“Well, wolves mate for life,” I said in a low, soft voice. “Werewolf mates are claimed with a bite, which is sort of ceremonial, or through flat-out impregnation. Our genetic material is what you might call obsessive. Once our bloodline mixes with someone, something in our bodies just won’t let us make babies with anyone else. It’s a one-mate-only opportunity. It’s why you don’t see a lot of remarried widows of childbearing age in packs. Their new husbands won’t be able to have children of their own.”
“So, you’re all virgins when you get married?”
I waffled my hand back and forth. “Most are, but there are exceptions. We can have sex with someone and not be mated to them . . . but since werewolves, particularly the females, are hyperfertile, having sex means you’re probably going to end up pregnant either way. So most of us don’t risk knocking up a random one-night stand.”
“So, you’re a virgin.”
“I’m not talking to you about this.”
He held up his hands. “Purely scientific interest.”
“No comment,” I grumbled.
“Subject is uncooperative,” he murmured, scribbling.
“Subject can’t believe you’re taking notes about my virginity,” I shot back.
“So, what does any of this have to do with you dating Clay instead of taller, smarter, more charming candidates?”
I snorted. “When I get around to having kids, I need to pass the wolf genes forward. And for a good shot at that, I need to mate with a werewolf. Our pack is dying out. Werewolves everywhere are dying out. We’re an endangered species. I can’t risk being with somebody unless I know for sure that I can produce a werewolf with him.”
“But you said there are dead-liners who come from two wolf parents, right? So, there’s no guarantee.”
“I have to at least try. I have a responsibility to my people, Nick. How could I live with myself ten years from now, fifty years from now, when there aren’t any more wolves born to my pack? If I let this go anywhere, if I let myself get involved with you, and we couldn’t produce a wolf, it’s not like I can try again with someone else. I can’t take it back, you see?”
“No, frankly, I don’t see why that would be so bad.”
“Because if I do, what kind of example am I setting? I’d be telling my people that duty and responsibility take a backseat to being happy? That putting yourself first is more important than the long term? I’ve got people counting on me, Nick. Look, I like you, a lot. I like spending time with you. But if we’re going to keep seeing each other, it can only be as friends.”
“Bullshit.” He took the beer bottle I was throttling out of my hands. I think he was afraid I would chuck it at him. “That’s bullshit, Maggie. If you don’t want me, fine. But don’t go blaming some breeding obligation for you running.”
“Running scared,” Nick challenged.
“You don’t know anything about me except what I’ve told you. And I’ve told you more than I should. You can at least pay me back by not calling it ‘bullshit.’ I thought they taught you better at all those fancy schools, cultural sensitivity and all that crap.”
“I’m not calling your beliefs ‘bullshit,’ I’m calling your hiding behind them so you don’t have to deal with me ‘bullshit.’”
“I don’t have to stay here and listen to this,” I spat, snatching the beer from him. “I told you what you wanted to know. Now, either stand by your word, or go straight to hell.”
“Well, let me move aside so you can run away.” With a mocking little bow, he stepped aside and cleared a path to the barroom.
“You’re an asshole!” I spat as I brushed by him.
“You’re a stubborn brat!”
“Good! I guess that will make it easier for you to get over this lame little crush on me!”
“Well, we’re on to a great start on this ‘friends’ thing, aren’t we?” He grunted as I stomped away. He caught my arm and ignored my protests as I tried to free myself, practically dragging him along with me. He turned me toward him, my nose nearly colliding with his chest. His free hand floated just over my shoulder, as if he knew that touching me would send me over the edge toward decking him.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, his mouth hovering close to my ear. I shivered but played it as a squirm to get away from him. “I’m sorry that I’m not handling this very gracefully. I want you, Maggie. But if he’s what you want, I’m not going to stand in the way.” I shoved past him, but he caught my arm again.
“What are you doing? You said you wouldn’t stand in the way. This is standing in the way and dragging me around like a rag doll, you jackass!”
“Clearly, I was bluffing!” Nick exclaimed. “And you called me on it, so good for you.” He grabbed my arms and shoved me against the door. His body pressed against mine, and the weight felt so good. Instead of pushing his shoulders away, as I intended to, I found my fingers wrapped around his collar, pulling him closer. His hand snaked around to the small of my back and bunched the fabric of my dress, until I could feel his fingers brushing against my ass.
His mouth was hovering so close to mine I could feel his breath fanning over my lips, and I instinctually flicked the tip of my tongue over them. He moved closer, and just before his whiskers brushed over my hypersensitive skin, I pressed the flat of my palms against his shoulders.
“I can’t,” I said softly.
He rested his chin against my temple and whispered, “He’s no good for you.”
“Neither are you,” I said, stepping sideways, away from him. “Besides, aren’t you on the verge of being engaged to Little Miss Express Lane?”
“Darby’s a nice girl.”
“Well, Clay is a nice guy. You just don’t like him because you’re jealous.”
“Yeah, I wish I had a forehead that proves our genetic link to Cro-Magnon man.” I glared at him. He sighed. “OK, fine, that was petty. And I am jealous. What am I supposed to do? He’s a likable guy, and he can do the one thing I can’t.”
“Find his glasses without the aid of the state police?”
“And that’s the delicate charm that calls me like a siren’s song,” he said, his lips twitching into a smile.
I murmured, “This is it, Nick. We can be friends, or we’ll have nothing. Your choice.”
“You’re not making this easy for me.”
I huffed out a laugh. “I’m not supposed to.”
“If it means that I can spend time with you, I’ll call myself your friend. I’m not going to stop hoping for more. But I’m going to wait for you to come to me.”
“That won’t happen,” I said, to myself as much as to him.
“We’ll see,” he said, wriggling his golden-blond eyebrows at me.
I rolled my eyes and turned away, leading Nick out of the hallway.
Unfortunately, Clay had gone to the bar to look for his wandering date and was talking to Darby. I tried to plaster a pleasant expression on my face as I slid into the empty space on his left. He breathed a sigh of relief.
“I thought you’d crawled out the bathroom window to escape,” he said, taking the beer and bussing my cheek. He stopped for a moment, inhaling. He shot a suspicious look at Nick, who had sidled up behind Darby.
“I’m more of a ‘cause a distraction with a bar fight, then sneak away through the back’ sort of girl,” I teased, watching Nick warily as he put his hand at the small of Darby’s back. Without warning, I had the irrational desire for the power to make her spontaneously combust with my mind.
“Clay, have you met Nick Thatcher?” For now, I was omitting Nick’s job description. It would get around to the pack eventually, but it might help if the pack got to know him and trust him beforehand. Still, Clay’s smile was sharp, and not all that friendly, as he reached forward to take Nick’s hand. I guess he picked up on more than just my scent on Nick. I sighed and took a step farther away from both of them. Darby and I watched as the boys seemed to be competing over who could squeeze more circulation out of the other’s fingers.
“Well, this isn’t awkward,” Darby muttered. Despite myself, I shared a commiserating little grimace with her.
“I’m Maggie, by the way. I don’t think we’ve ever really met.”
“Darby,” she said, shaking my hand in a way that didn’t leave me wincing, like the boys were doing now.
“Darby works full-time at the supermarket,” Nick told me. “She just got promoted to assistant manager.”
I threaded my arm through Clay’s and smiled affably. “Clay is a mechanic. We keep him pretty busy around the village, but there’s nothing he can’t fix. It’s taken a load off of Samson.”
“Darby’s studying for her master’s degree online, in social work. She wants to help kids like herself who grew up in the foster-care system,” Nick shot back, his tone a little bit more aggressive than proud.
“Clay is helping his sister raise her two children while they care for an ailing elderly aunt,” I retorted as Clay began to look distinctly uncomfortable under my “praise.”
“Darby takes in retired rescue dogs. She’s adopted two German shepherds through a state shelter program,” Nick said.
Damn it. That did make me like her a little more.
“OK, I think it’s time to get out of firing range,” Clay said, pulling me toward the dance floor. “Darby, it was nice to meet your résumé.”
She snickered and waved as Nick glowered at us.
“So, what was that?” Clay asked, spinning me around and slipping his hand to my waist. He stared over my shoulder to where Nick and Darby were chatting companionably. I gritted my teeth and stepped back, so Clay would have to turn me away from them. “Were you two dating or something?”
“No, he’s a friend,” I grumbled. “A friend who is a giant pain in my ass.”
“You want I should get rid of him?” he asked in his best New Jersey accent. “We could make it look like an accident.”
“That’s what I said when I first met him!” I exclaimed as Clay snickered and pulled me closer. My head tilted up, and my forehead brushed the line of his jaw. Seriously, when did God stop giving men jaws like that? I muttered, “But I guess cold-blooded murder is wrong and all that junk.”
Clay’s eyes flickered with some emotion I didn’t quite understand. His smile faltered. And it was as if some invisible mask had been pulled away from his face. He caught himself, it seemed, and lifted the corners of his mouth again. “Well, if you need help burying the body, I’m handy with a shovel.”
I chuckled. “Good to know.”
“So, let’s talk about something more interesting,” he said, sliding his fingers along the bare skin of my shoulders, leaving a little trail of sparks in his wake. “Let’s talk about you.”
“Oh, you must have read a book on how to charm lady wolves,” I said.
“I’m not a proud man,” he said. “There were Cliffs Notes involved.”
God help me, I actually giggled as he swayed me around the floor. The rest of the night was like that. Clay made me feel comfortable, more comfortable than I think I’d ever been with a guy. He kept me talking so much I hardly noticed we were dancing. He was light on his feet and managed to step out of the way if I was on my way to stepping on his toes. He didn’t even break his stride when I tried to lead a time or two, just went with the flow.
I know he noticed when I tried to subtly brush my nose along his collar, but he was too polite to say anything. He smelled like citrus and sage. And I pulled him a little closer, so I could hold that pleasant, distracting scent in my head.