“Oh, you can move your schedule around,” Mo said, grinning at me. “Your hours are pretty flexible.”
OK, that was going too far. Being an unofficial official for the pack meant settling disputes between pack members, monitoring the wildlife (i.e., food sources) available around the valley, controlling the pack when we ran together. And it’s hard to find a day job that will accept “got kicked in the ribs by an agitated moose” as a reason to call in sick. The village paid me a salary for maintaining records and appearances at the town hall. And I was the closest thing there was to law enforcement in my valley. I didn’t have time to escort the yummy doctor around by the nose.
OK, that wasn’t true. I spent a good portion of my “work day” bored out of my ever-loving mind. But no one, particularly the yummy doctor, had to know that.
“Mo, my hours are none of your business,” I said through a clenched, fake smile.
Nick shrugged, and the motion brought his arm brushing across my shoulder. It felt as if a warm electric current had passed through my skin. I held my breath, willing away the tremor that skittered up my spine.
“Well, if you find a way to fit me into your schedule, let me know. I’ll probably just wander around the eastern butte for a few days, take in the sights,” he said. “I’m a climber, and I’m eager to see what sort of trouble I can get into around here.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked. The eastern side of the Wheeler Mountains range was where Buzz had uncovered the bones of hikers who disappeared the previous year. “That’s not exactly a beginner’s slope.”
“I’m not exactly a beginner,” he said, smiling.
“So says every goofball who manages to hike across the parking lot to a sporting-goods store and buy a North Face jacket,” I muttered.
“You’re saying I need a guide.”
“So, you’ll go with me,” he said, as if the matter were obvious and settled.
“Ye—wait, no. Wait, what?” I spluttered.
“I’ll give you a call to settle the details,” he said, nodding at Cooper and Mo. “It was nice to meet you all.”
He turned and walked out of the saloon, leaving me gaping after him.
What just happened?
“Are you high?” I asked Mo, slapping her arm. “Why did you guys tell him that I would show him around?” Evie shot me a sharp look, and I lowered my voice. “This is the man who wants to reveal our existence to the world, and you want to set me up with him? Are you and Cooper that desperate to double date?”
“No, I figured this was the best way to keep him out of our hair. He’s your problem now. What better way to keep an eye on him than to accompany him on his investigation? He gets nothing but goes home happy. You . . . get a little something and go home a lot less cranky,” Mo suggested, giggling unrepentantly when my brother winced. “What? After watching you talk to him, I think we should change our approach. Keep our enemies close, so to speak. Hell, maybe you could convince him that a Sasquatch did it or something.”
“Nah, we couldn’t do that,” Cooper said. “Sasquatch is a pretty nice guy.”
“Sasquatch is real, too?” Mo whispered. “Why do I have to find things out like this? I’m in the family, too.”
“Look, we don’t speak to Thatcher,” I told Cooper as Mo dashed back to the kitchen to check on some pies in the oven. “We don’t take him into the woods. Nothing. As far as we’re concerned, Dr. Thatcher doesn’t exist.”
“Is that a decree from the alpha?” Cooper asked, lowering his tone to a whisper.
“Do I need to make it a decree, or do you have the sense to admit that we need to stay away from him?” I asked.
“What’s the verdict?” Mo asked, coming back to refill Cooper’s coffee mug and top off my Coke.
“Maggie said she doesn’t want us talking to him,” Cooper said, sipping his coffee. “No visits, no tours, no spilling of ancient family secrets.”
Mo frowned. “I don’t think you’re giving us a whole lot of credit. I think I’m clever enough to maintain a friendly conversation without vomiting up forbidden information. I have just as much to lose as you two. And if he tries to interview me, I’ll just tell him I’m afraid his pocket recorder will capture my soul or something. Come on. Maggie finally has a crush on somebody. This is going to be better than one of those Japanese game shows.”
I glared at her.
She shrugged. “For the rest of us.”
“One of these days, I’m going to catch you without your trusty fire extinguisher. And then your ass is mine.”
“Bring it on, Scrappy Doo.”
Chuck Norris and the Calendar of Death
I SAT AT MY DESK in the community center/town hall, writing out the whopping four paychecks the village issued each week. One to myself; one to our village physician, Anna Moder; one to my cousin Teresa, who taught twenty-six kids in all twelve grades at the village school; and another to my gargantuan cousin-but-might-as-well-be-my-brother, Samson, who was the closest thing we had to a civil engineer. He delivered the mail, ran our modest recycling program, and maintained our handful of public buildings. He also occasionally fell asleep while driving a snowplow, but he was such a cheerful guy it was hard to stay pissed at him. Besides, every village needed an idiot.
I didn’t live in a normal little town. Every single household in my valley was either were or descended from were. And I was related to each and every person there on one side or the other, and I’m very aware of how wrong that sounds.
Dating as a werewolf is complicated, particularly for packs in the Great North. Every pack has to maintain close relationships with other packs and “import” mates at every opportunity, to prevent inbreeding. You practically have to review your extended genealogical history before you can agree to a movie and dinner.
This might sound isolated and sort of claustrophobic, but wolves don’t know any other way. A pack generally lives in close quarters, filling an apartment complex, a subdivision, or a gated community in the case of more urban, affluent clans. In southern packs, it usually means parking a number of double-wide trailers on a farm. For us, it was a self-contained, nearly self-sustaining, community surrounded by some of the richest hunting lands known in the Great Northwest.
Not that I like to brag or anything.
I munched on a handful of red Swedish Fish I kept in a huge apothecary jar on my desk. I had to refill the damn thing about once a week, depending on how often Samson stopped by. The rest of my morning would consist of checking on a pothole in the parking lot of the village clinic and writing up a schedule for the community center that might finally settle the ongoing feud between the local quilting group and the bridge club.
It was good to be the queen.
OK, so I had the most boring job in the village. I considered it a trade-off because the rest of my responsibilities—running, hunting, protecting the borders of the valley, and so on—were pretty awesome. And busting my ass for a few hours that morning meant I could get a few precious moments of quiet and read the copy of the new J. D. Robb paperback I had hidden in my filing cabinet. I wasn’t a classics girl, despite Mo’s best efforts. The woman actually bought me a subscription to the English Writer of the Month Club. I was shameless in my supermarket-shelf mass-market taste. I loved King, Evanovich, Grisham, and Brown. I won’t lie; the official-looking filing cabinet in the corner is actually stuffed full of my paperbacks.
I might have been reading at that very moment, if I could manage to concentrate long enough to write a damn check correctly. I’d slept about three hours each night since my humiliating meeting with Nick Thatcher. I kept waking up all sweaty and tangled up in the sheets, with visions of his cheeky little grin still dancing behind my eyelids.
Jumpy and irritated, I spent hours trying to get back to sleep, only to end up stomping out of the house to run through the woods on all fours. It was the only thing that could clear my head. By the time I got back to the house, everybody was bustling around town. And it hardly served as a good example for me to flop back into bed. Lazy never works for wolves. Read a few fables. So, for the last four days, I’d basically been skimming by on caffeine and luck.
Beyond day-to-day operations, I also served as a sort of figurehead for the pack. I was “the face” for the valley and its inhabitants. And that face had some pretty serious undereye luggage. Now that I was alpha, the pressure for me to settle down and birth a litter went from good-natured rumbling at holidays to an all-out roar. I couldn’t walk from my office to my house without one of my relatives accosting me with some promise of the man of my dreams.
While a lot of girls—particularly girls living in one of the most remote, eligible-werewolf-bachelor-starved regions in the world—would be thrilled to have such a devoted network of matchmakers, I thought about following in the shoes of Jan Brady and making up my own “George Glass” to get them off my back. Most of their recommendations were either far more interested in becoming the alpha for my pack than in me as a person. Or they were more interested in Samson than they were in me—which was disappointing. Then there were Cro-Magnon wolves who hadn’t quite grasped the whole “females are my equal” concept.
I was not counting on a love match. Not everybody had a marriage like my parents’. My mother had come from a pack in Oregon. She moved to Alaska after meeting my dad on one of his rare trips to the mainland. He came into her uncle’s garage to get a part for some motorcycle Samson’s dad wanted. My mom was doing the books in the office. She looked up and smiled at him, and he was so distracted by that smile that he walked into a wall. Dad died when I was a baby, but Cooper told me a lot of stories about what I’d missed growing up. The silly jokes, the googly eyes, Dad bringing bunches of wildflowers to her when he came home from a run. He once told Cooper that the trick to a happy life was to find the person you can’t breathe without and marry her.
How was any guy I chose going to compete with that sort of romantic goo?
So, given my candidate pool, marriage and kids weren’t exactly things I was looking forward to. I loved Eva. I loved cuddling her, the sweet apple and baby-shampoo smell that radiated from that crazy hair. But the best part was that I could give her back. When the cuteness was over and she had a smelly diaper or a tantrum, I could just claim ignorance and hand her over to Mo, who somehow had the patience needed to deal with stuff like that.
I was basically a selfish creature. I liked sleeping and being able to leave the house without making sure I had a half-dozen toys and a Baggie full of Cheerios. But not having kids wasn’t an option. For one thing, I wasn’t planning on dying a virgin. And in my family, if you have sex, you’re going to have kids. And second, I sort of owed it to my bloodline to pass the werewolf magic along.
It seemed blatantly unfair that I seemed to be suffering from some hormone surge when Nick Thatcher came into the picture. Clearly, some wire labeled “Don’t mess around with men who could ruin your life” had short-circuited in my brain. I’d known plenty of guys with big blue eyes, guys with pouty, kissable lips, guys who smelled like Sunday lunch. I’d just never met one who had all three qualities.
That was the problem. It was all looks. It was my primal brain at work. It wasn’t that he was smart or funny or that he actually managed to thwart me in conversation, which until now, no one but Mo could do. And it definitely wasn’t because I’d developed some weird, creepy, stalker-at-first-fascination thing with him. . .
As hard as I tried to shrug off his thrall, Nick just kept popping up, like one of those damn plastic whack-a-moles. First, I found out my cousin, Evie’s husband, Buzz, unaware of his wolfy in-laws’ involvement in the debacle, had given Nick an extensive interview about his search for the killer wolf. Alan Dahling had taken Nick up the mountain to the area where Walt and Hank had shot the huge male timber wolf we were letting the public believe was responsible for the attacks. I had to hand it to Nick, he was good at his job. If you considered being a giant pain in my supernatural ass a job.