The moon glowed red as it rose half-full, casting the road in unfamiliar light as they drove to the party. Alice looked at it through the passenger’s window in silence, stomach tightening at how the cool, serene face had transformed into something bloodstained.
When the surrounding trees opened up into wide sky, revealing the eerie sight in full, she found herself saying, “A lot of folklore warns about a blood moon. It’s supposed to be an ominous sign.”
Colton didn’t seem impressed, remaining intent on the road ahead without so much as a glance upward. “Never found it any worse to hunt under.”
The very indifference of his voice steadied her. It was solid rock against shrill winds. It was rope anchoring her to time and place while currents threatened to pull her into the suffocating past and chilling future. It was a shadow that never fled in the face of light, as magnetic as any malevolent moon, and she found herself looking over at him.
The black suit he wore hadn’t diminished any of his danger, instead emphasizing broad shoulders and lean strength. And the crisp collar of his white shirt only drew attention to the sharp hunger of a jaw already dark with stubble despite how she’d shaved him an hour earlier. There was nothing tame about him at all, nothing sated, and even as the glittering lights of civilization appeared in the distance, his eyes continued to gleam like a beast’s.
She wanted to see his teeth. “You don’t believe in supernatural signs?” she teased, feeling her shoulders relax. “Or that nasty things might come alive under strange moonlight?”
Now he glanced over. “Whatever’s out there worries about me. Not the other way around.”
She should have laughed. From the quirk to his mouth, he expected her to. And yet something about the way he looked at her, gaze unguarded, made her lungs squeeze until it hurt to breathe, and a thought came to her with all the clarity and mercilessness of a mirror: she would never stop grieving if she lost him.
It wasn’t the old panic that had been instilled in her from the moment scrubby grass and shadowy oak had swallowed her mother whole, the one so easily stoked by Magdalene once she’d found out about its existence. It wasn’t even the slow-creeping form she felt whenever she looked at her father and saw a gravestone of unspoken thoughts and confessions. The terror of separation, the agony of abandonment… No, this was much different.
There in the flickering darkness, she watched this beast who wore the clothes of a man without taking it to heart, and realized what she felt had nothing to do with fear. She loved him.
Could a witch die of grief? Perhaps not. And she, the incomplete girl, the so-called doll, was quite used to scar tissue filling in the missing pieces. She would endure, as she somehow always did, but the beat of her blood as it sang through her veins would fade into a drone, and the hunger in her heart, so demanding even as the rest of her hunched in silence, would dull into a vague pang. She would exist without living, and a howl in the night would be as unreachable to her as a half-remembered dream.
To lose oneself in a beast—to go into the forest and offer tender heart to slavering jaws—is to learn the grief of not what is given but of what might become lost.
A short growl brought Alice back into herself, brought her senses back to her seat in the car and the bracelets on her arms and her neatly-pinned hair. Colton stared at her, and she realized they were at a stoplight—already in town. The red light glared across them both as she shook her head, trying to clear it. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I…”
When her voice trailed away, his thumb ran over her cheek, wiping away the wetness.
She gasped, realizing she’d been crying. “That’s not waterproof mascara. God, it must be running down my face.”
“Fuck the makeup.” The words held his usual bluntness, but his hand remained gentle as it caught her own and kept them from fumbling at her clutch for a tissue.
“But we’re only fifteen minutes away. If I don’t clean up fast enough, we’ll be late.”
“Fuck being on time.”
It drew a watery laugh out of her. “You keep saying that.”
“It’s a good answer.”
When she made a sound somewhere between a hiccup and a sniffle, he cupped her chin, coaxing her to look at him. “What’s wrong? Worried about the bitch showing up?”
That fear… Yes, it was present in her heart as well, but enormous enough that it had become something stable even as it drew an ever-closer path toward her. It hung in her world like the blood moon now above them, looming large at night and maddeningly visible even in the day. How much thought could she give Samhain and Magdalene when it was all so inevitable?
And so in a strange way, she found it easier to obsess over the little things, to pick at the fringe of her worries and magnify them until they blotted out the true menace. Worrying about her father when she might be dead within a few days. Such a fool.
She shook her head, more at herself than as an answer to his question. “It’s not about Magdalene. It’s just that… I’m not good at this, Colton. At being defiant.”
The light shining over them flickered to green, and he pulled away to resume driving. But even as the car slid forward, he glanced over at her again, a line of concern still etched between his eyebrows.
It was difficult to explain, but for him, she tried, fingers tangling together as she searched for the right words. “I don’t like crossing my father face-to-face, and going to this party will be doing exactly that. My aunt and stepmother feel this is the best chance at a reconciliation, but all I want to do is make him see me instead of my mother.”
She half-expected a fuck him in response, but instead Colton seemed to think about it all, eyes as inscrutable and piercing as whenever he hunted in the woods. Then he said, “The worst he can do is threaten your money. Probably thinks it’ll scare me off. Scare you back.”
A test of sincerity? She could see that. A stabbing at the heart to see whether it held true. “He’s wrong. I’m sure I’ve been cut out of his will since Magdalene happened, so all he can do at this point is take away the trust fund.”
“If he pulls that fucking move, you won’t go hungry or homeless.” Colton’s teeth flashed with each word.
Despite the lingering burn of tears, she found herself smiling. “You’re very sweet, you know.”
When he shrugged it away with a brief growl, eyes still dangerous, she insisted, “You are. All of this is meaningless outside of one little social bubble, but you’re still coming with me. You don’t even like being around people.”
His hand found hers again, twining their fingers together. “Doesn’t matter.”
She felt calmer now, breath hitching only a little as she said, “Still… Magdalene can’t do too much at the party. I won’t mind if you need to slip away and take a break from socializing with me.”
“Alice.” The dark edge to his voice turned wry as he squeezed her thigh. “We’ve gone through this. I’m not the one to worry over.”
“It’s just that everyone there will be curious about you. Who you are, where you’re from, what you do for a living.”
When he only shrugged, she insisted, “My aunt will never stop asking questions. And my father will probably—”
The hand on her thigh slid further up, pushing past the folds of her plain black dress, and the rest of her words dissolved into a sharp breath. Colton kept watching the road, but she heard the distinct roughness to his words that was his version of teasing. “Whatever he does is his problem, not mine. My problem is stopping you from fretting over me.”
Then his hand slid between her legs and she instinctively grabbed at his wrist, already feeling that first spark of heat as fingers found the thin fabric of her panties. If her mask was still in place, if she still cared about such things, she might have protested that she needed to look her best at her aunt’s and that he needed to be careful while driving.
But she didn’t, instead clutching his wrist close as her thighs squeezed against his hand. Goading him. Begging him, even, to help her forget for a few sweet moments.
He growled softly in response, rubbing along the seam of her cunt until the fabric there grew damp. Her entire body already shook, straining and disheveled even as he remained cool and sure.
When a car in the next lane drew close, she flushed, grip tightening against his wrist at the idea of being seen.
“Want to stop?” he murmured, voice giving no indication of what he thought either way.
As she panted, each breath shifting her body just enough to add to the delicious friction of fabric against swollen flesh, she thought of what she must have looked like. Legs askew, hair spilling free against flushed skin. Frantic. Alive.
“Don’t you dare,” she managed, and arched her back in an attempt to press his hand closer to her clit.
He continued to tease, fingers changing rhythm until he found one that made her hips jerk against the weight of his arm. She found herself bracing against her seat as if they were about to crash, the very roughness of his touch drawing her close even while it maddeningly avoided her clit.
Just as the other car harmlessly passed by in a flash of tail-lights, the driver’s face lost in the darkness, Colton pushed aside the soaked scrap of fabric that kept his hand from completely finding her. At the first rasp of his callouses, she bit down on her lip to muffle a cry, trying not to scratch at his wrist.
A rumble of a laugh reached the edge of her senses. “Stop holding yourself back. You can’t hurt me.”
Then his thumb pressed in and she howled, nails digging into his skin even as the road remained straight and steady in front of them. Her bracelets jangled as if they were about to fall apart; her heartbeat sang in her ears. And for one long, agonizingly delicious moment, everything slid away, even the sullen light of the moon.
Then she fell limp, gasping as fingers slowly rubbed along her folds, drawing out aftershocks. As the world slipped back into her senses, she looked over at him. He still appeared intent on driving, alert yet relaxed while guiding the car into a turn. Then he glanced over, and the intensity of his eyes once more took her breath away. Something flickered in them, gone too quickly for her to understand, and she instead sank into the sensation of his hand now gently rubbing along her thigh.
Limp, satisfied, all she could think to say was, “We’ll arrive looking like I’ve just been fucked.”
“Do you care?” Amusement tinged that dark voice, as if he already knew the answer.
She laughed. “Not right now.”
Even so, she took care to at least smooth down her hair and fix her makeup as he pulled into a driveway circling around a mammoth water fountain. Other cars had already parked in a neat line, the preening surfaces reflecting the strung lamps that glittered among the box hedges, and he followed suit while she studied what waited for them.
Her aunt didn’t believe in understatement and her home reflected that, with lush gardens coaxing visitors down the hand-cut stone path to a sprawling, two-story mansion of wood and brick. Countless windows kept the architecture from looking dreary, their polished panes breathing golden light that lit up the air. A line of trees spread out behind the house, tall firs that marked where the back lawns ended and the lake’s edge began. It was all very imposing and elegant, but as the night closed in, its endlessness marked out by glittering stars, Alice couldn’t help thinking that it looked as fragile as a spark in the dark. It was a constructed world that they were about to step into, a doll’s house exquisite enough to make one forget how easily it could be crushed.
Then Colton opened the door on her side. Even in the surrounding light, he remained a column of black in his suit, solid and unshakeable. Whatever he saw in her face made him offer a hand to her.
“Words,” he said, eyes gleaming at her. “That’s all they can use. You’ve got teeth.”
Alice pressed her tongue against them, taking in the bluntness of their shapes. They were an understated signal of good living, straight and aligned thanks to an orthodontist’s skill. Suited for a smile that invoked delight, or encouragement, or just the base idea of well-groomed beauty. Glittering, useless abilities compared to fierceness of true fangs. But without the pelt to transform her body to match her hunger, they would have to do.
With a final nod, she placed her hand in his and let him pull her to her feet. As her heels lightly rapped against the pathway, matching a pace with his own hunter-silent stride, his hand brushed the small of her back.
It kept her going even when they stepped through the front entrance and light and conversations washed over them. Alice blinked, reorienting herself to airy rooms and the people that filled them. White walls and hardwood floors reflected the warm lights, turning the very air gold. She could already see where dinner would take place—in the room that overlooked the deck and then the lake beyond. Her aunt stood near the gorgeous rosewood table, studying the centerpiece with one of the hired waiters. From the pinched skin on Fiona’s forehead, Alice guessed that there was a slight problem.
Before she could find any other familiar faces, a waiter approached with a tray of cocktails. Alice took one that had been poured in an old-fashioned copper mug, and clutched at the chilled surface even while Colton shook his head to send the man on.
She took a sip, hardly tasting the sweet burn of whiskey and ginger beer while continuing to search the faces around her. Colton also remained silent, studying the clusters of people with equal care. Who would appear first? Magdalene, or one of her family?
Then Colton’s head snapped toward their right, and Alice looked over to see a woman approaching them, a practiced smile already on her face.
“It’s all right,” Alice murmured to him, her fingers flexing against his arm. “She’s an old family friend. One of my father’s business associates.”
Then she put on her own sociable smile and raised her voice. “Mrs. Fraser, how are you?”
Barbara Fraser looked much the same as what Alice remembered—tall and thin like a greyhound, with startling blue eyes. True, there were now streaks of grey in her hair, a proud gesture of how she would be as no-nonsense about aging as she was about all other matters of life, but it was still pulled back in the same neat bun. And her jawline was still pointed, the skin at her neck drawn thin instead of sagging with middle-aged fat. Her dark brown dress was as understated as the little gleams of gold at her ears.
But her smile looked relaxed and unfeigned, and there was no hesitation in her voice as she said, “Little Ally Corrigan. I’m surprised I recognize you; it’s been ten years since we last met.”
Alice offered a polite laugh. “I must’ve still had braces on my teeth.”
“You did. I remember because Gretchen got them at the same time. She’s here, too, and will be very excited to see you.” Then her gaze flickered to Colton, and she held out her hand. “Barbara Fraser. A friend of the family.”
He shook it, expression bland. “Colton Graves.”
The name drew a slight arching of the brows from Ms. Fraser, and Alice suspected the other woman was trying to connect it—him—with anyone she knew.
“We met while I was on vacation this past winter,” said Alice, deciding to end the other woman’s struggle.
Ms. Fraser nodded. “That’s right, your family has a cabin somewhere near the coast. Close to Point Reyes, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s further north,” said Alice, feeling a slight twinge at how something from her maternal line had been neatly clipped of its mats and brought into the family fold. “Deep in the forest.”
Something flickered in the older woman’s eyes, something Alice couldn’t quite name. Surprise? Suspicion? Whatever it was, Colton saw it, too, because Alice sensed him coming alert, some of the disinterest leaving his expression as Ms. Fraser said, “So, you met through serendipity and decided to see where it would lead? That’s how it goes for many people. Personally, I never saw the appeal in trusting anything so superfluous.”
“What’s better than chance?” said Colton.
Ms. Fraser regarded him. “You don’t seem like a romantic at first glance, Mr. Graves.”
When he only shrugged, she added, “Careful judgement. Planning. All the things people throw aside when they’re young and in love.”
“When they’re foolish, you mean,” said Alice, hearing the ghost of her father’s sentiment in the other woman’s words. In a way, it was unsurprising. Ms. Fraser held a career as a CPA, with her own accounting and tax preparation business, and she was good at it. Precision, attention to detail, and excellent time management and organization were traits she’d lived by and thrived on for decades. She understood the world as data and paperwork and problem-solving, and was rewarded for it, too.
Little wonder, then, that there was such surety in her voice as she said, “It’s natural to want to follow your heart, but where does it actually take you? Divorce rates are through the roof these days. When people talk about wanting a good life, what they really want is security. We’re all just creatures of comfort.”
“All of us?” said Colton. Alice didn’t miss the sudden gleam of amusement in his eyes, but didn’t understand it, either. He must have heard more from Ms. Fraser’s words than she had to take such interest in them.
And Ms. Fraser must have heard more from his, because her face suddenly smoothed out, gaining the chill and sharpness of an icicle. “It’s stability that sees you through something as fickle as life. Nothing else.”
Then her gaze flickered past Alice’s shoulder. Alice followed it and found herself looking at a young, heavily-pregnant woman at the other end of the room, one with the same proud cheekbones and stubborn mouth as Ms. Fraser.
Even as familiarity clawed at Alice, Ms. Fraser spoke again, now sounding almost weary. “Gretchen went through a similar phase, Alice. The amount of planning I had to do for her even after she grew out of her whimsical moods and tried to settle down… The wedding alone would have been a disaster.”
Gretchen Fraser. Alice blinked rapidly, too shocked to say anything even when Colton shifted beside her, also turning to look. That neatly-groomed socialite, so reserved that she seemed to be speaking in a whisper, was the squalling, angry-eyed Gretchen she’d known?
Yes, Gretchen, one of the handful of girls around Alice’s age that had always been pushed by their parents into becoming a group of friends. Alice couldn’t say that she knew much about her, not since the other girl had always been rebellious against the nest her parents had built around her, a green-haired renegade that had frankly terrified Alice with her merciless tongue and disdainful sneer.
What a shock, then, to see how Gretchen had transformed into someone as well-kept as her mother. Her hair returned to its natural darkness and done up in a soft bun. Her blue dress falling in soft folds around the swell of her belly. The scowl transformed into a diamond-bright smile.
Realizing her shocked silence would become rude if it stretched on, Alice quickly said, “I didn’t know she’d gotten married. Or that she’s now expecting.”
“Yes, she’s doing very well, now.” Then Ms. Fraser returned her focus to Alice. “I’m sure you’ll get there, too. Have you made any plans to go back to school?”
Before Alice could answer, Colton spoke up, still studying Gretchen. “Where’s her husband? She’s been standing there alone since we’ve been here.”
“Brad is in D.C. on business for the rest of the month.”
Colton looked back at Ms. Fraser, that strange amusement still lighting his eyes. “So he travels a lot.”
“He’s a lobbyist. It’s a hazard of the trade.” Ms. Fraser’s tone dared him to question it or anything else, but he didn’t.
When the older woman continued to study Colton, a slight frown pulling at her lips, Alice murmured, “I’m glad things are going so well for them both.”
“Yes.” The terse word suggested there were volumes more left unspoken.
All three turned in the direction of her name, Alice immediately recognizing her aunt’s voice. Fiona called it out again, delighted and bubbly and merciless in slicing through the conversation as she approached their group. “Sweetheart, you look wonderful. Your skin is almost glowing.”
Fiona herself looked resplendent in an ombre dress of brown and gold that magnified the green of her eyes. Her smile grew slightly knowing at the sight of Colton, but her first action was to pull Alice into a firm hug, and even when they straightened up again, her hands held on to Alice’s, squeezing them reassuringly. “Oh, I’m so glad you came.”
Then she smiled at Ms. Fraser. “Enjoying the party, Barbara?”
Ms. Fraser nodded, but the tightness remained in her face as she said, “I’m sorry, but I should see if Gretchen needs help with anything. She’s at that point where even waddling is hard work. Alice, please keep in touch. Both Gretchen and I would love to see more of you. Mr. Graves, it was nice to meet you.”
The lingering chill in her voice suggested otherwise, and the way Colton’s mouth twitched in reply told Alice that he was still amused.
After Ms. Fraser drifted out of hearing, Alice’s aunt sighed. “She’s always so stiff. I’ve tried to be kinder toward her after her heart attack—it must be so traumatic to have such a dire health problem while you’re still so young—but she doesn’t make it any easier. Enough about all that, though. I’m thrilled at how well you look. Denise told me all about the accident and sent me pictures of the car. I couldn’t believe you came through it in one piece.”
Before Alice had a chance to answer the burst of words, her aunt turned toward Colton. Her smile remained brilliant, but her eyes were no less appraising than Ms. Fraser’s as she said, “And you’ve been taking care of her for us. It’s so nice to meet you, Colton, and to know that you exist! Alice has told us absolutely nothing about you.”
“Didn’t want to make things complicated when they didn’t need to be,” said Colton, voice easy and glance significant as he turned a little toward the deck. Alice followed his gaze and started at the sight of her father, who spoke with a man she didn’t recognize. They both looked relaxed, chuckling a little while holding half-empty glasses, and a fit of guilt squeezed her heart at how her very presence would disrupt that.
Then her aunt said, “I understand. Tom can be very bullish, which is why we had to concoct this whole thing. Has Alice already explained it all?”
At Colton’s nod, she brightened further. “And you don’t think of us as horrible manipulators?”
That drew a delighted laugh from Fiona. “It’s a start, anyway. I’m so glad you’re willing to work with us to help smooth things over between Alice and her father. Alice, honey, Denise is keeping her distance tonight to make sure you have some privacy with him, but we’re both hoping you’ll have everything cleared up before the dinner so that we can all enjoy talking to each other during the meal.”
“I’m not sure talking to him will help at all…” began Alice, but Fiona didn’t let her finish.
“Just try.” Then her aunt patted her hand and released it, an unspoken signal to go on and get it over with. “Give him something that makes him feel like he won. Agree to a part-time job, or to go back to school.”
“Or to find someone more suitable?” said Colton, voice bland.
Fiona didn’t even pause. “Well, you know how to dress for the occasion. That’s one mark already in your favor. While Alice talks with her father, how about we have a nice, long conversation where you tell me all about yourself. I have so many questions to ask.”
Colton’s expression didn’t change, but Alice read the reaction in his eyes as he realized his comment had backfired. Shit.
Alice felt her mouth twitch toward a smile while Fiona’s arm settled firmly around his, tugging lightly when he kept his hands in his pockets and remained unmoving. When she tugged at him again, he said, “You’ll be disappointed. I don’t talk much.”
“The strong, silent type? I already guessed that. How about just a drink? Alice needs some privacy with her father, anyway, and I’ll make sure you get something stronger than the autumn harvest cocktails going around the rooms.” Then Fiona gave Colton the winning smile that always charmed people, or at the very least resigned them against resisting the force of nature that was her personality.
Colton looked unswayed either way, instead glancing at Alice with a clear question on his face. Do you want this?
She nodded, ignoring the prickle of nerves. It was what she had come for, wasn’t it? “I’ll be fine.”
His eyes narrowed, as if he’d sensed her discomfort at being alone, but when she smiled at him, he finally let Fiona tug him away in a different direction.
Her aunt laughed when he continued to look back at Alice. “Of course she’ll be fine. Her father’s a grump, not a monster. Anyway, I promised you a drink. We do have a minibar set up just through here. I believe there’s also some scotch left in my late husband’s liquor cabinet, although I don’t know where the key is by now. I think it’s scotch. Maybe whisky. I never learned the difference between the two. Do you know?”
“Yes,” he mumbled.
“Good, then you can tell me all about it. I think I remember hearing that it has something to do with where it’s made, but that…”
The rest of Fiona’s words were lost to Alice as they moved further into the room, Colton’s stoic expression rapidly dissolving into one of quiet misery just before they disappeared behind a group of people.
Alice ran sweat-damp fingers over the fabric of her dress, glancing around as the murmur of voices entwined around her like a net. Before nerves could get the better of her, she moved, letting the natural flow of bodies guide her way toward her father.
The deck had been as carefully designed as the rest of the house when it came to a mingling of the rustic and the elegant. Built right over the lake, with the wood stained a dark cherry, it gave visitors a sense of stepping right into the wild without losing the comfort of a home. Waves lapped at the support posts while strings of lights shimmered gold against the deep blue of the sky and the pale perfection of the moon. The cold gleam of lake water churned all around. It was a beautiful sight in all, and Alice felt no surprise to see the deck was nearly as crowded as the house despite the chill in the air.
Her father stood near one corner, still talking with that same man. Still relaxed and jovial. As Alice stepped outside, skin already prickling against the breeze that pulled at her hair and dress, she felt the same mute dread swell in her, and the same old tics lock down on her mind. A smile pasted itself on her face before she could even think about the need to look pleasant, but her fingers curled and uncurled against her cocktail.
She even twisted around, some part of her begging to run back inside, run back to the forest with Colton, and ignore any attempts from the outside world to reach her. Within seconds, she saw her aunt, now lost in conversation with two women even while she absently held on to Colton, who looked ready to die.
Before their eyes could meet, she faced her father again, heart now speeding out of anger toward herself. She had to do this. If she didn’t, her family would continue to prod her to play along with things. She wasn’t willing to, anymore. Not when it meant pulling Colton into the mess with her.
With a final, calming breath for courage, she let her heels announce her presence, their light rap magnified against the wooden boards of the deck. As it so happened, the man who had been in conversation with her father chose that moment to leave, adjusting his tie absently while giving her an equally absent nod and smile. Alice glanced around, taking in how the other people on the deck remained a discreet distance away, and then took the final steps toward her father.
A sense of weightlessness stole through her when his head swung in her direction, that dizzying feel of bone and meat holding little sway against the ground, like when an elevator plunged downward. She watched shock flash across his face, and then hardness replace it.
The sight didn’t pause her footsteps, but the tremble of defeat already lined her words as she said, “Hi, Dad.”
“Alice.” His voice remained neutral. Measured. “I wasn’t aware you were invited.”
“Fiona added me to the guest list when she found out I was fully recovered from the car accident.”
Ah, there. A flash of concern, there and gone again too quickly for all but the most familiar of people to notice. It gave Alice enough hope to add, “I wanted to see you. To talk about things.”
“Alice, I don’t appreciate this,” he said, voice stiff. “There are more private ways to have a conversation than at a party.”
“I know, and I’m not trying to embarrass you or make a scene.” Her hand had begun to sweat against her glass, and she set it on the railing, keeping her face angled toward the fast-moving water that gleamed like an oil slick beneath the scattered lights.
There was a pause before her father asked, “Have you changed your mind at all?”
“Then everything that needs to be said has been said.”
She hesitated, still unable to face him. What she heard in his voice was painful enough. “I just wanted to see if it was possible to disagree on something and still be a family.”
“Alice, you already know where I stand. What part of that is unclear?”
“The part that makes it necessary.” Then she finally looked at him, taking in his grey hair and wrinkles. Taking in how he looked like a normal man instead of the imposing, rigid figure who had always towered above her, dictating life as he saw fit.
When he said nothing, she added, “What if I do everything you say and still end up miserable? What if none of it makes me happy? The last time we talked, that’s what you said it was all about.”
“A home, a good education and career, and a family.” He ticked them off on his fingers, lines of irritation deepening on his face. “How could a life like that make you miserable?”
It would by being a leash. But she didn’t know how to explain that, and so only bit her lip before saying, “It’s not what I want.”
“If not that, then what? You’re twenty-five and pushing for independence as if I’m a dictator. Very well. What do you want, Alice?”
She didn’t know how to answer that, either, not when the answer was blood in her mouth and Colton between her legs and the moon hanging above sweet and rich. Freedom.
“I want to choose things for myself,” she said, aware of how weak it sounded.
Her father rubbed at his head. “You’ve done that before, and now you can barely say her name.”
When she flinched, something like regret slipped into his expression, but his voice remained steady as he said, “I just want to keep you from hurting yourself. From feeding destructive tendencies.”
Aware that she wouldn’t be able to speak without trembling, she remained quiet, eyes now fixed on her hands as they clenched at the railing.
“There are rumors that I’m about to cut off your trust fund,” he said, abruptly.
“Are they just rumors?”
“I haven’t decided.” Cruel words, but he only sounded tired, again.
“So, what you mean is, you’ll do it if I keep seeing Colton.” Her palms stung from her nails biting into them. “Well, it won’t work. He doesn’t care about the money.”
“I’m sure he’s told you that.”
How strange, that she would only cringe at scorn directed at her and yet bristle at any meant for Colton. She found herself straightening up, her voice now shaking for a different reason. “Ask him yourself, if you’d like. I didn’t come here alone.”
Then she glanced back toward the house, knowing her father would look, too. Colton had escaped from her aunt and now stood at the minibar, a shot of whiskey in hand while he watched them both. He winked at her father before emptying his glass in one swallow and reaching for the bottle again.
“He doesn’t care about this type of life,” she said, quietly. “And neither do I. But I missed you during the years I was away with Magdalene, and wanted to see if things could be different this time.”
Her father looked like he didn’t know what to say. For a moment, Alice hoped that he might unbend, just a little, just enough to even consider her words.
Then someone from inside called his name, and his expression smoothed into a blank mask. The chance was lost. “You already know my answer, Alice, and there’s nothing else to say about it.”
Even as she nodded, her shoulders sagged.
“Goodnight,” he said, the word terse and formal, and then he walked away, leaving her to blink at his back.
She felt stiff, too shocked to even absorb the pain as he disappeared among the other guests, and for several breaths she only stood there, stupidly holding her drink. Before she could take a step after him, or even numbly seek out Colton again, someone on her left spoke her name.
She turned on instinct, still too frozen to attempt a polite smile, and found herself under the attention of…
“Gretchen. Hi.” Alice realized how awkward she sounded and quickly added, “It’s great to see you.”
The other girl tilted her head, dark eyes flashing above her grin in a practiced show of excitement. “Alice Corrigan. God, we haven’t seen each other since high school graduation. Can you believe it’s been six years?”
Alice murmured something agreeable, still struggling with a sense of disbelief at how Gretchen had changed.
“I’m surprised you’re here. Last I heard, you’d gone off to the city to be an artist.”
Alice twisted her cocktail around in her hand, the same old lies waiting on the tip of her tongue. But for what? Her father wasn’t about to compromise his view on things, and she felt… Raw. Perhaps even angry, herself.
Her gaze returned to Gretchen’s face. “Not as an artist. I went with an artist. A writer.”
Gretchen’s smile froze on her face, and then something about it changed, something that drew out hints of the sardonic girl that Alice remembered. “So, you’re finally admitting it. It was a badly-kept secret, you know. When it’s Magdalene Bishop your name is attached to… She was the youngest to win a Pulitzer Prize, wasn’t she?”
“For fiction, yes.” Alice felt goosebumps rise from hearing Magdalene’s name out loud, but she didn’t look away in shame while sipping at her glass, and she didn’t try to change the subject, either.
“And now you’re back in the fold.” Gretchen sipped from her own bubbling drink.
When she saw Alice’s gaze follow the glass, she rested her free hand on the swell of her belly and added, “Don’t worry, it’s only sparkling cider. I’m a good girl, now.”
“Your mother told me about your wedding. Congratulations.”
“She tells everyone about it. It’s the first thing she could be proud of when it came to my life. Bradley Grant. Lobbyist. Always flying to D.C. because he’s so busy and important.” Then Gretchen laughed, but the sound was bitter, black as tar. “God, I haven’t been honest like this in years. I didn’t know I still had it in me.”
“You sound like you hate him,” murmured Alice.
The other girl shrugged. “Way too strong a word. We’re apathetic about each other. It looks good for him to be married and with a baby on the way. A happy family.”
Then Gretchen took another sip from her glass, studying Alice all the while. “What about you? Are you happy?”
“Much more than I used to be.” Her gaze drifted over to the house once more, this time finding Colton in an empty room upstairs, his figure unmistakable through the shining window. He had found the liquor cabinet. There was no sign of keys in the lock, but the glass door was open, anyway. He poured a glass of scotch for himself calmly, obviously uncaring if anyone found him, and knocked it back with the smooth viciousness of jaws snapping shut. Then he reached for the next bottle.
Alice’s mouth twitched toward a smile just as Gretchen said, “I don’t recognize him.”
“You wouldn’t. I met him on my own. My father and I just had a fight about it.”
When the words were met with silence, Alice looked back at Gretchen and found the other girl staring at her. The smile had left her face, and for the first time, she seemed to really see Alice. “So that’s it. You’re not here with your tail between your legs at all. You just came back to rub people’s faces in the fact that you escaped this life.”
Alice shook her head, ready to explain, but Gretchen’s attention had already jumped back to Colton. “It’s always easier when there’s a fucking hunk to help you feel better about things. He’s going through every bottle in there.”
“He’s insatiable,” said Alice, feeling her mouth curl into a real smile for the first time since she’d left him with her aunt.
Gretchen hardly seemed to hear her. The bitterness had left her face, and in its place was something softer, something vulnerable. “Something about him is familiar. Not him, but he reminds me of someone I used to know… Where did you meet him?”
“He did some work on a cabin I inherited up north.”
“Cabin. So it’s rural area? I met Shane close to the woods, too. Back when I used to hike a lot, pretending I could disappear into the trees and never come out again.”
A chill ran through Alice, and she found herself wondering if her own expression looked so pained and bewildered when she thought of the burned pelt. “What was he like?”
“Savage. He scared me and I liked that. He would catch and gut things to cook them over a fire. Did you know that wild animals are seething with parasites? You could see the intestines writhing on the ground from the worms inside. I used to throw up at the sight of blood before meeting him. Now I don’t even flinch.”
Then the other girl abruptly turned away, as if the sight of Colton had grown too painful. Alice joined her at the railing, and for a few heartbeats, they simply looked out over the lake. Lights glittered in the distance. Laughter from the party reached them in waves as Gretchen said, “The sex was fantastic, but what always got me was how he made me laugh a lot. Made me laugh about myself, which I’ve never been good at.”
“What happened?” said Alice, voice soft.
Gretchen seemed to realize where she was, because her eyes sharpened and then she shook her head, the movement causing her diamond earrings to dance and chime. “It’s easy to guess. An ultimatum from my mother to behave or else. She knows me too well. I’m good at rebelling as long as I can still live in comfort, but I don’t have the backbone to reject her money. In the end, I’m just a coward.”
Then the other girl looked at Alice, a strange light glittering in her eyes. “It’s almost funny, isn’t it? You were such a little ghost compared to me. Always there, watching and listening. Always so obedient. Did you ever even sneak out of your parents’ house at night?”
“And now you’re the most daring one here.”
“I wouldn’t call myself daring,” murmured Alice.
“No. You wouldn’t.”
Before she could respond to that, Colton looked over, his eyes unerringly finding them both. They looked sharp, alert, and unaffected despite him being on the last bottle of scotch. Alice didn’t know what he saw in her face, but it made him drain his glass and then set it aside, all attention on her as he left the room.
“Just like Shane,” murmured Gretchen, again, and Alice saw something like pain cross the other girl’s face.
But by the time Colton appeared on the deck, Gretchen’s smile was already back in place, and she drifted away toward another cluster of guests before he was close enough to be given an introduction.
Alice continued to watch her until Colton’s hand brushed the back of her neck. As it stroked down the length of her spine, rough callouses rasping against the thin silk of her dress, she relaxed enough to twist and look at him. “How are you?”
He shrugged, casting a glance around the deck before returning his focus to her. “Found the scotch. It was a good selection.”
She tugged at his tie, already feeling herself relax. “I can’t believe you’re still standing. Does alcohol even affect you?”
He gave her a sly look before his eyes turned serious again. “Saw your father’s face as he came back inside. Hasn’t cracked yet, has he?”
She shook her head, but the pain was an old one, a known one, easy to bear in the way of an faint scar that can barely be seen on the skin. It was only the chilly night air making her shiver, or at least that was what she insisted to herself.
But when Colton pressed close against her in a silent offer to usher her inside, she stopped him with a hand to his chest. “Colton, answering questions is probably your worst nightmare by this point, but there’s something I want to ask.”
That drew a growl of a sigh from him, but as he shrugged off his suit jacket and wrapped it around her, he nodded.
“That girl I just talked to said you reminded her of someone she knew. She met him in the wilderness, too, and something about the way she spoke about him made me wonder if…” Then she hesitated, not wanting to sound ridiculous.
“If she met someone like me?” There was no change in his expression as he glanced out at the choppy waters of the lake. “Sure. He probably told her his name was Shane.”
Alice started. “How did you know...?”
“I caught his scent right away. Didn’t take long to find where it came from.”
“No, she’s married to someone else. We talked about that.”
“I didn’t say anything about the human who gave her that rock on her finger. Though he probably doesn’t know anything. The mother does. Saw how she glared at me? I reminded her of him.” Then he began moving, following the perimeter of the deck. Testing the boundaries like any wild thing.
As they walked together, his hand still light against her back, Alice whispered, “You can’t leave it at that. How many of you are there? Do you have any sort of… Society? Pack? And what do you mean you can still smell him on Gretchen? Even if he’s seen her, she hasn’t seen him. She talked about him as if he was dead.”
He shot her a sly look. “You ask more questions than your aunt.”
“There are some of us here and there. Never in groups. You couldn’t even put two of us in a room together.”
“Why not? Too territorial?”
His eyes gleamed at her. “Too aggressive.”
Such tantalizing hints of a world. Such vivid glimpses of his mysterious nature. Alice could think of a million questions to ask, but as she looked at the amused quirk to his mouth, at his clean-shaven jaw already shadowed with stubble, her voice fell soft. “She left him.”
He didn’t look surprised. “It happens a lot. He’ll hang around until there’s nothing left to her but the grave.”
“Are you speaking from experience?” Alice ran her hand along his arm, trying to convey that it was only curiosity that drove the question.
“Alice.” His sideways glance was easy, relaxed. “You know that’s a dangerous question. It has the type of answer that sticks.”
She bit her lip. “I’ve asked you similar questions before and you always slid around them. I really don’t mind learning the truth. I wasn’t innocent at all when we met, and knowing your appetite… I can’t see being the first girl to ever catch your attention.”
He remained quiet for a few breaths. “Why do you want to know?”
She knew the answer heart-deep, but crystallizing it into words still felt painful. “I deified Magdalene into someone she never was. I don’t want to do that with you.”
At that, he met her gaze in full. In the warmth of the lights, his eyes appeared nearly as yellow as when he was a wolf. “There have been others. None like you.”
Despite the cold night, she flushed. “Oh. I didn’t expect to be that… Distinct.”
He leaned in until their noses brushed. “Alice, you’re fucking stunning.”
Then they were kissing, his mouth impatient and rough. Intoxicating. She let him in willingly, eagerly, ready to lose herself in his heat.
A distant bell shattered her haze, and the sound of her aunt’s voice calling guests in for dinner dissolved it completely. When she tensed up, Colton broke off with a short snarl, eyes now dark and feral as the taste of scotch lingered on her tongue.
She panted up at him, not yet ready to put on a mask and join the rest. “I don’t want it,” she found herself saying, feeling lighter with each word. “What Gretchen has. What I could have. I don’t want any of it. It’s not the right world for me.”
“There’s another one out there.” So close together, his dark voice rubbed against her like velvet.
He nodded. “You can reach it even without teeth and fur. I’ll show you how.”
She drank in the words like champagne, absorbing their sweet promise. Drank in the sight of him, wild and ravenous and untouchable.
As they approached the house, she looked up at Colton with a smile, already eager to get through the meal and leave for home, but he wasn’t looking back, all attention instead on the room where they would be dining. Then his shoulders stiffened.
Recognizing the unsaid warning, she scanned the area. Then she sucked in a breath, a pit forming in her stomach. An unmistakable figure stood among the guests, waiting by the ornate table while people took their seats. Even at that distance, the sneer of her crimson mouth pierced Alice’s heart like a needle.
“Magdalene,” she breathed, and heard Colton growl softly.
Someone crossed in front of them, blocking their view, and when it cleared again, Magdalene had gone. Before Alice could even hope that nothing more would happen, glass shattered and a scream rang out.
A woman she didn’t recognize shrank back from her place setting, laughing a little breathlessly as her shaking fingers picked broken shards from her lap.
“Already making a fucking scene,” said Colton, a rasp entering his voice.
Alice felt goosepimples rise on her skin as remnants of red wine spilled from the shattered crystal on the table, pouring to the ground as Alice’s aunt rushed over, hands fluttering in distress. “Would she leave with us?”
“You know the bitch better than me.”
She nodded, knowing he was right. Knowing the answer to her own question. “No, she wouldn’t. She always enjoyed dramatics. And they won’t understand… They won’t realize.”
“What do you want to do?” His hand caught hers as they continued to watch the guests react to the mess.
It was all on her, now. If she wished to flee, he’d lead her to safety. If she stayed and tried to grapple with whatever petty violence Magdalene wrought, he’d fight with her.
Her fingers tightened against his, already sweating from nerves, but her voice came out sure and strong, even as a whisper. “We’ll stay and fight against whatever she tries. I won’t let her torture anyone else if I can help it.”
Colton said nothing in reply, but his eyes took on a hunting light as they hurried toward the house. Alice just bit at her lip, wondering if she remembered enough about Magdalene’s tactics to anticipate the worst of them. She was about to find out.