Eva would tug on my pants leg until I picked her up. And then she’d basically stare me down with those big blue-gray eyes of hers, daring me not to snuggle her. It was like facing down a tiny, diapered mastermind.
And of course, I caved. I snuggled her. I babbled. I read her Where the Wild Things Are until I was hoarse. I actually found myself watching my language. Shudder.
Every once in a while, I’d bury my face in the talcum-powder-scented fluff on her head and have a little “maybe I am ready for a baby” twinge. And then I would slap myself. Because my smart-ass karma combined with my genes might create some sort of evil superbaby. I just wasn’t ready. Imagine baby-proofing for that.
Being around Nick so much wasn’t exactly helping my hormone surges. He’d bought a snowmobile, so he could visit every other day. He’d stopped the interviews, but he still liked hanging out with Samson and Pops, whom he was determined to win over. I wasn’t sure what he was doing with his research, but Nick told me he was working on something that wouldn’t result in me kicking his ass, so I was happy.
Mom was already a fan, but he met some resistance from some very unfriendly uncles. But I think that was more traditional “we don’t want you sullying our little girl” hazing than anything else. Clay usually made some excuse to get out of their card games, but I think that was mostly because of the “I want your woman” vibe Nick was still giving off.
Nick stayed in Samson’s guest room most nights, which had me worried. Samson seemed to think of him as some sort of human chew toy. For instance, just the other night, I’d come home to find Samson in my mother’s living room, holding Nick upside-down in some half-nelson wrestling hold.
“Hey, Midget, Nick won’t tell me whether he has sisters. I figure, he’s pretty, he would have to have pretty sisters.”
“You’re a sick man, Samson,” Nick said, his face reddened by the sudden flow of blood to his head.
“But you laughed, so what does that make you?”
Nick deadpanned, “Humoring you.”
“Samson, put him down!” I cried.
“But he’s so light and portable,” he said, jiggling a bemused Nick.
“When you wonder why we don’t introduce humans to our pack’s secrets, this is why,” I told Nick.
Samson jostled Nick again to get his attention. “OK, Dr. Werewolf Whisperer, you told me you could get out this. Now, the rules are: One, no punching me in the junk. And two, see rule one. Let’s go.”
“This is not healthy.” I sighed, shaking my head. “Even for werewolves, this is messed up.”
Nick grinned at me, bent at his waist, and did some weird finger-strike thing against the back of Samson’s kneecaps. Samson yowled and dropped to his knees, bringing Nick’s head precariously close to the floor. Nick stopped short of cracking his skull by catching himself with his hands. He sprang to his feet and put Samson in a headlock.
I think Samson was more shocked than strong-armed.
“Never fuck with a guy who worships at the altar of Vulcan martial arts,” Nick told my cousin as he administered a merciless noogie.
“Seriously, you Vulcan-nerve-pinched him?” I barely suppressed the grin that threatened to split my cheeks.
“Awesome!” Samson exclaimed, shaking Nick off like a troublesome Pomeranian. Nick was flung ass-over-teakettle onto the couch. “You’ll have to show me how to do that sometime,” Samson said before he wandered into the kitchen looking for food.
Nick hopped up from the couch. He was warm and slightly sweaty. I could feel the happy thrum of his heartbeat under his skin. I cleared my throat and stepped back from him before I did anything drastic. “You in one piece?”
“It’s kind of fun. I never had a big brother growing up. I always wanted to be hung upside-down by my ankles.”
“I worry about you,” I told him.
“Guess who’s been invited to guest-lecture at University of Alaska’s Anchorage campus?” he asked, grinning.
“Mo?” I suggested. “They have a great culinary department there.”
He frowned. “Me. They’ve asked me to lecture on shape-shifting creatures and their prevalence in northwestern American tribal culture.”
“In academic terms, I’m pretty sure that was supposed to get me all hot and bothered.”
He grinned and wiggled his eyebrows. “Well, I want you to come with me. We can snowmobile as far as the highway and then drive in. We can go to a movie or some of the bookstores. There’s a restaurant I wanted to try. I just think it would be sort of cool to get you all to myself for a little while.” Then he added hastily, “As a friend. We can spend time together without things getting all naked and confusing.”
“When have we ever been able to spend time together without one of us getting naked or confused?” I asked.
“There’s always hope, Maggie.”
It sounded awesome. Seeing Nick in his element. Going somewhere where I wasn’t known, so I could relax a little. Soft hotel sheets and a certain bespectacled hottie . . . enjoyed separately, of course. And I was on the verge of saying “Yes, yes, take me now, yes,” when “I can’t” came out of my mouth instead.
“I’d like to, but I can’t leave right now. I know nothing has happened in a while, but I don’t think it’s OK for the alpha to go waltzing off on what will be seen as a sexy weekend with someone who is not her boyfriend, when there are maddeningly vague threats on the horizon.”
He groaned. “Why’d you have to say ‘sexy weekend’? I was going to be all noble and selfless and understanding until you said ‘sexy weekend.’ “
I snickered at him.
He sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. You have to take care of your responsibilities. I respect that. I just got excited about it, that’s all.”
“And I want to go. I just wouldn’t feel right about it,” I said. “Maybe Samson would go with you.”
He nodded, sort of glum, and pushed my hair behind my ears. Samson yelled at him from the next room, threatening to kick his ass at Halo. “Big Brother is waiting for you,” I told him.
“You think I could get him to go after some kids from my high school?” Nick asked as he led me to video-game Valhalla. “I wasn’t bullied, really, but I’d just like to see the looks on some of the obnoxious jocks’ faces when a ten-foot-tall werewolf came barreling at them.”
“You’ve got some unresolved issues, don’t you, Nick?”
I tried not to mope in general, but the days leading up to Nick’s departure were a little gloomy. Even Clay noticed that something was a little off with me, suggesting that we sneak away to try to find the parts to salvage my old truck. I agreed and tried to force myself into a brighter frame of mind. No one likes a sulky alpha wolf. I’d chosen this job. I’d campaigned for it. I wasn’t going to get all whiny now that there were certain sacrifices involved, such as not getting to go on a road trip with my cute “platonic” friend.
It wasn’t even the distance or losing a few days with Nick. I just hated the idea that I was going to miss something important to him. I mean, friends cared about that sort of thing, right?
I think I’d scared him with my drive-time estimations, because he was leaving a few days before his lecture. The day before he was due to leave, I got a little anxious. What if he didn’t come back? What if he got into an accident on the long drive? What if he met someone in Anchorage who didn’t scoff at Doctor Who or occasionally leave him with bite wounds?
And so I was piling through the waist-deep snow on four paws.
“Hello?” I called as I came through the kitchen door. I shrugged into an oversized flannel shirt he kept hanging by the door.
“I’m still packing!” he called from his room. “There’s sodas and sandwich stuff in the fridge. Help yourself.”
“OK!” On my way past his kitchen table, my elbow caught on a stack of books and knocked them onto Nick’s open laptop. I chuckled at his screensaver, a picture of evil bearded Kirk and Spock, smirking at each other. I bumped the keyboard as I was gathering them up, and a Word document popped up on the screen.
It was a title page for something called “The Werewolves of Crescent Valley.” I arched an eyebrow and sat at the table with a thump. The document was more than a hundred pages long, and it wasn’t just notes. Nick was writing a freaking book about us! There were pages and pages about our origins, our social structure, how the pack broke tradition by installing me as alpha.
Hurt, hot and acidic, burned through my chest. He’d promised. He’d promised me that he understood, that he couldn’t tell anyone about us. And here he was writing a frigging book? Who had he shown this to? Did he plan to publish it? The whole damn thing was dedicated to me, by the way. “To Maggie, without whom this wouldn’t be possible.”
Unfortunately for Nick, I read that just as he came through the kitchen door. And he was met by a very large book thrown at his head. “What the hell is this?” I yelled.
He ducked and, with impressive speed, dodged several flying objects as he crossed the room and grabbed my arms.
“I trusted you!” I yelled, fighting my way out of his grasp and slapping his chest. “What the hell were you planning on doing with this?”
“What is wrong with you?”
“Your book, you asshole! The freaking book that meant more to you than keeping your word to me.”
“What—the only thing I’m writing now is a history of your pack.”
“Are we not having the same conversation?” I growled. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
“I’m writing that for your grandfather.”
“I’m putting a book together for Pops. I was going to bind it myself, so no one would even see it. I was hoping it would, you know, soften Pops toward me. And if he hated me a little less, you might stop fighting me so hard on the ‘being crazy in love with you’ thing.”
“What?” I huffed out a breath.
Nick’s cheeks flushed. “I haven’t told anyone about you. I’ve barely been in contact with the outside world since I got up here. If you don’t believe me, you can check my e-mail accounts, my phone records, anything you want. Your family, they were exactly what I was hoping for, Maggie. Yeah, you’re the academic find of a lifetime. You could make my career, after I proved to the world that I wasn’t nuts. But your family, for the most part, has been kinder to me than the people who raised me. I can’t expose them. I can’t put them in harm’s way. You don’t do that to people who have been good to you.”
“Then why do this?”
“I don’t have a lot of measurable skills, as far as your grandfather’s concerned. I figured this would be the one thing I could do for him that no one else could. I wanted to show him that I’m serious about you. I wanted to show you how much I love you. And I do love you,” he said. “Even if you don’t know whether you love me yet. I don’t care whether you’re human or a werewolf or a yeti, I love you.”
The overwhelming rush of warmth and love through my chest nearly knocked me to my knees. That was it. I had this strange moment of crystal clarity in which I knew I loved him right back. Everything outside our circle of two was sort of blurry and inconsequential. I’d never be happy without him. I’d never want anyone else. My hands slipped up to his chest to steady myself as I spluttered, “W-well, that’s just—”
I grabbed his lapels and crushed my mouth to his. He hummed against my lips, slipping his hands into my hair and pulling me closer. I pushed him toward the bedroom door. He turned his head, seeing where I was heading, and raised his eyebrows.