“Feels like there’s a drunk marching band in there,” I said, gingerly rubbing my temple. “And the tubas are way off-key.”

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“Well, your pupils look good, but we should probably keep you awake for a while, just in case you have a concussion,” he said. “Talk to me. Why’d you run off like that earlier?”

“You couldn’t think of something a little more small-talkish before diving right into the deep end?” I griped.

“What’s your favorite color?” he asked.

“Blue.” I sighed, staring up into his eyes and hating myself for being such a sappy masochist.

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“What do you think of the Red Wings’ chances this season?”

“They’ll be fine until the Avalanche take the ice,” I muttered, biting off another hunk of protein bar.

He snorted. “OK, then, why did you run off earlier?”

“I don’t like how you make me feel,” I said, my lips somewhat loosened by exhaustion, warm dry clothes, and the weight of the protein bar in my belly.

His eyes widened in alarm. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean—”

“No, I mean I like you, too much. You make me forget. You make me feel like you’re more important than anything, and I can’t let that be.”

“Why not?” he asked, pushing my hair behind my ears.

“I have to take care of everybody,” I said, yawning.

“And who takes care of you?”

I smiled at him. “Me.”

“Nobody takes care of themselves all the time.”

“Who takes care of you?” I asked.

He grinned suddenly. “Me.”

“There you go.” I blinked again, letting my eyes droop closed.

“No, no,” he said, pinching my arm lightly. “Stay awake.”

“Ow,” I grumbled, swatting at his hand. “OK, fine. Tell me something. Anything. Tell me anything. Where are you from?”

“I’m from Reno, originally,” he said, tucking a blanket around my shoulders. “My mom ran out on us when I was five or six. Didn’t give much of a reason, but she’d made it clear that she didn’t like being a mom nearly as much as she liked getting loaded or going to the casino with her friends.”

“You don’t believe in personal-history small talk, either, do you?” I asked wryly.

“I’m hoping you’ll reciprocate,” he said. “I always thought Dad was just putting up with her, but he sort of fell apart after she left. I’d never seen him drink more than one beer at a time, but he started drinking the better part of a six-pack as soon as he came in from work. I was handling the bills and signing my own report cards by the time I was eight. Dad lost one job and then another, so we started moving around. I think the highlight of my truancy report was the year I spent more time out of school than in it. Still, my grades were good. And by the time I hit high school, I was able to get a job, start sharing some of the load. I figured I could keep us in one town for a while, so I could go to school. We ended up in Darien, Connecticut, of all places. I went to class in the mornings and then did whatever I could at night, loading groceries from trucks, convenience-store clerk, mucking out stalls at a dairy farm, sawing limbs for a tree trimmer—which is how I developed an interest in climbing, by the way.

“Dad died in the middle of my senior year, liver failure. Mom sent a registered letter asking if he’d kept up his life-insurance payments. I had a guidance counselor who actually cared about her job and helped me get a full scholarship to a minor state school.”

“That’s impressive,” I told him.

He shrugged. “I had enough grant money to stop working and just be a student. It was the first time I remember being able to just sit and study and read. And that’s all I did. It kind of freaked my roommate out. I wasn’t used to living with someone who liked to talk. I think Dane was convinced I was going to go postal on him, but two months into the semester, he put in this Star Trek DVD. I’d never seen the show. I started asking questions. And that’s all it took. He was really into comics, sci-fi, role-playing games, and he shared it with me. He dragged me to all these conventions and meetings. It was fun. I’d never really had a friend before. So I just went along. Kind of pathetic, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s sort of sweet.”

He looked faintly embarrassed. “Dane was always going on about this online multiplayer game software he was designing. It was different from anything we’d ever seen, an Internet-based joint experience among gamers all over the globe. A fully developed world where they could chat, build their characters, and, most important, pay subscription fees and buy upgrade packages. He spent every cent he had on hard drives for his ‘rendering farm.’ He told his former jock dad he’d joined some hard-core gym, swindling Daddy Dearest out of a few hundred a month, which he has paid back in spades, by the way. The game looked great, but he was having trouble coming up with character options and story lines. He was a genius with code but crap at storytelling. I filled in the gaps. I’d just taken a class in mythology. I’d served as dungeon master for a couple of our D&D games.”

“I don’t even want to know what that means.”

He poked me in the ribs, his mood lightening. “It just means I wrote the story lines for the game. Pervert. Anyway, I wrote a bunch of different scenarios and created a colorful cast of characters. I based them on the stories we studied in class. I took a little Celtic mythology, some Greek, some Norse, some faerie lore, swirled in a little Tolkien, and voilà, you had Guild of Dominion.”

“Wait a minute, are you telling me you helped invent Guild of Dominion?” I exclaimed. “My delinquent cousin Donnie lives for that game! We didn’t see him for three weeks when you offered that upgrade package with the scantily clad elf ladies!” I gasped, slapping at his arm. “Are you loaded, Thatcher?”

“That’s an incredibly rude question, but yes, I am.”

Hmm. I’d never met anyone with money before. Evie was the most affluent member of our clan, though we wouldn’t dream of asking her for anything. I wondered whether I should be embarrassed that he’d seen my house, my little village in its sometimes charming state of semishabbiness. Then again, he drove a truck that was almost as old as mine. He wore flannel and jeans, and other than insisting that there was a deep metaphysical meaning to The Prisoner, he didn’t put on airs. If he could deal with the fact that I didn’t have much, I could deal with the fact that he had a lot. “Good, then I don’t feel bad about you springing for dinner later.”

He chuckled. “Dane beat his competitors to the market by about six months. He was a hit. I did some freelance work for him during his first year in business, writing gaming manuals, cheater guides. I was glad to have the extra money and figured that was where it ended. Imagine my surprise when I was presented with a five-percent share in his company. I was able to retire at twenty-five, just from the dividends. Dane was as happy as a pig in shit running his company. I transferred to a much better school and finished my bachelor’s. I was able to study whatever I wanted, and I decided to stick with folklore. I liked to look at the way people explained the world around them. And the more I looked, the more I saw patterns in nature, in reality. It made me question how much of myth was real. And boom, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to find the connections between fact and the fantastic.”

“But what do you do with it?”

“I write journal articles about the people and the stories I’ve studied,” he said. “Some of them are published in well-respected academic journals. I’ve written a book or two. For the most part, I just like traveling around and learning about people. Everything was cool until Dane and I went to speak at a gamers convention in Vegas a couple of years ago. Some old friend of my mom’s was tending bar at the convention center. She called my mom, let her know I’d come into some money. Next thing I know, Mom’s calling me, says she’s missed me, wants to reconnect, sob sob sob. I was working to get my PhD in folk studies. I’d just bought my own place, and I had the room. I actually sent her a first-class plane ticket. Isn’t that stupid?”

I ran my fingers along his earlobes, applying faint pressure at the tips. “No, you wanted her to see what you’d become, what you’d made for yourself, what she’d missed.”

“Yeah, it only took about a week for dear old Mom to swipe my ATM card, pawn everything that wasn’t nailed down, and hightail it to Vegas.”

I winced. “Ouch.”

“Yep.”

I squeezed his hand. “That’s a very sad story,” I assured him. “I mean, you actually have a PhD in folk studies?”

He scowled at me, though he was obviously trying hard not to laugh. I measured a small distance between my thumb and forefinger. “It’s a little funny.”

“Damn your powers of sarcasm-slash-cuteness,” he grumbled, relaxing against me, letting me wrap my arms around him. He nuzzled my neck. “What about you? Where’d you go to school?”

“I went to high school in the valley,” I said.

“And then?”

“And then I stayed in the valley. I didn’t go to college.”

His blond brows furrowed. “Why not? You’re articulate, smart, scary as hell. You could have given the professors a run for their money.”

“Well, that’s just it,” I told him. “We didn’t really have the money. I made really good grades, scored high on those college aptitude tests. Cooper tried to get me to sign up for scholarship programs and grants. But I wasn’t interested.”

“Wasn’t interested” was a major understatement. Cooper’s attempts to force me into leaving the valley to go to the University of Alaska led to one of our legendary brawls. He’d lost three fingertips and part of an ear. But I didn’t think that was the sort of thing I should share.

Nick and I talked for hours, until my throat was dry and my tongue felt swollen. It was hard, editing myself. I wanted to tell him everything. I wanted to tell him what it was like growing up in what was more of a wrestling league than a family. I wanted to tell him that I’d never reacted to anyone the way I reacted to him. I wanted to tell him about the mating urge and how it made me crazy for him, how I was expected to marry another wolf.

But every time I was on the verge of telling him, I’d get quiet and let him talk for a while about the places he’d grown up. Florida, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, California. I couldn’t imagine seeing so many places—the desert, the mountains, the beach. I envied him that, but at the same time, it broke my heart that he’d never had a real home. I couldn’t imagine living without a place to run back to, without people who—as much as they annoyed and needled me—loved me and accepted me for what I was. How did he live like that?

“China is like a hundred different countries in one. Crowded cities, sweeping mountains, huge, vast open plains, Scotland, India. India is so hot that you can actually taste the air, like spicy cotton candy,” he said. “Scotland was nice; the people were friendly. I’m pretty sure that’s where I ended up getting the tattoo, which just goes to show you that you shouldn’t get into drinking contests with people who have their own class of whiskey named after them.” He turned his back and pulled up the hem of his shirt to reveal a red lion on his shoulder, the kind you might see on some old English battle flag.

I thought maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to see those places. I wouldn’t ever want to live anywhere but the valley. But it might be interesting to go where Nick had gone, to see what he’d seen. But my opinion was probably being swayed by the fact that he was practically shirtless.

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