This short story contains minor spoilers for the Upson Downs series (Target Billionbear and A Werewolf’s Valentine). It can be read as a standalone story but for maximum enjoyment, I recommend you read those books first!
A Werewolf’s Valentine (Upson Downs) – Bonus Epilogue
“That was a great wedding,” Elliot said in his slow voice, smiling with reminiscence.
“That it was,” Julia Bashir said. “I keep telling Deedee she ought to start a catering service.”
“For who?” Hannah Weinstein asked. “This town isn’t big enough to support a catering service. Unless she wants to compete with them over the hill in Overton.”
“Just for weddings,” Julia said as she waded out into the water.
They were all out helping on the Lopez fish farm—naked, as always. It was so much easier to shift that way, and besides, the sun was warm, the air refreshing, and nobody liked soggy clothes chafing and slapping wetly, especially mud-slimed.
They’d posted the usual guards—well, almost usual. Chick Paulsen was ordinarily one guard, but as it was his wedding the day previous, Lee Enkel was serving in his place.
“The music was awesome as well, Uncle Lee,” Elliot said, smiling sleepily up at Lee Enkel.
Lee said, “Thanks.” He appreciated Elliot’s kindness, though he already knew that the bluegrass band he was a part of was a town favorite.
The day was lovely, the work easy, the company pleasant, and yesterday’s wedding had been wonderful . . . maybe too wonderful. Because Lee had woken up that morning profoundly depressed.
Weddings. Yes. Everyone in Upson Downs seemed to have a mate. Even his son Rolf, a high school senior, had found his mate in Shawna Odom—they had been going steady since age fourteen, exactly as Lee’s brother had found his own mate in grade school.
Everyone had a mate except Lee. At least he’d gotten Rolf out of his disaster of a marriage. And at least he had a pack, he told himself as he swept his gaze diligently over the shoreline below the hill he perched on. Though it might be one of the odder packs in shifter history, as it was mostly made up of loner wolves, himself—a bloodhound—and one cat, his niece Kenzie, mated with the alpha, West. But then odd pretty much summed up the entire town of Upson Downs.
They were about to break for lunch when Julia straightened up, hands rubbing her lower spine as she tipped her head back—then her eyes widened as she gave a squawk of surprise. “What’s that?” She pointed skyward.
“A drone,” Sheriff Odom declared.
Dwayne Paulsen drew in a breath of sheer pleasure, then said out of the side of his mouth, “Quick! Assume the cult positions!”
At least life in Upson Downs was never dull, Lee thought as he scrambled into place beside Doc Hochstetter. Dwayne led them in bowing three times and intoning “O great avatar,” as Elliot—the biggest and hairiest of those on fish farm duty that day—shambled around in a circle, slowly waving his arms in intricate signs meant to be mysterious and sinister.
They kept it up, moving slower and slower, while the drone flew around a couple times, then finally moved away. As the sun was dipping down toward the sea, they mutually decided to call it a day, and shifted to their animals to return home.
When Lee got to the Surf later that evening, he discovered the betting was already going.
“What’s your guess and how much?” Agnes Nixon intercepted him just inside the door.
“Journalist,” Lee said. “I’ll go as high as five bucks.”
“Fiver it is,” Agnes said, writing in her notebook as Lee slid the five out of his wallet.
Lee bent over the notebook. “What are the other bets?”
“The usual. Greedy real estate agent, two for nosy journalist, and one for a genuine nudist cult seeker.”
“Running a drone?” Lee asked, looking skeptical.
Agnes shrugged. “I don’t question the bets, I just write ‘em down and collect the pot. Oh. There’s a side bet going on how long it takes for the Nosy Parker to show up.”
Lee shook his head. “It’s always a day, two at most.”
He went to get his banjo and tune it. West was already there, as well as the rest of their bluegrass band.
West gathered them with a glance, tapped his foot, and they began to play.
As always, Lee sank into the music, letting it seep into his soul. The love songs tended to make him wistful, but he was used to that.
Turned out it was one day before the latest Nosy Parker showed up—and it was clear within five minutes that he was a greedy real estate developer who thought the town was filled with misfits and crackpots, who would be glad to sell their ocean-view properties for a pittance, and a promise of first buy-in of the condominium “Townhome Community” he planned to put in.
It was also very clear that he was determined not to take no for an answer.
From mouth to ear (and text from phone to phone) word ran ahead. Though more obnoxious than most, this guy was sure no quitter, Doc Weinstein texted—he seemed determined to visit every house and business, and if you didn’t answer your door the first time, he circled back again and again.
Jameson had warned them last year about the usual tactics of such people—if they got one person to take the bait, they’d use that person to drive a wedge into the community, and cause others to fall in behind.
Lee would have loved nothing better than to hide out and let someone else deal, but unfortunately, Ed, Doris, and McKenzie had all flown back east to be there when Bandit had her twins. Bandit and Jameson had agreed to have the birth back where Jameson’s mother could attend, as she was in fragile health. That left Lee and his nephew-in-law West to hold down the house.
So Lee was stuck.
He had a few minutes or warning from Ralph down the hill, and braced himself.
Just as well. The doorbell rang insistently. Lee yanked it open, ready to be rude—to find a small woman of maybe 45 or 50 standing on the stoop, her shoulders up by her ears, her gaze downward so he couldn’t see her face. She was clearly highly uncomfortable.
So he changed his “What do you want?” to “Yes?”
“Is this the Enkel residence?” she whispered.
Her hands clasped a huge notebook. “I’d like to talk to you . . . about an opportunity . . .” She was barely audible.
Lee bent forward—and that’s when a ham of a hand wearing a gigantic diamond ring (real or fake, Lee had no idea, as diamonds have no smell) shoved the women inside the door, nearly causing her to fall. A big man charged past Lee, then turned to flash about 400 long white teeth at him in what was probably supposed to be a friendly grin, but it didn’t reach the guy’s faded blue eyes. “Hel-lo,” the man foghorned in a voice better suited to an outside stadium. “Taylor Whitcombe, chief executive of Innovative Community Environments. We at ICE specialize in bringing the best people to the community most suited to them.”
“No thanks,” Lee said.
“For example,” Whitcombe gallumped right over Lee’s words. “My researchers have disclosed that there are people in Upson Downs who follow a, very . . . creative, uh, spiritual movement. I am all for freedom of expression of any kind! But you have to ask yourself, is this the right environment these days of increasing lack of privacy? Now, let me show you some designs of communities where privacy is the first concern, yet space and up-to-the-minute technological planning is incorporated into every unit.”
He snapped his fingers. The small woman started, then came forward with the thick, heavy notebook. “Glennis. Show our Mr. Ankle the photographs of . . .”
Lee tuned out the man’s braying voice. He sniffed. Under the heavy Axe, the man smelled like a predator on the hunt. But the small woman smelled . . . different. Not bad. He wished he could get closer, but she was so timid she stayed well back, ceding the stage to Whitcombe, who didn’t stop jawing for a second.
Lee scarcely glanced at the laminated pages depicting depressing condominiums that all looked alike, and tried to step closer to the woman. His bloodhound was usually very good at sniffing out intent. He couldn’t get a read on her, except that she was no predator in Whitcombe’s sense.
“ . . . these hilly properties are worth very little in today’s market, as the danger of landslide has to be taken into consideration, but our generous policies allow us to make an offer that would furnish you first choice in a brand-new home . . .” Whitcombe bored on.
“We’re not really interested,” Lee began.
“But you haven’t heard our special offer for discerning customers,” Whitcombe said even louder. “Glennis! Smile at the gentleman, and show him—”
The front door opened, and West walked in. Dressed in jeans and a black shirt, the muscles in his arms straining against the sleeves. He stood there, icy eyes boring into Whitcombe, and Lee smothered a laugh: he didn’t even have to sniff to see how irritated West was. He looked like a wolf whose den has been invaded.
“Not. Interested,” he growled.
Whitcombe backed up, stuttering in his pitch. West sauntered his way. Whitcombe actually slithered behind the small woman, keeping her between West and himself, before he made it to the door. “I can see you’re busy. I’ll take a raincheck! Come along, Glennis!”
Bang. The door slammed behind them both.
“Next time, take a bite out of his ass,” West said to Lee.
When he got to Bud’s pub that night, he spotted a bare spot over to one side. Everyone else had crammed up at the surrounding tables. Sitting alone was that woman Glennis, her hands clasped around a mug of Bud’s artisanal dark beer. She stared down into it.
From what Lee could make out of her face, she looked unhappy. If she noticed all the empty space around her, she gave no sign.
Lee hesitated. He knew Glennis worked for the enemy, but she just looked so forlorn, sitting there alone. And he knew the entire book of loneliness, chapter and verse. He started toward her, aware that her sad demeanor might be part of the campaign. But if he sniffed any falsity, he could take off.
He got his beer, and approached her table. “Mind if I join you?” he asked. “Rest of the place is pretty busy.”
She didn’t look up. “I promise I don’t have fleas,” she said.
Fleas? That was an odd response. Lee smiled as he sat on the bench opposite her. “I don’t, either,” he said. “I take it you and your, ah, partner are staying the night?”
“He is, was, my boss,” Glennis said. “Left hours ago—saying that he was sure he couldn’t get decent food in this dump, so he went back to Overton.” She flicked her hand. “So he missed out on a masterpiece of a chicken pie at the Crockery,” she added with a wistful smile.
“The Crockery is a town secret. Breakfasts at Ralph’s Eatery are another,” Lee said, intrigued. “He fired you?”
“About two minutes before I was going to quit,” she admitted. “I decided to stay the night while I figure out my next step. That hotel looked so cute, I couldn’t resist.” She looked around. “I don’t know where Whitcombe gets his information,” she admitted. “This town isn’t full of crazy cultists from what I’ve seen. Maybe a little stand-offish, though I don’t blame them, really. Not one naked body, either. It’s a pretty town. And it would be a shame to raze it, especially to put up shlocky apartment buildings.”
“How long have you worked for him?” Lee asked.
“Three days.” She gave him a brief, lopsided grin. “I’m a trainee. Was. He blamed his lack of success here on me. Said what customers like is a perky, pretty, enthusiastic face. Meaning, not mine.”
“How did you end up working for him?”
“Desperation.” She gave him another lopsided smile, her gaze almost reaching his face. “I was an apartment manager. Nearly twenty years. Not much pay, but free rent and utilities. Until the owner’s son got caught in the wrong bedroom, and his soon-to-be ex-wife booted his butt to the curb. So the owner booted me to the curb so her sleazy son can move in. My dad was a real estate agent ages ago, and I learned a little about it, and this job looked good on paper, but wow, have things changed since he was in the field.”
“What do you like to do?” he asked. “I mean, is apartment manager your profession?”
She grinned. It was a surprisingly sweet grin, transforming her tired face. “Is there a profession for that? Anyway, no. I fell into apartment managing by accident, and stayed with it. I’m a dressmaker. I love sewing. I can alter anything. But these days, clothes are so cheap, no one really needs my skills. I sew doll clothes for collectors, and sell the outfits on Etsy. It’s more fun than lucrative, which is why I responded to Whitcombe’s ad about training newcomers to real estate. What a mistake that was!”
“No kidding,” he said, and tried to sniff her again. But the air was so thick with aromas of beer and wet wool from the rain outside, he couldn’t quite catch her scent, only a trace that really intrigued him.
She glanced around. “The lady at the hotel said that a bluegrass band plays here. Is that true?”
“It is,” Lee said. “I’m one of the players. Our guitarist isn’t here yet. We rarely start at the same time each evening.”
She lifted her face at last, and eyes met eyes.
That elusive scent . . .
He swallowed against the sudden thrum of his heartbeat, and took a risk. “I’m a bloodhound,” he said.
She didn’t giggle, or say “How cute!” or “I’m a Virgo,” or some such. She gazed back, smiling over her entire face, her lips parted in wonder.
Mate? He wasn’t sure yet—but he knew he was going to enjoy finding out.
“It’s true . . . I found shifters?” she whispered. Her eyes gleamed with tears of joy as she added, “I’m a koala.”
“Welcome home.” Lee smiled. “Welcome home.”