Wolf's Bane (Monstrous Hearts #2)

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Chapter Nine

All things considered, Alice felt surprised at how refreshed she appeared in the mirror. True, some of it was an illusion from a turtleneck covering her neck and concealer masking the small scrapes and bruises, yet her face glowed and her shoulders no longer hunched like a beaten dog’s.

Each breath sent a dull ache throughout her throat, but it also left her deliciously sore nipples rubbing against the fabric of her bra, and while her body ached from being jolted by a car, it had also held onto that shivering awareness that came from spending hours twined with someone else. If she had woken up alone, still convinced of having her mother’s madness, she would have turned away from the sun and burrowed back beneath the blankets. Instead, she felt ready to at least try facing the world.

She remembered the layout of the kitchen well enough to start a pot of coffee without trouble, hoping the smell would wake up the rest of the house. At the moment, that meant only her parents. In those first, blurry hours after the car accident, Denise had explained that they’d sent Alice’s stepsister to a friend’s house in case they needed to spend the night at the hospital. Alice probably wouldn’t even see Fleur before she left with Colton.

The realization didn’t give her as sharp a pang as she’d expected. But then, she’d never had a close relationship with Fleur—too many years between them, and Alice had frankly enjoyed her baby sister taking all her parents’ attention. Cooing over Fleur meant less worrying over Alice, and she’d appreciated that. Yet, seething jealousy was a strange sort of bond, itself, and the lack of it or any other had left Alice viewing her sister with the same distance as she often experienced with her parents. That feeling of somehow being different. Separate from them.

Witch girl.

Even as a swirl of steam rose into her face from pouring the coffee, Alice shivered. Had that been the true cause of that sense of isolation? Had she unconsciously sensed herself to in fact be different? She hoped Colton knew just how many questions she’d pepper him with once they were alone.

Just as the sky brightened with true sunlight, footsteps drifted down from the ceiling. From the soft tread, Alice guessed it was her stepmother, and took out the almond milk along with a second cup. Then she drank from her own cup, hip cocked against the honey-colored cabinets as she leaned against the counter and waited.

In a few minutes, Denise appeared in the kitchen, dressed in a fuzzy, pink robe and with her hair pulled back in a messy bun. “Alice? Are you all right?”

“Everything’s fine. I just felt ready to get up.”

Denise nodded while shuffling over to the coffee pot, but her expression remained troubled. “No one expects you to jump out of bed right away. It’s not even seven, and the doctor told us over and over that you’d need a lot of rest for the next two weeks.”

“I feel great. Really.” Alice didn’t even have to work to keep the words relaxed. She wondered what it said about her that being fucked senseless left her calm and cheerful in a way that nothing else ever had.

“Maybe, but you aren’t. You almost died yesterday, sweetheart.”

Twice over, in fact. Perhaps that was why she now felt so alive for all that she did nothing more than sip at her coffee. The taste tingled on the back of her tongue; the heat lingered along her throat. The grass and bushes outside looked very green, every leaf defined and glittering, and the family of jays calling to each other sounded like raucous shouts to wake up the rest of the world. There was nothing dull to her senses, nothing too small to absorb.

“Why don’t I make us some smoothies?” Denise’s voice sounded overly cheerful, and Alice realize she’d never responded. “The doctor sent home a sheet of recommended food while you’re healing up. I’m sure I can mix together a few of those.”

Deciding it was better to pick her battles—and there was surely a nasty one looming just ahead once Colton arrived—Alice smiled and nodded. She could make breakfast, later.

Silence fell while Denise stuffed various berries and leafy, green things into the blender. Alice’s hands clasped and unclasped her coffee cup as words snarled in her mind, words that no longer seemed safer to hide. They were old ones, polished smooth from years of tumbling together in the back of her mind, now tumbling onto her tongue from watching this woman who had always tried her best at being a stepmother, even during the times when she and Alice had been mutually baffled by each other. “I’m sorry, Denise. For how Magdalene insulted you, I mean. I should have asked her to apologize right away.”

Her stepmother looked startled at the abrupt words. Then she laughed, a genuine one that crinkled the corners of her eyes. “That? Sweetheart, I forgot about it five seconds after she said… What was it? Something about being a boring housewife. There are plenty of people like her out there in the world, bitter and unhappy and attacking everyone else to feel a little bit better about what they aren’t.”

Then she fell serious. “You know how your father is. I argued with him about keeping distant while you were living with her, but he insisted that it was what he’d said, so it was what he’d have to do. He’s so stubborn, sometimes. I kept telling him you shouldn’t be left alone with someone like that.”

And then there it was, hanging between them like its own ghost. The question mark of the past five years. Did she want to reveal how wretched things had become? Would it even do anything, letting Denise see a glimpse?

Suddenly, Alice found it painful to look at her stepmother’s face, bare of makeup and strangely vulnerable in the early morning light, and dropped her gaze to her coffee. Her distorted reflection blinked back at her as she said, “It was a relief when she died. That’s all I really want to say at this point.”

“Oh, Alice…” The words wavered, and in them she heard worry hardening into grief.

Before she could look over, Denise was there, sweeping her up into a fierce hug. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Whatever she said or did to you, it’s not true and you didn’t deserve it. You’ve always been wonderful.”

For a moment, Alice remained stiff, so unused to familial affection that she didn’t know how to react. But then the softness of her stepmother’s robe and the warmth of her arms sank into her senses, conveying something she hadn’t felt since before she could even properly talk.

A mother’s touch.

Slowly, Alice hugged her back. Her muscles shuddered as if they didn’t remember how to be held so gently, but her heart ached just like when she flashed onto a rare, sweet memory of her mother brushing her hair, or humming to her, or showing her how to whistle back at the sparrows hopping around in the rosemary bushes.

Before her trembling could turn into true tears, the sound of the upstairs shower hissed through the ceiling. Her father had gotten up. Alice pulled away in a spike of nerves, embarrassed at the smallness of her voice as she said, “I don’t want to tell him, yet. I don’t want him to know…”

To know what? That she was much more screwed up than he had expected? But even as she groped for words, Denise caught her hands and gave them a brief squeeze. “It’s all right. Whenever you want to talk about it, you can. Until then, I won’t.”

Her hands squeezed back as relief swelled through her. “Thanks.”

A minute later, Alice set placemats on the kitchen table while the blender whirred. When Denise paused to add a little more milk, a knock came at the door, short and hard against the wood.

Even as her stepmother cast a puzzled glance at the nearest clock, Alice felt herself light up. “It’s Colton. I meant to say—we finally talked, earlier, and he’s here to take me home.”

“What?” Denise’s hand fluttered to her messy hair. “But I have no makeup on. And your father’s still in the shower.”

Alice had already left the kitchen, now raising her voice as she hurried for the door. “It’s okay. We can talk outside until you’re ready.”

“No, bring him right in! Just tell him I don’t always look like a hag.”

“You look fantastic, Denise.” By then, her hand grasped the doorknob. Even as she turned it, the uncertainty of the past few weeks flared back into life, wrapping a thin line of dread around her heart. What if Magdalene stood there before her with that crooked, sharp smile? A nightmare sliding back into reality…

The door opened without a creak, as well-heeled as the rest of the house, and then she saw nothing except Colton, hands easy in his pockets while he waited. His eyes had picked up the vivid green of the porch plants, and they warmed further at the sight of her.

As he stepped over the threshold, gaze never leaving her face, Alice felt a jolt of surprise over his appearance. Gone were the flannel shirt and shapeless coat. Instead, the white collar of a dress shirt peered out from beneath a dark leather jacket, and well-fitted slacks had replaced the rough jeans. Even his shoes looked nice, polished and well-cared for. With his dark scruff and sharp eyes, one couldn’t say he seemed clean-cut and safe. But it was a new type of formidable from him—an indication that he could handle civilized threats as easily as the primal kind found in the forest.

“Infuriating man,” she whispered, tugging at his jacket as he pulled her close. He smelled like fresh soap, as if he’d been careful to wash away any lingering traces of blood, but beneath that, she caught a hint of hot skin and the tang of iron. Even cleaned up, he exuded an earthiness that dared anyone to dismiss his presence.

He gave her that hungry look that always left her breathless, but his hand remained gentle as it traced the curve of her cheek, and concern rumbled in his voice as their mouths brushed. “Been prowling for a while. Smelled you growing upset.”

“I’m fine. Especially now.” Even as she reluctantly pulled back, her fingers twined with his.

It felt strange, having him there in her parents’ house. Their own home always had a sense of the not-quite-normal out there in the forest, as if it existed separate from the rest of the world. As she led him to the kitchen, watching him walk on the shining, hardwood floor and cast a shadow against the spotless, cream wall, she felt nearly giddy at seeing how easily the supernatural could slip into the mundane. Even well-dressed and relaxed, without a hint of yellow in his eyes, she sensed how he could still shift into a wolf if he wished, how he could turn into a living shadow among the granite counters and gleaming pots of the kitchen.

When Alice introduced him to Denise, her stepmother had a ready smile on her face, but her eyes widened in surprise. The few boys who had come over to the house during high school years had been clean-cut and teenage-awkward, and the vague expectation formed from those memories obviously didn’t fit Colton.

He waited to shake hands until Denise held out her own, first. The surprise then filtered into her voice, turning delighted. “Old-fashioned manners. You don’t usually find a man who knows them outside of my parents’ generation. Sit down and get comfy; Alice and I were just about to have breakfast. I’ll get some for you, too.”

Before Alice could warn him of her stepmother’s definition of a meal, Colton nodded. “Thanks.”

He took in the kitchen with a sharp glance, and Alice’s mouth twitched toward a smile as his forehead furrowed in confusion over the cold stove and empty oven. They still held hands underneath the table, and she squeezed his to get him to look over.

“You’ll only have to take a sip,” she murmured. “I’ll drink the rest.”

Before he could respond, Denise set the smoothies before them. Colton blinked at the olive-green concoction, expressionless, but Alice understood the flicker in his eyes as clearly as if he’d spoken aloud. It’s fucking rabbit food.

He kept a stoic face during the first swallow. On the second, he made a muffled noise that might have been a repressed cough. Alice rubbed her bare foot against his leg, trying not to laugh into her own glass.

“Very healthy,” he said, at last.

Denise beamed in response while sipping from hers. “It’s one of my favorites. Kale, flaxseed, Goji berry, and a little apple for sweetness.”

“I taste strawberry, too,” said Alice, drinking more of hers.

“That’s from the homemade almond milk. I wanted to make something special while trying out my new nut milk bag.”

Alice nodded, most of her focus still on Colton and the way he eyed his glass. He probably would have looked happier if he’d been told it was poison.

He managed another swallow before Denise returned to the counter to clean up. Alice, who had already finished her smoothie, quietly switched their glasses, and received a glance that had her biting back another laugh. Her foot rubbed against him again just as Denise spoke up.

“I’m glad you found out what happened with Alice. We tried calling the sawmill yesterday after her accident, but couldn’t reach you.” Such words could have sounded accusing, but Denise had a knack at making any observation pleasant.

Colton pushed his glass away as if even the dregs were too repulsive to be within sniffing distance. “Bad timing all around. I took off work to take care of a few things in the city. When I got back, I knew something was wrong with Alice not being there. Called someone from the mill to see if she’d left a message, and he told me about the accident. The hospital told me a little more, but by then it was too late to come here and pound on the door until I saw her.”

No outright lie, just a vague circling around the truth. Alice listened carefully, aware that she’d likely have to learn how to do this, herself. She was so intent on the words that the feeling of his hand sliding up over her knee startled her. She looked over and found his gaze warm on her. When he gave her leg a light squeeze, she smiled back, aware of how her face must have glowed.

If Denise caught the change in her expression, it didn’t show up in her voice as she rejoined them at the table. “How did you two meet?”

“Unexpectedly,” said Alice, aware of how it would look if she kept quiet and let Colton do all the talking.

He elaborated. “I knew Franny Harford from doing work on the cabin.”

When Denise only looked puzzled at the name, he added, “Alice’s grandmother.”

Alice knew what sort of reaction that would have garnered from her father. Denise’s eyes only lit in realization. “Oh, of course! The place Alice inherited. Did you know her grandmother well?”

“No. I was just a handyman that came by every so often.”

Denise nodded, her smile growing. “And then what? You once stopped by to see if the cabin needed any repairs and found Alice instead of her grandmother?”

Colton gave an easy tilt of his head that could have been taken for a nod.

“And it did,” said Alice, voice wry as she thought of the poor shape it had been in. “Romance in the shape of hammers and nails.”

“I think that’s sweet,” said Denise, her face now in her hands. “Not everyone wants flowers.”

Cautious hope bloomed in Alice’s thoughts at the idea that things might turn out well. It withered just as quickly when her father’s footsteps sounded on the stairs, and she felt herself stiffen up even as Colton’s hand slid along her leg in reassurance.

Denise called out as she rose from the table. “Tom? We’ve got company. Alice’s boyfriend came over.”

There was a quiet growl of a laugh from Colton over being called anything close to “boy.” Alice just clutched at his hand, the lightness of the earlier conversation evaporating beneath the heavy lump of apprehension that her heart had turned into.

Her father didn’t reply to Denise, but in the next breath, he appeared in the kitchen. He’d already dressed for work, shirt ironed and tie straight, but hadn’t yet shrugged on the jacket of his suit. It hinted to Alice that he expected to have a long talk before he left for the day. Her muscles tightened into knots, and this time, Colton’s hand eased free of her grip until one thumb could stroke along the area of her wrist where her pulse beat like a frantic bird.

When her father’s gaze fell upon Alice, she smiled, hoping it didn’t seem too strained. “Morning, Dad.”

“You shouldn’t even be out of bed.” His voice sounded tired, not harsh, but Alice still glanced away.

“I wanted to make sure I was ready when Colton came to take me home.”

“We already agreed you’d stay here.” Then he sat across from her, absently smoothing his tie. The sunlight picked out the grey in his hair. There was more of it than she remembered seeing, before, and guilt slid through her while she wondered how many of those grey hairs had come from her.

Alice wasn’t used to arguing, not really, but took a deep breath and tried. “I know we did for last night, but that’s only because Colton wasn’t there to drive me home.”

Her father finally glanced over at Colton, who remained easy in his seat. The men stared at each other for a moment, neither seeming very impressed. Her father was the first to look away, distracted by Denise setting a final smoothie before him. “You’re a hard man to reach. We tried all day yesterday.”

“He already explained that.” Denise’s voice remained airy while she sat beside him. “He was away in the city.”

Before her father could question why, Alice quickly spoke up. “There’s no reason why I can’t go home. The instructions from the doctor are right here, and Colton can look after me until I’m recovered.”

Denise acknowledged the point with a nod, but it was as if her father hadn’t even heard. Instead, he rubbed at the dark circles beneath his eyes, actually slouching enough for his elbows to rest on the table. “Let’s set that aside, for now. There’s something more important to talk about.”

Colton shifted in his seat, a movement small enough to go unnoticed by all except Alice. She took in the set of his shoulders and the tightness in his jaw, realizing he hadn’t liked something he’d heard in the words.

She was more struck by the rare glimpse of vulnerability in her father. He had a busy life, even a harried one, but the only time he had ever appeared so tired was the day the official search party had been called off for her mother. That evening, he had slumped like a broken puppet while carefully explaining to Alice that her mother might not come back for awhile, and that they would have to go on and learn how to do things without her. Gut-deep, Alice knew this conversation would somehow be related to her.

She waited in silence while her father straightened up in his seat and looked at her. “You need help.”

“Help…?” she repeated, her focus now jumping between him and her stepmother.

Denise nodded. “Just for a little while, until we’re sure you have your feet under you. Go back to school, maybe start seeing a therapist over everything. It’s okay to get support from others.”

Alice understood that. And looking at their faces, she saw true concern. Instinctively, though, she sensed the danger of agreeing to any such plan. Following someone’s words yet again. Lying to whatever therapist she ended up with because the truth was too strange, too fantastic. Picking up school when she barely knew who she was, let alone what she wished to do with herself.

What she did know was that no part of her heart ached for a perfect life protected inside a bubble. Not for her was the tried and true, the velvet green lawns and the stonework borders. She had sensed that even in those confusing, teenage years, and had been sure enough of it to go off with Magdalene when the time had come to decide. Yes, it had turned out badly, horribly, and yet… The urge remained. And at this point, not one bit of doubt lingered. Not while Colton sat there beside her.

When she said nothing, Denise added, “Sweetheart, you haven’t been the same since you came back from the city. You don’t go out to see anybody, and you’re always so pale and worried-looking. You don’t seem to be, well… Thriving.”

Her eyes said more, said that she now knew why, but Alice’s father remained unreadable but for the lines of weariness etched on his face.

Alice’s fingers pressed tight against Colton’s as she admitted, “Magdalene’s death hit hard in a lot of ways. I’m still working through it.”

The smooth skin between her stepmother’s eyebrows pinched together in sympathy. Her father just sighed. “What about yesterday’s car accident? You never said what you swerved to avoid.”

“It happened too fast,” she murmured, aware of how feeble her explanation sounded.

So feeble, in fact, that her father finally snapped. “Alice, enough. You’re making the same faint excuses that your mother used to.”

“No.” Colton’s voice landed in the conversation like a chunk of granite, solid and uncompromising.

It was as if her father hadn’t expected him to even speak. In the brief silence that followed, Colton fixed his eyes on him and added, “There’s nothing wrong with Alice.”

Frustration showed on her father’s face, but his next words came out calmly enough. “I appreciate the loyalty toward my daughter, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know enough.”

It was always the indifference in Colton’s words that stumped people. His full attention could be unnerving, like finding gleaming eyes in between the shadowy shapes of trees, but once he had made up his mind and decided, his disregard proved even harder to grapple with. Alice had figured out a few ways to crack that enigmatic shell, but suspected it was more him indulging her than anything else.

Her father wasn’t about to be indulged.

When her father drew in a breath, obviously wanting to approach things from a different angle, Alice took the chance, surprised at her own boldness. “What my dad means is that they’re worried I’m going crazy like my mom.”

“You’re not crazy.” Colton’s voice didn’t change, but something flickered in his eyes. “And there’s nothing wrong with you.”

“Giving my daughter false reassurances won’t help anything.”

“They’re not false. Thinking she’s her mother—that’s false.”

Alice felt torn between avoiding her father’s eyes to help soften the arguing and looking up to catch his expression. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had so openly challenged him. And over a subject that people always avoided! From her father’s silence, he was just as shocked.

Colton didn’t give him a chance to respond. “I know the family. Franny Harford wasn’t a nice woman. Whatever she did to Alice’s mother would have lingered. She never met Alice, though. Couldn’t do it to her. Everyone has problems, but Alice has her own, not her mother’s.”

It felt like her heart had jumped into her throat as she watched her father finally crack. “Who the hell are you?”

“Tom,” said Denise, resting a hand on his arm, but he ignored her.

“How long have you known my daughter? A few months? You have no idea what needs to be done to look after her.”

“No, Dad.” The words came out of Alice before she could stop them, and in the ensuing silence, she added, “I know you just want to help, but I think I’d do better working through things on my own. I need to make some changes, you’re right. But seeing a therapist or going back to school—that won’t help me right now. It’ll just look like I’m doing better whenever anyone asks.”

From the flash of confusion in her father’s eyes, it was one and the same. Denise, though, studied both her and Colton, the line of concern between her eyebrows now smoothing out.

“Then what’s your plan?” Her father still sounded irritated. “Hide in the forest with him?”

Colton shrugged. “You can find us easy enough.”

Her father’s face turned red just as Denise turned to him and murmured, “Tom, don’t drill her about this. She’s tired and wants to go home. Let’s wait for a better time to talk about her future.”

“I did that when she went off with that woman. What were the results?”

At that, Colton’s eyes glinted with a dangerous light, but Alice squeezed his hand in a silent signal to let her respond. A sick pit opened up in her stomach as she said, “Do you want to talk about her, Dad? Are we finally going to talk about things that happened instead of just how to cover them up?”

She had never been so frank with her words, and it terrified her to wait for him to respond. Her father drew in a deep breath, a vein now visible in his neck. Denise watched him carefully, her hand still light on his arm, and Colton had fallen very still, leaning forward in his seat as if ready to lunge.

Finally, her father said, “There are only so many times you can step out of this life, Alice.”

That drew a smothered sigh from Denise, but Alice only nodded, skin prickling as she waited for an ultimatum she’d already once heard.

“We’ve both discussed it and decided that if you don’t want to get help, we have no choice but to—”

“We’ll keep supporting you,” interrupted Denise, her voice unusually firm. As everyone else looked over, she added, “We won’t cut you off like last time.”

“What?” Alice’s father stared at her in disbelief.

Denise remained serene while rubbing at his arm. “We all made mistakes back then.”

“She’s still making them.”

Alice heard a soft growl from Colton, but when Denise’s gaze landed on them, her expression seemed thoughtful, not startled. “I don’t think so. He adores her, Tom. Can’t you see that?”

“And I’m sure that Magdalene looked exactly the same.”

“No,” said Alice and her stepmother, voices matching in tone, and Alice realized they both remembered the faint amusement that had always imbued Magdalene’s expression.

Anger and fear scratched at her words as she added, “Magdalene was a mistake. I left with her because I didn’t want the life set up for me, and didn’t know how to explain that. I should’ve stayed and told you. And that’s what I’m trying to do, now.”

There was a brief silence after that. The air felt sharp, uncertain. Finally, her father said, “I want you to be happy. That’s all this is.”

“Then let me figure out how to be.” She studied them, trying to see if they understood. Her heart shivered between her ribs at her audacity.

There was a final sigh from her father, and then he stood up from the table, face closed off. “Then there’s nothing more to say.”

It hurt, but it was an old pain, and Alice only blinked a few times to keep tears at bay. Colton’s thumb stroked over her white-knuckled hand.

“Tom,” said Denise, voice quiet.

He glanced at her. “I’m late for work. If you want to entertain them, then go ahead. But I don’t want them here when I get back.”

Alice tried to keep her breathing steady as the front door opened and slammed, taking her father with it.

Now Denise sighed. “He doesn’t mean it. You should have seen him at the hospital’s front desk while the receptionist was searching for your room number. He’s just being stiff-necked over his plans.”

Alice tried a smile, feeling tired. “We do need to go.”

Her head throbbed as they hugged goodbye, Colton lingering nearby while Denise insisted everything would turn out fine. Once they were in his truck and pulling out of the driveway, she relaxed enough to rub at her temples, trying to ease the aching, there. “Well, those were my parents. I don’t know if you’ll see them again, but I’m glad they didn’t scare you off.”

He sounded as unshakeable as ever. “Your father’s a father. Stepmother’s nice, even if she likes drinking things that taste like dirt.”

The sound of her laugh surprised her. “That’s the kale.”

When his shoulders twitched in disgust, she ran a hand along the nearest one, drawing a warm glance from him.

They traveled a few more miles before she said, “You didn’t even have to lie about what really happened last night.”

“Usually, you don’t.”

She looked at him as he drove, calm and easy and appearing as nothing more than a normal man. “You’re used to it, aren’t you?”

At that, his nearest hand left the steering wheel and found hers. “It’s something you’ll learn, too.”

There were more words waiting, ones that would take the events of the night before—of the weeks before—and reveal their true shapes. The glimpses of Magdalene; how easily dreams had twisted in her mind. How she had slipped to another world without realizing it.

Alice sighed. “I am a witch.”

Colton’s silence was answer enough.

“But I won’t end up my like mother or grandmother.”

“No.” His hand squeezed hers.

She thought about it for a while, watching the land around her shift into oaks brilliant with red leaves. The gentle hillsides roughened into dips and rises around the road as they began the slow ascent into the foothills. Into the wilderness. The tension bled from her mind, and the guilt over her father eased into an ache that disappeared among the many physical ones marking the more battered areas of her body.

When the view opened into the first swathes of forest bristling out to the horizon, she asked another question. “That wasn’t the full story, was it? Going into the city on business.”

He seemed to consider every angle of what she’d said, although his grip remained relaxed on the steering wheel, relaxed against her hand. “I did go into the city. The business was finding out what was happening with you.”

The unease that had just faded from her thoughts now flared up once more. She bit at her lip. “You mean my silence about Magdalene? I’m sorry. I should have told you from the beginning, but I was scared. No one else saw her.”

“She first appeared at the fucking party, didn’t she? Your fear that night… And it’s been with you ever since.”

“Yes. And it was her that was in the road, not a deer. But I couldn’t…”

“Tell the truth.” His face was expressionless, but she caught the tightness in his jaw.

“I was scared, Colton. How my father looked at me back there… I didn’t want to see that expression on your face, too. I thought I could handle hallucinating things. But you thinking I was crazy—that would have shattered me.”

“I’m not your father.”

“No, you’re not. I just didn’t want to ruin things.” Then her hand pulled free of his, and she picked at her fingernails to avoid looking at him. “There’s something else, too. Something related to Darby wanting to see the cabin. Her husband, Rob—”

“Had photos of you.”

Her head snapped up just as he withdrew an envelope from his inside jacket pocket. It looked like the same one Rob had shown her. Alice felt her cheeks burn.

“Did you look at them?” she whispered, but already she knew the answer. He would have had to, in order to make sure they were the right ones.

“I did, and I know why they exist.” His tone revealed nothing of what he thought, and neither did his face.

When he offered the envelope to her, she shrank away, not wanting to touch it. He noticed, and the flatness in his eyes flared into something savage.

The envelope disappeared back into his jacket before she said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to know about the things I did with him.”

The anger showed itself in his voice, too, roughening it into a growl. “He was lucky to have you. At the risk of sounding like a fucking poet, you graced him. He didn’t lower you.”

Her eyes blurred over, and her words wavered while she wiped at them. “I didn’t know what would happen if you found out. I didn’t know if you’d…”

“Leave? You think I’ll do that at the first sign of trouble? The first time you don’t smile bright enough? I won’t. It was easy to guess the bitch had put you through things. Easy to smell your guilt. But I still tracked you down to find you.”

Coming from Colton, it was as good as an impassioned speech, and Alice stared at him, at a loss for words.

He glanced over at her, a searing gaze that showed all his anger, frustration, and, yes, love. “Tell me you don’t want to talk if that’s what you want. Tell me you’ll fight it yourself. But don’t lie that it’s fine when I can smell the salt from tears on your cheeks. How the fuck am I to take that? Just watch the wound rot because you won’t lick at it?”

Alice knew she’d dissolve into ugly sobs as soon as she opened her mouth, so she only grabbed for his hand, trying to squeeze all her feelings into the act. The warm touch, sure and rough with calluses, coaxed her fingers into relaxing enough to twine with his.

In a quieter voice, he said, “You didn’t smile at all when we met, but I couldn’t keep away from you.”

She nodded, still unable to speak, still clutching at his hand. Trees flickered by while she fought for steady breaths. The road narrowed and the surrounding land opened up into vast crags and crevices. They were almost home.

“Then I won’t lie,” she said, at last, and now she was able to look at him without shame. “And I’ll only smile when I want to.”

Their fingers flexed against each other before she sighed, her voice growing steadier with each word. “Thank you for getting the photos. Whatever you did with Rob, I’m sure he’s out of the way. And considering how things went with my father, Darby’s no longer a concern, either. That just leaves Magdalene.”

“We’ll wait to see what the bitch does. She probably went off to heal. I got some good bites in; she didn’t expect me to be able to reach her and hurt her.”

As tired and emotionally spent as she was, Alice had to laugh. “Even ghosts don’t know what you are.”

He took in her expression, eyes warming. “I remember what I said. Once we’re back and know the house is safe, I’ll tell you about myself, if you still want to hear it.”

“I do,” said Alice. And then she smiled at him.

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