And it was slowly driving me insane.
Sex was serious business for werewolves. I knew that in most cases, it meant lifelong commitment and off-spring and all that. Part of me hoped that Caleb was the rare exception who could slip on a steel-belted-radial condom and have his way with a girl he just liked a lot.
It was a long shot.
Then again, did the committed-werewolf-sex issue mean that Caleb had never had sex?
Werewolves were basically breeding themselves out of existence with their mated-for-life policies. Once a male impregnated a female, his DNA wouldn’t mix with any other’s. The same went for were-females—once they had children with a male, there were no other connections to be made. It was why divorce was almost nonexistent, and widows rarely remarried within the pack. Most males didn’t want to give up their chance of having children. Maggie’s cousin Samson was a fantastic exception to this rule. He had adopted his wife Alicia’s children as his own and was in the process of turning them into miniature knuckle-headed versions of himself.
Generally, werewolves tried to marry other werewolves, so they would be able to pass on their genes and produce little werewolves. But because of geography and the limited population, more and more wolves were marrying humans, and that resulted in more “dead-liners,” humans who shared all the same genes as werewolves but had none of the wolf magic. They couldn’t phase and lacked the werewolves’ special senses. They weren’t included in pack business. Some packs considered them a source of shame, as if the diluted werewolf genes were a sign of weakness, but the Graham pack loved their dead-liners as much as they loved any relative.
Most females wouldn’t risk premating sex, because they didn’t want to risk being tied to someone they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives with. Some males did play “sex roulette,” as Maggie called it, and sometimes they lost, meaning they impregnated unsuitable females and were stuck with them for life. Maggie’s stance on this unfortunate practice was “If you don’t want to pay, don’t play.”
Maggie was terribly pragmatic about this sort of thing.
It was difficult to imagine someone like Caleb as a thirty-something-year-old virgin. But I didn’t know if I was ready for that responsibility, to initiate someone into sex. Not because I was nervous about sex. I used to be not really wild but on the more adventurous side of the spectrum. I went out with my girlfriends, enjoyed the occasional protected one-night stand. But that was then. Now I was no one’s idea of an ideal first time.
Unless, of course, he came out of the bathroom wearing only a towel again—then all bets were off.
Ethical Organ Thievery
We had been driving for hours. The last time I could remember feeling my own butt was sometime before lunch. Even Caleb was starting to show some wear, hunching over the wheel and occasionally rolling his neck back and forth to hear the snap of realigning vertebrae. I reached across the seat, pleased that I could touch him so casually, rubbing the thick hair at the crown of his head, down to the nape of his neck. He leaned into the caress, a pleased chuffing noise emanating from his chest.
I rubbed the back of his neck, pressing my fingers deeper into the muscle tissue, feeling for knots. Tracing his hairline with my fingertips, massaging his scalp, rubbing my fingers along the tips of his ears, which I’d heard was an acupressure point for dogs. He turned his head to rub his cheek against my knuckles. I scooted a little closer, rubbing those knuckles along the line of his cheekbone. He turned his head slightly, pulling one of my fingertips into his mouth. He nipped at it with his blunter front teeth before wrapping his tongue around it, running his tongue along the ridges of my fingerprints. A hot flash ran from my chest to my belly and settled between my thighs. Old, lovely, familiar sensations—lust, excitement, giddy teenage zeal—had me squirming in my seat. My eyes widened at the strength and dexterity of his tongue as he moved it over my skin. If he could do that to a fingertip, what could he do to my—
I was jolted out of this rather indecent speculation by Caleb’s suddenly veering off the road and throwing the truck into park. My seatbelt seemed to melt away, and Caleb was climbing across the seat.
His mouth. My God, his mouth was hot and so very wet against mine. He wrapped my legs around his waist, pressing me back against the seat and grinding his thick, solid, denim-covered erection against me.
I moaned into his mouth, threading my fingers through his hair with one hand and clinging to his neck with the other. His hands spanned the width of my waist, sliding down the front of my jeans and yanking them open. The dark depth of his eyes melted away and gave way to predatory gold. Pressing his mouth to my palm, he untangled my arms from his neck and had me lie back as he pulled my jeans and panties down. His warm, thick fingers slid smoothly inside me. He moved in and out, teasing me with an achingly slow rhythm as his thumb rubbed at my sensitive folds.
He grinned when I made a desperate whimper and crooked his fingers—
I bolted up in my truck seat, disoriented and dizzy as I watched the scenery speed by. Caleb was driving, of course, and watching me with a little smirk on his face.
“Hey there, Rabbit,” he said, jostling my shoulder gently. “You having another nightmare? You were moaning in your sleep.”
“I’m fine,” I mumbled, shifting in my seat to alleviate the full, tingling sensation of my damp jeans pressing against me.
Why was he smirking at me? Had I said anything in my sleep? I’d never been much of a sleep-talker. I squirmed in my seat, trying subtly to move my uncomfortably wet panties—
With a cringe, I realized that he could probably smell that I was definitely not having a bad dream. He was teasing me. Stupid werewolf supersenses.
My face went warm, and I nudged his hand away. I grabbed a bottle of water from my cupholder and took a very long, very cold drink.
We’d been driving for three days and had already managed to collect on two relatively minor cases: a guy who passed bad checks in Healy and a woman who was a serial identity thief. I was amazed at how much Caleb managed to accomplish, tracking down about a dozen cases in the few weeks I traveled with him. He worked multiple cases at once, trying to track down several geographically convenient ne’er-do-wells, whether they were wanted by the authorities or . . . other people with less actual authority but more money.
Occasionally, it was as easy as calling the target’s mom and telling her to drag her son to the nearest sheriff’s office, where Caleb was waiting. (It actually worked twice.) Others put up more of a fight, which was why—given the Jerry debacle—Caleb tried to keep me as far from actual clients as possible.
At least, he did until Suds called him about the Mort Johanssen case sometime in our second week together. According to the e-mail, Mort Johanssen was a match to his twin brother, a seafood magnate who needed a kidney. Merl Johanssen was getting increasingly desperate and offered Caleb an obscene amount of money to track down his wayward brother, a Delta Junction resident who hadn’t spoken to his twin in years because of a dispute over their mother’s will.
We sat at a sticky diner table, munching on waffles. Caleb handed me the paperwork Suds had passed on from an investigator in Kodiak. “Merl’s got a huge fleet of crab boats and owns shares in most of the fleets in Alaska. If you’ve had crabs, it’s more than likely Merl’s had his hand in it.” He pulled an uncomfortable face. “That sounded better in my head.”
I snorted into my orange juice. “I sure hope so.”
I read over the medical report and saw that Merl’s renal failure was attributed to damage from a bad reaction to an antibiotic called streptomycin. Generally, when a patient had kidney problems, treating the cause could alleviate the symptoms. But it was difficult to restore damaged tissue. Merl wasn’t responding to treatment, and his creatinine levels and glomerular filtration rates were getting progressively worse.
I looked up to see that Caleb was watching me read the doctor’s notes. I smiled and flipped over to the mug shot of Mort, a stubby, round-cheeked man with thinning red hair. He looked like a hungover Cupid. “Do they both look like this?”
Caleb nodded. “Identical. Mort took a test showing him to be a match just before their mom died. Merl was executor of her will and took some family hunting property that Mort thought should go to him. Angry words were exchanged. Mort declared he was keeping his blankety-blank kidney and stopped taking Merl’s calls. But Merl’s condition is getting worse, and he would like someone to find Mort and persuade him to come back. See, it’s almost humanitarian. We’re helping to save a life.”
“Wait, so we’re tracking someone down so he can have a kidney removed by force? Why don’t we just get a Coleman cooler and yank the sucker out ourselves?”
“I’ve never been that good with anatomy.” When Caleb saw my distressed expression, he added, “I’m just kidding!”
“No, you’re not.”
“Fifty-fifty,” he admitted, waggling his hand. “Look, all we have to do is walk in there, talk him into the car, and drive him to the airfield.”
“Where twenty-four hours from now, he’ll wake up in a tub full of ice with a mysterious pain in his side.”
“No,” Caleb said, indignant. “He’ll be flown to Portland for the procedure. As long as he’s in reasonably good health, he’ll be in and out in no time.”
“OK, I’ve been a little wishy-washy in voicing my disapproval for your job in the past couple of weeks, but let me spell it out for you. We can’t do this. We cannot use another human being for spare parts,” I told him, lowering my voice when I realized the waitress was staring at me. “It’s ghoulish.”
“Don’t you think Merl should have a shot at living?” he asked.
“I just think Mort should be able to make the decision for himself.” I sighed.
“Come on, Rabbit,” he said, jostling my shoulder. I glowered at him. “If it makes you feel any better, Merl promised that if Mort donates his kidney, he’ll pay about twenty thousand dollars in back child support to Mort’s ex. See? It’s a win-win.”
“I still think it’s pretty messed-up,” I grumbled, sneaking a piece of bacon from his plate. The fact that he let me get away with it was a testament to his either liking me or feeling guilty for being a kidney snatcher.
Mort proved to be a wilier target than we anticipated. It took more than a week to track him from his snowmobile dealership in Delta Junction. Caleb grew more and more focused. He would disappear from our motel room for the night, coming back smelling of the woods. He wandered the town, searching for any hint of Mort’s scent. No one in town would give up information about Mort, either out of solidarity or because they honestly didn’t know. His live-in girlfriend, Monica, told me in no uncertain terms to kiss her ass and then slammed the door in my face. None of his employees would say anything besides telling us Mort was ice-fishing “somewhere.” Frankly, I was cheering Mort’s wily ass on. As far as I was concerned, I’d be happy if we never tracked the ginger escape artist down.
Caleb decided to move on to the nearest lake to scout ice-fishing camps, getting as far as a gas station ten miles outside of Delta Junction. The moment we stopped in the gas-station parking lot, his whole posture changed. His neck craned forward, and his nostrils flared. He jammed the truck into park, throwing me against the seatbelt. Caleb threw his arm across me in the classic “mom brake” maneuver, which I thought was gentlemanly until I looked down to where his hand was clasping my left breast. I cleared my throat. He glanced down, and his eyes went wide.
“What’s going on with you?” I asked as he moved his hand.
“Thought I saw something,” he said.
“The opportunity to cop a feel?”
“I would say I was sorry, but it would be a lie,” he said.
“OK, well, while you search the parking lot for ‘something,’ I’m going to go get some more jerky. We’re down to one bag, and I know that makes you nervous.”
I hopped out of the truck and walked into the station. It was a mom-and-pop operation in a two-story building called Mo-Mo’s Gas-n-Go. Given the porch structure on the second story, I guessed that the owner lived in the apartment over the store.
After visiting one of the cleaner—if overly bright—gas-station stalls in the Greater Northwest, I visited the jerky display to determine whether I could sneak a similarly packaged, low-sodium version under Caleb’s radar. I picked over the cellophane-wrapped tubes of meat, wrinkling my nose at the very idea of jalapeño-nacho-cheese beef jerky.
“Oh, don’t even think about it,” an amused voice sounded behind me. “If they have to spend that much time doctoring it up to make you want to eat it, you should just stick with corn chips.”
“It’s not for me, trust me.” I turned to share a chuckle with my helpful jerky Samaritan . . . and came face-to-face with the elusive Mort Johanssen. Jowly, bedraggled Mort Johanssen, in a green hunter’s jacket, was offering me a friendly smile and advice on meat snacks.
“Oh, nooo,” I groaned, dropping my jerky to the gas-station floor. “It’s you.”
Mort frowned. “Well, that’s not very nice.”
I pushed him none too gently away from the front window toward the little alcove where the restrooms were, so Caleb couldn’t see him. There was a fire exit beyond the restrooms, half-hidden behind giant stacks of milk crates. Unfortunately, Mort was a little too much man for me to move all the way into the alcove, and we stopped just in front of the potato chip display. “You have to get out of here, preferably out that fire exit.”