See how the girl sits there so stiff and proper, posed like a mannequin? She fits in perfectly with the other guests at the table, sheltered from the surrounding night by the warmth of candlelight and glittering like the crystal wine glass she holds. And yet, while the rest chatter over chèvre-stuffed figs, forks as arched as their eyebrows, her expression fills with something much darker than pampered delight.
She’s afraid, this girl. Look how her eyes dart this way and that, studying the faces of those surrounding her as though one will at any moment twist into something else. As though a knife will slash at her own flesh instead of the delicate ribs of lamb served as the first course. The tight line of her mouth eases toward a smile only when she glances at the man beside her.
If one could call him that. Even in his fine suit, he carries the calm of a hunter. His jawline holds the lean strength of something hungry and his glance reduces people down to vulnerable flesh. The other guests don’t know what he is but they recognize him all the same. He’s the looming mountain that has no road cut into its sides, the prick of starlight in unending sky. He’s the quiet in the woods when one is lost and panicked, desperate to hear anything above the frantic thrum of their own heartbeat.
He works in forestry, go the whispers around the table, and the responding nods carry satisfaction, even relief at putting a name to what separates the man from them even as his cufflinks wink with the rest. At putting a name to what makes him so different.
Still… Don’t heap too much scorn upon them. They’re blind in the way of humans ignoring the darkness beyond the firelight, and all they can sense is their own hunger and the sating of it. They’re lost in the succulence of duck breast crisped in its own fat, in the bright burst of pomegranate against their tongues. Wine brings its soothing warmth, and even as the sky above glitters coldly, their laughter rings out across the churning waters of the lake.
Sweet, foolish creatures. They don’t perceive the thinning of the veil between worlds, or understand the power of the night so close to Samhain. Only the man, eyes gleaming as if he’s still in the woods, and the girl, shivering as though she already feels ghostly fingers upon her skin, realize that the shadows loom larger than normal. That from the surrounding darkness stretches something hateful. Something hungry, itself…
“I don’t understand,” murmured Alice, shoulders rigid while her fork prodded at the uneaten miniature cake left on her plate. Even as her aunt’s voice roused the rest of the guests, she leaned closer to Colton and added, “Why hasn’t she done anything? I thought she’d spend the entire dinner tormenting people with her tricks.”
There were only crumbs left on Colton’s plate, and he’d already settled back in his seat to watch the others leave. His expression revealed nothing of what he thought as people drifted over to the sliding glass doors leading out to the deck. Waiters stood there with trays of dessert cocktails, smiling politely as each guest chose a drink. Everything seemed perfect. A sugar-crusted end to a pleasant evening.
“She’s still here,” said Colton, voice flat. “Not right here, but nearby.”
Alice once more searched for any hints of Magdalene’s presence. The rap of a heel, perhaps, or the flash of a familiar silhouette among the confusing mingle of pretty dresses and dark suits. A flickering from the lights strung all around the deck to indicate her presence. Even just a glimpse of that wicked crimson smile as faces turned this way and that, seeking out old friends and new conversations. But there was nothing, nothing at all.
And yet, something about the look on Colton’s face, so keen and alert and knowing, drew the next words from her. “How can you sense her?”
“This close to Samhain, it’s easy to smell her. It’s a little like smoke in the air.”
Alice smiled a little, but the answer wasn’t satisfying. Something in her silence must have told him as much, for he glanced over. The uncertain candlelight warmed the green of his eyes as his hand skimmed down her bare arm, soothing away the goose pimples there. She dropped her fork to clutch at it, feeling the sick pit in her stomach shrink for the first time since she’d heard the wine glass shatter.
“What are you really asking?” he said, and the roughness in his voice was almost enough to take her away from the glittering corset of society and the sour taste of fear left in her mouth, to take her back to the crackling of a log-fed fire and the warmth of their entwined bodies.
“What does she look like to you?” she asked, hating how vulnerable she sounded. “I always wonder how Magdalene appeared to people who weren’t…”
“Caught by her bullshit?”
It startled a laugh out of her, but she quickly fell serious, again. “Yes. Sometimes, I just want to know how I might have seen her if she hadn’t become my whole world.”
For that was the hardest thing to grapple with, wasn’t it? She could easily find examples from her time spent with Magdalene that would be more shocking, more horrifying, or even more pitiful in the eyes of others. She could pluck the memories that would always haunt her and then cast them like rune stones for any curious observers and say, here—here are the strands of the web I helped wrap my heart in.
But how could she possibly explain that even now it proved impossible to view Magdalene as something diminished? That her life had been molded into a shape of her lover’s making, that her sense of normal had been distilled into what was necessary to kindle another’s happiness? Fear reduced to making a mistake, joy to performing a task correctly. The sun had been Magdalene’s smile, and the stars the precious words of praise that had glittered in her heart for years until the emptiness finally became too much. What a contained, neat little existence it had been—easy to understand, safe in the way of having no choice.
And only lately had Alice grown to understand that this world was not the world. Magdalene had long loomed above like a goddess in all senses of the word—terrible, divine, wrathful, benevolent—and Alice still struggled to see her as something lesser. Even her rebellion had been that of a believer rejecting core tenets, of turning away rather than casting out. She still could not face the rules burned into her heart and declare them false.
And so she looked at the wild beast beside her, at the nightmare creature that saw others without fear, and begged, “How do you see her?”
For a long moment, he studied every inch of her face. Then his hand caught the back of her neck, and the rasp in his voice softened into something that rubbed against her like velvet. “She’s a fucking parasite. And one day you’ll pull her away like one.”
At that, her chin started trembling, and she turned fully in her seat toward him, already raising her face to his in a wish to erase the metal-heavy fear still in her mouth. Wishing to lose herself in him for a brief, precious moment. A flicker in his eyes showed he understood.
Just as he leaned in, nose brushing hers, Fiona’s voice cut through. “Ally, there you are!”
Her aunt sounded some distance away, probably out on the deck with the other guests, but Alice still pulled back, muffling a sigh while Colton grumbled at the interruption. His heat lingered against her skin as she watched Fiona hurry over. Her aunt still looked sleek and sparkling, not one hair out of place, but worry pinched at her mouth and drove artificial bubbliness into her words.
“Sweetheart, why are you sitting at the empty table? It’s almost time for the group photo.”
“I…” Alice glanced over the groups of people, quickly picking out her parents. Tension lingered in the set of her father’s shoulders, and her stepmother’s smile looked forcibly bright as they chatted with another couple. “I don’t think I should.”
Fiona’s expression turned startled. “I know things didn’t work out like we’d hoped with your father, but that doesn’t mean you should make things worse. He’s already grumbling to Denise that you’re making a scene by not being out there.”
“I’m sure he is,” murmured Alice, and her fingers squeezed against Colton’s in a fit of panic over what she was about to say. Yet she still looked directly at her aunt, and still added, “But I’m past acting like everything is fine when it isn’t.”
“No.” She kept the word firm, unflinching, and after a moment her aunt sighed.
“Well, no one can force you into something. But at least get some drinks for yourself and come out to the deck, just to show everyone that you’re not upset.”
That seemed fair enough, and Alice nodded.
Her aunt brightened again. “Try the Autumn Harvest cocktail. There’s apple butter in it. I remember you adored slathering that on your toast when you were little. And Colton, you seem like a man who would enjoy the Burning Witch. It’s cinnamon whiskey with pumpkin liqueur and a dash of cayenne.”
Colton muttered his disgust but Fiona didn’t notice, already pivoting away from them to return to the deck, a ready smile back on her face.
As her aunt disappeared among the other guests, Colton’s voice rumbled in Alice’s ear. “Hard to believe you two are related.”
She smiled wryly. “Which one of us are you complimenting?”
He gave her a sly look that suggested in a safer time and place, she’d be bent over the nearest object with his teeth against her neck. “You know which. You’re less pushy. More aware of things. Your father won’t stop his fucking pouting because of a group photo.”
“She just wants everyone happy,” said Alice, watching his thumb run over her knuckles. Then she sighed. “I just want everyone safe.”
There was a soft growl from him before he rose sure and easy from his seat, drawing her up with him. “Always so sweet.”
The words kept her smiling as they approached the lingering waiter. Colton gave all three options a shake of his head, but she dutifully picked the recommended cocktail, and the smell of cognac and apple soon filled her senses as she held it without sipping, wishing to keep a clear head. She couldn’t help but notice how many guests had flushed cheeks from the alcohol and rich food. Their movements had grown a little careless, a little looser. The laughter had stopped sounding so restrained.
A few people lingered inside the warmth of the house, but most had positioned themselves in the center of the deck, right where the strands of lights would best reveal them. As Alice twisted her glass back and forth, watching the photographer fuss with his equipment, Fiona saw her and made a quick come over gesture.
Alice hissed in a breath, eyes instinctively darting to her father as he stood so close and yet so impossibly far away. He hadn’t once looked over at her, and his expression remained jovial as he spoke to the people surrounding him while they all waited to take the photo. Even so, she knew that in his view, she was making a mess of things with her hesitation—drawing their dispute out into the open. The chance to step into the fold before her reluctance grew too apparent was rapidly shrinking.
And now that all of her family had settled together, people were beginning to look at her. She shifted, years of social training coaxing a step out of her. Then Colton’s hand caught her arm, surprising with its tightness. It shook her awake as thoroughly as a sharp nip, and she looked up at him.
He wasn’t looking back. Instead, he studied where they stood, at the edge of the concrete foundations of the house, and then where the wooden boards that opened up into the deck began, just after one stepped through the glass doors of the dining room. His mouth had gone very grim. Then he glanced around the perimeter of the deck, gaze briefly pausing on each of the massive wooden supports that kept the entire construct steady above the pitch-dark water. The strung lights swayed slowly in the air.
“Colton?” she whispered, realizing he sensed danger.
“She didn’t want to fuck with you,” he said, turning to her. His eyes had darkened with rage. “Just keep you still long enough to make a trap.”
Just as the implication hit her, Fiona hurried over once more. Even in the uncertain light, her exasperation was obvious. “Ally, your father looks like a vein in his forehead will explode any minute. Please come join the rest of us. It’s only one photo.”
As soon as Fiona’s hands reached for Alice, Colton pushed forward, keeping himself between them. The lines of his body had gone hard with tension. Alice squeezed his arm, heart now pounding like a drum. “Fiona, we have to get everyone off the deck.”
“What?” Her aunt sounded distracted more than concerned, glancing back over her shoulder at the others.
“It’s about to collapse.” Panic drove her voice high as she tried pushing past Colton, but he held her still, continuing to stare at Fiona.
“Alice, don’t be silly.” Fiona turned toward her again, this time stepping closer until the light from the house hit her full in the face. Her normally green eyes had changed into a striking amber. “That’s just what I want.”
Alice’s blood froze in her veins. Her tongue felt dead in her mouth. At her silence, her aunt’s mouth twisted into a familiar smile. Magdalene’s smile.
“What did you do?” she whispered, voice shaking.
The answer came in her aunt’s voice, but the inflection, the purring delight, was all Magdalene. “Everything necessary to see you again.”
Then Colton snarled, eyes flashing. Alice knew the sound, recognized that it meant blood and death. In the heat of the moment, he would save Alice over anyone else even if it meant attacking her aunt—ripping at her to drive Magdalene and her threats away.
And from her growing grin, Magdalene planned exactly for that.
“No!” Alice lunged, shoving Fiona—Magdalene—out of Colton’s reach. Even as he roared her name, Magdalene’s fingers bit into her arms, keeping her close as they both fell onto the deck in a sprawl of limbs and fabric.
“Got you,” breathed Magdalene’s voice into her nearest ear, and then the wood beneath them cracked.
As if watching from another world, Alice saw the boards around her buckle. Wood groaned and splintered. Then glass began to shatter as people stumbled, dropping their drinks as the deck lurched beneath their feet.
Beneath the first burst of screams, Alice thought she heard the ghost of a laugh. Then the deck crumpled in on itself, sagging like a dying beast as boards stuck into the air like snapped bones. In the last flicker from the strings of light as they popped and hissed while falling through the air, Alice saw the deck open up into swirling water. Her screams joined the rest as they all fell for breathless seconds.
The shock of frigid water drove the breath out of her. She scrabbled, heels slipping against broken wood as bubbles swirled all around. All was blackness as currents rushed over her head and tugged at her dress, and she thrashed on instinct, kicking away anything that might be a hand.
Just as her lungs began to burn, she broke the surface with a gasp, sodden fabric already threatening to pull her under, again. Screams and splashing filled her senses as she groped in between paddling, searching for something solid. Her surroundings had turned into a sightless hell. A shoe kicked her in the side. Nails scratched along her arm. Once, hands even flailed against her, the weight of a body lurching over her own as if to use her to stay above water. She bit until she tasted blood and found herself free, again.
Finally, her fingers latched onto floating wood and she pulled herself onto it, heedless of splinters or sharp edges.
As she coughed and gasped for breath, Colton’s name nothing more than a croak on her lips, she grew more aware of what was happening. All around her was chaos. Bodies struggled and splashed and screamed raggedly. Wood bobbed and smoke rose from where strings of lights had exploded in the water.
In the distance, the house winked at her like a beacon. A few people struggled up the remnants of the deck, fighting against the mud and exposed concrete foundations of the house until they could climb to safety. Several more looked dry and focused as they pulled sodden guests from the water, bundling them in towels and getting them inside. As she paddled toward them, shifting against the wood until she could keep all but her hand out of the water, Alice thought she saw her aunt among those rescued, but just as she opened her mouth to call out, a wave slapped over her, blurring her vision and leaving her coughing.
Before she could recover, a hand locked around her own, fingers somehow colder than the currents dragging at her clothes and hair. Alice choked on a gasp, skin prickling as pain—fingernails—bit at her wrist again, trying to wrench her off the wood. The water lapped at her limbs as she fought back, struggling to stay above the surface. Her limbs already felt numbed by the merciless currents and her lungs hitched in her chest with each passing moment.
Hair fell into her face as she continued to fight, mangled wood creaking beneath her. There was nothing to see except dark, churning waters, and even those were smoothing out into a dizzying nothingness. The splashing around her suddenly looked like fish leaping, panicked and bulging in the eyes, and the lights in the distance had already hardened into the cold shine of stars.
“No!” Her voice came out raggedly as the wood beneath her shifted, sliding her further into the water. She could see a figure beneath the surface now, hair swirling gracefully and smile vicious as a knife stab. Magdalene was waiting.
The broken boards buckled further, and for one moment she had the sickening sensation of them flipping on her. Then an arm snaked around her waist and yanked her further onto the makeshift raft. A jaw rasped against her neck until it found her ear. “Stay calm. The bitch won’t get you.”
Tears hot as fire ran down her cheeks at the sound of Colton’s voice. Then the hand wrapped around her wrist tightened, and Alice screamed as it dug into her flesh, desperate to keep her.
Colton snarled as he pulled her arm free of the water, revealing Magdalene’s hand as well. His teeth flashed before sinking into it, ripping the skin open with a jerk of his head. A familiar scream ran through Alice’s head, and then the hand flinched back. Disappeared.
Ragged screams and coughing continued to slice through the air while Colton remained in the water, guiding the raft toward the house.
“You think she’d fucking expect it by now,” he said, eyes feral as blood ran down his mouth.
Alice’s teeth chattered too hard for her to speak until they reached a twisted area of the deck that could be climbed like stairs to reach dry ground. He pushed her up most of it, but when clipped grass finally tickled at her toes, her knees still buckled.
He pulled her upright to keep her out of the mud, brushing sodden strands of hair from her face. She clung to him with stiff, clumsy fingers, dimly aware of how his teeth had grown out as sharp and fearsome as a wolf’s fangs. She had never seen them like that while he was human, and when she tried to numbly touch them, he caught her hand and warmed it with his own, staring at her all the while. Furious. Seething that he’d almost lost her again.
Somewhere in the distance, she heard someone call her name in a ragged, frantic voice. Colton’s eyes flashed again, and his growl rumbled against her. He was ready to rip apart anyone that tried getting in between them. And yet the voice persisted, clearing the fog from Alice’s mind.
“There’s blood on your mouth,” she whispered, taking in how he would appear to an outsider. Bloody. Feral. Inhuman.
He only leaned in, still looking at her as if he never wanted to see anything else again.
When her name rang out again, she reacted without thinking, tugging at his shirt collar to bring their faces together. Then she licked the traces of blood from his mouth, making his fingers tighten against her. She didn’t stop, quick only from not wanting to be discovered.
Someone was watching them when they separated. Panic rippled through Alice until she recognized the figure. Gretchen stood on safe ground, dark eyes wide with shock and phone forgotten in her hand. As she stared at them, something new filled her expression. Something like hunger. Something like grief.
Without a word between them, Alice sensed that the other girl knew. Such a look only came from someone who had seen teeth before, who had felt their thrill as much as their threat. For a long moment, Gretchen’s expression crumpled as if she were about to break down. Then she forced herself calm and nodded at Alice, a stiff jerk of the head. Other people appeared beside her, their voices hoarse and unclear in the night air. Whatever they said sent Gretchen into the house with her phone once more at her ear.
Before Alice could do more than blink, her father was there and sweeping her up into a hug, breath hitching as if he could hardly breathe. He was soaking wet, with a thin trickle of blood running from one eyebrow, but it was the look on his face that truly shook her. He was crying. As her arms slowly wrapped around him, first uncertainly, and then fiercely, Colton remained nearby, eyes inscrutable. When she looked at him over her father’s shoulder, though, he understood and stepped a little ways away.
As she rested her cheek against her father’s shoulder, an action echoing back to her earliest memories as a child, Fiona’s voice—her real voice—announced her presence.
“Ally! Thank God. Then we’re all safe. Colton, you look the best out of all of us. Come sit with me; I need a shoulder to rest on. I’m so shaky I can hardly walk. And I must have hit my head against a board because I have the worst headache in my entire life.”
Alice thought she heard him smother a sigh, but then rest of the world faded away, for her father’s grip tightened around her. When his hand cradled her head, she realized he wasn’t about to speak any words. That perhaps he would never be able to. Perhaps, for them, it wasn’t even necessary. The desperation in his grip told enough; for all his bluster, he didn’t want to lose her. For all his bluster, he was terrified of the idea.
Alice held onto her father and let him cry long after her own tears had stopped.
Later, she continued to feel strangely calm while waiting in the hospital parking lot. She and Colton sat on a concrete curb that bordered some young maples and their bed of mulch, and her fingers absently played with a fallen leaf while they watched the horizon glimmer with coming dawn.
“She possessed Fiona,” she said, finally.
It was such a stupidly obvious statement, but Colton still answered. “Samhain’s close. Gives her more influence in this world.”
She nodded, now silent while looking at the emergency room entrance. For the past several hours, the dinner party guests had trickled out in ones and twos, bandaged up and sent home with instructions on how to care for their superficial injuries. Her heart hurt for them—for their bewilderment, for their fine suits and dresses muddied and wrinkled, for their wounds after a night of what they thought would be good food and good conversation. They looked liked bedraggled peacocks, stripped of all their elegance. She was aware that she herself surely looked just as disheveled, hair snarled and pulled free of its bun and makeup wiped away from lake water and tears.
Only Colton looked unshaken, sitting easy and calm while his eyes picked up the green of the nearby shrubs. His tie had long disappeared and the collar of his shirt had been ripped open, revealing the strong muscles beneath. Scruff already covered his jaw, and his dark hair looked wind-ruffled.
She was just about to reach out and bury her fingers in it when he shifted position, suddenly focused on some thick shrubs that formed a patch of natural landscape between two buildings across the street. In the not-quite-twilight, they remained as dark as shadows, shivering slightly from the breeze.
Then she saw a pointed muzzle as black as its surroundings. Next, a pair of glowing eyes. Her heart beat faster as they flashed at her, but in that very moment Colton growled, his posture stiffening up as he continued to stare at what could only be another black wolf.
Before Alice could breathe a word, voices drifted over from the emergency room entrance, and she looked over in time to see Gretchen and her mother. Both seemed unharmed, tired instead of traumatized.
Gretchen looked exasperated, and walked barefoot while her mother glared at the shoes dangling in her hand. “I’m fine, Mom. I never even got close to falling into the lake.”
“You have a condition.” Despite her sharp tone, Ms. Fraser looked much older and frailer than from the night before.
Perhaps her daughter noticed it, too, because her voice softened. “You have an even worse one with your bad heart. I’m fine. Let’s just go home.”
As they walked off without seeing Alice, her gaze jumped back to the wolf hiding in the bushes. Those eyes now flashed at Gretchen, and that pointed muzzle traced the other girl’s direction until she and her mother got inside a car.
As they drove away, Alice suddenly had the sense of the other wolf hesitating—he would have to pass by her and Colton to catch a final glimpse of Gretchen.
“He wants to follow her, doesn’t he?” said Alice, voice soft.
Colton remained intent on the other wolf. “He can do it when he’s not in fucking front of me.”
Her gaze returned to him. “You really don’t like each other, do you?”
Now he looked at her, eyes absolutely feral. “No. And I’m not in a patient mood right now.”
“You’re…” She hesitated, and then finished her thought. “You’re shaken up like me, aren’t you?”
He responded with an irritated twitch of his shoulders, but his hand remained gentle as it cupped her chin, drawing them closer together. “Wouldn’t say that. Just want to rip something’s throat out, and the bitch isn’t around.”
She dropped her forehead against his, basking in the heat of his skin. Words tumbled out of her, heavy ones that she wished weren’t true. “Magdalene used my family against us. If she had used Fiona to try to—to strangle me, or something else like that, you would have attacked her.”
A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Would’ve had to. Otherwise she’d have used your aunt’s body like a shield and done whatever she wanted.”
Alice shuddered at the thought. “She found the weak spot. You’ll protect me no matter what, but I’ll sacrifice myself for other people every time.”
That drew a low growl from him, but he fell silent again when she raised her face enough to look at him. “I won’t put my family in danger again. Until Samhain’s come and gone, I’ll have to stay away. Shut myself up at home. It’s her same old trick of isolating me from everyone else, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Despite the tension in his body, his voice remained steady, his mouth brushing against hers as he said, “She’ll have to do a lot more than that to get rid of me.”
They coaxed a smile from her, those words. “I know.”
Then she sighed, turning her face into his shoulder until his heartbeat sounded strong and steady against her cheek. “Just a few more days of hell.”
A few more days… And hopefully not an eternity.