Frank snorted again. “Maybe she was.”
“Is,” I said. “As long as I’m alpha, I decide who’s pack and who’s not, something you need to keep in mind. I’m going to say this once. Whoever I date, whoever I mate with, is none of your business. And you will not sit around gossiping about my love life like some little old woman. I don’t care if you have a dozen nephews you think would be a good match for me. Keep your opinions to yourself. All of your opinions.”
He shot up, placing both hands on my desk in an attempt to loom over me. “And if I said I don’t want to live in a pack where my opinion’s not welcome?”
I did my best to look bored, picking up my pen and scribbling a note on my ledger. “I would remind you that you’re free to leave the pack anytime. And if you push me much farther, I’ll give you an extra nudge out the door.”
A boot up the ass could be considered a “nudge,” right?
He stood, his nose in the air. “I know where I’m not wanted. I’ll just go stay with Lee’s pack.”
“I think that would be for the best.”
Fortunately, Uncle Frank had enough sense to act as if it was his idea to move. He wanted to save face, so he told everybody how much better life was over in Lee’s pack. Better housing, better hunting, more wolves. He made it sound like some swanky werewolf retirement resort, but I don’t think many of my relatives bought it.
And after a nearly appropriate cushion of time passed, we could laugh about Uncle Frank’s defection. I happened to pass by as Pops and Uncle Jay were playing checkers at the community center one afternoon and heard Jay say, “Frank’s mouth has been writing checks his butt couldn’t cash for years. Glad somebody finally called him on it. If I had to hear one more story about his idiot nephew, I was going to bite him myself.”
A bit later, someone hung a bottomless “suggestion box” in my office, situated so the suggestion slip would fall through the slot, right into a wastebasket. Such was life in the pack. If something good happened, we were smart-asses. If something bad happened, we were smart-asses. If we weren’t all that emotionally healthy, at least we were consistent.
Behind me, Clay caught the scent of rabbit on the trail. He yipped to let me know he was going to chase it north. I barked back, wishing him luck. Heading in the opposite direction, I ducked under the brush, venturing to the very edge of the valley’s boundaries.
I sat at the end of the crescent, watching the wind play over the fir trees, like an annoying uncle’s hand ruffling the valley’s hair. I phased, eager to feel the weak rays of sunshine on my bare human skin. The breeze had a bite to it, although it wasn’t cold enough to make a werewolf shiver. We tend to be a bit impervious to the cold.
It was so blessedly quiet up there, more peace than I’d enjoyed in weeks. Sometimes I forgot what my life was like before potholes and cranky seniors took up all of my time. The days when I could run whenever and wherever I wanted. If I wanted, I could sleep until three in the afternoon, and nobody would blink an eye. I loved my pack. And I was happy that I could provide some stability after so many years of turmoil. But every once in a while, I missed my downtime.
I closed my eyes, inhaling the scent of pine and smoke curling from the pack’s chimneys. And slithering under the current of the breeze, I smelled the floral, obnoxiously clean scent of fabric softener.
Someone was there. And I was naked.
Hearing the softest of footfalls behind me, I turned. But the dark shape was on me before I could see. A black nylon bag was wrapped around my head and knotted behind my neck as I kicked and struggled. The smell of fabric softener was overwhelming, clogging my nostrils with the burning chemical scent of false flowers. I couldn’t breathe. I tried to focus on the man behind me. I stomped on his bare foot, making him grunt. I could feel jeans rubbing against my bare legs, but he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He stretched at least a foot taller than me, pressing me against his solid body as he dragged me back from the rock outcropping.
The guy’s hand was pressed over my mouth, through the material, and the other hand wandered to my chest. His fingers skittered greedily across my breast, pinching the nipple. I bit down on his hand, hard. He yowled, wrenching his hand away. I bucked my head back. I hoped to catch his face, but I guess I just hit his collarbone. The impact against his chest loosened his arms. I slung an elbow back, catching his face this time, cracking the bridge of his nose. “Oof!” He huffed out a harsh breath and dropped me.
“Fucker!” I shouted, my voice muffled by the material as I kicked out toward the noise. I think I must have clipped his knee, because his weight shifted toward the ground. I tugged at the bag, but he’d managed a pretty decent knot at the base of my neck, and the material was too slick to get a grip on. Struggling and ripping at it would only disorient me and possibly send me stumbling off the rock face. I stayed still, listening for any noise that could tell me where he was. But I heard nothing. He knew what I was doing, tracking him, and he was staying as still as the stone under our feet. Why? Why not just push me off ? Why—
Oh, screw this. I phased, but my neck was actually thicker in wolf form. With the bag knotted so tight, I couldn’t wriggle out of it, no matter how I scraped my head against the ground. Plus, the material was so tight at my throat I could barely breathe. I’d pass out after a few minutes, and the last thing I needed was to be unconscious around this dirtbag. Growling in frustration, I phased back to human. From nowhere, a fist slammed into the side of my face. I was knocked to my knees but swung wide at my eye level. I’m guessing I nailed the guy right in the crotch, given the way he yelled.
Gently tugging at the bag to loosen the knot, I nudged my foot left, feeling sharply ridged pebbles prickling at my skin. I kicked them soundly, listening as they tumbling over the edge into the air. I kicked some right and then behind me, and each time, I heard the same descending noise. The cliff face was behind me. I advanced forward and was rewarded with another punch to the eye. His breath hot and moist against the skin of my shoulders, he wrapped his arms around my waist and dragged me away from the cliff. I didn’t struggle; no use in throwing him off balance and over the edge.
When his body relaxed, I assumed we were safely away from the cliff. I pushed my feet from the ground, throwing my weight back against him. He stumbled and fell. I threw my elbow hard into his ribs. His hands wrapped around my neck, twisting the material, tightening it. I kicked wildly, catching his knees and not much else. I coughed, my head pounding as the bag constricted around my throat.
“Maggie?” He froze, the tension in his hands bleeding away as the voice echoed across the trees. I gasped, drawing huge lungfuls of air through the material.
“Maggie, where are you?”
Without warning, the weight of my attacker’s body disappeared. There was a beat of silence, the hiss of a zipper, and then a growl.
He’d phased. I could hear his footfalls as he ran away on four paws.
“Maggie?” It was Nick’s voice, getting closer. I sat up, my fingers plucking frantically at the knotted hood. It loosened, but I couldn’t get it untied. I tore at it now, desperate to breathe clean, unscented oxygen.
“Maggie, what happened?”
With a few quick pulls, the hood was untied and yanked from my head. I blinked, blinded by the light as I sucked in air. Nick’s hands were on my face, his eyes wild with worry. I didn’t realize I’d been crying until he swiped his thumbs across my wet cheeks. Exhaling a ragged breath, he brushed kisses along my brow, my cheekbones, my eyelids. My hands clutched at his jacket, pulling him to me as I tucked my face into his neck.
“Tell me you’re not hurt,” he demanded, stroking my tangled hair. “Please tell me you’re OK.”
I nodded. I was afraid to speak, afraid my voice would crack and I would start sobbing like a little girl. He held me in his lap, close against his chest. I decided to overlook this blatant violation of the “just friends” agreement and laid my head there, listening to his heartbeat and waiting for my own to slow. I needed him, much more than I cared to admit. I needed Nick Thatcher, fancy degrees, geek obsessions, and all.
This was a problem.
“What happened? Who did this to you?” he asked, his voice softer now. “I thought I saw a wolf running away, a big gray one.”
“I don’t know. I was running. Clay took off north, after a rabbit. I was just sitting there, and the next thing I know, there’s a bag over my head and some guy’s feeling me up.”
“Feeling you up?” His eyebrows rose, and I saw cold fury seep into those blue eyes. For the first time, I was a little afraid of what he could be capable of. He was just smart enough to murder someone and get away with it. I pressed a hand to his cheek.
“Just enough to piss me off and get bitten for his troubles. Then I pissed him off, fighting back, and he was trying to strangle me with what looks like a cheap garment bag,” I said, tossing the overscented bag aside, next to a discarded pair of torn, muddied jeans. “I don’t think he wanted to hurt me seriously. Otherwise, he would have just tossed me off the cliff. I think he wanted to . . . take me? Or maybe just scare me. He kept trying to choke me, to drag me away. He only ran off when you yelled out for me. What are you doing up here, anyway?”
“I was in town, trying to talk to your Pops—who does not like me, by the way—and I heard you’d been up here with Clay since lunch. You were gone so long, I thought maybe someone should check on you.”
I would have teased him about being worried, but it seemed cruel, given the way he was holding me—as if I would break or float away at any moment. Instead, I eased away from him, putting an invisible wall of space between us. He recognized the gesture for what it was, and the tenderness leeched out of his voice.
“You said Clay ran north?” he asked quietly.
“Yeah, about twenty minutes ago. He’s probably miles away by now.”
“You think so?” Nick asked.
“What? You think he doubled back so he could wrap a bag over my head?” I laughed.
“Why would that be such a crazy idea? You haven’t known him for very long. He has mechanical experience and would probably know how to fix someone’s brakes so they’d fail at the right time.”
“For one thing, Clay wasn’t carrying jeans or a bag while we were running. And second, why would he want to hurt me? What would be his end game? Clay’s a part of my pack. He and his sister are taking care of my aunt Billie. He’s practically family. And besides, we’re dating.” I paused, shuddering. “That came out wrong. He’s been living with us for the better part of a year. If he was going to try something, he’s had dozens of opportunities to hurt me while we were alone. Movie dates, long runs, drives to Grundy—”
“OK, I get it,” he snapped irritably. “You spend a lot of time together.”
“My point is, why wait so long to pull some clumsy, half-assed attempt? Besides, he wouldn’t want to hurt me, unless he’s some sort of date-’emand-murder-’em werewolf serial killer.”
Nick frowned as if he were considering it as a theory.
“Are you sure this isn’t coming from a jealous place?”
“Of course, it’s coming from a jealous place!” he exclaimed. “That doesn’t mean it’s not true. Look, just talk to someone you trust about what happened today. Tell your pack members and see whether they think Clay could have been involved.”
“Oh, that’s a great idea. I’ll tell the pack I was caught off-guard and nearly choked to death by a strange werewolf. That will really inspire some confidence in my ability to lead. Uncle Frank was already calling for some sort of alpha recall. Do you really think I should tell them that I can’t defend myself, much less them? For all we know, this guy could be some weirdo rogue male looking to claim a mate caveman-style. He’s probably run off to look for the next pack.”