“You know exactly why not!” Nick was in a shirt and tie, complete with a tweed jacket, pacing back and forth with the cell phone clutched against his face. He noticed me standing there and froze as the person on the other end of the line seemed to be whining at him. He gave me an embarrassed shake of the head and then shouted, “I don’t care! I don’t care if you end up ‘evicted,’ which we both know is code for ‘dealer is going to beat me up.’ I don’t owe you a fucking dime. If we’re going into debts, let’s talk about the money Dad sent over and over to help you ‘move home’ that never seemed to get your ass on the bus. Or how about the shit you took from my apartment when you just had to sleep on my couch for a week? Trust me, I’ve paid back whatever you spent on my miserable childhood twice over.”

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With my supersensitive hearing, I could hear the tenor of the caller’s voice change from helpless sobs to a vicious stream of curses.

“You know what, go ahead and call the press. Tell your fake fucking sob story to whoever will listen. I don’t give a shit. Hell, people will probably feel sorry for me. Game subscriptions will go up by the thousands.”

He clipped the phone shut and roared, tossing it across the room, where it bounced off a steer skull and landed on the counter with a clatter.

“You’re right, it was a bad phone,” I said, lifting an eyebrow. “Look at it, lying there, all superior. The phone had it coming.”

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He swooped in on me, claiming my mouth with a ferocity that took my breath. “Your family,” he said, his hands trembling at my cheeks. “Do you know how lucky you are to have that?”

I nodded. “Yes. Now, what’s wrong?”

“My mother.” He sat down and sighed, his head slumping forward. I straddled his lap, pushing his hair out of his face. “Same old song and dance. She’s living in Nashville. When she’s sober, she wants to be the next big country star. She’s behind on her rent. She just needs a measly thousand to make it until the end of the month. Doesn’t see why I’m being so unreasonable and stingy when I have so much. She had to chase her dreams, and she did me a favor, leaving me with my dad. She couldn’t help it if he turned out to be a drunk. And she did send me a birthday card that once. And she would hate to have to resort to selling her story of an impoverished mother of a gaming magnate to survive. To tell about how she bought me my first computer secondhand at a yard sale, sob sob. I don’t even write the code for the damn game. But she doesn’t realize that. She doesn’t take enough of an interest in what I did, just how much money I made.”

I couldn’t fathom that. Until Eli’s betrayal, I’d never experienced family members turning on each other. It was a foreign concept to want to suck resources away from a pack member. Of course, in the pack, if you needed money, it was practically in your pocket before you could even ask. We took care of our own. And if some people tended to mooch more than others, we just accepted it as part of their personality and teased them about it.

I stroked my hand down his cheek. And he looked up at me with his baby blues, begging for some sort of acceptance, comfort. I kissed his forehead. “Don’t worry about her. People like that, you can’t make them go away by giving them what they want. They’ll only come back for more,” I told him. “Besides, you don’t need her. You have a new family. We’re not exactly normal, but once you’re ours, you’re ours for life.”

I tipped my forehead so it was touching his. “I love you,” he said in a voice that had my heart breaking.

I covered it by stroking his arms, gently rotating my hips over his. “I love you.”

“And it’s very naughty of you to dress this way right before you leave town,” I purred as his pulse quickened and his breath grew ragged. His hands slipped under my shirt and traced frantic little patterns on my back. “You did this on purpose to provoke me,” I murmured against his mouth as I unzipped his pants, sliding my hand under his waistband and wrapping my fingers around his hard, hot length. “This is like the nerd version of answering the door in Saran Wrap.”

He gently eased me back onto the couch, settling his weight over me as I pushed his jacket from his shoulders. “I’ve been thinking—”

“I love it when you’re thinking.”

“I know you don’t want to have a baby right away. And I’m fine with that. I don’t think we should stop using birth control anytime soon. But we can, say, lessen our chances by participating in activities that aren’t as chancy but just as satisfying.”

I laughed as he eased out of his jeans and kicked them off. “Why do I have the feeling that you have charts showing the fertilization risks of various sex acts hidden behind the couch?”

“I’m just saying we should test a few theories,” he said, rolling off the couch and settling in front of me on the floor, stroking his fingers along my instep.

I raised my eyebrows.

“Well, I mean, touching you with my hands doesn’t count as sex, so there’s no danger there,” he said. He wiggled his eyebrows, ghosting his fingertips along my shoulder, up my chin, and over my lips. “It doesn’t count as sex.”

“So we’re going with Clinton’s rules?” I asked, just before catching his thumb with the edge of my blunt front teeth and biting down gently. He trailed his fingertips between my breasts, over my belly, and through the wisps of dark hair between my legs. He traced the outlines of my sex, dipping the very tip of his finger just inside me, barely brushing his thumb across my clit. My head thumped back against the table behind the couch as my hips shot up off the couch.

“That’s so mean,” I moaned.

Chuckling, he kissed across my hips, biting gently on the little bumps of my hipbones, before nibbling his way down my thighs, to my knees.

“There’s no danger in kissing you,” he said, running his lips along the little bone in my ankle, brushing them lightly over my shin, tickling my knee with his beard. He grinned at me, balancing his chin on my kneecap. “No matter where I do it.”

“Hmm.” I arched my eyebrow skeptically.

“No, really,” he insisted, kissing my kneecap again and pushing me back against the cushions. He spread my thighs, settling between them. He pressed soft, hot little kisses along the smooth skin, his beard leaving a little ticklish trail in its wake.

“Even if I kissed you, say, here.” He kissed the juncture of my leg and thigh, nibbling the sensitive skin that stretched as I held this weird yoga pose. “Technically, that’s not sex.”

His breath puffed hot and moist over me, and I bucked up toward his mouth. Seriously, he wasn’t going to . . . yes, he was.

He smirked up at me and slid his tongue from the very lowest point to the top, dipping and twirling his tongue across my clit. My head dropped back, thwacking against the table behind the couch. I knew I should be seeing stars, but I didn’t care. All that mattered were the shapes he was drawing against me with the tip of his tongue. As soon as I thought I found the pattern, I lost it to the spiraling pressure coiling in my belly like a snake.

I closed my eyes and melted into him. Hearing those words and feeling his teeth pinch lightly over my clit sent me reeling right over the edge into a dark tunnel of screaming, pulsing sensation. My eyelids snapped shut as I howled out my release and fell into soft, sweet oblivion.

I felt Nick slide up onto the couch and pull me against him. I pressed my face into his chest and hummed happily. “You’re wrong, that was dangerous. I think I’ve gone blind. Which is too bad, because I was planning on reciprocating.” Nick gently nudged my eyelids with his fingertips. I popped them open. “Oh, there we go.”

“I’m a problem solver,” he said as I kissed my way down his chest. I stopped, my ears perking at a soft noise outside. I cocked my head toward the door. “Hey, is your door unlock—”

Cooper stuck his head in through the front door and called, “Hey, Nick, you ready to go?”

His jaw dropped at the sight of me lying at eye level with Nick’s navel, both of us buck naked. He clapped his hand over his eyes.

“Ack!”

“Cooper!” I yelled.

“Sorry!” he exclaimed, stumbling into the door frame and smacking his head into the wall. “So sorry! I’m just going to go . . . gouge out my eyes now.”

“I forgot he was coming over,” Nick groaned as Cooper turned a corner and continued whacking his forehead against the wall. “You were naked, and I lost track of time.”

“Why is he here?”

“The whole leaving early thing was sort of a smokescreen. I’ve been talking to Cooper whenever I go into the saloon. He was worried about you not having a truck. And since I sort of played a role in its destruction, I wanted to help you replace it. We were going to go look at dealerships in Burney before I drove up to Anchorage. Surprise . . .” he finished weakly.

“You were going to buy me a truck, just like that?” I asked, my heart doing that weird fluttering thing again. “And you were wearing your professor duds to cover your trail?”

“No, I wanted to look respectable at the dealership,” Nick said, all defeated and puppylike. “I was going to make it look like Cooper found some older model for a song.”

“Aw!” I rose on the balls of my feet and kissed the tip of his nose. “That’s incredibly sweet but unnecessary. I have money of my own saved up. It’s not like I pay Mom rent or anything. And Clay thinks he might be able to save my old truck.”

“I hate to be the one to break up this little love fest, but could you two go put on some clothes, please?” Cooper demanded.

I rolled my eyes. Nick threw me some sweats and a T-shirt.

Cooper finally uncovered his eyes. “Look, I like you, Nick. I’ve seen the way you are with my sister, and I approve. The love of my life is a human and an outsider . . . and an incredible smart-ass. So, who the hell am I to judge who Maggie chooses? And considering the fresh bite I see on your neck, I know you’re mated and not doing anything wrong. But right now, I’m trying to control my brotherly instincts to kill you . . . just give me a minute, OK?”

“Yep,” Nick said, wisely stepping away from my brother and bracing himself behind the breakfast bar.

“So, um, Mags, would you mind telling me why you’re here at this hour? Without going into specifics, please?”

“Nick and I are putting on a puppet show, Coop,” I responded dryly.

“Please, Lord, don’t let that be a position I haven’t heard of,” Cooper said, shuddering.

13

Damn You, Milton Bradley

NICK HAD TO LEAVE for his lecture, though I managed to talk him out of the truck purchase so we could spend the extra day . . . um, talking. Cooper was happy to leave us alone before we could start another conversation.

And because my brother is basically a gossiping old woman, nobody was surprised when I returned to the valley and announced that Nick and I were mated. In fact, the aunties had already arranged a potluck supper in our honor when Nick returned a week later, which was a little embarrassing. Nothing says family closeness like a “Congratulations on Doing It” dinner.

I can’t say every member of the pack was thrilled with my choice. An aunt or two sniffed at another Graham taking a chance with the family wolf genes. And a few of my cousins took bets on how long it would last before Nick’s body turned up in a gulley somewhere, which was sort of mean.

Pops’s contribution was to shake Nick’s hand, level him with that inscrutable gaze, and say, “You’re not good enough for her.”

It was times like this that I wished I wasn’t Pops’s favorite granddaughter. But Nick, who was managing not to fold like a cheap card table under Pops’s unrelenting grip, simply smiled and said, “I know that, sir, but no one is.”

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