“No,” she said flatly. “I don’t. Riley.” She stretched out on the creaking mattress, praying she didn’t leave with bedbugs. Or worse. “Begin.” Or she might chicken out.
He looked her over before closing the distance, kneeling at her side and settling her arm in his lap. Contact. Sizzling, earth-shattering, necessary. Somehow, she maintained a blank expression.
“In two weeks?” She wanted to snort. She couldn’t. He was right.
“Yeah.” He’d already placed the equipment on the nightstand, the ink ready to go. He lifted the tiny gun and pressed the needle deep. There was a sharp sting, a persistent burn and the buzz of the little motor. Maybe her homesickness had toughened her up—she didn’t even flinch.
“Do you think I’ve changed for the better?” Stop. Don’t pursue this. You might not like what you learn.
“I liked you how you were.”
He sounded bitter. She had to pursue. “Which was weak? Reliant on you?”
“And you’re strong now?” Ouch. “I’m stronger. So you don’t like me now?” Why are you pursuing this?
“I like you. What I don’t like is the company you keep,” he added loudly.
“This is boring,” Tucker said, pacing at the edge of the bed. “Someone entertain me.”
They ignored him.
“How did you and Tucker hook up?” Riley asked. His touch became more aggressive. “And I don’t mean that in the romantic sense. Unless there’s something you need to tell me. And if that’s the case—”
“It’s not, there’s not,” she rushed to assure him. Things might be over between them, but she didn’t want him to think she’d jumped into something with Tucker. “After stabbing Aden—which I still haven’t forgiven him for—” she said just as loudly as Riley had “—Tucker came looking for me. He saw me leave my house with a bag and followed me.”
“I followed you. You did everything in your power to lose me. Him, you kept around.” Yep. That was bitterness, pure and fervent. More than that, “him” had been said with so much disgust, Riley could have been discussing a case of raging diarrhea.
In his mind, he probably was.
“Yeah,” she said, tone softening, “but I care about hurting you.”
They ignored him.
Riley paused. Set the ink gun aside, and reached for her. His fingers traced over her jaw, caressing. Mary Ann didn’t mean to, but she leaned into the familiar, calloused touch, her eyes closing. Just then, they were the only two people in the world.
She breathed him in, pretending she was normal, he was normal, everything was normal. That wild, earthy scent of his reminded her of the outdoors, and she wished for more, was desperate for more—until she remembered what had happened to the last creatures of the night she’d encountered and couldn’t pretend anymore.
They’d convulsed, their skin paling…paling…until they’d become chalk white, resembling painted Halloween decorations. Bruises had formed under their eyes, their lips had chapped, and they’d screamed. And screamed and screamed and screamed, the pain too much to bear.
She must have stiffened. Her eyelids sprang apart, and she saw that Riley was frowning with concern. Concern. No, no, no. “Did I hurt you?” she asked in a rush. Had she drained him, even a little?
The concern had been for her, then. She relaxed, but only slightly. Why did he have to be so wonderful? “You’d tell me if I did?”
“Of course. I’m not the suffer-in-silence type.”
No, he wasn’t. Something she’d always loved about him.
“Not yet. I’ve been living off my immense overindulgence, but the full feeling is fading,” she admitted. “I’ll be hungry very soon.”
“Very soon isn’t now. We have time.”
Time together, he was saying. Time before she had to start worrying.
When would he learn? She always worried. “Just finish the wards,” she said on a sigh.
“All right. But this conversation isn’t over.”
Yeah, it was, but she didn’t comment, and a few hours later, she was the proud owner of six new wards.
“Sexy,” Tucker said, wiggling his brows at her.
“Do you want me to pluck out your eyes?” Riley snapped as he dismantled the equipment and stuffed it into a bag.
“Fine.” Tucker held up his hands, all innocence. “She looks disgusting.”
Tucker shrugged, unapologetic. “We tried dating, we failed. Therefore I know not to put my eggs in your basket. If I do, they’ll be met with a hammer.”
Okay. Were eggs a metaphor for his balls? Because that was disgusting. Still, it had Riley nodding, genuinely happy for the first time all day.
“You’re not putting your eggs in my basket, either,” she informed him.
He, too, shrugged. “You’ll change your mind.”
“Just…keep your lips away from me!” If he kissed her, she’d cave, she always did. His mouth weakened her, and that was that.
He gave her a secret smile, one that promised he’d be all over her when they were alone. And she’d like it. She shivered. No being alone with the wolf!
“I didn’t say anything about kissing you. Did I?”
“Sick, just sick.” Tucker pretended to gag. “Stop flirting in front of the innocent bystander.”
“I doubt you’ve ever been innocent,” she said dryly.
“And don’t you have somewhere to be?” Riley demanded. “Like with your pregnant girlfriend?”
Penny. Mary Ann hadn’t yet called her today and wondered if the girl was still hunched over a toilet, vomiting out her guts.
For the first time since Tucker had stepped in front of Mary Ann, begging her to let him help her so that he could make up for what he’d done to Aden, claiming he only felt “right” when he was with her, that he could fight his darker urges as long as he kept her close, he appeared utterly defeated.
“Penny will find happiness without me,” he said without emotion.
“Well, her—your—baby won’t. He’ll be part demon, and Pen needs help raising him.”
His defeated pallor washed away with the flush of longing.
Did he…could he really…love Penny and want the baby? Maybe some part of him did. But maybe he also knew being with them would destroy them in ways leaving them alone wouldn’t. His dark nature might cause him to do things he would regret for the rest of his life.
Mary Ann knew the feeling. Being without Riley was killing her. She missed him a little more every day—even missed him while he was beside her—but she would do anything, anything, to keep him safe.
“So, are you done with Mary Ann? Tell me you’re done. Because I’m ready for my turn,” Tucker said, rubbing his hands together a second time.
“Hey, I don’t want to be cursed, either. And as I’m a valued member of this team.”
Tucker popped his jaw. “Just like our definition for shifter must differ. To you it probably means one who can change shapes. To me it just means asshole.”
“How about I ward you with permanent impotence?” Riley withdrew the gun and shook it at him. “How about that?”
“Unnecessarily cruel, wolf. I’m hurt. Really.” Tucker wiped pretend tears from his eyes. “Those witches and fairies are hot, and if I’m captured by one of them, I need to be in working order. You remember how I like to work, don’t you, Mary Ann?”
Oh, no. He wasn’t dragging her into this. “We never had sex, and you know it.”
“You were too busy nailing everyone else,” Riley snarled at him.
“Yeah, like your mom,” Tucker said.
There was a beat of silence. “Yeah, like your dad,” Tucker said without an ounce of remorse.
Actually, Riley’s dad was dead, too. No reason to mention that aloud, allowing Tucker to come up with someone else he could have nailed. “You two are such…guys,” she said, standing.
Tucker’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying? The rest of me is a girl?”
“Hey.” Riley held up his hands, palms out, in a mimic of Tucker’s earlier profession of innocence. “I’m not the one who admitted to nailing a dude.”
“That was a lie, Fido. An insult to your parents that you’re clearly too dumb to get.”
“Can we go now?” Mary Ann asked before they could fight. Again.
“Yes,” Riley said at the same time Tucker said, “What ever.”
Thankfully they traveled the fifteen miles to Dr. Daniel Smart’s former residence without incident. She would have preferred to go alone, but hey. At five, she’d wanted a pony. She’d learned to live with disappointment.
No one answered the door after a bout of hard knocking from Riley, followed by an equally hard bout of knocking from Tucker, as if even that was a competition, but their little group of dysfunction didn’t leave. They sat on the porch swing, Mary Ann the meat in a testosterone sandwich, and waited.
She’d checked the county records, and Dr. Smart’s wife still owned this place. So, Tonya Smart hadn’t changed the name on the deed, which most likely meant she hadn’t remarried.