Nick whooped when I pulled the scarf from my head. “Hey, Anna!” He jumped up from his burrow to throw his arms around me. Halfway through his enthusiastic hug, he seemed to remember that I hadn’t welcomed this sort of casual snuggling during my time in the valley. Before he could retreat, I gave him a little squeeze, making those baby-blue eyes of his crinkle with pleasure.
“I’m so glad you’re back. When you took off like that, you scared a lot of people. Are you OK? Was there some sort of emergency? Maggie’s been beside herself.”
I snorted. “Oh, I’m sure she has.”
Nick’s lips quirked. “No, really, Anna, she’s—well, I don’t want to interfere in pack business. But you need to stop by her office and talk to her.”
“I will, just as soon as I—” I stopped myself, suddenly reluctant to talk about Caleb, just in case he hadn’t returned to the valley after all. “Settle in.”
I saw a faint wince flicker across Nick’s features. “Yeah . . . you need to go see Maggie.”
“That was cryptic and unhelpful. Thank you, Dr. Thatcher,” I told him. “Are you coming with me into town?”
Nick shook his head vehemently. “I’ll stay here, where it’s safe.”
“Thanks a lot,” I told him, making him laugh.
Leonard and I slid into town with a flourish in front of the clinic. I never thought I’d be so happy to see a collection of weather-beaten buildings in the middle of nowhere. But I was practically giddy as Leonard untied my bags from the back of the snowmobile. I handed him his cabbie fee (a prescription to treat several different rashes) and called out my thanks before I jogged down the main drag through the village. Leonard waved me off and started the journey back to Grundy, where he could proudly boast to the local ladies that he was disease-free (for now).
I searched for any sign of Caleb on the street, but I couldn’t even spot his truck. Mixed in among the more weather-beaten houses were newer homes, constructed over the summer after a smaller pack merged into Maggie’s group. There were too many families and not enough housing. Now that the neat little one-story homes were finished, the pack had invested some money in renovating the older buildings, including the community center and the clinic.
Nick had funded the expansion out of his own pocket. Maggie and most of the pack had objected, but he ignored them. You would never have guessed it from his “nerd armor,” but Nick was loaded from his involvement in developing Guild of Dominion, an online role-playing game to which he contributed character designs and story lines from his extensive mythological studies. He was pretty unpretentious about the money. In fact, I was pretty sure he had T-shirts that were older than some of my patients. But when he could put his extensive funds toward something good, it made him happy, which was the mark of a good man first, rich man second, in my book.
As the alpha-slash-mayor-slash-sheriff of the village, Maggie kept an office in the large all-purpose building that served as the community center. I made my way down the street, running over the speech I’d prepared in my head. Maggie had always been a bit of a puzzle for me. She was among the younger wolves of the pack, but others followed her without question. She was a good person but about as cuddly as sandpaper, preferring hunting and fighting for the pack to the more maternal roles embraced by the other females. She didn’t have time or patience for bullshit, which I respected. Ultimately, she was going to be wicked pissed at me for leaving without notice, but she would know it would be easier to take me back than to try to initiate a new doctor into the ways of the pack.
So I had a little bit of clout on my side . . . but that didn’t make me feel any better when I walked through the front door and found Maggie frowning over the village checkbook.
She looked up, and rather than looking surprised or angry, her face went completely wooden. I swallowed a little lead weight in my throat. A calm Maggie was a truly scary Maggie.
“I heard you might be showing up,” she said, the corners of her mouth tugging southward.
I offered a nervous little smile. “I heard something about a medical position being available at your village clinic.”
“Normally, I would tell you to go screw yourself,” she said sternly, glaring at me over the top of her checkbook. “But I happen to need a doctor, and you’re less irritating than most of the medical people I know.” Before I could respond, Maggie stood and pulled her flannel shirt away from her compact frame to reveal a small but definite swelling of her abdomen.
“You’re pregnant,” I said, my mouth hanging open a little.
“Well, I’m happy to see your fancy degree isn’t wasted,” she deadpanned.
I held her jacket open to get a better look, gratified when she didn’t swat my hands away. “How many weeks?”
She smirked at me. “Isn’t it your job to figure that out?”
“Come to the clinic in an hour, and we’ll do an exam. I need to go home, get cleaned up.”
“That might be a problem. Tom and his family are living in your house now.”
My mouth fell completely open this time. “You gave away my house?”
Maggie threw up her hands. “We’re still in a bit of a housing crunch. The only reason we kept Caleb’s dad’s house open was that we knew Caleb was coming back this winter. We couldn’t just wait around for you to decide you were coming back. Tom’s family needed the space.”
“Great, so I’ll be sleeping in the clinic, then.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. You can stay with Caleb,” she said in her no-nonsense voice. “Once you bat those baby blues at him and he forgives you way too easily.” Well, I’d never expected Maggie to take my side in the argument.
I bit my lip. “I owe you an explanation.”
“You’re damn right you do.” Maggie frowned. “Anna—”
“It’s Tina,” I reminded her, my tone apologetic and glum.
She blanched a little. “Well, that will take some getting used to. Tina, we’ve always known you’d had some trouble in your life before the valley. People with expensive educations don’t take on the Dr. Moder job, isolating themselves out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of half-crazy, mostly naked people, unless they have a reason to hide. We hoped you’d open up a little, but you did your job well, so we didn’t pry.
“But to be honest, I’m not in a good frame of mind to hear your explanations right now. I’m in a bit of a panic about this whole baby thing. I just found out a couple of weeks ago, and everybody keeps telling me, ‘Don’t worry, it’s no big deal, women in our family all have easy pregnancies.’ But we’ve never had a pregnant alpha before, mostly because they were dudes. I’m terrified of shifting, for some reason, even though I know my own mother did it until a month before she had me. I can’t so much as look at coffee without barfing like something out of that Monty Python ‘wafer-thin mint’ sketch. And I’m afraid of lifting anything. Nick actually found me crying in the garage this morning, because I needed to put a gas can in the back of my truck, but I didn’t want to lift it, and I didn’t want to ask him for help for something so simple. So my husband now thinks I’m insane, which is awesome. So really, I just need you to forget about whatever excuse you were going to give me for disappearing from the face of the earth without a word, and give me an exam to show me that everything is normal and healthy and I am not giving birth to some sort of Cthulhu baby.”
I stared at my badass werewolf alpha-lady boss as she burst into tears. “Wow.”
“I hate this!” She sniffled. “I mean, I’m really excited about the baby. But I hate feeling like I don’t have control over anything, including my hormones. I mean, I watched all of my cousins cry and power-eat ice cream through their pregnancies and thought, not me. Not Maggie-Effing-Graham. I’ll be the Chuck Norris of pregnant ladies. And look at me! I don’t cry! I hate feeling so girlie and stupid about everything. And I really, really want some peanut butter fudge ripple, but I don’t want to ask Nick to go get it for me, because I don’t want to hear any of my cousins say ‘I told you so.’ ”
I circled the desk and wrapped my arms around my patient as she sobbed into my jacket. I patted her hair and rubbed her back and assured her that what she was going through was completely normal. I laughed a little as she sniffled into my shoulder, and that earned me a light punch to the kidney.
“Don’t laugh at me,” she grumbled, squeezing me. “I’m still mad at you.”
“I know.” I sighed. “But I think this will help me get back in your good graces.”
Leaving Maggie to mop up her red, runny nose, I took out her official mayoral stationery and wrote out a “prescription” for her. She read over the paper I handed her. She rolled her eyes. “Five hundred ccs of peanut butter fudge ripple ice cream, to be delivered orally and in secret.”
“You tell Nick that if he tells anybody about his ice cream run, I will find a way to erase all of his interview recordings,” I told her.
“I like you.” She knew exactly what sort of terror the threat to Nick’s recordings would inspire in her folklorist husband. “You’re kind of high-maintenance and sneaky, but I like you.”
“Come to the clinic, and we’ll get you checked out. And I’ll give you some prenatal vitamins that might help with your coffee issues.”
“I might forgive you.”
“I missed you, too, Mags.”
“Don’t push it.”
Stepping out into the snowy street, I noticed a dozen or so pack members oh-so-casually milling around the sidewalk in front of the community center. I stopped in my tracks, waiting for pitchforks or torches to come out. But the expressions on the various aunts’ and uncles’ faces were more curious than angry. My face flushed warm. How was I going to explain my absence? What had Caleb already told them?
With more mercy than I expected from her, Maggie called out, “Nothing to see here, people. Move along.”
The response was instantaneous. All of the loiterers turned their backs and walked off, as if they suddenly remembered urgent business at least twenty yards away.
Clearly, the way to reconcile with Maggie was icecream bribery. I looked over my shoulder, toward the pregnant alpha, who was waving me away with one hand while dialing her cell phone with the other.
Caleb lived in a house on the edge of the village, a low-slung, tidy structure with blue siding and white shutters that had belonged to his father before him. I’d never given it much consideration before, but now it seemed that I might be living here. Would there be room for me? Would Caleb and I be happy here?
I dropped my bag in the snow and stared at the front door. The windows were dark. What if the door was locked? What if Caleb had changed his mind and decided he didn’t want me there? The “rabbit” in me wanted to yell for Leonard to come back and get me.
This elusive instinct only ramped up as I heard the muffled thumping of wolf paws hitting packed snow. I turned to see several large wolves cantering into the town limits, nudging and nipping at one another playfully. This was the afternoon patrol, running the boundaries of the valley to check for intruders or hunters straying too far from the nearby nature preserve. I searched the thundering herd for any sign of a large gray male, but before I could spot him, a blur of dark fur and gold light came flying at me. A very naked Caleb landed on his feet just in front of me, scooping me up and crushing me against him. The other wolves made a huff-whicker sound, which translated to “Whipped!” among Caleb’s werewolf brethren.
I threw my legs around his waist, nearly bowling him over as I covered his face in kisses. Caleb’s warm mouth pressed to mine, and he murmured apologies and endearments against my lips.
Several of the loitering uncles whooped and whistled at the spectacle we were making of ourselves. “You owe me five bucks, Donnie!” Uncle Doug yelled. “I told you his truck smelled like the doc!”
I pulled back from Caleb’s kisses, so I was sure to be understood. “Just one thing,” I told him as I cocked my foot back and kicked him in the shin so hard I may have splintered a metatarsal.
He winced, but he didn’t drop me.
“If you ever keep a secret of this magnitude from me again—”
“You’ll take away my shins. I understand,” he said.
“No, but I will ensure that you are so itchy, nauseated, and pustulated that bruised shins will be the least of your problems. Don’t doubt that I have the skills necessary to do it.”
“Don’t make me get the medical textbooks. The illustrations will make you cry.”
He shuddered. “I’ll take your word for it. I’m so glad you’re here,” he breathed into my neck. “I was so scared you wouldn’t come back.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.”
He shrugged, jostling me a little as my feet barely scraped against the snow. “I can’t blame you. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to see that stupid e-mail. I’m sorry I wasn’t up-front with you.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t call you, but I was afraid you wouldn’t answer.”
“I’m sorry I left you. I should have stayed and worked things out.”
“I’m sorry I called you all those horrible names.”
“You didn’t call me that many names.”
“In my head, I did,” I admitted. “A lot. Really bad ones.”