I shook her outstretched hand, and the handshake turned into a hug. “Jackson, Tennessee.”

Advertisement

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re back. Eva bit the new doctor at the Grundy clinic, and now he’s less than enthusiastic about seeing her for her checkups. The big sissy.”

“She did break the skin,” Cooper pointed out, though there was a note of pride in his voice.

“Well, that was the only way she could express ‘I do not appreciate the intrusion of your booster-shot needle’ with the emphasis she felt was necessary,” Mo said primly.

Cooper rolled his eyes but only slightly. “We’re glad you’re back, Doc.”

-- Advertisement --

“I’m glad to be back,” I told him.

“And I’m glad you dragged my idiot cousin home with you,” Cooper added. “If anybody can straighten his stubborn ass out, it’s you.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I hope I’m up to the challenge.”

“Oh, you know you are,” Mo said. “If he’s anything like Cooper, he’d hand you the moon and stars if you looked at ’em twice. They’re shamelessly devoted to their mates, all of them. Even Maggie.”

Maggie overheard this and sent a rude gesture Mo’s way, which Mo returned without breaking her verbal stride.

“Maggie told me you’ve had some trouble. And for Maggie to tell me anything means that she’s worried. Let them help you, Tina. Trust in them. They’ll stand for you until the very end; it’s in their natures.”

I nodded.

“And if they don’t, I’ll just knock the hell out of your ex with a fire extinguisher. It’s sort of my thing.”

I snickered, pressing my lips together to keep from ruining this bonding moment. Mo was known for her prowess with both kitchen knives and fire-suppression equipment, having knocked Maggie unconscious with a fire extinguisher when her sister-in-law had gotten just a little too close to wounding Cooper in a street brawl.

“We gals are in the same boat when it comes to being mated to these yahoos,” she said, wrapping her arm around my shoulders. “We humans have to stick together. Maybe we can form a club or a support group. Nick would be perfect for organizing that sort of thing. Hey, Nick!” She called after her brother-in-law, who was in a corner, holding a digital recorder in Caleb’s face. Mo easily handed her daughter off to Cooper, who watched his wife scamper off with a bemused expression.

“Runs at a mile a minute, my mate,” he said fondly. “And her brain runs even faster.”

“I really missed you all,” I told him, letting Eva play with the beading on my sweater while she leaned her head against her daddy’s shoulder. I stroked her sleek blue-black hair, still marveling at the full mane this toddler managed to grow. She was only two, and it was almost down to her waist. “I know I was only gone a few months, but I feel like I missed so much. Eva’s getting so big!”

“But not too big, right?” Cooper asked, anxious. “She’s where she needs to be growth chart–wise?”

“She’s perfect,” I assured him as my fingers brushed over her forehead. I paused. She was a little warm. I checked her nose, which was predictably runny and flush with thin mucus. Her lymph nodes were slightly swollen, and from the way she draped herself against her daddy, you could tell she wasn’t exactly bounding with energy.

“Everything OK?” Caleb asked, anxious again.

“Well, it looks like she could be coming down with a cold. Has she complained about her head or her throat hurting?” I asked.

“No, but she’s napped a lot today, more than usual,” he admitted, rubbing her back.

“Well, it’s in the early stages yet, and at this age, she can’t really articulate headaches,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. “Hey, Uncle Dan, do you have your Maglite?”

Dan proudly held up the little flashlight he kept in a holster at his hip, an idea he’d latched onto after watching too many episodes of CSI. “I told you it would come in handy!” he crowed.

“Yes, your moment of triumph has arrived,” I retorted, taking the offered flashlight and gently prying Eva’s mouth open. I shone the light into her throat and winced at the sight of red, inflamed tissue. “Oh, yeah, that’s some sinus drainage you got there, sweetie.”

“What do we do?” Cooper asked, his voice slightly panicked. “Do we need to take her to the hospital? Should we call nine-one-one?”

“This is why Mo handles most of her checkups, isn’t it?” I deadpanned.

Cooper grumbled a bit. “Yes.”

“It’s going to be fine. Right now, it’s probably just a little cold, one of many little colds she’s going to have over the course of her life. But just to be sure, take her back into Maggie’s office, and I’ll do an exam. I just have to run over to the clinic to get my medical bag and some of the medications she might need. You keep her in here where it’s warm.”

“Shouldn’t we come to the clinic with you?” Cooper asked. “You have all of the equipment there, those defibrillator paddles and the intubation stuff and . . .” He trailed off as I gave him an amused look. “We’ll just go wait for you in the office.”

“OK, then,” I told him, patting his arm. “Let Caleb know where I went?”

Cooper nodded.

I quietly slid into my coat, hoping not to attract the attention of aunties with second helpings. I stepped out into the bitter cold, refreshed by the untouched air, even as it slapped against my cheeks. It was a bit of a relief to get out of the crowd and the noise. As much as I loved the pack, it would take some time before I was used to their exuberance again.

Shivering, I stomped out onto the street, watching for patches of black ice under the shin-deep blanket of snow. The last thing I needed was to bust my butt on slick pavement and lie there in the dark for hours while the party raged on.

Who was I kidding? Caleb would notice I was gone within a few minutes and organize a full-on search party.

I shivered in my jacket, my steps slowing as I crunched through the snow to listen for . . . what? The sound of the whistling between the buildings along the main street? Fat white snowflakes splatting against the windshield of Maggie’s truck? I shook my head, trudging forward, only to stop a few steps later and peer down the street toward the north ridge of the valley.

There was something off. Some organic, nervous alarm skittered up my spine and had me turning on my heel to go back to the community center. I shouldn’t be out here on my own. I needed the pack. I needed—

I’d just passed Maggie’s truck when I heard soft, steady footfalls behind me, with none of the natural grace of the Grahams. I shuddered, my breath coming in short white puffs in the frigid air. Shards of icy panic wormed their way through my stomach, making it hard to breathe or think.

Whipping around, I turned back toward the north ridge and saw Glenn standing there in all his angry glory, practically vibrating with rage under his thick Gore-Tex coat. The climate had not been kind to Glenn. His overbright brown eyes watered against the cold, prickling wind. His cheeks were fire-engine red. And instead of making him seem pathetic, the wear and tear just made him seem that much more unstable, unpredictable. Any veneer of civility had been torn away to reveal a level of crazy I’d never seen before.

My heart stuttered in my chest as my brain shouted, Not real! Not real! Not real!

“Don’t you have anything you want to say to me?” he sneered, chapped lips cracking. “I don’t even get a hello?”

I stumbled back, barely staying upright as my heel hit a patch of ice.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve put me through?” he demanded, stumbling forward, grabbing my arm and shaking me like a rag doll. He seemed reluctant to touch me, as if even after all of this time and all of his efforts to find me, confronting me in person was somehow harder than threatening me through a computer screen. “This is all your fault.”

Panicked, runaway thoughts kept me from focusing. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. I wanted to curl in on myself, make myself small. “The humiliation of you filing for divorce. Calling the cops on me. Months of searching, paying some stranger to dig into our business. Years of worrying where you were, what you were doing, who you were with. Do you know how humiliating this has been for me?”

In full fury, he didn’t hesitate to use the violence he used to cover up with “accidents” and clumsiness. He grunted, tossing me back into the snow as if I weighed nothing. I skidded across the ice-slick surface of the road, whacking my head against Maggie’s bumper.

“Your fault,” Glenn spat. “All your fault. Losing those jobs because I was so busy looking for you. You trashed my reputation. You ruined me.”

I slowly pushed myself up, gingerly turning my head back and forth. I could feel a warm trickle of blood down my back, where the base of my skull had caught the edge of the truck bumper.

Glenn shoved me back down with the toe of his boot. “What kind of wife does that to her husband?”

“I’m not your wife anymore,” I whispered.

“You’re my wife as long as I say you are,” he growled, stepping on my chest and pushing me down into the snow. He leered down at me, as if he’d been picturing me like this—broken and bleeding under his foot—for a very long time. He gave me one last kick before crouching over me.

I sat up again, bracing myself on the truck. “You can’t hurt me anymore, Glenn. This stops now.”

He acted as if he hadn’t even heard me speak. “We’re going to walk out of this valley, take my snowmobile back to that piss-water little town, Grungy or whatever. We’re going to go back home, and you’re going to beg the hospital to give us our jobs back. You’re going to tell them it was all your fault that they fired me. We’re going to go back to our life just the way it was. You’re going to go back to being the wife you were. Now, pull your hood up, honey, we don’t want you to get sick.”

Flinching away when he tried to adjust my coat, I stared up at him incredulously. He had finally lost his mind. He thought we were going to go back to where we were when I left? It was insane. Any friends we’d had together had no doubt stopped believing we were a couple years ago. And there was nothing I could say that would get his job back. I doubted I could get my job back at the hospital, given my abrupt exit. I shook my head, and the motion upset my equilibrium. “No,” I whispered.

He punched me right on the bridge of my nose, where the cartilage connects to the brow. I sank to my knees, seeing stars. “What did you say?” he demanded, standing over me.

“No,” I said again, my voice a little louder but shakier. “No! No! NO! NO! NO!” I screamed so loudly that it echoed down the street and off the trees. Glenn viciously kicked me in the ribs, cutting off the werewolf-summoning noise into a squelched cry.

“I see we’re going to need a little refresher, honey. I’m your husband. I’m in charge.” He delivered another kick to my rib cage. I flopped onto my side, my face buried in snow. The tiny shards of ice burned the scrapes on my skin. I rolled faceup, my coat tangled under my body, and I felt a metal cylinder bump against my leg.

The baton. I’d forgotten that Caleb had sewn a special pocket in the recesses of my coat to store the baton as a just-in-case measure. I thought it had been overkill when Caleb insisted I keep it in my pocket even after we returned to the valley. Who was going to try to hurt me on the twenty-yard walk from the clinic to our house? But now I thought it was just-enough-kill.

As Glenn grumbled to himself about my “fat ungrateful ass,” I slid the hand of my uninjured arm into my pocket. My fingers curled around the baton just as Glenn’s foot connected with my ribs. The impact knocked me back, spinning me over and over, while the breath fled from my lungs. The baton was still clutched in my hand as I landed in the snow, a heavy weight in numbed fingers.

“When I say stop, you stop.” He grunted, kicking me in the stomach this time.

This was never going to stop.

Unable to scream for help, I lay there, cataloguing my injuries—dislocated shoulder, broken nose, fractured ribs—and I knew he would just keep coming after me until I was dead. Part of me wanted to give in, to let him just take me. It seemed so much easier than this constant struggle, the nagging fear. I was so cold and tired; down to my soul, I was exhausted. If I got into the car with him now, at least it would be over. He wouldn’t have the chance to hurt anybody else.

“When I say get off of your lazy, spoiled ass and get moving, you say, ‘Yes, Glenn,’ and go where I tell you.” Glenn put the weight of his boot on my damaged shoulder. I made a hoarse mewling sound, one that I swore I heard echoed in a canine yelp in the distance. I rolled onto my injured side, trying to protect it. And he laughed. He was enjoying himself, the big man, the little brat who never got enough of my attention. Well, he certainly had my full attention now. My pain and fear were fun for him. And if someone was that good at hiding that he was that sick, it was not my fault that he’d fooled me. He did this, not me. He was the one who manipulated and controlled and caused pain, not me. He was the asshole, not me.

I was not the problem.

I slung the weight of the baton outward with my good arm, thrilling at the metallic singing sound. Sitting up and fighting against the sick, dizzy sensation that came with it, I brought the baton down with all my strength just above his knee. A deeply satisfying crunch echoed about the street, and Glenn howled. I kicked up, catching him square in the crotch with the heel of my boot.

-- Advertisement --