“Oh!” Alicia said, nearly dropping her laundry basket as she came through the kitchen door. Alicia was a compact little female, with short-cropped dark blond hair. She smiled, seeming relieved that the surprise guest in her kitchen was me.
“Sorry, Alicia, I just stopped by to see how Billie’s doing. I knocked, but . . .”
“I was in the laundry room,” she said, putting the laundry basket on the table and surveying the gummy mess on her counter. “I didn’t hear you. Did Maggie give you a ’nana, little man?”
Paul grinned at her, his cheeks puffed out with fruit. “Nana!”
“Clay’s going to be at our place for dinner,” I told her. “Did you want to join us?”
Alicia smiled, ruffling Paul’s hair. “Thanks, but we’ve got a pretty good routine going. And any interruption to that routine kind of sets Billie off.”
“Does this sort of thing happen often?” I asked, setting Paul down as he strained toward the living room. I’d served my purpose as the ’nana provider, and the theme music for Barney was starting up. It’s hard to compete with that chipper purple bastard.
Alicia shrugged, giving me a tired smile. “She has good days and bad. Today hasn’t been a good day.”
“Do you guys need anything?”
The village kept an account to pay for most of the pack’s seniors’ groceries and medicine, including Billie’s. Alicia moved to a little Filofax by the phone and handed me a short stack of receipts for reimbursement. She watched as Billie continued to make sandwiches. “Well, it looks like we need more bread and peanut butter.”
Billie turned, as if she was just now registering Alicia’s presence. “Who are you?” she asked, suspicion creeping into her voice. “What are you doing in my kitchen?”
Alicia sighed, and smiled at her. “I’m Alicia. I’m your sister Judy’s daughter.”
“I don’t know you!” Billie cried, throwing the butter knife across the room at her. Alicia plucked it out of the air, looking tired and worn.
“She does this at least once a day,” Alicia told me. “I’m your niece, Aunt Billie. We’re here to help take care of you.”
“I don’t know you! I don’t know you!” Billie yelled, throwing herself toward me. “Maggie, make her go away. Tell Eli. Tell him I don’t want her in my house! I don’t want strangers in my house!”
I looked to Alicia for guidance. She was more accustomed to Billie’s episodes than I was. Looking sort of tired and resigned, Alicia reached up into one of the cabinets and pulled out a pill bottle. She put a little white tablet in my hand with a juice box. “Nap,” she mouthed.
“Billie, we’ll get this all straightened out, OK?” I said, putting my arm around her and leading her to her room. The dresser was dusty. And the sheets looked as if they hadn’t been changed in a while. Alicia wasn’t much of a housekeeper. Then again, I couldn’t imagine trying to keep up with two toddlers and a senile werewolf who occasionally played knife thrower.
“I don’t know her,” Billie whispered. “Tell Eli I don’t want her in the house, please?”
“I will,” I promised. “But why don’t you just stay here in your room for a while, get some rest? Eli and I will work this out.”
I handed her the pill, which she took without a fuss, and she drank the juice. I lifted her legs onto the bed and pulled the blankets up to her chin. “You’re a good girl, Maggie,” Billie said, her voice slurring slightly from the pill’s effects. “I don’t care what Eli says.”
I smiled. “Thanks, Aunt Billie.”
I walked home, feeling a bit deflated. Alicia’s intentions were good, but she was stretched so thin. Billie wasn’t exactly cooperative. And Clay didn’t seem to know what to do with the kids. I started composing a schedule in my head, arranging for the aunties to come by and give Alicia a break—give her some help with Billie and maybe even watch the boys, so Alicia could do some errands or just go for a run.
I stomped the mud off my boots and shucked them near the front door, knowing better than to track dirt into Grace Graham’s house. I might be the baddest, toughest wolf in my pack, but there are still times when my mother can make me cower like a newborn pup.
Mom never had much money while we were growing up, but her home was a showplace. The living room was meticulously clean, decorated with scattered photos of Cooper, Samson, and me in various stages of childhood. The walls were a warm, creamy color. A bright blue throw rug was settled comfortably in front of a large brick fireplace. On the mantle were three carved wooden wolves that Cooper made with his own hands. The house pulled you in, made you feel instantly at ease and at home. While other wolves might disarm you with fangs or claws, my mother did it with kind words and good meals.
“Something smells good!” I called, inhaling the scent of my mother’s chicken and dumplings. She served huge vats of it with fresh, crusty sourdough and as much of her homemade applesauce as you could eat. “I hope it’s OK, we’re going to have some company for dinner.”
“Yes, I know!” she called back. “I’m in the kitchen.”
I rounded the corner and heard Nick Thatcher in mid-sentence, “There are a lot of theories about where exactly the line between man and animal is drawn. Psychologically, spiritually, physically. Where do the two lines split on the evolutionary scale? Is the missing link some step along the way? Or could legends that link man and animal be signs of a step forward? A mix of the best of both worlds.”
Nick freaking Thatcher was sitting at my kitchen table while my mother served him chamomile tea and a piece of her special apple cake. My favorite apple cake.
“Oh, my God! Is nothing sacred?” I howled.
Faced with my mental tormentor, the interrupter of sleep, and his head-clouding scent, I’d expected to feel awkward and bashful again. But mostly, I felt anger. Sweet, clarifying anger. Who the hell did he think he was, waltzing into my valley, with his stupid feet under my table, eating my freaking cake?
His feet did look awfully big, I noticed, biting my lip. And from what I could gather from a lifetime spent around men who were comfortable in the nude, the old wives’ tales about foot size tended to be accurate.
Focus, Maggie, I commanded my wandering brain. My eyelid actually twitched when he looked up at me.
“Hi, Maggie, it’s nice to see you again,” he said, smiling so sweetly I thought I might need insulin.
“Your work sounds so interesting, Nick,” Mom said, ignoring my outburst and turning back to the stove to stir the contents of a huge iron pot. “But how do you even study something like that?”
Nick smiled. “Eyewitness accounts. As many police reports as I can get my hands on. Local legends. Scientists tend to downplay the importance of oral history.”
While he ticked down the list with his long, strong fingers, my mouth went dry. My worst fears were confirmed. He was just smart enough to be dangerous.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded, tired of being ignored.
“Well, I thought we got off on the wrong foot the other day, so I wanted to come by and try to make a better second impression. Your mom was nice enough to keep me company while I waited and serve me some of this delicious cake.”
I scowled. I had to stop thinking about the cake. And Nick. And Nick smeared in cake icing. I glared at my mother. Clearly, this conspiracy was wider spread than I thought. I gritted my teeth and reached for my mother’s cake plate.
“No cake for you,” Mom said, smacking my hand away. “You’ll spoil your dinner.”
“He has some!” I pointed out, shaking my smarting fingers.
“He’s a guest.”
I narrowed my eyes at Nick while he smarmily chewed on a big bite of cake.
He would pay for this. Dearly.
“And I wanted to ask about your brother’s suggestion that you’d show me around. I’d be more than happy to pay you whatever you’d charge for guiding me around the trails. I’ve hiked around a little bit myself. But I haven’t seen much in the way of wildlife. Your brother has such a solid reputation in the field guide community, I was hoping you might show me the best places to look.”
“I just don’t have the time,” I lied.
“Nick, you’re going to stay for dinner, yes?” Mom asked, stirring the huge vat of chicken and dumplings on the stove. She had a knack for relieving the tension in a room by pretending my rudeness away with cooking. Many, many chickens had given up their lives to cover my conversational shortcomings.
“No, he’s not.”
“Maggie, I know you have better manners than that.”
Damn it. Mom was right. Werewolves have this whole thing about hospitality and making sure that guests are safe and well served. Guests never left werewolf land hungry or unhappy. I was behaving very badly, and I should have been ashamed, even if I wanted to make him swallow that stupid Yankees cap along with my cake.
I cleared my throat, recognizing when my mother had been pushed too far. “I’m sorry. What I meant to say was that Samson already invited Clay for dinner,” I said. “I wouldn’t want Nick to be uncomfortable.”
“Oh, I don’t mind,” Nick said, his cheek dimpling.
“Shut it,” I hissed under my breath.
He smirked at me and pushed back from the table, pausing to scrape one last bite from the plate. Just to irritate me. “I’d love to stay, Gracie. And as much as I appreciate the invitation, I’ve got to head back to Grundy before it gets dark,” he said, packing his little notebook into his messenger bag. “I’m moving out of the motel into a rental place in town.”
“Yes, Mr. Gogan set it up for me,” he said, hitching his bag onto his shoulder. “I think the owner’s name is Quinn?”
My lip rippled back from my teeth just a tiny bit. Susie Q had been the first person Eli attacked the year before. She’d had to move in with her daughter in Texas because of her injuries. I wondered if he’d chosen the house on purpose or if it was a coincidence. More important, renting a house meant Nick was planning to stay in Grundy for more than just a “little research trip.” And despite the fact that I knew this was a bad thing, I couldn’t help but be a little happy about it.
“Could I have a rain check?” he asked my mother.
“Absolutely. Anytime you’re close by, come on over,” she said, shaking his hand. “It was lovely to meet you.”
“He’s a nice boy,” Mom told me as Nick shrugged into his jacket and moved toward the front door. “He has good manners.”
“You cannot invite a man into your home just because he calls you ma’am,” I reminded her.
“What if he has eyes the color of the morning sky and a butt that won’t quit?” she whispered.
She lowered her voice to a range only she and I could hear. “I’m middle-aged, sweetheart. I’m not dead.”
My mother had been widowed young, and she hadn’t been on so much as a movie date since. It was starting to show. Filing that under “problems I have to solve before they become psychologically traumatic,” I followed Nick onto the porch.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to pull,” I told him as he took the steps. “But I want you to stay away from the valley. You’ll scare the locals . . . or annoy them into kicking your ass.”
He seemed honestly insulted, frowning up at me and pouting those soft-looking, pouty, full, pouty lips . . . and there went my train of thought. . .
“Why don’t you like me?” he asked. “I’m a fairly likable person. I could get you testimonials from a half-dozen or so people.”