Alice clutched at the steaming styrofoam cup that had been given to her, expression blank while she sat on the hood of the rental car and watched deputies step in and out of the cabin. More could be heard in the forest, calling out for Rob. They had been looking for nearly an hour while waiting for a search and rescue unit to arrive. Vaguely, she wondered where Colton had left the body, but the question snuffed itself as soon as she glanced at him.
He had coffee as well, but instead bit at his third donut, every line of his body conveying utter disinterest in the deputies scouring the property. The thin afternoon light burnished his dark hair, emphasized the hard line of his jaw. Gave his eyes a yellowness that they normally only held while he was a wolf. He wore the type of rugged clothing suited for a crisp day in the mountains—flannel shirt, jeans, work boots. Between him and the deputies in their sturdy winter coats, she was well aware of being the odd one out: dressed in the sleek dress, wool coat, and heels Gretchen had given her and yet her face free of makeup, free of that mask that would complete the illusion of perfection. She must have looked like a girl lost in the woods. Like a doll left in a place where it had no purpose.
And yet she didn’t feel that way at all, even when her tongue pressed against the dull, human shapes of her teeth.
As if sensing the tone of her thoughts, Colton’s eyes met hers. Something tender replaced their flatness, but before he could speak, a voice shattered the air.
“Alice! Oh, there she is! Alice.”
“That’s my stepmother’s voice,” murmured Alice, looking down the driveway to find her father’s car parking beneath a cluster of young redwoods—the only level ground not taped off or taken by deputies’ cars. Denise already leaned out the front passenger’s window, frantically waving at her.
“Your father looks upset,” said Colton, taking the final bite of his donut. “He’ll want to scare you back to a leash.”
“Maybe, but it won’t work,” she said, waving back at her parents while rising up. “I’ve tasted too much of the wilderness.”
How strange, the calmness she felt in her heart as he stood with her, eyes burning with that same light they held whenever he pulled her close and kissed at her pulse. How strange, the calmness that filled her voice as her parents hurried toward them, their faces etched with worry. “It’s all right! We’re both all right.”
“Thank God,” gasped Denise, sweeping her up into a hug. “We saw all this and expected the worst.”
“There was a break-in at the cabin, that’s all,” said Alice, returning the hug. “We’re fine.”
Her father’s brief glare toward Colton suggested he only gave a damn about one of them. “What exactly happened?”
Alice drew in a breath to repeat the words she’d already spoken to the sheriff. “We decided to drive here and stay at the cabin until we found a new long-term home. As soon as we arrived, we saw it’d been broken into and called the sheriff’s office. They’ve been investigating ever since.”
“You should have driven there,” said her father, the lines of concern on his forehead deepening. “What if the intruders had still been inside?”
“One was. I recognized her.” Then Alice turned in the direction of one of the deputies’ cars.
Darby sat in the back of it, mouth set in a fixed line while she stared straight ahead at nothing. Even through the darkened glass of the window, it was apparent that her skin was clammy with sweat and that the front of her shirt had been hastily wiped clean, as if she’d thrown up from the aftereffects of the hallucinogen.
“Who is she?” Her father sounded baffled.
Such a simple question, and one that Alice could have answered easily. Darby Reeves, a friend of Magdalene’s. Ah, but she was so much more than that, wasn’t she? A girl obsessed, a girl blinded by pretty words and sudden love. A girl whose heart ached in adoration and trembled in gratefulness at being the object of love for such a brilliant, otherworldly creature. A girl much like who Alice had been, once upon a time.
And yet Alice felt nothing soft toward her, this sharp little tool of Magdalene’s. This girl had hounded her, frightened her, threatened her. All that she might have swept aside in the relief of having finally purged Magdalene from her heart. But what she had done to Colton? Unforgivable. The mere memory of her smile beside the stock of the sniper rifle ignited an immediate fury that left it hard to even breathe.
Alice’s jaw ached. Then her teeth suddenly pricked against her lips, and even without a mirror she knew that they had grown out into fangs. A single word would be enough to reveal their new sharpness.
As if sensing her sudden trouble, Colton answered her father’s question in a bland tone. “She’s someone Alice used to know. An author from the city.”
Her parents both understood the significance—that this girl they didn’t know was someone Alice had met through Magdalene.
As the confusion faded from her father’s face, he stiffly said, “Is she still a friend of yours?”
Alice had to bite back a laugh. “No. She just knew this cabin was where Magdalene spent her final days. We found her passed out on the porch with things left inside that looked like she tried to perform a ritual.”
Denise shook her head while giving Alice’s shoulders a comforting squeeze. “It all sounds completely bizarre, but at least it’s got nothing to do with you. I’m sure the sheriff will take care of whatever needs to be done about her. She’s not your problem, anymore.”
That last sentence seemed more directed at Alice’s father, who had a rare moment of hesitation.
When he said nothing, Denise’s voice brightened as she reached into her purse and withdrew a manila envelope. “Oh! Here’s a little bit of good news. People were allowed to return to Calico Creek this morning, so we drove to your house to see what was left.”
“There was nothing,” said her father.
Denise smacked him on the arm with the envelope. “Tom, I said this was good news. Although it was true that everything looked like an apocalyptic wasteland. But we still found where your house had been and recovered the papers from your fireproof safe. I didn’t look through them, but everything inside it is now in here.”
It was a dizzying sensation, to be handed all of one’s remaining worldly possessions in something thinner than a notebook. “Oh. Thank you. I hadn’t even thought about…”
“Needing your birth certificate, social security card, and other important papers? I guessed as much, which is why we got them for you.” Despite his words, the frown lines on her father’s forehead eased away. At least until he glanced at Colton. “I don’t see your truck here. Was it lost in the fire?”
“Everything important to me survived,” said Colton, without missing a beat. His brief glance held as much dismissal as her father’s entire expression, and Alice had to muffle another laugh at seeing them all but roll their eyes at each other.
“Thanks,” she said, again, drawing both of her parents’ gazes. “I’m glad these survived the flames.”
Her father nodded. “The only thing left to discuss is where you’ll be staying until you find a new home. Not here. This cabin looks like it should have been condemned years ago.”
“It’s in great condition,” said Alice, and then threw a swift glance at Colton before adding, “The roof doesn’t leak at all and the porch was just checked for rot.”
Denise nodded. “It does look very cozy, and we’re not arguing against your need for independence, sweetheart. It’s just that it’s so very far away.”
“I know,” said Alice, still composed. “But we’d rather stay here while planning what to do next.”
When her father sighed, she waited for the final curt words that would signal an end to their shaky attempt at a discussion. To her surprise, he only rubbed at his neck and then said, “All right.”
“All right?” repeated Alice, glancing from him to Denise, whose expression had eased into one of relief.
“If I can’t change your mind, Alice, then I won’t try. It’s obvious that we’re past the point of seeing eye-to-eye on your decisions.”
The words drew a scoff from Colton, and her father’s stiff expression took on a tinge of irritation as he added, “Some more than others. But I… I want to work past that. I don’t want you to disappear for another five years. Or more.”
“Neither do I,” said Alice, her voice soft.
Then she closed the gap between them to give him a hug. It already felt less strange, more familiar, and her voice came out shaking as she said, “I still want to see you, too. Just on my own terms.”
Her father said nothing, but his arms tightened around her, not loosened.
They had just pulled apart when shouts rang out from the forest. Alice jerked, startled even though she knew what must have happened, and Denise gasped, eyes wide as a deer’s. When the expressions of the nearby deputies changed, Colton moved closer to Alice, his movements sharp and smooth.
“What’s happening?” said Denise, as they all looked toward the gloom of the trees.
Alice’s father, no stranger to search parties, provided the grim answer. “They found something.”
Rob’s body, as it turned out. As soon as the first mutters about it being in pieces reached them, Denise covered her mouth with a hand. “Tom, I do not want to be here when they bring him out.”
“We won’t be.” Her father’s hand already reached out to usher her back to the car, but his next words were for Alice. “We’re staying at a hotel in Perry to avoid driving throughout the night. We’ll visit again tomorrow morning before leaving for home.”
“Okay. Let’s go out for breakfast,” said Alice, her smile small but real.
Surprise flickered in his eyes before he nodded. “Be careful while you’re here. And call us if you need any help, day or night.”
The tone of his voice stayed with her more than the words. A sadness beneath the iron-rigid syllables that hurt to hear. She found herself sinking back onto the hood of the car, suddenly so tired that she could barely bring herself to wave as her father’s car disappeared down the road.
When Colton’s hand brushed the curve of her cheek, she looked up at him. “He knows he’s lost me.”
“He hasn’t. Just his control of you.”
His calmness steadied her like an anchor, and when he sat beside her, she sighed, raising her face for a kiss. Then she dropped her head against his shoulder, soaking in his presence.
“Did you tear apart the body?” she murmured. “Or was it from scavengers?”
He nuzzled at her hair before answering. “Bit of both. Wanted to make sure the bites were too messy to identify.”
His heartbeat reverberated against her skin, and she squeezed her eyes shut, wishing the day was already over and that they were alone with the night. She was not a doll, but flesh and bone and wearied heart, and she wished to rest.
“But they’ll at least know it was an animal attack, won’t they?” she said, aware that the less they understood about Rob’s death, the longer they would linger at the cabin and document any possible evidence.
“We’re about to find out.”
A growl had slipped into his voice, and she popped open her eyes again to find the sheriff approaching them. She recognized him—Sheriff Danvers, the same man who had announced Magdalene’s death to her on that strange evening that now seemed an eternity ago.
As she straightened up, he offered Colton a brief nod and then focused on her. “Ms. Corrigan, you’re probably tired from going through hell for the last few days. I appreciate your patience and cooperation with our investigation.”
“It’s all right.” Then she smiled a little. “It’s still nice to see you again, Sheriff.”
“It would be nicer if the circumstances were better. I’m sorry to tell you this, but we’ve got no reason to hold Ms. Reeves for anything other than breaking into your cabin. There were no drugs found on her, the knife we found wasn’t in her possession, and her husband’s body looks like it was torn apart by animals.”
“Another animal attack?” It wasn’t hard to make her voice dip as if surprised.
“Yes, ma’am.” Then the sheriff raised a hand as if to ward off any further questions. “We won’t know anything more detailed until the coroner’s report is finished.”
When she said nothing else, he added, “It’s all up to you, ma’am. Do you want to press charges? If not, she’s free to go.”
Alice shook her head. “I don’t want to press charges, no. Whatever she did last night, it’s over now and none of it affects me.”
Strange how so little had to be an actual lie. As the sheriff walked off toward the car that held Darby, Alice resettled against Colton, her fingers absently flexing against the manila envelope Denise had given her. With nothing else to do but wait, she found herself opening it up and rifling through the contents.
When her fingers brushed against a familiar packet bound in black velvet ribbon, her expression froze. Colton noticed, and growled softly. She answered his unspoken query by pulling it out to show him. “These are Magdalene’s letters to Indigo. All of them.”
They had survived. Alice checked the envelope again and found the photo of the girl as well. Conflicting emotions beat within her heart. Should she keep them? Burn them just as she had burned the ones Magdalene had written to her? They held no interest for her, these letters for a dead girl.
Just then, Darby’s voice rose in a shriek, the words unintelligible as she faced Sheriff Danvers. The man remained impassive, his own voice low and soothing even as she glared at him.
Alice blinked at the scene, the awareness of what to do sliding into her as swift and sure as a blade between the ribs. She looked at Colton, unsure if she was smiling or simply baring her teeth. “I need to talk to her one last time.”
Even as the realization glinted in his eyes, Darby’s voice cut off with a final scream, and Alice looked up in time to see her storm away from the sheriff, who just shook his head.
“Probably told her she had to go down to the coroner’s office to identify the body and then make an official statement,” said Colton, also watching. When Alice only nodded, he leaned in until their mouths brushed, until the hint of his teeth could be felt against hers. “One last bite, hm?”
Her words weren’t quite a growl, but they held a ferocity all the same. “The killing one.”
Darby got into the driver’s seat of her car just as Alice reached her. For a long moment, they only stared at each other through the opened window. Two girls, so unalike even though they’d been caught in the same trap.
“You bitch,” said Darby, finally. “Bet you’re feeling pretty smug right now.”
“Why not? You won.”
“Won what?” said Alice, quietly. “Do you still think Magdalene needs to be avenged?”
“They said you aren’t pressing charges.” Darby’s voice sounded flat, and Alice knew then that she wouldn’t try to bring up things like ghosts and murderous wolves in front of others.
“That’s right. I don’t like you and I never have, but frankly, with Magdalene still in your head, that’s punishment enough.”
“Fuck you, you don’t know—”
“I do, and that’s why I’m about to give you these.” Then Alice drew in a breath. “There was something missing in that manuscript you showed me. Something that needs to be in any biography about Magdalene.”
When she offered the photo, Darby didn’t take it. But she did still look, and the hatred in her face slowly transformed into confusion.
“Her name was Liberty Bower. Magdalene called her Indigo. Did she ever tell you about her?”
From the twist to Darby’s mouth, Alice knew she hadn’t. “Here. These will clear it up, then.”
She pulled the packet from the pocket of her coat and then slipped a letter free to open it up, revealing Magdalene’s distinctive writing. “They’re love letters to a girl she knew back in high school. To the only girl who ever mattered in her eyes.”
“Why should I believe you?” snarled Darby, but her gaze remained on the sheet of paper hanging between them.
Alice shrugged. “Don’t. Believe Magdalene instead. You’ve studied her for months. You’ll know if these are a forgery or the real thing.”
When the other girl remained silent, Alice replaced the letter with the rest, some part of her dimly aware of how steady her fingers were. “You were never special to her, Darby. Neither was I. She just used us because she was empty. And since you won’t believe anything I say, I’m giving you Magdalene’s own words to go on. They’re letters she wrote to the first girl she loved. The only girl she loved. It’s the final piece of your book, you know. Showing how happy Magdalene was and how she never felt that way again. With anyone.”
“Fuck you,” said Darby, but her voice trembled, and she didn’t resist as Alice dropped the packet through the window.
“No, fuck her. This is the last time I’m ever talking about her. And this is the last time I’m ever talking to you.” Then Alice walked away, knowing she had just discarded the last piece of Magdalene that she’d ever held onto. It made her eyes burn with tears, made her heart buck in her chest. Made her want to howl from the freedom.
In a few moments, Darby roared off in her car, the packet of letters clutched in her hand as if she couldn’t decide whether to tear them to shreds or press them to her heart. She would hate Alice all the more for them, but also herself. And then, one day, perhaps she would even hate Magdalene before letting it all scar up, ugly, misshapen tissue where the trusting parts of her heart had once been. It was the best she could hope for, surviving her own hell.
Later, once the sheriff and his deputies had left and the sky glimmered with the first lavender hues of dusk, Alice sat on the porch steps, fingers trailing over where Colton had replaced a rotting board all those months ago, back in those strange, wondrous days when they had just met.
Twisting around, she watched him prowl around the inside of the cabin, expression alert as if he sought out one final trap, one final twist of the knife from fate. Her heart squeezed almost painfully at his silent stride, at the dark scruff already grown back on his jaw and the way his eyes absorbed everything in a glance. Each time she looked at him, it felt like she fell in love with him a little more, and she couldn’t help smiling as he came out to join her on the porch, two unopened beer cans in hand.
“Where did those come from? They’re not Darby or Rob’s.” Everything of theirs had been taken away.
Colton gave her a sly look while popping open the tabs for them both. “I’m good at scrounging for things.”
She offered the can a mock-suspicious look but took it with another smile. “Always so mysterious.”
His amused growl hummed between them while she sipped at the beer, hardly even tasting it. Instead, she found herself looking out over the trees, watching the first stars wink into existence.
“It’s over,” she said, softly. “I can’t believe it.”
His hand found her shoulder and flexed against it. She understood the silent signal and melted against him with a sigh, eyes still on the sky. For awhile, they drank in silence, listening to an owl screech in the chilly air. Behind them, the cabin loomed, already shadow-black and still faintly smelling of burned things, and yet Alice felt no fear. This was her world, now, and she loved it.
The sound of punctured metal caught her attention, and she looked over in time to catch Colton biting the bottom of the can with his fangs. When he caught her looking, he said, “Easiest way to get the final swallow.”
She laughed. “Is it really that easy for you? Just growing them out whenever you want?”
“Sure. You’ll soon do the same,” he said, giving her that one look that always left her a little breathless.
But she only glanced away, self-doubt prickling through her. Would she? Would she be able to fully change again without such all-consuming rage to guide her? Could she find that inner wildness even when there was no need to protect herself?
Then Colton’s hand caught her chin, one thumb running over her mouth before he tilted her face toward his. Their noses brushed as he murmured, “Trust me?”
“Always,” she breathed.
“Then just think of how much you want to bite.”
Her response was swallowed by his kiss, a long, teasing one that that let her feel the press of his fangs as much as the velvet of his tongue. When he nipped at her lower lip, something within her came alive—playful instead of seething, thrilling instead of dangerous. As her fingers dug into his shirt, her jaw began to ache.
Beasts understand rapture as much as bloodthirst. The bite that reveres instead of mauls, the exquisite pressure of teeth that catch and hold close rather than choke… Ah, what is more joyful than to feel the tenderness of a mouth that worships when it could kill?
When Colton broke off, still holding her chin, she panted. Now she could feel her teeth press against her lips, and knew they had sharpened into fangs. When she laughed, he gave her one of his rare smiles.
“It’s always there,” he said, licking at his own teeth before they shrunk back into human form. Then he licked at hers. “And I’ll bring it out of you whenever you start doubting it.”