“Baby sister, when your wife looks like that”—he pointed toward Mo’s kitchen ballet—“and cooks like this”—he scooped up some homemade chips and popped them into his mouth—“being whipped isn’t so bad.”
“I take it Mo told you about Dr. Thatcher?”
My fragile good mood dissipated like the steam from Mo’s buttermilk biscuits. “This guy is trouble, Coop. He’s already come to the conclusion that we exist. Now he’s just trying to confirm his theories on ‘pack structure’ and ‘mating rituals’ for some ‘groundbreaking’ book he’s working on. Just the fact that he actually used the words ‘mating rituals’ makes me want to punch him in the mouth.”
“That’s your solution to just about everything,” Cooper noted dryly.
“And so far, it’s worked out for me.” I snorted, snatching a few of the chips off Cooper’s plate. I chewed them while I surveyed the room. “He’s probably some forty-something virgin who lives in his mother’s basement and touches himself while watching The Howling.”
“Look, Mags, I’m not any happier about him being here than you are. But I think we should take a more subtle approach than your usual ‘bite first, bite again, keep biting until they’re too busy bleeding to death to explain themselves’ method.”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I shot back. “So, where is this loser?”
I scanned the dining room, stopping on a plaid-clad form hunched over a notebook at his table. My mouth stopped mid-chew. Helloooo, yummy goodness. He looked like those old pictures of Vikings you’d see in history textbooks. Wheat-colored hair that was just a little too long. A white-blond goatee dusted around a mouth that was curved into a smile. Blue eyes so bright I could spot the little lapis-colored ring around the iris from across the room. I could practically hear the freaking ocean when I looked at them. Strong chin, lantern jaw, high cheekbones. Lips that were currently being gnawed on as he scribbled in his notebook.
And when he slid those little wire-rim glasses on his nose, I started drooling. Saliva was literally leaking out of the side of my mouth.
“Mama likes,” I whimpered as Mo approached behind the bar. I growled softly as the resident bar wench, Lynette, sidled up to his table and started flirting. She giggled and tossed her hair. She was practically scrawling “Do me” on her boobs in maple syrup. “Who is that, and how much will I have to threaten Lynette to keep her skanky ass the hell away from him?”
Mo grinned at me. A series of little mental tumblers clicked into place in my head.
“That’s the loser, isn’t it?” I groaned, to Mo’s delight.
“Pay up!” she crowed at my brother, who begrudgingly handed her a dollar bill. She smiled winsomely at me as she stuffed the bill into her stained blue apron. “I bet Cooper a buck that you’d pick him out of the crowd as soon as you saw him. You Grahams have a thing for outsiders. We are the forbidden fruit you just can’t wait to get a bite of. Face it, accept the outsider hotness, and move on.”
A couple of locals watched with bemused interest as Mo did a little victory shimmy behind the bar. Cooper’s hands rushed to cup Eva’s ears again as I narrowed my eyes at his wife. “That was low, Mo. I thought this guy made you nervous.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t find the entertainment value in all this,” she said, shrugging. “What? We don’t have HBO.”
Cooper grumpily shoved a fry into his mouth. “You owe me a buck, Mags. He’s not the type of guy I thought you’d be interested in. Too pretty.”
I snorted as Mo slid a cheeseburger plate in front of me, extra pickles, no tomato, double onion rings. These were the moments that made up for my sister-in-law being an occasional pain in my ass. “So, who exactly do you think is my type?”
Cooper pursed his lips for a moment as I devoured the burger. “What do they call those guys who fight in the octagon?”
I slapped at his arm, choking a little on Mo’s ambrosial half-pounder with cheese. Cooper was about to protest when Lynette streaked past us in a huff, pulling the shoulders of her artfully shredded Bon Jovi T-shirt back up over her sparkly purple bra straps. I shot a look back over to Dr. Thatcher’s booth, where he was casually thumbing through some battle-scarred book, blatantly ignoring the tray-tossing hissy fit Lynette was throwing in the kitchen. Dr. Thatcher was apparently immune to her cleavage-y charms.
For a brief, horrible moment, I wondered whether he was gay and mourned the potential loss. Not just for me but for all womankind. This led to thoughts of Dr. Thatcher naked and sweaty, and I started feeling uncomfortably warm in certain places.
“Still want to murder the good doctor Goodfellas-style?” Mo asked, smirking at me.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I growled.
“Just that you’re not looking at Dr. Thatcher with bloodlust right now . . . ”
“Oh, I’m supposed to just overlook that he’s trying to expose my entire species because he’s got a pretty face?” I said quietly. “That’s sexist. As a matter of fact, the idea that he’s trying to exploit innocent furred people instead of modeling for underwear ads—the way God obviously intended—is reason enough to kill him. “
“OK, calm down, crazy eyes,” Mo told me. “Here’s the deal. He’s been asking questions about Jacob Bennett and Craig Ryan. About Susie Q and Abner, anyone who suffered mysterious bite wounds last year. I think he’s trying to play it off as just general interest, like every yahoo who’s seen the news reports about the attacks. I don’t know what to make of him, Maggie. It’s not that I think he has bad intentions. In fact, I find myself sort of liking him and feeling sorry for him because I know what it’s like to be the new guy around here. But he seems to be the type who’s smart enough to bring this whole ‘fur issue’ crashing down on our heads. Frankly, I’m surprised you guys have pulled it off for this long.”
“So, what do you want me to do now that I’ve seen him?” I asked. “Since I’m not allowed to run him out of town on a rail, I feel as if my hands are tied.”
“You had an actual rail ready, didn’t you?” Mo asked.
I didn’t respond.
“I’m checking your truck later,” Mo muttered under her breath.
Cooper shrugged. “I thought it would be helpful for you to talk to him. To get an idea of what he’s looking for. And maybe feed him a little misinformation.”
“You could do all that,” I pointed out.
He grinned. “I’m not the alpha, oh great leader. We both know if I started doing your job for you, I’d wake up missing parts.”
“Parts that I hold in high esteem,” Mo added, wandering down the bar to take an order.
“Is that where she holds them?” I asked, snickering. Cooper growled at me. “Fine, I’ll play nice, for now.”
I turned to hop off my bar stool, and there he was, standing in front of me in all his plaid-clad glory.
This close, I could appreciate Dr. Thatcher all the better. He was pretty. The beard almost camouflaged the generous curve of his lips. It drew the eye away from the fine, straight nose. Maybe that was the point. You could catch a lot of crap in this kind of place, being a pretty boy. And from what my cousin Caleb told me, you could get some unwanted attention from truckers at rest stops.
Still, he was tall and broad-shouldered and moved with a sort of competence. And Geek Squad was hiding some serious muscles under that Simpsons T-shirt and flannel. I started having some weird waking-dream hallucination in which I pictured him busting into the saloon like Aragorn entering the royal halls of Rohan in Lord of the Rings. As the Dr. Thatcher-Aragorn hybrid made his away across the floor in full armor, I stared up at him with saucer eyes and a mouth full of drool but no words. All I could manage in the scope of this guy’s little grin was an incredibly un-wolf-like squeak.
This was a first for me. I didn’t have trouble talking to guys. Hell, Samson and Cooper named me an “honorary dude” when we were kids, to save their pride after losing so many foot races to their baby sister. But I was used to relating to guys on that familiar, buddy-buddy level. The Grahams are related to almost every family in our little valley. It’s difficult to find a potential date who doesn’t cross some creepy genetic boundaries.
And this was the point where I realized that I was having my own personal mental vacation, staring blankly at a complete stranger.
“Dr. Thatcher, this is my sister-in-law, Maggie,” Mo said, filling the awkward silence.
“I’m Nick Thatcher,” he said, stretching out his hand.
I froze. Cooper watched me, his brow furrowed. Normally, he would be afraid that I would punch Nick. At the moment, I think he was afraid I was going to throw up on Nick.
Nick reached forward, grabbed my motionless hand, and shook it. As he moved closer, his scent hit me full force, and I had to put a hand on the bar to steady myself. New leaves. Thanksgiving dinner. A smoky note of moss. I narrowed my eyes at him. I recognized that smell.
The hiker. Dr. The Truth Is Out There had been wandering in my backyard.
“I know who you are,” I said, looking up to find those seawater eyes of his pinning me to the floor. He was staring me down. Nobody stared me down! Eye contact is a serious no-no with predators. In the animal kingdom, it basically says, “I’m not afraid of you. I plan on taking your food and your dignity, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”
I found it was a lot easier to be annoyed by that than hypnotized by his evil baby blues. I ratcheted my chin up a few degrees. “What brings you to our neck of the woods, Dr. Thatcher?”
He smiled. “Just a little research trip. I think I disappointed some of the locals, though. They heard ‘doctor’ and thought a new MD had come to town.”
I entertained myself with the image of the locals showing up at Dr. Thatcher’s door, requesting help for hemorrhoids and plantar warts.
“Well, we don’t get a lot of academics up here.” I tilted my head and smiled back, a hundred percent guile-free. “In fact, how did you hear about Grundy? Was there an ad or a brochure that caught your attention?”
The doctor was an equally skilled bullshitter, which earned him a little bit of my grudging respect. There was no trace of hesitation as he said, “Something like that.”
He smirked. And I wanted to lick his chin. I actually had to keep my jaw tense to fight the urge. Sensing the weird energy that seemed to be swirling around my body, Cooper’s eyebrow winged up to his hairline. Mo leaned against the counter, her head whipping back and forth as if she was watching some sort of dirty tennis game.
“So, Maggie, do you live nearby?” The question seemed loaded, just by the tone Nick was using. I stared at him, trying to decipher the slight tilt to his head. A good hunter excels at interpreting body language, whether it’s an elk preparing to bolt or a guy sneaking peeks at your ass. Dr. Thatcher already knew where I lived. I could only assume he had asked me that because he wanted to talk about the valley.
“Not too far,” I said blithely.
“I was thinking Maggie might be able to show you around the area, Nick.”
My facade dropped for a second, and I shot my brother a meaningful look, the meaning being “shut the hell up.”
Cooper didn’t even blink, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. “Well, Nick heard I was a field guide, asked me to take him on some of the tougher trails around here. But I really don’t have time in my schedule. And since you’re the only one who knows the area almost as well I do . . .”
“That won’t be possible,” I said, my voice flat. “I’ve gotta work.”