“I always was a slow learner,” I huffed, struggling to my feet. “So is this what it feels like, Glenn?” I slurred, standing over him as he whined and keened over his knee. I cradled my injured shoulder. “Did it make you feel good to stand like this, over me, while I rolled around on the floor like a dog? Answer me!” I yelled, kicking at him, catching him in the stomach.
He moaned and tried to struggle to his knees, but I brought the baton down on his back, knocking him to the ground.
“What you did to me, that’s your problem, your damage. You’re going to have to live with it, because I’m sick of carrying it around with me. You’re never going to touch me again. This is over,” I told him, turning toward the community center.
“But you’re my wife.” He whimpered. “You’re mine.”
“Not anymore.” I walked away, dragging the baton behind me in the snow. My injured arm felt heavy, disconnected, as I stumbled forward. Wiping at the blood running from my mouth, I winced at the split in my lip. Just a few more steps. Just a few more steps, and I’d be back in the hall. I’d find Caleb. I’d be OK.
I staggered forward as I was suddenly knocked to the ground. Rough hands in my hair yanked me to my feet. “You think you could just do that to me?” he demanded, twisting the hair at the nape of my neck and pulling me back against him. I yelped at the sharp stabs of pain throbbing from several different locations. He wrapped his hand around my throat and squeezed, slowly pressing the breath out of my body. “Did you think I would let you get away with it?”
My feet scrabbled uselessly against the crust of snow. The edges of my vision started to turn gray. I swung my baton at his legs, but Glenn used his free hand to swat it out of my hand before snagging my hair again. I fought against the urge to pass out, like swimming against a tidal wave. If I passed out, he would drag me away and do God knew what with me. If I was awake, I could regain control of the situation. Maybe.
A low, loud growl reverberated through the cold air, piercing my chest. Glenn’s grip on my throat slackened, allowing my feet to reach the ground. I gulped huge breaths, even as he tightened his grip on my hair.
My vision cleared, allowing me to make out a dozen huge dark shapes as they separated from the shadows, edging their way into a shaft of moonlight. Right at the front of the pack, a big gray male curled his lip over his canines, letting them shine, sharp and silver in the light. If I were Glenn, I would be pissing my pants right now.
“What is this?” Glenn hissed, jerking at my hair, making me yelp. This drew a particularly vicious growl from the gray wolf.
“Did I mention that my new boyfriend’s family . . . well, they’re pretty special,” I said, laughing softly to myself.
The Caleb wolf inched forward, the hair on his back raised, fangs bared. A small black female, Maggie, was at his side. Her stance was calmer but no less menacing. Besides Glenn and me, no humans were on the street. The pack handled pack business.
“Shut up!” Glenn backed away, dragging me with him. I dug my heels into the snow, doing anything I could to make this more difficult for him. I heard the same familiar low growls behind us. And I slowly realized there was a circle of wolves, tightening around me and my crazy ex-husband. They all had their heads lowered, lips curled back. Stalking. The street echoed with raspy growls. Although sick with the pain of my injuries, in the midst of this confrontation, I was as relaxed as a spa bunny after a two-hour massage. I knew I had nothing to fear. I nearly giggled at the absurdity of it.
“Hey, Glenn.” I couldn’t resist mocking. “Remember when I said we should get a dog, and you ‘forbade’ me to get one because you didn’t want my attentions divided? Sort of ironic, huh?” I giggled, hysteria taking over fully now.
“I said shut up, or I’ll snap your damn neck, Tina.”
“Oh, do whatever you want to me,” I scoffed, spitting a healthy amount of blood into the snow. “You won’t even make it to your car. They’ve got your scent now, Glenn. They’ll run you down and leave nothing but scattered bones. You came into the woods, in the dark, thinking you were the biggest, meanest thing to walk here, because you can terrorize a woman half your size. Let me tell you something. You’re an amateur. You’re nothing. Forget dragons. Here there be giant, pissed-off wolves. And they are not happy with you.”
Glenn shook me so hard I was sure I heard my teeth rattle. “Shut up!”
Glenn released his hold on my neck. I sank to my knees, the impact buffered by the snow. I looked back to see Glenn crumpled, facedown, in the street. Mo stood behind him with a fire extinguisher raised over her head.
Glenn moaned, turning onto his back and glaring up at her. “You bitch.”
“Not really an insult around these parts, asshole,” Mo told him. “You thought Tina was alone? She’s not alone here.” When he tried to stumble to his feet, she brought the canister down again, just hard enough to daze him. I heard a pleased whickering sound from a large black wolf near Maggie. “Normally, they wouldn’t let a human get involved in messy business like this. But they needed someone to speak for the pack, because, well, their jaws are aching to close around your throat right now, and they’re otherwise incapable of speech. But she’s ours now. And if you come near her again—”
Mo stopped as Glenn leaped to his feet and lunged for her, stumbling on slick ice and unsteady legs. The wolves’ growls rose to a fever pitch as she raised the fire extinguisher over her head.
“No!” I cried, snatching the cylinder from her hands with my good arm and swinging it wide, connecting with the side of Glenn’s head. He yelped, stumbling mid-lunge, and flopped facedown in the snow again.
Mo’s eyes went wide. I dropped the fire extinguisher with a clang, wincing as every muscle in my body seemed to seize at once. My dislocated shoulder sagged, useless, at my side.
Glenn’s pained moan was muffled by street slush. Mo nudged him over with her boot, so he was at least looking at her when she told him, “If you ever come near her again, the pack will find you. They will make you feel pain like no other human being has ever felt before, and then they will fix it so that your body is never found. It’s not an idle threat. They’re giant dogs. They’re big on hiding bones.”
“Still my . . .” Glenn gurgled through the ice and blood crusting his face. “Wife. Mine.”
I moved closer to him, despite the loud protesting rumbles of a certain gray wolf practically brushing against my back. I couldn’t kneel or bend, because, frankly, I was doing well not to throw up on him. “I’m not your wife anymore. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to think about you. And after today, I won’t even say your name again. You’re not my problem anymore.”
I ignored the pathetic little noises Glenn was making, turned on my heel, and walked back toward the clinic to get a Band-Aid for my head.
(At the time, it seemed completely logical.)
But apparently, I turned a little too quickly, considering the blows to my head and the loss of blood. My eyes rolled up, and the world seemed to tilt on its axis and melt into surreal splotches of color.
The last thing I remembered was thinking how much it was going to hurt to land on my bum shoulder. And then a pair of strong, warm arms closed around me, and I felt nothing at all.
I woke up in my own clinic, the late-morning light filtering through the window and directly into my sticky, tired eyes. I immediately clapped them shut, groaning. I tried to press my good hand to them, but the IV lead pulled painfully, and I stopped. I tried to raise myself slowly on the crisp white cotton sheets, my head too swimmy to manage it. I smacked my dry, sandpapery mouth, wincing.
Just lying there in the clinic’s lone hospital bed, I could tell I had a concussion, a few busted ribs, and a reset shoulder. My lip was split, and I had a few lacerations. Considering what had happened, I got through relatively unscathed.
Maggie was sitting at the side of my bed, leafing through a Carol Higgins Clark paperback. I blinked at her, fighting to keep both eyes focused on her face. “Morphine, huh?”
“I sure hope so. That’s what the label said.”
“Sorry, right now, I can’t think much beyond, ‘Morphine, yay!’ ” I giggled.
“Caleb wouldn’t let us reset your shoulder without it.”
I nodded, hissing as my fingers found the bruises on my neck. “Thank you.”
“Thank my mom. She was the only one who knew how to do it or the IV.”
I smiled. Gracie Graham had spent the better part of her life patching up her hooligan children, so she was a natural to assist me in the clinic during the occasional emergency. She would have made an excellent nurse if she could have left the valley long enough for college. The fact that she’d set my shoulder, kept me hydrated, used the monitoring equipment correctly, and not killed me with a morphine overdose was testament to her competence.
“You’ve been out for more than twenty-four hours. It’s weird watching someone take so long to heal. I don’t know how you humans stand it. I’ve told Nick he’s not allowed to get seriously hurt, ever.”
Maggie held a glass of water to my lips, allowing me to gulp it down. The sensation sliding down my parched throat was absolute bliss. She saw me glancing around the room. “Caleb is practically pawing down the door to get in here, but he kept wolfing out every time you twitched or your pulse spiked. Destroyed three chairs and an IV pole, not to mention all those shirts. So we sent him on a run . . . which lasted about five minutes before he was right back at the door, trying to get back in. So we tricked him into going to your house for some extra socks and locked him out.”
I laughed, wincing at the dulled pain radiating through my injured ribs. “Ow.”
“He’s had his face pressed against the glass like one of those freaky cling-film families people stick on their car windows.”
I laughed again, repeating the wincing process. “Stop making me laugh.”
“Well, I have to keep myself entertained somehow,” she said dryly.
“Where did they take him?” I asked, and because Maggie was occasionally intuitive to the point of freakiness, she knew exactly whom I was talking about.
“To the village jail,” she said. “It’s actually a holding cell for younger pack members having difficulty adjusting to their transition, which means they can get out of control. Disciplinary actions are always handled within the pack, no legal system required. But we dress it up as a jail because outsiders would ask too many questions otherwise. We’ll hand him over to the state police once he’s healed up a bit—before you get out of here, anyway. Don’t want the cops wondering how the hell he got so beat up.”
“Pack worked him over pretty good, huh?”
Maggie shook her head. “No, slugger, you worked him over with the baton. I will say that Mom is treating him just as carefully as she did you, but he’s not getting any of the tender, loving care. I think she enjoys ripping off his bandages a little too much.”
“But he knows about the wolves,” I said. “He’ll tell everybody.”
“Tell them what?” Maggie snorted. “That while he was beating and kidnapping his ex-wife, a pack of wolves surrounded him while another woman smacked him with a fire extinguisher? They’ll send him to prison by way of the loony bin, which would suit me just fine. Besides, he didn’t see any of us phase. And in my official capacity as what passes for law enforcement in this village, I can inform you that he messed up big-time. Violating the restraining order before the ink was even dry, assault, attempted kidnapping. You’ll have to testify, but he’s going to face real jail time, Doc.”
I expected some twinge of guilt, thinking of the man I’d loved enough to marry sitting in a tiny cell for years. But he’d hurt me in so many ways. He was a criminal. He belonged in jail.
“Now, before Caleb batters down the door, I am about to say something you’ll probably never hear from me again.”
I arched an eyebrow. “You chose to do this when I’m on serious drugs?”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
The other eyebrow went up. “Why are you sorry?”
“We’d been watching your ex for three days. He’d been circling the perimeter, trying to get a look at you. The restraining order was pretty specific about distances, and he was staying outside the limits. I wanted to wait until he did something stupid so we could call the state police and press charges that would stick. We had someone watching you every second of the day. But with the party and all, everybody in one spot, we figured you were covered. By the time we figured out that he got past our boundaries . . . I was really scared for you, Doc.” She cleared her throat, her big brown eyes shimmering with tears. “We only just got you back, and I was afraid . . . oh, shit, here I go again.” She sobbed softly.
I tried to reach up to pat her shoulder, but one arm was immobile and the other was hooked up to an IV. Nick and Caleb appeared at the door. Nick barely suppressed a smile as he hauled his hormonal mate to her feet. “This happens about once a day,” he said.
“It does not.” She sniffled.
Behind her back, he nodded and mouthed, “Yes, it does.”
Caleb pounced on the chair at my bedside as his cousin was spirited away with promises of steak wrapped in bacon. He pressed his face against my good arm, wallowing there a bit before leaning up to gently kiss my damaged lips. He tilted his forehead against mine and sighed, as if he’d been holding his breath for days. “Please don’t ever do that again,” he whispered.