He leered at me and threw one last upper cut to my chin. I stumbled over the wreckage of my office furniture and nearly landed on my ass. Fine, I landed on my ass, but after that whooping, I needed a rest.
“Three days, Maggie. And then I bring the rest of my pack home, whether you’re here or not. It’s Old Home Week, and we plan on throwing a hell of a party.”
Clay disappeared, so quickly I didn’t even have time to reply, and Samson came running. I assumed that Matt had managed to call him as soon as I hung up on him. It was nice to know Matt could operate his phone when he was in a jam . . . or that someone else had dialed for him.
“Where is he? What hurts?” Samson demanded. “Do we need Doc Moder?”
“Clay’s gone.” I sighed, sitting up slowly. “I don’t want anyone chasing after him. Who knows how many he’s got in his ‘pack’?” My ears rang as Samson helped me into a sitting position. He kept checking me over for wounds until I had to slap his hands away. “I’m fine, I’m fine!” I moaned, clutching my head in my hands. “Though I wouldn’t say no to a new skull. Look, I don’t want to explain this more than once, so could you round everybody up and bring them to Mom’s? I’ll meet you there.”
“Sure,” he said, gently pulling me to my feet. “Are you sure you’re OK to walk?”
I nodded, and he sprinted for the door. “Hey, Samson?” He stopped and poked his head back through the doorway. “You’re an awesome second. I don’t care what anybody says.”
He winked at me. “Try not to get your ass kicked on the walk home.”
He ducked out the door before he could see the rude gesture I was making.
I CHOSE TO LIMP HOME quietly, using buildings and vehicles as cover. Not to protect my dignity but to keep the pack from suffering another blow. OK, it was to protect my dignity.
How could this have happened? How could I have been so blind? They knew so much about Billie, about our pack. I kept calling Matt to check them out, but he never returned my calls, and after a certain amount of time, when Alicia and Clay hadn’t killed us all in our sleep, I just sort of took for granted that they were legit. And sure, maybe I trusted them a little more because they had the boys with them, and I like to think that a mother to two toddlers couldn’t be completely evil. I was new to being alpha. I was kind of overwhelmed. I appreciated all the help I could get.
Ugh, that was a bunch of rationalization crap. I’d dropped my guard, and now I was paying for it.
Billie had tried to tell me that she didn’t know them, that I’d let strangers into her house. But I’d chalked it up to her illness. Had she had moments of lucidity? Had she woken up in her own home, frightened, surrounded by strangers? I didn’t think I’d ever forgive myself for that.
Mom found me lying on the couch in one of Nick’s old Star Wars sweatshirts with a steak pressed to my face. She hadn’t seen me this bloody for a couple of years, so it sent her into a bit of a panic. I closed my eyes for a couple of seconds, and the next thing I knew, Nick was there, looking stricken and pushing my hair away from my battered, healing face.
“Maggie, baby, you’re scaring me. Please, wake up, talk to me,” he begged. His shirt was smeared with my blood, as if he’d gathered me to his chest while I was out. “Just let me know you’re OK.”
I nodded, wincing when the action made my head spin. I closed my eyes again and awoke to more people, simultaneously trying to hug me and demand answers from me. Who hurt me? Where were they now? And on and on and on until—
“Quiet!” I bellowed, just so they would shut up enough to let me sit up and get a word in. My ears rang with the volume of my own voice, and I had to close my eyes to keep from throwing up. Nick pulled me up, gingerly pressing my back against his side. I winced, knowing that even with werewolf healing abilities, I was going to be bruised all to hell. Mo brought me a mug of Mom’s special herbal tea, which I accepted with no intention of actually drinking it.
“Clay did this,” I said, using the towel Mom handed me to dab at my healing lip. “He’s long gone by now. And so, I would imagine, are Alicia and the boys.”
“Why in the hell would Clay do this?” Cooper demanded.
“I’m still confused about that myself. I thought he was OK with you mating with Nick,” Samson said, his lips pressed into a tight little grimace.
“I’d say my not dating him probably ranks lower on my list of offenses than, say, Cooper and I killing his whole damned family. Clay is Jonas’s son, all grown up.”
Cooper sat down heavily on the couch, looking stunned.
“Wait, so that means Alicia . . .” I heard Samson curse and throw a chair across the room, apparently just now realizing that the girl he considered a possible mate was also a possible homicidal maniac. I made a mental note to feel bad for him as soon as my brain unscrambled.
“All this time, I knew there was something familiar about him, something that made me uneasy,” Cooper said, his face paper-white. “I just thought it was the typical big-brother reaction to your first boyfriend. I can’t believe I let that psycho get so close and not even recognize him for what he was.”
“Well, he’s a well-informed psycho,” I muttered. “I don’t know how he got his background information on the pack, but he knew just enough about us to make his story plausible. I’m assuming that he’s behind the truck brakes and my office and shooting Samson. Because when I think back on those days, I don’t ever remember seeing Clay near the valley, which seems odd.”
Cooper wondered, “If he was going to try to stage a coup, why would he wait such a long time? None of this makes any sense.”
“Because all coups follow a rigid code of conduct.” I snorted, groaning when that made my skin, lip, and nose burn. “I think at first, Clay just wanted to gather information on us. And then, after sticking around for a while, I don’t know, maybe they started to like us. Alicia became fond of Billie, and Clay said he hoped that I’d choose him as a mate, and we could skip the whole dramatic-takeover thing. And when it became clear that I was becoming interested in Nick, I think Clay started playing all those tricks to make me think I needed someone like him around, someone like me. Instead, I just leaned on Nick. Now that they’ve been discovered, they have no choice but to go on the offensive.” I pressed the compress to my face and moaned. “I should have seen this. I feel so stupid.”
Cooper shrugged but didn’t disagree.
Nick glared at him. “Like you handled your first attempted coup any better.”
“I handled it OK,” Cooper mumbled defensively. “It was the aftermath that sucked.”
“Territorial disputes are not all that uncommon in the animal kingdom,” Nick told me, in that “hot for teacher” tone I knew was supposed to make me feel better. “All life is basically a competition for resources. A cuckoo instinctually knows to lay eggs in other birds’ nests, so their eggs can hatch faster than the host birds’. The cuckoo chick grows faster. In most cases, the chick evicts the eggs of the host species, and the baby cuckoos suck up all the food and nurturing. Cicada-killer wasps sting and paralyze insects twice their size and weight, drag them back to their dens, and lay their eggs in the cicadas’ heads so the newborn wasps can eat them.”
“So, this is Alicia and Clay’s version of paralyzing me and laying eggs in my head?” I asked, dumbfounded. Nick rolled his eyes at me. “I’m not good with metaphors!”
“OK, let me get this straight,” Mo said, holding up her hands. “Alicia and Clay are Jonas’s kids.” She continued, “Clay’s the alpha of whatever half-grown pack was left behind when Cooper killed all of the adults. Sorry, babe, but it’s the truth. And Alicia is his slightly-scary-in-a-quiet-way second in command?” Mo shuddered. “It’s like they’re the bizarro version of Cooper and Maggie.”
When we glared at her, she rolled her eyes and huffed. “I said ‘bizarro.’ It means the opposite. It’s not an insult!”
“I got your back,” Nick assured her, giving her the nerd fist-bump. Mo preened. Cooper and I shared a commiserating “we chose them, we did this to ourselves” look.
“So, they’ve been waiting all this time, for what, to do what their parents couldn’t? To move into the valley, like it was some sort of Promised Land? Were they just gathering information this whole time?” Mo asked. “How could they do that? I mean, if they hated you that much, how could they live with you for almost a year? How could they stand it?”
“If you’ve got enough patience, enough will, you can stand just about anything,” Mom suggested thoughtfully.
“Is it wrong that I feel a little sorry for them?” Mo asked, cringing. “I mean, yes, their tactics are obviously questionable, but to be fair—”
“We killed everyone they loved,” I said, nodding. “Even if they started it, we finished it in a really bloody way. And I get it. If somebody killed members of my family, nothing would stop me from ripping them apart. I’m not going to say I feel sorry for them, given what they’ve done. But I get it.”
“What now?” Samson asked.
“Clay said he’s bringing his pack here in three days to ‘evict’ us. We either stand and fight, or everybody moves to Cousin Lee’s packlands, which I really don’t consider an option.”
“I vote ‘stand and fight,” Samson declared.
“There’s a shocker,” Mo muttered.
“This isn’t a democracy, Samson,” I reminded him. “But you’re right. It’s the only way.”
“No, Maggie, you can stop this,” Nick told me. “Break the cycle. Try to talk to them, figure out a peaceable solution. Otherwise, in ten years, Paul and Ronnie are going to come looking for Eva and our kids.”
“So, I’m supposed to what? Go to a mediator? Family therapy? Wolves don’t do that. We don’t talk things through. We don’t share our feelings.”
“Look, you don’t think I understand the kind of pressure you’re under,” Nick told me. “And you’re right, I’ll never understand what it’s like to have a whole extended family depending on me, to be responsible for all those people. But I do know what it’s like to have a family that either can’t take care of you or doesn’t care to. I know what it’s like to have a family that’s more interested in taking from you. Your pack, they’re good people. They didn’t know who I was and, after a few rough patches, took me in. Stop underestimating their capacity for kindness.”
“Our capacity for kindness is what got us into this,” I shot back, regretting again the ease with which Clay and Alicia had been accepted.
“You think we should let them move in?” Cooper said incredulously. “Tell me, Doc, in all your years of studying animals, have you ever seen two herds or whatever able to merge and share living space peaceably?”
“Well, I guess you’re going to have to appeal to their more human sides,” Nick retorted.
“Open our hearts and our homes to the children of a bunch of psychos who tried to murder us?” Cooper scoffed. “This is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
“Do you think maybe Alicia would still want to date me?” Samson wondered.
Cooper pointed a finger at Samson. “I stand corrected.”
“Never underestimate the excitement of sex with the crazy,” Samson said, wincing when Mo smacked the back of his head. “It’s like a Tilt-A-Whirl and a scary movie all in one.”
Mom covered her face with her hands and sighed. “It’s like I’m not even in the room.”