Taking some small measure of glee in picturing Glenn in an orange jumpsuit, I kissed the bridge of Caleb’s nose and told him, “I can almost guarantee it.”
“No more secrets.”
“That works both ways, you know,” I told him dryly.
“No more secrets,” he repeated.
“No more secrets,” I promised.
“OK, then I can give you this.” He opened a small black velvet box to show me a respectable solitaire set in platinum, with scrollwork designs on the band. Well, it looked like scrollwork at first. Upon closer examination, it was—
“Are those bunnies?” I asked, squinting at the engraving.
“Just one on one side,” he said, holding the other side of the band closer so I could see the stylized wolf loping along the opposite side from the bunny. “I did a little reading. Did you know that rabbits can survive in just about any climate? Desert, tundra, forest. And in most cultures, they’re the symbol of renewal, because you can count on them, every spring, to crank out a whole new generation of little rabbits.”
“I don’t think I like where this is going, Caleb. Land your plane,” I told him.
He continued as if I hadn’t rudely interrupted his nature rant. “So I called you Rabbit at first because you ran, which wasn’t all that nice of me. But you’re also adaptable, resourceful, and no matter how hard you’re knocked down, you just keep coming back. Renewal, Tina. Starting over.”
“I get it,” I told him. “Just leave the fertility stuff out of it when you tell your family our proposal story. M’kay?”
He grinned and tried to press his case one step further. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist on unlimited shared showers and naked Saturdays.”
“Every day of the week is Naked Day with you.”
“Just humor me, woman.”
“Naked breakfast on Saturdays,” I counteroffered. He groaned. “I might have to go to work or something!”
“I love you,” he told me, kissing the undamaged corner of my mouth.
I tugged at his sleeve, slowly scooting over so he could cram his large frame into the narrow hospital bed with me. “I love you, too, which is why I am also willing to offer naked Sunday brunch.”
He carefully arranged his body around mine and sighed into my hair. “You’re the best mate ever.”
“I’m working on it.”
The Valley Gets Even More Visitors, None of Whom We Knock Unconscious
The practically balmy March wind blew gently over my cheeks as I sat on the porch of our house and sipped my tea.
I didn’t know what Gracie put in it, and I chose not to ask. But it was a nice, calming blend that helped me unwind at the end of a long day. I was still training my nerves to wind down to a nonpanic state. When someone called me Tina, it still took me a moment to realize they were talking to me and respond. It would be a long time before I would be able to walk into a room without scouting out the exits. And I would always have a problem sitting with my back to a door. But I was slowly and steadily beginning to accept the fact that my ex couldn’t hurt me anymore, that my life was my own again.
I started talk therapy with a specialized counselor who worked out of Portland. Samantha Farraday was willing to do sessions via video chat, and we were focusing on linear discussions of “trauma,” since my experience was considered “prolonged” by my going into hiding. I liked Samantha. She didn’t accept nonsense, bullshit, or rationalizations, which was something I needed.
Caleb was supportive of the endeavor, especially if it meant I felt more comfortable getting married within the next year or so. The claiming bite could come at any time, as far as I was concerned, but Caleb wanted to make sure I was ready. For my part, I was settled. I wasn’t afraid. I knew where and with whom I would be spending my future.
I stood on the front porch, watching the sun go down over the lip of the valley. Caleb was on a patrol with the pack and would be home any minute. I finally had a home to call my own, where I was safe and loved. It would take a while to straighten out the official paperwork that would allow me to make life with Caleb permanent. Thanks to Glenn’s cyber-antics, there were a lot of debts and criminal charges in my name that needed to be cleared up. Not to mention the fact that I was still legally married.
But as far as the pack was concerned, Caleb was my mate. I was a permanent part of the pack, and I was their own. We weren’t thinking about children, but we knew it would happen eventually. We were going to let ourselves be caught off-guard by a good surprise for once.
A black SUV with heavily tinted windows crunched down Main Street, drawing stares from my neighbors. A few of the males tracked the vehicle’s progress as it approached the clinic and seemed to be stopping. I arched my eyebrows.
We didn’t get strangers here. We certainly didn’t advertise the clinic’s services outside the valley, so it was unlikely that this was a drop-in patient. I stuck my hand into my pocket, to assure myself that the special sparkly canister of pepper spray Mo had given me was still there.
A tall, willowy woman with red hair and pale skin opened the passenger-side door. She was strikingly beautiful, a sort of redheaded Grace Kelly, in her dark pea coat and celery-green turtleneck. The man who stepped out of the driver’s side didn’t quite match her elegance. He was tall and lanky, with shaggy dark blond hair and equally pale, Puckish features. His eyes were bright, full of mirth, but it was a naughty sort of humor, which had me checking my other pocket to keep a hand on my wallet. He was wearing frayed jeans and a sweatshirt that said, “It’s a bit nippley out.”
The woman watched my eyes widen, then followed my line of sight to the man’s shirt and sighed. “Damn it, Dick. I told you not to wear that! It’s off-putting!”
“It’s hilarious!” the man insisted.
“Please excuse my husband. It’s a lot warmer in Kentucky. The cold is doing strange things to his mind,” the woman said. “I’m assuming this is the clinic? We were looking for a Dr. Tina Campbell.”
My jaw dropped open, but I recovered quickly. “Who’s asking for her?”
“An old friend,” the woman said, grinning, her sharp-looking white teeth glinting against the porch light. “I recognize your voice, Doctor. I’m so glad to meet you!”
She reached out and pumped my hand vigorously, making me wince at the strength of her grip. The pained expression on my face brought more than a few growls from the werewolves circling ever closer to the clinic. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”
“I’m Andrea Cheney,” she said. “You know me as Red-burn.”
Though the revelation of my mysterious visitor’s identity was a shock, several other mental tumblers fell into place and my mouth dropped open in a more humorous parody of The Scream. Suddenly, Red-burn’s occasional daytime crankiness and availability for late-night conversations made so much more sense—as did the fact that neither she nor her husband seemed at all surprised by the presence of enormous wolves.
We didn’t get many vampires in these parts—or any, really—something about the cold temperatures and weird seasonal daylight patterns. Grundy werewolves, while not particularly surprised when the vampires emerged from their coffins, reserved full belief in another supernatural species until they met one in person. Even Nick, as mad as he was for all things supernatural, was downright dubious about the existence of vampires for years after the Coming Out. He simply didn’t believe a creature could hide under the radar for so long without being documented by nosy human scholars like him. Short of being bitten, he held on to some skepticism. And then he met a bunch of werewolves and his mind opened up that much more.
Andrea and her husband’s arrival was going to be the talk of the pack all winter.
I squealed and threw my arms around her, drawing giggles from her and the man behind her. The werewolves relaxed but stayed close. “It’s OK!” I called. “It’s OK. This is my old friend Andrea . . . and . . . ?” I looked to the man with the naughty smile.
“Dick,” he said. “I’m this lucky lady’s husband.”
Andrea rolled her eyes. “Husband, yes. Lucky? Debatable.”
Maggie stepped forward. “Red-burn? You sent Eli the e-mails? You’re the one who helped An—Tina get a job here?”
Andrea nodded, clasping my arms in her hands and giving them a friendly squeeze. “When I heard that you’d ‘come out’ and filed for divorce, I had to come by and see you for myself.”
“I’m so happy to meet you!” I said, sniffing a little. “I owe you so much!”
“No more than I owed the person who helped me find my way out of a bad relationship,” Andrea said. She turned to Maggie and explained, “Before Dick, I dated a man who, let’s say, wasn’t so nice to me. It took a clean break and a rushed move to another state to get clear of him. And now I have a lot of spare time at night, and the Network helps me feel like I’m doing something constructive. Tina’s was the first case I handled on my own.” She turned back to me. “Did you know that?” I shook my head.
“She talked about you all the time,” Dick said. “In a completely undetailed and anonymous fashion.” He cleared his throat. “She worried a lot.”
“Oh, my gosh, you drove all the way from Kentucky!” I cried. “Come in, come in, you must be exhausted! Can I get you anything to eat or drink?”
Dick shook his head, reaching into the SUV to pull an insulated cooler bag from the seat. “That’s OK. We’re on a special diet.”
Maggie frowned but said nothing. “Can you tell Caleb to come home?” I asked her, leading the couple toward our house.
Dick made a big show of stomping the slush from his boots, but I could tell there was no small amount of glee at coming into contact with actual snow. Andrea told me quietly that their hometown didn’t see much beyond sleet, and Dick had been acting like a big, goofy kid ever since they reached the state line. I got the impression that Dick acted like a big, goofy kid regardless of location. I made a mental note to keep him away from Samson.
“What an adorable house.” Andrea sighed as she surveyed the small, steady modifications we’d been making to the living room and kitchen. I’d painted the walls a warm, creamy yellow to bring a little sunlight into the rooms. Caleb had cleared out some of his mom’s knickknacks to make room for our own mementos, a carved wooden wolf from his cousin Cooper and a framed picture of us smiling into the camera with Suds.
“I’ll bet her fella didn’t make her install a man cave.” She sent a fake pout toward Dick. I wasn’t sure what was going on there, and I didn’t have the heart to tell Andrea that the whole valley was basically one big man cave.
“A bet is a bet, woman,” Dick grumbled.
I giggled, closing the door, mentally estimating how long it would take Caleb to run here to meet our new friends. Friends. Family. Home. Three words I hadn’t thought I would ever be able to attach to my life again, before I’d come here, to this valley full of werewolves. And now I had all three.
Life, for the moment, was very, very good.