Well, screw that, I was Maggie Graham. I wasn’t scared of anything.
Squaring my shoulders, I strode through the front room to the kitchen. Flour was spilled across the counter. A jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread sat open near the stove, with sticky slices strewn on the floor. I stepped around the corner and saw faded pink slippers on still, splayed feet. Billie was on her side, wearing her favorite blue plaid housecoat. There was a kitchen knife just out of her reach, by her right hand. Her hair was matted with red. The corner of the counter near the fridge was crusted with dried, brick-colored blood.
“Oh, no,” I murmured. “Oh, no. Aunt Billie, no.”
I dropped to my knees. I clasped her wrist in my fingers but found no pulse. The body was still warm, but her eyes were open, fixed on the ceiling. There was no spark. There was nothing to be done for her.
I laid gentle fingers on her eyelids and closed them. I leaned over, my forehead almost touching her hands. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered.
She’d hit her head. That much was clear. Had she passed out? Tripped? Pushed? Where was Alicia? Why wasn’t someone with her?
I kneeled there for what felt like hours. I heard chatter from just outside the back door. Alicia was leading the boys up the stairs. I ran for the door. “Keep the boys outside,” I told her.
Alicia blanched at my tone. “What’s going on?”
“It’s Billie . . .” I said, glancing down at the boys, who were clamoring for juice and SpongeBob.
The color drained from Alicia’s face. “No. I just left for a few minutes. I took the boys out to play. The weather was so nice for once. And she was taking a nap. I thought it would be OK.”
I put my hand on her shoulder and offered her a reassuring squeeze. “She must have gotten up. She was in the kitchen.”
Alicia seemed to be gasping for air as tears welled in her eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t—”
“Don’t.” I squeezed her shoulder and shook it gently. “You took good care of her, Alicia. Why don’t you take the boys to my mom’s? I’ll stay here. You call Dr. Moder.”
“I think I should stay—”
“Alicia, you did everything you could for her. Let me take it from here. That’s my job. Get the kids away from here. You don’t want them to see this.”
Alicia nodded, robotically leading the boys down the front steps. Dropping to my knees, I sat next to Billie and waited.
I SAT AT my desk, staring into space. I kept waiting for tears or sweet, clarifying anger. But I was numb. My brain had shut down all emotional responses in some sort of survival mode. All I could do was list the dozens of things I needed to do.
I needed to call Matthew, Billie’s great-nephew. I needed to go through Billie’s papers and try to figure out what accounts needed to be closed, whether she had a will. We needed to plan the service. Mom had stepped in to pick the music and the flowers. Samson and Clay had volunteered to make the casket, which was a pack tradition. We used a were-owned funeral home to sign off on the arrangements, so we didn’t have to worry about the state looking too closely at death certificates.
Dr. Moder had taken the body to the clinic. She said Billie had hit her head against the corner of the counter with enough force to break her neck. As if that wasn’t enough, the fall also cracked Billie’s skull, causing a hemorrhage that would have been fatal. The only good news was that the broken neck most likely prevented any suffering. The doc couldn’t tell me how Billie had fallen, but given the state of the kitchen, she’d probably been in the middle of an episode and either lost her balance or passed out. As much as I wanted to blame Billie’s death on some unseen intruder, Dr. Moder said it was more likely that she’d simply fallen hard enough to do that sort of damage. As strong as we are, our bones can only stand up to so much as we age.
I made a mental note to pick up some calcium supplements for Pops.
Suddenly, all of the weird occurrences seemed silly by comparison. I felt indulgent and paranoid for trying to find hidden dangers while missing out on the real threat Billie posed to herself.
For the fourth time in an hour, I picked up the phone to call Matthew. As alpha, it fell to me to inform Billie’s kin of her passing. These were the rare times when my job sucked ass. I’d left three voice-mail messages, but by now, I knew the best method was to keep calling until he picked up. This time, in a near-miraculous show of cell-phone mastery, Matt managed to pick up before it went to voice mail. He chattered from the other end of the line about births and matings in his own pack, physically incapable of letting someone else enter the conversation until he had to take a breath.
“Look, Matt, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Billie is gone.” Blunt, yes, but necessary if I wanted to shut him up for a minute. “We’re not sure what happened, but it looks like she fell and hit her head in the kitchen.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, the longest pause I could remember while talking to Matt. He sighed and gave the expected platitudes about long life and Billie being in a better place. We talked about the funeral, made arrangements for a contingent from Matt’s pack to stay in houses around the valley. Matt had clearly been expecting this call for a while, because he seemed to have the end planned out. He loved logistics, which was part of why he was a pretty effective pack leader. Handling the mundane details seemed to help. I could handle busy work.
As the call was winding down, Matt said, “Maggie, I hope you know how much I appreciate you taking care of Billie in her last months. I know it was difficult, but deep down, I’m sure she really appreciated being able to stay in her own home.”
I smiled and felt just a tiny bit of the weight on my chest wiggle loose. “Oh, I can’t take all the credit. Clay and Alicia did most of the work.”
Another long pause from Matt. Two in one phone call, which was unprecedented. “Who?”
“Clay and Alicia,” I repeated. “Renard. Your cousins? Billie’s nephew and niece?”
“Mags, I have fifty-six first cousins alone, and none of them is named Clay or Alicia. And Billie was an only child. Where did these people say they were from?”
The office door opened, and Clay stepped inside, an amiable grin stretched across his face. All of the blood in my veins seemed to flutter and freeze.
The phone was hanging heavily against the side of my face. I took in a breath, jittery from shock and rage and the knowledge that I had actually kissed this guy. I’d given him the benefit of the doubt when Nick suggested that he could have been the one on the cliff, when I considered the damage to my brakes and his mechanical know-how. I believed he wasn’t capable of it because of the way he took care of Billie.
I steadied my voice and tried to loosen up enough to smile back at the son of a bitch. “OK, that’s great news. I’ll talk to you later.”
Matt noted the suspicious lift in my tone. “Maggie, are you OK?” he demanded.
“Sure, I’ll tell Mom you called. Dinner on Thursday,” I said. “ ’Bye, Coop.”
“Maggie—” Matt’s voice was cut off with a click as I dropped the receiver onto the cradle.
Clay gave me a subdued little half-smile. “Dinner on Thursday? Is it wrong to hope for a doggie bag? Because Mo can make a mean . . . well, pretty much anything.”
I looked up at him. The relaxed expression on his face was what killed me. He’d been lying to us for months, and it didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest. He’d lived with my aunt, in her house, living off the pack’s goodwill, for months and seemed to have every intention of continuing. And he wasn’t even nervous.
I sprang over the desk. Clay’s eyes widened briefly before I gripped his collar and slammed him into the wall. But as I snapped and growled, he just looked amused.
“I knew we should have left when Billie died.” He sighed, shoving back at me but not moving me. He didn’t seem perturbed by this, as if I wasn’t this close to ripping his throat out. “Alicia said it would look suspicious if we just ran off now. I think maybe she got too used to living in one place. And she liked the old lady. She wanted to stick around for the service. My sister’s a sentimental girl, never could cure her of it.”
“Who the hell are you?” I demanded.
“Oh, Maggie,” Clay said, tilting his head and grinning nastily. “I know we’re not dating anymore, but I hoped we could still be friends.” I sneered at him and swiped my fingernails down his cheek. He didn’t even register the welts of blood I left on his face. “No? Well, that’s a shame.”
He shoved me again, sending me flying over my desk this time, tumbling into the far wall. He’d phased and lunged for me. I shot up to my feet and ran at him again, phasing on the fly. Our wolfen bodies collided, and his teeth scraped my throat. I turned, yanking my exposed fur out of his mouth, and landed on two human feet. He phased to human again, and I head-butted him, the thickest part of my forehead cracking his nose. He grinned. And punched me right in the mouth.
“You know, I was sort of hoping we could avoid all this cloak-and-dagger shit. You’re a pretty girl, and you can be downright tolerable sometimes. I thought maybe you and I could get married, you could make me the alpha male, and I could bring my family in, no questions asked. But you’re just so damned stubborn, aren’t you, Maggie? You have to do things the hard way.”
Papers and books scattered around the room as we pounded on each other in wolf and human forms. But despite several opportunities, he didn’t strike any serious blows. He just kept slapping me around and phasing, wolf to man and back again, and honor sort of dictated that I phase, too, to keep us on the same footing. The exhaustion of the constant shifting combined with being smacked around was draining and demoralizing.
“You still haven’t figured it out, have you?” He sneered, standing over me. “Well, that’s disappointing. You know, you’re not a very smart girl.”
I picked up my desk chair and threw it at him, catching his shoulders and knocking him to the ground. I lunged, kicking him in the ribs and knocking him onto his back. “Who are you?”
“I’m a little hurt that you didn’t notice the resemblance,” he spat, dribbling blood onto the tile floor of the office. “Everybody in my pack told me I looked just like my dad. Of course, you and your brother killed those people.”
I stared down at him, analyzing the sandy hair, the light brown eyes. When I’d seen that mouth, it had been twisted into a feral snarl. The eyes had been sharp and too bright, burning with hate and desperation. I felt my arms drop to my sides, the shock leeching all of the energy out of my limbs.
I was a dumb-ass.
“You’re Jonas’s son?”
“His one and only heir,” Clay said, pushing to his feet. “Your time here is over. I’ve seen enough to know that you’re not strong enough to hold on to the valley. It’s time for a new pack, a stronger pack, to take over. You have three days to clear your ragged excuse for a family out of our new home. Otherwise, people will start getting hurt.”
“People are already getting hurt.” I grunted.
He smiled, his teeth tinged an awful red. “No, this is minor damage. I mean, really, truly hurt. Throats ripped out. Paws missing. How’d you like to walk out of your cozy little house to find your mother, your grandfather, one of those little brats, dead and cold on your doorstep?”
“Why are you trying to provoke me?” I demanded, shoving at his shoulders. “You are not this guy.”
“You don’t know what I am!” he shouted, shoving me back.
“Look, I can’t change what happened—” When he looked vaguely bored, I slammed his head against the wall. He snarled, and I grabbed his chin, forcing him to look me in the eye. “Listen to me. I am sorry for what was done to your pack, but you will not threaten my fucking family and make it sound like a Sunday picnic, do you hear?”