Pops sniffed and sauntered toward the beer weenies. I gave Nick a wink to let him know he’d handled that very well.

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And at the end of the night, as much as it pained me, Nick went to sleep at Samson’s house. Because as evolved and open as my family was, the idea of having sex under my mother’s roof really creeped me out. It was bad enough having the first “post-game” conversation with my mom. After I made the mating announcement, she took me aside and asked me if I “wanted to talk about it.”

I sprang up from my chair, suddenly very keen to know whether the top drawer of my filing cabinet was locked. “God, no!”

Mom seemed perplexed. “I don’t know why not. It’s nothing to be afraid of. My first time with your father was fantastic.”

“Mom, I don’t want to hear about your honeymoon hijinks, OK?”

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“Oh, honey, it wasn’t on our wedding night. We took care of that a long time before we got married.”

“Ohmygod!” I howled. “Why would you tell me that?”

“Well, we were already mated. Your dad had claimed me. Why wait until the wedding when we wanted to have kids right away? Honey, what are you doing?” she said as I rifled through my desk drawers.

“Looking for something to gouge out my eardrums.”

It was obvious that Nick and I were going to have to make some sort of separate living arrangement soon. Obviously, I couldn’t move too far away. There was no way we could stay at his place in Grundy. Sure, I’d been relieved that despite my dire sense of foreboding, I came home to find nothing had happened while I was gone. Still, I needed to be among my packmates, to help with the everyday management of the valley. And it helped to have some semblance of authority in their midst. I’d worked too hard for their respect and trust to walk away now.

But the idea of a separate address, where we could be alone at the end of the day, was definitely appealing. I mulled it over for a few days, trying to find a way to fit it into the conversation that wouldn’t make me sound like a demanding potential wife. Mom saw this as some sort of sign of maturity, that I was actually taking his feelings into account.

The problem was that there were a limited number of houses in the valley, and all of them were occupied at the moment. Houses were passed through family lines, like everything else in the pack. And there hadn’t been a new house built since the early 1980s. Then again, we didn’t get a lot of new arrivals here in town. Alicia and Clay were the last people to move to the valley since my mother had arrived.

Speaking of Clay, he seemed to be spending less and less time in the valley. I wasn’t sure if that was because of my choosing Nick or because the garage was keeping him that busy. When I realized how little consideration I’d given him during the whole mate-choosing thing, I felt a pulse of guilt constrict my chest. Even if we weren’t committed or exclusive, he deserved more than that. I kicked myself for not ending things with him before taking any sort of step with Nick. But sometimes life is messy and complicated, and you just don’t have time to pencil things into your schedule, such as “Dump perfectly nice werewolf suitor before getting naked with human sweetie.” Clay skipped the pack dinner, and he didn’t seem to want to talk to me or Samson, and I couldn’t blame him. And because I didn’t want it to fester, I ended up cornering him down in the work shed one afternoon as he tinkered with a chain saw.

Overall, it might not have been my brightest idea.

After I stepped into the shed, Clay gave me the silent treatment I so richly deserved for a few moments. But before long, his lips were twitching, and he gave me crooked little grin. “So . . . Nick, huh?”

I grimaced and gave him a sheepish little smile. “I should have talked to you about it first. It just sort of happened. If you want to kick my ass over it, I’d understand.”

He shook his head. “Nah. Don’t get me wrong. I’m disappointed. But sometimes the heart just wants what it wants, right? Who am I to get in the way of my alpha’s true love?” His voice was tight, but he covered by looking over the chain saw parts and selecting a few gears for cleaning.

I asked, “Need some help?”

He tossed me a rag and some mineral oil. “Sure.”

And that was pretty much it. We basically broke up without really hashing it out. And considering how guilty I felt without talking it to death, I can only imagine how bad a prolonged discussion would have made me feel. So, silence is a method I wholeheartedly endorse. It left things sort of unsettled, but Cousin Teresa suddenly seemed much happier.

To top the guilt sundae off, Clay’s occasional absences meant that Alicia was more frazzled than usual, and Billie seemed to be getting worse. The doc had to prescribe stronger sedatives for her, as her once occasional “episodes” were becoming an almost-daily event. The day I came home, Billie had wandered out onto Main Street in her housecoat, screaming that there was a “redheaded bitch” trying to run her house.

While the high school kids got a kick out of the sweet, level-headed auntie who used to knit them Christmas stockings cursing like a sailor in the middle of the street, this latest bout made me wonder whether we needed to find a better situation for Billie. There was no such thing as a werewolf nursing home, but there must be some way to make her more comfortable.

I was sitting on my front porch, mulling over calling Billie’s great-nephew Matthew, the alpha of her home pack in Canada. I rarely spoke to Matthew, who was sort of hyper and always seemed to have some huge project going that inhibited his ability to return phone calls. And he still didn’t know how to work his voice mail. It was sort of an ADHD werewolf’s double whammy. He still hadn’t responded to several messages I had left months before, thanking him for sending Clay and Alicia. But his pack was bigger than mine and located closer to urban areas. Maybe he had a suggestion (or twenty) on how to help his auntie.

I closed my eyes and tilted my head back against the sturdy pine rocking chair. It was late February, and the weather would be cold for another few months, but the sun was setting, and it was comfortable to sit outside for a while. I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the dying rays of sunlight, stretching and yawning.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, I was pretty damned content. Probably the happiest I had been in my short, surly life. I’d claimed a mate. I felt the same need for Nick, for the comfort of his presence, than I did before. Nick and I were still working on the whole “exploring” issue. It helped that we were basically chaperoned by my entire family and couldn’t get away with much. I think I was learning far more about what I liked than what Nick liked. Because it turns out guys like everything. Orgasms are like pizza or a Dolph Lundgren movie; even when they’re not great, you still enjoy yourself.

I was perfecting my oral skills, although I think the whole “my girlfriend has wolf teeth” thing made him a little nervous. And my man could play “Stairway to Heaven” guitar riffs with his tongue if he wanted to, so overall, we were both pretty happy.

Of course, given all that happiness, I really should have seen this next thing coming.

My ears perked up at the sound of shuffling footsteps moving toward me. My eyes snapped open, and I saw Samson stumbling toward the porch. He was naked, which meant he’d just come in from a run. His expression was pinched, as if every step hurt him. He missed a step and stumbled onto the porch, clutching his side.

“Maggie?” he whispered, gripping his side.

I yawned again. “Ha ha, Samson, I’m not falling for that again. It was a sick joke when you pretended to be chain-saw-massacred on Halloween, and it’s a sick joke now.”

He didn’t get up.

“Sam . . . Sam?” The wind changed directions, and the smell of his blood finally made it to my nostrils. “Mom!” I yelled, scrambling next to him. My knees hit the boards with a thud. I rolled him over and found a quarter-sized hole just under his ribs. My hands were red and wet as the blood welled over the fingers pressing against his wound.

Mom came out onto the porch. She gasped, falling to her knees beside me.

“Call Dr. Moder!” I yelled. “Now! Better yet, just run down the street to the clinic. Now, Mom, please!”

I tore off my jacket and threw it over him. I pressed my shirt to his side to stanch the bleeding. There was so much of it, and the slick coppery smell was starting to turn my stomach. If the bullet hit something vital, something Dr. Moder couldn’t handle, we were going to have to get him to a real hospital. There would be questions I couldn’t answer, reports that wouldn’t be safe for us to file. And what if we couldn’t get him there in time? He’d lost so much blood. How much more could he have?

“Sam, please hold on, OK? Just keep breathing. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I thought you were kidding.”

“Woods,” Samson whispered. “Shot me. No smell.”

I shushed him. “OK, OK, just save your breath.”

I kept watching the wound, hoping that the bullet would be pushed out by his natural healing ability. The wound was growing smaller, but the little lead round seemed lodged inside. I heard Mama’s footsteps thumping up the street as she practically carried Dr. Moder to us. Sensing Mom’s growing panic, the doctor told her to fetch a blanket and towels from inside the house.

“What do we have here?” Dr. Moder asked, dropping her massive medical bag next to me as she kneeled down. She sounded a lot calmer than I felt. I guess she’d seen a lot worse from us over the years. I just don’t remember feeling this frantic when Cooper got his head stuck in a stair railing.

Up and down the street, I could hear doors opening, my family coming out of their houses to see what the ruckus was. For a second, I considered sending them into the woods to look for the shooter. But that could result in more werewolves with gunshot wounds. Or a hunter with wet pants.

“Does anyone know who was running with Samson today?” I yelled. A few of my relatives shook their heads. “Everybody go inside!” I barked. “Do a head count. Figure out who’s not here. Don’t come out until I come to you.”

Immediately, doors snapped shut, although I could still see a few of my aunts silhouetted against their windows.

After slipping on a latex glove, Dr. Moder probed the wound with her fingertip while I cringed. She pulled out a huge bottle of hydrogen peroxide and poured it into the wound. She pulled out a plastic-wrapped scalpel and forceps.

“I think the bullet probably missed his organs, but I need to open him up to make sure.”

I made an embarrassing squeaking noise. “You’re going to do this right here? On my front porch?”

Dr. Moder’s teeth were on edge as she said, “The bullet’s pretty deep. If I wait any longer, to give him anesthesia or get him to a sterile room, the wound will heal over, and I’ll have to open him up again to get it out. He stands less chance of infection and will heal faster if I get it now. Trust me, your cousin Wayne’s been shot by enough grumpy locals that I would know. Just try not to breathe too much on him.”

I gritted my teeth, blowing a breath out through my nostrils. I handed her the scalpel, which she used to widen the wound, dipping the forceps past the bloody ring of tissue and rooting around.

OK, I could handle a lot, but this was pretty gross. I tried to think of it as a game of Operation. And the only consequence of Dr. Moder screwing up would be a buzzing sound and Samson’s nose lighting up red.

Samson’s hand twitched as Dr. Moder’s instrument gripped the bullet. I threaded my fingers through his, willing the tears gathering at the corners of my eyes not to fall. How could this have happened? Other than my dad and Cousin Wayne, no one in the pack had been shot in years. We’d learned to shy away from any signs of hunters.

At this point, I didn’t care if it was just some dumb-ass tourist who wanted a scary trophy for his den. I wanted to rip him limb from limb. But Samson needed me here now. And I was doing well not to phase on the spot and start howling like a lunatic.

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