“My mom doesn’t count,” I spat.
He objected, “Your mom should count twice. She loves me.”
“No shit,” I deadpanned. “Why are you here, Dr. Thatcher? Why are you so hell-bent on spending time around me?”
“I like you,” he said, shrugging. “You’re funny and prickly, which works for me. You know you’re beautiful, but you don’t seem to care about it all that much. And your bullshit tolerance is low—”
“Then you should realize that I’m not buying your answer.”
“Fine.” He lowered his voice and leaned ever so slightly toward me. We were at eye level and so close I could feel his warm, frosting-scented breath fanning over my cheek, making my mouth water. I could almost feel the burnt-gold strands of his hair brushing against my skin. “Besides hoping to charm you into a date, which is obviously not working, you know exactly why I’m here, Maggie. Your family can’t expect to protect Mo forever.”
Insert awkward pause in which I stare at Nick as if he’s whistling “O Canada” out of his left nostril.
“Wait . . . what?”
“Your sister-in-law has been sweet, polite, downright hospitable. But she has an uncanny way of wiggling out of answering questions.”
Hmm. Mo was way smarter than I gave her credit for. But I would never, ever tell her that to her face. I scoffed. “Why would you even talk to Mo?”
“Because I studied the reports for the wolf attacks last year. Do you realize that besides the occasional bar fight, there’s nothing in the state police reports even mentioning Grundy for the last two years until Mo reported being attacked by a trucker named John Teague?” he asked. I gave a noncommittal nod, so he just barreled on. “And then, all of a sudden, there’s a rash of wolf attacks around town. And wolf attacks are pretty rare. Wolves don’t normally come close enough to humans to attack them.”
“Unless they’re sick, which was Alan Dahling’s theory about the timber wolf Walt and Hank shot last year,” I told him.
“That wolf wasn’t nearly big enough to leave the bite marks left on Abner Golightly. And it certainly wasn’t big enough to kill two fully grown hikers,” he said. “Look, everything seemed to start with Mo. And she was connected to each of the attacks thereafter. She took in Susan Quinn’s dog. The missing hikers ate at the saloon just before they disappeared. She found Abner in the woods. Everything comes back to her. I think that Mo could be something more than human. And I think you and your family are helping her cover it up.”
If he was trying to imply that Mo was a werewolf, I was going to pee myself laughing. Wait, I think I was going to do that anyway. I had propped myself against the siding and was trying to contain the loud, hiccupping guffaws. “So, you think my sister-in-law, the shorthand cook, loving wife, and mother, is a werewolf?”
Somehow he managed to say with a straight face, “I think it’s possible that John Teague was a werewolf and that somehow, when he attacked Mo, he changed her.”
And now I was back to laughing. “That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard!”
“Why? There are shape-shifting legends found in almost every civilization. The Central Asian stories about snakes that could assume human form and the Japanese kitsune, fox spirits that were able to become beautiful women. When you go westward, you find the Wendigo, the Deer Woman, skinwalkers—”
“What does this have to do my with my sister-in-law supposedly wolfing out and terrorizing the townsfolk?”
“Why won’t Mo talk to me about the attack, Maggie?”
My laughter died as if he’d flipped a switch. From what I understood, Mo had been closing up the saloon last year, alone, and John Teague decided she was a prime target for robbery and possibly way more disturbing activities. He’d knocked her around when she wouldn’t cooperate, leaving her with bruises and scrapes across her face. She’d managed to get a few good licks in before my brother swooped in on four paws and saved the day. Mo didn’t connect human-shaped Cooper to the wolf at the time and thought maybe her furry savior had eaten Teague. However, Teague had managed to make it to his truck, then passed out from his injuries and died in a fiery crash outside town.
“She won’t talk to you about it because she won’t talk to anyone about it,” I growled. “Do you realize that most people in Grundy don’t even know about that night? Mo didn’t want a big fuss, the questions, the pitying looks. She just wanted to go on with her life. And then you come along with your questions, stirring everything up again. You’re surprised she’s not just hopping up and down to give you the full Barbara Walters treatment?”
For a moment, a flash of shame flickered across Nick’s face. “I didn’t realize. She seems so sturdy, you know? No-nonsense. I just . . . That doesn’t change what happened after the Teague incident. It doesn’t explain why she was so close to every wolf attack that followed.”
“Shit happens!” I exclaimed. “We live in the middle of one of the biggest untamed wildernesses left on earth. We’re bound to run into animals every once in a while. Sometimes there are no explanations! No matter how hard you try to force it to fit one of your bullshit theories, there’s just no explanation.”
“There’s always an explanation,” he countered, color rising into his cheeks as he stepped closer. I could hear his heart beat in his chest, practically hear the blood humming through his veins as we stood nose-to-nose. “Sometimes you have to sift through a couple of ‘bullshit theories’ before you find the right one, but eventually something clicks. If you would just explain to Mo that I don’t mean any harm. If anything, I want to help her.”
“Who says she needs help?”
“Well, then, why are you being so difficult?”
“Because it’s fun!” I shot back.
Nick tilted his head back and groaned in frustration.
“Maggie, are you driving another guy over the edge?” Samson asked from behind me.
I looked over to find Samson and Clay smirking at us. Well, Samson was smirking. Clay seemed to be glaring a little bit. Nick turned and made a motion to introduce himself to Samson, but I cut him off.
“Dr. Thatcher was just leaving,” I told them.
Samson’s face hardened at the mention of his name, and Nick, wisely, drew his hand back. Samson muttered, “Good.”
Apparently, Cooper had filled Samson in.
“Clay, why don’t you go inside?” I said. “Mom’s just setting the table. You, too, Samson.”
Clay moved past me, his hand squeezing mine, and warm little tingles sizzled up my arm. He shot Nick a curious look before walking through the door. Moving after Clay, Samson didn’t break eye contact with Nick, who couldn’t seem to understand the sudden shift in demeanor. It would have been far more impressive if Samson hadn’t nearly walked into the doorjamb headlong.
“So, that guy in there, Clay,” he said, jerking his head toward the door. “Are you dating him?”
“Yes, he is my possessive, recently paroled fiancé.”
His lips quirked. “So . . . no?”
“None of your business!” I yelled. “How did we go from ‘Your sister-in-law’s a werewolf’ to ‘Are you seeing anyone?’ Can’t you just have one conversation at a time, like a normal person?”
He shook his head and gave me another beautiful, irritating smile. “I’ll call you in a few days, to see if you change your mind about the guide thing.”
“I won’t change my mind, because you are clearly insane.”
“I’ll call you then,” he said, shrugging as he hopped into his truck. “And ask you out on a proper date. Your mom gave me your number.”
“Well, I won’t answer!” I called as he turned the ignition and waved before speeding off. I huffed out a breath. “How did that happen?”
Of Mistaken Identities and Wounded Ass Cheeks
COOPER DIDN’T LOOK HAPPY when he answered his door—probably because I was beating on it. A lot.
“If you wake up the baby, I will smack you down like the hand of God,” he growled as I moved past him, deliberately shoulder-checking him.
I was in a foul mood. Despite his easy promise that he would, Nick had not called. It had been two days, and not a peep. I can’t say I was sitting by the phone staring it down, but there were a few times I ran across the room to grab for it when it did ring. I also might have unplugged and replugged it a few times to make sure it was working, but I will never admit that to a living soul.
This was unacceptable. I was Maggie Fucking Graham. I did not get wound up over some man. Yet here I was, twitching and pacing across my brother’s living room, with no idea what stupid excuse I would make for coming over beyond “I’m confused, and I want to hit something.”
Fortunately, the tension breaker I needed came in the form of Mo stumbling into the room wearing what looked like a sports bra, one of Cooper’s flannel shirts, and some basketball shorts. Her hair was pulled into one of those weird shih tzu puffs on top of her head. She blinked at me blearily. “What’s going on?”
I recoiled. “Gah! Is that outfit what you’re doing for birth control now?”
“Shut up,” she grumbled, pulling the ponytail out and fluffing her hair.
“Yes, because the ponytail was the problem.” I snorted. She punched my arm and yawned. I chuffed and shoved her back.
“So, what brings you to our door at this time of night, besides insulting me?” she asked, handing me one of the many bathrobes she kept on hand for when I dropped over on a run. She had this thing about not wanting naked people on her upholstery. Prude.
Clothing can make life awkward for werewolves, for whom the most comfortable state is to be in wolf form. In an environment where we’re relaxed, sometimes we don’t even realize we’ve changed. There’s a shift of light, and suddenly there’s a full-grown wolf standing next to you. It’s difficult to change form while dressed. At the same time, adult werewolves become conditioned to associate clothing with being out in public among humans. It becomes less of an issue for us as the weather gets colder, but for southern packs, clothing is handy as a reminder to stay on two feet.
You would think it would be weird to see your male relatives running around naked all the time, but really, you stop noticing. It’s sort of sad, really. You’ve seen one penis, you’ve seen them all.
I had to stop saying that in front of my mother, because she said it was something a hooker would put on a business card.
Cooper flopped down on the couch, throwing his arm over his eyes. Mo slumped next to him and buried her face in his shoulder. There was a fond little twitch to his lips as he nuzzled his nose along her brow line.
“It’s seven-thirty!” I exclaimed.
“Maggie, as much as I appreciate your dropping by to call us lame, please get to the point,” he muttered. “Keeping in mind that if you raise your voice above a whisper—” He stopped and gave a jaw-cracking yawn while waving his right palm at me. “Hand of God.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered, showing my big brother exactly how much he intimidated me. “I thought you should know that Nick doesn’t think you’re a werewolf.”
Cooper sat up, his brow furrowed. “But that’s a good thing, right? Problem solved, you can go home now.”
“He thinks Mo is a werewolf,” I said, biting my lip and waiting for the reaction that would, indeed, wake up my niece.
Cooper locked eyes with me, looked over at his wife, grinned at me again, and then laughed so hard he nearly toppled off the couch.
“Bwahahahaahaha!” Cooper guffawed. “He thinks . . . he thinks . . . Mo?”