The Better to Hold You Excerpt
Hoping to save her marriage, Abra leaves Manhattan and moves to a rural small town. But Abra has begun to suspect that her unfaithful husband is playing around again. Her next door neighbor, wildlife removal expert Red Mallin, has come over for dinner with the woman Abra thinks is his girlfriend. But Red has some strange ideas about just what is wrong with Abra’s husband – and like everyone else in Northside, he has some secrets of his own.
I went into the kitchen feeling somehow diminished, as if I were a little girl pretending to be a hostess and I’d just been found out.
Red stood with a kind of muscular stillness and watched while I found the gin and vodka. “Can I help get the glasses?”
“Over there.” I pointed and he opened a cabinet door, revealing nothing but plates. “I’m sorry. Maybe there. I’m still getting used to it here.”
“Shh.” He came up next to me, as if he were going to take me in his arms. I could feel the deep frown between my eyebrows turning into a headache.
“I’m just – it’s all a little overwhelming. Moving. Don’t worry, I’m not going to cry.”
I took a deep, sharp breath and Red moved and then checked himself. I could feel his yearning toward me like a magnetic field drawing me in. So this is what it’s like, I thought, to see yourself larger than life in somebody else’s eyes. What my mother had always known. What Hunter knew. I took another breath. “I’m okay.”
A muscle flexed high in his jaw. “I can’t. Touch you. He’ll know.”
“What do you — “
“I’d like to help you.”
“I’m fine now,” I said, turning my back to him. “I think the drinks stuff is over here…”
“Don’t pretend. It’s dangerous to pretend.” Then he did touch me, taking my shoulders in his hands and gently turning me to face him. We stood there in silence. His hands were warm, almost hot. I felt a reluctance to move away, which was odd, because in general I’m not a touchy-feely sort of person. But he had a reassuring air of quiet calm about him: Despite the heat of him, I felt as if I could just sink into him, like a lake. I cleared my throat.
“I think you’re imagining something that isn’t — I’m not pretending anything.“
“Aren’t you? Things are exactly how they’ve always been between you and your — Hunter.”
“That isn’t really any of your business.” The worst possible response: I might as well have said, Well, actually he’s beating me and shackling me in the basement at night. “Look, I didn’t mean that to sound the way it probably did. Hunter and I are fine.”
“Good.” His hazel eyes were set deep and almost triangular in their sockets, so that he looked pained even when he was smiling. “Glad to hear it. And you’re right — it’s none of my business. But you helped me. Back in the city.”
“I didn’t do much of anything.”
“Still, I’m beholden to you. Pia is a very special animal.” His hands were still on my shoulders. “And I think you’re in a bit of trouble yourself, now.”
“Look, we’ve just made a major life change and maybe I seem a little tense because of it. I’m sorry if my husband seemed a little edgy the other night, but he’s probably feeling the tension, too.” As I said this, something inside my temples pulled taut and began to throb.
“You think maybe I’m not seeing things as they are?” Red’s fingers slid down my arms, and he shook his head. “Maybe.”
“It’s not that you’re not an attractive man, Red, it’s just that — well, you know. I’m married, and you’re — you have Jackie.” This was purely to spare his feelings: It seemed unfair not to make some noise about him being appealing on some level, after he’d made his own feelings for me so painfully apparent.
“Jackie’s not my girlfriend. Hasn’t been for a while.”
I wonder if she knows that, I thought. “Oh. Well, good. So you’re friends. Which is what I hope we can be –friends.”
Red’s chin snapped up. “You think I’m trying to say I’ve got some kind of crush on you?”
Now I could feel myself blushing, a burning on the back of my neck, my cheeks. “I’m sorry, I thought…”
Red laughed. “Hey, don’t go all schoolgirl on me, Doc. I’m not saying I’m not attracted to you. ‘Course I am. Just like you’re attracted to me. But that’s not what I’ve been trying to get at here…”
“I am not attracted to you!”
He raised one eyebrow.
“I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I am not attracted to you.”
Red stepped in, dipped his head, and breathed in once, hard. “Yep,” he said. “You are.”
The mounting tension in my head made it hard to concentrate. “Listen, I don’t know what has given you the impression that I like you in that way, but I don’t. You’re a nice man, but — “
“Your head hurt?” Before I could move away, his hands had slipped up into my hair. The touch of his fingers against my scalp was perfect and precise as he located what must have been acupressure points. Suddenly I felt a burst of heat at the crown of my head, and then the pain was gone, and the flush swept down from my temples to my breasts, to my belly and groin. Without thinking, I leaned against him. His voice was no more than a whisper beside my ear.
“We have to stop this. Before he smells us.”
What was he saying? It made no sense. But I no longer wanted to stop. It was as if Red were two steps ahead of me, knowing my reactions before I was aware of them myself. Was I attracted to him? I couldn’t bring myself to pull away. I felt the fine tremble of his fingers. “Smells us?”
His fingers contracted in my hair.
“Are you expecting your period?”
“What? No!” I stepped away from him abruptly.
“You get these headaches often?” What was he now, a doctor? “Not usually, no.”
“Your husband getting headaches, too?”
“I don’t think so. No.” But would I know if he were? “Listen, thank you for the, ah, head rub, but I don’t really need medical advice. If I do, I’ll go to a doctor.”
“If you’ve got what I think you’ve got, I don’t think the doctor’s gonna be much help to you.”
I put my hands on my hips, suddenly angry. “And what do you think I have?”
“Well, for starters, an unfaithful husband.”
My heart gave an uncomfortable little flip. There was no way he could know that. “He was just flirting with that barmaid.” I turned away from him, opened the cabinet and took down four glasses. “That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Okay, fine, have it your way,” Red said. “But in about two weeks, you’ll be calling me in for help.”
I took the Bloody Mary mix and a bottle of tonic out of the cupboard. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Only thing is, by then it won’t be so easy to deal with.”
I fixed Red with a look that would have stopped even my mother. “What won’t be?”
“Your little wildlife removal problem.”
It took me a moment to make the connection. Then I remembered that I had planned on asking Red what could be done about the visits from the local fox or whatever it was that was leaving little gifts of viscera on my doorstep. “How did you know I have a problem?”
Red looked at me carefully. “What’s it been? Small stuff? Mice? Voles?”
“Yesterday there was a baby rabbit.”
“Anything inside the house?” His voice was sharp, almost angry.
“No, but I wanted to ask you if there was anything I could do. Short of laying traps. I don’t want to kill anything.”
Red rubbed his jaw. “Christ.” He sounded frustrated.
“Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
“Look, if you want my help, you can’t set conditions. You have to let me decide what has to be done.”
“Then forget it,” I said, pouring a measure of gin into a glass. I wasn’t giving up any more control. “It’s no big deal, anyway.”
“Maybe.” Red moved so that his arms were braced on the wall, trapping me between them. “And maybe it’s bigger than you think, Doc. Sometimes small prey are just the beginning. Like if it’s a – a young bobcat or coyote, just learning how to hunt.” Held captive, I stared up into Red’s face and felt an unfamiliar sense of power. I could let him kiss me, I thought. I could let him touch me, press himself against me, I could let him do anything and everything and I would still remain the one in control.
Acting on impulse, I bent and took a nip of his hard bicep. He sucked in a sharp breath. “I don’t like traps and poison, Red.” I ducked under his left arm and reached for the red wine. “If we have a predator around. I’ll get a dog.” I struggled with the cork and it got stuck with the corkscrew halfway in. So much for my woman-of-the-world act. But my hands were still shaking. I couldn’t believe that I’d just bitten the man.
“Here, let me do that.” Red took the bottle and uncorked it with three twists of his wrist. He poured it for me as well, with a waiter’s precision. I wondered if he’d worked tables at some point in his life. “Listen, Doc, don’t think adopting some cute little puppy is going to solve anything. One morning you’ll wake up and instead of dead squirrels and mice, you’ll find Fido belly up and missing a few organs.”
For a moment, as I sliced a lemon for the Bloody Mary, I thought of telling Red about Hunter’s condition. But even if, theoretically, some people infected with the lycanthropy virus could change into wolf form – something I found hard to swallow –and even if my husband proved to be one of the rare cases, he was still my husband. I’d known Hunter since we were just on the cusp of adulthood. I’d known him drunk and sober, elated and morose, at his best and at his worst. I knew that no matter how disinhibited by alcohol or illness, he wouldn’t do anything to hurt me.
Keeping my voice very even, I said, “And why are you so sure that it’s not just a fox or some neighbor’s cat?” I added a dash of Tabasco to Jackie’s drink.
“Because it doesn’t smell like fox or cat, that’s why.”
Jesus, him and the smells again. I’m not a great nose, myself. To me, the wine in my glass smelled of fruit and old socks, as all wine does to me, no matter what they say about a faint aroma of plums and wood smoke and an after tang of vanilla.
“So I won’t get a dog,” I said, stirring Hunter’s gin and tonic. “And if the baby rabbits start turning into lambs and kids, I’ll call you.”
Red shook his head, opened his mouth, then closed it. “Fine. Have it your way. But do me a favor. Contact me before the deer start piling up.”
I took a sharp breath, then, because it seemed to me that Red knew exactly what he was talking about. Or rather, whom he was talking about. “Until then, it’s not your problem, okay?”
“Maybe not,” he said, “but things are about to change.” I emptied a jar of nuts into a bowl and handed Red a bottle of beer from the fridge, along with Jackie’s Bloody Mary. He walked out of the kitchen, so skinny in his stiff new jeans that I felt a moment’s distaste: What had I been thinking, and why had I bitten him like that?
It wasn’t until I followed him out onto the porch that I recognized the tune he was whistling under his breath: Peter and the Wolf.