Authors: Kathleen Peacock
FOR MY FRIENDS—
M NOT ALWAYS SURE WHY YOU PUT UP WITH ME, BUT
M SO GRATEFUL YOU DO
OME ROOMS LOOKED BETTER IN THE DARK. THIS WAS
definitely one of them.
Neon light slipped around the curtains, muted flashes of red as the vacancy sign blinked on and off. I shifted my weight and the mattress protested with a chorus of groans and squeaks.
“Are you okay?” Kyle’s voice was still rough around the edges as he tightened his arm around me. “Was it okay?” He had done this before; I hadn’t.
I pressed my lips to his bare shoulder. “It was perfect.”
The muffled sounds of a fistfight drifted in from the parking lot, and Kyle made a skeptical noise in the back of his throat.
“Okay,” I admitted, a sleepy smile tugging at the corners of my mouth, “so it’s not the most romantic place to deflower a girl.”
My cheeks flushed. I shrugged and my skin brushed his, sending a wave of sparks racing down my spine. “That’s what Tess calls it. Anytime she tries to give me a serious sex talk, she turns into the mom from a sixties sitcom.”
“Bet none of her talks covered werewolves.” A somber note crept into his voice, one that hinted at the reasons he had left.
“No,” I said, struggling to keep my voice light, “but she did say all teenage boys were ravenous beasts. Plus, her last boyfriend was a mass murderer. Compared to that . . .” I shivered and cursed myself. I didn’t want to ruin what we had just done with thoughts of Ben and everything that had happened in Hemlock.
Silence filled the spaces where our bodies didn’t quite meet.
“You shouldn’t have come after me,” he said, finally.
“I had to.” I couldn’t remember finding him or how we had gotten here or who had kissed who first, but I knew there had never been a choice. We were inevitable. “You know I did.”
“You can’t just run away.”
“It’s still kind of perfect.”
He pushed the hair back from my face and traced the line of my cheek with the pad of his thumb. “I love you, Mackenzie.”
I opened my mouth to tell him that I loved him, too, but a particularly loud thud from the parking lot made me jump. “Okay, the setting could be a
more romantic,” I said, looking over my shoulder. “The back of your car would at least be quiet.”
I turned to kiss him, but he wasn’t there.
“Kyle?” My throat was sandpaper dry, my voice thick with sleep. Soft snores came from across the room, and Jason’s shape—a tangle of blankets and skin—shifted in the dark. Outside, the fight in the parking lot was going strong.
I skimmed my fingers over the other side of my bed. The sheets were cold. Reality sank in: I hadn’t found Kyle; he had never been here; we had never done . . . that.
It had all been a dream.
For a moment, it was like losing him all over again, and I put a hand over my mouth to smother the small, strangled sound that lodged in my throat and fought to get free. I wouldn’t cry. I
Jason was sleeping seven feet away. If he woke, he’d put his arms around me and whisper that everything was going to be all right.
Part of me wanted the comfort and the lie—wanted it badly—but it wouldn’t be fair. Not to Kyle, who had walked away from everything to keep us safe. And not to Jason, who thought he loved me and who belonged to my best friend even in her death.
Burying the desire for comfort, I stood and made my way to the bathroom, ignoring the way the carpet crunched under my feet. The North Star Motor Inn—cash up front and no questions asked—was a step above a total dive, but it wasn’t a very big step.
I should know.
Home isn’t a permanent address—not for people like us
. My father’s words drifted back to me as I flicked on the bathroom light. Hank had seen motels as the way stations between cons and as dumping grounds for things he no longer wanted. Things like me.
I ran the water in the sink and scooped up a drink in my palm. It tasted of chlorine and brine and did nothing to dislodge the lump in my throat.
Three glistening drops of red hit the porcelain. They mixed with the water, tingeing it pink.
My heart jackhammered as I glanced up.
Amy—my best friend and one of Ben’s victims—stared at me from the other side of the bathroom mirror.
I scrambled away so quickly that I tripped and had to grab the towel rack to keep from falling.
“Easy, tiger.” Amy leaned forward. Her ink-black hair fell around her like a curtain and her eyes were shadows that shifted and swirled like smoke.
I hadn’t seen her in days—not since the night Jason and I had left Hemlock. Foolishly, I’d begun to think maybe I had left her behind.
“Just because you didn’t see me didn’t mean I wasn’t here,” she said, reading my mind in the unsettling way she sometimes did. “Don’t you remember what I told you?”
I shook my head. Amy had said a lot of things—both before and after death.
She pressed her fingertips to the glass, her manicured nails making the same rat-tat-tap sound the blood had made when it hit the sink. With each tap, fault lines spread across the mirror. “Something’s coming, Mac.” She sounded oddly sad. Almost apologetic. “It’s not over.”
A large crack split her face in two and the mirror exploded outward.
I woke—really woke—gasping. Soft yellow light filled the motel room, and I was lying, fully clothed, on top of my bed.
I struggled to shake away the fog of sleep.
Jason and I had come back to regroup. I remembered lying down—just for a second—and . . . nothing. I must have passed out.
A ball of lead settled in my stomach as I realized I was alone.
I checked the bathroom—empty—and then pulled my phone from my pocket. Ten p.m. I’d been asleep for over three hours. Pacing, I dialed Jason’s number. The call went straight to voice mail.
“Where are you? I woke up and—”
My foot hit something smooth and solid. I glanced at the floor and then crouched down.
“GoddamnitJason.” I breathed the words in a rush as I straightened, one hand still pressing the phone to my ear, the other holding a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s.
HERE WERE FIVE BARS WITHIN STUMBLING DISTANCE OF
the motel, but in the end, I found Jason right back where I had started.
More or less.
We were in room eleven. He had made it as far as number seven before slumping to the pavement, bloody and battered, beer and whiskey riding his breath. He’d forgotten the room number. And his key.
That had been thirty minutes ago.
Now he leaned against the bathroom door frame, shirtless, blond hair still dripping from a dunk in the sink. Two cuts crossed his chest—just over his heart—like the
on a pirate’s map. There was a third gash on his upper arm.
A broken bottle
, he had promised.
Not claw marks
I thought he needed stitches, but he had refused to go to the hospital.
He reached past me and set a bloodstained washcloth on the edge of the sink. “You can’t give me the silent treatment indefinitely.” The slur had left his words, but his voice was slow and cautious.
I stared at his tattoo in the mirror—the black dagger on his neck that marked him as an initiate in the largest anti-werewolf group in the country—before dragging my eyes upward.
Jason’s gaze was brilliant green and bloodshot.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” The words—the first I had spoken since he told me where he had gone—sliced my throat like razor blades.
I glanced at the floor where his shirt lay in a crumpled heap. Torn and stained red, it was beyond saving. The cuts were bad, but they weren’t
bad. I’d had enough practice patching people up—my father and, more recently, Jason—to know that much.
“Not all of the blood is yours.” I closed my eyes and gripped the edge of the sink.
“It’s Tracker blood.” There was an undercurrent to Jason’s voice that was as dark as the stains on his shirt. “All of it. We ran into a fleabag and his reg girlfriend. He tried to throw a guy through a wall while she came at me with a busted bottle. Tiny, but fast.”
I tightened my hold on the sink, clutching it so hard that I cut off the circulation in my fingertips. “You could have been killed.” Another thought occurred to me. A group of Trackers didn’t just happen onto a werewolf by chance.
“They were hunting.” Hunting wolves. Hunting people like Kyle. “They went on a hunt and you went with them. Did you . . . did they . . .” I sucked in a deep breath. “What happened to the reg and the werewolf?”
“They got away. Both of them.” There was a faint rustle of denim and then Jason was behind me. I could feel the air he displaced and the heat radiating off his skin. If I turned my head, I’d smell the alcohol on his breath. “I wouldn’t have let them hurt her. The reg.”
“And the wolf?”
He hesitated. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It almost killed a man. . . .”
“A man who was hunting him.” Jason didn’t deny it. “What if it had been Kyle?”
“What if . . . ? Jesus, Mac. Kyle’s my best friend.”
I opened my eyes. I wanted to say I was sorry and I knew; instead, what came out was, “You promised to stay away from them.”
Jason held my gaze in the mirror. “The local Trackers are the best way to figure out where a wolf in Denver might go. You know that.”
I did know, but if Jason got sucked back into the Trackers, if they ever discovered the part he had played the night their leader had been killed . . .
I had almost lost him to them once.
“I didn’t have a choice, Mac. My father’s going to report the car stolen and Tess is going to report you missing—sooner rather than later. We’re running out of time to find him.”
“And the drinking?”
Jason was standing close enough that I felt him flinch. He reached for me, but I pushed past him and out of the bathroom.
I stopped when I was halfway to the motel room door. I wanted to storm off, but I’d have to come back here eventually. Jason was all I had. I crossed my arms and waited, half hoping, half dreading he would try to talk to me.
The bathroom door clicked shut. A moment later, the shower clanked to life.
Kyle had once told me that I needed to have faith in people instead of expecting them to let me down. But putting my faith in Jason’s promises had almost gotten him killed.
I couldn’t lose anyone else. Not after Amy.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and punched in a number. A familiar, melodic voice answered on the third ring.
“I need a favor.”
The Denver Bus Center wasn’t hard to find. My hands tightened on the wheel as I pulled off the street and up a ramp marked Public Parking. After today, I would well and truly be on my own.
“I thought we were getting breakfast.” Jason flipped open the glove compartment and dug through a rat’s nest of paper and plastic.
“Lunch,” I corrected as I turned off the ramp. “It’s past noon. And we are.”
He paused his search just long enough to shoot me a skeptical look over the top of his shades. “Week-old sandwiches from a bus station vending machine wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“I’m surprised you want to eat at all, considering you felt too hungover to drive.” I bit my lip and backed Jason’s SUV into a space as he located a small bottle and popped two white tablets. “I just have to do something. You can wait here. I’ll crack a window.”
“Right. Because I’m a child or a puppy.” He followed me out of the car and downstairs.
The inside of the bus terminal seemed unnaturally dark and dingy in contrast to the bright morning outside. A tired-looking woman hauled a screaming toddler toward the restrooms while a junkie rocked back and forth on a bench. A few security guards wandered through the crowd, their yellow shirts the only spots of color.
“Middle America at its finest,” muttered Jason. The corners of his mouth twisted down as he watched a cleaning lady mop up a puddle of vomit. “Want to explain why we’re here?”
I pushed back the coins on the bracelet I wore—Amy’s bracelet—to peer at my watch. I hadn’t factored in traffic and we were a few minutes late.
“You can’t seriously think Kyle’s been hiding out in a hole like this.” Jason made it sound like we were standing on skid row. To someone as rich as he was, maybe the distinction didn’t seem that big.
I fingered the edge of a coin and swallowed. I had rehearsed what I would say all morning, but now that we were here, all my practiced words deserted me.
Before I could recapture them, the crowd shifted and someone squealed my name. I caught a split-second glimpse of dark skin and bright fabric before I was tackled by five feet and one inch of enthusiasm.
“Human ribs,” I gasped. “Can’t. Breathe. Se—re—na.”
A flicker of embarrassment crossed Serena Carson’s face as she released me. “Sorry. I forgot.” She raked a hand through her shoulder-length curls and scanned the crowd to see if anyone had noticed her minuscule slip. Serena was usually very good at hiding her condition. She had to be. Like Kyle, and thousands of other werewolves living underground, she’d be sent to a government rehabilitation camp if anyone found out she had lupine syndrome.
She turned back to me and frowned as she catalogued the bags under my eyes and my rumpled clothes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look like hell. And I’m saying that as someone who spent the night on a Greyhound listening to the life story of a guy called Murray the Rat.” She slipped a backpack from her shoulder and tossed it at Jason.
He caught it effortlessly, his eyes impossible to read behind the sunglasses. “Carson. Fancy seeing you here.”
I shot Jason a nervous glance, then flashed Serena a small smile. “Not all of us dress like every day is a casting call for
America’s Next Top Model
She glanced down at her outfit—a turquoise bomber-style jacket over a belted pink shirt and gray capris—and grinned. “The shoes don’t really work,” she said, gesturing to the blue Chuck Taylors on her feet, “but I figured flats would be better for pounding pavement.”
“They look good. Tess has a pair just like them.” Guilt flooded me at the thought of my cousin. “Is she okay?”
Serena nodded. “Upset and worried, but okay. At least you’re providing the mother of all distractions from Ben. No sign of him,” she added, before the question could leave my lips.
I exhaled. I still wasn’t sure how—or if—I should tell Tess that Ben was the white werewolf who had terrorized Hemlock and killed Amy. As far as she knew, he had dumped her and skipped town to hook up with his ex. I wanted it to stay that way until I figured out what to do.
Serena glanced at Jason and arched an eyebrow. “Speaking of distractions, I told everyone at school that you went to Vegas on a bender. Mac and Kyle are supposedly tracking you down before you marry a hooker and sign away the family fortune.”
Without a word, Jason turned and headed for the parking garage, striding through the crowd like he expected them to clear a path for him. Most of them did.
Serena shot me a bewildered glance. “Okay, since when does Jason Sheffield care about his reputation?”
I sighed. “It’s not that. I sort of didn’t tell him you were coming.”
The look on her face slid from bewilderment to reproach. “So he doesn’t know why I’m actually here? Oh, this is going to be fun.”
“I just couldn’t figure out how to tell him.”
“Well, you’d better think fast,” she said, falling into step next to me as I started after Jason.
“Did you really tell everyone we were in Vegas?”
She nodded. “Figured it was either that or say you had a pregnancy scare and ran away because you didn’t know which of them was the baby daddy.”
“Soap opera much?”
Serena shrugged. “We do live in Hemlock.”
Truer words had never been spoken. I shook my head. “Thanks for coming.”
“Are you kidding?” She grinned. “Denver is like the ultimate werewolf hot spot. I’ve been dying to check it out for years.”
We reached the stairs to the upper parking level. Jason was almost at the top. The set of his shoulders was stiff and he dangled Serena’s backpack by one strap, gripping the fabric so tightly that his hand shook.
He kept walking.
I jogged up the stairs. Serena didn’t follow, trying to give us the illusion of privacy even though she’d hear every word. Werewolf hearing.
“Jason? Would you stop for a second?” I grabbed the other strap of the bag.
He turned and slipped off his shades with his other hand. His expression was carefully blank as he slid the glasses into his jacket pocket, but his eyes glinted like pieces of broken glass. The backpack dangled between us, each of us holding a strap like it was the prize in a tug-of-war. “You want to tell me why Serena’s here?”
I swallowed. “I thought she could help.”
“So you called her without telling me?”
“You like Serena,” I reminded him. “At least you used to.” The
before you found out she was infected
hung heavy and unspoken.
“Sure. For a—” He caught himself. “—for what she is, she’s great.” He ran a hand over the light stubble on his face. “That’s not the point. If you think Serena can help, fine, but you can’t get pissed about me meeting the Trackers without telling you and then call her behind my back.”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“It’s exactly the same. You never trust anyone.”
The idea of being lectured about trust by Jason was so ridiculous that only the look on his face stopped me from laughing. “I trust people who deserve to be trusted.” I wasn’t sure what else to say.
“Like Kyle? Leaving you a Dear John letter and slipping out before you woke up is really deserving of trust.” Almost at once, Jason realized he’d gone too far. His eyes widened and the expression on his face softened. He released his grip on the bag and it thudded against my legs. “Mac . . . I didn’t . . .”
I set the bag down and crossed my arms, using them like a shield even though the words had already hit. What Kyle had done, he had done to try and keep us all safe. That had to make it better, didn’t it? “It doesn’t matter,” I said, even though it did.
I glanced over my shoulder. Serena was at the top of the stairs. I sucked in a deep breath and turned back to Jason. “Serena’s here to help us find Kyle, but if we don’t have any luck by morning, the two of you are going home. I’ll stay here and keep looking, but you’re going back to Hemlock.”
“You’ve got to be joking.” Jason stared at me, incredulous. “I do one thing you don’t like and you want me gone?”
I was pretty sure meeting the Trackers and falling off the wagon counted as two things, but I didn’t point that out. “I can’t look for Kyle and worry about you at the same time.”
“You can’t force me to leave.” Jason’s voice came out with the edge of a growl, almost as though he were infected.
“You’re right.” Serena was suddenly beside me. She flexed her hand and muscles shifted under her skin. “Mac can’t force you, but I can.” She didn’t look happy when she said it, but she flashed him a wolf’s grin, showing teeth that were a little too long and a little too pointed.
Jason swore under his breath and walked away. When he realized we weren’t following, he turned. “Are you coming?”
I hesitated and he pushed a hand roughly through his hair. “Look. I want to find Kyle. You want to find Kyle. We can argue about everything else”—his gaze darted to Serena and a thunderstorm played out across his face—“later. The Trackers said Montbello was fleabag friendly. It’s one of the few parts of Denver we haven’t checked.”
“You’re still going to help?” Serena asked the question before I could.
“It’s not like I have a choice.”
I followed him to the SUV. “Jason, you’ve always had a choice.”
“Kyle’s my best friend and you . . . you won’t come back to Hemlock without him.” He pulled open the driver’s-side door and slid behind the wheel. “Choice doesn’t factor into things.”