The only sign of Nick’s presence was a pair of night-vision goggles on the wagon-wheel coffee table and a laptop on the kitchen table, surrounded by books piled in wobbly stacks. They made a nice holding pen for the random pages of loose-leaf paper strewn around, covered in Nick’s neat block lettering. There were little sketches in the margins, of wolves, of the moon in various stages. I laid my keys on the table and picked up one of the more complicated pictures, a pair of wide, heavily lashed eyes. I tore my gaze away from the little drawings and smirked at the cow skull. “I had no idea that you were such a huge country-western fan.”
He shuddered. “I’m not, but apparently, Susie’s daughter wanted to leave the house furnished for renters.”
“Meaning she didn’t want the cowboy look encroaching on her carefully decorated McMansion,” I said, snorting. He shrugged. “Doesn’t it make you feel a little weird, living in Susie’s house while reading about her attack?”
“Not really. It keeps it more real for me, reminds me that I’m dealing with actual people. Susie seemed like a nice lady. She didn’t deserve what happened to her.” He was watching my face for signs of change, deception.
I gave him a placid smile. “Susie is a nice lady, and she’s lucky to be alive. Abner Golightly, another nice person, wasn’t so lucky.”
He chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I know we’ve gotten off on a, well, bizarre foot here. I know you think I’m nuts. And I know that you’re an unusual girl, so the usual dating tactics aren’t going to work with you. So I’m going to lay all my cards on the table, since that’s something you seem to respect. I like you. A lot. I like that you’re contrary and know how to say what you think. And you’re beautiful and strong and a little peculiar.”
“I love peculiar,” he assured me, edging slightly closer, his voice husky. “Peculiar is sort of my thing.”
Bolder now, he moved closer, bringing with him that delicious scent of man and spice and woods. I watched his cobalt eyes come closer and closer to my face as he leaned toward me. His mouth was a hair’s breadth away from my lips. I was torn between praying he would kiss me and hoping he wouldn’t, so my life wouldn’t get even more complicated. I whispered, “You’re very confident, Dr. Thatcher.”
“I’m faking most of it,” he assured me as he leaned closer bit by bit.
Behind him, I saw Susie’s less-than-plasma television showing a very young William Shatner romping with a green-skinned chick in a silver bikini. On the top of the entertainment center, I saw a DVD set labeled “Star Trek: The Complete Original Series.” The man had driven thousands of miles away from civilization, and he’d brought his favorite DVDs. I couldn’t decide if that was adorable or idiotic.
“Why am I not surprised?” I exclaimed. “You’re a Trekkie.”
Just call me Maggie Graham, Moment Ruiner.
Startled, Nick blushed as he pulled away and looked toward the screen. “I simply enjoy the aesthetics and storytelling involved. I don’t take it to the creepy fan-boy level.”
“Really?” I smirked at him. “How many conventions have you been to?”
“Three, but only because my college roommate dragged me . . .” he spluttered. “Fine, there was a fourth incident as well. But just because the guy who played Chekov was auctioning off one of his communicators for charity.”
“You know, even when you look past the great story lines and the compelling characters, the show is worth watching because it was groundbreaking. Star Trek was one of the first network shows to reflect America’s emerging youth counterculture. At the time, television was a wasteland of picture-perfect nuclear families and white-hat-wearing cowboys. There were no flaws, no textures. It was one of the first shows to really examine class warfare, racial justice, sexual equality, the role of technology in society,” he said, ticking the subjects off on his fingers as he got more and more flustered.
I cannot explain why the “professor” tone he used while passionately extolling the virtues of geek porn sent tingles to my special places. All I knew was that I was having a hard time staying on my side of the couch. So, instead, I feigned disinterest and snickered. “And it was the first network show to feature half-naked alien chicks dressed in aluminum-foil swimwear.”
“OK, fine, now we’re watching it.” He nudged me down onto the couch and slowly lowered himself onto a special doughnut pillow. I sank into the soft cushions, watching as he manipulated the DVD system he’d obviously installed on top of Susie’s TV. Susie was sweet but not exactly techno-savvy.
He clicked on some episode called “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and the theme music started. From a little cooler he kept near the couch, he offered me a pack of Sour Patch Kids and a Coke. I wondered where to put my hands. Well, I knew where I wanted to put them, but I think that would probably be a felony if I did it without warning him first. I crossed my arms over my chest for safekeeping.
This was strangely pleasant. I’d never done DVDs as a dating activity. I didn’t bring guys home. I didn’t force them into awkward interactions with my mom or brothers. Because that could end badly. And bloodily.
I was hyperaware of Nick, the warmth from his body, the hints of his scent wafting toward me, luring me closer to him. His arm was stretched over the back of the couch as he struggled to find a comfortable position to sit. His fingers played with the ends of my hair as we watched Captain Kirk kick ass and make intergalactic booty calls. I found Spock oddly hot, though, considering my recent nerd-hag leanings, this wasn’t surprising.
Still, three episodes later, I wondered aloud, “Why would anyone on the crew put on a red shirt? Honestly, it’s like they’re standing in front of their closet, and they’re thinking, ‘Yellow? Blue? Nah, today’s a good day to die.’ “
“Red shirts meant you were part of the operations crew, who spent most of their time in the engine room or on security duty, off-camera, so the audience didn’t care much about them.” Nick tilted the bowl of popcorn we were sharing toward me. “The writers needed a way to ramp up the violence without killing off characters people were fond of.”
“Like on The A-Team or G.I. Joe.” I nodded. “When the bad guys would shoot and shoot at the good guys but never seemed to hit anybody?”
Nick’s face was a mockery of solemnity. He clutched my hands to his chest. “Marry me and have my babies.”
My voice was a little shaky when I chucked a licorice rope at him and said, “In your dreams, Thatcher.”
“Well, until humans start procreating like seahorses or penguins, you would be the designated egg bearer.”
“You just can’t help yourself, can you? You have to be the smartest person in the room.”
“Doctor of zoology. It’s what I do,” he said as he popped a few more gummy candies into his mouth.
“Oh, come on, you love it,” he said. When I lifted my eyes to the ceiling and shook my head, he gently tucked his fingers under my chin and brought my face level with his. “You like that I’m smart. You like that I’m different from most of the guys you know. You even like the fact that I could be just a little bit crazy. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”
My eyes narrowed at him. Damn it, he was right. But I wasn’t about to admit that. It would give him too much power. So I gave him a speculative look. “You’re a very direct nerd,” I mused.
“I just want us to be on the same page,” he said, leaning close to me.
Despite my saner, sensible half’s screaming at me to back away, to get my horny wolf ass back to my truck, I stayed still, feeling more like prey than predator for the first time in my life. He was cautious in his approach, just barely brushing his lips over my own, the faintest whisper of flesh against flesh. I sighed, mingling my breath with his. His thumbs traced lightly over my cheekbones, down the line of my jaw. I wrapped my arms around his waist as he drew me closer, parting my lips with the tip of his tongue.
Boy and howdy. I felt warm from the toes up, like the first flash of heat that comes just before phasing. And I couldn’t seem to keep my hands still. They kept moving over the small of Nick’s back, holding him to me.
I was lost, and it felt nice. No worries. No responsibilities. Just warmth and peace and a pleasant coil of pressure building in my belly.
“Maggie,” he whispered, and my heart thundered in my ears. When his fingertips grazed the hollow of my throat, I jumped, my own fingertips digging into the rear of Nick’s sweats. I felt papery bandages crinkle underneath the cotton. Nick yelped. My eyes went wide. I remembered with a flush of guilt that I’d been the one to hurt him. As a wolf. While he was investigating us. And all of the reasons not to be anywhere near Nick came crashing down on me again.
I gasped and scrambled back.
“What?” he asked. “It’s not that bad. We can work around it.”
“I’ve got to go,” I said, leaping off of the couch and backing down the hall.
“Maggie, wait,” he called as I stumbled out the front door. I got two steps to my truck before I realized I’d left my keys on Nick’s table. I glanced back to the door, where Nick was limping into the frame.
“Oh, screw it,” I grunted, and took off running down the driveway.
“Maggie!” he yelled, but I was already on the highway, sprinting toward home.
I was running at my top human speed, having put a couple of miles between Nick’s driveway and my feet. A light rain had started to fall, misting over my damp cheeks. Running in my human shape felt right, as if I was bleeding poison from the ragged human wound in my chest with every step. I needed to go through this as a woman, not a wolf. Obviously, my more animal instincts weren’t leading me in the right direction.
I couldn’t put my whole pack—hell, my whole species—in jeopardy because a man happened to curl my toes and give me arm tingles.
My hair clung in damp ropes to my cheeks as my feet ate through the intense climb up the winding mountain road to the valley. It was late September, and the sharp bite of the air was leeching the warmth from my bones, leaving me shivering in my soaked jacket and jeans. The raindrops grew bigger, splashing into my eyes, making me wish for my hat. I would have phased and run the rest of the way, but these were my favorite boots, soggy as they were, and it was a bitch to keep replacing my clothes.
I had to find the positive. I needed this. I needed to feel foolish and humiliated and crazy. It was like cauterizing a wound. The next time I thought about throwing myself at Nick Thatcher, I would remember this feeling, and it would turn me off faster than Lee bragging about his nunchuck collection.
I doubted Nick would want to see me again for a while anyway, I told myself. He probably thought I was nuts. Normal girls didn’t respond to delicious, earth-shattering kisses by running away down an Alaskan highway. Maybe I was nuts. This was like some episode of not-so-temporary insanity. Even if he was this decade’s answer to Fox Mulder, I couldn’t afford to throw myself at good-looking humans just because I got tingles in special places. I needed someone like Clay, someone who understood all the weird drama that came with being a wolf, who could help me continue the line. Nick needed. . .
I slowed my pace to what a human runner would consider jogging. Thinking of the kind of woman Nick needed and deserved put that hole back in my chest. I rubbed a hand over my aching breastbone, feeling suddenly out of breath. A man like Nick deserved a woman who was smart. A woman who would be nice to him, all the time, who would be pretty and soft and sweet. Who didn’t wolf out and bite him on the ass.
I’d never had a crisis of self-esteem. I’d never minded not going to college. I’d never minded not having a skill set, as Mo did with her cooking. All I knew was the pack, and so far, it had worked out for me. Some people would find that depressing, limiting. But I thought it was a nice way of simplifying my life. And now it felt as if it might not be enough, and that was terrifying.