How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolfpart #1 of Naked Werewolf Series by Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
When Did My Life
Become a Willie Nelson Song?
WHEN A NAKED MAN shows up on your doorstep with a bear trap clamped around his ankle, it’s best just to do what he asks.
This was a lesson I had to learn the hard way. A lesson that I didn’t anticipate that crisp June morning as I drove my ailing truck to the town limits of tiny Grundy in the southeast interior of Alaska. As sorry as I felt for my “new to me” four-by-four, I couldn’t stop just yet.
“Just a few more minutes, baby,” I said, stroking fond fingers over the worn-smooth plastic of the steering wheel. It jittered with every revolution of the axle, like an arthritic lady’s complaint, telling me I’d darn well better find a decent mechanic when we got into town. The 1999 Ford, which I’d lovingly dubbed Lucille while driving through Kansas, would need a little pampering to make up for the wear and tear of our first trip together.
I had driven thousands of miles, inhaled endless to-go cups of bad coffee, and endured a three-day ferry ride from Washington to reach the ornately carved “Welcome to Grundy” sign. As it came into view, my heart leaped a little at its declaration that the town was home to 2,053 people. I was about to change that number.
Deciding that Lucille had earned a short break, I pulled over just in front of the sign and put her in park. Her whole body seemed to quiver, then sigh, before she stilled. Stepping out onto the broken asphalt shoulder, I unfolded myself from the driver’s seat and stretched my long legs. I ran my fingers along the carved wood, admiring the way the workman had managed to fit motifs from Inuit art into the design without muddying the clarity of the sign. Art and function, all in one.
I stretched my arms over my head, enjoying the crackle of my stiff vertebrae snapping back into place after that last six-hour stretch. Even in the relative warmth of late June, I shivered. Chagrined, I tucked my hands into my crisp new North Face jacket, purchased as a first measure against an unfamiliar climate. I was used to the choking hot humidity of the Mississippi Delta, to air so heavy it seemed to press the sheets down as you slept. I hoped that my body would have time to adjust to my new environment before the temperatures really started to drop.
In the distance, wispy cotton clouds ringed slate-colored mountains. The peaks formed a cupping hand around the valley that held Grundy. Vegetation in my hometown was a relentless green, occasionally broken up by neon splashes of flowers or a gray sweep of Spanish moss. There were so many shades and textures of green, lavender, and gold that I had to squint to protect my eyes.
The sun was already beginning to dip behind the mountains. I wanted to contact Nate Gogan before his office closed. Mr. Gogan, the town’s lone attorney, was handling my rental of what he called “the Meyers place. ” I sincerely hoped that the name was coincidental and had nothing to do with any sort of Halloween-inspired massacres at my new home.
I checked that my little U-Haul trailer was securely attached to Lucille—a habit formed over the last few days—and climbed back in. For the twenty-seventh time that day, my cell phone rang. Curse my provider’s commitment to omnipresent cross-country cell-tower coverage. I checked the caller ID and stuffed the phone back into my purse. I knew I would spend my first evening in Grundy ruthlessly deleting unheard voice mails from my mother. Because that’s how I’d spent the previous evening. And the evening before that.
My cross-country move began as a frustrated lark after a broken engagement. I wanted to be as far away from my hometown as possible, without having to change my citizenship. I’d always been fascinated by the wide, wild spaces of Alaska. And a series of serendipitous mouse clicks led me to the remarkably Spartan home page for Grundy. And by that I mean the town’s entire Web site was one page, which described the beautiful hiking trails, the expertly guided hunting and fishing excursions, the “bustling economy” of the handful of locally owned stores. And under a heading of “Rentals Available,” it showed the Meyers place. At six hundred square feet, it was much smaller than my current rental, with one bedroom, a living room, a bath, and a kitchenette. But the Realtor’s photo showed the view of the forest from the front porch, and I was hooked. I e-mailed Mr. Gogan, resigned from my job at Gulfside Marketing, and gave up my lease within a week.
Grundy came into view as Lucille chugged over the last rise in the highway. Although I’d been prepared for what Mr. Gogan had described as a “charming village,” I couldn’t tamp down my shock at being able to see the whole town at once. There was a long main drag of shops with a few streets sprouting off to support a few dozen haphazardly arranged one-story houses. Mr. Gogan had told me that most Grundy residents, including myself, lived in isolated homes in the fifty or so square miles that surrounded the town limits.
Main Street looked like something out of the Old West. Big brick buildings that stood the test of time against great Northern winters huddled against the wind. The windows advertised sensible ventures such as a bank, a grocery store, or an outdoor outfitter with little flourish. The buildings were buttressed against one another, which I suspected was an effort to save on building materials so as to heat the buildings efficiently. The mountains loomed at the edge of town as if they’d suddenly sprung up at the end of Main Street. Their beauty, the protective curve of the peaks, made me feel small and silly for worrying about things like my truck’s gas mileage and appointments with future landlords.
I found a parking space along the main drag, in front of Hannigan’s Grocery, and climbed out of the truck. There were few pedestrians on the street, sturdy-looking people of all shapes and colors in light jackets. And they were staring. I felt suddenly self-conscious about the trailer, as if I was advertising, “New arrival!”
I locked Lucille and was grateful for the two-block walk to the attorney’s office to stretch my legs. My new hiking boots squeaked lightly against the cracked pavement. The air was cool and clean. I could smell pine, rain, and hamburgers grilling at the saloon down the street. My mouth watered. It had been a long time since that breakfast burrito in Crowley. If I had time, I promised myself I would stop into the saloon, which the ornate wooden sign declared was “The Blue Glacier. ” This was a time for small, personal celebrations, such as double bacon, lettuce, pickle, and tomato. And maybe some onion rings.
Nate Gogan reminded me of Yosemite Sam, with a fluffy salt-and-pepper mustache and a worn tweed jacket paired with a bolo tie fastened with some sort of horn. He’d been waiting at his office for me, despite the relatively late hour, with the paperwork for my rental. He was a one-man Welcome Wagon, wrapping a grandfatherly arm around my shoulders as he led me back to his office. The room was entirely paneled in warm, sherry-colored wood, with Mr. Gogan’s degrees and civil-service awards nailed to every available square inch that wasn’t occupied by fishing or hunting trophies. Mr. Gogan, who insisted that I call him Nate, must have kept the local taxidermist very busy.
Apparently very conscious of my thin Southerner’s blood, Mr. Gogan plied me with offers of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, even whiskey, to help me warm up while we signed the lease. He seemed extremely pleased with himself as he witnessed my signature, locking me into a one-year commitment to the house.
“I have to tell you, Miss Wenstein, I hope you’re happy here in Grundy,” he said, smiling beatifically. I didn’t bother correcting his mispronouncing my name. Mo Duvall-Wenstein is a bit of a mouthful. And after nearly thirty years as a hyphenate, I was used to people thinking that Duvall was my middle name and not my mother’s refusal to conform to “a patriarchal society’s campaign to eradicate maternal surnames. ” Seriously, try explaining that to a college registrar.
“And I’m sure you’ll get a warm welcome,” he promised. “It’s not every day that a pretty, unattached woman moves into town. I know a couple of fellas—nice, good-looking, God-fearing boys—who would be very happy to meet you. ”
After days surrounded by indifferent fast-food workers and big-rig drivers prone to obscene gestures, I couldn’t help but reciprocate his enthusiasm. I grinned. “Are you a matchmaker as well as an attorney?”
Mr. Gogan’s lips twitched under his thick mustache. “I do what I can to help continue the town’s population. I found my Gertie when we were in seventh grade at the Grundy Elementary School, been married for forty-three years. ” He turned a picture frame toward me, showing a smiling, plump-cheeked woman with snow-white hair piled on top of her head. “Not everybody’s that lucky. Some people need a little nudge. ”
“How long have you lived here?” I asked him.
“All my life,” Mr. Gogan said proudly. “’Course, I had to go to the lower forty-eight for law school, but I was only comfortable going as far south as UW. Couldn’t bear living so close to the equator as Mississippi. I’d probably melt. ”
“It’s not for everybody,” I said, trying to keep my tone neutral. Although I’d griped constantly about Mississippi’s climate—and once threatened a coworker with an atomic wedgie if he said “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” one more time—I felt a little twitch of loss, a pang of nostalgia for that bone-softening heat. For the first time since stepping out of the truck, I felt a chill zip down my spine. What if I was making a huge mistake? What if I wasn’t strong enough for this? Could I snatch the rental papers from Mr. Gogan’s desk and run back to my truck without making a scene?
“Well, we’re all set here,” Mr. Gogan said, giving the papers an official-looking stamp and returning them to his files.
That would be a no, then.
Mr. Gogan plopped a worn, brown suede cowboy hat on his head and said, “I’ll help you get checked in at the motel. ”
“Actually, I’d hoped I could just settle right into the house,” I told him.
He blanched. “Well, Mo, I’m not sure if it’s going to be ready yet. The Meyers had rented the cabin out as a weekend place for hunting groups and the like up until now. We just had a party of fly-fishermen check out yesterday morning. You may want to wait a day or two to let the place, er, air out. ”
“After such a long drive, I’d really like to avoid another motel, Mr. Gogan. I don’t mind if it’s a little messy. I just don’t want to face another polyester comforter. ”
Mr. Gogan smiled wanly. “If you say so . . . ”
I should have stuck with the polyester comforter.
As charming and picturesque as the cabin was on the outside, the inside was a disaster. My new home looked like a condemned frat house. The first thing I saw was that the tidy little living room I’d been shown online was strewn with empty Doritos bags and dirty clothes. The furniture—sturdy, durable pieces—was tossed around the room, as if there’d been an impromptu wrestling tournament in front of the old slate fireplace. There was a whimsical installation of beer tabs hanging from the light fixture over the kitchen table.
And the whole house smelled like dead fish.
Mr. Gogan seemed embarrassed but not particularly surprised. A faint blush spread over his leathery cheeks as he apologized. “Lynette, the cleaning gal, was supposed to come by and give the place a once-over after she finished her shift at the motel. But I guess she hasn’t made it over here yet,” he said, flicking a pair of mildewed Fruit of the Looms out through the open front door with his foot. By the steadiness of his gaze I could tell he hoped I wouldn’t notice the movement.
“Tell her not to bother,” I said, my smile fixed. If I let it falter at all, I was sure my face would crumple. This was not what I had pictured doing that night. Well, maybe in my worst-case scenario I pictured some cleaning. But even in that contingency, I hadn’t pictured so much dead salmon. Or the sheer volume of discarded tightie-whities.
Panic flashed in Mr. Gogan’s eyes, and I found myself wanting to tamp it down. I could do this. The cabin wasn’t a lost cause. Once you looked past the mess—and the smell—it was really very cozy.