“So we’ve established that you’re both sorry,” Maggie said, shaking her head as she crossed the street with Samson, her unofficial second-in-command.
“What is it about human women that turns the men of this family into complete idiots?” Samson asked. “Idiots who will phase in broad daylight in the middle of the street, where any human visitor could spot them, just so they can hug their mate?”
Caleb gave Maggie a sheepish look. Or at least, as sheepish as a werewolf can pull off.
“So, back for good?” Maggie asked Caleb, although I wasn’t sure which of us she meant.
“We both are,” Caleb agreed, then turned his attention to me. “Though there are going to be a few things you’re going to need to do for us to make this work.”
“Like dirty, sexy things?” I offered hopefully.
“Like filing a restraining order and reopening your divorce case.”
“That is neither dirty nor sexy.”
“I plan on marrying you, Dr. Campbell. And I don’t plan on getting arrested for bigamy. Besides, you can’t let him chase you for the rest of your days. You have to make a stand sometime.”
“He’ll take one look at the information on the paperwork, and he’ll be able to find me,” I said.
“There are steps that we can take, legal and not so legal, to prevent him from finding you. And even if he does, I’ll be right here with you. Not to mention a pack of giant werewolves who are pretty darn fond of you.” When I frowned, he added, “He won’t be able to hurt you, Rabbit. I promise you. You’re not alone anymore.”
I looked up into his big brown eyes. And I knew that he meant it. I cast a glance over his shoulder to Maggie, who nodded. “OK. I’ll do it. I’ll file the papers.”
“Thank God. Now, would you two please calm your dramatic asses down and go inside? People are starting to stare.”
“Maggie likes me,” I told him. “I’ve really grown on her.”
“Have not!” Maggie called over her shoulder as she and Samson headed back to the community center.
The other wolves nudged us as they passed, pausing to press their cold, wet noses to my hand in greeting. They trotted off to their homes, careful to phase only after someone let them inside.
Caleb grinned at me. “Let’s get you into the house. You have bags to unpack.”
He hitched me over his shoulder, and I nearly came face-to-cheek with his bare butt. I yelped, bracing myself against his back to avoid impact. He picked up my bags with his other hand and carried me up the steps. I had only one question left to ask. “How are you not cold right now?”
Our routine changed.
I’d wondered before what life would be like if we stayed in one place. It turned out that life was bizarrely, shockingly normal. We ate together in our kitchen, without waitstaff—or, tragically, people to cook or do the dishes. (Learning to split chores was an interesting, relationship-defining experience. I loved the man, but I drew the line at exclusive bathroom-cleaning duties.) We made up for lack of car time together by logging lots of hours on his couch watching movies. Caleb was a shameless fan of the professional-wrestler-turned-action-star oeuvre, while I stuck with John Hughes. We slept, wound together in a comfortable bed. We learned how to make love leisurely, without worrying about someone in the next room hearing us.
Now that Caleb had decided to stick closer to the valley, I went online for information about opening a licensed, legitimate private-investigation service. When spring came, he would have to travel a little bit, but a good portion of his caseload could be handled over the Internet. Maggie was more than willing to offer Caleb the sheriff’s position.
For the moment, Caleb was officially off-duty, so he devoted his energies to getting his dad’s house back in order and ready for winter. Normally, this was something he should have started months ago, but the others in the pack were willing to help check the stability of the roof, reseal the windows, and stack cords of wood.
I went back to work at the clinic. The old men and mothers in the village forgave me instantly, flooding my office with arthritis complaints and kids in need of checkups. The pack aunties were slower to warm. I didn’t get the cold shoulder, by any means, but the candor and connection I’d once shared with the older ladies of the village had evaporated. I figured that could be reestablished in time. And while they weren’t exactly smothering me with affection, they expressed their fondness for Caleb by filling our kitchen with casseroles, beef roasts, and a plethora of pies. I wasn’t totally taken off-guard. I’d received plenty of drop-by casseroles from my neighbors and patients. What did surprise me was the recipes, accompanied by comments such as “Caleb has always favored my fried apples” or “Caleb doesn’t like his meat too well done, so you’re going to need to cut the roasting time by about forty-five minutes.” Apparently, I was expected to feed him.
Once I stopped laughing, I informed Caleb that I could make him an omelet if he wanted it, but beyond that, we were going to have to scrape along together for a while. He promised he would show me how to make his dad’s tuna noodle casserole.
Although I treasured those days, I knew they wouldn’t be enough. I was greedy. I wanted Christmases and Sunday breakfasts and hearing Caleb cursing as he stepped on our kids’ Legos in the middle of the night. Kids—I wanted kids. And if Caleb’s genes had their say, I would have more than my share of them. For the first time since those early days as Glenn’s blushing bride, I found I didn’t mind the idea of children. I could see a whole gaggle of dark-haired, blue-eyed little wolves running out our front door for hockey practice and pack runs. They would be beautiful, strong children, with more people to love them than I could count.
I wanted that so much my eyes watered with it.
Caleb was happiest when he ran with the pack. It was as if the wolfy part of his brain was finally in balance with the rest of him. He was the most contented, the most at peace, that I’d ever seen him.
I, on the other hand, grew more twitchy by the day. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew these days wouldn’t last. A sense of inevitable doom had hung over my head ever since I’d filed the paperwork for a restraining order, using the e-mails and that he’d hired a private investigator to find me as proof of Glenn’s bad intent. I’d also refiled my divorce paperwork with the help of Nate Gogan, the sole attorney in Grundy. My divorce proceedings were complicated by the fact that I’d run away. He had earned his retainer that week.
The papers included my current address. It was only a matter of time before Glenn showed up, and I couldn’t imagine that would end well for either of us.
Glenn’s lack of reaction after being served with the restraining order didn’t exactly make me feel better. I contacted Red-burn to update her on my situation and ask her to keep an ear out for any Glenn-related information on the Network’s channels, but there had been nothing.
Glenn was unstable, but he wasn’t stupid. He would know better than to show up here the minute he received a restraining order, particularly if that sudden appearance preceded my sudden disappearance. That didn’t mean he wasn’t planning. I knew how his brain worked. He’d probably researched every resource he could find for information about my new address. Hell, he probably had a full geological survey of the valley by now. Somehow, knowing he was out there scheming was almost worse than his storming the front door. I kept a game face for Caleb and the pack, even when I felt as if I was unraveling. But in private, when Caleb was running or playing cards with his cousins, I indulged in a little brooding.
I was sitting on the front porch of Caleb’s house, wrapped in blankets, enjoying the sight of thick, new-fallen snow, when Maggie, in wolf form, came trotting onto the porch. She was a sleek black female, small but, somehow, still very intimidating.
Other than the fact that she was carrying one baby instead of the expected werewolf multiples, Maggie was enjoying a perfectly normal werewolf pregnancy. Nick was over the moon and insisted on documenting every moment of the pregnancy, videotaping the consultation and the ultrasound. Maggie resisted confiscating his camera until he mentioned taping the stirrups portion of the exam.
I gave wolf-Maggie a weak smile and rubbed behind her ears. In a flash, an irritated, naked young woman was sitting in front of me, glaring at me.
“If you try to pet me again, I will bite your hand off.”
I snatched my hand back. “I’m sorry. It’s just a reflex. Caleb likes it when I scratch behind his ears.”
“I’m going to bite you anyway now.”
“Can I offer you a blanket?” I asked her.
“No. Stop running,” Maggie said.
“I’m right here.”
Maggie rolled her eyes. “But you’re still running. You’re waiting on the first sign to take off. It’s not fair to my cousin. He loves you. And any idiot can see how much you love him.”
As much as I hated to admit it when Maggie was insightful, she’d just nailed me. I wasn’t being fair to Caleb. He had committed fully, and I had one foot out the door. I was letting years of baggage keep me from judging the situation for what it was. If I was in trouble, I had Caleb. If Caleb was in trouble, he had me and my baton. I was safe. I was protected. I was loved. I would enjoy these precious days of quiet to their fullest. It was time for the rabbit to put away her running shoes.
Something must have changed in my expression, because Maggie added, “That’s as mushy as I get. I will tell you that we have double patrols around the boundaries of the valley, which we can afford to do now that we have so many extra paws around. I took those photos Caleb printed for us and posted them at the community center. Your asshole ex is our first-ever wanted poster, thank you very much. And we let Buzz know that if anyone shows up in Grundy asking questions about you, he needs to call us. He’s the closest thing they have to law enforcement over there, and it’s time for him to earn his piddling part-time salary.”
“Is that how you put it when you asked him for a favor? Because statements like that could be part of the reason people don’t like you.”
Maggie scoffed. “People love me.”
I frowned at her but chose not to respond to that. “So, clearly, you have the in-person issues covered, but what happens when Glenn starts monkeying around with your records online or brings the authorities sniffing around, asking awkward questions about pregnancies that only last four months and an inordinate number of injuries related to bear traps?”
“You mean, what do we do when he tries to bring the pitchfork-wielding mob of humans to our door, screaming for the monsters’ heads?” Maggie asked, her toned laced with unholy glee. “We just put on our best human faces, all innocent eyes and guileless smiles that say, ‘Oh, gee, Mr. Health Official, I don’t know how our paperwork got so messed up. We’re just sweet, unpretentious country folk who don’t understand them fancy computers.’ ”
“Your smiles say all that?”
“You’d be surprised how often it works,” Maggie assured me. “I mean, really, who’s going to believe that my aunt Winnie is a werewolf? People want to believe what they know to be true. They’ll grasp on to any rational explanation we give them. And if they don’t buy it at first, we just keep pushing, finding new stories to tell, until they do.
“I’m not saying it wouldn’t cause complications or problems, but as smart as your husband is, he’s not enough of an evil genius to blow our cover. We’ve faced better operators than him over the years. We have devious, slightly more violent methods to deal with him that are best left to your imagination.”
“We can take care of him. Of course, you would have known this if you’d told me about it.”
“Hindsight and all that.”
“Now comes the part where I threaten to kick your ass from here to Ontario if you hurt Caleb.”
I nodded. “Wouldn’t expect anything less.”
“Seriously, I’d fix it so they’d use your carcass as bait on that Deadliest Catch show.”
“So to make me feel safer and calmer, you’re threatening me with graphic, grievous bodily harm?”
“Little too far there, Mags.”
This Is Why You Use the Buddy System
With my real birthday on the horizon—not the birthday listed on the “Anna Moder” paperwork—the werewolf aunties insisted on hosting a big joint celebration of my thirty-fourth year and Caleb’s permanent return to the pack. It was the first opportunity for the pack to put on a big spread since the first hard frost. I didn’t mind being used, as long as it meant Aunt Winnie brought her hash-brown casserole.
So one not-so-special Friday evening, when the roads were clearer than usual, every aunt, uncle, and cousin jammed into the community center to stuff themselves silly under a jungle of tissue-paper flowers produced by Samson’s mate, Alicia. Even Mo and Cooper made the treacherous snowmobile trip with their toddler, Eva, to welcome us back into the fold. They were the last of the relatives I’d “fooled” with my false identity. I liked Mo quite a bit, and I hated the idea of her shunning me as a result of perfectly justified hurt feelings.
I should have known better. Mo adjusted to my news the way she had adjusted to most things pack-related: smoothly and with style. She just grinned and threw her arm around me when she and Cooper had made their way through the throng of noshing werewolves.
“Well, now that I know who you are, I’m a little ashamed of myself. I thought I knew another Southern transplant when I saw one,” Mo said, grinning, shifting the sleepy-looking toddler so she could extend her hand as if to reintroduce herself. “Leland, Mississippi.”