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     How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf, p.6

       part  #1 of  Naked Werewolf Series  by  Molly Harper / Fantasy / Romance & Love
Page 6


Nate was sitting with Alan at the counter on my first Friday at the stove. When he saw me coming over to say hello, Nate took off Alan’s baseball cap and straightened his uniform tie for him. Absorbed by his patty melt, Alan seemed confused until Nate sent me a pointed look.

“Mo, this is Ranger Alan Dahling,” he said, nudging Alan with his elbow. “Alan, this is Mo Duvall-Wenstein, the latest, greatest addition to our little community. ”

“I’ve been hearing all about my pretty new neighbor from Nate,” Alan said, his dimples winking. He grinned broadly at me. “I see that the stories didn’t do you justice. As the closest thing to law and order in this town, let me serve as the official Welcome Wagon. ” He stretched his tanned, rough hand across the counter and shook mine.

“Watch it,” warned Buzz, who served as the part-time constable of Grundy. It was an elected position that meant he got to wear a badge and break up bar fights. Anything more serious was called into the state police post about forty miles away. But since most of the fights took place in Buzz’s bar, it was a pretty convenient arrangement.

I didn’t know how to respond to that except by blushing. “Nice to meet you, Ranger Dahling. ”

At the sound of my voice, an awed grin spread across Alan’s face. “Would you mind if I sat here and listened to you talk all day?”

I smiled back, pleased with the little butterflies taking flight in my belly. With the exception of my first-meeting hot flash with Cooper, it had been months since the butterflies had seen any airtime. “As much as a captive male audience would fulfill one of my ingrained female fantasies, I think I would burn a lot of lunches that way. ”

“Well, it’s worth it, just to hear you call me darlin’,” he said with another broad, beautiful smile.

“I said ‘Dahling,’ your last name. ”

“That’s not how I chose to hear it. I’m almost tempted not to ask you to call me Alan. But between the accent and your cooking, I’m afraid you’ve ruined me for all other women,” Alan said solemnly. “So we might as well be on a first-name basis. ”

“Nah, I think I just ruined you for all other hamburgers. You’re lucky I don’t flutter my eyelashes. I’d own your sorry butt. ”

“Well, I’m going to have to keep coming back until we know for sure. ” Alan grinned impishly and winked at me. “I happen to be your closest neighbor. The ranger station is five miles as the crow flies from your place. Anything you need, just let me know. ”

I couldn’t help but return the smile, with more feeling this time. Alan quickly became one of my favorite regular customers, quick with a flirty smile, a compliment, and a generous tip. It was like getting a daily self-esteem booster shot; a conversation with him made me feel good for the rest of the day. Alan generally waited until Evie was too busy with other customers to take his order, meaning I would wait on him. He ordered the same thing every time, a patty melt and a piece of apple-raisin pie, which was a less life-altering experience now that I’d taken over the baking. He sat at the end of the counter, where he could see me in the kitchen. Sometimes, if the dining room was quiet enough, he would talk to me as I worked. They were fluffy, getting-to-know-you conversations about music, movies, hobbies. He seemed to know that I wasn’t ready to discuss much beyond that. Unfortunately, some of the other customers figured out that if you sat at the end of the counter, you could get the new girl’s attention, so Alan ended up jockeying for his position on most days. But it was sort of entertaining to see him show up at 10:30 for lunch.

I served. I chatted. I earned my living. Every time Mr. Gogan saw me smile at a customer, he seemed so pleased with himself I worried that his face might freeze in an expression of smug exhilaration.

THE GLACIER WASN’T open on Sundays, so I had the day off. I seriously considered driving two hours to stock up at the Sam’s Club in Guidry, but I figured the best way to build relationships with my neighbors was to shop local.

Of course, that was before I saw the $3. 65 loaf of wheat bread.

I was going to have to start baking my own bread again. And possibly milling my own flour. Maybe there were some advantages to being raised by people who didn’t believe in store-bought glutens.

Hannigan’s looked just like any locally owned grocery store anywhere in the country, except that the prices were higher and there were a lot more products geared toward cooking wild game. I pushed my cart through the store, grabbing ice cream and Sno Balls along with fruit, whole-wheat bagels, peanut butter. Even though I ate most of my meals at the Glacier as part of the “benefits package,” I felt the need to stock up. I had a feeling my first week’s paycheck was going to be used in one shopping trip.

I turned the cart around the corner, paying more attention to the display of fresh fish than to my steering, and smacked into another cart.

“You need to do something about your depth perception,” Cooper Graham grumbled from several inches above my head.

I glanced up at him. Cooper hadn’t been in the Glacier since that fateful day when Buzz experimented with do-it-yourself amputation. Evie said that Cooper was a professional field guide, leading tourist parties of hunters and fishermen through the local hot spots. She said it was normal for him to disappear for days at a time. Still, I deeply resented the way I fruitlessly checked the dining room for him every morning. It didn’t stop me from doing it, but I resented it all the same.

He looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes, which were almost hidden by his worn maroon cap. His cheeks were drawn and covered in thick, dark whiskers. I wondered if he’d been sick, if that was what had kept him away from the saloon. But ultimately, I realized it was none of my damn business and it was in my best interest not to care.

“Are you having a party?” he asked, eyeing the contents of my overloaded cart. He seemed to choke on the words, as if it literally hurt him to have to interact with another human being. How did this man make his living leading people around in the wilderness? Didn’t they expect some civility for their guide fees? Or had he convinced them that Yukon Yankee rudeness was all part of the experience?

“No. ” I pursed my lips and peered into his cart, which contained bacon, ham, sausage—meat as far as the eye could see. “Are you on Atkins?”

He rolled his eyes. “No. ”

And so we stood there staring at each other. Well, Cooper stared holes through my head. I stared at his massive, long-fingered hands and had all sorts of indecent thoughts about proportionality. My eyes flashed up to Cooper’s, and I realized that he saw where I was looking. I hated the blush that crept into my cheeks, knowing that it would eventually spread over my chest and down my belly and leave an inconvenient warmth settled there. I blew out a breath and tried to will the rush of blood away.

Another silent moment passed.

Cooper cleared his throat. “Evie said you needed some help out at your place, hauling some stuff in from your garage? She said I should offer to lend you a hand. ”

I quirked an eyebrow. The only thing in my garage at the moment was my elliptical trainer, which I’d managed to drag out of the U-Haul but not into my house. I’d told Evie about having to work out in the garage until I could get someone to move it in for me. I would have to talk to Evie about the difference between me making idle conversation and dropping hints to match me up with some burly social misfit willing to move heavy objects. Then again, I think it amused her to watch me squirm around Cooper that first morning.

Thank God I hadn’t mentioned hauling my “collection” three thousand miles with me. Evie would have had a field day. I was something of a lingerie connoisseur. The previous winter, after saving up for a year, I’d placed a massive order with La Perla, swearing that my mother would never find out that I spent enough on underwear to feed a Third World village and buy the villagers a goat farm. And she didn’t. Until she went through my bills under the guise of “helping me organize. ”

We didn’t speak for almost a month over that one.

It was worth it. I loved lingerie. I loved the feel of satin and silk on my skin. I loved the juxtaposition of wearing a pair of two-hundred-dollar lace panties under blue jeans, like the pair I was wearing at the moment. Lingerie was a personal statement that you didn’t have to declare to the world. You could be as demure or as naughty as you wanted to be, and no one ever had to know unless you showed them . . . or were injured in a serious car accident. After living with people who wore all emotions and opinions on their sleeves, having a few wearable secrets was the ultimate turn-on.

I had fond memories associated with almost all of my little ensembles. I still had the classic white lace strapless bra I’d worn under my senior prom dress. I kept the red satin bikinis I’d almost lost in a heady tangle with a U. Miss. teaching assistant whose name I couldn’t remember. And despite the way my engagement turned out, I’d held on to the black lace corset set I’d worn the night Tim proposed. I couldn’t think of the underwear without thinking of the man associated with it, and vice versa.

Hey, I find scrapbooking to be far more disturbing.

Knowing my limits in terms of self-denial, I’d hauled the entire collection with me to Grundy. It was kept in sturdy, labeled, individual boxes, carefully arranged on my closet shelf. And if I’d told Evie about it, there was no doubt she would have shared this with Cooper, too. The woman clearly had no scruples when it came to matchmaking.

“It’s just some exercise equipment,” I told him. “I know it seems like a silly thing to haul all the way up here. But there isn’t a gym up here, so no kickboxing, no racquetball. I didn’t want to gain forty pounds my first winter, so . . . ”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it. ” Cooper snorted. His tone implied that he didn’t expect me to make it through a winter, so weight gain was the least of my worries.

“Well, what do you do for exercise?” I asked, my eyes narrowing.

“Chop and haul wood, hike, you know, work to support myself?” he said pointedly.

“Right, what’s that like?” I asked.

Well, that was way more snotty than I intended it to be.

Cooper sighed, almost huffing out in annoyance. “Look, if Evie wants me to help you, I will. Just tell me when you want me to come over. ”

The command, the irritation in his voice, struck a nerve. Out of everybody in town, why did this one person make me so angry? There were others who had been less than welcoming. Heck, Lynette still called me “Hey, you” when she called out her orders. But somehow, coming from Cooper, it grated on my nerves like steel wool.

I snapped, “I don’t. It’s fine where it is. ”

“It won’t be fine when it starts to get cold and your engine block freezes because you can’t pull your truck into your garage. ”

I gave my most saccharine smile. “Well, I don’t want to trouble you. I’m sure I can get someone else to help. Alan Dahling sort of made a standing offer. ”

Cooper’s nostrils flared at the mention of the ranger. “Well, I guess it’s settled, then. ”

“I guess so. But thank you anyway. ”

I steered my cart around Cooper’s and tried to depart without any undignified flouncing. I changed my route around the shelves, deliberately avoiding Cooper until we somehow managed to hit the checkout lanes at the same time. Darby Carmichael watched me glare at Cooper while another girl checked him out at Register 2.

“Why are you giving Cooper Graham the ‘eat musk ox and die’ look?” she asked after he sauntered out of the store.

“I don’t think that’s the expression,” I told her.

“Have you ever had musk ox?” she asked.

“I have not,” I conceded. “You know how some people just rub you the wrong way? Well, Cooper’s my own personal sandpaper. ”
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