I was considering the various blind-date candidates when I caught the April Fresh scent of fabric softener lingering on the wind. I bolted after it blindly. Tactically, it was a stupid thing to do. But after tumbling that scent over and over in my head for nearly a week, it drew me like a beacon. My legs seemed to devour the ground as I raced through the trees, following the scent all the way to the town limits of Grundy.
I was running toward Cooper’s house, my feet crunching on the frosted ground. The faint, shadowy outline of the moon was rising high over the trees. I lost the scent somewhere near the little brook that babbled through Cooper’s backyard. It just disappeared. I slowed to a trot and tried to find some hint of it on the breeze, but I got nothing.
Suddenly, the hair on the back of my neck rose with some electric charge. The faintest trace of that smoky-moss and Sunday-lunch smell wafted around my head. Nick was somewhere near.
And he wasn’t alone.
I dashed through the underbrush, charging headlong toward Nick. I broke through the tree line to find him sitting in the clearing, talking in a conversational tone to a huge tawny male wolf that was staring at Nick as if he were on the menu.
Seriously, what does it take to keep one human alive? It was as if he was the anthropological Evel Knievel.
I growled, announcing my presence to the male timber. Keeping his eyes on Nick, the wolf rounded his body toward me. He wasn’t about to give up Nick, which had me worried. Most sane wolves try to shy away from human contact whenever possible. This one was treating Nick like prize prey. Using one last quick burst of running energy, I threw myself between man and wolf. I felt Nick retreat behind me, as if he’d finally caught on that something wasn’t quite right.
I widened my stance, making myself look as large as possible, and growled. The timber’s lip curled away from his fangs, and he grumbled back. He advanced, thinking that because I was smaller, I would back down. I stepped forward, thumping my head against his chest and throwing my shoulder into him. He snapped his jaws, trying to catch my neck, but I’d slipped back enough to give me room for another shove. He shifted his weight, feinting left and then dashing right. I held, sinking my teeth into his foreleg and dragging him away from Nick, none too gently. He retreated slightly, only to rear up on his hind legs and come at me with its front. I ducked, then leaped up, pushing at his stomach until he fell onto his back.
The male leaped to his feet, gathering at his haunches to lunge at me. I braced myself for the impact and instead ended up dropping to the ground as a high-pitched shrieking noise made my head feel as if it was imploding. It was every annoying sound combined—nails scratching on a chalkboard, tires squealing, my aunt Edie singing. I pressed my head against the ground, rolling my ears against the dirt, just to try to block it out. The noise lessened just a little, allowing me to raise my head.
I looked back to see Nick, on his knees, holding what looked like an air horn. His face tensed as his eyes connected with mine. Did he recognize me? Did he know? Could I persuade him to throw that freaking horn into the woods and never use it again?
The wolf beside me rose wobbily to his feet and seemed to be trying to mount another attack. Cringing, Nick blasted the damn horn again, knocking my legs from under me. I lay there for what felt like hours, praying for the pressure in my ears to subside. The other wolf got tired of writhing on the ground in agony, shook his way to his feet, and dashed off. As soon as he was out of the clearing, Nick laid off the “pain horn.” I whirled around to find him patting the ground for his glasses.
Honestly, I could have strangled him, but at the moment, I didn’t have any thumbs. He reached his hand out, as if he was going to freaking pet me. I barked sharply at him and phased in mid-step.
“What in the name of holy hell where you thinking?” I demanded. “Do you have any idea what could have just happened to you? Do you have instincts that might not lead to your certain death?”
Nick gaped at me, a goofy look of astonishment and happiness twisting his moonlit features. “You’re a werewolf!” he exclaimed.
Damn it. I hadn’t meant to phase back in front of him. I’d just been so mad at him for putting himself in such a stupid situation that I’d put myself in the best form for yelling.
Honestly, I gave up. There was no way to keep Nick from finding out about us. He seemed to have some sort of unholy gift for putting himself in exactly the right place at the right time. He was just going to keep doing this sort of thing until he got himself killed. Maybe it was better this way . . . but there was no way I was going to admit that. I held my arms across my chest self-consciously and glared up at him.
“I knew it!” he cried, half accusing, half triumphant.
“Fine, fine,” I spat, throwing up my arms. “I’m a werewolf. Happy?”
“Actually, yes, a little bit,” he admitted, sliding his glasses onto his nose.
“What the hell is that thing?” I asked, snatching the little air horn out of his hand.
“Oh, uh, a friend of mine in the bio department at U Dub came up with that,” he said sheepishly. “He’s still testing it as a defense system for hikers. It works at a decibel level and frequency that are almost debilitating for canines. If you come across a wolf on the trail and use it, the wolf will either run off or be too distracted to chase you when you run away.”
“He’ll make a fortune,” I muttered, slapping it back into his hand.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you. I was just trying to break up the fight—” Realization suddenly dawned on Nick’s face. “Oh, hey, wait a minute, so that means that whole scenario with the nudity and the kissing and the rubbing in your truck—that really happened!”
I blushed. Blushed! I never blushed, and here it felt as if my cheeks were going to burst into flames. “No, it didn’t!”
He grinned winsomely. “Trust me, I keep very careful mental records of the beautiful women I’ve seen naked. And you are a very memorable entry in my—”
“If you say ‘spank bank,’ I will literally knock teeth out of your head.”
“I was going to say—” He stopped in mid-sentence, suddenly aghast. “Where does a nice girl even learn a term like ‘spank bank’?”
“I’m not a nice girl. And I spend a lot of time with barely postadolescent men,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Look, can we have this conversation somewhere a little less secluded and open to attack? What are you even doing out here?”
“I heard Alan make some crack about this being a high-traffic area for the wolf sightings. I came out here to investigate. I saw the wolf . . .”
“And you assumed it was a werewolf and not, say, an actual timber wolf that could rip your throat out and leave your bones scattered all over this clearing?”
“I thought it was Cooper,” he said, paling. “Oh, shit, was that a real wolf?”
“No, that was a werewolf,” I said, shaking my head and eyeing the tree line.
“So, why are you so upset?”
“Because I didn’t know him.”
WE ENDED UP stumbling our way back to Nick’s, although Cooper and Mo’s place was closer. I didn’t want to have to explain to my brother that I’d phased in front of Nick again or endure Mo’s superior little smirks.
I called Samson to tell him I would be away for the night and to watch the borders of the valley for strangers. He was confused, but I was using my “don’t question me” tone, so he agreed. I turned back to Nick.
I crossed my arms over my chest, feeling oddly naked. Well, I was naked. But I felt more naked than usual. How was I going to do this? I wondered. What would this mean for my family? How much of this was I telling him because I wanted him to understand the pack, and how much of it was I telling him because I wanted him to understand me?
We basically stood in his front hall and stared at each other. I turned on my heel and walked into his kitchen. On the wall, he had a map marked with red pins at the attack sites. He had tried to mark the estimated hunting range, with a list of average wolfhunting ranges posted on the wall next to mileage estimates from each attack site to Mo’s house. He had our accident scene marked with a blue pin. He had two huge lists written on two sheets of legal paper. One was marked “Proven” and was completely blank. The other was titled “Total Bullshit—Probably” and included “full-moon phasing,” “bipeds,” “bitten vs. born,” and, finally, “silver bullets” with a question mark next to it. And there was a stack of little notebooks, each one filled with scribbles.
“Technically, silver bullets will kill us,” I told him. “And so will real bullets. Bullets kill pretty much everybody.”
He nodded and pulled out a Sharpie to make a note on his chart. “Good to know.”
“You don’t have any other little James Bond gadgets I should know about, do you?” I asked, eyeing the air horn, which he’d tossed onto the counter. “A gun that’ll launch a net over me? Cufflinks that shoot bear mace?”
“Nope. That would be pretty cool, though.” His lips twitched a little when I glared at him. “But obviously not appropriate.”
Snickering, he tossed me a pair of old basketball shorts and a Reidland High School Greyhounds T-shirt. I turned my back to slip into it.
“What the hell is that?” he asked, suddenly very close behind me, running his fingertips along three slashing scars down my back.
“Angry bear. I was on a run with my brothers at Eagle Pass,” I murmured. “I was young. I thought I was the biggest, baddest thing on the mountain. The bear reminded me otherwise, when I got too close to her cubs.”
“But you heal so quickly; I seem to remember something about that,” he said.
“Sure, we heal, but we still scar. It’s not like we’re vampires.” Nick’s face lit up with delight and a million questions, so I had to add, “As far as I know, vampires are not real.”
“Damn it,” he grumbled as I pulled the shirt over my head and slid into the shorts. Nick lifted my leg and examined the waffle pattern of tiny dents along my thigh. He quirked an eyebrow.
“Never piss off a porcupine, no matter how jolly he may seem,” I explained gravely. “Cartoons are very misleading.”
He pointed to another long white streak on my shin.
“Softball game, sliding into second. Samson wouldn’t get out of the damn baseline.”
He laughed, then traced his fingers along the faint trio of short lines just over my throat. “I’ll get to that one,” I told him. His brows furrowed. “Ask me anything,” I offered. “I’ll tell you all about us, and then I’ll tell you why you shouldn’t share what I tell you with other people.”
His face lit up as if I’d just offered him the Holy Grail, a Babe Ruth rookie card and Megan Fox’s phone number.
Just to take the look off his face, I added, “That reason includes the words ‘because I’ll kill you and make sure no one ever finds your body.’ “
“I can live with that.” He nodded, making little “hurry up” motions with his hands.
“No, no,” I told him. “I don’t start the explanations until you have your little notebook and a number two pencil and all that crap. I don’t like interruptions.”
Patting his pockets frantically, he ran for his notebook, and it was clear that he had pages of carefully scripted questions. His eyes scrambled over the pages for a few moments before he finally looked up at me, pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, and said, “How?”
“How do we change?” I asked. He nodded. “It’s just genetics. Some people have good balance or are really good at making egg salad. We can change into abnormally large wolves.”