Alice had never been admitted to a hospital before, but there she was, dressed in a medical gown and tucked into bed. Needles were attached to both arms; she didn’t ask why, or bother reading the fluid bags that they led to. Denise sat in a chair by the bed, eyes averted from Alice as if hospitalization was somehow catching. Her father stood stiff and grim-faced, still in his suit from work.
Alice glanced at the clock, wishing time slid by faster. Wishing the doctor hadn’t ordered her to stay a few hours for observation.
“I don’t see why I can’t go home,” she said, timidly. “The x-rays and MRI came back fine.”
Her father sighed. “Ally, I saw your car. It looked like a crushed tin can. If they want to watch you for signs of a concussion, then that’s that.”
“And we can take care of anything that needs to be done at the house,” added Denise. “Feed a pet, or drag out the garbage cans, or… Well, anything.”
The next words that came out of her hurt, and not because of her scraped, battered body. “Did you try the sawmill, again?”
Her father answered. “Yes, just before I came back in here. He still hasn’t shown up. Doesn’t he have his own phone?”
Alice shook her head. She had once asked him something similar, and had gotten the reasonable answer that the more he carried with him, the more he was likely to lose in a sudden switch to his wolf form. So simple and yet so impossible to reveal to others.
She didn’t miss the gleam of curiosity in Denise’s eyes, or her father’s dubious expression. Her first rambling words to them in the hospital had been to call him; outside of her brief answer to Nicole’s question, it was also the first time she’d revealed that he even existed in her life, and she half-wondered whether they thought she’d made him up under the stupor of pain medication.
After a short silence, Denise said, “Your father also called Phil. It’s obvious you’ll need a new car, and you know how he loves to battle with car dealers.”
Phil Harris, her father’s financial adviser. “That’s really not—”
“You need a car,” said her father. The undercurrent to the words warned her not to argue. “An SUV for those mountain roads.”
Her stepmother’s voice brightened. “How about a Subaru? Terry loves hers.”
Alice said nothing, realizing that giving them something to talk about would be better than suffocating silence. Looking at the needles taped to the backs of her hands made her feel sick, so her gaze drifted out through the doorway. The nurses’ station was within her line of view, men and women in their scrubs hurrying in and out like bees at a hive. For one heartbeat, she thought she glimpsed a flash of black among the dull blues and greens of weaving bodies, and thought she heard the rap of a heel among the squeaking of rubber soles. Fingers digging into the blankets, she closed her eyes. If she saw Magdalene’s face again, saw that smile, she might scream before she could stop herself.
“Honey, was it really a deer?” Denise sounded hesitant. “It’s just that you were acting a little odd this morning…”
“Denise.” Her father’s voice sounded low and curt, the tone that Alice recognized as a warning to change the subject.
She kept her eyes closed, panic starting to itch at her. “Is that how you really want to put it? Or do you actually mean that I was acting crazy like my mother?”
“Alice.” Nearly a growl, that.
“I’m sorry.” She opened her eyes again, but kept them fixed on her fingers, which were still white-knuckled against the blankets.
Fortunately, a doctor appeared soon after that, announcing his presence with a crisp knock on the doorway. Alice remained quiet as he checked her over, heart pounding in her throat while waiting for his pronouncement.
“You can go home,” he said, finally, and she sagged in relief until he added, “But someone needs to watch over you for the next twenty-four hours.”
“We will,” said her father, and Denise quickly added, “It’ll take no time at all to set up the guest bedroom.”
Alice didn’t have it in her to argue.
The discharge process from the hospital was both stressful and tedious, dragging on until Alice finally found herself blinking outside the entrance doors, the late afternoon sun casting the parking lot in hues of orange. Beyond the busy street, hills rolled toward the horizon, leading up to the dim shapes of the mountains. Her thoughts drifted back to Colton; where was he?
“Sweetheart?” said Denise, the word pulling at her attention, and Alice felt nine years old again while being led to the car.
Her body hurt with each jostle in the road on the way to her father and stepmother’s house, and the lingering smell of antiseptic on her skin began to make her feel ill. Alice kept her gaze fixed out the window, trying not to think about anything.
The guest bedroom was decorated in soothing shades of lilac and grey. Unable to face the thought of talking to her father or stepmother for the rest of the evening, she pointed out that the doctor had said she could sleep if she felt tired. It got them to leave her in peace, and she closed the door for extra privacy before dropping onto the plush bed.
She had just curled up into a fetal position when her phone vibrated with an incoming call. Darby’s name flashed across the screen, and Alice denied the call without a second thought. What a delicious twist to add to the book; a car crash that could be used to further question her sanity. Tears burned in Alice’s eyes at how her parents’ concerns and Darby’s accusations were rooted in truth.
The sky visible through the windows slowly darkened. Occasionally, Alice heard the murmur of her father’s voice. Twice, Denise came in to check on her, apologetic about the fact that she had to be woken up every three hours to make sure she hadn’t slipped into anything worse than a deep sleep.
Finally, when the moon hung high in the sky, she drifted off, feeling as if she fell into a darkness that soaked into every limb. Her dreams were wild, thrashing things, feverish in their intensity. Hands clawed at her. Glass chips stung against her skin. She howled like a wolf, but the call went unanswered. Eventually, the suffocating darkness solidified into leaf litter beneath her feet and stars above her head. Trees surrounded her, scarcely more than shadows, but Magdalene stood before her clear and bright. The smell of her cigarette wrapped around Alice’s senses like a rope.
“Alice.” She held out a hand.
Alice didn’t move, her skin breaking out into shivers. “What do you want?”
“I want to talk with you.”
“After you tried cutting my throat on glass?”
“Do I have any glass with me, now? Anything dangerous at all?” There was that sardonic humor, rippling through her voice like an electric current as she spread her empty hands wide. “I’ve hurt you before, and you’re still alive. Don’t tell me you’re scared, now.”
“I was always a little afraid.” The words slipped out before she could stop them, and Alice glanced around the clearing again, embarrassed that her heart was already so open, again.
“You shouldn’t have been. You made me bleed just as much.” Such words should have been harsh, but instead they felt as gentle as a caress, drawing Alice’s gaze back to the woman she had never truly understood. She looked free of injury, slender throat whole and pale against her dark hair, and her mouth smiled knowingly, free of the bitterness that had been constant in their final years together.
When Alice remained quiet, Magdalene tilted her head. “Don’t you wish to talk? To find out what this is all about?”
“What if it’s a trick?”
“Tricks are only dangerous if you’ve got something left to lose. Do you?” Then Magdalene’s fingers stretched toward her once more.
Alice hesitated, doubt and fear and weariness all clamoring within her as the words sank into her heart like stones dropped into water. But slowly, she reached out and placed her hand in Magdalene’s, watching her eyes glint gold in response.
“Finally,” breathed Magdalene, and led her further into the clearing.
The hunt had been an easy one, quicker than many others of his past. The black wolf shifted in his seat, always aware of his surroundings even while in human form, and turned to the next page of the manuscript. He was nearly through it all.
The neck pinned beneath his shoe spasmed and choked out froth-filled words. “I’m telling you, it’s the same fucking one she gave Alice.”
The wolf gave the human his full stare until his voice died away. Perhaps it was the same; perhaps it wasn’t. He wanted to be sure either way.
At the flick of another page, the man groaned. “Just take it. Please. You already have the photos. Why are you still—”
The wolf moved his foot, choking off the windpipe until man’s face changed color. “You gave me a handful. How many are still hidden?”
“None, I swear. She didn’t like doing it, so I don’t have many shots of her.”
“You forced her.”
“No!” Now there was an actual whine in the man’s voice, for all that he was human. His eyes had gone wild as a trapped rabbit’s as the tip of the wolf’s shoe dug into the softness beneath his chin. “It was Magdalene. She liked seeing what Alice would do for her. I never pushed her into anything. I swear to God.”
The wolf closed the manuscript to study the man. He had let the human speak and squirm to see what he would do. Fight back? Threaten him? It turned out that he hadn’t the balls for either action, not when he was the one caught in a trap. Even now, bleeding on the floor, the human could have snapped at him. Maybe not with those blunt little teeth, but surely with details about the photos. Some that thought they were about to die turned vicious.
But this one… This one was like a coyote, ready to pounce on an opportunity to feed himself. Always screaming when he was caught with a mouthful of stolen meat. Above all else, he served himself, and that meant doing whatever he could to stay alive.
As much as the wolf hated to admit it, Alice might be safer if this human lived and fought against his wife’s obsession… For now.
When the man’s sniveling dwindled away, the wolf resumed thumbing through the last pages of the manuscript. He had come across the one given to Alice much earlier that day, after finding her gone except for a note left with a casserole. Fear drowning out every other hint of her scent, and yet she still tried to make sure he wouldn’t go hungry.
If the wolf hadn’t had years of control to guide him, he would have growled then and there over her being out of his reach. Why wouldn’t she talk? Before that pink-haired human had visited, she had licked at his teeth. Now she couldn’t even look at him. Guilt. That was always in her scent, too. But over what?
Then the mail for the day had arrived. Traces of the pink-haired human’s scent had lingered on one of the envelopes, and the wolf had ripped it open without another thought. And with that, the guilt had made complete sense.
Now finished with reading, the black wolf set the manuscript aside. Beneath his foot, the human twitched, realizing his last moments of limbo had drawn to an end.
“What else does your wife have?”
“Nothing! Just the cheesecake ones I gave you.”
“There was a note with the photos that came in today’s mail. She said there were worse ones. Penetration shots with a man.”
Profanity hissed out of the human’s mouth. Fresh panic flooded his scent.
It was all the wolf needed to confirm his suspicions, and a growl thundered in his chest. “You did more than take the photos. You’re in the other ones.”
“No! You have all the nudes and all the nega—”
The rage that had seethed through the wolf from the moment he’d seen the first photo now spilled over, and his kick to the human’s ribs cracked bone. The man shriveled in on himself like a slug, but the wolf wasn’t finished, hauling him up to throw him against the desk. Wood buckled. Papers flew in the air.
He knew how to maul, how to maim beyond recognition, and his teeth ached for it even as he restrained himself to fists, treating the human as an enemy too weak to even be a true rival. Harry it, threaten it, bruise it—but don’t kill it. Let it survive long enough to understand terror.
When the human’s scent turned hazy with shock, the wolf grabbed him again, ignoring a wheeze of words to slam him against a bookcase. “You think you’re in pain, now? Tell me where they are or I’ll start bleeding you.”
There was a breath of silence before the human crumpled. “She doesn’t have them. I do. They’re in another envelope in my desk. The second drawer on the right.”
Still suspicious, the wolf went through them all without care, wrenching wood and spilling papers. The human coughed, limp on the floor and clutching at his ribs. Soon, the wolf found the envelope and ripped it open. With his foot back on the man’s throat, he looked through each photo as carefully as he had with the manuscript. Alice’s face was visible in most of them, clearly so, and if it wasn’t a question of what kept her safest, he would have torn into the man’s belly then and there.
He waited to speak until he knew the words would come out flat. “I’ll kill you. Not now. Not tomorrow. The moment any other photos of her are released. Either through you or through your wife.”
As expected, the human whined, and the wolf nearly snarled in disgust that this whimpering thing had ever had touched Alice. This wretch was what had tried to leash her?
He ignored the panicked words while sliding the photos back into the envelope, but just as he tucked it all into the inside pocket of his jacket, the human coughed out, “Darby will do what she wants. I can’t stop her. She’s fucking obsessed. Thinks Magdalene is talking to her in dreams and showing her how to fucking avenge her death or some shit. She doesn’t even make sense, anymore. Please. I can’t stop her.”
The wolf fell still. He never trusted words, but these ones revealed glimpses of a pattern all too familiar. “She appears just in the dreams, or during the day, too?”
The man coughed again, hope filling his expression. “Yeah, in the day. Flickers in the corners of her eye. Seeing her at the other end of the street. Things moved around the house. That’s why she’s obsessed with fucking Halloween. Samhain. She wants to do a—”
“Seance.” The wolf licked his teeth as they grew out. It had been years since he’d lost enough control to let his features twist like that. He forced them back into blunt human shape, but his fury remained. More things now made sense. The cunt was haunting Alice. Haunting her and using the female human like a puppet to hunt her. Those cigarette burns on her arm. The way he’d caught Alice jumping at nothing, fear flooding her scent. At him, he’d thought, even… And Alice had gone through it for weeks in silence, unaware she was being driven into believing she was going mad.
A snarl burst out of him and the human flinched, mistaking the reason for it. “I’m telling you, I can’t do anything.”
Hands scrabbled at his shoe, silently begging him to believe the words.
“Stop your wife, or I’ll kill you. It’s that simple.”Then the wolf pulled away, the hunting drive already hot in his bones. He needed to find Alice, now. She wasn’t mad like she feared, but with her witch blood, it wouldn’t take much to send her tumbling into the shadow world. She worried about losing her mind, but the bitch was trying to take her, soul and all.