Swiping at my cheeks, I looked in the mirror. My hair had been all of the colors of the Clairol spectrum since I left home, from jet-black to white-blond. But after I reached the valley, I’d let it go back to its original reddish-gold. It was nice to be back to strawberry-blond, even if people did expect me to be wacky and/or zany, which was irritating on so many levels.
I looked as exhausted as I felt. I’d been born with open, happy features: wide eyes, a pert little nose, a determined chin. My skin had been peaches and cream, without dark circles under my eyes. My lips had curved into an easy smile for friends, strangers, anybody. And my eyes had been a clear, untroubled green. Now I didn’t even have the energy to offer my reflection an apologetic shrug as I stripped out of my clothes. I locked the bathroom door and took a few deep breaths as I ran the bath tap. I always dreaded motel showers. You never knew what you were getting into. This one had the perfect balance of hot water, just enough burn to bite, but all the pressure of a dime-store water pistol.
Shampooing with the cheap, splintering bar of motel soap, I prayed that one day I would stumble into a motel that stocked Garnier Fructis for its guests. I rinsed out my dirty underclothes, although I knew there was little chance they would dry before morning. Now that I was clean, I faced a dilemma. I had one change of clothes that I always kept in my tote. I had a backup bag, packed with clothes, cash, and spare ID, in my trunk, but that trunk was now a charcoal briquette.
I poked my head out the door to make sure the big guy was still out cold. I crept over to his bag and selected one of the few T-shirts, one that advertised the Suds Bucket in Fairbanks. My short, undernourished frame would swim in it, but it smelled OK, and it covered me, and that was enough. I slipped it on over my last pair of dry, clean panties.
I checked the locks again and surveyed my sleeping options: the bed, the floor, or the wooden chair currently propped against the door. The idea of sleeping on the nasty carpet was too repulsive. Sleeping on the chair would take a contortionist’s balance and flexibility. The bed won.
I repacked my bag and placed it on top of my clean jeans, socks, and sneakers, within easy reach of the bed. I pulled back the bedspread, no small task considering that he was lying on top of it.
“Hey, I’m going to get in the bed now. I’d like to point out that assaulting someone who’s provided you with medical treatment is tacky.” He snored on, a deep, rumbling sound spiraling out from his chest. “OK, I’ll take that as a tacit promise to be a gentleman.”
I slid under the stiff white sheets and tried not to think about the last time they’d been washed. I punched the flat pillow into shape and lay on my side, facing the door, which also meant being nose-to-nose with my practically comatose roommate.
Blinking at him sleepily, I finally had time to appreciate my bed partner’s face. He was definitely attractive in that rough-hewn, competent way. I sort of wanted to nibble on him, all of him. Was that wrong?
I groaned and rolled away, putting my back to him. Yes, it was wrong. These were bad thoughts, bad thoughts that led to bad things. Bad things that would probably feel pretty good but would ultimately bite me on the ass. Of course, with that little overbite of his, being bitten on the ass might not—
I groaned again, pressing my face into the pillow. This was not like me. For the first few months after I ran, I was too scared of my own shadow to let a man within three feet of me, much less see me naked. Sure, I’d been attracted to other men. Hell, the valley had been packed with handsome, eligible fellas who basically threw themselves at anything female and single that they weren’t related to. But I’d been able to stay unattached. I hadn’t dated. I just couldn’t open up to anyone else like that. I didn’t want to give anyone else that sort of power over me.
There’s no such thing as a one-night stand when you live in such a small community. You see that person over and over, and the awkwardness can be deadly. I hadn’t engaged the services of a no-strings-attached “bounce buddy,” no matter how dark and lonely the winters got.
And it just felt wrong, starting any sort of relationship when I was still technically married. Lying to someone about my name was one thing. Letting someone think I was a normal, available human being was another.
Clearly, years without sex had disrupted the important responsible-decision-making neurons in my brain.
I scooted across the bed as far as I could. I shoved what would have been his pillow between us. That would provide an impenetrable measure of overnight security, right? I switched off the bedside lamp and pulled the covers up to my chin. I closed my eyes, waiting for sleep to take me.
I was going to be all right, I told myself. It took a while to learn to live without a cushion, with no safety net.
The rush of desire to be still again, to go back to the life I’d made, caught me off-guard. Having friends again, a home, a job I didn’t have to settle for, these were dangerously beautiful lures that sent me right back to square one. Square one sucked.
I knew I wasn’t exactly happy in this gray zone, but I was safe. And for a long time, before the valley, safety was the only happiness I needed. The idea that it might not be enough anymore made my chest ache with the effort to breathe.
I used to have backup plans and savings accounts, credit cards, and a skin-care regimen. I arrived home from work promptly at 5:25 every night to start dinner. If I arrived after 5:30, Glenn started to worry. And that would mean panicked voice mails on my cell, calls to the state police and the emergency rooms to see if I’d been in an accident, and a lot of fuss and fuming over nothing. I’d learned quickly that it was just easier to leave work ten minutes early every day than to try to convince Glenn that he was being unreasonable.
When we first started dating, I thought that sort of concern meant that I was important to him, that he was afraid of something happening to me. It’s what I told myself, even when I was assuring my supervisors at the hospital that my husband was a big practical joker after he left threatening voice mails for the head of cardiology. He spotted the two of us chatting at a colleague’s retirement dinner and was convinced we were sleeping together . . . which pretty much guaranteed I would never attend another staff party, just to avoid the potential humiliation. That was, I imagine, the whole point. I lost so many friends, any sort of personal relationships with the people I worked with. I was slowly pared out of their lives, until all I had was Glenn. Just the way he wanted it.
I’d made so many mistakes, so many exceptions to protect my pride, to prevent admitting, even to myself, how bad my situation had become. My road to hell was paved with rationalizations.
“Stop it,” I whispered into the dark. “Stop thinking about it.”
It was the shock of the parking-lot confrontation, I told myself. The yelling and the flames and then all that adrenaline and blood. That sort of upheaval was bound to bring up unpleasant memories. Tossing under the scratchy sheet, I found myself pressed against my bedmate. The pillow between us had been nudged down on the mattress, so that his face and shoulders were visible. I curled toward him, toward the heat of his body. He smelled of the woods, earthy and wild. Wasn’t that funny? Someone who spent his time in dive bars and honky-tonks smelling like fresh wind and moss? It wasn’t a werewolf thing. I’d spent enough time around the species to know that they weren’t all “April fresh.” He just smelled right, which in itself was a little alarming and prompted me to shove the pillow between us a little higher.
Sniffing lightly, he rolled toward me, his hand sliding over my shoulder and resting near my neck. Somehow, I’d expected it to be uncomfortable, being touched like this again. But while I certainly had some lingering werewolf-gunshot-wound-related questions, it didn’t feel wrong to have this man’s hand on me. I felt warm, down to the tips of my toes, comfortably, blissfully warm. I leaned closer until my forehead was resting against his arm and just lived in that warmth for a moment. In my head, I was basking in the summer sun on my parents’ back porch, knowing my mother would come out any minute to fuss at me about putting on sunscreen. I hadn’t heard my mother’s voice in such a long time. What I wouldn’t give just to hear her fuss at me about wrinkles and sun spots once more. But she was gone.
My eyes fluttered open, and I pulled out of the recollection. I wouldn’t think of my mother right now, not in a place like this, with a supernatural creature snoring beside me. She definitely wouldn’t have approved of my getting myself into this sort of situation. This was far outside of the realm of problems that could be fixed with sunscreen. I reluctantly moved away. But I found that my head was a lot clearer. I closed my eyes and started playing the “Random Game” in my head, a little brain exercise I’d made up to help me sleep in strange places. I would think of one of my favorite things from my old life—a TV show, a book, an ice cream flavor—and then randomly connect it to something else I liked, and something else, then something else. The pleasant imagery, combined with stream-of-consciousness thinking, lulled me right to sleep. I remembered going to see this terrible movie, The Chase, with my best friend, Teri. It was one of the first movies we’d been allowed to go to the theater to see on our own. And we picked a movie starring Charlie Sheen and Kristy Swanson. Oh, the vagaries of youth.
Kristy Swanson also played a fictional version of Anna Nicole Smith on Law & Order. I remembered watching some weird clip of Anna Nicole’s reality show on Talk Soup, where she was riding around in a limousine, whining and eating an obscenely large pickle. They used to serve pickles like that at basketball games at my high school. The booster clubs would serve them in little paper cups. If you ate one in front of my classmates, you could expect a lot of remarks about oral exams at school on Monday.
My brain bounced around like that for a few more minutes, from overrated Sheens to celeb-reality to giant pickles. My limbs were heavy. My eyelids fluttered closed. As I drifted off to sleep, I had no idea what tomorrow would bring. I didn’t know how I was going to get out of this little town, where I would go, how I would live. For now, I was clean, and I wasn’t sleeping in my car. And I’d managed to help someone who needed it. The rest I could sort out tomorrow.
Plastic Handcuffs: Fun for the Whole Family
I was warm. I was safe. There was a pleasantly heavy weight against my stomach, and someone was rubbing his thumb along my cheek. My hands skimmed over the shape on top of me and threaded through thick, silky hair.
My eyes snapped open. The werewolf was on top of me. I bit back a scream when the warm, rough hand clasped the back of my neck. Whiskers scratched my neck, leaving a burning path in their wake. I tapped at his shoulders, unable to push his heavy weight off of me.
“Um, hey, I think you’ve got the wrong ide—mmph.” His mouth closed over mine. It was soft, wet, and hot. My bedmate broke the warm, wet kiss, running the tip of his nose along my throat and making sweet, soft rumbling noises. My hands went from batting at his shoulders to lightly tracing the line of his neck.
It wasn’t entirely unpleasant to have someone this close, to have the heat from someone else’s skin seeping into mine. I wasn’t so startled when he kissed me again, teasing my tongue with his own as I opened to him. His hand cupped the weight of my breast in his palm before lightly pinching the nipple through his Suds Bucket T-shirt. I arched off the bed, and he used the opportunity to slide a hand under my butt, grinding his hips against me.
Blood flowed into my cheeks, and a pulsating coil of tension started building between my legs. My eyes fluttered open. His were shut, and not just in a “busy kissing” way. They were half-shut in that dazed, heavy-lidded expression of someone who’s only just woken up and is on the verge of passing out again. But his movements, while languid, had a purpose, and that purpose seemed to be stripping me out of my clothes.
I pulled away slightly, my eyebrows furrowed. Was he asleep, or was he faking this?
I’d heard of sleepwalking, but sleep-snuggling?
Was this a werewolf thing? Should I wake him up? I’d heard that was dangerous. Of course, letting a stranger have unprotected sleep sex with you couldn’t be terribly safe. Frankly, his touching me didn’t feel wrong or bad. I traced my fingers along the contours of his face, thumbing the arch of his cheekbones. He leaned into the caress and made that happy purring noise. I smiled into the darkness of the room. I’d gone far too long without any sort of connection to another human being. I missed something as simple as choosing to be touched.
Leaning closer, I let the tip of my nose run along his cheek, inhaling the warm, woodsy fragrance of his skin. I sighed, tangled my fingers into his mass of dark hair, and kissed him greedily. He moaned, a deep, rumbling sound that vibrated from his chest to mine. I expected him to reach for his belt. I was prepared for it. But he just pulled me back to his chest and wrapped his arms around me, holding me close. His lips worried my throat in tight little circles, his teeth nipping lightly at the skin until he reached the spot where my neck met my shoulder. I was relaxing into him, enjoying the alternately soft and sharp sensations, when I felt him scrape his teeth along the line of my throat. He paused, pressing his canines into the soft web of flesh where my shoulder and neck joined, hard enough that he was millimeters from breaking through the skin. I gasped, tensing my back so quickly that the crown of my head caught his chin. He yelped, then licked at the spot he’d injured, nuzzling it, cuddling against me as if trying to apologize. This was so far outside the etiquette of how to thank someone who has treated your gunshot wound it wasn’t even funny.
I tried to wriggle out of his arms, but I might as well have been wrapped in an iron cage. He was immovable. But instead of trying to bite me again, he simply tucked his face into the crook of my neck and commenced snoring.