Mo and Cooper had agreed to stay at Samson’s for the night. It struck me as sort of crappily ironic that our first night alone in the valley was so dark.
Nick had cooked, or at least warmed up something Mom left behind. Without speaking, we settled on the couch. I took his face between my palms and kissed him.
“Is this the part where you tell me it’s my duty to sleep with you because you’re going off to war and you could be killed?” Nick asked.
“That is so wrong,” I told him. “But yes, it would be a nice gesture.”
He pulled me into his lap, sliding his hands along my ribs
“Are you scared?” he asked. “About tomorrow?”
“I’d be stupid not to be,” I said. “I’m not thrilled that you’re going to be there, but given the Lassie conversation and Mo’s cast-iron-pan antics, I know it’s a waste of breath to try to push you out of harm’s way.”
“I love you. I’m not trying to make this some dramatic good-bye moment. I just want to tell you now, while it’s quiet and we’re not facing certain ass-whooping, that I love you. I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you. I’m going to love you until the day I die.”
He pursed his lips. “Wow, you will do anything to get laid, won’t you?”
I laughed. “Thanks, I needed that.”
“I love you, too,” he told me, kissing me.
He pushed my shirt over my head, pulling my hair from its ponytail and letting it fall around us in a dark, shiny curtain. He took his time, touching me with an aching slowness that built a searing heat in my belly. His kisses consumed my breath, my fear, my worry. I eased his zipper down, and he moaned as my hand slipped around him. He pushed up from the couch, with my legs still wrapped around his waist, and carried me down the hall.
We’d never managed to make it to my room, in a bed, with the lights off before. It was sort of decadent and naughty, getting naked in the room where I used to have Smurf curtains. He trailed kisses from my neck to my belly button, taking the time to nip lightly here and there, leaving little marks behind. I tugged at his shoulders, bringing him back to eye level, so I could thread my fingers through his hair while he settled between my thighs.
When he reached for the condoms in my night-stand, I stopped his hand. His eyebrows arched. I’d told myself that I would know when I was ready, and I did. I wanted a baby with Nick. There were things in life I still wanted to do—school, travel, leading my pack. But I didn’t think Nick would let me get out of doing them. In fact, he’d probably drag me to whatever pipe dream I was shying away from if he spotted any backtracking on my part.
“I consider it a hopeful gesture,” I told him. “We might get pregnant, we might not. We might get through tomorrow only to get smooshed by a semi next Tuesday.”
“This is the worst declaration of hope ever,” he told me. “What’s next, detailed forecasts of my possible male-pattern baldness?”
I snickered. “The point is, I love you, and I don’t want to put any more restrictions on however much time we have left together, whether it’s hours or decades. I don’t care what tomorrow brings, as long as I have you.”
He smiled and kissed me, then slipped inside me without a barrier between us, skin on skin. I sighed at the warm intrusion as his fingertips traced the lines of my face. He rocked into me, and we settled into a soothing, gentle rhythm. This was different, quiet, better. And when we both were sated, he pulled my back against his chest and held me without speaking. And somehow I managed to fall asleep.
THE MORNING ROLLED in quietly, leaving us restless and edgy. I didn’t know what I expected—Clay and Alicia leading a parade of tanks down Main Street, maybe. And when the strange pack seemed to coil out of the trees like mist, I thought I was seeing things. There were thirty or so of them, fewer than half of what we had gathered against them. They were so young, a handful of them as old as me, with the rest in their late teens. They all had that lean, ragged, wary look of someone who’s had to survive. I wondered where they’d been while Clay and Alicia spied on us. How close had they been all this time?
The kids were trailing behind, holding on to the hands of a few older ladies, including Ronnie and Paul, who were waving at us. I realized then that Jonas had probably done the exact thing we’d done, all those years ago. He’d left the kids with the older women, while he marched off to conquer their “new home.” And he’d never come back. I thought of my mom, taking care of dozens of kids, waiting for news. And my throat grew a little tight.
I felt the pack align behind me, watched as my packmates guarding the borders paced them on four paws as they entered our territory. A chorus of growls sounded behind me, and I felt several of my packmates phase as Clay sauntered toward me. I held up my hand, and the sounds faded to a dull, constant grumble. The light glinted off his light brown hair, and he grinned that same crooked smile at me, but it was hollow, a stupid boy’s ploy to try to cover the fact that he was scared shitless.
When Jay and Ron, who were part of the escort, sniffed a little too close, I made a little warning growl, and they backed off immediately. Yes, they were excited and twitching for a fight, but these were the situations where you had to listen to your alpha if you wanted to get out unscathed. I felt my fear and my anger subside a little. This wasn’t the snarling, hate-filled foe I was expecting. They were a bunch of scared kids.
Clay stopped just a few feet in front of me, and I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. He looked so much like his father now, minus the crazy eyes. Clay gave me a hard stare, and I returned it.
“What now?” I asked him, my head tilting.
Clay looked a little startled at my light and conversational tone. Not at all like my more recent threats to “end him.”
“You know why we’re here, I just can’t believe you were dumb enough to stick around.”
My voice so low only he could hear me, I said, “Clay, I think we both know what’s going to happen if I give an order for my pack to take yours. Please don’t make me do it.”
“You’re not giving me a choice,” he whispered, glancing over his shoulder. His jaw was so tense I could hear his teeth grinding.
“Do you want to talk privately?” I asked.
“What, so you can drag me off to the woods and let one of your uncles rip my throat out?” he said loudly enough so the rest of his pack could hear.
I growled. “Clay, stop being a jackass,” I snarled. “You bring your second, I’ll bring mine.” Samson stepped forward and gazed longingly at Alicia, which was not appreciated by one of the younger males in Clay’s pack. I added loudly, “And everyone here will behave themselves like good boys and girls!”
Uncle Jay, wolfed out and ready to go, huffed and rolled his canine eyes.
I led Clay to a little clearing behind the clinic, with Samson and Alicia trailing on our heels. The farther we got away from Main Street, the more Clay’s shoulders seemed to sag. By the time we reached our destination, he looked liked a haggard old man.
“OK, this is just us here, and when we leave, no one’s going to know what was said, right Samson?” Samson was busy giving Alicia moon eyes. “Samson?”
I looked across the clearing to see Alicia giving him the same stupid look. I rolled my eyes. “Never mind.”
“Before we go any further, I have to ask, did you hurt Billie?” I asked. “And I’m not just talking about at the end. Did you ever lay a hand on my aunt?”
“We wouldn’t have hurt Billie,” Alicia insisted, her eyes welling up with unexpected tears. “We actually liked the old lady, no matter how many butter knives she threw at me. She reminded us of our own aunties. And she had these moments, I think, when she knew we weren’t who we said we were, but she knew that we were taking care of her. I always thought of those as her good days.”
Clay shook his head. “I’m a lot of things, but I wouldn’t hurt a defenseless old woman.”
“What happened the day she died?” I asked.
Alicia wrung her hands a little bit, looking more at Samson than at me. “When I left, she was napping, I just wanted to take the kids out for a breath of fresh air. I just wanted to get out of the house for a few minutes. I wasn’t even gone that long, just long enough for Paul to need a fresh pull-up. I came back, and you were there, and she was dead.”
I looked to Samson, who seemed relieved. And although I didn’t quite trust his skewed judgment on the subject, I found I believed her. Why would they lie at this point? They didn’t have much to lose. If anything, Clay would have used killing Billie to provoke me into a fight when he was outed.
“OK, and I want honesty here, what about the brakes on my truck? Or the break-in at my office? Or me getting my head bagged that day we went for a run together? Or Samson getting shot?”
Alicia shook her head. “Honestly, no. We were just as surprised by all that as you were. The sneakiest thing we did was tell our packmates where the video cameras were planted, so they could sniff around without being seen.”
“We came here to watch you, to try to find a way in,” Clay said. “That was all.”
“Considering your dad tried to kill my whole family, I have a hard time believing that.”
He shot back, “Well, your brother did kill my entire family.”
“He was provoked!” I yelled.
“Don’t you think I’ve considered that?” Clay yelled back. He took a steadying breath. Several inquiring howls drifted up from the valley. “Look, I see my Dad’s mistakes. What he did was wrong. But he was still my dad. Do you know what happened after your precious brother killed my father? We’d been drifting around for months, nomads, before Dad finally decided to make a move on your valley. There were only three old women left to take care of us. Our parents were supposed to come back, take us to our new home. We went to bed, feeling like it was Christmas Eve. When we woke up, everything was going to be different. No more sleeping in the woods. No more bathing at campgrounds, when we were lucky. No more shifting around without a home. And it was different, all right. We woke up, and my aunt Sarah was crying. She didn’t know what had happened. She and Aunt Linda waited and waited for my parents, for the other adults to come back. But they never did. I was too young to join the fight but old enough to know that we’d been screwed out of what was ours. That my mom and dad were dead, and I couldn’t let that go unpunished. Aunt Linda tried to convince me that it was time to forget, to move on. When she died, I found letters from my dad to Eli, plans for the new pack they were setting up.
“So I contacted our good friend Eli. I told him I was going to blow his whole ‘man of the people’ thing wide open. I wanted to meet him, but he kept putting me off, said he had an ailing mother to care for. It made it hard for him to find time. Your brother killed him off before we could meet up, so he wasn’t of much use. But thanks to his letters, it was easy to tell you some nice story about being Billie’s long-lost relatives. You were so willing to let us step in, to let us take care of Billie. It was disappointing, really. I thought you’d put up more of a fight. I thought you’d be less trusting. But we moved right in. Hell, you practically rolled out a red carpet. And we stayed, and we stayed, and hell, I even started to like it here a little bit. And the whole time, I kept going back to my pack and telling them to be patient; just a little longer, and we’ll have the home we always deserved. And then Billie died, and it all went to hell.”
“But why did you come back now?” I asked him, scanning his pack. “You knew how many of us would be here. Why would you come back, knowing that we could destroy you?”