How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf

       part  #1 of  Naked Werewolf Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
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“This is just so damned typical!” I yelled. “You try to take over every part of my life. You practically follow me around collecting my toenail clippings for posterity, but when something is really important, important to me, you couldn’t care less. Because I didn’t go to an environmentally responsible school. I didn’t study the right subjects. You think my teachers brainwashed me. You know, most people would be thrilled that their daughter was graduating from college with good grades. When are the two of you going to act like normal parents?”

And that’s when Dad sort of keeled over and had a massive heart attack.

Apparently, there’s only so much that oat bran can do for your cardiac system.

With my mother in full-on histrionic mode, I had to step in to take care of the decisions at the hospital and talk to the doctors. I moved back to the commune to help out while my dad recovered. And when he was back on his feet, I found a job at a little company outside Jackson that sold advertising inserts for newspapers. The hour-long drive back and forth to check in on them was exhausting, but it was worth it to be able to go to my own little house at the end of the day.

Mom soon returned to her old ways. Morning, noon, and night, my parents showed up at my doorstep with huge dishes of marinated tofu, herbal teas, some THC-soaked mementos from my childhood. This only grew worse after my engagement to Tim, an insurance adjuster whose offices were next door to mine. My mother often commented that our meeting at a Starbucks every morning for lattes was proof that the relationship was doomed to fail. Nothing associated with the Evil Caffeinated Empire could be good in her eyes.

Tim Galloway was everything my parents loathed. Conservative, Christian, the product of a two-parent, two-income household. He paid his taxes cheerfully. He had a membership with the Steak of the Month Club. Even if he was the opposite of my usual type, I felt safe with him. He was level-headed, funny, and kind. He had a five-year plan, which, after an appropriate number of very conventional dinner-and-a-movie dates, included me. If there was no fiery passion or leg-bowing sexual escapades, that was fine. I knew what to expect.

At least, I thought I did, right until the moment Tim met me for lunch one Wednesday and asked for his ring back. He couldn’t even give me a good story to take back to Kara. He wasn’t seeing another woman. He brought me flowers to break up with me, for God’s sake. He just felt that he’d made a mistake in proposing so soon. He did mention my parents a few dozen times and the fact that I seemed so hell-bent on being “normal” that I didn’t care what it cost me.

When I went home to help Tim pack his things and move out of my house, I realized that I felt more guilty than hurt. And it should hurt to lose someone you’d planned to spend the rest of your life with. Tim was right. I’d chosen him because I knew my parents wouldn’t like him. For that matter, I’d chosen marketing because it was something they would never do. Dad said my advertising job made me a cog in the corporate machine and went against everything they’d taught me. They told people that I worked with recycled paper.

I’d almost doomed myself to a lifeless marriage and an unfulfilling career because I was rebelling in my own silly way. Even though I’d worked for years for independence, I was still letting them influence every decision I made. I was twenty-nine years old. It was time to stop living my life like a spoiled, scared teenager. I wanted to start fresh, to go somewhere where I was an unknown quantity, where people didn’t know me or my parents, where my parents couldn’t reach. At the same time, I was scared of starting over. What if I’d been using my parents as an excuse for all these years? What if the reason I was unhappy was that I was just a generally miserable person?

I’d moved to Grundy knowing that I probably wouldn’t be able to find a job I was qualified for anywhere near the town. But I had a tidy little nest egg, inherited from Grampy and Nana Duvall. Long before they passed, my mother told them she didn’t want the “blood money” from their family-owned butcher shop and barbecue stand. This made me my grandparents’ sole heir. I saved and invested the inheritance carefully, and it had helped ease the burden of living on college stipends and my pitiful early sales commissions. And now it would help me establish a life in Grundy.

My plan—because, of course, I had a plan—was to live in Grundy without a purpose, to drift along, for one year. While I enjoyed my job at Gulfside, selling advertising space didn’t exactly turn my crank. I didn’t go home at the end of the day thinking, Wow, I really made a difference to someone today.

I wanted to discover what I wanted to do with my life when I wasn’t making choices out of spite. I had enough savings to live comfortably for a year or two while I figured it out. And if I made it past one year, I would put a down payment on the Meyers place, find some gainful employment I was qualified for, and set down roots. If not, there was always Washington or New York. Heck, I’d live in Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky, if I could find my place there.

It’s a real place. I looked it up.

The only person I regretted leaving behind was Kara, who also happened to be the only person, besides the postal clerk, with whom I’d entrusted my new address. Baffled but not exactly surprised by my move, Kara had made me promise to e-mail her every day—which reminded me that I needed to find out what my Internet options would be in Grundy.

It had probably been cowardly to pack up my house while my parents were out of town at a civil-rights conference. Drastic action had been required and taken, even if it made my stomach pitch with that instinctual squeeze of guilt and irritation that always came with dealing with my parents. But I’d avoided the tearful scene I’d been dreading. And Mom was always telling me I needed to be more unpredictable.

In the dark, with Yaya Wenstein’s quilt pulled up to my chin, I made more lists in my head. Things to do, things to buy, things to unpack. I rearranged the cabin’s furniture in my head. I thought of the meals I would make as soon as I cleaned the rest of the dead fish out of the kitchen, the long nights of uninterrupted sleep I would get without my parents’ constant calls. I hoped I would be happy, or at least content, in Grundy.

I WAS STARTLED awake by a frantic bleating outside my window, followed by the crash of bodies through the brush. I bolted up, dizzy and disoriented in the darkness. I beat the nightstand with flat, numb fingers for my glasses, slipped them on, and stumbled toward the door. Or, at least, where my bedroom door was located in my old place. I smacked headlong into a wall. Cursing vehemently, I felt my way through the living room and found the front door. I opened it, expecting to find an injured sheep caught in the brambles. Where a sheep would come from I had no idea, but I was half-asleep.

My eyes adjusted to the darkness. The moon was full and alive, casting enough silver light to make shadows. Just beyond the tree line, less than twenty feet from my door, lay an injured elk, panting and panicked. A thick stream of blood flowed from a wound on its neck, making an oily black patch on the grass. Hunched over its body stood the largest black wolf I’d ever seen.

I don’t think it realized I was there. It was concentrating completely on its dying prey. I gasped, stepping back into the shadows of the house, but somehow unable to close the door. The wolf snarled, its huge jaws poised over the elk’s throat.

Without thinking, I screamed, “No!”

The wolf’s head snapped up. Its wide eyes, an unearthly shade of blue-green, glowed with angry intelligence.

Whoops.

The elk, sensing the wolf’s distraction, stumbled to its feet and crashed back through the brush. The wolf’s eyes seemed to narrow at me, silently berating me for disturbing it. I stared back, my fingers finally loose enough to fumble for the doorknob and close it behind me. In my panic, I wondered if closing the door would do any good. Could the huge predator just tear through it?

Through the window, I watched the wolf stare at the door. I held my breath, trying to think of anything in the house that could be used as a weapon. The fireplace poker. The elk antlers hanging over the fireplace, which would seem a sort of karmic justice when used against this thing. Suddenly, the wolf perked its ears toward the sound of the elk lurching through the bushes. It let out what sounded like a frustrated huff and sprang away from the house, loping through the woods after its bleeding meal.

I sank to my knees and crawled toward my bed, knowing I wouldn’t sleep another wink that night.

3

Thumb Removal for Dummies

THE BLUE GLACIER SALOON was part general store, part restaurant, part bar. It was my fantasy come true, a Stuckey’s that served shots.

After ridding the cabin of the last of the fish and returning the emptied U-Haul trailer to a dealership 220 miles away, I’d finally called my parents. No one picked up. They didn’t believe in answering machines. And by that I mean they believe the point of not being home is not answering the phone. They do believe that answering machines exist. So, having dodged that bullet for a few more hours, I was in a fine mood. And I was starving.

As I drove through town, I was struck again by the obvious effort people made to maintain the buildings. Every structure was occupied. Every square foot of indoor space was made useful. Mr. Gogan had told me that even if businesses closed down, the storefronts were used as storage space, an improvised church, extra classrooms for the high school. The weather and the expense of shipping construction materials made it difficult to build there, so wasting precious interior space was not tolerated.

In the South, between the wet, baking heat and passage of time, the decay of buildings was expected. People walked away from their businesses, leaving them frozen like some museum exhibit on bad management. It was common and depressing to drive through a town square and see an abandoned gas station with the self-service signs intact, the rack of Black Jack chewing gum moldering near the register, houses rotted, their splintered gray walls overgrown with kudzu, usually with a newish trailer installed just a few yards away. I found the continuity of my new home, the commitment to preservation, to be comforting, and I marveled at the exquisite old woodwork on the door to the Glacier.

While Hannigan’s Grocery provided milk, eggs, and produce, the men of Grundy generally made an afternoon of buying their dry goods at the Blue Glacier, playing pool or watching a game. The dining room was lit by afternoon sun streaming through huge picture windows. On the opposite side of the dining room was a huge black metal woodstove that seemed to be the centerpiece of the room, giving it a homey, lived-in feeling. The wood-paneled walls were decorated with a mix of neon beer signs and hand-painted wildlife scenes. The scent of potatoes fried in peanut oil had my mouth watering.

The saloon’s lunch crowd was thick and talkative. Conversations and booming laughter seemed to bounce from every corner. Most of my new neighbors sported thick flannel shirts and worn hiking boots. You could spot the occasional “in-town professional,” such as Nate Gogan, or the bank manager, Mr. Riggins, in a suit and tie. But overall, this was a working crowd. A wide range of ethnicities was represented, but across the board, each of them seemed to exude this sturdiness, an air of capability. If the roof caved in or a bear came moseying through the front door, I suspected every person in the dining room would know exactly what to do. I wondered if I would ever seem so confident in my ability to take care of myself up here.

I introduced myself to the proprietor, Evie DuChamp. Evie was quietly beautiful, with wide brown eyes and stick-straight hair as black as a raven’s wing flowing down her back in a neat braid. Her skin was nut-brown and impossibly smooth. Her husband, Buzz, was a huge blond mountain of a man. I guessed his nickname came from his severe military haircut. Buzz looked like the example you’d be given in a sketching textbook on “How to Draw an Angular Face”—lantern jaw, square chin, nearly flat head. He was obviously devoted to Evie. Every time he looked at her, a warm, silly grin spread across his face like boiled molasses.
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