He looked offended. “I bother you?”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“How would you know?”
“Because if you were really upset with me, you probably would have dreamed me with a hump or a debilitating, itchy disease.”
“Well, you’re not wrong,” I muttered. “So, what, you think you can show up here and put in a good word for reality Nick?”
He shrugged. “How should I know? It’s your happy place.”
I muttered, “Well, you could at least do this with your shirt off. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“I think there are probably some things you left unsaid earlier, and your brain is just giving you a chance to get it out of your system.”
“No, that couldn’t be it.”
“Fine,” he huffed, pulling his T-shirt over his head.
My eyes went wide at the sight of finely sculpted abs lightly dusted with a little gold happy trail. “God, this is going to be so much worse if you look like that in real life.”
“Oh, it’s even better,” he assured me.
“Bastard.” I sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I have to lie to you. And I’m sorry I have to make you feel crazy or unsure of yourself. I wish I could help you, but I just can’t. As much as I think you could mean to me, I can’t put you ahead of the people I love. You are a smart, funny, strange, drop-dead-gorgeous man. And I would like nothing more than to get to know you a hell of a lot better. But I think it’s better this way.”
“But none of that had anything to do with you, or you being a wolf, or how you feel. It’s about everybody else.”
“So your reasons are bullshit. You’re so afraid of expressing how you really feel that you’ll use any excuse to stay away from me. You’ve never had someone interested in you and only you. And you’re so afraid that’s not enough to keep me around that you’ll do anything to avoid finding out one way or the other.”
“I don’t think my figments are supposed to mouth off to me,” I grumbled.
“I was never much for rules.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” I muttered.
“Butterflies taste with their feet.”
I raised my eyebrows.
He shrugged. “I bet you didn’t know that.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. You can’t help yourself, can you?”
“Well, I don’t think you’d want a lesser version of me in your happy place,” he said, giving me a cheeky little leer.
I snorted and closed my eyes. “Good-bye, Nick.”
I felt a featherlight touch on my shoulder. “Good-bye for now, Maggie.”
I woke up with a start.
Well, that was helpful.
My head throbbing, I sat up, wondering how long I’d been sleeping. The sun was hanging low over the mountain range. I sat up, feeling more groggy than refreshed. This was not the point of the happy place. Stupid Dream Nick and his verbal riddles consisting of stuff I already suspected.
I stretched my arms over my head and popped my back. Sleeping on the ground might connect you with the earth and all that crap, but it was hell on the vertebrae. Sure that my mom was worried enough to chew through phone books by now, I jogged toward home. I felt a fresh flush of guilt as I entered the village. This must be what parents felt like, returning to their kids after a long weekend away. I was a short step from giving every member of the pack a tacky T-shirt and a teddy bear. But at the moment, all I wanted was a hot meal, a large one, a hotter shower, and my bed. My front door was in sight when I heard my name called.
I turned and saw Clay jogging down Main Street toward me. I groaned inwardly, bidding that hot meal a mental farewell. But I took a deep breath and turned to him with a genuine smile on my face. Clay was a good guy and considerably less of a pain in the ass than most people I knew. He deserved my undivided and nonirritated attention.
I sighed as I watched him lope to an easy stop in front of me and give me one of those heartwarming grins. In a good and decent universe, my choices would be limited to Lee and Clay, and the decision would be relatively easy: Clay and his cute little chin dimple by a landslide. I huffed, thinking about stupid, shirtless Dream Nick and the “grindy” encounter in the back of my truck. I had to do something to get him out of my head. I had to show him that I was serious about staying away from him.
“What would you think of going to dinner with me some night?” I asked Clay before he could say anything.
Clay hesitated. “Uh, I was just going to tell you that part for the snow blower came in yesterday. What did you say?”
“What would you think of having dinner with me Friday?”
“That would be great,” he said, smiling hesitantly. “We could try that new pizza place in Burney.”
“Actually, I was thinking of the Glacier. We could see Mo and Cooper. It would be fun.”
Clay looked confused but shrugged. “Who am I to turn down one of Mo’s burgers?”
“I’ll pick you up?” I offered, then suddenly remembered that my truck was at the bottom of a ravine. “Hmm. No, wait, I think you’ll have to drive.”
Say It with Pastry
ON FRIDAY MORNING, I walked outside to find a tow truck unloading my truck in the little side lot by the community center. It hurt to see the scraped, dented side panels, the huge crater the trees had left on the passenger’s side. The fender was bent to hell where the truck had tugged it up the incline. It was a wonder the tow truck had managed to winch it up from the ravine at all.
I could still smell Nick’s scent, mingled with mine, wafting from the rear compartment. The scent made all previous empty chest aches feel like a mild tickle. I actually had to bend over and brace my hands against my knees as the tow-truck driver lowered the winch and gently dropped my poor baby to the concrete. He stepped out, a rangy, weathered man in his forties, wearing blue overalls that stated his name was Wesley.
“Hi, can I help you?” I asked, straightening and doing my best to function like a normal person. “Did the state police send you?”
“Nope,” he said, unhooking a chain from under my truck’s tires.
There was something off about his smell; he definitely wasn’t human. He wasn’t a werewolf, either. He was definitely a were but something little, which was sort of funny, given that he looked as if he was blown out of a straw. I sniffed again. A weasel? Oh, come on. This guy was a were-weasel that ran around with “Hi, my name is Wesley” stitched on his shirt? Some people had no sense of irony.
“OK, do you just drive around the wilderness rescuing random were-creatures’ stalled vehicles?” I asked, my tone just a little bit snotty.
“Do you ever say anything besides nope?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Nope.“
I laughed, which made his lips twitch. “The bill’s taken care of. Your cousin Caleb says you should call him.”
With a chortle at my shocked expression, he drove away, taking the north road through the preserve. I dashed into my office to grab my cell phone and dial Caleb’s number.
“Y’ello?” my cousin and packmate mumbled into the phone, using his “being held hostage” voice, which he only used when he was conducting surveillance.
“Hey, cuz! You got a mullet yet?” I sang cheerfully into the phone . . . because it annoyed him.
He sighed. “Hi, Mags.”
“Everything OK?” I asked. Normally, Caleb, who spent his time on the road using his werewolf senses to track down society’s misfits for a handsome fee, loved a good Dog the Bounty Hunter joke. “Who was the were-weasel who just dropped my truck off? And how the heck did he manage to yank it up a forty-percent incline?”
“Wesley’s done some work on my truck,” Caleb said. “He replaces a lot of my windows.”
I snorted. As a not-quite-legitimate bounty hunter, Caleb came into contact with people who did not like being delivered back to the people they owed money to. And sometimes they took out their “feelings” on his truck.
“He’s a good guy. And he gets into those hard-to-reach places. Samson called, told me what happened to your truck. I thought Wesley could lend a hand.”
“Well, thanks, I appreciate it. But is it causing you pain in some way? Why do you sound so weird?”
“Wesley took a look under the truck when he was hooking up the chain. He said your brake line looked worn. But not from use or age. He said it looked like something sharp had been scraped over the brake line over and over until it was ready to rupture. Maggie, have you pissed anybody off lately? Besides Cooper? Or Samson? Or Mo? Or your mom? Or—”
“I get it, I get it,” I grumbled, considering the question. “Honestly, other than that little problem last summer with Eli, I haven’t gotten into any more scrapes than I normally would.”
“That’s not saying much.” He snorted.
“Thanks,” I muttered. “Seriously, I’ve been a relatively nice girl.” Caleb snorted again. I shot back, “I said relatively! So, what, you think someone tampered with my brakes because I was a smart-ass to them? Or maybe it was a rabbit out for revenge for all the little bunnies I’ve eaten? Seriously, I rarely leave the valley. Who would mess with my truck?”
“I don’t know, Mags,” he said. “I just think you need to be careful.”
“I live in a veritable fortress, surrounded by burly protective relatives willing to kill for me. And not to mention, I sort of kick ass myself.”
“Yeah, but you’re not invincible,” Caleb argued.
“Fine. If I see a rabbit dressed in camo trying to jimmy the screen door with a hunting knife, I’ll call for help.”
“Somehow I get the feeling you’re not taking me very seriously.” He sighed.
“And you would be right,” I told him. “But I will keep an eye out, I promise, just to humor you.”
“Thank you,” he said.
Caleb kept me on the phone for another twenty minutes, asking about various relatives, which meant he had to be worried. He tried to avoid talking on the phone whenever possible. I hung up, unsure what to think. How likely was it that someone had tampered with my brakes?
I shrugged out of my jacket and slid under the frame. There were clods of dirt, pine needles, and dead grass spotting the worn chrome. I inched my way under the axle . . . and realized I didn’t know nearly as much about big engines as I thought I did. I recognized the bottom of the transmission and the fuel line. I found the brake drum and followed the thumb’s-width plastic rope with my fingertips. It was smooth and unmarked until it reached the point lowest to the ground. I frowned. It wasn’t cut, exactly, but it was definitely damaged. And the tear didn’t look like something that would occur over a long period of time. As far as I could tell, I’d hit some debris on the road and ripped it myself, which wasn’t surprising, considering the tumble the truck took off the road.
I leaned closer to inspect the rupture in the line and picked up the faint scent of dryer sheets, the sort of clean, floral fabric-softener stuff my mom was always using. I chuckled. Wesley didn’t look like the April Fresh type. But maybe he had a concerned she-weasel mate at home.
I heard two of my older uncles arguing loudly between their front stoops over a borrowed power tool. Apparently, they’d decided to use other power tools to settle the dispute, so I crawled out from under the truck. Distracted by senior citizens armed with band saws and extension cords, I abandoned my defunct vehicle and didn’t give the brakes another thought.
NICK SENT ME a freaking apology pie.
Several, in fact. First, it was apple-raisin, then Mo’s famous chess pie, then French silk, each delivered to my door every day by my decreasingly bemused sister-in-law.