“Yes, steel traps are scary and dangerous, too,” I muttered.
He laughed, and I told him to go on home. I shed my clothes, phased, and ran toward the east border. I might not have been as big as Samson or as strong as Cooper, but no one in the pack could match me for speed. Still, I kept my pace even, light. I didn’t want Nick to hear me coming.
What did he think he was doing? Forget the all-out rudeness of coming to my valley—again—without so much as stopping in town to let us know he was tromping around in our backyard. He was supposed to be touring the eastern Wheeler range. What was Nick looking for? He thought Mo was the wolf, so what was he doing up there instead of in Grundy?
Werewolves in the movies always had some convenient crypt or basement where they locked themselves up during the change. Did he think we had some bunker carved out for Mo in the woods somewhere? Did her family think we spent three nights a month tossing her rabbit carcasses and hoping for the best? The more I thought about it, the more his whole “Mo as a werewolf” scenario insulted me. Nothing about Mo screamed predatory or even vaguely threatening, unless you cut her off from chocolate. I was the tough one. I was the one who could take care of myself. I’d spent most of my life defining myself by those qualities. Why didn’t he see them in me?
This level of introspection could not be healthy. This was why I avoided self-help books.
I found him sitting on a rock, overlooking the valley. There was a backpack beside him on the ground, and he had a big coil of neon orange rope attached to it, with some carabiners and a few climbing blocks. He’d said he was a climber; was he planning on rappelling down the rock wall? That seemed like a rude thing to do in someone’s backyard without permission.
At the moment, he seemed content to sit. He could see everything from this spot, the green expanse of the valley walls, the thick forest that sheltered us from the harsher winds coming down the mountain and provided the rich supply of game we needed to keep the pack fed. It was a spot Cooper often used for “thinking,” a.k.a. “getting the hell away from Maggie and Samson for a few minutes of peace.” I’d come here a few times, but I always got my best ideas while running.
And there sat Nick, scribbling in that notebook again with a silly grin on his face.
Under the shelter of low-hanging spruce, I sat on my haunches and watched him. I watched the light and the wind play against his hair. Damn it, the sight of his wire-rim glasses sliding down his nose was bringing out some sort of professor fetish that I didn’t even know I had. My heart did this weird skittering thing, as if it was going to jump out of my chest and run away. I really needed to get this thing under control,
He turned suddenly and saw me.
The smartest thing to do would be to bolt, as a real wolf would do. But I just sat there frozen, staring at him. His face. There was such an expression of joy there, stretching his smile from ear to ear. I wasn’t one to throw around pretentious phrases like “childlike wonder,” but it was the only way to describe his face. Moving with slow, deliberate steps, he hunched down and stretched his hand out toward me.
Innocent wonder or no, if he tried to scratch behind my ears, I was so going to bite him.
“Mo?” he whispered, smiling down at me. “Is that you?”
I huffed and stepped back. He retracted the hand. “Wait!” he called as I backed into the tree line. “Mo?”
Mo? He looked at me that way, left me hanging for days on end, and now he thought I was Mo? I growled, the low, threatening sound resonating deep in my chest. This was beyond messed up. He flirted with me in human form and had a weird little werewolf crush on my sister-in-law.
Wasn’t this a story line in one of those lame-ass teen-vampire movies?
I was the one who’d spent weeks doing a sad little avoidance shuffle around him. And he was thinking of Mo? Not happening.
I cantered back over to him, huffing at him to get his attention. We locked eyes, and I did my best to glare at him, which is difficult to do without eyebrows. He narrowed his gaze. “You’re not Mo, are you?”
Too damn right, I wasn’t. I huffed again and pivoted in the opposite direction, to make him think I was leaving. Then I feinted left. Nick only had a second to turn before I lunged, sinking my teeth into his nicely rounded butt cheek.
“Yipe!” he cried, clutching at his ass. “What the? Hey! Come back here!” He hobbled after me, wincing in pain.
I made a sort of whickering sound, spitting out a chunk of the denim from his jeans. He gaped down at me. I sniffed, stuck my nose in the air, and trotted home, feeling a lot better about the situation.
THE FARTHER I got from Nick, the more that heavy guilty feeling crept into my chest. I wasn’t used to feeling remorse. It sort of sucked. Maybe I should go back and check on him. I slipped back into my jeans and sweater inside my office. I would just amble up there and pretend I was taking a long walk around the valley. I’d just make sure he made it to his truck OK and then come right back. I slipped on my boots and was bounding out of my office to do just that when I heard a sly voice to my left.
“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie.”
There stood the pretender to my throne, all overdone muscle and wavy black hair. If Nick was my Aragorn, Lee was Lando Calrissian: handsome, confident, and about as trustworthy as a used-snowmobile salesman.
Lee quirked his full lips as he struck a casual pose against the wall of the community center. I was thankful that my body seemed as annoyed by Lee as the rest of me, and whatever hormones had been surging through my blood had now retreated like low tide. Clearly, despite the many lures of Lee’s exterior, my primal brain had some taste.
“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie,” Lee said again, because he was incapable of saying my name just once. He winked down at me with his wide brown eyes. And once again, I cursed Cooper and Samson for getting all the height in the family.
“Lee.” I acknowledged him, my voice as flat as Aunt Winnie’s ass.
“I had an interesting conversation with your brother the other day.”
I bared my teeth, making him take the slightest step back. “I heard about that.”
“So, Cooper told you we settled things?”
“You didn’t settle anything. Because Cooper isn’t going to arrange my marriage. I’m afraid you’re going to have to deal with me.”
He shrugged, and his voice dropped to this weird cross between seductive and condescending, as if he was trying to lure me into his van with candy. “I was just following the rules, Maggie. Cooper is the rightful alpha and the oldest male member of your family.”
“Do you really think that’s the tack you should take with me?” I demanded.
“Look, baby, when we’re married and you’ve grown up a little, you’ll see how silly you’re being.” When I stared at him, shocked speechless for once, he added, “Uncle Frank says you’ve had a human hanging around.”
“And?” I asked, wondering how Uncle Frank had heard about my interest in Nick and how many other pack members were talking about it.
“Well, I don’t know how I feel about my girl spending time with a human,” he said, stepping close enough that he could almost run the tip of his nose down the side of my face. I resisted the urge to shrink away. “You never get that smell out of your clothes.”
“What I do is none of your business, Lee.”
“I’ll never understand why so many of our females are letting humans sniff around them,” he continued, as if I hadn’t even spoken. “I mean, why dilute the blood? Just look at your brother’s little girl. She could have been the pride of the pack. And now what’s that pup good for?” He sniffed dismissively. “She’s not even breeding stock. She’ll live a quiet little life as some human’s wife, and no one will care. What a waste.”
I tried hard to remember that from Lee’s perspective, he wasn’t saying anything offensive. His pack was a little more “conservative” than mine. He was repeating the opinions he’d heard his whole life. And he just wasn’t bright enough to keep them to himself.
But I guess the way I was gritting my teeth gave me away, and Lee said, “Oh, don’t pretend that you and Cooper are back to being attached at the hip. I remember how you talked about him after he ran off. You can’t say you’re any prouder now that he’s a coward and a dead-breeder.”
I scowled at his use of a rarely spoken epithet for a dead-liner’s parent. I bunched my hand into a fist and had it half raised when Clay stuck his head through his front door.
He saw the fist and the pissed-off, uncomfortable look on my face and frowned. “Mags, you all right?”
I lifted an eyebrow. Enter Clark Kent or, at least, Val Kilmer as Batman. My packmates rarely asked me if I was OK, particularly the males. They usually assumed I was fine, as long as I wasn’t griping at them or hitting them in some way. But somehow Clay had managed to ask without making it sound patronizing, as if he was about to swoop in and rescue me. And it was sort of nice. The decency of the gesture made me feel a genuine rush of affection for him. “I’m fine, Clay. Thanks.”
This was a completely inappropriate time to be thinking about nibbling on Clay’s earlobes.
“More competition, Maggie?” Lee asked, giving Clay a long appraising look before dismissing him with a sniff.
I gave Lee a dead-eyed stare. “Clay is a member of our pack.”
Lee shot a scathing glare at Clay. My lips quirked into a twisted smile. Lee was all swagger and smirks until he realized he was on an even playing field.
“He doesn’t have the close family ties that I do.”
“Which some people would consider a good thing,” I muttered.
Clay stepped out of the house and took none-too-subtle steps toward us, positioning himself at my side. Despite the comfort of his presence at my elbow, I wanted to tell him not to bother. Lee was all lazy, no action. In the years I’d known him, he’d never once been in a real fight. He backed off the moment he realized he might have to make an effort to cover his own ass. But he wouldn’t hesitate to, say, attack a lone human wandering around our valley in some misguided attempt to prove himself to me. There was no way I could go check on Nick now. My chest sort of ached at the thought, and I rubbed my hand against my sternum absentmindedly.
“Maggie and I go way back,” Lee told him. “Way back. We’ll be married and mated any day now.”
Clay arched his eyebrows and smiled at me. I shook my head. Clay snickered.
“She tries to deny our love.” Lee trailed a finger along my cheek. “Makes her feel like she’s playing hard to get.”
Clay growled. I barely resisted the urge to clamp my teeth down on Lee’s offending digit, but I put a restraining hand on Clay’s arm. As much as I appreciated it, it would hardly do to have him “sticking up” for me. It would make me look weak, and that was exactly the sort of thing that got around to other packs.
“Ah-ah-ah, Lee, we’ve talked about this,” I said, clucking my tongue. “Anything that touches, I get to keep.”
But as I said, Lee was none too bright, and he seemed to like the idea of staking his claim in front of Clay. He kept rubbing his freaking hands along my cheek. So I wrapped my fingers around his, yanked his hand palm up, and jerked his arm. He yowled and dropped to his knees. I smacked him on the back of the head for good measure.
The arm would heal, probably by tomorrow morning. But it would keep him from phasing until then, keep him from snooping around the valley and stumbling onto unsuspecting humans who had probably made it to their trucks by now.
I walked away, hooking my arm through an astonished Clay’s as we walked into his house. I wanted to visit Billie before we headed home for dinner.
“Good talking to you, Lee,” I called over my shoulder.