He grinned at me as I came through the door, and I felt as if I was going to throw up again. He set aside his work and opened his arms to me. “Hey, are you OK? No more shorthand messages without follow-up; they make me nervous.” When I didn’t dive into his embrace as usual, his brow furrowed. “What’s wrong?”
“Look, Nick,” I said, smiling at him and giving my best “bad news” face. “This whole thing has been a lot of fun. But I think you’re taking all this way too seriously. It’s time for you to move on.”
Nick’s face flushed, then went bone white. “What?”
I sighed, trying to seem exasperated. “It’s time for you to find some other pack to pester. I mean, we had some good times, but I think we both knew this wouldn’t work out in the long run.”
“But we’re mated now, you said—”
“I made it up!” I said, adding a sarcastic little laugh for good measure. “Like human girls who tell the guys who take them home from bars that they ‘never do this sort of thing.’ Weres feed that whole ‘mated for life’ line to humans all the time. It makes you feel special.”
He was staring me down, searching my face for some sign of the lie. And I was this close to folding. Fortunately, Friday-night card games with Pops and Samson had given me a pretty steady poker face. I gritted my teeth and stared right back. Nick’s eyes narrowed. My lips tightened into a thin little line. And suddenly, he was grinning like a loon.
That I had not expected.
“You’re pulling a Lassie on me, aren’t you?” he crowed, laughing.
Now my exasperation was genuine. “What?”
“You’re pulling a Lassie on me,” he said again. “It’s like some old episode of Lassie when Timmy thinks Lassie’s about to be taken away and shot by some old mean farmer for eating chickens. Timmy tells Lassie he hates her and throws rocks at her so she’ll run away.”
“Are you high right now?” I demanded.
“You’re trying to hurt me so I’ll leave. You want to get me out of the way so . . . what, so I won’t get hurt? What’s going on, Maggie? Why are you scared?”
“I’m not scared. I want you to leave because I want you out of my face,” I shot back.
“Not true. You love me.”
“No, I don’t.”
I scowled as his little dimples winked at me, and he said, “Can’t live without me.”
“I don’t like to harp on this, but you do know I’m capable of killing you, right?”
“I think I should move in with you.”
“Oh, my God, you’re such a pain in the ass,” I grumbled.
“A pain in the ass that you’re madly in love with,” he said.
I gave him my best death glare. He gave me that damn smile again, and I folded like a frigging accordion. I groaned as he wrapped his arm around me.
“Come on, baby, tell me what has you so wound up,” he whispered. “You’re Maggie Fucking Graham. You’re not afraid of anything.”
“Not true,” I admitted, tapping my forehead against his collarbone. “Losing you scares the crap out of me.”
“Not going to happen.”
“Samson was shot today,” I murmured into his shirt. “He’s going to be OK, but we couldn’t find who did it. And of course, Cooper came running, bringing Mo and the baby with him. And I started thinking about how stupid that was, because he could be bringing his family right into the whirlwind. I’m not any better than he is. I’m worse, because I want you close to me. And I can’t protect you. I can try, but nothing I do can guarantee that you’ll be safe. I can’t keep anything from happening to you. It would be so much better for you to get as far away from me as you can. “
“Not going to happen,” he said.
“I know,” I grumbled. “Damn it. It was worth a shot.” I looked up at him, my eyes pricking hotly. “I don’t want anybody else. I can’t be with anyone else.” He pulled me close, and I murmured into his neck, “I love you.”
“Who was wrong?” he asked.
“I was wrong.” I sighed.
He poked my shoulder. “Who was right?”
“Don’t push it.”
“I’m not leaving you,” he told me. “I don’t care what you try to do to push me away. I don’t care what comes along. I’m here. If you think I’m going to back down now, you’re crazy.”
“So, you’re going to love me out of spite?”
I sighed. “Ah, spite, the stuff of fairy tales.”
INSTEAD OF ME DRIVING Nick away, he ended up driving me back home, with a truckload of his stuff. He was moving in with Samson, he said, until Samson was back on his feet and we could build a house between Pops’s place and Mom’s. I didn’t even have to ask; he just knew that was what he needed to do. He said he would start calling construction companies as soon as possible, so we could break ground when it thawed.
Oh, and apparently, we were getting married that summer.
Nick didn’t get down on one knee, but he pulled me into his lap and looped a little sapphire pendant around my neck. He reiterated his whole “not going anywhere” plan and told me that if I ever tried to protect him by sending him away again, I would have two fights on my hands—from the perceived danger and from Nick.
“I can’t say we’re always going to be deliriously happy,” he said as his fingers worked the chain’s catch at the nape of my neck. “But we’ll be together, and that’s a lot more than some people have. So, Margaret Faith Graham”—he stopped when I growled at the mention of my middle name—“cut it out, your mom told me—would you please stop being so stubborn and agree to marry the man who will love you until the day he dies?”
“Yes,” I mumbled, fingering the pretty blue stone. I liked the way it sparkled, a quiet sort of shine that seemed to give off deeper flashes of cobalt within. He could have given me the Hope Diamond, and I wouldn’t have been happier. “I will stop jerking you around. It’s not fair to you.”
“And?” he prompted, cupping his hand to his ear.
“Yes, I will marry you.” I sighed, slipping my arms around his neck. Suddenly, I shifted back and poked him in the chest. “But I’m not wearing a froufrou princess dress.”
His eyebrows quirked, and he tilted his head. “I’d be fine with what you’re wearing right now.”
I glanced down at my naked body. “Nice.”
When we got home and told my family our somewhat bizarre proposal tale—minus the nudity—Mo suggested listening to my grand plans in my head to make sure they make sense before I act. I suggested she take a long walk off the nearest cliff. Then, of course, when she and Mom realized we had about five months to plan a wedding, the squealing began.
Oh, my God, the squealing.
Mo got on the phone with Kara, and there was more squealing, in stereo. Kara said she would come over with an armload of bridal planners the next day.
“Wait, wait, we can’t plan a wedding now,” I said, grasping at any straws that kept me away from the words “manipedi.” “Samson just got shot. We have a problem with intruders. Nick and I can just go off to Anchorage one weekend and have a courthouse thing.”
Mo and Mom looked at me as if I’d just suggested shaving baby Eva’s head and piercing her eyebrow.
“I’m happy either way,” Nick said.
“Oh, that’s sweet.” Cooper chuckled. “You think you have a vote.”
“I don’t have a vote?” Nick asked. Cooper handed him a beer, clapped his hand down on Nick’s, and shook his head.
“Your best bet is just to sit back, relax, and wait for the cake.”
Nick frowned. “Do I at least get a vote on the flavor of the cake?”
DO YOU KNOW how annoying it is to suspect something but not be able to do anything about it? I didn’t know if these “happenings” were a focused effort to harass my pack or someone with a really lame sense of humor. I didn’t have a suspect. I couldn’t even give a description beyond “smells like flowers.” There was no interpack police agency. There was nothing to do, other than contacting Alan to complain about hunters getting too close to the border between the nature preserve and the valley.
Oh, and I finally told the pack about the “bagging” incident, which, along with Samson’s shooting, helped them realize exactly how serious the problem was. Cooper and Samson had the decency to wait until the rest of the pack was gone before lighting into me for not telling anyone. Mom was so angry I thought she was going to try to take me over her knee. Instead, she hugged Nick and thanked him for helping her idiot daughter.
Signs were posted. We expanded the perimeter into the preserve. We patrolled in threes. No one left the confines of town by themselves. Whenever possible, the kids were kept inside, which was driving the parents and Teresa insane.
I was running myself into the ground. I was coming to depend on Nick more and more, which scared the hell out of me. When I came home and collapsed after all-night patrols, he was the one who dragged me into my room and tucked me in. He made sure there was food nearby when I woke up. On more than one occasion, he bathed me, but that was more recreational than anything else.
My deranged sister-in-law, she kept plying me with wedding magazines and books on how to be a beautiful happy fluffy princess bride. I think she saw it as some helpful way to take my mind off the pack’s troubles, which was woefully inaccurate. I wanted to elope. In fact, I spent several days campaigning diligently for a chapel in Vegas. But Mom and Mo convinced me that it would be a shabby move for the alpha to run off and get married without the pack being able to see it. Plus, it would be a nice gesture to invite other packs to the wedding. Mo actually used the words “political maneuver.” Sometimes that woman scared me.
I’d never been one for change. I liked my routine. I liked knowing what to expect. But now, I’d changed my plans, my expectations, by choosing someone completely outside the realm of what I expected, and I had change coming out the ying-yang. It was as if I’d opened a little door and the whole world was opening up.
I was still on the fence about to whether that was a good thing.
So, I did what I could to maintain normalcy and escape the house, which included regular visits to see Billie. Alicia was also looking a little the worse for wear lately, and she appreciated it when she could step out of the house to take a walk or do . . . whatever it was that she did with Samson. I tried not to think about it.
“Alicia!” I called as I came through Billie’s door. “My mom made a blueberry pie. It’s Billie’s favorite.”
My ears pricked up as I closed the door behind me. There was an odd stillness to the house. No TV blaring cartoon songs from the next room. No thunder of little running feet. The only sound was the dryer running in the utility room. The rusty scent of dried blood spiraled out of the kitchen, raising the hairs on my arms. The instinct to change, to defend, was overwhelming. I had to force myself to stay in my human shape.
I dropped the pie, breaking china and splattering purple goo over my boots. I inhaled deeply, searching for some sign of an intruder.
I crept on silent feet toward the table where I used to sit and eat Lucky Charms on the mornings after Eli slept over at our house. Mom would send me to Aunt Billie’s for sleepovers, so Billie wouldn’t get lonely. I wanted to be that little girl again, in the Smurf nightshirt, with nothing to worry about but which cartoon to fit into her Saturday-morning schedule. Time seemed to stop in my head, and I couldn’t force myself to approach the source of that rust smell.