At least I looked good while I stalled.

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Every morning, I would wake up, pack my bags, and practically sprint to the lobby.

I would hitch my bag over my shoulder, prepared to make a blind run to the post office to pick up Red-burn’s package. I could feel the cold fingers of outside air tracing the lines of my cheeks. And instead of walking out into the cold, somehow, my feet changed direction, and I was standing at the bank of elevators, ready to go back upstairs. And every morning, the staff would look at me with increasingly alarmed expressions.

I was angry with Caleb. There was no question about it. But I’d lied to him, pretending to know he wasn’t lying to me, while he lied to me, pretending he didn’t know I was lying to him. Neither of us was the picture of healthy communication.

In my minibar-buffeted den, I mulled my options over and over. Run back to the valley, or start another new life, or go back to Tennessee and straighten out the mess I’d made of my old one. The last was more of a not-even-the-least-bit-likely palate cleanser.

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A tiny, twisted part of my brain kept telling me I was damaged, messed up in the head. I couldn’t even cross a parking lot without having a panic attack. Werewolves needed fierce mates who could stand up to the strange, violent pressures of their world. I would fold under the first test. I knew that pack mating rules seemed unquestionable. But maybe whatever magic governed them would make an exception, since Caleb hadn’t gotten me pregnant. Maybe he could go on to have babies with some nice girl from another pack, a girl who didn’t have night terrors and trust issues. And yet the very idea made my blood boil.

I didn’t want him marrying some other woman. I didn’t want her touching him, helping him with cases. Caleb was mine.

Now I just had to figure out how to go about talking to him again without Tasering him.

On the sixth day of my self-imposed Howard Hughes retreat, Red-burn resolved my quandary with a phone call.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“What do you think about your new ID? My connection worked really hard to make sure your picture came out nice. And I picked your name myself. I always thought you sounded like a Bethel.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your new ID. Haven’t you picked it up yet? Honey, I sent it a week ago, three-day guaranteed delivery. I thought you hadn’t called because you were on the move. Or because you were pissed because your new first name is Bethel. But that doesn’t matter, because right now, there’s an animal clinic in Ottawa waiting for you to take over a vet-tech position.”

Sadly, given the amount of time I’d spent working with both wolf and human anatomy, I was probably qualified for this position. “I haven’t had a chance to pick it up.”

“What’s going on with you?” she asked. “You hassled me for weeks for that ID, and all of a sudden, you don’t have time to pick it up? You sound all weird and distracted . . . wait, is there a man in this picture?”

“Sort of.”

Red-burn snorted. “Honey, either he is or he isn’t.”

“He is.” I sighed. “I have the chance to build a good life with someone. A life I could live as myself.”

“That’s fantastic. What’s stopping you?”

“This insane roller coaster of a life I live?” I suggested.

“Not good enough.”

“For the first couple of months we knew each other, I lied to him about who I was.”

“You’re in the domestic version of witness protection. You get a pass. Not good enough.”

“He lied to me about who he was. And he was a bounty hunter hired by my ex to find me.”

There was a heavy pause on the other end of the line. “OK . . . that would be an obstacle.”

“Why do I hear glasses clinking?” I asked.

“I’m making myself a drink. You do the same, and we’ll talk this out.”

I cracked open a tiny bottle of vodka from the minibar and tossed the contents down my throat in one shot.

I hissed loudly, making her snicker on the other end of the line. “You didn’t mix that with anything, did you?”

“No,” I whispered hoarsely.

The whole sordid tale poured forth from my mouth in one long run-on sentence. How I met Caleb in the parking lot and helped him through a gunshot wound. (I left out the spontaneous healing.) How we’d bounced around the state fighting crime, sort of. How I’d slowly, almost against my will, fallen in love with him. And finally, how having above-average Internet-surfing skills led to Schuna’s e-mail and the Tasering of a lifetime. I don’t think I used so much as a comma.

“Well . . . damn,” she marveled, stretching the word into two syllables.

“Tell me about it.”

“OK, bottom line. If you were never to see this guy again, I mean, no calls. No Facebook stalking—”

“I am the last person on earth without a Facebook page.”

She continued as if she hadn’t heard me. “No lying in bed half-drunk on merlot, listening to Adele and smelling one of the T-shirts you stole from him. You would never see the barest hint of his existence on this earth. How would you feel?”

I felt like throwing up. Despite the whole brain-melting-anger issue, the thought of never seeing Caleb again was terrifying.

“Having trouble breathing?”

“Yeah,” I wheezed.

“Honey, my husband annoys and amazes me on a daily basis. He may piss me off, but the thought of never seeing him again chokes me up like you wouldn’t believe. In the words of the immortal Cher, I love him awful.”

“I wish I didn’t know what you were talking about,” I groaned. “Both the emotional level and the Cher reference. Who quotes Moonstruck?”

“Appreciate the classics, whippersnapper.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I sighed.

“So do you know what you’re going to do?”

“No.”

“Good,” she exclaimed. “Decisions made in haste usually suck. Take your sweet-ass time making your choice, so you know you’ve made the right one.”

14

The Colorful and Creative Threats of the Alpha Female

I took my sweet-ass time to make a decision.

I picked up the phone to call Caleb and then hung up. I highlighted the best route to the valley and then traced another route to the vet clinic. And then I crumpled the map into a ball and tossed it. I couldn’t seem to force myself to take those first steps toward my new life. I was so angry with Caleb. Yes, I’d lied to him, but not to hurt him or trick him. I’d lied to protect myself. He’d known who I was all along. He knew that Glenn was looking for me. And he didn’t tell me that he was being paid to find me. I couldn’t trust anything he told me. I couldn’t believe him when he talked about loving me, wanting me for the rest of my life. I’d heard those words before, and they’d turned into shackles, keeping me tied to a man who wanted to make all of my decisions for me. I wouldn’t go through it again.

Could I believe Caleb when he said he’d meant no harm? As progressive as the valley pack could be, female alpha and all, Caleb had grown up in a world where the protective, dominant male instinct was not only accepted but expected. Male wolves were expected to take care of their families by any macho, bone-headed means necessary. Whether that meant throwing themselves face-first into danger or leaving out a crap load of key details, male werewolves wouldn’t hesitate as long as they thought their actions would keep their mate safe. While female weres could throw down with the best of them, they tended to be a bit more crafty and manipulative. They were more likely to use sex appeal or casseroles to get what they wanted, or sometimes both simultaneously.

More to the point, Caleb had seemed so sincere when he’d given me his reasons for lying. He’d left me at the hotel with the resources to run. If he was only interested in selling me out for money, he could have hog-tied me like Jerry and handed me over to Schuna as soon as I figured out his connection to Glenn.

I had to admit, the life he was offering me wasn’t without its charms. I would be able to return to the valley, the place I’d felt at home in for so long. After a lot of explaining and groveling, I would be accepted back into the pack, the people who had become like family to me.

And yes, I would spend my life with a certain brown-eyed werewolf who made me feel safe and wanted and made my eyelids flutter like window shades. Somewhere in the darkest, deepest recesses of an extremely stubborn and pissed-off soul, I knew I missed Caleb. There were times I missed him so much that I had to curl under the covers and wrap myself around the aching, hollow feeling that spread from my chest.

I tried to write it off as mating magic or readjusting to living alone after getting used to a warm, solid body next to me in bed every night, but I missed the man for himself. I missed his wry humor and the way he made me laugh. I missed the dozens of thoughtful little things he did throughout the day to try to take care of me, even if it meant annoying me. I missed feeling warm and protected and cared for when I fell asleep tucked under his arm. I even missed his lousy my woman done me wrong, stole my truck, and gave my dog fleas country music.

Sometime during my fifth attempt to escape the lobby, I’d come to the conclusion that I was, in fact, in love with the moron . . . which was inconvenient.

I loved Caleb. I loved his kindness and his generosity, which was becoming harder and harder to reconcile with the informational shell game he’d played with me. How could he lie to me for so long? Why hadn’t he just come out that first day after the shooting and told me, Just so you know, I’ve been hired by your skeevy ex-husband to track you down and drag you back to him, but I think you’re my mate, so I’m just going to keep taking his per diem and keep you for myself. More French toast?

OK, maybe that would have been pushing it. But surely, as we got to know each other, he could have let some hints slip gradually.

And then, of course, I probably would have Tasered him and run like hell.

That was beside the point.

Tasers aside, how had he expected me to respond? Was I just supposed to accept this dishonesty from someone who was supposed to love me? Was I supposed to pat him on the head and tell him I understood?

I bought a cheap, reliable truck with new snow tires at a cash-only used-car lot. Traveling with Caleb had given me a confidence I’d lacked on my first trip to the valley. I could take care of myself. I had taken care of myself. And I was careful to keep my baton in Caleb’s special coat pocket, its heavy weight giving me a bit of swagger when I stopped to gas up the truck or grab a bite to eat.

It took four days of driving in pretty questionable weather for me to reach Grundy. I beat a respectable snowstorm by a matter of hours and had to stay at the Evergreen Motel overnight to wait for the weather to pass. I prayed in earnest that it was the last motel I had to avail myself of for quite some time.

The road to the valley had been temporarily blocked by a rockslide on the highway pass. I had to promise Leonard Tremblay discreet, no-questions-asked treatment of certain social maladies in return for a snowmobile ride there. Cooper offered to take me, but Mo was suffering from some insanely intense morning sickness, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, ask him to leave his mate’s side. Nor did I have the heart to tell him that in all of the werewolf pregnancies I’d seen, that level of nausea indicated more than one baby. Possibly three.

After examining Mo and prescribing some ginger tea and extra-strength iron supplements, I hopped onto the back of Leonard’s souped-up, blue-and-purple-flame-emblazoned snowmobile and promised fealty to whatever deity I could think of if I didn’t slide off the back. The valley was a winding two-hour ride away. I spent most of it clinging to Leonard like a koala and desperately pinning my scarf against my face to block the freezing wind. Even with temperatures hovering just above zero degrees, this weather was mild compared with what we could expect in the coming months.

Still, it was a great ride. With the snow nipping at our faces and the scenery flying by, I couldn’t help but grin like a little kid.

We approached the upper ridge of the valley, where we found Maggie’s mate, Nick Thatcher, sitting in a little burrow he’d dug out at the base of a large pine and scribbling into a notebook. Blond, bespectacled Nick could see the entire village from his vantage point, including Maggie’s office at the community center. An avid climber, Nick, I knew, would have preferred to do his scribbling from a tree limb overhead, but Maggie had made her stance on snow-covered-tree climbing pretty clear when he had fallen out of that very tree the previous winter and broken his collarbone. As I’d set the delicate winglike bone, Maggie had bounced between fussing and fretting over his pain and threatening to break several of his other appendages “to match.”

Nick’s cap-covered head snapped up at the sound of the snowmobile’s engine. Residents of the valley were protective of its borders, and the nonwolf residents knew to alert the pack about any unexpected visitors. But when he recognized Leonard’s blue-and-purple flame motif, his even white teeth showed through the golden-blond stubble on his face.

“Len!” he called as Leonard killed the engine. “What’s the news in Grundy? Have you seen Mo lately? How’s she feeling?”

“Got a special delivery for you, Doc,” Leonard shot back.

I snorted. Nick’s PhD was a bit of a stumper for the locals, as they thought they were getting a new MD when he showed up at the Blue Glacier two years before. Even now, I’m not sure our neighbors fully understood the difference between Nick’s various anthropology and folk-studies degrees and my time in medical school.

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