Dr. Moder pulled the bullet free, and I blew out a breath. The little hole in his skin was closing, pink and healthy and shiny, as Dr. Moder poured more antiseptic over it. Samson groaned.
“Let’s get him to the clinic,” Dr. Moder said. “Maybe call a few of the bigger cousins, ’cause it will take all of them to cart his heavy butt. And we’re going to need anyone with his blood type to come down to the clinic and donate. He’s lost a lot of blood. Come on, Maggie, let go of him and get moving.”
I shot an incredulous look at her. She put a light hand on my shoulder and shook me gently. “It’s OK, Mags. He’s going to be fine. You can let go of his hand.”
I looked down at our joined, stained hands, and gripped tighter.
Dr. Moder frowned. “Or . . . maybe not.”
THE NEXT FEW hours were among the longest of my life. I did a head count and was ridiculously grateful to find everyone accounted for, except for Clay, who had stayed late at the garage where he worked. I questioned my relatives. I called Nick, who didn’t understand my sudden need to check up on him while he was working from his place in Grundy. And even more confused when I told him to stay there until I came for him.
As I walked into the clinic, I felt as if I was moving through molasses. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do. And I hated it. No wonder Cooper ran from the responsibilities of running the pack. This feeling sucked.
“Sam?” I called softly. I poked my head into the sole treatment room at the clinic. Shirtless and swathed in gauze, Samson was propped against a pile of pillows, with a full gallon of Mom’s chicken noodle soup and a full pan of Mo’s triple chocolate brownies in front of him.
“I think you scared everybody pretty good,” I said.
“I’ll say,” he said, chewing happily. “There’s two more batches of brownies in the office. Mo was panic-baking. She and Cooper are going to stay the night. Cooper was, er, a little nervous.”
Some small voice in the back of my head balked at the idea of having Cooper and his family here. He’d brought them right into our mess. If there was still someone out there with their sights trained on the pack, Mo and the baby were in the crosshairs now. But of course, if I tried to send them away, Mo would just swing at me with some heavy piece of kitchen equipment. I made a mental note to search the clinic for tranquilizer darts.
“I’m really glad you’re OK,” I told him, pinning his eyes with my own. I wanted him to understand that I was having a rare moment of absolute seriousness. And of course, he responded by grinning at me through the chocolate like a toddler.
“That said.” I paused and then smacked the back of his head.
“Ow!” he yelped.
“What the hell were you thinking running alone? After I specifically told every member of the pack to use the buddy system,” I demanded. “No one had any idea you were out or where you were. What if you hadn’t made it back home? You could have bled out, in the woods, alone. Leaving behind the biggest fucking corpse the bears had ever seen. It took pints from me, Cooper, and Mom to get you up and going again. Pops tried to donate, and it took four of the uncles to keep him from sticking the needle in his own arm.”
“Maggie—” Samson started, before I smacked him again. “Ow!”
I crossed my arms over my chest to prevent further smacking. “Sorry, go ahead.”
“I got restless,” he admitted. “Clay is my running partner. And he said he couldn’t make it out today because he was working late. Sometimes you just have to phase and go, you know? I was just running along the edge of the valley. I heard a weird popping noise, then another, and wham, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.”
“Do you think it was a hunter?”
“No, a hunter probably would have collected my carcass as I lay bleeding on the ground.”
“Good point. An accident, maybe?” I suggested, knowing I was grasping at straws at this point.
“You mean, oops, I took my high-powered rifle, looked through the scope, and happened to fire at the bear-sized wolf in my crosshairs?” he suggested. “’And then I fired again, because I missed the first time?’ “
“I didn’t say it was a good theory,” I snarled at him. “Forgive me for trying to grasp at any possibility besides members of my pack being picked off by an unseen but well-armed menace.”
“Look, Midget, I will admit, there is a pattern of shit that’s happened in the last few months. Your truck brakes. Your office. Strange wolves sniffing around the borders. Hunters getting all trigger-happy . . . though who could blame them for wanting such a fine trophy as yours truly. But there’s no reason to circle the wagons and get all paranoid.”
“If you call me a hysterical female, I am not above pulling the plug,” I deadpanned, reminding myself that it was a good thing Samson didn’t know about the bag incident.
He yawned. “We’ll just do what we always do. We’ll keep an eye out. We’ll keep the youngsters close to home. No one goes out alone, using my little incident as a painful example. But until some rogue werewolf trots down Main Street and declares war, I say we relax.”
“That’s your solution to everything.”
He shrugged. “And so far, it’s worked out great for me. Up until getting shot.”
There was a light knock at the door. Alicia stuck her head in and gave me a sheepish little smile. I glanced from her to Samson, who was staring at her with a completely smitten, stupid expression, and back again.
My lips twitched, but I maintained my neutral face.
“I hope I’m not interrupting,” she said.
“Uh, no,” I said, hopping up from the bed. “Did you hear from Clay?”
“Yeah, he’ll be home as soon as he can,” she said, her gaze never leaving Samson. “Your mom came over to watch the boys and Billie. She knew I wanted to stop by and bring this, uh, Jell-O.” She put a very full Tupperware container on the little roll-away table.
I eased toward the door. “Yeah, she knows how much Samson loves Jell-O.”
Truth be told, Samson hated Jell-O. He said food should only twitch if it’s recently deceased. And maybe covered in barbecue sauce. But he really liked Alicia, that much was clear.
I wandered out of the clinic, pondering this new development. Alicia was a good match for Samson. I mean, she was used to wrangling dangerous preschoolers. Although Alicia’s previous mating meant that Samson would never have children of his own, he was good with Paul and Ronnie, who seemed to view him as sort of a man-sized jungle gym. And he would get all of the benefits of having sons without the cranky pregnant wife, two A.M. feedings, and diapers.
I jogged to my office, sat at my desk, and fired up my computer. When he installed the cameras around the valley, Nick had hooked a wireless transmitter into my modem to record anything the cameras picked up to my hard drive. I’d expected the activity to escalate after the incident on the cliff. But so far, we’d mostly gotten footage of elk prancing around the tree line as if they owned the place. But when I opened up the video cache folder on my desktop for that night’s feed, I found . . . nothing.
There was a clip of a young bear cub wandering on the southern ridge the day before, which I’d found on my daily check of the folder. That was it.
“Damn it.” I sighed.
I don’t know what I’d expected. A clip of some Elmer Fudd lookalike waving at the camera and showing ID?
I sat back in my office chair, chewing up my lip. My mom was probably wondering where I was. And Nick had already texted me five times, demanding a less cryptic phone call. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to face either of them.
I sprang up from the chair. What if the cameras weren’t working? Some of the units on the south side of the valley hadn’t deposited a video in the cache folder. It couldn’t hurt to go check, right? It was something to do, and I was itching for something to do that didn’t involve talking or emotions.
I dashed out of my office and jogged up the slope behind the clinic, shrugging out of my jacket and boots. My feet slipped through the patches of tough dead grass, the edges of each blade pricking my ankles. I closed my eyes and breathed deep, searching for a trace of Samson’s blood on the breeze. My face naturally inclined north, to one of Samson’s favorite napping spots in the valley. A patch of dirt he’d dug out on the north lip of the crescent. Nothing. I faced south and caught the faintest scent of rust. I followed it on human feet, silent and swift, my braid bouncing against my back as the scent grew stronger. There was a trail there, worn through the trees by generations of paws.
I skidded to a stop when I recognized the shiny black patch of blood on the ground. Samson’s paw-prints hadn’t gone any farther, as if he’d come running along and stopped suddenly before he was hit. Had he heard a noise? I couldn’t smell any sign of a human or a wolf nearby. I looked up at the bare, imposing limbs overhead. There was nowhere to hide. And there was no camera in sight. Was that blind luck on the shooter’s part? Or did he know where the cameras were?
Samson would have seen a human standing close. The shot must have come from a distance, which could have meant a skewed shot from the game preserve. But there were so many trees. What was the probability of a hunter shooting wild and then the bullet making it all the way through the forest without hitting anything but Samson? I’d say it ranged from no freaking way to none. This was the work of our fabric-softener-loving friend.
I sat on the ground and considered the possibilities. And then I realized that I was just a few yards from the spot where I’d claimed Nick with that ill-conceived bite. He’d been sitting a short distance from where Samson had been shot.
There was a crushing tightness in my chest, leaving me unable to draw in air. I could see Nick in my head, sitting alone on that ridge, scribbling in his little notebook. The wind was playing with his gold hair, and he was pausing every few minutes to shove his glasses back up on his nose. Suddenly, there was the loud crack of a rifle shot, and Nick slumped to the ground, a patch of red blooming on the chest pocket of his shirt. The notebook fluttered out of his hand as blood trickled over his lips. He was unable to move, unable to call for help, unable to do anything but stay there and die. Because of me, because he was too close to me.
Unlike Samson, my mate would not be capable of transforming into a giant wolf and defending himself. I would spend the rest of my life worrying about Nick. I mean, the man had wandered into the path of rogue werewolves and been involved in a serious motor-vehicle incident just since meeting me. I would worry about him getting sick, getting shot, getting caught in the crossfire of whatever weird pattern of phenomena was circling around the valley. Mo had barely survived her ordeal, and that was with just one crazed werewolf after her. What if a whole pack came after us?
As long as Nick was close to me, he’d be in some form of danger.
I thought I could regulate that paranoia. I thought I could handle the constant anxiety. Hell, when I found out that my brother had abandoned Mo in an effort to protect her, I tracked him down, called him a lot of anatomically detailed names, and threatened to rip his head off. But now, the idea of Nick loving me somehow getting him killed had me throwing up in a mossy bank near the tree line. This was definitely a case of “it’s different because it’s me.”
I couldn’t wait and think this through. I had to stop it now. I had to get Nick to leave now. If I let it go on any longer, it would hurt that much worse. Sure, I was basically kissing my life good-bye. No babies. No Nick. No sex. But at least he would be alive. I stumbled toward the woods, toward Grundy, not bothering to tear off my clothes so I could transform. I burst into my wolf state, leaving a trail of scraps in my wake. I ran faster than my four paws had ever carried me, following Nick’s scent across the miles that protected him from my crazy-ass life. I found him on his couch, typing on his laptop.