How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf

       part  #1 of  Naked Werewolf Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
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After seeing several rather unremarkable burgers cross the scarred pine lunch counter, I ordered a turkey melt and chatted with Evie. She’d known who I was the moment I walked through the door. Nate Gogan was a regular lunch customer and had apparently talked about his new client at length, privacy be damned. I might have resented the intrusion, but Evie was the sort of person who made you want to talk about yourself. She had a calming way about her that instantly put you at ease. Before I knew it, I’d told her about my sleepless night and the wolf incident. She told me it was common for local wolves to worry livestock and the occasional garbage can but that they normally ran away when confronted by a human. Particularly when that human was holding a shotgun.

Our conversation was interrupted several times by locals who approached me to introduce themselves. Well, local men who approached me to introduce themselves. Big, burly, and in most cases barely shaved, they were polite, even courtly, as they sidled up to my bar stool to offer to buy my lunch, fetch me a beer, or, in the case of Abner Golightly, just flirt shamelessly. Abner Golightly, age eighty-seven, was a self-proclaimed latter-day prospector who reminded me of Blue from that Old School movie. Not that I would ever admit to seeing that . . . or owning the complete works of Will Ferrell on DVD. Even Bewitched.

Abner told me that if I moved into his cabin on the outskirts of town, my feet would always be warm and the toilet seat would always be down. I thanked him for the tempting offer. He winked at Evie and toddled back to his burger before the very cute Grundy High chemistry teacher asked me to join him for a beer. I declined for now.

Something about the way these men approached me made me think I was being evaluated as breeding stock. I’d inherited my dad’s thick coal-black hair, which I’d cut off two years ago after finally conceding my lifelong battle with Mississippi humidity. Kara had said I looked like a shorn angel, in the best possible way, that somehow the spiky pixie crown balanced out the high cheekbones and slightly top-heavy lips passed down from my mother and the large more-gray-than-blue eyes I’d inherited from I don’t know where. However, I think my potential suitors were thinking more along the lines of: Breasts? (Check. ) Pulse? (Optional, but check. )

Vaguely inappropriate old men notwithstanding, I hadn’t considered the possibility of starting a relationship in Grundy. For one thing, I didn’t know how long I would be there. Second, I hadn’t known what the candidate pool would look like. True to Mr. Gogan’s word, that pool was deep and well stocked. My history consisted of relationships that could be packed away in neat little boxes once we’d parted. No recriminations. No burning of their stuff. I received Christmas cards from most of them. What would I do if I got stuck there for a whole winter, dodging the hang-dog face of a fling gone terribly awry? Besides, my vast goodie-drawer collection of condoms had been entrusted to Kara during the move, since she was far more likely to need them on her one-woman tear through the male population of Mississippi.

“Is this some sort of screw-with-the-outsider scenario?” I asked Evie after Leonard Tremblay offered to show me “a good time. ” Evie shook her head, and after Leonard departed with a good-natured grin, she warned me that his idea of a good time was firing up the home-rigged hot tub on his back porch. I was going to ask how one home-rigs a hot tub, but the look on Evie’s face told me I was better off not knowing.

She smirked. “Oh, honey, you’re reasonably attractive and have all your teeth. You’re the hottest thing this town’s seen since Herb Thorpe got half-scrambled Cinemax on his satellite. ”

“I don’t see why the ‘reasonably’ was necessary, but thanks,” I muttered, sipping my Coke. “That must be why your waitress is staring daggers at me. ”

Lynette, the waitress/cleaning gal, was the girl-next-door type, if you happened to live next to a cathouse. She was probably pretty once, but chasing the next good time had aged her quickly. Her hair had been processed into an indeterminate shade of pale something. The too-bright lipstick was already starting to feather into the tiny networks of lines that spider-webbed out from her mouth. Her hip bones jutted sharply from under her fraying jeans. I would learn later that even in subzero temperatures, she wore midriff-baring tops under her parka . . . so she was a smart girl to boot.

“Don’t mind Lynette,” Evie said, rolling her eyes. “She convinced herself a long time ago that she is always the hottest thing in the room, and she lives to prove it. It actually makes her a pretty great waitress. She knows how to go after the tips. But having every guy in the bar talk to you just to hear your accent must be annoying the hell out of her. ”

“Is that why they kept asking me to say ‘ice’?” I asked, a little irritated. I’d worked for years to downplay my accent, a mix of my mother’s faint Texas twang and my classmates’ slow Delta drawl. I thought I had it down to where I only “got Southern” when I was upset. I grumbled, “Y’all sound Canadian to me, by the way. ”

“Just enjoy it. It’s a little harmless flirting. You don’t have to worry about serious intentions until they start offering you meat. ”

I arched my eyebrow. “Is that some sort of gross double entendre?”

Evie’s dark eyes twinkled. “No, actual meat. It’s sort of a tradition in Grundy, a macho provider thing. They want to show you that they can feather your nest, so to speak. It’s pretty Neanderthal of them but sweet at the same time. When a Grundy man offers you a rump roast, it’s the equivalent of asking you to go steady. ”

“Wow,” I said. “And on that note, please excuse me. ”

I hopped off the bar stool and was heading for the bathroom when my foot caught on an uneven floorboard and sent me pitching into the wall of man standing behind me. It felt as if my whole body had burst into flame. My cheek tingled where it had brushed against his chest. I could feel the heat from his steadying hands searing through the sleeves of my shirt.

I exclaimed something like “Oof!” and looked up. It was the eyes that stunned me into silence—the same electric blue-green that had stared out at me from the woods the night before. I shook off the sleep-smeared memory and tried to smile politely.

“Mo, meet Cooper Graham. Cooper, this is my new friend, Mo,” Evie said in a bemused voice.

With a gulp, I swallowed the drool puddling in my mouth. You noticed the eyes right off the bat, wide and bottomless blue over sharp cheekbones, and a slim, long nose that had obviously been broken when he was young. His hair seemed both dark brown and black, not long enough for a ponytail but too long to keep under that faded maroon baseball cap he was wearing.

Cooper was exactly the type of guy I would have sex with before the first date back home. Dark, rough, athletic. Here I was faced with my own personal sexual kryptonite, and I’d abandoned my contraception.

Cooper offered me a brief view of brilliantly white teeth as he set me on my feet. He had the biggest hands I’d ever seen. I wondered how they would feel on my skin, whether his fingertips would touch if he had both hands on my hips. Whether he was that big everywhere—

I was snapped out of my subconscious ogling when Cooper looked to Evie. “Vacationing?” he asked in a husky, no-nonsense tone.

Apparently, he wasn’t bothering to address me directly.

“New blood,” Evie said wryly, shaking her head. “Mo’s renting the Meyers place. With an option to buy. ”

“I’ve heard that song before,” Cooper rumbled. His smile was sharp and not terribly friendly. He pressed his lips together and exhaled. With lips quirked, he told me, “Try Evie’s apple-raisin pie. It’s a life changer. ”

My eyebrows shot up as he turned and walked toward the end of the counter without another word. I noticed that while most of the diners were greeted with slaps on the back and manly jokes about work ethic or penis size, Cooper was left unscathed. It wasn’t a cold shoulder, exactly. In fact, several people acknowledged his presence with a nod. But there was a distance, a pointed lack of familiarity with the other Grundians. Except for Lynnette, who scurried over to drape her bone-thin frame beside his stool under the pretense of taking his order.

I turned to Evie. “Did I do something to offend him?”

“Oh, Cooper’s just . . . well, he’s surly as all hell, but he’s family, so I put up with him, even when no one else will. He’s a cousin on my mother’s side, so we sort of grew up together over in the Crescent Valley,” she said, shaking her head. “He’s got a thing about outsiders moving up here. Just don’t let him hear you say the words ‘commune with nature,’ or the top of his head will pop right off. ”

While I’d experienced little of it so far, I’d read about the Alaskan feelings toward outsiders, a general attitude of distrust and exasperation for people who came to their home looking for the peace and fulfillment of living off the land. You could live there for twenty years and still be considered an outsider. I’d been warned by Mr. Gogan that the local postmaster, Susan Quinn, wouldn’t bother delivering my mail until I’d made it through my first winter. I’d have to pick it up at the post office myself. Susie Q, as the natives called her, was a bit of a character in a town full of them. Platinum blond by the good grace of Miss Clairol, with a countrified ’do that would put Dolly Parton to shame, she wore tight western shirts on her heavily endowed frame and drew a little beauty mark on her cheek every morning. But when it came to running the post office, she was all business, save for the fact that she kept her beloved dachshund, Oscar, in the mailroom for company.

I eyed Cooper again, trying to discern exactly where the territorial bubble he seemed to have established began. No one got within a foot of him, everyone shying around him to place orders at the counter, reach for ketchup. Again, except for Lynette, who couldn’t have communicated her eagerness to burst that bubble any more clearly if she’d been wearing a sandwich board that read, “10 Seconds from Naked!” So far, Cooper hadn’t responded to her overtures with more than a few disinterested grunts.

He was a charmer.

“If you stay past the first big snow, Cooper might actually speak to you without rolling his eyes,” Evie offered, her voice full of hope.

I muttered, “Well, woo-freaking-hoo. And you know, we had winter in Mississippi. ”

Evie gave me a pitying shake of her head.

“We actually had to wear long sleeves,” I told her, but she seemed unimpressed.

“Shit fire!” I heard Buzz yell from the kitchen.

My eyes went wide, but everyone else seemed too occupied with their food to respond. Evie read my expression, smiled to herself, and rolled her eyes. “My husband, the poet. ”

But then someone called in a stage whisper, as if not to disturb the customers, “Evie! I need some help back here. ” A lanky Asian teenager in a stained white apron stepped around the corner, pulling a pale Buzz in his wake. Buzz’s hand was wrapped in a white dish cloth already soaked with blood. Evie’s expression changed to one of alarm.

“What happened, Pete?” she asked, concern roughening her voice. I quietly stepped around the bar and helped Pete steady Buzz. We took him back into the kitchen and sat him down on a case of canned chili beans. I gently lifted Buzz’s arm over his head so Evie could pull the cloth away. I saw enough of the wound that I thought I might have to sit down, too.

“Just a little accident,” Buzz mumbled, wincing with pain.

Poor Pete had worked himself up into a fine froth. Whether it was panic from the sight of blood or fear of losing his job, I had no idea. He babbled, “We were waiting for the fries to finish, and we got a little bored. And you know, Buzz just got these new knives, and he was bragging on them and trying to tell me that they were sharp enough to cut through a beer bottle, and I said, ‘No way. ’ And he said, ‘I’ll prove it to you . . . ’”
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