His voice was hoarse as he choked out, “You, too, Maggie.”
Humble Pie a la Mo
THE NEXT DAY WAS Saturday, which meant a long run, in human form, for me. Sure, it was easier and more fun to run as a wolf, but I liked the challenge that came with running on two feet. Plus, it was really difficult to keep an iPod clipped to fur.
I had a hard-packed dirt path worn up to the north point of the valley, beside the river, through a dense thicket of pine trees. It was rare that anyone joined me on my Saturday runs. As much as I loved running with my pack, I liked that it was just me, the wind, and the scent of pine. Every girl needs a little time to herself to hash things out in her head, even if my problems were a little more complicated than “Which dress should I wear tonight?” or “I need something waxed.”
Waxing was sort of a moot point for me.
I was reaching the hardest part of the incline up the valley wall, when a strange presence in the woods stopped me in my tracks. I lifted my face to the wind and waited, fighting the instinct to phase, just in case it was Nick again. I scanned the trees. This didn’t smell like Nick. It smelled like . . . nothing. It was like an olfactory blank space. The little hairs on my arms and neck rose as I felt the scrutiny intensify, as if whoever it was was trying to decide what to do. I stood my ground, waiting.
Eventually, the presence faded away, and I shook off the feeling. It was just before noon when I jogged up the steps to find my mother standing at the door with the cordless phone.
“It’s for you, hon,” she said, kissing the top of my sweaty head. “It’s your brother. He doesn’t sound happy. I’m making waffles for when he’s done yelling at you.”
I groaned, stretching my aching legs and pressing the phone to my ear.
“Would you like to explain to me why Nick Thatcher showed up at the Grundy clinic last night with a bite wound on his ass?” my brother demanded without bothering to say hello.
Shit. I’d forgotten about Nick. After the Lee incident, Billie had had another spell, in which she claimed strangers were breaking into her house every night and moving things around. I ended up spending the night with her while Dr. Moder monitored her at the clinic. If nothing else, it helped give Alicia some rest. Dr. Moder had forced me to leave at around four A.M. I crashed and completely blanked out Nick’s mangled butt cheek.
“I was provoked.” Cooper was silent on the other end of the line, so I continued, “He saw me, and he thought I was Mo. He was looking at me like I was Christmas morning, and then he called me by Mo’s name. Mo would have done the same thing.”
Cooper didn’t dignify that with a response. “You’re lucky he’s telling everybody around here that he had a run-in with a stray dog. I don’t know why, but he doesn’t seem to want to make a fuss. If he had been anyone else, he would have called the Weekly World News as soon as his butt cheek got stitched up.”
“Stray dog?” I spat. “Stray dog!”
“Maggie, you were the one who said we should stay away from Nick. And then you not only let him see you in wolf form, but you bit him? What were you thinking? Were you thinking? You could have seriously hurt him.”
“By biting his ass?”
“Mo says there are lots of important nerves and stuff back there. She was laughing too hard to get a lot of information across. I’m serious, Mags. I’m not cleaning up this mess, you got it? You’re always going on about you being the alpha. Great, you’re the alpha. You take care of this.” He slammed the phone down.
I yanked the receiver away from my ear, wincing. My dramatic eye roll was interrupted by a knock at the door. “What now?”
I opened the door to find Mo, holding one of her sinful brownie cheesecake pies. Two of my favorite desserts combined in a chocolate graham-cracker crust.
“Are you guys guilt-stalking me?” I huffed, closing the door behind me so my mother wouldn’t overhear. Mo, used to this sort of response from me, only smirked and stepped out of my way. “I told Cooper biting Nick was a mistake.”
Mo’s coal-black eyebrows winged up. “So that was you. Nice, Maggie. Excellent job keeping a low profile.”
I growled at her. “So, you drove all this way, bearing pie, to make sure Cooper’s lecture sank in?”
“Cooper doesn’t know I’m here. I’m on the clock.” She pressed the pie into my hands and then pulled a note out of her jacket pocket. “Nick called the saloon last night—thoroughly hopped up on pain meds, I might add—and begged Evie to arrange for your favorite food to be delivered to you ASAP. Offered her an obscene amount of money and then rambled on about you being ‘Uhura pretty’ and how you were ignoring his calls and he had to find some way to get through to you. I guess he knew the way to that teeny-tiny Grinch heart of yours is through your stomach.”
“Uhura pretty?” I repeated.
Mo shook her head, exasperated. “I gave up trying to understand men around here a long time ago. Are you going to read his note or not?”
Bobbling the heavy pie tin, I opened the little white envelope. I read Evie’s neat block print aloud. “Thinking of you, Nick. P.S. I think you may need to check your voice mail. It’s full.”
I frowned. Voice mail? I hadn’t looked at my cell phone in days. Not since I drove to the Glacier.
As usual, I’d left the phone in my truck. I only used it when I was driving, and I tended to forget about it otherwise. I plopped the pie into Mo’s hands and ran to retrieve my dead phone. Mom was hugging Mo while I bolted back to my room to connect it to the charger on my dresser. I had five missed calls. And three voice-mail messages. All starting the day before, from a weird area code that could only be Nick’s.
“Hey, Mom, when Nick asked for my number, which one did you give him?” I called, not really wanting her to answer.
“Your cell phone,” Mom called back. “I thought you’d probably want any messages he left you to be private.”
I heard Mo give a soft snicker.
Well, now I felt horrible. I’d marred perfectly good ass cheeks for no reason. It was as if I’d sneezed on the Mona Lisa.
Mo was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea, while my mother mixed more waffle batter. “Mom, I’m going to need those waffles to go. I’m driving to Grundy.”
“Driving?” Mom asked, cracking a half-dozen eggs into her mixing bowl. “Today’s your running day.”
“I owe Dr. Thatcher an apology . . . or something.”
Mo hid her smirk behind her teacup, and Mom’s gaze narrowed. “For what?”
I took a precautionary step back. “It was just a misunderstanding, Mom. I might have hurt his, uh, pride a little bit.”
“Just his pride?” Mom asked pointedly.
I smiled innocently and dashed for the shower.
“You know, you’re going to have to get better at lying if you’re going to survive as a public servant,” Mom called after me.
THE DRIVE TO Grundy was spent coming up with really awkward apologies for biting Nick on the ass. And then I remembered that Nick didn’t know I was the one who bit him on the ass and that saying so would tip him off to the whole “world of werewolves” thing. Maybe I could just continue to let him think Mo bit him on the ass. That wouldn’t make things awkward.
The smart thing would be to send a detached, polite thank-you note for the pie or ignore him completely. But I felt this new, unpleasant gnawing sensation in my chest. I actually cared about what Nick thought of me. I worried about him thinking badly of me. I felt guilty for hurting him, not just little pangs of regret but full-on spasms of “why did I do that?”
I was maturing emotionally. Ew.
OK, pie. I’d stick with the pie. He’d taken the time to order me pie while he was laid up on a doughnut pillow. That he’d send me something edible was oddly touching. Courtship in this part of the country rarely centered on flowers and perfume. Nick had made an effort, and he’d put some thought into it. And that was doing strange things to my ability to produce coherent thoughts. By the time I pulled my truck into Nick’s driveway, I’d come up with “Thanks for the pie.”
Brilliant, I know. I was considering a career in speechwriting if this whole werewolf-leadership thing didn’t work out.
I forced myself out of the truck and considered Susie’s former home. “Susie Q” was the town’s former postmaster and the first victim of Eli’s weird string of attacks. I’d like to think that she was just a victim of opportunity, that Eli had stumbled across her as she was letting her ridiculous little wiener dog, Oscar, out to pee. Because the possibility that he spent time stalking a harmless, though eccentric, middle-aged country music fan was plain icky.
Susie saw the world through Dolly Parton–colored glasses, you might say. Platinum blond and blessed with more boobs than sense, Susie wore tight western shirts and jeans that looked painted on. But when it came to running the post office, she’d been all business, save for the fact that she kept Oscar in the mailroom for company.
Mo took Oscar in after Susie moved in with her daughter to recover from her injuries. When Susie’s daughter claimed to be asthmatic and allergic, Mo kept him. As a rule, werewolves don’t keep dogs. There are food-competition issues. However, Cooper considered it a mission of mercy. Susie was awfully fond of doggie sweaters.
Shaken from my reminiscing by the sound of a TV clicking on inside the house, I raised my hand to knock. But I lost my nerve, turning on my heel and preparing to dash for the truck. I’d taken a step when I heard the door open behind me.
Double damn it.
Nick was looking all cute and rumpled, wearing sweats and a Tribhuvan University T-shirt. His hair was mussed, and he was limping a little, but he didn’t look too bad.
“Hi,” I said hesitantly. “I just wanted to say thanks for the pie. That was very thoughtful. And I didn’t get your calls. I left my phone in my truck a few days ago, and the battery died. I hardly ever use it; I don’t know why Mom gave you that number. Well, uh, see ya.”
“Wait,” he said, wincing as he stepped toward me. “Uh, if I’d started calling sooner, I might have gotten you before the battery died. I actually hiked by the valley to try to work up the nerve to try to talk to you, when this happened.”
“Why did you wait so long?” I asked, trying to keep the demanding tone at bay.
“Holding on to some scrap of my male pride?”
“Says the man holding a special sittin’ pillow,” I noted.
“It’s a small scrap,” he said, leading me into the house. The hitch in his stride needled at me. Watching him struggle down the hall, I wondered how he’d made it back to his truck from the valley. And I felt a cold flush of guilt and fear spread through me, thinking of what might have happened to him if he hadn’t been able to get to the truck. The image of him sprawled on the dirt, defenseless, unable to get to help, tore a hole through my chest, leaving me swaying dizzily against the wall. I took a deep breath, and Nick heard the huffing sound. He turned, his brow furrowed.
“Hey, are you all right?” he asked, closing his fingers around my bicep, the warmth of his hand seeping through my sleeve. “Your face just went really pale.”
I let a long breath stream out of my nostrils, marveling at the electric tingles traveling from his hand to my arm, easing the ache in my chest. I gave him a shaky smile. “I’m fine,” I promised him, looking up and gaping at my surroundings. “I’m just allergic to suede and rhinestones.”
Susie’s house looked as if she’d decorated from Roy Rogers’s garage sale. The sofa was covered in denim-colored suede and had Bedazzled pillows made of red bandanas. There were posters for old country-western acts such as Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline on the walls. There was even a longhorn skull over the mantle, where most of us would put a moose head or a particularly impressive fish.