Nick clearly didn’t follow this line of logic, which was unsurprising, since even I was having a hard time with it. “Or he could come back and catch one of the other females by surprise. You’ve got to tell somebody, Maggie. Cooper, Samson, somebody.”
“No.” I pushed to my feet, trying to brazen my way through the fact that I was bare-ass naked. “I’ll take care of this myself. And if anyone finds out, I’ll know it was you who told them. And then—”
“Yeah, yeah, no one will be able to find my body, yadda, yadda.”
“I need to come up with new threats,” I muttered, picking up the jeans. Like the bag, it reeked of fabric softener. I could probably track him, but at the moment, I didn’t feel quite strong enough to confront the guy who tried to choke me with cheap luggage. Plus, Nick would probably follow me, and that could get ugly. I grunted, tossing them off the cliff. “If he comes back, he’s not going to be able to find his pants.” Nick gave me a questioning look. I shrugged. “It’s about the small victories.”
“I’m walking back with you,” he insisted.
“What about Clay?”
“I really don’t give a shit about Clay.”
“Fine,” I sighed as he wrapped his jacket around my shoulders and we started back to the valley. “So Pops doesn’t like you, huh?”
“No, he does not,” he said, shaking his head. “I asked him if I could keep him company while he worked in the shop, and he shut the door in my face. Actually, he shut the door on my face.”
“But he likes everybody. Even Mo.”
“Well, apparently, he draws the line at humans who are ‘sniffin’ after’ his granddaughter,” Nick said, in a spot-on impersonation of Pops. “His exact words.”
I laughed weakly. “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Says the person who didn’t have a door shut on her face.”
Karma Is One Organized Wench
I GOT MY FIRST GLIMPSE of Nick’s spider-monkey powers about a week later, when I found him gallivanting through the freaking treetops without so much as a harness, clinging to the branches by the goodwill of gravity.
I thought I was imagining that flash of red jacket a good thirty feet off the ground from a distance, a sort of signal flare against the patches of white and green. Pops had told me that Nick and Samson were headed in this direction with a bunch of Nick’s hightech gear earlier in the day. While he didn’t seem thrilled to see Nick in the valley again, he seemed to approve of whatever Nick was planning to do . . . which he said I would have to see for myself.
I hadn’t been able to see much of Nick or Samson lately. I spent every spare minute patrolling the perimeters, since I couldn’t explain why my packmates would suddenly need to step up patrols. I did ask Clay to join me most of the time, mostly to see if he would try to come after me while we were alone. He was fun and easy to talk to, and he did not, in fact, try to kill me. I like that in a man. And since he didn’t try to murder me, I let him take me to that bomb-squad movie. A box of Sour Patch Kids and a few interesting pecks on the lips had the aunts scheduling a spring wedding for us.
Despite Nick hinting, nudging, and downright pleading, I’d yet to tell anyone about the “bagging” incident. I occasionally woke up from nightmares, clawing at the nonexistent bag over my face, but I hadn’t told anyone about that, either.
Instead, I was devoting a lot of energy to ensuring the pack’s safety. I checked the brakes on every vehicle in the valley. Hell, I checked the village’s cistern to make sure there was no tampering with the water supply. But nothing. Every once in a while, one of us would catch the scent of a strange wolf near the border of our territory but never close to any of the buildings. And I never caught another whiff of fabric softener outside the laundry room.
Every day that passed without incident put me more on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And now I was waiting for my favorite paranormal investigator to drop.
I thought that surely someone with multiple graduate degrees would know not to put that much distance between himself and terra firma. Particularly when the wind chill was somewhere near “guaranteed frostbite” and the branches were slick with snow and ice. But as I drew closer, I found him propped against an alarmingly thin pine branch, wiring a black plastic box against an even less stable-looking branch at least three stories up. My idiot cousin was napping in a little burrow he’d hollowed out in the snow at the tree’s base.
Nick had a black cannonball-shaped helmet on and weird metal cleats clamped over his boots. They seemed to be shoved into the bark of the tree, giving him a toehold. But the idea that a flimsy piece of metal was the only thing holding him up there was making my stomach pitch to my knees.
“Nicholas Thatcher, what in the hell do you think you’re doing up there?”
He chuckled. “I’m almost done, Mags. I’ll be down in a minute.”
“That doesn’t answer the question!” I yelled, finally waking Samson.
“What’s going on?” Samson mumbled.
“Some spotter you are,” I grumbled, kicking at Samson’s shins. Samson made a halfhearted attempt at an obscene gesture and seemed to be considering continuing his nap.
“Look out below!” Nick yelled, depositing his tool belt near my feet. He yanked his cleats out of the bark and turned, facing the tree trunk. He dropped suddenly, and I let out a scream, before realizing that he was just hopping down to the next branch. He carefully and methodically chose each movement, mapping a route toward the ground. In my head, his descent was on fast-forward, and every branch looked as if it was ready to snap. Frankly, I was ready to snap.
“Hi!” Nick’s cheeks were flushed pink with excitement and the cold wind. He looked so happy and sweet . . . and the moment his feet touched the ground, I smacked his shoulders until my hands hurt.
“What in the hell were you thinking, Nick Thatcher?” I growled as he dodged my fists of fury. “Are you trying to kill yourself ?”
“Suddenly, I’m glad I have the helmet on.” He grunted as he put his hand on my forehead and held me a safe swinging distance away. Samson snickered and scratched his belly, stretching his arms lazily over his head. “Maggie, stop!”
“Total overreaction, Midget,” Samson told me. “I watched him like a hawk the whole time.”
“You watched your eyelids the whole time,” I shot back as Nick rifled through the duffel bag at the base of the tree. “And you, I count on you to be the adult in this weird-ass buddy comedy, Nick! How could you trust your ‘not dying in a plummet from a tree’ to Samson? What were you even doing up there?”
“This,” Nick said, clicking a little black remote that looked like a garage-door opener. A little red light on the remote switched on . . . and I was left considerably unimpressed. Then Nick brought out a little portable TV and showed me a video feed that focused on my mother’s front door. He toggled a switch on the TV, and the screen showed the front of my office, then the school, the north perimeter, the east and south boundaries of the packlands.
“This one will show the western view of the valley,” he said, pointing up at what I now realized was a security camera. He pulled out a map of the valley, with orange circles marking where he’d placed the cameras. “They’re on full power right now, but I’m switching them over to thermal-sensor mode. They’ll only pick up a feed when a warm body passes. So we don’t end up with two hours’ worth of windy tree-branch footage.”
“Unless it was a tree branch that cut the brakes on your truck,” Samson said, tenting his fingers and arching his brow at the wavering tree limbs supervil-lain-style.
Nick chuckled. “I can’t cover the whole valley. And it might take a few weeks to work out all of the kinks, but I thought it could help, right?”
Suddenly, I felt really bad about hitting him.
“Someone owes someone an apology,” Samson sang under his breath.
“I do. I’m sorry,” I said. Nick beamed at me. “This is great.”
“I think I hear Mom calling me!” Samson announced, scrambling to his feet.
“Did that seem sort of abrupt to you?” Nick asked, staring after Samson as he ran toward home.
Without Samson there as a buffer, Nick suddenly seemed too close. What little emotional space I’d been able to put between us had sort of been shredded by the whole naked-assault-victim vulnerability thing. I stepped away and took the portable monitor. “So, show me how to work this.”
Nick was in full professor mode, taking fifteen minutes to explain how the little monitor could bounce among the various feeds and wirelessly upload clips to my office computer. I thought I was going to have to start fanning my face to keep from bursting into flames. Curse his sexy brains!
Using the toggle thing, he scanned past the signal coming from my mom’s front door and did a cartoonish double-take. “What the?”
Nick squinted at the screen, aghast at the image of what appeared to be a dozen or so of my male cousins, lined up in front of my house with their pants around their ankles and their bare asses aimed directly at the camera. There were enough full moons to orbit Jupiter.
“You really shouldn’t have shown Samson where the cameras are,” I muttered.
“How did he organize that so quickly?” Nick asked, nodding toward Samson’s naked rear at the end of the butt-cheek chorus line.
“Well, when properly motivated, Samson can do just about anything. We’re fortunate that his main interests are food and pranks.”
“I mean, I can see grabbing one or two guys, but so many? He could take over the world,” Nick marveled.
I snorted. “As long as the world’s governments could be cowed into submission by a bottomless army, yes.”
He shuddered. “Well, there’s an image that will never leave my head. Thanks for that.”
“I do what I can.”
FULL-BLOWN WINTER CLOSED in on the valley like a fist. The temperatures dive-bombed below freezing, putting us all in instinctual panic mode. And even though we spent the better part of the year preparing our houses, putting up food, winterizing our vehicles, I still ended up scrambling around, helping my aunt Doris patch a weak spot on her roof, helping Samson with last-minute runs to the bulk warehouse store in Burney for toilet paper and batteries. Clay and I took a day trip to a big pharmacy in Burney, where we could stock up on Billie’s meds. When the snow blew in and covered the valley in a fluffy white blanket and I finally had a chance to stop and breathe, I sort of collapsed and slept for two days.
Weeks passed, the holidays came and went, and even with the relative quiet, I was scared to relax into the season, to give myself downtime. I used pack morale as an excuse. Werewolves tend to get sort of restless when we’re boxed in. Little disagreements over a poker game or the last buffalo wing can turn into full-on duels to the death if you’re not careful. So, I spent a good portion of my day sending my family members on random errands, finding some weird chores that needed to be done, or sending them on extra patrols around the perimeter. I organized checkers tournaments, darning bees, Scrabble nights. I basically became the pack’s cruise director.
The pathways between Grundy and the valley were kept warm. Mom worried too much for Mo to drive the baby from Grundy, so she phased every few days so she could run over and visit Eva. Neither snow nor sleet nor an act of God would keep my mother from snuggling that fuzzy-headed baby.
Eva seemed to be on some sort of mission to work her evil/cute baby magic on me. Ever since she’d started toddling around on those chubby little legs, she’d been targeting me, the least enthusiastic baby person in the room. I think she enjoyed the challenge, which proved that we were related.