A Short Story Prequel
The young woman pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose as she stared at her reflection in the mirror. She stood behind an antique wooden vanity in her new room at her grandmother’s house. The white cotton linen curtains bustled in the warm, September breeze, distracting her. Lost in thought, her eyes wandered, surveying her surroundings in the mirror. It was a little too pink and pretty for her taste. The girlieness of the room instinctually curled her lip, Elvis style. She caught the reflection of her grimace and laughed out loud before returning to her morning routine.
Pulling her long sun-streaked mane up into a ponytail, she scowled, and then let it down again. Running her fingers through her blonde tresses, she smoothed them out. Then, she pushed the sides behind her ears and scrutinized her own reflection. Her almond eyes focused on her scar. Most days she barely even noticed the slight scar under her left eye, but it caught her attention today. Was it her imagination or had her scar become more prominent since her arrival in Woodsville? She had been told it was a silly accident, but since returning home, things seemed off. Like all the stories she’d been told, this one held only a ring of truth, but she didn’t have time to think about this now. She needed to get ready for the first day of her senior year at Woodsville High.
Her father’s eyes, the deep dark Hood eyes, stared back at her as she highlighted them expertly with a coat of mascara. Then, with a swoosh of the brush, she swept some bronzer across her high cheek bones, the perfect touch to compliment her chiseled face and narrow chin. She pouted her plump lips and colored them a deep red. Her name was Ruby, after all.
It had been over eight years since she'd been in Woodsville. She barely remembered her life here. When she lived here, she’d had a mom. Now, it was just her and her dad. After the gruesome death of her mother, Ruby and Tyler Hood fled Woodsville, but Ruby’s grandmother was here and that had been the reason for the return. Her father wanted to mend fences with his mother before it was too late. Eight years was too long to harbor resentment. Ruby had no idea what the turmoil revolved around, but she had a sneaking suspicion it had something to so with her mother’s death. People were very closed-lipped about the death of her mom and the surrounding events in Woodsville eight years ago. Since Ruby had a particular dislike of surprises, she had done a little research before they got here.
According to the articles in the Woodsville Word—the local newspaper—only pieces of her mom had been found. After a police investigation headed up by Detective Kevin Wolf, it was concluded that a satanic biker gang that had been passing through town was responsible for the death of Kristine Hood. In fact, they were responsible for four deaths right around the same time. With the full force of the police and the community, Woodsville had banned together to avenge the deaths of the innocents. The majority of the female and children members of the gang had been run out of town. Most of them had put up a fight and a few had been arrested and incarcerated. Detective Wolf had quickly moved up the ranks in Woodsville, and still held the honor of serving as Police Chief.
Ruby’s head twitched slightly. She brought her hand up to her nose, which wrinkled as an unusual scent wafted to her nostrils, as a slight breeze ruffled the cotton white curtains behind her. There was something familiar about the smell, and she couldn’t help but follow it. For some reason, she found herself drawn to the window. Taking a seat near the window sill, she pushed the linen curtains out of the way, but stayed hidden behind them. She peeked out as he turned around, their gaze locking. Ruby gasped and his name escaped her lips in a whisper, “Kent.” She pulled away from the window, out of his sight, continuing to watch from the window as memories muddled her brain. She tried to make sense of them, but they were just too convoluted. Ruby peeked cautiously through a sliver in the curtain. The boy looked up, his eyebrows drawn together after finding the window empty. After a few moments, he shrugged, turned away and continued walking.
“Ruby, breakfast is ready,” her grandmother’s voice called from downstairs.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ruby muttered to herself. Grabbing her bag off the chaise lounge, she slid her sunglasses atop her head and hurried down the winding staircase. The athletic young woman lifted herself easily onto a wrought iron barstool at the breakfast nook off the counter in the kitchen. As she deposited her things on the stool next to her, she picked up a slice of bacon and began to munch.
“Good morning,” said Grams, a short, white-haired lady with Ruby’s eyes.
“Morning, Grams,” Ruby said softly between chews. “Where’s Dad?”
“He left early. He wanted to see some old friends about some work,” Grams said, shuffling through the kitchen to place more bacon in the sizzling pan.
Ruby narrowed her eyes and stared at her grandmother until the elder woman’s gaze met hers. “I want to know, Grams,” Ruby said in a steely voice.
“Dear, you don’t know what you’re talking about. It was a tragic accident, nothing more. Don’t listen to your father’s conspiracy theories,” the elder woman pleaded.
Ruby sat back, thinking about this new information. “Hmmm, that’s interesting. Dad barely says boo about Mom … ever. I’ve always had a feeling there was something off about that, about why we left Woodsville and, most importantly, why we’re back,” Ruby said evenly. Grams staggered back slightly and steadied herself, grabbing the countertop.
“Look, I can hold my own. I know my father is hiding shit from me. At the very least, he’s not being honest. I’ll find out the truth. I’ve heard the stories about you, Grams,” Ruby said mockingly. She hopped off the chair, smirking at the old woman.
Grams’ hands fell from her mouth and her eyes hardened. In an instant, she grabbed Ruby by the wrist across the counter and held her granddaughter’s gaze. “Ruby, I’m warning you to stay out of it. Enjoy being a teenager and don’t get yourself wrapped up in old vengeance. No good will come of it.”
Ruby stiffened briefly at the warning then she broke into a throaty laugh, tossing her head back. She grabbed her gear and stalked out of the kitchen. “You’d be surprised about what I’ve seen, Grams. Like I said, I can hold my own. Have a good day,” Ruby said, pulling her large, round sunglasses over her dancing eyes, chuckling to herself. Maybe Woodsville wouldn’t be so lame after all.
Ruby surveyed her new school, as a sea of students milled around in the large parking lot in the center of the sprawling campus. Three large, brick buildings surrounded the parking lot, or ‘the pit’ as the kids called it. Ruby sauntered into the office of the largest building and walked into the office. Flashing a sweet childlike smile at the woman behind the counter, Ruby spoke softly, “Good Morning. My name is Ruby Hood. I believe my father enrolled me on Friday. Unfortunately, he misplaced my schedule over the weekend. The house is a mess with the move.”
“That’s completely understandable,” the receptionist responded. “I’d be happy to print you another. Welcome to Woodsville High, Miss Hood.” The plump, little receptionist clicked a few things on a computer in front of her, then the printer beeped and spit out a piece of paper. The woman jumped up happily, grabbed the documents and smiled at Ruby.
“Thanks so much.” She said genuinely. Ruby might be tough and a little bit wicked, but her father taught her manners. She leaned in while the woman explained the documents.
“Here is your schedule and a map of the campus. And here is your enrollment form. Please show this to each teacher, since you aren’t on the roster yet.” Then, a bell chimed from every speaker in the school. Ruby marveled as the school instantly jumped to attention. Doors opened, noise levels increased, students and staff hustled and bustled to and fro as the day officially began.
“If you hurry, you can make it before the tardy bell rings. Head right out of this door. Exit the building and head across the quad. Your first class is in Building B, room 104. Good luck,” the woman replied.
“Thank you. Have a good day.” Ruby smiled, then turned to follow the directions the receptionist gave her. As kids scuttled through the hallway, she walked casually and made a detour into the bathroom, needing to check her appearance and buy herself some time. As Ruby stared at herself in the full length mirror in the girls’ room, some random girls looked her over critically, but she barely noticed. Turning from side to side, she checked out her waifish figure in the mirror. Her skinny jeans and ballet flats showed off her lean legs, a red tank peeked out from underneath a black, off-the-shoulder sheer blouse. She freshened up her red lips, smoothed her blond streaks, then tucked her hair behind her ears.
The last bell chimed just as Ruby exited the building to walk across the quad. She was officially late, but that was all part of the plan. Fading into the background was never an option. She liked people to know right up front where they stood. To do that, one had to draw attention to oneself and exude confidence from the get go. Confidence was not something Ruby had in short supply.
She pulled the door open to her classroom. The room froze and all eyes turned to face her, just the way she wanted. “Excuse me, I’m so sorry to interrupt. My name is Ruby Hood. I’m new and I got lost on the way to class,” Ruby lied, meeting the teacher’s gaze, holding out her enrollment form.
Mrs. Armstrong pushed her glasses up her nose and reached out to grab the form. “Welcome, Ruby. Please find a seat.”
Ruby scanned the room. Right in front of her sat a beautiful young woman, with mesmerizing gray eyes and a long, black mane of gorgeous hair. She smiled genuinely to Ruby and nodded to the empty chair next to her. Ruby faked a smile toward the overzealous young woman, but walked right past her to the back. She slid into a seat across from a girl with her nose buried in a book. Ruby was surprised that the girl hadn’t even glanced up.
Ruby leaned across, held out her hand and whispered, “Hey, I’m Ruby. Nice to meet you.”
The girl looked up and glared through her rectangular, yet quite hip purple glasses. She twirled on of her thick curls and gave Ruby the once over. “Lilly,” she said, shaking Ruby’s hand, then turned back to her book.
“What are you reading?” Ruby asked with a smile. She liked this girl.
Lilly looked up again, narrowed her eyes and closed the book, then pointed to the cover to show the title.
“Gone With the Wind. Impressive. It’s one of my faves,” Ruby said, then turned to pay attention to the teacher, but caught Lilly’s amused grin in her peripheral vision. Ruby decided she and Lilly would be friends, but now she wanted to see what Ms. Armstrong was all about. Literature was her favorite class. Ruby hated to brag, but she was somewhat of a literary genius and a huge book worm.
Ruby walked up the five stone steps of the front porch and paused. Of course, she could walk right into her Grams’ large, two-story brick house, but she didn’t. After all, it was her home, too … for now. Instead, she leaned toward the door with her hand on the handle and listened. They were arguing. She could hear their muffled voices through the door, then suddenly everything went silent. As she leaned in closer and pressed her ear to the door, straining to hear, the door flung open. Ruby almost tumbled into the living room, but caught herself with animal-like precision.
There stood her dad, grinning. Tyler Hood looked nothing like his daughter except for the eyes. They both had the same deep, onyx Hood eyes. Mr. Hood was short and stocky and kept his gray-flecked, short hair neatly styled. His large, Roman nose didn’t really compliment his round face, but his wide chin with a slight cleft pulled it all together. His eyes danced like a teenager. “Eat anyone alive today?” her father joked.
Ruby returned his wicked grin and sauntered into the living room. “Not today, but tomorrow’s another day.”
She surveyed the living room, taking a moment to check out the scene in front of her. Her father had two TVs going full blast, an ear bud stuck in his ear and the newspaper sprawled out on a large, beige sectional that took up most of the room. A wooden rocking chair creaked in the corner where Grams sat knitting something with red yarn.
“Does one of you want to tell me what’s going on?” Ruby asked evenly. Her father only shrugged and Grams didn’t even bother to look up. Ruby saw right through their feigned innocence. “I’m not sure what you two are up to, but I’m not a kid anymore, and there’s a good chance I’ll figure it out. Then, you two will have to deal with me.”
Tyler laughed and paced around the room. “Aw, Rube, your active imagination and your flare for the dramatic make you one of a kind.” Somewhat absently he leaned in and kissed his daughter on the forehead, “Sit down and tell me about your day, doll. Did you meet anyone interesting today?”
“I did, actually. I met quite a few people,” Ruby said coyly, not quite sure where to begin. She’d met some characters, but she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to share anything with two people who were obviously keeping things from her. She decided to keep a few secrets of her own, so she told her them about her new friend, Lilly.
Glossing right over some of the more interesting encounters, Ruby chronicled the mundane details of the day. The more she talked the more her father fidgeted, unable to stay seated for long.
When his cell phone buzzed, he jumped off the couch and it tumbled out of his hands. Grams stopped knitting and her brow furrowed. Ruby paused mid-sentence and watched the scene unfold in slow motion, not even closing her mouth. Her father scrambled to his knees and chased his buzzing phone across the perfectly waxed wooden floors.
Finally, he got a hold of it. “Yeah?” he barked into the phone, abruptly composing himself. Turning from the women in the room, he stalked out of the house. The door slammed behind him as he hurried down the front steps of the porch.
Ruby growled, narrowing her eyes, and turned to Grams. “Well? You want to tell me what’s going on?”
Grams folded her knitting tools in her lap. “Ruby, please stay out of this. You have a bright future. Don’t be foolish enough to get lost in your father’s silly conspiracy. Your mother died at the hands of some very bad people. In fact, several people died, but the people who did it have paid. There was no ‘frame job’ or ‘cover-up’. Sometimes bad things happened to good people in a good town. Period. End of story.” Her grandmother sighed wearily.
“Will you tell me about it? What about the others? The stuff I can’t find in the papers?” Ruby asked, plopping down on the couch.
She knew this went so much deeper. Her family was a part of a unique culture called Otherly Naturals, or Otherlys. This was a culture comprised of many forms of interesting creatures, most of which weren't quite human. Different and non-human didn’t necessarily mean they were all bad. In fact, just like humans, there were both good and bad, and they came in many different forms. The Hoods were wolves—werewolves—even though Ruby hated that term. She knew anything related to her culture would never be spoken about in the local newspaper.
“The man killed after your mother was the resident Guardian. He was killed by the same people,” Grams softly said. After all, her granddaughter deserved to know.
“No way,” Ruby said slowly. Not many people, human or non-human, dared to harm a Guardian. They were leaders with a certain magical presence. Killing one was not an easy task. “Tell me.”
“The first two that were killed were human—most Otherlys didn’t pay any attention. We just figured it was humans killing other humans, but then your mom …”
Ruby waited patiently.
“Jared Hunter was the Guardian at the time of her death. He had recently arrived in Woodsville, and several Otherlys had traveled here to see what the newest Guardian was like. It happens every time the title is passed. There’s always an influx of undesirables,” Grams explained.
Fascinated, Ruby urged Grams along with frantic hand motions, wanting as much information as she could get before her dad returned. This was the most anyone had ever spoken to her about her mother’s death. Ever.
“Jared was a good man. He was friends with your parents. It was an odd pairing of friends—wolves and a Guardian—but they all bonded. When your mom … died … the men were frantic, beside themselves with grief and wanted justice. Someone had to pay for taking your mom away, so they teamed up with a recently relocated family of Huntsmen—the Wolfs.”
Ruby burst out laughing. “Sorry, Grams, but this town has a band of Huntsmen with the last name Wolf. That’s irony at its finest right there!”
“Well, Detective Kevin Wolf and his brother, Officer Ken Wolf, found irrefutable evidence that this degenerate biker family of coyotes, the Coys, were behind the killings. Jared, being the brave and heroic man that he was, lead the charge to arrest the suspects. He was shot right in the heart by the head of the Coy family. Afterward, gunfire and a bevy of Otherly Naturalness ensued. Thankfully, the Wolf brothers were there to take care of the rest of the clan. Most of the women and children fled the day before. If Jared hadn’t been so full grief and determined to avenge your mother, or if he'd taken your father with him. he might still be here today. Jared was survived by a son, Dylan. He’s your age."
“Whoa …” Ruby said, exhaling deeply as she leaned back onto the couch. Grams’ story was the same as the newspaper reports, but at least now she knew the true identities of all the players.
"I've always thought your father blamed himself for his friend’s death, and I'm not going to make demands, Ruby, but please stay out of this. Be a teenager and enjoy it. Date a boy, go to a party, and get asked to a dance. Woodsville is a good place to live.” Grams’ eyes flashed golden and she snarled ever so slightly. Ruby flinched and sat back. Then, Gram stood and patted her granddaughter gently on the shoulder. “You hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am. Nite, Grams,” Ruby whispered. She stood, but kept her eyes low as a show of respect. Turning, she walked up the stairs.
“Nite, girl,” Grams whispered.
Ruby smiled in awe of her Grams. She had no idea the old woman still had it. If Grams wanted things a certain way in her town, all visitors must abide by her wishes. That was the Hood way and had been that way for centuries. Ruby decided she wasn’t going to let her father create unnecessary problems by getting mixed up with hateful, old feelings.
She knew her dad had gotten into some shady stuff from time to time. Hell, she’d found herself in numerous, too-close-for-comfort situations … it came with being a wolf. There were things about the world most seventeen year old girls never even thought about, but Ruby knew all about them first hand. She’d shaken down a biker for cash. She’d broken into homes to “borrow” certain items that she intended to return. She was also quite capable of hot wiring an automobile for a quick getaway. But there was the nagging voice that she shouldn’t know the kinds of things she knew, as she thought again about her Grams’ advice to stay out of it.
After some thought, Ruby decided she’d start with getting to know the resident Guardian. It sounded like they had at least one thing in common. She'd seen him today, which was one of the things she chose not to share. Their gazes locked as she was walking through the hall with her new friend, Lilly. It would have looked odd if Ruby had stopped and introduced herself. Otherlys weren’t keen on letting the human race in on their secrets, but she nodded respectfully in his direction. She knew he was the Guardian, as they come with a certain presence. He nodded and smiled in return. He knew she was a wolf; it was breed into his bones to know. She remembered liking his emerald eyes. It had been a meaningful moment. Meeting the new Guardian moved to the top of her priority list tomorrow. Idly she wondered what he knew about her. She bit her lip and grinned mischievously, giggled and silently vowed not to cause any more problems for her Grams.
Later that night, Ruby heard the car door slam. She never slept well until her dad was home. She heard him bound up the steps and saw his shadow underneath the door. Then, she closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, as she wasn’t ready for one of their father-daughter all night talks. The door opened slightly and Tyler Hood gently crept toward his daughter. He knelt over her and kissed her lightly on the top of the head, and Ruby immediately drifted off to a hard, dreamless sleep.
“Ruby,” her dad whispered as he opened the door and knocked softly at the same time the next morning.
“Hey,” she croaked, rubbing her eyes.
“Hey, I gotta run early. Sorry about running out on you yesterday, but I got a job. I’ll tell ya all about it tonight. You gonna be around?” he asked with childlike pleading as she smiled.
“Sure, Dad. I’ll ask Grams if she’ll make dinner. Maybe we can eat together like a family,” Ruby offered hesitantly. The thought of a real family dinner sounded heavenly.
“Of course, doll. If that’s what you’d like.”
“I would,” she said. Hopping out of bed, she wrapped her long blonde hair into a messy bun, as her long, graceful strides placed her right in front of her father. She stood on her tip-toes and kissed the cleft on his chin. “Thanks,” she said, grinning from ear to ear as she brushed past him and headed into her walk-in closet.
“See you tonight!” he father called after her.
Chuckling silently, he shook his head at his daughter. She never ceased to amaze him. He pulled the cap firmly over his eyes, as he headed down the steps and out the front door.
In a huge hurry to get downstairs and talk to Grams, Ruby got ready with crazy quickness. They'd reached an understanding last night and she was excited to springboard off that. As she pulled on her signature skinny jeans, layered top combo, she briefly entertained the idea of a real family dinner. The idea of settling down was growing on her, quickly. She applied minimal make-up, then opted for red lip gloss today, thinking she might ease off of the tough, hard ass image. She smelled something yummy coming from downstairs as she grabbed her favorite black jacket and her bag before closing the door on her way out.
“Morning, Grams,” Ruby greeted her. She was enjoying the change in the environment with her Grams.
“Morning, girl. Are you hungry?” Grams asked with a slight smile.
“Yes,” Ruby scooted onto the bar stool at the breakfast bar. Grams set a plate in front Ruby filled with whole wheat waffles smothered in butter and syrup, fresh fruit and crispy bacon.
“So, I’ve decided to introduce myself to the Guardian today,” Ruby said proudly, before she shoved a huge forkful of the deliciousness into her mouth. She sighed in enjoyment while she chewed.
"Good idea. The respect will speak volumes."
“Can you give me any pointers? I only know what I know from research. I’d love a firsthand account of what he’s like,” Ruby asked before shoving another large forkful of waffles into her mouth.
“He’s a bright boy. Some call him strict, but fair. I find him to be a tad immature, but he’s only eighteen. He has a very low tolerance for BS and there hasn’t been a killing here since he became Guardian. Plus he leaves me alone...and he’s handsome,” Grams replied with a grin.
Ruby’s juice almost shot out her nose and she blushed. “Graaammms!”
“What?” Grams shrugged playfully, “I've also never heard of him treating anyone unfairly. There’s minimal violence, so he does a decent job, especially being so young. I’ve lived under better Guardians and I’ve lived under worse. The family of Huntsmen he hired had a lot to do with the low violence part. Dylan was so young he didn’t really understand what was going on, so he hired them. He had just lost his father and his best friend.”
“Who was his best friend, Grams? What happened to him?” Ruby muffled over a mouthful of waffles and bacon.
“You were, Ruby.”
“SHUT. The. Front. Door!” Ruby exclaimed as a piece of waffle fell from her gaping jaw.
Grams smiled like the cat that ate the canary. “Yes, and I’ll tell you more about Dylan, but I’d really like to hear your impression of him as a person. I’d rather tell you more about the family of Huntsmen, since they’ve made themselves an intricate part of this town: The Wolfs. Eight years ago, they took care of all the unfortunate riff raff that found their way to an area protected by a child Guardian. The Wolfs have been on the Guardians payroll ever since. Kevin Wolf is the police chief and Ken Wolf, formerly Officer Wolf, is the principal at Woodville High. His wife, Kassandra, owns a children’s clothing store and volunteers at many charitable events. They have two children, Kent and Kayla. Kayla is adopted, but you’d never know. She’s the spitting image of the rest of them. Dylan is Kent’s best friend and together, they have big plans to run this city. They all have quite a future ahead of them,” Grams said.
Ruby thought for a moment. Her eyes went wide as she whispered, “Grams, do you think …”
“Don’t even utter thoughts like that, Ruby. The Wolfs are highly revered in this town. Doubting their sincerity and devotion would cause too many problems,” Grams said hastily as she grabbed Ruby’s unfinished plate setting before her.
Ruby opened her mouth to protest on many different levels, but Grams cut her off again.
“Shhhh, Ruby, I’m warning you, girl. The Wolfs didn’t have anything to do with the deaths that took place eight years ago. There hasn’t been a single death since. To even utter words like that would put a target on your back, your father’s back and mine,” Grams whispered. “Now get on to school, girl. Be home by super time and I’ll have something nice prepared.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ruby obliged as she hopped off the bar stool and headed to the door. She couldn’t even look back at her Grams.
Walking into the sunlight, she was lost in her own thoughts. Surely, her mother’s death and the death of Jared Hunter had been investigated, and if not one single murder had taken place for eight years, then the Wolfs couldn’t have been a part of it. One was a police chief and the other, a principal. The bad guys usually didn’t have jobs like that, she rationalized … usually.
“Well, if it isn’t Ruby Hood!” A nasty voice spewed forth as a lean figure stepped out from behind a large oak tree and directly into her path. Ruby stopped, eyeing the creature in front of her carefully.
“Well, now, you seem to have me at a disadvantage. You obviously know who I am, yet you haven’t bothered to introduce yourself. Tsk, Tsk … not very neighborly. However, if I had to guess, I’d say you are the young Huntsman, Kent Wolf,” Ruby leered, holding out her hand.
Kent’s eyes grew wide. Ruby was tickled to have unnerved him. “I’d like to be friends, at least until we get to know each other. Who knows? We may end up hating each other,” Ruby sneered, biting her lip. Then, she leaned toward him and whispered into his ear, “Plus, I don’t bite … hard.”
Kent gulped, jumped back and hissed at her. Ruby couldn’t help but laugh. “He’s the class president, editor of the school paper and the Guardian’s best friend and he hisses. That’s cute.” She covered her mouth and tried to control herself. Why was Grams or anyone afraid of this guy? Ruby had a hard time picturing him as any kind of Huntsmen.
“Kent, I’ve got this, go,” a deep voice spoke, as the hairs on the back of Ruby’s neck stood up. She silenced herself instantly. Then, she took a deep breath and turned to face the newest person to ambush her on her way to school.
“Mr. Hunter, nice to meet you, formally,” the blonde wolf curtsied slightly and flashed one of her brilliant smiles. “I hoped we'd cross paths today, and to my surprise it's sooner rather than later.”
“Well, Miss Hood, it's sure lovely to meet you. You’re quite breathtaking,” Dylan Hunter, Guardian of the Wood, said appreciatively as he looked her over from head to toe. “What brings you to Woodville?” he asked, all business.
“Family. My father and I haven’t been in town since we lost my mom. I hear we lost her about the same time that you lost your father,” Ruby said carefully. Dylan flinched slightly, and out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Kent flinch even more. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” Ruby said sincerely. She honestly wouldn’t wish the loss of a parent so young on anyone. Then, she gently rested her hand on his shoulder.
Dylan turned to face her and studied her intently. “And I am sorry for yours,” he replied softly, filled with regret. Her dark eyes met his gleaming emerald eyes. It was the first chance she’d had to take in his features, and she couldn’t help but notice how handsome he was. His solid, lean frame reminded her that he was some big shot on the football team. His chiseled features and long, narrow face had premature lines and wrinkles, probably from the early childhood trauma of losing his father and becoming a Guardian at the age of ten.
“How long are you in town … you and your father?” he asked, as Kent stiffened and sneered off to the side.
Ruby recoiled inwardly, not about to let these two get to her. Plus, the way Dylan mentioned her father and Kent’s reaction put her on alert. There was still bad blood. Determined to smooth things over, Ruby composed herself and responded nonchalantly, “I’m not sure yet. It all depends on whether my father and Grams can sort out their differences.”
Hunter nodded, satisfied with her answer. “Your grandmother is a good woman. I hope they find common ground. It might be nice to have you around for a while.”
“I hope so,” Ruby replied. “From what I hear, we have a lot of catching up to do. Apparently, you and I were very good friends many moons ago.”
“That’s what I’ve been told, too,” the Guardian said softly, holding Ruby’s dark seductive gaze. It was her eyes. They had that effect on boys.
Ruby wasn’t quite sure where this was going, but she seemed to have diverted some of the attention off her father. She smiled brightly, feeling Kent’s eyes burning a hole through her. “I don’t suppose you’d walk me to school, so we could catch up?” she asked. When she sensed Dylan’s hesitation, she added, “Also, I was hoping you’d tell me a bit about Grams. She comes off like this sweet little old lady, but I have a sneaking suspicion she’s a force to be reckoned with.” She laughed as she slid her arm through his, guiding him along the sidewalk.
Dylan laughed and allowed her to guide him, as he began a story about Grams climbing a tree, just last year at 79, to save a cat. Ruby looked ahead, painfully aware they would need to pass by his friend. The tension between her and Kent was palpable, but she was pretty sure Dylan hadn't noticed. As she listened to the story, Ruby laughed and nodded every time it was expected. When they reached Kent, she slyly stuck her tongue out at him, then smiled sweetly. She knew it was childish, but she didn’t care. As he grimaced, she turned to listen intently to Dylan’s animated account of the story about Grams without missing a beat.
Ruby never experienced anything like the phenomenon that took place shortly after meeting Dylan. A whirlwind romance ensued like something straight from a romantic comedy. The lovely Miss Hood was the talk of both the school and the town. First, the students were amazed that Dylan had latched on to the new girl so quickly. They called it a fluke. Some even made bets about when it would end or if he would ruin her. He had quite the reputation as a lady killer. The rumor mill at the high school was nothing compared to the trash the townsfolk spoke in Woodsville … especially the Otherly Naturals. No one seemed comfortable with the Guardian dating a wolf. The murders from eight years ago even surfaced in certain circles. And the fact that two of the victims were the parents of the young couple, unnerved some.
Regardless of what others said, Ruby and Dylan were completely enamored with each other. The differences in their culture didn’t seem to be a problem. They spent hours staring into each other’s eyes with their fingers laced; smiling … completely oblivious of the rest of the world. Puppy love, many people called it. Even though no one stated it outright, many hoped it would be over soon, but no one more than Kent Wolf. The hatred between the Huntsman and the wolf seemed to increase with each day. Ruby refused to spend any more time than necessary with Kent … and he felt the same way about her. They were natural enemies and neither of them had any desire to change that.
While most people—except Kent—thought Ruby was a charming young girl, many people in the town worried about her father, remembering the loose cannon that went off half cocked after losing his wife. They didn’t seem to remember the outstanding man, husband and father he had been before grief took over. These days, Tyler Hood seemed off to most people, but no one could quite put their finger on it. He showed up for work every day on time and he went straight home after work to spend time with his family. He appeared to have let go of the events eight years ago and the idea that a conspiracy surrounded the death of Ruby’s mother. He smiled as he waved to neighbors and was congenial to all he came across—except Police Chief Kevin Wolf. The two had yet to cross paths, that was, until the bomb was left on the front door of the high school.
Ruby wasn’t exactly sure what day it was when she thought about it later, but she knew it was a week or so before the highly anticipated Valentine’s Day Dance. She was returning some items to the chemistry lab for Mr. Walters, the head of the science department. It was her free period and she chose to spend it as a teacher’s assistant for the science department. Inventors and scientists fascinated her. She especially enjoyed watching—or even participating in—any experiments they might perform. Since the timeline for the Woodsville Science Fair had just begun, Ruby spent most of her free periods unpacking and delivering needed materials to teachers and classrooms. When the first announcement came over the speaker she froze, “Woodsville High, we are under a lockdown. Woodsville High, we are under a lockdown.”
Ruby didn’t move for a whole five seconds racking her brain about everything she was supposed to do, but couldn’t remember. For all the previous drills, she was in a class. Now, she was alone in the tiny storage room of the chemistry lab on the fourth floor of the main building, in the most remote location on campus. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be stuck here by herself for an undermined amount of time. “Out the door, dummy. Get out of here before you get locked in,” she mumbled to herself and walked quickly to the door.
As Ruby reached for the handle, the door flew open toward her, cracking her in the nose and sending her tumbling to the ground. Then, a flustered boy crashed through the door and plowed right into her. By the time, she gathered herself together and stood upright again, the door had locked automatically. The boy stood by the window and strained to look through the slits in the bars, while Ruby pulled on the door and cursed.
“Damn it, man! I wanted out! What’s going on out there? Are we sure we want to be trapped in this room? Is this a drill or what?” Ruby shouted at the boy.
“It’s a bomb threat,” the boy said, but didn’t turn around, peeking through the slit in the window as the SWAT team and bomb squads arrived. “A bomb was delivered to the school this morning.”
“What? How do you know that?” Ruby paced and began to panic.
“A little bird told me,” the boy said.
“Why weren’t we evacuated then?” Ruby demanded, trying to rationalize the situation.
“Not sure. My guess is that the box was sent to one of the other buildings. That building was evacuated, but the other two buildings were locked down. We’re probably safer here than out there. At least until they can determine the scope of the bomb.”
“That makes sense, I guess,” Ruby exhaled and sat down. She reached into her back pocket to retrieve her cell phone.
“No service. Even if there was, they’ve blocked it by now … to be on the safe side,” he warned. “It’s just you and me, wolfie.”
Ruby looked up and her eyes narrowed. She studied the figure in front of her as she stared out the window and rolled her eyes. “Oh shit.”
“Believe me, sister, I’m just as excited,” Kent Wolf turned and stared at her.
Ruby sucked in a breath. Why hadn’t she noticed how attractive her archenemy was? He leaned his muscular body lazily against the lab tables. His square jaw line was speckled with light stubble and his chiseled features only enhanced his steel blue eyes.
“Just some alone time with my favorite gal,” he said, leering at Ruby as if she were prey.
“You and me both,” Ruby huffed. Annoyed, she stood up and paced again as her mind raced a mile a minute. Stuck here with him? For how long? UGH!!! Eventually, her annoyance slowed and rational thought took over. “Why did you come in here anyway?” she asked cautiously.
“It’s the safest room at the school. It’s been structurally enhanced to protect against certain threats,” he said, peering out the window again.
“Really?” Ruby asked, inching closer to Kent. She was dying to see what he found so intriguing.
“No, but there’s a stash of food in the back room and a fairly decent view of the parking lot,” he replied, matter-of-fact.
Ruby couldn’t help but laugh out loud. He spun around and stared at her. Her laughter was infectious, and he couldn’t help but smile. Kent scooted to the side, allowing her a peek out the window.
“So seriously … what do we know?” Ruby asked, standing on her tippy toes to see the ruckus outside. Hordes of police cars, some government vehicles, and a SWAT van pulled up as people in hazmat suits with dogs roamed the area. A variety of other men in suits and sunglass also swarmed the parking lot.
“Not a whole lot. A package was dropped off outside the office of the Annex building. No one seems to know how it got there, but there’s a bunch of wires and a timer. I suppose the bomb squad is checking its authenticity now. If it’s a fake, we should be out any time. If it’s real, hopefully they can disarm it and get us out of here soon.” Kent paused to look at Ruby. “I’m going to hunt for food. You stay here and keep watch.” Kent grinned somewhat lopsidedly.
Ruby chuckled, rolled her eyes and turned back to watch the scene unfold. Nothing like fear of the unknown to bring two enemies together, Ruby mused to herself. She hoped this was the start of something good and positive. If she and Kent could be friends—or at least friendly—it would make her life much easier. She loved being near Dylan, but she hated the animosity Kent provided, and he was around all the time. She was shaken from her thoughts when a box fell from up high and crashed to the ground. Ruby heard Kent groan while he was rummaging through the back of the science room.
“You okay?” She called, worried.
“Jackpot!” he shouted back.
“Anything good?” she asked.
“Kent? What’s going on? Are you okay?” She stood up and walked back to the small storage room, and was met with more silence.
Kent stumbled from the room recklessly with a blue face and bulging eyes, trying to breathe, pointing to his throat.
“Oh shit!” Ruby said, rushing to his side. Without thinking, she grasped her hands right underneath his rib cage and balled her fists. “Hang on. You’re going to be fine,” she said coolly, then thrust her hands back into his stomach, performing the Heimlich maneuver. Suddenly, a large chuck of granola flew from Kent’s mouth. He gasped for breath and laughed to keep from panicking. Ruby patted his back, reaching for one of the bottles of water setting on the table. She picked one up and handed it to him. “You okay?”
“Uh … huh … ” he moaned as the water hit his throat, "...thanks to you."
“It was nothing; I took a CPR class last summer. I had to be certified to work at the children’s summer camp last year. No biggie.” Ruby looked at him and shrugged, then hesitantly turned and walked back to the window.
He grabbed her by the arm and flung her around to face him. “Yes, it is a big deal. You just saved my life. A wolf just saved the life of a Huntsman. Not the norm. It is a big deal, Ruby Hood. It’s a game changer, at least for me. I owe you my life.”
She studied him hard and opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by the loud speaker. “This is the ALL CLEAR, Woodsville. Repeat, this is the ALL CLEAR. All students, staff and personnel, please make your way to the quad.”
“You don’t owe me anything. We’d better go. We wouldn’t want to add to the confusion,” Ruby said, taking her arm out of his grip, then stalked to the door. She flung it open and moved through the corridor with great speed.
“This isn’t over, Hood,” Kent shouted after her. He grabbed an unopened granola bar, tore it open, brought it to his mouth, then stopped. He stared at the bar, chuckled uncomfortably and threw it in the trash, grabbed a bottle of water and headed toward the quad.
A barrage of people hustled and bustled about the quad. Ruby found Dylan and his football cronies in the center of the quad, handing out water and helping to check people in. Once the students had checked in, they were allowed to leave. Many parents were loitering around frantically in search of their children.
“Dylan!” Ruby called, speeding up the closer she got to him. He turned and grinned broadly. She jumped into his arms, squealing loudly as he swung her around.
“Ah, Ruby! I’m so glad you’re okay! Where were you?” Dylan asked, smiling.
“I was in the science lab. It was my free period and I was returning some stuff for Mr. Walters when the threat came over the intercom.
“We survived, thankfully,” a voice rang out from behind Ruby.
She cringed slightly at the sound of his voice. She didn’t know why, but suddenly she didn’t want Dylan to know she had saved Kent’s life only moments before.
“I’m glad, my man,” Dylan said happily, holding out his hand to shake Kent’s. “You guys were locked in there together?” Dylan laughed loudly. “I’m surprised you didn’t rip each other’s throats out.”
“Nah, man. The exact opposite, actually,” Kent said, looking into Ruby’s onyx eyes.
She stared back, silently willing him not to tell Dylan. She had no idea why, but she had a terrible feeling about what might come from it.
Dylan turned around momentarily to check in a scared young freshman, handing her a bottle of water. Then, he paused, looking from Ruby to Kent. “Huh? What exactly happened in there?”
“Ah, nothing. We had plenty of food and water. In fact, we could’ve survived the apocalypse in that room,” Kent joked, slapping his buddy on the back. “Hey, look, I’ll catch you guys later. I need to find Kayla and see if she’s had some sort of dramatic girl breakdown.
“Catch ya later, man. Peace.” The two boys said in unison before they did some sort of elaborate handshake.
Ruby kept a vacant smile plastered on her face, wondering why she didn’t want Dylan to know what happened, but she knew the answer. Because it was against ancient wolf law to save a Huntsman. Period. End of story. But at the time, she hadn’t been thinking about Kent being a Huntsman; all she saw was a boy choking to death. Her survival instinct took over. She had just saved her boyfriend’s best friend. Of course, a wolf and a Guardian being together was strictly taboo, too. She had just exhibited heroic behavior for a human, but she wasn’t a human; she was an Otherly Natural. Ruby suddenly stood at attention, shaken from her inner turmoil by a commotion in the center of the quad, and one of the voices seemed oddly familiar.
“Dad?” she yelled, running toward the uproar, pushing her way through the crowd.
“I know you had something to do with it, Hood!” the police chief shouted.
“You're still as delusional as you’ve always been, Wolf! My daughter was in one of those buildings. What on earth makes you think I would even joke about blowing up a building that my daughter might be in? Not to mention the other 3,000 innocent children."
“Dad?” Ruby asked, trying to grasp the whole situation.
“Uncle Kevin?” Kent said in disbelief. The two kids looked at each other in total bewilderment and shrugged.
“That’s enough, men!” Principal Wolf shouted, pushing his way through the crowd followed closely by Dylan Hunter. “I know a crisis can cause us all to overreact, but this isn’t the time or the place for either of you to air your personal dirty laundry. Dylan and Kent, kindly guide the chief of police to some coffee and I’ll speak with Mr. Hood,” Ken Wolf said with ease. Ever the politician, Principal Wolf flashed his congenial smile that comforted the entire crowd. “Go on about your business, folks. It’s nothing but two men worried about our young people.”
“Thanks, Ken,” Mr. Hood said with his hand outstretched to thank the principal for his graciousness.
“Put your hand away, Hood. No way my family or I will ever side with wolves. We don’t belong in the same town. You don’t belong here. You should've stayed away,” the principal seethed through his clenched jaw.
“Might I remind you the Hoods were here long before the Wolfs?” Tyler Hood’s eyes flashed, glowing momentarily before he let out a low, menacing growl. The hairs on Ruby’s neck stood at attention.
“Hey!” Ruby demanded, pushing her way between the two men “What did my dad ever do to you?”
“Ah, little Ruby Hood, obviously just as naïve as your mother was,” Ken Wolf mocked. Ruby’s eyes flashed and glowed as Ken laughed. “See? This is exactly why your kind doesn’t belong here. You’re too primal and uncivilized. You shouldn’t have come back. Watch your step, Hoods,” Ken threatened quietly, then flashed a good-natured smile and went back to the crisis at hand.
“Dad?!” Ruby demanded, barely audibly.
“Shhhh … not here, Ruby. You’ve been checked in since the lockdown. I don’t want to worry your Grandma. We should be safe in the Wood … at least for now …” Tyler Hood rambled as he glanced over his shoulders, twitching slightly.
Ruby regarded him carefully and she wasn’t nearly as concerned as he obviously was. After all, she just saved the young huntsman’s life. It was frowned upon amongst her people, but the Wolf family owed the Hood family regardless of their cultural differences. In hindsight, not telling Dylan was a mistake, but she hoped she could figure a way out of that. She had an ace in the hole and it should be enough to get her and her father out of town with the promise never to return. Ruby was used to life with her father. She enjoyed the several months she had here, but deep down she knew it would come to an end. She almost laughed out loud at the lunacy of a pair of wolves taking up residence in a town run by Huntsman. She wasn’t entirely sure what motivated her father to bring them back here, but she got the message loud and clear: it was time for them to move on!
“Let’s go,” Ruby said, glancing cautiously over her shoulder. They crossed the quad and hopped onto the back of her father’s Harley parked in front of the parking attendant’s shack. Within moments, they were speeding off, away from the ruckus caused by the bomb. But neither Hood noticed that Kent Wolf had pulled out behind them in his brown four-door sedan.
“Ruby, you have to listen to me. I don’t know what you sort of bargaining chip you think up have, but these men will kill and think nothing of it. Eight years ago, they killed four innocent people: two humans, your mother and Jared Hunter, who was our friend and your boyfriend’s father. They didn’t think anything of taking those lives to get what they wanted. The Wolf family manipulated everything to suit their needs. We have to stand up to them, now, Ruby. If we don’t take them down, they won’t think twice about hurting us...or your grandmother,” he said, grabbing her by the shoulders, pleading with her to understand the severity of the situation.
“I think you’re overreacting, Dad. None of that happened, plus if it did Dylan will listen to us and he’ll help. He knows we mean no harm. Come on, Dad. This is the Twenty-First Century. Surely we can all be civil,” Ruby stated with great naivety.
“Ruby, you don’t understand. They don’t want us here. They won’t stop until we're gone.” Wringing his hands together, he began to pace. “I’m pretty sure they are going to frame me for that alleged bomb threat today.”
“Shut. The. Front. Door! You can’t be serious! Why?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe they view me as a threat. Maybe it’s you and Dylan. I don’t know, Rube, but we’re in the crosshairs of the Wolf brothers and that, my dear, is a dangerous place to be.”
“Now, I would advise getting all your facts straight, Mr. Hood, before you go spouting ill wills about decent, hardworking citizens of Woodsville,” Kent Wolf said, stepping out from behind a large oak.
Tyler Wolf snarled low and Kent gently smoothed his thumb back and forth over his crossbow. Ruby stepped up and stood between her father and the crossbow. “Whoa! I have no idea what’s going on here, but this is getting out of control. First, off,” she wagged her finger in Kent’s direction, “my father had nothing to do with that bomb! Secondly, I just saved your life, Kent, so back off.”
“Ruby, I’m warning you guys. You need to go … now. They’ll be here any moment. They won’t think twice about killing you right here and now in the Wood. It’d be a piece of cake for them to dispose of your bodies. As far as the town is concerned, Tyler Hood is unstable and needs to be dealt with. The rumblings are already making their way through the local watering holes and rumor mill. Go now!” Kent whispered while ushering Ruby and her father off to the north end of the Wood. The father and daughter moved quickly to the shelter of the tree and disrobed before they shifted into more comfortable skin. Ruby turned into a gorgeous, tiny blonde wolf with eyes the color of coal. Tyler morphed into a stocky brown wolf, with gray flecks around his muzzle. The brown wolf licked his daughters muzzle before they split apart to put distance between the Huntsmen and themselves.
Ruby tore through the Wood headed west and her father went east. Her senses were definitely keener on all fours. She ran with one purpose: to scatter her scent so she could double back and eavesdrop. Huntsmen could smell a wolf if they tried. She wanted to make sure that they smelled her, but the vastness of her scent should make it impossible for them to detect her ten feet away. She made multiple figure eights and found her way back to the edge of the clearing in a tangle of bushes and grass that had grown together for centuries.
Ruby listened intently and could hear their footsteps in the distance, not entirely sure what to expect. She didn’t even know who would be attending the meeting. Creatures of the night scurried past her as the Wolf brothers entered the Wood. Ruby wondered what kind of Huntsmen these were.
Ruby heard their voices and made out their conversation. She listened to Kevin and Ken joke about the name of the Wood, slurring their words as they trampled through the Wood with little regard for its beauty and life. The pair laughed and broke through the other side of the clearing. A low, guttural growl escaped Ruby. She couldn’t help it.
“Over here, Dad,” Kent said, as he stepped into the clearing. He looked at the men and nodded in compliance. Then, he turned his head, looked straight at Ruby and scolded her with one swift movement of his head. Ruby took a step back.
“Kent! My boy! Good to see you. Did you take care of our little problem?” Ken swayed from side to side.
“I’m working on it, Dad. I think it’d be better if we ran them off. Another murder would stir the pot with the Guardian,” Kent replied.
“‘It would stir the pot with the Guardian’ … do you hear this nonsense, brother? We need to eliminate Tyler Hood … now. We should have done it eight years ago. Too bad it wasn’t him instead of the wife that wondered in the wrong direction that night. He needs to go, dear nephew, and it’s long overdue,” Kevin Wolf sneered.
“Well, you two asked me here for a reason and I’m giving you my two cents worth, regardless of whether or not you want it. We should let this sleeping dog lie, so to speak. I’m sure I can convince the Hoods to go within a week and never return. We leave the grandmother alone and the Guardian never needs to know you’re responsible for killing his father,” Kent said, squaring his broad shoulders, standing up to his uncle. His father’s eyes widened.
“You don’t have the balls, boy,” Kevin said, laughing, spitting in his nephew’s face.
“Doesn’t have the balls? I don’t know. I’ve known this kid a long time and I’ve never seen him back down. A little family spat?” Dylan Hunter replied, stepping into the clearing, clapping both men on the back. Immediately, the tension in the area dissipated. “Now, would someone please explain to me why my chief of police is spitting in the face of my best friend?”
Kevin laughed nervously first, then Ken joined in. “Aww, we were just busting his chops over tonight’s target practice. Nothing but a little family rivalry. It seems the young guy has some secret shots he pulled out all of a sudden. I underestimated him, that’s all,” Kevin Wolf laughed menacingly.
“What can I say, I learned from the best, uncle,” Kent said through gritted teeth.
“Everything all good?” Dylan asked, skeptical.
As if on cue, the quarreling Huntsmen broke out into a twisted smirk and shook hands just a touch too hard.
Still in her wolf form, Ruby watched as the two older Wolf brothers went off in one direction, and the high school friends went off in the other. Thankfully, neither party came in her direction. She realized she had been holding her breath as they passed. She quickly inhaled and exhaled several times, waiting until they were gone. Eventually, she found her way back to the spot where she had transformed. Then, she shifted back into the cute blonde human version of Ruby Hood. She dressed quickly and decided to take the scenic route home, knowing that she had a lot to think about.
After a particularly sleepless night, Ruby continued to replay the meeting she witnessed in her head, trying to rationalize the situation while she hastily got ready for school. Deep down, Ruby knew she and her father needed to get out of Woodsville as fast as possible or her father would most likely be “accidentally” killed by the Wolf brothers. She was also pretty sure she couldn’t tell her father about what she witnessed the night before. He had a short fuse. Ruby was certain he would go off half cocked and probably make things worse. She entertained the idea of telling Dylan. From what she saw last night, Dylan had no idea what the Wolf brother’s had done to his father. He should know, Ruby thought. Not to mention that they killed her mother. They should most certainly pay for what they did. Anger pulsed through her and she growled as she brought the mascara wand to her eyelashes, but Ruby stopped short. She wasn’t concocting a plan to save Dylan and seek revenge. She was trying to get herself and her father out of town alive. She shook her head and got her mind back on track as she applied her red lip gloss. She pulled her long golden locks into a careless bun, grabbed her gear and jetted down the stairs.
Then, she walked into the kitchen and froze. She wasn’t entirely sure what caused her to pause, but an idea passed through her mind quickly. She couldn’t quite get a handle on it and it slithered in and out of her consciousness.
“Ruby!” Grams shouted, obviously not for the first time. “What’s with you, girl? I’ve been calling you for the last five minutes.” Grams eyed her carefully as she spooned some home fries onto her plate. “Are you okay?”
“Huh?” Ruby responded absently, then smiled. “Oh, Grams, I’m just thinking about the Valentine’s Day Dance this Saturday. I found a dress last week. It’s black, but it’s supposed to be freezing and I don’t have anything to wear over it, so you know I’m totally stressing about my wardrobe. Typical girl stuff.”
“Hmmm, I’m not buying it, but I might be able to help you with your wardrobe issue,” Grams said as she walked to the hall closet.
When Grams turned around, a velvety crimson swooshed around her. Ruby eased herself off the breakfast nook barstool and oohhhed and ahhhed as she walked toward her grandmother. “What is that? It’s absolutely gorgeous!”
“It’s cloak, Ruby. It’s been in the family for generations. If you’d like, I’ll have it dry cleaned and you may wear it to the dance. I’d say the red is quite fitting for both Valentine’s Day and Ruby,” Grams said, winking at her granddaughter while she held open the cloak for Ruby to try on.
Ruby squealed with delight as she slipped her arms through the large, billowing sleeves. “Oh, my goodness, it’s so luxurious,” she murmured as she pulled the crimson hooded cloak around her. Golden flecks were embedded in the delicate floral pattern of the deep red cloak. It was lined with honey satin and felt soft against her skin. As Ruby fastened the three flaxen buttons down the front, it cinched and outlined her slim waist. She twirled and the cloak rippled around her, encompassing her frame. She giggled in true teenage girl fashion and ran to hug her Grams.
“It’s perfect, Grams,” Ruby said with affection.
“Well, then it’s all set. I’ll take it to the dry cleaners today. I’m sure my friend Ida can have it ready by the weekend,” Grams said somewhat distractedly as she helped Ruby out of the cloak and laid it over her forearm. The women looked at each other and were about to go in for a rare Hood hug when there was a knock at the door. Confused by who could possibly be calling at this hour, the women stared at each other for a moment, shrugged and decided to ignore the knock.
Ruby teetered on the verge of confiding everything about her father and the Wolf brothers to her Grams, when Grams sighed deeply. Ruby realized a frail, old woman would be of no help. The young woman smiled feebly and reached over to give her Grams a quick hug. “Thanks, Grams.”
“Any time, girl.” Grams returned the hug.
Laughing, Ruby steadied herself. Maybe Grams wasn’t so frail after all.
“Hey! Everything okay in here? I knocked five times.” Dylan said as he cautiously stuck his head in the front door.
“Come in, Dylan,” the women sang in unison, smiling at each other.
He walked in and stopped to stare. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” Ruby said happily, standing on her tip toes to kiss her sexy boyfriend, and for a brief moment in time, nothing was wrong. “Sorry for ignoring your knocks. We were just having a little girl bonding episode.”
“No worries,” Dylan said, shoveling bacon into his mouth. “Ready, Rue?”
“Yep,” the stunning blonde responded. Maybe Dylan was her ticket out of this mess. After all, he seemed to really care for her. She wondered if he would help her get out of town. No, she realized. He wouldn’t let her run away without an explanation. But once he learned about the Wolfs’ involvement in his father’s death, Ruby envisioned that he would be filled with hate and vengeance. Death and destruction would follow. Telling him about his father wouldn’t make anything better and it might get Dylan killed.
“You okay?” the Guardian asked.
Ruby forced a smile, “Yeah, fine. Let’s go.”
Walking in a daze for the better part of the day, Ruby tried desperately to find a way to escape that didn’t resulted in death. She was about to throw in the towel and just tell her father everything, when an unlikely ally approached her. She balanced the box she was carrying as she unlocked the science lab door. She couldn’t reach the lights with the box in her arms, but she shuffled forward until she came to one of the lab tables, then set the box down carefully and turned to flip on the lights.
“Leave them off.”
“Huh? What? Who’s there?”
“Ruby, relax it’s only me,” Kent Wolf replied, stepping out of the shadows.
“Holy Crap! You totally freaked me out!” Ruby exclaimed, placing her hand over her heart to calm its rapid beating. “Why are you in here? In the dark?”
“I’ve been here all day waiting for you. I need to talk to you, but I also couldn’t risk anyone seeing us together. Ruby, I think I can help you and your father.”
Ruby eyed him seriously, “I’m listening. You have fifteen minutes. Get to the point and hurry.”
Tonight was do or die … literally. Ruby exhaled deeply, cocked her head and stared at herself in the mirror. She was ready for the dance … well … she looked ready, anyway. A gorgeous jeweled French braid elegantly held back her long, blonde tresses. She had dark, smoky eyes with light lip gloss brushed across her lips and a touch of blush on her cheeks. Her form-fitting, black strapless dress complimented everything about her waifish frame. Lastly, she flung the red Hood cloak over her shoulders; it completed the ensemble perfectly.
Starring in the mirror, she fiddled with her hair jewels and went over the plan again in her head. She was going to drug her father, kidnap him and get out of town tonight. Kent actually helped concoct the plan. She thought back to their conversation in the science lab only days before.
“Why are you helping me? Why do you even care what happens to us, you’re a Wolf.” Ruby asked. They were after all of their natural enemies, but then again, nothing about this situation was natural.
“Look, Ruby, you saved my life in this very room just days ago. The way I see it, I’m paying off a debt. Plus, I like you. You’re a good person. I misjudged you at first. It’s just that I’ve never known anyone like you. I’ve never known a wolf like you … well,” Kent paused thinking, “actually, I know one wolf like you … your Grams.”
Ruby swelled with pride when Kent compared her to her Grams. She listened and together they had agreed this was the best possible scenario.
She gently pulled her gorgeous, crimson cloak tightly around her. In just a few moments Ruby would drug her dad. She had already crushed the pills, in a package inside the pocket of her cloak. Now, she only needed to empty the contents into whatever he was drinking at dinner tonight. According to the plan, he would pass out on the couch. After the dance, she would say goodnight—and goodbye to Dylan. Kent would then emerge from somewhere and help her load her father into the backseat of Ruby’s car. Then Ruby would drive through the night, headed to Kingman, Arizona. Apparently, there was a large and very accepting wolf population there. Ruby hoped by the time her father woke up, they would be halfway there and she could convince him this was best.
In the other secret pocket of her cloak, Ruby felt the corners of the letter she had written to say good-bye to her grandmother. She gently crept into Grams’ bedroom, kissed the letter and tucked in under her Grams’ pillow.
Ruby stood at the top of the long, winding staircase. Her breath caught in her throat as she gazed below. Eyeing her at the top of the staircase, Dylan Hunter gaped at her wide-eyed, then let out a low sultry whistle. Her father grinned like a buffoon with his phone on video, as Grams smiled with her rosy cheeks and kerchief, holding an old fashioned digital camera. Tossing her head back, Ruby laughed. Another perfect moment. She knew it wouldn’t last, but at least she'd had some amazing ones recently. Descending gracefully down the winding staircase, Ruby ran her fingers along the rail, enjoying the moment.
“Wait here, Dylan. I have your boutonniere in the fridge,” Ruby said. The cloak billowed around her as she floated across the gleaming, wooden floors. Reaching into the fridge, Ruby grabbed the small plastic box, and dumped the drugs into the glass of sweet tea sitting in front of her father’s dinner plate. Secretly pleased with her stealth, she turned around, coming face to face with Grams. Her eyes widened and her smile faded.
“I think I know what you’re trying to do, girl,” Grams said quietly, and Ruby knew better than to open her mouth. “Ever since your mom, he’s been missing part of him. I’d hoped by coming back he’d be able to fill that missing piece, but it seems to have become bigger instead. Too bad, though,” Grams laughed ironically, “you seem to fit in real nice here, Ruby.” A tear tumbled down Grams’ cheek as she looked into her granddaughter’s eyes. “But I understand you need to go, for both of your sakes.” Grams took out her kerchief and blew her nose. “Does he need to drink that?” she asked, pointing to the drugged glass of sweet tea.
“Uh, huh,” Ruby mumbled, then nodded, confirming Grams suspicion.
“I’ll see that he finishes it, and I’ll pack you guys a nice basket of goodies to get you through,” she said, blowing her nose again.
“I love you, Grams,” Ruby said, then grabbed Grams in a huge bear hug. She resisted the urge to cry, swallowing several times to contain the lump in her throat.
“Maybe you can join us once we get settled,” Ruby said, wiping a tear from her cheek.
“Ah shucks, girl, Woodsville’s my home. I’m not going anywhere.” Grams sniffled.
“No one is going anywhere except to a dance. Another sentimental girl moment?” Dylan asked playfully, entering the kitchen.
“Something like that,” Ruby said with a smile, giving Grams one last hug before the stunning couple said their good-byes and left for the dance.
The music blared and the colorful lights twirled around Ruby. Smiling, she swayed along to the beat and enjoyed what was left of her perfect evening. By her calculations, she still had a few hours left.
“Where’s Dylan?” Kent whispered, but she heard him perfectly, even though she hadn’t noticed him sidle up next to her.
Ruby shrugged, “I don’t know. I thought he was in the back getting ready for the Valentine, Cupid, King, whatever ceremony.” She raised her hands absently. She had never paid much attention to high school politics. Of course, Dylan was nominated to be king of the dance and was expected to win. The other nominations were just for show. “Why aren’t you there, too?” she asked.
Kent grabbed her shoulder and turned her to face him.
She furrowed her brow. “What’s wrong?”
“Dylan’s gone,” Kent whispered.
Ruby laughed, “What do you mean he’s gone? He’s about to be crowned king of something or another. Why would he leave?” Then, Ruby’s phone buzzed in her cloak. She reached in and read the text message. “Shit!”
“Dad’s gone. He never finished the tea. He got a phone call and ran out. He took a huge gulp of the tea and then took off!” Ruby cursed again. An impaired Tyler Hood on the loose was not a part of the plan.
Kent’s phone buzzed next. “Shit is right! I’ve been called to a Huntsmen meeting in the Wood.” Kent shoved a picture of Ruby’s dad wide-eyed and bound to a tree under her nose. Without speaking they turned and pushed their way through the crowd of milling kids and ran to the parking lot.
“That must be where Dylan went,” Ruby rationalized as they sped along over the river and through the Wood in Kent’s brown four door sedan. “Maybe he’s not dead yet.”
“Who? Dylan or your dad?”
“Neither … both … no one … I don’t want anyone to die,” Ruby stammered.
“No one’s dead yet, Ruby. First, I don’t think they’re out to harm Dylan. They’ve got it pretty good under his rule. Second, they need the approval of the Guardian to kill your father, if they are following protocol.”
“Right! Like they’re at all concerned with following protocol!” Ruby interjected.
“Plus, they’ll wait for me,” Kent finished sadly.
Ruby grimaced as he shrugged. “You’ve never been invited to a family killing?” he asked.
“Touché,” she said. “I’ve been invited to more than I can count. I’ve never gone, though. My mom always said I should’ve been born a Guardian. She said I didn’t have the stomach to eat wolf food.” Ruby smiled at the memory.
Kent looked at her and respect flickered across his face. He parked and looked at her. “We’re here. The meeting will be at a clearing farther in than we were last night. If a killing takes place, they’ll need the cloak of the Wood.”
Ruby pulled her own cloak around her. She had a terrible feeling about the new direction the plan had taken. She and Kent crept through the Wood, stepping together to mask Ruby’s presence. When Ruby heard voices, she froze.
Kent brought his finger to his lips and pointed in the opposite direction. As he left Ruby, he called out and made a ruckus.
If they were listening to him, they weren’t listening for me, Ruby thought. She shed her cloak and dress and stuck them deep in a hole in a large oak. Stretching and contorting her body, Ruby turned into her golden alter ego as her dark eyes lit up. Her dad howled several feet away in the clearing. She didn’t dare return the call. He knew she was there. Under his howl, Ruby could move somewhat freely through the Wood to a better location. She got as close as she dared and waited.
“Well, he speaks,” Kevin Wolf taunted, shoving a hot poker into Tyler Hood’s chest.
“Kev, careful, we really want the Guardian on our side for this one. I’d like to keep it neat. We worked hard to frame this guy. If we do something stupid, it’ll negate all our efforts. Plus, I have my political career to think about,” Ken Wolf rationalized calmly.
“Guardian, smardian … I’m smarter than him. He’s just a kid,” Kevin mocked.
“Apparently, you learned nothing about underestimating your opponent, dear uncle,” Kent said in a condescending tone. Then, Kevin rushed his nephew, bringing the hot poker to his nephew’s throat. Ken Wolf stepped forward hesitantly.
“Man, this family has some issues! This is the second time this week I’ve seen you two at each other’s throats,” Dylan grumbled. “Someone, please explain to me why I was called away from the dance and my stunning date moments before coronation.” Dylan held up his hand to indicate he wasn’t done, “and not one of you had better make a single crack about my wolf girlfriend or I will snap your neck.” Dylan looked pointedly at Kevin. No one spoke. “I assume you called this meeting, Chief?”
Kevin nodded to the bound man. The pain from the hot poker to the chest had knocked him unconscious, as his head slumped forward. “Is this what required my urgent attention?” Dylan asked, walking closer, then pulled the man’s head up as an angry bellow escaped his lips. “Are you kidding me?! You’ve dragged me away from my evening to bring me the tortured, bound, and unconscious body of my girlfriend’s father? What were guys thinking? You have to let this go! The Hoods are staying. They are FINE!” Dylan’s voice boomed through the Wood as many critters scurried. “DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS?!” he screamed into Kent’s face.
Ruby jumped at Dylan’s tirade. Without flinching, Kent looked into the eyes of his best friend. “I wanted a peaceful resolution to this problem.”
“Look, Guardian …” Kevin sneered as he caressed his holster and moved in closer behind Dylan.
“I’ve had about enough of you, Chief,” Dylan said, cutting him off. Then, he turned and sent a blue ball of power into the police chief’s chest, which sent him flying into a nearby tree. Dylan walked over slowly to the crumpled Huntsmen. Wide eyed, the other two Wolf family members took two steps back. “I warned you to let this go, old man. You’re forcing my hand and I don’t think you’re going to like the way it turns out,” Dylan snarled. His face contorted menacingly as he turned to deal with the other two Huntsmen.
Ruby watched in horror as Kevin Wolf staggered to his feet. His lips pulled back into a sneer as he drew his gun. “You’re gonna be easier to kill than your idiot father, kid.”
Ruby yelped as a warning from the east of the clearing. Her father let out a painful howl, which was returned by another howl from the west.
“Ruby! Are you here?” Dylan cried out as he moved to the east of the clearing.
“Ruby,” whispered Kent cautiously.
“I think all of the Hoods have joined our meeting. I wonder who invited them,” Ken said, glaring at his son before peering into the Wood.
The bushes rustled and a large, grey wolf leaped into the clearing. Suddenly, shots rang out as Ruby howled. She didn’t know who was shooting and at whom.
“RUN, RUBY! RUUUNNNN…” a barrage of voices screamed at her before another round of gunshots rang through the Wood.
Ruby crouched low among the woodland growth, unsure of what to do. Suddenly, she heard her Grams voice in her head. “Go dear, go now. Run! Don’t look back! Be safe, my child.” A moment later, Grams voice faded. Ruby threw back her head and howled before she tore off though the Wood.
She got to the top of the hill on the outskirts of Woodsville and stopped to catch her breath, with the red cloak gripped firmly in her teeth. She dropped the cloak to the ground and howled.
“RUBY! COME BACK!” Dylan’s voice pleaded, bellowing through the night sky.
“Go, Ruby,” Kent’s voice urged in a whisper, tickling her ear.
Her howl was returned. She had her answer. Quickly, she shifted back into a girl. Brushing the tears out of her eyes, she threw the cloak around her naked body, hopped in her car, turned the ignition and set her GPS for Kingman, Arizona. As she barreled down the road, she screamed hysterically trying to silence all the voices shouting at her in her head.
“Ruby, wake up, honey.”
“WHAT?! Huh?" Ruby asked, as she became conscious and tried to gather her bearings. "Where am I?"
“Shhh, honey. It’s okay, you’re fine. You were having a nightmare,” Grams said soothingly, sitting on the queen sized bed next to Ruby.
Ruby shook her head, taking in the familiar surroundings of her room. Everything appeared to be in place. Her posters lined the walls, and her clothes were still strewn over the chair or bedpost just like she’d left them. She sighed dramatically and rubbed her eyes once she concluded she was safe. “Holy crap, Grams! That dream seemed so real.”
“Do you want to talk about it, dear?” Grams asked, drawing her close.
“Nah, I gotta get up anyway.” Reaching for her robe, Ruby pulled away slightly, but she didn’t get out of bed. After she wrapped the robe tightly around her, she turned around to face her grandmother. “It was so silly, Grams. So many people I knew were in it, but they were different … and Dad,” her voice trailed off. “Dad was still here.” Ruby smiled wistfully, but quickly furrowed her brow. “Mom was gone, though.” Ruby took a moment to swallow the lump in her throat, trying desperately to grasp the bits and pieces of the dream before they flitted out of her head. “Oh, yeah,” she added, “I was a big bad wolf and there were people called Guardians and Huntsmen … like some fairy tale. Although, I did have a smoking hot boyfriend,” Ruby said, giggling as she hopped out of bed. “I gotta run. I tutor Kent this morning, then I have to meet Lilly to work on our ‘Great Gatsby’ project.”
Ruby leaned over to kiss her Grams on the cheek before she headed into the closet to choose her wardrobe for the day. She grabbed her favorite skinny jeans, black tee and Dr. Marteen’s. As an afterthought, she dropped the black tee and grabbed a tight red tee in honor of Valentine’s Day. Just because she didn’t really have a smoking hot boyfriend didn’t mean she couldn’t be festive. She turned on some music and headed toward the shower.
Grams yelled over the music. “Breakfast, Ruby?”
“Yes, please! Something to go with a large coffee? Thanks, Grams!” Ruby shouted from the bathroom.
Grams mumbled softly to herself on her way out. “At least you don’t have to worry about wolves, Huntsman and Guardians yet, my sweet girl. That day will come soon enough.” Grams closed the door and headed to the kitchen.
On the walk to school, Ruby tried to think about her odd dream, but only bits and pieces briefly played through her mind. So much of the dream felt familiar, but the details were scattered and hard to discern. Smiling, she thought about Kent and Lilly’s reaction to her dream, as she climbed the last few steps into the library and rounded the corner. She was sure they would get a kick out of it.
“Good morning, Ruby. Happy Valentine’s Day to my favorite tutor,” Kent said, turning in his chair to face her, smiling. His steel blue eyes twinkled and he held a single perfect pink rose in his hand.
Ruby’s lopsided grin spread across her face. He had that effect on her. “Morning, Kent. Thanks,” Ruby said, blushing. “Ready?” She asked sitting down next to him, her dream completely forgotten.
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