Something about the way the lie rolled off his tongue so easily had me reaching into my bag again. He snatched the bag out of my hands and threw it toward the hallway door. I narrowed my eyes at him. “You’re going to sit there and pretend that you haven’t known exactly who I am from the minute we met? I saw the e-mails from Schuna, Caleb! I know you’ve been working on the ‘Bishop case’ for months.”
All of the color drained from Caleb’s cheeks, leaving a waxy werewolf scrambling across the floor to kneel in front of me. “Tina, please.”
“Was it all a trick?” I asked, my voice cracking. “Did you really get into a fight with that Marty guy in the parking lot, or was that a setup to get my sympathy? Tell me you didn’t blow up my car for no good reason.”
“I trusted you, you sonofabitch! And I don’t trust anyone. You promised me, no more surprises. And this is a hell of a surprise. You lied to me. Every time you opened your mouth and didn’t tell me what you were really up to, you lied to me. I mean, I get that you’re just trying to do a job, that I was an assignment. And after seeing you work, I can respect that it’s not anything personal. But why pretend you didn’t know me? Why didn’t you just tell me Schuna was hiring you to find me? Why pretend you liked me? How could you lie like that? Why not just gag me and toss me into the back of the truck like you do everybody else? It’s not like you didn’t have the chance. I couldn’t exactly overpower you. You let me think . . . how could you let me think that I found . . . just how the hell could you?”
My rant done, I sagged against the door, all of the wind knocked out of me. I hated the tears coursing down my cheeks, hated showing the slightest hint of how much he’d hurt me. But at least I wasn’t throwing up on him. I considered that a small personal victory.
His dark eyes flickered down toward my bags. “So you were just going to leave without saying anything?”
“I wanted a head start,” I told him. When his jaw dropped, I added, “You’ve made it pretty clear you don’t care who you’re tracking as long as you get paid. You don’t care what they did or who’s after them—”
“This is different!”
“It just is. I can’t believe you thought I would just hand you over!”
“Are you really going to try to pull the indignant card right now?”
“You know what you mean to me!”
“No, I don’t really know what I mean to you. Everything you’ve told me is a lie. I can thank you, at least, for never saying you love me. You have at least that much shame.”
“I’ve told you I love you in about a dozen ways. But believe me, if I said the words, you’d bolt.”
I slapped his hands away when he tried to touch my cheeks. “Believe you?” I scoffed. “Because you’ve proved yourself so trustworthy, right? You didn’t even admit you were a werewolf until you had no choice. Oh, my God, is that it? Is that why you kept me around? I figured out that you were a werewolf, and you wanted to make sure I wouldn’t tell anybody? You—”
“No, stop it. Stop! Look, Schuna hadn’t told me anything personal about you.” He tried to reach for me again but thought better of it when I unleashed a growl so vicious it rivaled his own on his wolfiest day. “You were an assignment, just like all of my other assignments. When I got your paperwork, I had no idea you were the sweet little pack doctor my cousins had been going on about. I didn’t figure that out until you told me. You were just some runaway housewife with a drug problem and a worried husband at home. Schuna said his client just wanted to know where you were, that you were safe. I was supposed to send him the location and then wait for instructions. But you weren’t a priority case. I wasn’t even following your trail. I was still looking for Jerry when I came across that beautiful ‘home’ smell. I followed it for days, wandering around that armpit of a town. I saw you working at the grocery store. I did recognize you as Tina Campbell, and I realized the two women I was tracking were one and the same. From that moment on, your case was closed. I couldn’t take someone in when she smelled like my pack. I wanted to approach you, to ask how a little human like you could be connected to my pack. But I told myself, ‘Not tonight. Just hold on for a while. Watch her.’
“And I watched. I saw that the story Schuna fed me was total bullshit. I saw how sweet you were to everybody who crossed your path, even though it was so obvious that you were exhausted and scared and barely hanging on. I saw you smile . . . and that was it for me. You were it for me. I figured whatever was really going on with your husband, I could find a way to help you. I’d finally worked up the nerve to talk to you, which was why I was waiting in the parking lot for you—which I will admit sounds a little creepy, now that I’ve said it out loud. Anyway, I was waiting for you, and that’s when Marty showed up, and the whole thing just sort of snowballed.”
He looked at me, obviously hoping to see some softening of my expression. He winced when he saw me glowering at him. “And that convoluted, slightly insane story explains why you continued to lie to me, how?”
“Well, how the hell was I supposed to come out with all that without it sounding convoluted and slightly insane? You were already so skittish I was afraid you were going to bolt at any minute. Then you found my tool kit in the truck, and you did try to bolt. I’m so sorry I lied, but by the time I thought you might trust me, it was too late for confessions. I knew you’d be so angry that there would be no getting past it. I just wanted to get you back to the valley before I confessed everything,” he said, as if he could tell the last few words out of his mouth were not the words of a reasonable, intelligent werewolf.
“Where I would be trapped for the winter and couldn’t get away.”
He pulled a face that looked remarkably like a wince. “ ‘Trapped’ is such an ugly word.”
I glowered at him. “I can think of a few more.”
“Can I put some pants on so we can discuss this?” he asked.
“You’re worried about being naked? Isn’t that a werewolf’s favorite outfit?”
He shook his head, glancing down. “I feel all vulnerable.”
I rolled my eyes and waved toward the bathroom. He bounded up from the floor, having recovered from his Tasering in record time, and threw on some sweats. He offered me his hand, to help me off the floor. I glared up at him.
He sighed and dropped to the carpet next to me. “I’ve kept us moving just in case Schuna sent another investigator after you. And I’ve been feeding him fake progress reports. I told him you were spotted boarding a plane from Anchorage to Ontario. And then I told him you’d taken the ferry back to Washington State. Anything to keep him off your trail. We took off after Trixie because Schuna told me he was going to send a second investigator to Fairbanks to help out. I had to get you out of town. Suds is stalling him, telling him that I’m working on another case. By the time we got back to the valley, we’d be snowed in, and we’d have time to figure out something long-term. I’ve been trying to help you, Tina, I swear.”
“Well, it’s not working, because Glenn is still driving Schuna nuts with requests for follow-up reports. So, short of killing you or faking my death, this plan is a failure.” He opened his mouth, as if he was about to propose something, and I cut him off. “I am not faking my own death.”
“I was going to ask why I would have to be killed in this scenario.”
I ignored that, because I thought the answer was apparent. “I really don’t know where to go from here,” I told him. “Everything about us is just one layer of lies after another. We’re a lasagna of lies. This is a terrible basis for a relationship.”
“No, you’re it for me,” he told me. “It’s always been you.”
“I don’t want to be loved just because I smell right.”
“Well, you do smell fantastic. And I do love you,” he promised me. “Not because you smell right. I love you because you’re funny and smart, and you don’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit.’ ‘Common sense’ and ‘self-preservation’ are also terms I would like you to look up. I love you because you’re stubborn and insanely smart and willing to get into fistfights with strippers to help someone out. I love you because you’re so much stronger than you think you are. I love that you can only eat waffles if there is an equal amount of butter and syrup in each square. I love the way you can only sleep if you have a toe sticking out from under the blanket. I hate that you feel like you can’t trust me, but I understand that I’m the one who made you feel that way.”
“Well, that’s awfully generous of you,” I grumbled.
“Don’t you have anything you would like to say to me?”
“Not that you would want to hear,” I retorted. I hated the hurt expression that crossed his face, but I wasn’t willing to try to make Caleb feel better or tell him that I loved him. Wanting to hurt him in some way felt like a reasonable thing.
Caleb reached up to touch my shoulder. I moved away, which seemed to deflate him. He slumped against the side of the bed. “So what now?”
“I need time to think,” I told him. “I have a whole other life set up for me. I’m not sure where. That’s why I had to come to Anchorage, to get the papers and money I needed to get started.”
If it was possible, Caleb went even paler. “Tina, no.”
“I’m not saying that I’m definitely going to take it. I just need some time to think about everything.”
“Your lies. My lies. Glenn. The werewolf factor. Everything. I can only deal with so much.”
“OK.” He nodded slowly and got to his feet. I stood, wanting to keep us on the same level. He turned to the closet and threw on a shirt. I watched as he moved around the room, collecting his laptop, toiletries, and clothes. It only took him a few minutes.
A strange sense of desperation came over me as he slid into his coat. Don’t let him go, you idiot! a little voice in my head commanded. Stop him. Go with him. Something! Don’t just stand there! Instead, I stood stone-faced by the bed.
“I’m going back to the valley,” he said. “You stay here in this hotel under your assumed name for the next week. When no one shows up looking for you in that time, you’ll know that I’m on your side. When no one shows up, I will find a way to get you back to the valley. Hell, Suds will probably come pick you up. I’d rather it be me, but I figure that would interfere with your ‘space’ thing.”
I nodded slowly. It was a fair plan. It gave me an out. But that didn’t mean I was happy to see him leave. He went to the safe to retrieve the cash. He counted out a large stack of twenty-dollar bills and put them on the dresser.
“You don’t have to do that,” I protested.
“You’re going to need cash,” he reminded me.
“You don’t have to do that because I already took eight hundred from the stash.”
His eyebrows winged up, and despite the exceedingly crappy situation, I could see the barest hint of a smile quirk the corners of his mouth. “Well, keep that, too. You’ll need it.” He cleared his throat. “If you decide . . . not to join me, will you stay in Alaska?”
“I don’t think I should tell you that.”
“Well, if you run again—”
“Don’t call it running,” I snapped.
Caleb shifted from one foot to the other. “Either way, I’m going to send Schuna a report stating that I’ve come to a dead end with your case. No more leads. No more information to follow. It’s not the first time things haven’t panned out on a case. It won’t make him suspicious.”
I nodded. “I appreciate that.”
He moved closer and bent his head to kiss me. I stepped away, shaking my head.
“I can’t,” I told him, even when my eyes burned and I couldn’t seem to draw a full breath. I stared down at the carpet, unable to look at him.
Without another word, he walked out the door.
For hours, I sat on the bed, staring at the door, sure that Caleb was going to walk right back through it. And I wasn’t sure whether that would be a good thing or not. I flip-flopped on whether to grab my bags and run for the Canadian border. Finally, I pulled all of my belongings together, went downstairs, and rented a new, more reasonably priced room under “Anna Moder” and created a little rabbit den there. I spent the first day curled in the fetal position under the covers, trying to alleviate the ache in my chest. There was a diner next door to the hotel, and I abused its delivery policy terribly, eating huge amounts of room service. I watched movies on HBO until I could no longer stand the sight of Zac Efron. (It didn’t take long.) And I took daily pregnancy tests, all of which were negative.
I didn’t stray far from home base. When I decided it was time for professional follicle intervention, I went to the salon on the ground floor of the hotel, where the poor stylists clucked over the damage I’d done over the years with repeated dye jobs. I got a deep-conditioning treatment and new, sassy layers while my toes were painted a frosty cotton-candy pink. I went to the hotel boutique and shopped for clothes that (1) weren’t secondhand and (2) weren’t ordered over the Internet, which was a novelty. I wore makeup—real cosmetics, not just flavored ChapStick—for the first time in years.
I will admit, I indulged. I dropped my guard and made silly, selfish decisions. I knew I needed to move beyond my physical needs and constant fretting over the immediate future. I had to look at the big picture. I was stalling like hell from picking up Red-burn’s packet. It was the polar opposite of self-preservation, but I needed this time to process thoughts such as Caleb, you jackassed, half-wit jerk-face, I would dearly love to tap-dance on your testicles. I needed some control over my life. I needed to find my footing and make choices based on preference instead of panic. For so long, I’d based my clothes, my meals, my appearance, on what was available to me. It took some field testing before I remembered how I preferred my jeans cut or which kind of lip gloss I liked best. (Skinny jeans and a violet-pink shade ironically called “Lupine.”)