“I thought if I came along and helped you, it would be a good ice breaker. But the lines failed before I expected them to. I was waiting at the halfway point, waiting for you to pass by so I could follow. But you never showed. I doubled back, and I found your truck. I found you with him—”
He turned on Nick. “What else?” I barked, demanding his attention. His head swung toward me, his eyes sharp and indignant. I softened my voice. “What else don’t I know about? I just—I need to know what I owe you, Lee. Please. I just want to make it up to you. Every single thing you did. I owe you. Did you set fire to my office?”
He sneered, nudging Nick hard with his foot. “Yeah, I thought it would be a good chance for us to spend time together. I called you up, offered my pack as backup for patrols. I wanted to show you how helpful I could be, how considerate. I made sure I was partnered up with you. But no, you took off, the first chance you got. You ran to him! I followed your scent to his house. I saw the two of you on his couch—”
I stepped closer, and Lee tensed. I moved sideways, drawing Lee a step away from Nick. I forced the corners of my mouth up. “What about the cliff ? Please explain to me what you were trying to do.”
“I wanted to show you how much you needed me. I figured I’d scare you, show you how easily you could get hurt. I’d rough you up a little and pretend to chase off the guy who was hurting you. That’s why I put the bag over your head. To keep you from seeing me. And then he came running after you and ruined everything again.”
“You rubbed yourself with dryer sheets to try to cover up your scent, right?” I interjected as he turned his gaze on Nick. “So I wouldn’t recognize it? That was pretty smart. Tell me how you came up with that idea.”
Lee must have picked up on the undercurrent of tension in my voice, because he shook his head and returned his attention to the rope. “No. You’re just trying to find something wrong with me. Like you always do, you’re trying to find some reason not to be with me. You drive me crazy, don’t you see that? If you’d just settled down with me, I wouldn’t have done all these crazy things. I never would hurt Samson or you or Billie—” He bit down on the last word, as if he could keep it from escaping.
My mouth wouldn’t seem to work right. “Billie?” tumbled from my lips in a mangled gasp.
“It was an accident!” Lee cried. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. Uncle Frank told me how you thought so much of Clay, like you were ready to make him your second. I went into the house to try to get some dirt on him, something to get you to stay away from him. Billie came downstairs and freaked out. She said I didn’t belong in her house, and she came after me with a kitchen knife! The crazy old bat almost nicked me. I pushed her back, and she fell and hit her head on the counter. It was an accident.”
“She was a sick old woman.”
“It wasn’t my fault!” Lee yelled. He glared at Nick. “None of this would have happened if he’d just stayed away!”
“No!” I cried, putting myself between them. Lee grabbed at my arms, shaking me. “This is my fault, not Nick’s. Don’t punish him for something I did.”
“This is your fault. You messed everything up,” he told me. “You’re my mate, mine! I’m supposed to be the one who helps you lead. I’m supposed to be the one you have babies with. This is all your fault!”
I shoved Lee away, putting some ground between him and Nick. “According to who? When have I ever even implied I feel anything for you?”
The sudden change in attitude seemed to shock him. He sneered. “You think you’re too good for me? You let him touch you. You’d be lucky to have me.”
“I didn’t just let him touch me,” I said, licking my lips. “He had every little piece of me. I chose him. I mated with him. I could be carrying his pup for all you know.”
“No!” he screamed. “You selfish whore!”
He phased on the fly and leaped at me. I jumped, blocking his body from colliding with Nick.
I thought of all the times I let my own fears, my stupid insecurities, my dumb-ass pride push me away from the only person I’d truly loved. And I pushed back. I pushed and I shoved, digging my paws into the dirt, scrambling for purchase.
Lee huffed, battering his head against my flank, trying to throw me off balance. He seemed to give up, turning on his heel and cowering away into the trees. I didn’t drop my guard. I’d seen Lee do this any number of times when he was roughhousing with my brothers. He’d act hurt or submissive and pretend to slink away, only to turn and suckerpunch his opponent. I braced myself for his coming strike.
He didn’t disappoint, turning suddenly and lunging, springing at me full-force. I pushed up, phasing to my feet and shoving my hands against Lee’s belly. I pivoted, throwing his weight over my shoulder. He yelped as his rear paws slid over the edge of the cliff, his front paws scrabbling over the dirt, catching Nick’s legs. He dug, trying to pull himself up, but all he was doing was dragging Nick over with him. I grabbed Nick’s arms, digging my heels into the ground. Between Lee’s weight and Nick’s, I could hardly hold them. Seeing that I held on to Nick, Lee bit down on the leg of Nick’s jeans. His eyes were defiant, daring me to let him die, knowing that it would mean losing Nick, too.
I snarled at him, grunting as I threaded my arms under Nick’s and yanked with all my strength. I’d managed to pull Nick’s knees up onto solid ground when I heard the sound of fabric tearing. Lee’s wolfen eyes widened as the waistband separated from the pockets of Nick’s jeans, and the denim lifeline he was counting on started sliding down Nick’s leg. Lee scratched and scrambled, but he was fighting a losing battle with gravity. His paws were still frantically clawing for a grip as he slipped over the rock face. He howled as his body hurtled toward the ground. I shuddered when the howl abruptly ended.
I gave in to the need to relax my arms for just a second, to ease the screaming muscles. It took that brief instant to realize what a huge mistake it was, as Nick’s weight shifted, and his legs slipped over the edge. “No, no, no!” I grunted, desperately scrabbling my left hand over the dirt to grip the end of the fraying climbing rope. As the dead weight of Nick’s torso pulled him away from me, I wound the rope around his wrist.
The rope slipped through my hand, burning and biting into the flesh of my palms as Nick free-fell. The elastic rope stretched under Nick’s weight as he dropped. The loop closed around Nick’s wrist and held him suspended as he flopped against the rock face. “Ow!” I heard him yelp. “What the hell?”
“Nick!” I yelled, leaning over the edge. The loose knot Lee had tied around the tree slipped open and let Nick drop again. He was now a good fifteen feet below me, hanging over the open maw of the mountain.
“Oh, come on!” I shrieked as the looped cord tightened around my hands again, tearing my skin. The bleeding wounds on my palms made the rope slippery. I couldn’t keep a good grip on Nick’s lifeline.
He squinted up at me, confused, angry . . . well, mostly confused. “Maggie, what the hell is going on?”
“I need you to calm down, OK?” I shouted. “That rope is frayed, and I don’t think I can hold you. I need you to find a good grip and climb up.”
“Using what?” he yelled.
“Your monkey-man skills!” I yelled. “Just shut up and climb, damn it! I’m losing my grip!”
I felt the tension on the rope slack slowly. I peered over the edge to see Nick curling his fingers around a rough knob of rock. He let go of the rope entirely, digging his fingers into a divot. He found a foothold and pulled up. His eyes locked with mine as his hand stretched toward another hold. His grip faltered, and his right hand slipped.
“Don’t look at me! Look at the rocks! If you fall to your death because you were being all moony and sentimental, I’m going to kick your ass!”
“Which will be a bit of a moot point, since I’ll be dead!” he shouted back.
“Don’t say that!”
Ignoring me, he focused on finding the right place, the right hold. Again and again, until he was within an arm’s reach. I tucked my arms under his shoulders, yanking him up as his legs gave one last push.
I buried my face in Nick’s neck as he landed on top of me. He huffed, “How do you find time to yell at me, even when I’m dangling over my certain death?”
I clutched his face in my hands, looking him over for signs of permanent damage. I kissed his cheeks, his nose, his mouth, and clutched him close to the point where he had difficulty breathing.
If I hadn’t just inadvertently killed a distant cousin, I would have found Nick’s nearly bare ass and lost boots sort of funny. He’d been pantsed by a falling werewolf.
OK, that was sort of funny.
I started giggling, recognizing even as the laughter bubbled from my lips that it was a hysterical response. But damn it, I’d nearly lost my fiancé to a secret stalker, whom I’d been too blind to recognize, and the only thing that had saved said fiancé was really old jeans and his ability to channel Spider-Man.
“Nick?” I sniffed, pushing his bloodied hair away from the gash in his forehead.
He looked down and saw the frayed belt loops ringing his waist, belt buckle still intact. “I’m not wearing any pants.”
“I know,” I said, laughing as tears streamed down my cheeks, splattering onto his face.
He winced as he tried to sit up. He thought better of it and lay back down. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. So much. I just want to spend the rest of my life with you, loving you and doing stupid, girlie romantic crap until the day I die.”
He grinned, patting my head. “That’s nice of you.”
I laughed, pressing my lips to his forehead.
He closed his eyes and rested his chin on top of my head. “So . . . what happened to my pants?”
Going to the Chapel, ’Cause I’m Obviously Crazy
I HAD TO LOVE THIS guy.
Otherwise, I would not be standing here in this stupid clearing, wearing this stupid, foofy white dress, waiting for my brother to walk me down a makeshift aisle.
There was a light dusting of snow on the ground, which Mo assured me gave everything a sort of “fairy-tale quality.” I’ll be honest. I didn’t care much. I just wanted to be married.
I walked down the aisle. Clay, who was standing awfully close to Teresa, waggled his eyebrows at me. I waggled mine right back.
Clay and I were a lot more comfortable as co-pack leaders than we ever were dating. And it was a damn good thing, because between the online college classes I was taking and the honeymoon Nick had planned, I was going to need him to keep an eye on things for a while. I’d never been farther than Seattle, and now I was going on a honeymoon. I had no idea where we were going. All Nick would tell me was that we would start with a ferry ride to Bellingham.
A few of Clay’s younger packmates snickered at my Cinderella getup, earning them a smack on the back of their heads from Alicia. I winked at her. Blending the two packs hadn’t been easy. For one thing, we didn’t have room for everybody. We had to bring in a bunch of trailers for temporary housing, which were hideously expensive thanks to the difficulty involved in moving them to the middle of nowhere. Thank you very much, fiancé with unlimited financial resources.
Nick was also paying a huge crew of construction workers secret double overtime to finish the dozen or so new houses we needed for the new-arrival families. And then, of course, there was the jealousy over the newbies getting brand-new houses while some of our people had been living in the same cramped places for more than forty years. So when the crew wasn’t completing new construction, they were doing renovations.