“I’m charging him mileage,” Mo told me as she walked through my front door and placed the chocolate “too fluffy to look real” meringue masterpiece in my hands. I could see the delicate little chocolate shavings speckling the crusty brown dome through the plastic carrying case. Mo slapped the note into my palm. It just said, “Please.”
This was the saddest pie of all. The previous pies had at least told me Nick was sorry and that he wanted to start fresh.
“He’s moved on to meringue,” Mo said, shaking her head. “This does not bode well.”
“I honestly don’t know how to respond to this,” I said, taking the pie into the kitchen. Mo collected the empty pie tins from the counter. Pie never lasted long in our house. Samson had taken to stopping by the house every night to make sure no pie was left behind. As long as Mo was making daily deliveries, he said I could stay mad at Nick forever.
“I’ll talk to him,” I promised her. “Even though I really don’t want to.”
“You should,” Mo countered. “He asked this morning if I could get enough peaches to make a cobbler.”
“No one says they’re sorry with cobbler.”
“Yeah, ’cause saying it with pie is super-normal,” she retorted.
WORKING WITH MY hands generally helped me sort through whatever had me wound up. The weird swooshy, acidy feeling that twisted through my chest whenever I thought of Nick or Clay had me taking apart the village’s snow blower piece by piece.
At least my emotional turmoil was serving some purpose. Part of the problem with having an aging population was elderly werewolves’ increasing inability to negotiate icy streets and sidewalks. We couldn’t afford to replace the snow blower, but we also couldn’t afford the cost of adding a Broken Hip Wing onto the clinic. Hence my need to squeeze one more year out of the twenty-year-old snow blower.
I’d replaced the belts, the oil, and the spark plugs and was now praying that it wouldn’t literally blow a gasket or part of my hand as I fired it up. I grinned like a madwoman when the diesel engine roared to life. Then a cloud of black smoke spiraled up from somewhere just out of reach, and I heard the first signs of stalling.
“Stupid, useless piece of crap!” I yelled, the sound of the engine whining and sputtering to its death covering the worst of my curses.
“It’s nice to see that some things, like your naturally even temper, never change.”
I looked up and saw my grandfather standing in the doorway, clearly amused.
“I thought I would come by and pay my favorite granddaughter a visit,” Pops said, winking at me.
At eighty-two, Noah Graham was sort of the Robert Redford of the Alaskan werewolf community. He was still blessed with a headful of iron-gray hair and the blue-green eyes Cooper had inherited. He also appeared to be in his early sixties, which was one of the perks of being a werewolf. Our bodies are resilient because of the constant phasing, lots of collagen. As long as we keep up with the sunscreen, we can look young well into our golden years.
But we aged, like everybody else. Pops had had what Dr. Moder called a “minor episode” the year before, which scared the hell out of all of us. We’d all babied him shamelessly, which irritated his independent soul. He finally blew up and tossed a quart of chicken noodle soup at my aunt Maisie. That was when I knew he was getting better.
Pops and I had always had a close relationship. Most girls confided in their mothers when they were worried about a test or upset with a friend . . . or going through “weird new body parts” anxiety. I relied on my grandfather. Cooper and Samson went to him with their problems, and I figured I should, too. So far, with the rare exception of what we will only call the Training Bra Incident, it had worked out pretty well.
I kissed his cheek. “Don’t let your five other granddaughters hear you say that.”
He shrugged as he hitched himself into the seat of a defunct tractor-mower. “Well, you’re each my favorite in some way.”
“Nice save, Pops.” I snickered, handing him a bag of the Reese’s Pieces he favored. “How are you feeling?”
“I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t start every conversation that way,” he said, cocking a gray eyebrow at me.
“Force of habit.”
“I’m fine,” he told me, tugging my hair gently. “How is the search for a new truck?”
“Stalled,” I griped. “Bad pun intended.”
“You know I enjoy bad puns.”
I chuckled. “I haven’t had time to go look for another one. Fortunately, I don’t leave the valley much, except to visit Grundy. I can run there, so it’s not a huge deal.”
“Yes, I know,” he said quietly. “I saw your aunt Billie earlier. She seems to be having a good day. She was playing Legos with Paul and Ronnie.”
“She thought they were Eli and Cooper, didn’t she?” I asked.
“Probably,” he said, nodding. “But she was happy and smiling. And at this point, we should be grateful she can have days like that. Alicia told me to thank you again for sending the aunties over to help at night while she bathes the boys and gets them to bed. She says it’s been a big help.”
I shrugged. “That’s why we’re here. Nobody should have to shoulder all that responsibility alone.” Pops smirked at me. “Oh, hush,” I told him. “We’re not talking about me.”
“Alicia also mentioned that you went on a date with her brother the other night.”
“Are we going to braid each other’s hair now, Pops?” He gave me the stink-eye in response, so I sighed and said, “I went out on a date with Clay. And it was fine.”
“And you’re making it sound like a trip to the dentist’s office.”
“Why does everyone want to talk about my personal life all of a sudden?” I grumped, jumping and inspecting a wrench on the other side of the room. “Have you talked to any of those curious souls about your personal life?” he asked. I shook my head. “Are you likely to?” I laughed and shook my head again. He held out his hands and waved his fingers, as if to say, “Bring it on.”
I sighed. “I like Clay. On paper, he is the perfect mate for me.”
Pops nodded. “Clay is a good boy. He’s kind, he thinks before he acts, he takes care of his family—”
“Do you want to date him, Pops?”
Pops frowned. “We should have never encouraged you to speak. So, if Clay has balanced your pros-and-cons list, why aren’t you out there running with him, instead of hiding in this shed?” He smiled at me, triumphant. I never have been able to fool Pops.
I picked at the engine grease under my fingernails. “There’s another man who seems interested in me. And he confuses me, mostly, but I like him, too . . . almost against my will. And I can’t do anything about it.”
“Dr. Thatcher?” he asked, grimacing. “You know, Maggie, there’s nothing wrong with you dating a human. It’s mating with one that’s the problem.”
“Why put the energy into dating someone if you can’t mate with them?”
“The fun of it?” he suggested
“Obviously, it’s been a while since you’ve dated, Pops.”
“I do all right.”
“You know that we want you to be happy, Maggie.”
“Yeah, but when has telling someone to do what makes them happy ever resulted in a good decision? Remember when we told cousin Todd to do what made him happy and he came home with recently augmented boobs?”
Pops gave me a stern look but was working hard to keep the snickering internal. “As I was saying, we want you to be happy. But you also have to think of what’s best for the pack,” he said. “Do you know why you’re the alpha?”
“Because I got more votes than Samson?”
Pops chuckled. “Because you see underneath. You cut through the layers of . . .”
“I was going to say politeness,” he deadpanned. “And say what you think. It’s an undervalued quality for humans, especially in a woman. But after the initial sting, people appreciate hearing the truth.”
“I have a feeling I’m about to get hit with some of that truth,” I muttered.
“I know you don’t like the idea of mating and marrying. And I know you hate it when one of the aunties declares she’s found the perfect male for you. You’re afraid that you’ll lose the independence you’ve built up. And you’re afraid of spending your life with someone who’s not going to make you happy. But you have to settle down sometime. It’s part of your responsibility as pack leader. You set the example, provide stability for the pack. And there aren’t enough werewolf males running around out there for the taking. If you think you could make a life with Clay, you should start now.”
A tiny, petty voice welled up somewhere in my gut and grumbled that Cooper hadn’t bothered setting an example. He’d tied himself up nice and tight to the first human to break that thick cement shell he’d built around his heart . . . and his brain.
As if he sensed my resentment, Pops added, “You’ve always been the strong one, Maggie. We both know Cooper wasn’t ever going to be ready to lead the pack, not really. I want him to be happy, and I’m glad that he found Mo. But it’s always been you. You’re the one who can make the hard decisions. You’re the one strong enough to make your own happiness, even if it’s not exactly what you wanted. I will love you no matter what you decide, but I can’t help but hope that you’ll make the choice that those around you could not.”
“No pressure, huh, Pops?”
He kissed my forehead and ambled toward the door. “If you want easy advice, ask a different grandpa.”
“I don’t remember ‘asking’ for your advice,” I muttered.
LATER, I WAS wandering home for a late lunch, wiping my hands on my overalls, and wondering if it would be weird for me to do repair work nude just to avoid the stains. I passed the community center and noticed an odd, acrid scent on the air. I followed it toward my office door and saw the first curling gray tendrils of smoke winding their way out of the splintered door glass. The motion of my yanking the door open pulled a cloud of thick smoke right into my face. I spluttered and coughed, pushing my way through to the growing plume of flame blooming from my desk.
Even through the choking gray haze, I could see that my office was trashed. The filing cabinet lay on its side, drawers torn out. My shredded files were strewn across the floor like wounded birds.
Someone had put my wastebasket in the middle of my desk, crammed it full of my paperback books, and set them on fire. The plastic walls of the basket were starting to soften and melt as the flames reached toward the ceiling tiles. Covering my mouth and nose with a bandana, I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall and doused the whole flaming mess with white foam. The sterile-smelling chemicals sprayed across my desk and hit the wall with a muted splat. After giving the wastebasket one long, final blast, I took out my work gloves to protect my hands while I heaved the smoking remains out into the parking lot.
I left the door open and propped all of the windows to let the smoke vent. I wiped my streaming eyes with the bandana and searched the ceiling for the blinking light of the smoke detector. As the smoke cleared, I could see the frayed wires dangling from where the device had been yanked from the wall.
I moved closer to my foam-covered desk, opening the drawers and finding the petty-cash box intact and the village checkbook still locked up tight. I ran to the other rooms of the center but found that the damage was limited to my office space.
How had this happened without my hearing anything? Gah, the music. Between my too-loud worship of all things Journey and the noise of the engine, I wouldn’t have heard a Mack truck parking in my office.