Mo threw up her hands. “I don’t see why it’s that funny!”
Mo’s indignant hiss was just what I needed to double over laughing. “Grr!” I gave a exaggerated fake growl. “I’m Mo, fierce predator. I could catch you if my designer thong wasn’t riding up!”
Cooper laughed. “Or how about, ‘I’m Mo, the baking werewolf. I’ll stuff you so full of chess squares you won’t be able to run away!”
“Are you done?” Mo asked in a dead, flat voice.
Cooper sucked in a breath. “Sorry, baby, it’s the sleep deprivation. It’s getting to me.” His face flushed as he spluttered. “Nope, I have one more.” Mo scowled at him. He bit his lip, suppressing a snicker. “I’m done.”
She scowled. “Can we get back to why Nick thinks I’m a wolf, please?”
I wiped at my eyes while she stared daggers at both of us. “Whew. Sorry, I have to catch my breath. He, ahem, he thinks John Teague turned you into a werewolf and then you were on some sort of Wolf-man rampage across the countryside,” I said, rubbing the ache in my side.
“And what stopped my rampage, exactly?” she asked dryly.
“Oh, Cooper,” I said, a giggle escaping my tightly pressed lips. “He saved you from yourself. And we, your loving human in-laws, are helping you suppress your homicidal urges.”
“Well, that’s awfully nice of us,” Cooper said blandly.
“Actually, we can use this,” Mo said, sitting up, getting that “I’ve got a project” expression that always scared the hell out of me. “I’ll just start eating raw meat, standing out in the street, howling at the moon. It will totally throw him off.”
“Yeah, and then we’ll go into Susie’s attic, rattle some chains, and make him think the house is haunted,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Susie Quinn’s place?” Cooper asked.
“Yeah, he’s renting it.”
Mo frowned. “That’s sort of ghoulish. Besides, how would we even get into Susie’s attic?”
“You know, I hadn’t considered that. I got sort of hung up on the fact that this means he’s going to be here for a while. Which is bad.”
“Well, it’s not good,” Cooper said, scratching his bare stomach and shuffling into the kitchen. “I’m getting something to eat. Mags, pecan pie?”
“I’m insulted you have to ask,” I told him as he unloaded one of Mo’s calorie-laden pie plates from the fridge. He cut two huge slabs and brought one to me.
Mo eyed the pie with longing, obviously thinking of the postbaby weight she was still shedding. “I hate you and your damned werewolf metabolism.”
Cooper offered his wife a little bite of pie, which was quite a concession for a wolf. We generally don’t share food if we can help it. She took a tiny birdlike nibble, which we all knew wouldn’t satisfy her. But the gesture on Cooper’s part was the important thing.
As was his habit, Cooper asked about Mom, Samson, Pops, the cranky aunties in the bridge club, and the kids who kept dipping tobacco behind the school. I told him that I’d solved the underage “chaw” problem the same way Pops had when he caught Cooper and Samson dipping when they were twelve. I let our young cousins Ricky and Benjamin finish off the can of Red Man they’d swiped from my uncle Steve, indulging until they were an unpleasant avocado color and finally upchucking violently while they paid Steve back for the stolen can.
“They’ll never dip again. Trust me.” Cooper shuddered. “And how’s Aunt Billie doing?”
The teasing smile evaporated from my face. “Good days and bad. Alicia says she’ll be lucid one minute and then freaking out the next. Or she just sits in a chair staring into nothing. I always seem to stop by when she’s having a bad spell, and sometimes I find myself trying to find reasons not to go over, which, of course, makes me feel even worse for taking advantage of Alicia and Clay.”
“You’ve got a lot on your plate,” Cooper told me, squeezing my shoulder. “And I know your ego and your God-given stubbornness make you think you can do it all. But it’s natural to want to try to find ways to lessen the load. Billie’s family, and you’re going to do right by her no matter what. Don’t feel guilty for letting Alicia and Clay shoulder some of the burden. They’re her family, too. You’re no good to anybody if you’re worn down to nothing.”
“I know,” I admitted softly, picking at the pie.
“I would say I’m proud of how you’re handling yourself as alpha, but I’m pretty sure you’d sock me one for being a sissy,” he said, nudging my arm.
I nodded but nudged him back.
“Speaking of Clay, how are you two doing?” Cooper asked, trying and failing to seem nonchalant.
“We’re fine,” I said, my brow crinkled. “Why?”
“Because Lee dropped by yesterday. With a moose carcass,” he added, chuckling nastily. “I just thought maybe Clay should be told about his competition.”
I groaned, which made Cooper that much happier.
Big, brawny, and without discernible brain function, Lee Whitaker was my uncle Frank’s brother-in-law’s son, raised in a pack eighty miles west of the valley. He’d been thrown in my face as a potential mate since I was, oh . . . born.
We went out on two measly dates, one of which was dinner at his mother’s house. And Lee seemed to think our getting married was already sewn up. He tried to monopolize my time at any and all gatherings between our packs. I once spent an entire Memorial Day pretending to have pinkeye just to keep him away.
Lee had good intentions but was dumb as a post. He also had some strange ideas about what he would be “entitled” to as my husband. He seemed to think I would be just handing the reins of my pack over to him, that I was just waiting for a big, strong man like him to sweep me off my feet so I never had to worry my little head with decisions like what to eat for breakfast or whether to go outside.
Clearly, he had never paid attention when I spoke.
If he hadn’t been Uncle Frank’s favorite nephew, I would have just beaten the hell out of him and sent him on his way. But Uncle Frank, my dad’s brother, had always been “sensitive” about his position in the pack. He resented the fact that Cooper had assumed the alpha role so young and felt that he hadn’t been given a fair shot. Which was sort of ridiculous, because he wasn’t even in the running. He protested—loudly—when Eli took over Cooper’s leadership role and became an all-around pain in Eli’s ass. Believing that I would one day marry Lee and give him some sort of power base within the pack had kept him quiet under my leadership. So, I put up with Lee and his blithe advances and contented myself with giving him minor injuries whenever he tried to touch me.
“I’ve meant to ask, is there a significance to the moose carcass?” Mo asked. “Beyond ‘ew’?”
“Lee is officially opening negotiations for Maggie’s paw,” Cooper said, his eyes glinting gleefully.
I huffed, gritting my teeth. “That’s so insulting, and just like him. He shouldn’t be coming to you to negotiate for my hand. He should be coming to me. I’m your alpha, not the other way around. Not to mention the fact that he’s a big pain in my ass, and I will never, ever . . . ever, marry him.”
“Not even if he was the last fertile werewolf on earth?” Cooper prodded.
I growled. “He would have to be the very last,” I muttered. “And I would look into artificial insemination.”
Cooper nearly choked on his pie, trying to contain his laughter.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” I barked.
“I really am,” Cooper said. “Just so you know, I told him that if he wanted to marry you, he was going to have to talk to you about it. He just shrugged and said he’d get around to it.”
“Well, this was completely unhelpful. I’m leaving now,” I told them. “Enjoy the many, many hours left in the evening, none of which you will spend sleeping. And I don’t mean that in the fun way.”
“That was mean,” Cooper told me. I blew him a raspberry and waved good-bye to Mo. As I walked out, I made like I was going to shut the door quietly, then slammed it at the last minute. I counted to three and waited for the baby to wail.
Just before I phased, I heard Mo mutter through the door, “If we’d moved to Australia when I suggested it, this wouldn’t be a problem.”
THE NEXT DAY, Nick still hadn’t called. I’d gone from making excuses for him to sitting at my desk, enjoying imagined scenarios where he might have been digested by a bear.
I ran past Susie Quinn’s place on my way home from Cooper and Mo’s . . . just because it was on my way. Seeing the warm, homey light shining through the windows, I’d paused. I’d sat on my haunches at the edge of the tree line. And I’d felt like a creepy stalker. But through that disquieting interest, I’d felt better, settled, to be sitting there, knowing he was inside, safe and well. When Cooper and I had started talking again the year before, he’d described his compulsive habit of running past Mo’s house while he was wolfed out, feeling at peace for the first time since he’d left the valley. He said it was like the primal part of his brain was leading him there every night, just to be near her. He’d been torn up for years over leaving home, and with Mo, he was given a little glimpse of tranquillity. And when they stopped being idiots and admitted that they were crazy for each other, that contentment had become part of his everyday life.
After watching Nick’s house, I’d woken up and felt calm, warm. I usually woke up thinking of all the things I had to get done, my mind racing and raring to get started. But the moment my eyes had popped open, I felt . . . light, I guess. I stretched under the covers and smiled into my pillow, reveling in the feeling of serenity washing over me.
I forced myself to jump out of bed, to go through my normal routines. I kept trying to recapture my normal patterns and feelings. I knew it sounded like one of Mo’s lame pop-psychology rants, but in the absence of that anxiety, I was a little depressed. I’d never realized how much pressure I put on myself. The idea that Nick was somehow a solution to a problem that I didn’t know I had was upsetting.
My mental self-torture was interrupted when my cousin Will stuck his grizzled brown head through my office door. Will was one of my gruffer cousins, quick with the sarcasm and quicker to attack if a packmate was threatened. He’d married Angie, a wry, blond female from a Seattle-area pack, and produced two towheaded little boys, the only wolf boys to be born to our pack in the last five years.
“Hey, Maggie,” Will said, tossing me a Baggie of Angie’s famous oatmeal-raisin cookies. I opened the bag and inhaled the heavenly, spicy fragrance before shoving one into my mouth. Angie was known to shove dozens of cookies into Will’s coat pockets before he left for the day. If he hadn’t married her, he probably would have had to fight Samson and half the valley’s male population for her, just for the potential cookie privileges.
“I was just running along the east border, and there’s a hiker up there. Seems harmless enough, but I thought you’d want to know.”
“Blond?” I asked, frowning. I held my hand far over my head. “Yea tall? Looks like a hot, annoying Viking?”
“I don’t know how to respond to that,” Will said, shaking his head, taking a cookie for himself. “Not without you making fun of me later. But yeah, I think that would cover it.”
I snorted. “Did he see you?”
“Nah, I was being all stealthy-like,” he said, grinning. “I’m like a ninja with fur. Quiet, quick, and a mind like a steel trap.” He tapped his temple and winked at me.