“Actually, it’s probably the cleanest surface in the room.”

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He was particularly interested in my tattoos, now that he was seeing them up close. He wanted to know why I’d chosen that design, when I’d started them, and whether I planned to get more. He traced the length of my spine with his lips, biting lightly at the ridge of each vertebra.

“It’s my personal star chart,” I murmured into the pillows. “It’s how I keep track of where I’ve been.”

“Don’t most people use stars to keep track of where they are?” he asked, chuckling into my skin, tracing the outline of one with his tongue. I think he was somewhere near the Topeka star.

“Well, I was going to do push-pins, but they weren’t as pretty.”

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“You don’t strike me as the tattoo kind of girl.”

“I wasn’t, but that was sort of the point. Don’t you have any?”

“I had a very strict mother,” he said, smiling into my skin.

“I think you would look awesome with a tattoo,” I told him, rolling over so I was facing him. “You could get a butterfly, right here.” I stroked the tramp-stamp area of his lower back. He chuckled again, jerking a little as my fingers stroked a particularly ticklish section of his back. “Or something tribal.” He snorted. “The Chinese symbols for love and strength . . . which inevitably will translate to ‘cliché tattoo.’ ”

“It’s a little alarming that you came up with those ideas so quickly.”

“Spent a lot of time thinking about it.”

“You are a very strange girl.”

I rolled over, balancing my chin on his chest. “Did you really have a strict mother?”

It seemed a little wrong, asking about his runaway human mom when I knew a little bit of the history. But I wanted to hear more about Caleb from his own mouth, his own version. The story I’d heard about cruel, thoughtless Lydia Graham, who had forgotten the promises involved in mating and left her husband and child to themselves, had been twisted in the telling by so many indignant werewolf housewives that I didn’t know if I could trust it.

He blanched a bit at the question. “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, she didn’t stick around long enough for me to figure her out. She left when I was five. Dad met her when he was traveling in Washington State. He told her that he lived in the middle of nowhere, Alaska, but I don’t think she really got it until she moved there. And then she was stuck. Not stuck the way you were,” he clarified carefully. “I don’t remember them fighting or yelling or Dad being anything but good to her. It was seeing the same people every day, having the same conversations. Dad said he thought it drove her a little crazy. So she waited until I was in school one morning and ran for it.”

As a woman who had once run for it, I could sympathize with Lydia and the desperation she must have felt to have taken such a step. But at the same time, how could she leave her little boy behind? I was thankful, at least, that she’d left him with other werewolves so he wouldn’t go through his transformation without that support. And in some remote, gloomy corner of my mind, I couldn’t help but think that he was repeating his father’s cycle all over again, choosing a woman—however temporarily—who would inevitably leave him. Freud would have a field day with Caleb Graham.

“Did you ever hear from your mom?” I asked, running my fingers through his hair.

He leaned into the caress and shook his head. “Wasn’t interested. She made her choice.”

“And your dad?” I asked.

“He always missed her. He was a good dad. He loved me like crazy, did all of the things a dad was supposed to, but you could tell life was just a little bit less than it should have been for him.”

I gave him a little half smile and kissed him. “I’m sorry.”

“It is what it is. Yeah, it sucks, and my life could have been better. But there were people in my family who had it a lot worse. So I can’t really complain.” He rolled onto his side and slid his hand down my stomach, tracing each of my ribs with his fingertips.

“What was it like growing up in the valley?” I asked.

“It was the best kind of childhood for a little kid,” he said, sighing. “I spent a lot of time playing in the woods with Samson and Cooper. Maggie was the little sister I never really wanted. We were always chasing something, hunting, running around. Cooper and Samson lost their dads pretty early on, so my dad took them under his wing, so to speak. He taught us how to fix a car, clear a clogged sink, skin a deer with your bare teeth, that sort of thing.”

“Sounds idyllic, in a twisted Tom Sawyer kind of way.”

“We had to grow up fast. Cooper became the alpha when we were just teenagers. And then that other pack tried to take over the valley, and everything got so screwed up. It just seemed easier to pull away from all that confusion. I knew my dad was disappointed that I moved away, but it just didn’t feel right for me to be there anymore.”

“Was it Suds who got you into the whole werewolf-tracker-for-hire business?”

“No, and he doesn’t know what I am, by the way,” he replied. “I was the valley’s police force before I left. Usually, the alpha takes on the role along with mayoral duties. But we didn’t have an alpha when Cooper left, and I was able to fill in. I liked it. Mostly, it involved keeping the younger wolves in line and corralling my idiot uncles when they tied one on. But every once in a while, some unsavory character would wander into town, thinking it would be a nice place to set up a meth lab, and I would have to explain why this was not a good idea. In following up on the background information for these yahoos, I was amazed at what I managed to discover online. And in a lot of cases, these guys—and sometimes girls—had warrants or rewards for information leading to their arrests. With my extra senses, I could track them, even after they left the valley. I made quite a bit of money that way. And I made some good contacts as I traveled around. So when I left, it seemed a natural fit for me to do it full-time.”

“But doesn’t it kill you, being away from the packlands for this long?”

“It was hard, at first. I couldn’t stay away for long stretches at a time without really pushing myself. But it got easier with time.” He gave me a crooked little smile. “What I’m looking for isn’t in the packlands.”

“Well, that’s nice and cryptic, thank you.”

“So, your family?”

“What about them?”

“I am assuming that you have one. You weren’t hatched. We’ve established, thanks to your alarming deceptive tactics, that you are an only child. What about your parents?”

“My parents died a few years ago,” I told him.

“I’m sorry. What were they like?”

I hesitated and cursed myself for it. He’d shared with me, I reminded myself, and he didn’t have to. So instead of giving him the pat answer I’d developed for Anna Moder, I told him about Jack and Marcy Campbell.

“Nice people,” I said, smiling when he slid his lips along the ridge of my hip. “High school sweethearts. Mom owned an interior-design business, and Dad ran a construction firm. They loved each other very much. They taught me what marriage was supposed to look like. I just didn’t pay close enough attention.”

“Well, you’ll know what to look for next time,” he told me.

“I don’t know if there will be a next time for me,” I said, yawning.

Caleb’s head jerked up, his expression alarmed. “What?”

I sniffed. “I’m thinking maybe polygamy next time around. Civil union with two or three guys. I think there would be less pressure that way.”

“Oh, you’re hilarious.” He groaned, digging his fingertips into my sides, making me jump all over the bed.

“It’s not my fault you keep falling for it!” I exclaimed as he tickled my sides. To escape the torture, I went with my only available distraction technique. I kissed him, long and hard, sliding my hands over his and directing them to more interesting, less ticklish parts of my body.

He tapped his finger between my eyebrows. “You’ve got that look on your face. What are you thinking?”

“Can I see your wolf form again?” I asked. “I didn’t get a very good look at you the other day.”

Caleb frowned. “Right here?”

“I’ll stand way over there, out of range,” I promised, scrambling out of bed and wrapping a sheet around my waist as I hid behind the oak nightstand.

Caleb grumbled, but he got out of bed and stood in the middle of the room. He rolled his shoulders and made a sort of squinting face. I giggled a little, which broke his concentration, making him whine, “This is awkward.”

“Oh, come on.”

He took a deep breath, centering himself. That same golden light spread from his heart, over his skin, dragging his human form in its wake. The light winked out, and standing in front of me was a huge iron-gray wolf, big chocolate eyes twinkling. He made a whuffling noise, as if to say, Well?

I knelt in front of him, letting his cold, wet nose tap against my face.

“You’re beautiful.” I sighed, running my fingers through his thick fur. He nosed against my neck, bumping his head against mine. “Such a big, beautiful boy.”

I scratched him behind the ears, cooing over him. He pressed his nose against my shoulder, knocking me back on my butt. I giggled as he hunched over me, licking my face. He phased back to human and was pressing kisses all over my face.

“Well, this is awkward.” I laughed.

“Too much?” he asked.

I nodded.

12

The Gift Horse Has Some Awesome Teeth

It had taken me much longer than I’d hoped, but we finally arrived in Anchorage. The snow was falling in earnest, giving the already alien city lights an otherworldly glow. Everything seemed far too bright, too neon, too busy. I found myself blinking in the glare of a stoplight.

I gave a fleeting thought to Red-burn and the post office she planned to use across town, but then Caleb asked me to locate Lolo’s “construction office” on the GPS system. I declined the honor of meeting him, electing to stay out in the truck while Caleb delivered the wedding ring to a snazzy office building in a nearly empty business park.

Caleb was all smiles when he emerged from the transaction. As part of our payment, Lolo booked us a room at the fairly spectacular Highbury Plaza. We were to stay there for a week, with all expenses paid. He’d booked spa appointments. We didn’t even have to check in, as Lolo’s “people” had seen to that.

I got a little nervous at the sight of the tall silver cylinder, one of the highest points on the city skyline. We crossed the chrome and blue glass lobby with our “well-loved” bags in hand and headed straight for the elevators. The moment the doors closed, Caleb lunged, pressing me against the glass elevator wall, and ravaged my mouth. I felt his hands cup my jeans-clad butt and squeaked. “It’s a glass elevator! The people in the lobby will see.”

“So let ’em see,” he growled.

When we’d reached our floor, we slid against the walls of the hallway, kissing and groping and laughing, until we finally found our room. When I unlocked the door, all kissing and/or groping stopped. This wasn’t a room, this was a suite. It was the fanciest space I’d seen since leaving my “married” apartment all those years ago. Even with the beige, ivory, and slate-blue tones, it was still remarkably feminine. The delicately beige carpet was plush and thick under my toes as I pranced around the room, hopping up and down over the view of the skyline and the mountains. We disheveled the hell out of the immaculately white duvet on the enormous bed, revealing the delicate blue sheets.

I dashed into the bathroom and made a squealing noise that brought an alarmed Caleb running. “There’s a separate shower and a bath!” I cried, climbing into the white-tiled whirlpool tub. Every square inch of the bathroom was pristine, recently cleaned white ceramic.

I was reasonably sure there would be no bugs in the tub. I wanted to bask in the cleanliness, wallow in it. I wanted to eat dinner in that tub, just because I could.

“It’s so clean.” I sighed. “And it has a separate tub and shower.”

“And that’s scream-worthy because . . . ?”

“Because sometimes a girl wants to wash her hair in a separate space from where she washes the rest of her.”

Caleb frowned. “Girls are weird.”

“Hopelessly so,” I admitted. “This seems a little too good to be true. Are you sure that Lolo’s not setting us up for credit-card fraud or a body hidden in the closet or something?”

“No, Lolo likes to treat people well when they do right by him. If you’d ever met his wife, you’d understand why he was so grateful,” Caleb assured me. “She’s got a temper on her and doesn’t care much who sees her flip out. We didn’t just save Lolo’s marriage. We might have saved his life.”

“Really?”

He nodded. “She tossed a cake at Lolo’s head once. Most awkward birthday party I’ve ever been to.”

I considered that for a moment. “So how long is that massage he booked for us?”

He chuckled, wrapping his arms around my waist. “That’s my girl.”

“Are you going to take a swim in that tub with me?” I asked, kissing his chin.

“I think we’ll get to that eventually.” He grinned down at me and lifted my hips, locking my ankles at the small of his back. He gave me one long, heated look before devouring my mouth. His hands were everywhere, cupping my face, my ass, teasing my breasts with light little touches around the nipples but never touching them.

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