“A bar down the street,” he said. “The owner is a friend of mine, and I thought he might have some information about Jerry. Nothing happens in this town without him knowing about it.”
“Your friend is a big gossip?” I asked as he held out a foam cup of lukewarm coffee, with little packets of sugar and creamer stacked carefully on top, which I drank greedily. It was bitter and tasted a little like battery acid, but it was also caffeinated. I would take what I could get.
“Bartenders are like priests armed with truth serum. People tell them everything,” he said. “If Len ever decides to start a blog, every marriage in Flint Creek will—poof—dissolve, just like that.”
I snorted an unladylike amount of coffee up my nose at the thought of a rural Alaskan bartender turning Gossip Girl. The coffee splashed down my neck, soaking into the front of his shirt. I blotted at it with a minuscule paper napkin. The intensity of his stare as he watched me dab at my chest made me feel . . . warm, fluttery sensations I had not felt in a very long time.
Get a grip, I chided myself. He was probably just irritated that I’d snorked coffee all over his shirt. “Sorry, I find myself in clothing crisis.”
“Looks better on you than it did on me, Rabbit,” he said, going back to his paperwork.
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that or by calling me Rabbit. But frankly, it was probably better that we couldn’t go for a shopping spree at the moment, since, well, I didn’t have cash to pay for clothes and didn’t want to have to ask Caleb to cover me, literally.
“I suppose it’s too late to argue for my own room,” I said. “Or my own bed.”
The very idea made Caleb’s mouth turn downward. He leveled me with those dark eyes and told me, “You stay with me.”
“See, that’s what you said this morning. But I think it would be better for me to have my own room,” I said, feeling small and selfish in my request. But really, sharing a bathroom, a bed, and underwear was just a little too much intimacy with someone I’d known for less than two days. “And it still doesn’t explain why I have to be your mattress buddy.”
“They didn’t have any double rooms,” he said, clearing his throat. “I don’t want to be separated from you . . . you know, for safety reasons.”
“The shortage of double rooms in this state is an epidemic,” I muttered, padding toward the bathroom. But since I didn’t have the cash for my own room, it was hard to argue. And honestly, if he was going to hurt me, he would have done it already. He’d had ample opportunity.
“There’s a spare toothbrush in my bag,” he called after me.
How had I missed that in my digging through his duffel? Giggling like mad, I scampered back to his bag to search again. I felt ridiculously grateful at the thought of being able to brush my teeth. This must be how people develop Stockholm syndrome.
When I emerged from the bathroom, teeth freshly brushed, a bemused Caleb was holding out a leather duffel bag. “What’s this?” I asked him.
“I told Len that I knew a young lady who needed some clothes, and he happened to have this in his lost and found.”
I breathed a sigh of relief and unzipped the bag quickly, hoping the original owner wasn’t particularly tall or busty. My hands swam through neatly folded jeans and a series of progressively smaller tank tops. Whoever this woman was, she had not packed for cold weather.
“It belonged to some biker’s old lady. Len said she was pretty short, so I figured it would fit you.” When I glared at him, he seemed confused and exclaimed, “You’re not tall. This can’t be news to you!”
The defensive tone, so different from the voice I’d heard before, martyred and resentful, made me giggle. “There’s got to be something in there you can use,” he said, clearing his throat.
“I think the jeans and T-shirts might work,” I told him, holding up a shirt that read, “The Booby Hatch—The South’s Finest Gentleman’s Club.” I could probably wear the panties, too, I noted, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. “I’m going to have to wash it all first. I have my pride and parasite-free status to think of. Thanks, Caleb.”
He grinned, although I couldn’t tell if it was from pleasure or relief that I was, in fact, parasite-free. “There’s a laundry room next to the motel office,” he said. “I’ve got a bunch of quarters in the ashtray in my truck.”
“So . . . you spent some time with your friend Len. Now what?” I asked as he plopped back into his chair, replacing his files in their neat little box.
“Well, while you were getting your beauty rest—”
“Necessitated by lifting someone’s unconscious ass and dragging him around like a sack of wet concrete the night before,” I pointed out.
The corners of Caleb’s mouth lifted, and he amended, “While you were getting your much-deserved beauty rest, I visited my friend Len, who said that Jerry has been out of town but should be back tonight. I’m going to go to the bar, explain the situation, tell him he’s coming with us or I kick his ass in front of witnesses. He’s the kind of guy who won’t like that much.”
It was so strange that Caleb could sit there, perfectly relaxed, and talk about apprehending someone not quite legally as if he was planning a trip to the park. For that matter, it was rather hilarious that the man whose truck floorboards were covered in a thick layer of jerky wrappers kept such meticulous files. He was vicious when threatened but had been relatively gentle with me. Caleb was a study in contradictions. “And then?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Jerry will let me take him in, or I will actually have to kick his ass in front of witnesses. Either way, he ends up in the backseat of the truck. I arrange a drop-off point with the client.”
“Who, again, is not a legitimate law-enforcement authority?” I asked. He snorted but didn’t answer. “And what will I be doing during this complicated and delicate negotiation process?”
“You will be here at the motel,” he said. “This is my job, not yours. Just hang out, watch some TV, get some rest. You look like you could use a little more sleep.”
I scoffed. “It’s just a bar. I’ve worked in plenty of them,” I admitted, making Caleb frown and shake his head vehemently.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “I’ll stay home and do some laundry. Darn some socks. Maybe curl my hair and alphabetize coupons while I’m at it.”
He lifted a dark sable brow, all the while looking terribly amused, as if I was a barky little puppy trying to intimidate him with fluff and boot chewing. “You’re mocking me.”
“No, that’s sarcasm. And if we’re going to spend time together, you’re going to need to learn to recognize and respect it. You’ll know when I’m mocking you.”
Hours later, my newish clothes had been washed and dried. I was now richer by several T-shirts and pairs of jeans. I’d showered and even shaved my legs, a luxury I hadn’t taken time for in more days than I cared to admit. Our respective duffel bags were packed and ready to be thrown into the truck at a moment’s notice. I’d read the one magazine I could find in this godforsaken town, a six-month-old copy of Glamour, and taken all of the quizzes. It was good to know that Channing Tatum was my celebrity boyfriend. I would definitely bring this up the next time I ran into him. A game show played on the TV as I determined what my “sleep style” said about me (night terrors + insomnia = insane person). The low rumble of applause from the TV provided a pleasant enough background while I mulled over glossy, airbrushed vapidity.
In other words, I was bored out of my skull.
This, combined with sudden nervous fidgeting, was hell on my lips, which I chewed mercilessly. I checked the glowing red numbers on the bedside alarm clock. Caleb had been gone for almost three hours. I was getting increasingly uneasy without his warm, gruff presence in the room. What if he didn’t come back? What if he decided I wasn’t worth the trouble of hauling all over the state? And why was I suddenly so concerned about him not coming back?
Someday, if I ever had my career back, I would write a peer-reviewed journal article on werewolf Stockholm syndrome and its effects on hormones and mental health.
Oh, wait, that would probably get me committed to a long-term-care facility.
I wasn’t sure when exactly I’d decided to slip into the most demure of my biker-mama tops, the black V-neck T-shirt that fit like Saran Wrap, and sneak down the street to Len’s bar. I’d paced and fretted around the room, the growing unease settling into my chest like an acidic weight, until I suddenly found myself scampering down a dark, mostly abandoned street.
“What are you doing?” I muttered into the collar of my jacket as I braced myself against the wind. “You’re running in the dark toward a bar inhabited by at least one criminal and one werewolf. What are you doing?”
OK, I was worried about Caleb. He’d been gone for hours, and I didn’t know what he was dealing with in this Jerry character. It certainly wasn’t because I was afraid he was off flirting with some cocktail waitress, because that would be insane . . . right? What if he had been hurt? What if he wasn’t able to get to help? The more I thought about it, the more the nervous tension constricted my chest, making it harder to breathe. I needed to see Caleb. For reasons no medical training could explain, I knew that once I saw Caleb and heard his voice, I would feel better.
Besides, the bar was just a short walk in a town that was only a few city blocks long. I had been going stir-crazy in the room. Watching Caleb in his environment might give me some insight into who I was traveling with. I worked through a couple more rationalizations before I sneaked into the bar through the employee entrance and edged my way down a dark-paneled corridor, following the noise of the barroom.
My semiprivileged upbringing hadn’t acquainted me with dives like this. Despite growing up in Tennessee, home of country music and hard living, I couldn’t say I’d walked inside a honky-tonk until I got a job at a place in Texas called Oil Slick’s. The waitresses had to wear tiny red tank tops and jeans that were practically painted on. I’d never waitressed, but I still made decent tips, because the customers found my clumsiness endearing and my butt suitably heart-shaped. Gustavo, the enormous boulder-shaped bouncer who watched over the barroom, made me feel safe when the crowd got too loud and the customers got too close. The other girls were nice enough, as long as I put my share in the communal tip jar. Over the first few weeks, I perfected the art of not answering personal questions, which eventually became a vital survival skill.
But the first time a fight broke out at one of my tables, I ran to the bathroom and threw up. Being around violence like that, I just lost it. I realized it was going to be an occupational hazard, and I thought the best way to desensitize myself to it would be self-defense classes. So two stops later, in Topeka, I took a Monday-morning women’s defense class at the Y. I followed it with brief stints in karate and tae kwon do. Heck, I even took a month’s worth of jiujitsu before I got spooked by a fellow student whose dark hair and unsmiling blue eyes reminded me of Glenn, and I ran for Nevada. I was far from an expert. I knew just enough to defend myself if needed. I would have to enroll in a class once the Network got me settled again. For the moment, I was pretty happy with my misappropriated baton.
The music grew louder as I made my way to the barroom. It was a blend of rock and country and was very, very bad, which was almost a prerequisite in a place like this. Smoke billowed over the room, the neon from the Early American Beer Sign decor turning the fog a faint, improbable pink.
I paired up with a painfully thin woman walking from the ladies’ room to the jukebox, so I could get a better look at the bar. Waitressing had taught me how to move unobtrusively through crowds. Between that and my new wardrobe, anyone who didn’t know me would think I just wanted to peruse song selections with my skinny gal pal. In the glow of Hank Williams Jr. and Alabama titles, I spotted Caleb at the end of the battered oak bar. A weathered, chubby man in a dingy gray apron stood behind the bar, shaking his head as he chatted with my werewolf traveling companion. At the sight of his dark head bent over a pilsner, I took a deep breath and felt that terrible tension ease from my chest. A faint, warm, pleasant buzz spread out from my belly to my extremities, easing the wind’s chill from my cheeks.
Although his back was turned to me, I saw Caleb perk up the minute I walked in. As he turned, I ducked behind a large biker making his way over to the pool table. If the Harley enthusiast noticed a tiny woman suddenly melting into his shadow, he didn’t say anything. Caleb’s eyes scanned the room before turning back to his beer.
For a few moments, I watched Caleb in conversation with the bartender. He was relaxed, but there was an air of menace in his posture. Whatever had happened before I arrived, he was not happy about it.
I felt something brush against my shoulder as someone moved from the front entrance toward the barroom. The contact surprised me, and I jumped, barely containing the urge to yelp. Caleb’s head turned toward me again, and I scrambled into a nearby booth. Just as I sat down, a weaselly little blond man slid into the seat across from me. He seemed just as surprised to see me there as I was to see him.
The man grinned at me. “Well, hey there, sweetie. How are you?”
I blinked rapidly, recognizing that eager, crooked smile, the bulbous little nose. I’d seen those features in the photos from Caleb’s files. Somehow, I’d managed to grab a booth with Caleb’s quarry. And he seemed to think my rapid blinking was some sort of eyelash-batting gesture.