“Wh-who the hell are you, lady?” he spluttered, batting my hands away.
“Look, I know this is going to sound weird and suspicious. But I happen to be traveling with someone who was sent by your brother—”
Mort actually shoved me away from him, paling even more under his decidedly wintry skin tone. “Merl’s still after my damn kidney?”
I nodded. “It would seem so.”
“And you’re with that big guy who’s been sniffing around town for me?”
I blanched at the use of the word sniffing. But I continued, using my firm bedside-manner voice. “I don’t want to tell you your business, but your brother is sick. Really sick. I understand that can make people desperate, but I still don’t think that’s an excuse to shanghai somebody into nonconsensual surgery.”
“What’s your point?” Mort huffed.
I snagged a Sharpie out of my jacket pocket and grabbed the first item I saw from the shelves, which happened to be a bag of peanut butter Combos. I scribbled the name of the airfield where Merl had kept a private jet waiting for the last week, just in case we tracked Mort down. “There is a plane waiting for you here. They can be ready to take off within an hour if you show up.”
“You have to buy those,” he told me, nodding toward the Combos.
“I will, I will.” I shook my head at him.
“It’s just that I own the station, and every little bit counts.”
“OK, I will throw in the jerky and one of those little car air-freshener trees if you will pay attention to what I’m saying.” I put the bag in his hand and placed my palms on either side of his face so I knew he was looking me right in the eye. “Merl needs your help. The chances of him lasting more than a few months without a transplant aren’t good. You need to decide whether you can live with that or if you can find it in your heart to forgive your brother and give him what he needs to survive. Personally, I think you should be given the chance to make that decision on your own terms. So what I’m telling you is that you need to haul ass out of that back door and run for it, so you have time to make that decision on your own terms before my friend sees you and makes this whole situation a lot more . . . intense. Now, do you have your car keys on you?”
“He’s really sick?” Mort asked.
I nodded. “He’s got very little time left.”
Mort’s watery blue eyes narrowed at me. “Is this a trick?”
“Yes, I’m trying to trick you into escaping,” I deadpanned.
“I need some time to think this over.”
“Which is what I’m trying to give you!” I threw my hands up. “It’s like we’re not even having the same conversation.”
Behind me, I heard the station’s front door swing open. Mort’s eyes went wide, and I turned to see Caleb walking in with an anxious expression. That expression shifted from anxious to shocked and then even more confused in just a few seconds.
“Go!” I grunted, shoving Mort toward the back door. Of course, Mort left his Combos bag behind, so I had to chase after him and throw the marked snack bag at his head while he ducked out the door. Caleb charged after him. Against all bounds of logic, I hooked my arm through his and dug my heels into the slick tile floor. This, of course, did not work, because he had about seventy pounds and a whole lot of werewolf strength on his side.
“Good Lord, you’re strong,” I groaned as he dragged me across the floor to the exit.
Just then, I heard the roar of an engine. Caleb turned, taking me with him as we watched a beat-up Chevy four-by-four peel out of the station parking lot and onto the road.
“What did you do?” Caleb exclaimed as I climbed off of him and settled on unsteady feet.
I winced. “I let him go.”
“Why would you do that?” he cried, throwing his arms up and making me flinch, which pissed me off.
“Don’t you yell at me!” I shouted, catching the attention of the irritable clerk behind the counter.
“You need to clear out if you’re going to carry on like that,” she said, pointing at the door.
And now I was getting kicked out of a gas station. Classy.
Caleb caught my arm and pulled me out the front door. He wasn’t hurting me, but the trapped, panicked feeling the sensation evoked had me clawing at his hands. He caught sight of my face and dropped his hands from my arms. But the momentum had me skidding toward the truck, bumping into the side panel with an ooof.
“We’ve spent the better part of a week looking for this guy, and you helped him escape? What the hell is wrong with you? Have I not explained to you how my job works?” Caleb was towering over me, his face livid.
“I wanted him to make the decision for himself!” I exclaimed. “If nothing else, it helps us avoid pesky kidnapping charges. I gave him all of the information for the airfield. He has time to think about it, and I truly, truly believe that he’s going to do the right thing and show up for that flight. Everybody wins. His brother gets a kidney. Mort’s kids get the back child support. And maybe, Mort and Merl can be closer.”
“You don’t get to make those decisions!” he exclaimed. “You don’t get to just decide which cases are OK to pursue and which ones aren’t. You don’t get to interfere with how I make my living, which is how I support the both of us, by the way.”
“I do have an issue with how you make your living. And I never asked you to support me. You just scooped me up and put me in your pocket. You didn’t ask me what I wanted. You just insisted that you knew what was best for me.”
“Because you’re incapable of using common sense! You just throw yourself into these stupid situations because you refuse to listen to anybody else!” Caleb shouted. I could feel cold fear winding through my belly, crawling up my spine. My jaw clenched tight. It was better that way, to keep myself from saying something stupid, from making it worse. “Somebody has to look out for you.”
I held my hands up defensively, my back pressed against the truck as Caleb yelled.
“And all the while, you sneak around behind my back, doing God knows what, because you decided that you know better. Who do you think you are?”
I nodded, my face practically buried in my own shoulder. I was folding in on myself, trying to make myself smaller. I could feel all of those old instincts creeping back.
And that pissed me off.
And for once, instead of flinching away, I lunged. “What makes you think you can talk to me like that?” I shouted, advancing and shoving my finger into his face. The loud, raging voice coming out of me didn’t even sound like my own. Caleb seemed just as shocked, considering the way he backed up. “Don’t you talk to me like I’m some stupid child. You don’t stand over me and scream at me until I agree with you. Just who the hell do you think you are?”
“I’m someone who cares about you,” Caleb said, his voice considerably calmer.
“So that gives you the right to make any sort of decision for me? Do you think this is what I wanted? Do you think I would have spent one minute with you if I knew how ‘protective’ you would be?”
Hurt and guilt flashed simultaneously across his features as his body relaxed from its confrontational stance. “OK, OK. You’re right,” he conceded. “I shouldn’t have raised my voice. Or dragged you around like that. That was wrong.”
But I was long past hearing what he had to say. “How dare you!” I yelled, advancing on Caleb until he backed into another truck with a thunk. “How dare you tell me what to do, where to go, what to wear, who to talk to?”
Caleb frowned and shook his head. “I never said anything about what you’re wearing. I just gave you a bag of clothes.”
“I am a person, damn it. I’m an adult! I was smart enough to get through school. Why wasn’t I smart enough to see you for what you are? Why couldn’t I see the stupid excuses I was making for you? Why?”
Caleb stood there, dumbfounded, as I ranted at him and cried. I got angry enough to swing at him, something that would shame me later. He ducked the blow easily and caught my arms to prevent a second round. So I kicked him in the shins, which he clearly didn’t expect. The sight of him yelping and grabbing at his leg was enough to snap me out of my conniption fit.
My arms dropped to my sides as Caleb stared at me in horror. We were lucky the clerk hadn’t called the cops on us.
I’d hurt him—not much, but the expression on his face was enough to make my stomach roll all over again. I dashed behind the truck and tossed my lunch all over the gravel of the parking lot. And I felt like a first-prize idiot.
Yes, Caleb was occasionally annoying and consistently overprotective, but he’d never done anything remotely hurtful to me. He’d never called me names, never made me feel inadequate or small. Heck, if the bruises currently healing on his shins were any indication, I’d done more physical damage to him than he’d done to me. Over and over, Caleb had shown me that he was not Glenn. He deserved a lot of things, but being my emotional punching bag by proxy was not one of them.
I rinsed my mouth with the water Caleb pressed into my hand. He helped me climb into the truck, and I tucked my arms around my folded legs. I glanced through the front window of the station and saw the clerk watching us warily. Caleb pulled out of the parking lot and drove silently back to the motel. He didn’t talk during the drive or while we walked into the motel or even while I stripped down and showered, trying to fight off the chills with lukewarm water.
I shuffled out of the bathroom, wearing Caleb’s T-shirt and a pair of sweats, and sat on the bed next to Caleb. He had his hands folded in his lap, staring straight ahead with a completely blank expression. There was a long, awkward silence, in which I speculated that he would finally decide I was too much trouble to deal with and send me on my way. And part of me thought maybe it would be better that way. Maybe it would hurt less in the long run.
Maybe I should take the choice away from him. Maybe I should get up and just start packing. I’d spent too much time procrastinating. I needed to stop this madness and get to Anchorage, start over, and Caleb . . . Caleb was still staring straight ahead, which was starting to worry me.
“So back at the station, you weren’t really talking to me, huh?” he finally asked.
I shook my head.
“You were talking to him? The guy who gives you nightmares?”
I nodded, not able to look up at him. “I never got around to counseling. I read all of the right self-help books, worked through them as instructed. I was offered anonymous talk therapy over the phone with a specialized counselor, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Somehow, admitting what happened to me, making it real, seemed to make all of the progress I’d made unreal.”
“I know you have some stuff in your past that you don’t want to tell me about. And I’ve tried not to pry. But eventually, Rabbit, you’re going to have to talk to me about it.”
“Do you really want a blow-by-blow account?” I asked. “Do you want to look at my journal? There’s an entertaining read, or at least it was before I realized he was reading it. Giving me even that tiny bit of privacy was just too much for him. Do you want me to tell you I was some sweet, naive girl who never suspected a thing? Because I did suspect—a lot—but I just couldn’t figure a way out of it.”
“No. I’m not asking you to share anything with me you don’t want to,” he insisted. “For now, you should know that I’m not whoever you were yelling at. I wouldn’t ever lay a hand on you in anger. I may bluster and fuss, but I wouldn’t try to take your choices away. I kind of like that you’re always trying to get around me to do what you want. It’s what makes you interesting and frustrating and, well, you. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
I nodded, resenting him for being so damned understanding. I didn’t know how to respond to this. I knew what to do when someone was yelling or threatening. I didn’t know what to do in the face of respectful boundaries. God, that was sad.
I slipped an arm around him. He tucked my head under his chin and kissed my hair. “Also, you have to stop kicking me in the shin. It’s emasculating.”
A snort rippled up from my lungs, and I covered it with a cough. “I’m sorry. There’s no excuse for it.”
He ruffled my hair, his hand lingering on top of my head. I leaned into it, tucking my face against his chest. He wrapped the other arm around me and secured me there.
“I’m sorry I raised my voice,” he said. “I should have known better. You showed all those skittish signs. I knew you wouldn’t tolerate that.”
“So I’m a walking advertisement for post-traumatic stress. Awesome,” I muttered.
“No, the signs are pretty subtle, but I watch you closely.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
I looked up at him. “Can we just go to bed and pretend you’re not still crazy angry with me?”
“I’m not ‘crazy’ angry with you. I’m ‘sane person’ angry with you. And we’re going to have to talk about your bleeding-heart tendencies at some point,” he told me.
“I know.” I sighed, flopping down on the threadbare pillows. “But not tonight.”
He scooted up on the bed, under the blankets, and curled his body around mine. He rested his chin on my shoulder and draped an arm around my middle. I closed my eyes and sighed as the heat from his skin seeped into mine.