“Bitch! You broke my nose!” he screamed.
I swung at him again, the baton make a high whipping noise as it crashed down on his thigh. I thought I heard the bone buckle as another hand closed around the wrist holding the baton. The hand jerked away suddenly, and I focused my attention on Grabby Hands, hunched in front of me. He leaned over, oblivious to me now as he tried to reset his nose. I slammed his head into the concrete-block wall, knocking him unconscious.
A hand wrapped around the back of my neck, the fingers digging viciously into my skin, making me yelp. Yellow Teeth shoved me against the wall, my head whacking against the rough wooden plank. The pain had my arms dropping limp and useless at my sides when Yellow Teeth pinned me to the wall with his hips. I barely kept hold of the baton as his belt buckle dug into my stomach. His stained, nasty smile glinted in the low sunlight. “Oh, sweetheart, you just made this more fun for us.”
And that’s when I heard a low growl behind us.
I knew that growl. I’d heard more than enough of it during my time in the valley. That wasn’t some stray dog or a cranky, city-dwelling bear. That was the growl of a pissed-off werewolf. And I’d never been so happy to hear it in my entire life.
Yellow Teeth kept his hand at my throat as he turned. I’d expected to see fur and four paws over my assailant’s shoulder. But Caleb was in human form, eyes glowing an eerie gold, lips pulled back from teeth growing longer and sharper.
“Mind your own business,” Yellow Teeth grunted as he threw his weight against my squirming body. “Just walk away.”
Caleb didn’t like that, if his sharper growls were any indication. A strange, warm calm spread from my chest outward to my arms and legs. My fingers relaxed and held their grip on the baton. The pain in my head didn’t matter anymore. Yellow Teeth’s grip on my throat didn’t matter. I was safe.
And while I was ridiculously happy to see him, I knew that seeing him shift would be very bad. The last thing I needed to deal with was explaining to the state police why two guys I’d beaten up in a parking lot seemed to think my traveling companion could morph into a giant wolf. That was the sort of thing that got attention.
“Caleb, don’t,” I said in a firm, calm tone.
“What the hell’s wrong with his face?” Yellow Teeth wheezed, his grip on my neck slackening.
“Caleb, calm down,” I told him, but Caleb was beyond listening.
A ripple of golden light spread from his chest. He was about to shift. In broad daylight. In front of humans. I was wrong before. This was the definition of screwed.
“What’s wrong with this guy?” Yellow Teeth’s fingers slipped off of my neck, and he stared at Caleb.
Caleb advanced, hunching over as his limbs stretched into inhuman shapes.
“Stop,” I told him, but Caleb seemed intent on ripping Yellow Teeth’s throat out. “Shit.”
I grabbed Yellow Teeth’s head, as if I was about to give him a big, wet kiss, only to yank hard as I turned and rammed it against the wall behind me with just enough force not to fracture his skull. He yelped and went limp. I dropped his leaden, unconscious body next to his equally knocked-out friend.
Caleb snarled and lunged toward them, body in half-phase. I could see the bones shifting under his skin, cheekbones bulging and exaggerated as they moved into their canine shape. His teeth stretched and sharpened into fangs to match the claws growing from his fingertips. And for some stupid reason I could not explain, I stepped between the insta-wolf and my attacker, hooking my arms under Caleb’s and throwing my weight against his chest. I could feel fur brushing against my face and had this bizarre urge to bury my face in it.
But that would be insane, right? Right?
Right. Defuse public werewolf transformation now. Evaluate need for heavy doses of antipsychotic meds later.
The fur disappeared and gave way to warm, human(ish) skin. Strong arms swung around my middle with the force of stalled forward momentum. I glanced up to see Caleb’s human features twisted into an expression of vicious rage. His eyes darkened from that predatory yellow back to their smooth bitter-coffee color.
I couldn’t help but gape up at him, even as he manhandled me. It wasn’t just that he was quite the sight to behold. He’d changed back mid-phase. I didn’t know that was possible, especially when the werewolf in question was this pissed off. Maggie was one of the most in-control wolves I’d ever met, and it could take her an hour to come back to herself when she was angry.
Caleb’s arm curled around my waist, pressing me to his side as he struggled toward Grabby Hands and Yellow Teeth. I wedged my foot in front of his, pushing him back with all of my might, but it was like trying to change the direction of a tank. He just dragged me along for the ride, my feet scrabbling for purchase against the rough concrete.
“Stop,” I told him firmly. “Caleb, you come back to me, or Lord help me, I will find a giant newspaper and whack you on the nose!”
Angry, punctuated breaths puffed through his nostrils as his black eyes stared down at me. Letting out one last angry chuff, he pulled me to his chest, nuzzling my neck. I could add snuffling to the list of interesting angry sounds Caleb made as he rubbed his face into my hair. The growls died down to a rumbling purr. I sank against him, my arms suddenly stone-heavy. I dropped the baton to the asphalt with a clang as I wrapped my arms around his neck to stay upright. Caleb’s breathing evened out, and his hands relaxed against the small of my back, rubbing wide circles. He reluctantly pulled away, cupping my face between his hands as he came back to himself.
He stared down at me, letting his eyes roam over my face, as if he was checking that all of my parts were still intact. He looked a little dazed, and then his pupils snapped back into focus.
And he did not look happy.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he demanded, shaking my arms. “I told you to stay with me. I told you I would keep you safe. And you run off the minute my head is turned? Do you realize what could have just happened to you?”
Right, we were not going to discuss the fact that he’d nearly phased in front of me. Then again, from what I’d seen of pack behavior, he might not have realized he was doing it. The more time werewolves spent alone, away from their pack, the less aware they were of their “wolf time.” Cooper Graham had been so out of touch with his phasing cycle that he believed it when Eli made it look as if he’d committed the aforementioned series of hiker maulings.
I wouldn’t ask how Caleb was able to find me. It was probably better that I just ignore it in favor of being irritated about the whole shaking-me-like-a-naughty-child thing. Right?
I shoved my hands against Caleb’s seemingly immobile chest until he relinquished his hold on my waist. I huffed. “I left because I could. Because I am an adult, and I control my own decisions. You were making me nervous with all your bullet wounds and plastic handcuffs. I decided I was better off on my own.”
“Oh, yeah.” He glanced down at the unconscious men at our feet. “You have everything under control.”
“I was doing just fine,” I muttered, shifting my shoulder bag and ignoring his quote-unquote compliment. “I am still upright and conscious. So I think that means I win. And frankly, I did it without much help from you. You just distracted them and made scary faces.”
“Scary faces?” he asked, his cheeks paling considerably.
“Yeah, you gave them full-on first-day-of-prison crazy eyes,” I said, my laughter just a bit forced. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear they changed color for a second there.”
He gave the world’s most awkward chuckle. “Yeah, that would be weird, huh?”
Really? I’d just given him the perfect opportunity to talk about his other nature, and nothing? Really?
With a disappointed sigh, I gave his shin a little kick, making him smirk at me and ruffle my hair. He grumbled but grudgingly admitted, “I want to rip them limb from limb, but what you did was probably better.” He gestured to the crumpled forms on the ground.
Oddly pleased by his praise, I preened a bit. “Never underestimate the short.”
Caleb snorted. “I think we need to clear out of here before they wake up. I’m amazed the manager hasn’t come out to yell at us for messing up his nice empty parking lot.”
I stared up at him. If he was willing to follow me this far, he wasn’t going to let me just walk away and plot my own course to Anchorage. And he was handy to have around when one was under attack by parking-lot perverts. Still, I had to give him a little grief. “But I’m paid up for two more nights!” I protested, although I will admit there wasn’t much heat in it.
He cast a derisive look at the peeling green motel-room door. “Well, that just goes to show that your judgment has been off in a lot of different areas.”
I gave him my unamused dead-eyed stare. “I’m not above kicking you again.”
“Frankly, I’m thinking about kicking you back. You left me a two-word good-bye note on a lampshade.” He growled, as if he suddenly remembered that he was angry with me. “Two words: ‘I’m sorry.’ What is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know!”
“That’s not an answer!”
“I know that!” I cried, throwing my hands up in the air.
“Why are you yelling at me?”
“I don’t know!” I yelled. I frowned, looking down at Yellow Teeth and Grabby Hands. “Should we stash them in my room?”
He nodded toward Yellow Teeth. “Get his feet.”
“I don’t think so.” I gestured at Caleb’s thick upper arms. “You came after me to ‘protect’ me, you might as well do the heavy lifting.”
“I didn’t come for you, I came for the baton,” he said, scooping it up from where I’d dropped it on the ground. “You’re just an amusing fringe benefit. So,” he asked in a tone far too casual to be sincere, “is there a reason you ran from me?”
He was pretending to be looking down at Yellow Teeth and Grabby Hands, all the while staring sidelong at me. Could he be mulling over my lack of questions about his finding me? Or why I hadn’t mentioned the strange yellow glow-y trick of light over his skin? Maybe the little peculiarities had built up to the point where a “normal” girl couldn’t have ignored them. Had it been a mistake to put that one last barrier between our real lives and what we were trying to show each other? Would I have too much to explain now if I told him I knew about were-creatures?
I opened my mouth to say, My ex-husband’s determined stalking and your connections to my former employers, not to mention your werewolf issues, are freaking me out. But I lost my nerve and suggested, “Generalized anxiety. So how far are we going today?”
“I don’t know,” he said, apparently caught off-guard by my sudden change of topic. He peered around the abandoned parking lot. “Where are we?”
For some reason, that struck me as funny. I started laughing. And I kept laughing, even as Caleb chucked the unconscious guys into my motel room and locked the door, then led me toward the truck. He kept an arm around my waist, as if he was afraid I was going to collapse from shock or crippling hyena laughs. Instead of shrugging off his protective grip, I held on to his arm like a lifeline.
“Come on, Rabbit,” he said, gently lifting me into the truck while I wiped at my eyes.
“I’m sorry. It’s been a long night—day—whatever.” I sighed as he tucked my legs into the cab. I grabbed his arm before he could close the door. “Caleb, thanks.”
He gave me one curt nod and slammed the truck door.
We drove for the better part of two hours, my head leaning against the cool glass of the window. The strange white buzzing in my head had faded away, and I could feel my muscles unwind from the unbearable tension I’d been under for the last few days. Caleb didn’t say a word for the entire drive. He barely looked at me, keeping his eyes glued to the road, as if he wasn’t driving on highways he’d wandered on routinely for the better part of five years. I closed my eyes, grateful just to be able to rest them for a few moments.
My eyes snapped open as Caleb turned into a motel parking lot. The Burly Bear Inn was no Ritz-Carlton, but it was certainly in better shape than the Right-Price. All of the rooms in the newly painted three-story building had exterior doors, at least, which couldn’t be said of my last “residence.” Caleb hopped out of the truck and walked into the motel office, presumably to get a room. He even left the keys in the ignition. It was either a sign that he trusted me enough to leave me unsupervised in his truck or a test to see if I would run off again.
I bunched my hands into fists to avoid the temptation. Because this was not a conversation I wanted to have with Caleb. It wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have with anyone. The only person I’d ever discussed my marital “difficulties” with was Red-burn, and that was over the phone. Talking about it face-to-face with Caleb would be considerably more painful.
Caleb emerged from the office after a few minutes, shoving a plastic key fob into his pocket. He opened my door, grabbed his duffel, and hooked my bag around his arm, nodding toward the first floor of rooms. I followed him, wondering where I would even start with my sad, sordid history.
Caleb unlocked the door, and I stepped inside the room, fidgeting and twisting my hands. He dropped the bags, his relentless stare pinning me to my spot on the questionable motel carpet. I took a deep breath. “Caleb, I—mrpgh.”
Before I could make another sound, Caleb was across the room and kissing the absolute hell out of me. His arms snaked under my own and lifted me off the ground, the sheer force of the impact throwing my legs around his waist. My mouth dropped open in surprise, and his tongue slipped between my lips.