“That’s still a possibility,” I told him, making Abe frown at Caleb.
“She’s a kidder,” Caleb assured him. “She’s crazy about me.”
I snorted. “ ‘Crazy’ is a good word for it.”
Abe shot Caleb a sly look. “Oh, I like her. You deserve her, buddy. I’m looking forward to watching how this plays out. You in a relationship? That’s like one of those shows about guys who wrestle with wild gators. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but it will be bloody, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to laugh.”
“Is Trixie here yet?” Caleb asked, ignoring Abe’s jab. “I would like to snap her up before these guys figure out I’m taking away their entertainment. That could get ugly.”
“She’s not due for another thirty minutes or so,” Abe told him. “You got a minute, man. And I need a favor.” Abe jerked his head toward his office. Caleb gave me a skeptical look, as if he didn’t want to leave me alone, but I waved him off.
“Go have fun,” I told him. “I’ll be fine.”
“The last time you said that, you ended up offering to show Jerry your boobs,” he said.
Abe’s mouth popped open to comment, but instead, he asked, “You hungry?” The blond man laughed at himself. “What am I saying? You’re with Caleb ‘Jerky Hog’ Graham. Of course you are.”
Before I could respond, Caleb protested. “That was one time! And you left the bag in the truck. What was I supposed to do? Starve?”
Abe shook his head, giving me a knowing look, and flagged down his bartender, a pretty brunette. “A beer and a crab special for the lady. Anything she wants is on the house.”
I started to protest, but Caleb lifted me up and deposited me on a bar stool.
“Eat,” he told me. “Sit here. Stay in one place. Please try to stay out of trouble.”
“You’re not the boss of me,” I informed him.
“You’re right, but as someone who cares about you, I am only asking that you eat a good meal and try not to jump directly into harm’s way, waving a sign that says, ‘Here I Am!’ in big red letters.”
I hated it when he made sense. “I don’t have a sign,” I grumbled.
“It’s invisible to everything but trouble,” he told me, making me laugh.
“Augh,” Abe groaned. “I was wrong. This isn’t funny. It’s adorable. I wasn’t expecting adorable. I hate adorable.” He grabbed the scruff of Caleb’s neck and dragged him toward a door marked “Office.”
“I will never understand men,” I told the brunette behind the bar. The airbrushing on her shirt identified her as Pam.
Pam shook her head. “We’re not supposed to, honey.”
“Well, that’s comforting.”
In a few minutes, I was served a surprisingly delicious sandwich consisting of a whole-wheat roll stuffed to the brim with a spicy, fresh King crab salad. Not exactly the greasy fried bar food I’d come to expect. I dived into that sandwich as if seafood was about to be declared illegal. The cold, delicately seasoned crab was perfectly complemented by a peppery citrus dressing. It was the perfect accompaniment to the creamy wild-rice soup and beer. I hadn’t eaten this well since the valley. I savored the dish and the opportunity to eat in a little island of silence in the crowded, conversation-filled room.
And it gave me an opportunity to consider the implications of our conversation with Mary Ann. Caleb was one of those werewolves who played sex roulette with tavern wenches. How was I supposed to feel about that? But I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow Mary Ann’s act. She looked like the kind of girl who knew tricks. Or turned them.
“Don’t pay what Mary Ann said any mind,” Pam said, sliding a fresh beer in front of me. “She’s been after him for the better part of a year. Never could take a hint.”
“So they never . . .” I left that question hanging in the air, along with several vague hand gestures.
“Oh, no, they probably did,” Pam said. “But Caleb never made any promises or anything.”
I thunked my head against the bar and groaned.
He’d never made me any promises, either. He clearly liked me. But he’d never said he loved me. And although I’d tried to skirt around those feelings for a good while, I knew they were there. I still believed in love. It was impossible not to when you were surrounded by a bunch of people who mated for life. I saw how fiercely werewolves could love, with everything they had. But Caleb never mentioned anything about love, just safety and protection. And he certainly didn’t say anything about the long term, just that I should stay with him. He never said how long he wanted me beside him.
“But I’m sure that you two . . .” Pam continued. I looked up at her, eyebrows furrowed. She pursed her lips. “I’m going to stop talking now.”
“Probably for the best.” I nodded.
Pam busied herself behind the bar, leaving me to pick at the remains of my sandwich.
This was such an inconvenient moment to figure out that I was in love with Caleb. It wasn’t unreasonable. There were so many reasons to love him. Yes, he was handsome. And yes, he was strong. But Caleb was also a good man, as different from Glenn as night is from day. He was pragmatic when it came to his job, but he was kind. He didn’t hurt people because it felt good to him. While he might be aggressive, he wasn’t passive-aggressive. When he was upset, he still talked to me. He made me laugh, even when I didn’t want to. He didn’t tell me what to do, what to wear, who to talk to. If he told me he was trying to protect me, that’s what he was trying to do. He wasn’t trying to separate me from people who might see what he really was, how he was treating me, that what we had wasn’t normal.
Caleb had never said he loved me. But he saw what was good in me, even when I tried to hide it. He treated me like something precious. Not untouchable, not some ideal version of myself that I couldn’t live up to.
How had this happened to me? I was on the run from the man who’d promised me the world. And I’d fallen in love with an emotionally unreliable werewolf who’d promised me nothing.
It was a shame advice columns didn’t cover issues like this.
Pam must have felt guilty for sending me on this depressing thought train, because she stopped in front of me and told me, “I meant it, what I said before. I’ve known Caleb for a long time now. And I’ve never seen him look at anybody the way he looks at you.”
I shot her a grateful half smile, just as my cell phone beeped in my coat pocket. I pulled out the little prepaid smartphone and saw a new message waiting in my e-mail notifications. Red-burn had sent me a message with the subject line “Package en route.” Just then, Caleb and Abe stepped out of the office, laughing and elbowing each other in the ribs. Caleb caught my eye and beamed at me, which Abe used as an opportunity for a shot to the kidneys. Caleb winced, making Abe cackle, and the two of them started punching each other again. I rolled my eyes, but it was nice to be included in that moment. I was relaxed and happy and full, so of course, that was the moment Caleb’s incredibly punctual stripper wandered into my line of sight, having just come out of the ladies’ room in a revealing parody of a police uniform.
Trixie was a built blond Valkyrie who looked much shorter in her pictures. She was nearly as tall as Caleb, her athletic, busty frame stretching the polyester she wore to the limits of its structural integrity.
I glanced over my shoulder toward Caleb, whose continued wrassling with his buddy prevented him from spotting her. I tried clearing my throat and waving my arms and considered whipping a beer bottle at them, but that seemed like an overreaction. We weren’t going after Trixie per se, just the ring she was wearing, so I had no real problem with intervening on Caleb’s behalf. But how to go about it? Trixie was considerably bigger than Jerry or Mort had been, and I didn’t think she’d have any scruples about hitting another girl. I would need a carefully considered, multifaceted plan.
I hopped off my bar stool and planted myself between this very large lady and her destination, calling, “Hey, Trixie!”
Right, good plan.
Lord, she’s tall.
“Honey, you need to move it,” she said.
“How do you keep those little star pasties on?” I asked.
“Get out of my way!” Trixie said in a commanding tone.
“Did you take a lot of dance classes when you were getting started, or did you mostly get on-the-job training? Because, you know, I am thinking about going into . . . pole work.”
“Sweetie, unless you want me to break that pretty face of yours, you’d better let me through,” she said, glaring down at me. “But with a little work up top, I think you could make a lot of money.”
“Thanks—hey!” I said, looking down at my little teacup breasts.
Which gave Trixie the opportunity to shove me aside and make for the bathroom door.
I looked across the bar to Caleb, who had finally noticed Trixie. He was trying to push through the crowd, but they were getting rowdy, seeing Trixie and assuming that it was almost time for their show. Trixie was barricaded in by the bodies, and this would be the perfect opportunity to whack her from behind with a pool cue . . . if I was capable of such cowardice. And then she turned on me, and I was pretty sure, given the expression on my face and the cue in my hand, that she knew what I was thinking.
She growled and made a grab at my hair. I ducked out of the way, bobbling my cue as I sidestepped her. She rounded, and I raised my fists, but honestly, I was afraid to take a swing at her. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to play this. From what I’d seen of “bikini boxing” on those tacky testosterone channels on cable, it was more about bouncing around and putting on a show than actually trading blows. Why didn’t I switch the TV to one of those more respectable female MMA fights? Why?
Sensing my hesitation, she drew back her arm and plowed her fist right into my face. It hurt, but what disappointed me was the way the punch had me bouncing my ass against the scarred wooden floor. That was demoralizing.
Trixie sneered and turned her back on me to run for the front door. I sprang up from the floor and jumped onto her back to slow her down, but man, she was fast on those big plastic heels.
“Get off of me!” she shouted as I dragged her backward.
“No!” I said. “Give us the ring.” OK, now I definitely felt like Gollum. And if she kept batting at my face with those acrylic nails, I was going to look like him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” she cried, tossing me off of her. My grip on her shirt popped the Velcro closures, splitting it open for all to see as I smacked against the nearby pool table. Instead of taking the time to appreciate how much that hurt, I launched myself at her. I’d hoped the element of surprise would help me knock her back off her feet, but she caught me and damn near threw me over her shoulder.
She swung at the closest thing to her hands: my head. Since she took no precautions against marking my face, I showed her the same lack of courtesy. And I ended up getting tossed to the floor for my efforts. I could see Caleb’s anxious face bobbing over the shoulders of those standing closest to us. He couldn’t break through the crowd without displaying some serious werewolf strength.
Note to self: Leave the fighting to Caleb. He’s much better at it.
I jumped to my feet, delivering an uppercut to her chin. The crowd cheered when I followed through with the elbow so that it caught her cheek as her face whipped forward. She bent forward, clutching her face. I brought her head crashing down on my knee and kicked out at her legs, knocking her off her stripper heels. She used her position to sweep my legs out from under me.
From there, there wasn’t much strategy, just the two of us swinging away at whatever we could reach. I think I may have punched her in her spangled red bikini top. By that point, I wasn’t able to see so well out of my swollen right eye, so hitting her in the boob was a distinct possibility.
“Come on, ladies, break it up,” Caleb said, peeling me off of her and setting me on my feet.
“Crazy little bitch!” Trixie spat.
“Look, all we want is the wedding ring,” I told her as Caleb carted me outside of swinging distance. “We just need the ring, and we’ll get out of your face.”
Trixie nodded slowly, considering. Caleb put me on my feet, and I approached her.
I patted her arm. In a gentler voice, I told her, “If you want, I will personally deliver pictures of you straddling one of those beefy fellas to Lolo, so he knows what he’s missing.”
Trixie nodded again, but this time, she was swaying on her feet. I didn’t think it was because of my vicious blows.
“OK, OK,” she panted, slipping the ring off her finger. “Just take it. I didn’t want the stupid r-ring . . . any-anyway.”
As she dropped it into my waiting palm, a red flush crept across her skin, and her breathing went unsteady and shallow.
I shoved the ring into my pocket. “Hey, are you OK?”
Trixie shook her head, just before her eyes rolled up and she collapsed to the floor. Her head bounced off the planks with a sickening crack.
“Come on, get up,” Pam called. “She beat you fair and square, Trix. Have some dignity.”
I knelt over Trixie, prying her eyelids apart, watching through my good eye to see if her pupils responded to the harsh lights of the bar.
“No, I think she’s really sick,” I told the bartender as I watched Trixie’s lips swell. If this reaction was what I suspected, her airway could swell shut in minutes, and she wouldn’t be able to breathe. And contrary to every medical TV show ever made, it’s not that easy to improvise intubation with an empty ballpoint pen.