Now suddenly wide-awake, I stared into the darkness of the motel room and rubbed at my neck. And she was never heard from again.
I lay there at dawn, blinking into the dark, until the sun rose. After climbing out of bed, I got my bag together and put on my last clean shirt. The mark he’d made on my neck just looked like a bad hickey, the impression of his teeth barely visible. In the light of day, I could not explain what the hell he’d done. Had he meant to hurt me? Was it some weird flashback to an old girlfriend?
I didn’t know what it meant. It was probably significant in some way, but I didn’t know how. That was what bothered me. Werewolves were born, not turned, so I didn’t have to worry about going all furry the next time I got pissed off at the post office. Side note: The fullness of the moon wasn’t a factor for werewolves. After their initial postpuberty transition, they could phase whenever they felt like it. Or when they got angry. Or happy. Or bored. Or when they were asleep and had a particularly wolfy dream.
I sighed, rubbing my tired eyes. I was not as familiar with werewolf sexual practices as one might think. It was natural that I overheard ladies-locker-room talk from some of the females, rumors about size and stamina and other subjects that gave the wolf-aunties reason to laugh at my red cheeks. But as pack leader and the alpha female, Maggie was adamant that there were some things I didn’t need to know. And considering what her cousin Samson did let slip, that was probably best for the sake of my emotional health.
I knew that a claiming bite was part of the delicate werewolf mating protocol. But we hadn’t been naked, much less had sex, and he hadn’t managed to break the skin. So surely my wicked hickey didn’t count. Right?
I really didn’t want to wait around for this guy to wake up so I could ask whether he’d intentionally bit me and what that meant. But there I sat, at the edge of the bed, watching him, unsure of what else to do. Should I ask him if I could ride with him to the next thing resembling civilization? Did I want to stay with him? I mean, he’d almost bitten me. And he had people shooting at him, which didn’t say much for him in terms of character. If I were smart, I would creep quietly out of the room and be on my way.
But I just couldn’t. Before I left, I needed to make sure he was going to be OK. I felt responsible for him. Somehow, I’d fallen into pack thinking, without the actual werewolf genes or the cool superpowers. I had gotten the short end of the T-bone on this deal.
And on top of everything else, I was starving. I hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day. Between the cold, my low BMI, and whatever fresh hell the road was going to throw at me that day, I needed calories desperately. I considered the turkey jerky, which was the least weird, compared to the alligator, ostrich, and venison. But I didn’t think my roommate would appreciate waking up to find me rifling through his bag, stealing his preserved meat. I considered driving closer to town to see if I could find a diner or something. But he definitely wouldn’t appreciate waking up to find that his truck was missing, either. I was still contemplating grand theft auto versus exotic jerky when his eyes fluttered open, slowly taking in the room. With a jerk, he rolled off the bed to his feet. He seemed to be searching the room. And when his eyes settled on me, the searching stopped.
He stared at me, as if trying to jog his memory. His nostrils flared, and he seemed to recognize something. His eyes narrowed.
“Hi. I was there last night when you were, um . . . well, I got you here and cleaned you up.” I hitched my bag over my shoulder and made for the door. “Room’s paid up till eleven. Good luck.”
He was at the door before I could blink. “Ack!” I cried, hating the way I cringed against the door, arms curved protectively over my head. With his head cocked to the side, he curled his fingers around my wrists and pulled them down. I nearly yanked them back, but his hands were gentle. He ran the tip of his nose along my hairline.
“L-look, you can check your bag, I didn’t take anything,” I stammered.
He moved closer, inhaling deeply while his fingers traced over the mark on my neck. And there was that weird purring noise again.
Right, pretend ignorance of werewolves and their near-bite-y tendencies. Avoid explanations of why you know about the existence of werewolves. Those conversations could only lead to bad places.
“If this is about the shooting . . . I won’t tell anybody. I don’t even know who would believe me.”
He nuzzled his cheek against my temple. “Mine. You stay with me.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Beg pardon?”
His eyes were all spacey and bleary as he murmured, “You stay with me.”
“I don’t stay with anybody,” I told him. “I’m leaving.”
His fingers curled around my arms, and he pulled me close, trailing his nose along my hairline and caressing the spot where he’d tried to bite me. “No.”
“Hey!” I pulled at his grip, but damn it, this guy was strong. My hand snaked into my purse for the slapjack I carried, thin layers of leather surrounding a heavy lead ball that hurt like hell when it connected with a sensitive joint. “Let go of me.”
“Stop now!” I said in the most commanding tone I could muster. Shoving him away from my body, I brought the heavy weight of the slapjack down on the wrist that held my arm. And I stomped on his foot, hard.
“Ow!” he yelped. He seemed to come back to himself; his pupils were less constricted. He blinked a few times and cleared his threat. “Ow,” he said again, almost absentmindedly, rubbing his wrist. “Who are you?”
“Anne McCaffrey,” I blurted out, hoping that he didn’t spend a lot of time reading carefully crafted science fiction. His realizing I’d just used my favorite author as an alias would prove . . . awkward. The werewolf frowned at me, as if he could sense the lie, but before he could comment, I added, “I helped you out last night when you were hurt. And now I would like you to back away from me very slowly, so I can open the door and get the hell out of here.”
Where was I going? I had no clue. More important, I had no vehicle. But it had to be safer than hanging around werewolf shooting victims with toothy tendencies.
His glance shot down to the slapjack in my hand, and he took a careful, small step back. “That was you?”
“Who are you?”
“I thought we covered this. Did you bump your head?”
“What were you doing in the parking lot last night?” he demanded.
“What does it matter? I bandaged you up, borrowed your shirt. I figure that makes us even. So I’m going to be on my way.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head and clamping his hand around my arm. “I owe you. You stay with me.”
“Well, it’s lovely that you’ve moved on to using definitive sentences, but I think you’ll find that you are not, in fact, the boss of me. Now, let go of my arm, or I reintroduce you to Mr. Slappy.” I waved the slapjack in his face. A guilty expression slipped across his features, and his fingers loosened their hold.
He scrubbed his hand over the respectable growth of stubble on his cheeks. “Look, I’m sorry. This is all a little too much for first thing in the morning with no coffee and a gunshot wound.”
I glanced down to his middle, which he didn’t seem to be babying all that much. He’d had a few hours for his tissues to knit themselves back together. But the stupid ingrained medical training had me blowing a long breath from my nose as I asked, “Are you in pain?”
He rubbed his hand over the gauze absently. “It’s fine, no big deal.”
“Being shot is no big deal?” Before he could stop me, I was peeling the bandage back from his skin, making him yowl as the adhesive caught tiny dark hairs of the little happy trail down his stomach.
“Ow!” he exclaimed as I attempted to examine him. He batted my hands away.
“Oh, don’t be such a baby. I just want to make sure you’re OK.”
“I’m fine,” he grumbled, pressing the bandage back into place and angling his wounded side away from me. He didn’t want me inspecting his wound, I realized. He didn’t want me to see that it was now fully healed, barely distinct from the rest of his skin. Because he wasn’t sure how much I knew about the whole werewolf thing, and he didn’t want me getting extra clues.
Right. This was my cue to exit, before he could pull me into some other bizarre werewolf bullshit or vice versa. “OK, then, well, if you’re feeling all right, I’ll just toddle along.”
I had just managed to get the door open when he yanked it closed again.
I glared up at him. “This is becoming really annoying.”
“Where are you going?” he asked.
I wanted to keep that information to myself, to be able to walk away from this situation feeling some dignity about the way I’d handled myself. Also, he just wasn’t entitled to know. So all I said was “South.”
He smiled. “Just ‘south’?”
“Southern Alaska,” I added.
“Thank you for clarifying. And what a coincidence. I was heading that way myself.”
I deadpanned, “You don’t say.”
“I do say.” He gave me a sharp nod, as if this was exactly according to some crazy, half-naked military plan he had tucked away somewhere. “So . . . Anne, you’re staying with me.”
My mouth fell open, and I made an indelicate snorting noise. “Why on earth would I do that?”
“Look, you’re pretty, you’re fun-sized, and you’re up here on your own,” he said, ticking my offenses off on his long fingers. “It’s not safe.”
“Really? Not safe? Like I could be minding my own business and then suddenly get pulled into a gunfight and car explosions by a total stranger? I don’t think that will happen more than once. And I definitely don’t need anyone to take care of me.”
He scoffed, that mocking white grin splitting his tanned face. “No, you seem to be fine on your own. Working a shitty job in a grocery store in the middle of nowhere. That’s the sweet life, all right.”
My cheeks flushed hot. “Screw you, pal.”
“Screw you, Caleb.” It was a struggle, resisting the urge to kick him in the shins. It really was.
“Do you have a better plan? Or any plan?” he demanded. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you walk out that door? Hitchhike, right? You’ll be lucky if one or two trucks pass this way, this time of day. And you never know what sort of psycho could be behind the wheel. With me, at least you know what you’re getting into.”
“Yeah, I’m getting a condescending he-man who sniffs me.”
And attempts to bite me while sleep-snuggling.
“Well, you smell nice,” he said, shrugging as if that excused the scratch-and-sniffery. When I didn’t respond to his “charm” with the expected giggling and swooning, he sighed. “Just let me make sure you’re safe, OK? I have to do some driving for work. You might find another town you like, find someplace to stay. Until then, I can keep an eye on you, repay you for saving my life. Do you think you’re going to get a better offer from a random trucker?”
I glared up at him and didn’t answer.
“Besides, who knows what could happen to me with this nearly mortal wound I’ve suffered?” he said, gesturing dramatically to his bandage.
I leveled a disbelieving gaze at him through my eyelashes. “The mortal wound that was ‘no big deal’ just a little while ago?”
“I could lose consciousness or develop an infection, maybe even get shot again without someone watching my back. You don’t want that on your conscience, do you?” Caleb’s beatific smile was too well rehearsed to be genuine.
I pursed my lips, considering the pros and cons of this insane situation. Maybe I was being unfair to Caleb. Other than their astronomical caloric intake and their propensity for public nudity, werewolves were just regular people. They were nice, for the most part, with the exception of the psychotic, power-hungry assholes who occasionally staged coups to take over neighboring packs.
Happened more often than you might think.
Caleb didn’t strike me as a psychotic asshole. So far, he hadn’t lied to me. He hadn’t hurt me, intentionally. And even when he’d invaded my personal space, I hadn’t panicked or felt threatened, and that was saying something. I had the distinct impression that if Caleb told me he would keep me safe, I would be safe. And safety was tempting, too tempting, as I considered how long it would take me to come up with a plan to get to Anchorage with no money and no car.
“OK. But if we’re going to do this, you’re going to have to stop that,” I told him.
“That!” I said, shrugging off his hands, which had been absently running up and down my arms. “The touching and the sniffing and the . . . nuzzling. That stops, right now.”
“But what if you want me to nuzzle you?” he asked, his voice returning to that gruff, husky tenor from the night before. And I felt my knees sag a little bit.
Damn it. “I won’t.”
He stepped a little closer. I pressed back against the door. “What if you ask me to?”
“If I say the words, ‘Caleb, please nuzzle me,’ you can do your worst.”
“All right, then.” He grinned at me again in a way that can only be described as “happy puppy” and loped away toward the bathroom. I wandered to the bed and dropped to it, dazed.