that came here to operate on Kendal.” He said that he was. “Kendal is a good man, doesn’t deserve this. I surely hope you can do some good for him.” “I will give it my best, but before you drown Dexter, let him up.” Jules grinned at Perry when he finally showed up. “I had to escort Ms. O’Rourke. She’s pretty upset too.” After Dexter Jorden was taken in, Julian asked Perry if he needed him for anything else. Perry said the same thing he always did, to come and work for him. He told him again that it wasn’t in the cards. Just as he was leaving his parents showed up, and he hung with them to figure out what the guy’s deal was that was after this Tess person. ~~~ Tess watched her little girl as the nurse examined her. Ruby had a bruise on her right shoulder, but otherwise was all right. Dexter was off the deep end, and she didn’t have any idea what to do about him. When the doctor asked her to come into his office, she asked if she could pick up Ruby and was told she could. Holding her little girl tightly, she handed her the binky that she had and watched her little eyes drift closed. It really had been a long day, and it wasn’t even ten in the morning yet. “She’s had a rough day, I think.” She told Doctor Colton that she had. “I’m sorry. I’m Doc Stanton. My first name is Colton. You’re Tess O’Rourke, the surgeon we’ve heard so much about lately.” “I am. My granddad is the one that was called in, but word travels fast. I guess that happens in a small town. You’re related to the man that called my granddad, then.” He said that he was his son. “I see. Is my little girl going to be all right? I mean, he grabbed her pretty hard when he tried to take her from me.”
“Yes, she’s just fine. And so you’re aware, I’m only here helping out—I’m actually a retiring psychologist. I work here when they’re short of staff or need a break.” She thanked him for coming in. “My pleasure. I had no idea that Ericson had a great granddaughter, much less a granddaughter.” “I’m his only relative, and since I’m not working at the moment, I decided to come along with him. Ruby likes to travel too. See things like snow. I had no idea there would be nothing left of it already.” He told her it was Ohio—tomorrow it might be in the seventies or the teens. “I’ve heard that before, I think. Sally at the diner told us.” “Yes, she’s good on sayings. And talking.” They both laughed. “You can take Ruby home with you if you’d like. On one condition.” Her body stiffened. “I might have a child, Dr. Stanton, but I’m not easy.” He laughed, and she felt her temper flare up hotter. “You would be well enough to just leave me alone.” “Feel better?” She wasn’t sure what he meant and asked him. “I’m not that other man. I was just asking you if you’d like to have dinner with me. At my parents’ house, with them there. I have my own home, but I know that your granddad is going to be there, and I didn’t hear that you would.” “I wasn’t invited.” Her temper now was turned onto herself. “I’m sorry. I’ve had a rough few months too. No, Ruby and I are trying to lay low with Dexter around here now. I don’t know what’s come over him lately. He used to be such a loving, kind man. But if he keeps this up, we might have to take off again. I don’t want to, but I don’t want my daughter hurt by him. He’s not usually so violent.” “Yes, he is. How many ribs do you have broken right now.” She didn’t say anything. “You have two, I would say, on your left, more on the right. You’re breathing hard and shallow. And you carry the baby on the less pained side. Also, there is a ligature mark on your neck. Most might not see it, but I’m paid to. Where are the rest of them? When he hits you, he’s usually so careful, isn’t he? This man Dexter or your husband do that?” “I don’t have a husband, as you well know. But yes, it’s Dexter. He is still mourning the death of his mom. I don’t know why he’d be like this—they weren’t close. Actually, I never liked her at all, even when we were children. But I think it’s affected him somehow and he’s acting out.” He asked her how long it had been. “Let me see. Ruby is six months old, and it was about eight months before that, so I’d say a year and a half. No more than that.” She watched as he looked at her daughter. “She’s not his.” The tears started to flow and before she knew it, not only was she sitting down, but in a very nice office too. Ruby was gone from her arms, and she had a box of tissues as she told him everything. “Dexter told me that he didn’t want me to have a baby that day. I was just a little over nine weeks pregnant. Kenneth and I, we weren’t in love, but he was security for me at work. So men would stop hitting on me. And I was security for his place of work as well. Kenneth had a lover and we were all going to live together. But they wanted a child, so they helped me with my student loans and I helped by being their surrogate. Then one day after I’d heard that his mom was dead, Dexter came at me, screaming at
me to get rid of it. He kept saying no kids, over and over. He must have hit me.” Colton asked her if she’d been hurt by it. “No. Just a nasty bump to the head, and it knocked me out. But they told me when I woke that Kenneth was gone. We’d not gotten married yet, and now I have Ruby, which I wouldn’t change for all the money in the world. But I do miss him and Daniel.” “There’s more too, isn’t there? Tell me, Tess, so that I can help you.” She didn’t want his help, but after today, knew that she was going to need it. “What did he do recently that has you so terrified?” “I’ve lost my job because of him. A couple of weeks before I did, he would come to my office and would harass me. Once, when I was in surgery, he hurt three of the staff to get to me, then had to be arrested when he tried to enter the operating room.” Colton said nothing, but now that the dam was opened, she couldn’t stop the flow of words. “I have nothing. He’s taken all my cash somehow, and then when I go to the police, there isn’t any proof that he took it. Nothing. I’ve changed banks and cards. Nothing seems to stop him. I’ve been beaten so many times that I can’t tell where a new bruise begins and the old one ends. I’ve lost everything since he’s been like this. My car, my job, my reputation. Thankfully he never bothers Granddad or me when I’m with him. But he’s obsessed with Ruby and her going with him. And for some reason, I think he means to hurt her.” “You’re a surgeon, like your granddad.” She nodded, telling him that she’d only just gotten her license to practice here. “In this hospital? You’re going to move here?” “Granddad wants to, but now, with this, I don’t think I should. I mean, he could, and Dexter might hurt him to get to me. And I can’t have him hurt the only man that I love.” He looked at her sharply. “Yes, Kenneth and I did like each other like friends, and I liked his partner Daniel too, but…. He was…his parents were pressuring him to marry a woman. But I knew from the very beginning that we weren’t suited. Yes, I liked him, very much. We did create a child together too, by artificial insemination, but we never really loved like a man and woman do. We both knew that going in.” “All right. This helps me a great deal.” She asked him how. “Well, for starters, you’re going to have dinner at my family home tonight. Then we’re going to get you out of the hotel. There isn’t enough protection there. Not to mention, he might hurt others in trying to get to you. Which he won’t again.” “And how do you think you’re going to do that? He’s already been released. And in the event that you didn’t notice, Dexter doesn’t seem to get into trouble for shit that he does.” Ruby had just started crawling, and instead of going to her, she crawled to Colton. “That’s a first.” “Do you believe in shifters?” Yes, she told him, he was a cougar, all his family was. “Okay, yes, your granddad would have told you. I’m sorry. But that makes it easier for me to tell you that so long as you’re around here, you’ll be safe. We protect family, and since you’re a friend of my dad’s, then you’re family.” “I don’t think it works that way.” He, much to the delight of her daughter, bounced Ruby on his knee. When she laid her head on his shoulder again to take a longer nap,
she assumed, he laid her back in the crook of his arms and held her. “You’re very good with babies.” “My sisters-in-law are both breeding, so I’ve been practicing. I can even change a poopie diaper, fill a bottle with one hand, and feed a rambunctious two-year-old.” He kissed Ruby on the forehead before rocking her back and forth. “I’ll have one of my brothers come by later and get you packed with the rest of your things, if that’s all right. I’ve spoken to my parents, and since your granddad is helping out, then they’d love for the three of you to stay with them. Mom needs practice too, she said. She’s not held a little girl for years.” As he was ready to go when she was, he gave her a lift to the hotel. The snow had begun to fall again, and she was afraid for Ruby. The little girl’s car seat was at the hotel, so she held her tightly as they took the slickest roads she’d ever been on. At least since living in Florida most of her life. Colton drove slowly but she was still afraid. Even as they made it there in one piece, she didn’t want to leave again. But Colton insisted that they come to his parents’ for dinner, and she couldn’t turn him down again. He’d been a nice man to her—the first nice man in a long time, it seemed. Gathering what she would need to perhaps stay all night at a strange home, she was taking the car seat to him when his phone rang. While he was putting the cheap car seat into his truck, the back split open and it simply fell apart. She looked at him as he threw it in the back of his truck and smiled at her. It was too much. Dropping to sit in the snow, she started crying again. “Come on now, get up before you get a cold where you can’t take medication. I have no idea what that means, but my grandma used to say that to me all the time. Asses can’t get colds, and cougars don’t catch them anyway.” He helped her inside and handed her a box of tissues. “My mom is coming with my brother. And they’re picking up a car seat for Ruby. And if you tell me no, I’m going to make you deal with my mom. She’s not one to mess with.” “Everything I have is cheap, or second hand and cheap.” She stopped crying enough to check on Ruby. “This child can sleep through anything. I swear, I wish I could have one nap as good as she does.” “You’re not very good at changing the subject. Which is all right. But I have to go to the hospital for a psych evaluation. That’s why my mom is coming.” Again she tried to tell him she’d just stay there. “No, you won’t. If you don’t agree, now that my mom is coming, she’s going to bully you into coming anyway. And Julian, my brother, he’s not having such a good day either, and a hug from Ruby will be just the thing for him. He’s the one that had Dexter arrested today.” “Then he’s great in my book. Probably could be king for the day too.” They were laughing when he went to the door with her. She smiled when he told her to lock up. “Yes, Daddy, and I won’t answer the phone until it rings once, then you call back.” Laughing, he thanked her. As he moved out the door, Colton turned back to look at her once again. There was a strange look on his face and she nearly asked him what was
wrong. But he was gone before she could. Strange, but nice man. Going inside, she locked the door and went to check again on Ruby. She, of course, was sound asleep.