It surprised me when I looked up and realized we were among only a few stragglers left at the party. Everyone but Mo, Cooper, Evie, Buzz, and Nick had headed home. Nick was standing at the bar, drinking a beer, and trying very hard to make it look as if he was talking to Cooper and not watching us. Cooper wasn’t making any pretenses. He was watching Clay like a hawk.

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“It’s later than I thought,” I said, laughing and suddenly realizing that my feet were killing me.

“I could give you a ride back home,” Clay offered. On hearing this, Nick and Cooper both stood and not so subtly moved closer to us.

“I appreciate it, but I rode with my mom. And she’s at Cooper’s watching the baby. I need to drive her back tonight. But I’ll walk you to your truck,” I said, frowning at Cooper as we passed on our way to the door.

I slipped into my coat but slipped out of my too-tight shoes, grateful for the soothing, biting cold of the pavement as I walked outside with him. This was the part of the night that I was sort of dreading. So far, Clay had been sort of perfect. And if he was a dud in the kissing department, I was going to be right back to fantasizing about blue eyes and dusky Viking lips. I couldn’t have that.

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“Thanks for putting up with all this,” I said, jerking my head toward the disheveled bar and what I’m sure was my brother’s face pressed against the picture window like one of those suction-cup Garfield dolls. “I know I sort of put you through the wringer.”

He grinned. “It’s all right. It was kind of nice to see you out of your element. I had a good time with you tonight, Maggie,” he said, leaning toward me so I had the choice to close the remaining space.

I took a little nerve-bolstering breath and kissed him, nipping at his bottom lip with my teeth. He moaned a little and worked his fingers into my hair, pulling me closer. He tasted like whiskey and cinnamon. It was nice, warm, and sweet and stoked a pleasant little fire in my belly. It wasn’t fireworks and snowflakes, but it was a cozy burn. He leaned back, keeping his arms laced around my waist.

“So,” he said, smiling and tilting his head, “I was thinking we might go to Burney to see a movie this week? It’s a drive, but there’s a new action movie opening up. Bomb squads and terrorists.”

“Well, you know how much I love bomb squads and terrorists,” I said with a little laugh. “How could a girl resist?”

“What if I throw an extra-large bag of Twizzlers into the deal?”

“No, no, no,” I told him. “Twizzlers are fifth- or sixth-date material. You have to start out slowly, with Goobers or Sour Patch Kids.”

Clay chuckled. “I thought presenting a girl with Goobers was tantamount to a proposal.”

“Well, I guess movie candy is governed differently in Canada. Your country’s all peculiar,” I said as he climbed into his truck.

He shrugged. “Yeah, I know, funny bacon, inability to pronounce all the ‘o’ sounds.”

I waved as he started the truck and pulled away. I was still sort of smiling as I came back through the saloon door. And my sister-in-law was making her “trying not to comment” face. She was trying hard to cover it up, fussing with Tupperware containers of leftovers and wiping down the already-clean bar.

“What?” I asked Cooper.

“Damned if I know,” he said, watching her bustle back and forth. “I’m still working on the whole ‘my sister’s a grown-up, and it’s normal for her to date’ thing. Why do you think I’m still drinking?”

I snorted. “Nice.”

“Just to be clear, I don’t like either one of them. It’s in the guy code. ‘Thou shalt despise any man who wants to nail your sister.’ “

“You’re coping well,” I noted.

His lips twitched as he raised the beer bottle to his mouth. “I’m seething on the inside.”

I placed a hand over Mo’s as she swept by with a damp rag. “What is going on, Mo? What’s got you all OCD?”

“Nick,” she said, wincing a little.

I looked around. Nick had disappeared like Wet Wipes on a porn set. “What about him?”

“He left,” she said hesitantly, which was a weird look for Little Miss Resolute Face. “While you were outside. With Clay.”

“Oh,” I said. I realized that meant he probably saw me kissing Clay, all snuggly against the side of Clay’s truck. My stomach felt sort of ripply and cold. “Oh.”

“Sorry!” she exclaimed. “We couldn’t keep him from leaving. I was afraid he would interrupt whatever you had going out there with Clay, but I couldn’t figure out how to keep him away from the door. I thought throwing myself at him and dragging him back inside would send an upsetting mixed message.”

“I think I would be upset by that,” Cooper dead-panned. “The only person I want you throwing yourself at is me.” Mo smiled at him in that gross, lovey-dovey, cartoon-eyes way that didn’t exactly help my icky stomach.

I shuddered. “Look, it’s no big deal. Nick and I, we’re trying to be friends. He knew I was here with a date. It’s not like I got all wound up when he was dancing with Saint Darby, the Animal Rescue Princess.”

“So, you’re OK with this?” Mo asked.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because you called her Saint Darby, the Animal Rescue Princess,” Mo said. “It expresses a certain amount of latent hostility.”

“Don’t try to shrink my head, hippie spawn,” I snapped at her.

“Well, now you’re expressing direct hostility,” she said. “Which is more your speed, anyway.”

“Shut it, Moonflower,” I shot back, using the super-secret, never-to-be-spoken-in-public legal name bestowed on her by her hippie parents.

“That was too far,” she growled. “See if I ever help you again.”

“Hey!” I shouted as she stormed toward the coat rack. “If you consider pulling my eyelashes out by the root help, you can keep it!”

10

I Need to Find New Places to Hide Pepper Spray

I HUFFED OUT A BREATH through my muzzle as my paws hit the ground. I turned to see that Clay had cleared the fallen fir tree right after me.

He gave me a triumphant little wolfy grin and leaped ahead of me. I barked and chased, falling into step with him. Clay had insisted on taking me running after another grueling pack meeting, and I couldn’t help but be grateful that he knew exactly what I needed. The pack structure had been somewhat unsettled over the past week.

Somehow, my abandoning Lee in the middle of a patrol to chase after Nick’s scent was some sort of final straw for Uncle Frank. He went from quietly grumbling about how I wasn’t doing what he would do in this situation to straight-out questioning my ability to lead. Frank told the uncles that maybe he voted for the wrong alpha candidate. Maybe having a woman for an alpha wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe they should consider my first year on the job a “probationary period,” during which I was failing miserably. After all, there had been attempts on my life and destruction of pack property in my first few months on the job. It had taken Cooper years to get into that much trouble.

Still, I’d stayed true to my word and let Nick study the valley. We started out with short visits, introducing him to my aunts as a cultural anthropologist studying communities in remote rural areas. It raised a few eyebrows, but with Cooper’s endorsement and my own, Nick was soon charming his way into kitchens. He was stuffed with cookies and roast hare, while he asked innocuous questions about how the ladies of the pack spent their days. What were their favorite recipes? How often did they get to visit friends outside the valley? How did they meet their husbands? He never mentioned werewolves or packs or mates, but I gathered that he was picking up information about our other nature, here and there. He could see things that the average human couldn’t, just because he was open to it.

Nick had this engaging way about him when he was interviewing that kept people talking. He asked questions, kept a funny running commentary. It was subtle without being sneaky or manipulative. Hell, he found out things about my relatives that even I didn’t know. For instance, I had no idea my uncle Louis once ran away to Canada to try to join a carnival . . . although when I thought about it, it made a certain amount of sense.

I found myself accompanying Nick on these visits, telling myself that I was just keeping an eye on the outsider and learning more about my own pack history. But more than anything, I just wanted to watch him work.

Of course, Nick’s presence in the valley was another bone for Uncle Frank to pick. I was playing too fast and loose with the pack’s secret, he said. I was wasting time that should be spent looking for a mate. I thought about storming into his toolshed and giving him the verbal ass-whipping of a lifetime, maybe in front of a few of the uncles if I could manage it. But then I realized that probably wouldn’t serve much purpose, other than making Frank madder and ramping up his screwball campaign to undermine my authority.

Instead, I took a page from my mother’s book. When we were kids, Mom didn’t punish us often. If she had, I would have been grounded from birth to, well, pretty much now. But when she did lower the hammer, the dread of waiting while she considered our “sentence” was almost worse than the punishment. So, I asked one of the kids to drop by Uncle Frank’s on their way to school and ask him to come by my office around noon, giving him a good, solid, four-hour window in which to soil himself.

Uncle Frank had built up a healthy reserve of bluster when he came through my office door that afternoon. But I could smell the sweat on his palms and hear the little hitch in his pulse. I didn’t bother looking up from the ledgers I was scribbling until he was standing right in front of my recently replaced desk, like a kid being called to the principal’s office.

I finally leaned back and gave him a thin smile, gesturing for him to sit down.

“Uncle Frank,” I said, “I’m told you have some concerns about how I’m running the pack.”

“Hell, yes, I have ‘concerns.’ I have a heap of concerns. It’s like the whole family’s gone loco. First, your brother runs off and marries God knows who. You let him live a full hour’s run away from the valley. Now you’re letting some human waltz around the valley like he’s one of us, asking questions he doesn’t have any business asking, while you make calf eyes with Billie’s nephew. And let’s not even talk about what a bad alpha candidate he is. You keep tarting around like you are, and we’re ripe for another takeover. Other packs will perceive us as weak. Bad enough that we have a female alpha, but—”

“I’m going to ask you not to finish that sentence. Know your place.”

“I know my place,” he shot back. “I’m your elder.”

“I’m your alpha.” I gave him a hard stare, which he returned . . . for about a second.

He snorted dismissively and shifted his eyes down, a reluctant act of submission. “Well, you aren’t acting like any alpha I’ve ever seen. I don’t understand why you’re running around with these no-accounts when my nephew is just waiting for Cooper to finish negotiating for your paw. Lee is a leader. He can make this pack strong again. Our alpha is being attacked on our own territory, for pity’s sake. We need his pack’s protection if we’re going to survive. It’s the only choice that makes sense. And if you weren’t so pigheaded and prideful, you’d agree to mate with him. We don’t know anything about this Clay or his pack. Hell, we already know Billie’s gene pool carries some crazy. Why take the risk of passing it along?”

“Watch your mouth, Uncle Frank,” I growled. “Billie’s pack. Just like you and me.”

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