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Under my skin, p.15

Under My Skin, page 15


Under My Skin

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  Not only had my nose become a super sniffer—I couldn’t even touch it without sensory overload. A sigh that could easily have slipped into growl territory rumbled in my chest.

  Brit stared at me like I was about to go all Hulkish green. She took a deep breath and said in a rush, “You’re sixteen. That’s close to being legal. After your folks…weren’t you given the option of going it alone? I mean, if my parents died, I’d hate to move out of our house, our town. You’re so far away you can’t even visit their graves. Wouldn’t staying at home have made life seem more…normal?” She clapped a hand over her mouth. “That came out wrong. Ignore me.”

  I froze on the sidewalk, forcing Brit to stop as well, and studied her for a long moment.

  “A normal life?” I said, once I could speak past the maniacal laughter that threatened to burst from my throat. “Now that’s the real fairytale. What about my life has ever been normal? Sure, I wanted to stay home. But I didn’t have a choice. My father was a hunter. My mom…”

  Wait. What was I saying? I couldn’t tell Brit like this. The right time would come, but this wasn’t it. I took a second and refocused.

  “The Hunter Council doesn’t let people like me walk away. They’ll always be watching.” My stomach lurched, but I said exactly what I’d been feeling since the funeral. “As for my parents—their graves mean nothing to me.”

  Brit lowered her eyes and stared at her Doc Martens, but not before I saw the shock on her face.

  “Yeah, that sounds heartless doesn’t it?” I choked out, striding forward once more. Brit kept up with me as best she could. “Wanna know why I couldn’t care less about two boxes buried in the dirt?” My voice was too loud, but I couldn’t stop the words from pouring out. “’Cause they’re empty, Brit. We buried empty coffins. My parents’ bodies were never found. I’m not even sure they’re really dead.”

  “Not sure they’re…” Brit grabbed my arm and pulled me to a stop. “What do you think happened to them?”

  “That’s what the Hunter Council is trying to find out.”

  “The Council’s involved with your parents? But I don’t understand, I thought they only dealt with the bigwigs…” She eyed me with new awareness. “Oh.”

  “Can we drop it for now?” I ground out. “I’m feeling a little not myself today.”

  “Dropping it, yup, we’re dropping it…” Brit scuffed her boots on the sidewalk.

  I shouldn’t have told Brit, a human, anything about my parents, or my suspicions, or my sad little I’m-a-mutant-freakazoid life. I’d only put her in danger. I couldn’t afford to get close to hunters, to people, period. Not now. Maybe not ever.

  Uncertainty settled in my stomach as if it were moving in and ready to redecorate. Wasn’t I already too close? To Brit, to Marcus, to Alec. Wasn’t that the whole problem?

  All I kept wondering was how Alec would act when he saw me for the first time since our kiss. Would he want to take up where we left off, or did he regret he ever met me? And really, what right did I have messing around with his life anyway? I couldn’t get attached to humans—they were too easy to break.

  “Isn’t this place amazing?” Brit exulted when we arrived at the café, our tense conversation about my parents apparently well and truly on hold. I loved that about Brit. She didn’t push, or prod, or try to guilt you into a confession. Probably because she knew I’d tell her the story eventually.

  Conundrum Café. Wow, the name was larger than the actual building, a narrow two-story converted house that barely sat ten people on the main floor. According to a chalkboard sign on the wooden stair railing, the place had an art gallery on the second floor. I sucked in a breath when I spotted a bulletin board plastered with flyers about missing pets.

  Someone had to get those werewolves in line. And it looked more and more like that someone was me.

  Inside, a line of Zen-like hippie types stood to one side of a long, brightly painted counter. The counter’s black surface glittered with gold-foil suns and a bevy of hand-painted stars and moons. A profusion of yellowing posters covered the cobalt blue walls.

  Alec and Matt waved to us from a corner near a large bay window. The window’s thick covering of frost muted the daylight. The guys sprawled out on an orange plaid couch, the kind left on curbsides next to garbage cans, free for the taking. Alec had his long legs stretched out, his feet propped up on a heavy oak coffee table, his arms folded across his chest. My breath hitched at the sight of him, and I avoided his half-hooded gaze.

  Brit waved to Matt and then pointed to the line. He held up his glass, silently asking Brit to get him another iced tea.

  “Let’s order first or we’ll never get to eat before our next class,” Brit said. “Time moves at its own pace in Conundrum. You get used to it or never come back. Personally, I like the atmosphere, the rustic charm. Plus there’s Kate. Wait till you meet her.”

  The place was rustic all right, a blend of garage sale chic and vintage clutter. My feet scuffed across a lacquered plywood floor as we approached the counter. The twenty-something barista didn’t appear in any rush as she worked around the various industrial coffeemakers and flavored syrup bottles.

  Brit studied the menu board hanging over the counter while I counted the barista’s facial piercings. Twelve. The sweet smell of cookies baking in the kitchen beyond the counter clashed with the jarring scent of silver. My athame’s faint essence, muffled by the shoulder holster and my clothing, hardly registered, but the barista’s piercings were right at nose level.

  I covered my gag, clearing my throat loudly.

  “Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” I asked Brit after we placed our orders. “Getting your face filled with all that metal?”

  Brit glanced at the barista. “I think she looks cool.”

  “Sure, now,” I said. “When she’s a grandma, those things will be hanging around her shoulders. How’s that for a physics lesson? Gravity works, my friend.”

  “Ugh.” Brit made a face and then stepped aside so a customer could pass us to exit the café. The steamer hissed and utensils clattered as the barista prepared our order. “No way. Kate will be a hip granny. Won’t you, Kate?”

  The barista laughed. “Someday, Brit. We’ll see, I guess.”

  “Kate?” I asked. “This is Kate?” I leaned into Brit’s shoulder and whispered, “As in the witch?” She looked way too young to have much magical power. No wonder her spell hadn’t held Wade.

  Brit shrugged. “The one and only. Believe me, she’s older then she looks.” Her eyes twinkled. “Wait,” she said and then laughed. “You were expecting green face paint, a hairy mole, and an evil cackle? Stereotype much?” She scanned the counter. “You want chocolate sprinkles?” Grabbing a palm-sized metal shaker, she doused my latte’s foamy topping with chocolate shavings.

  “I gotcha covered, Kate.” A young woman came from the back section of the café. She wrapped an apron around her slim waist. “Take as long as you need.”

  “Thanks, Beth.” When Kate grinned, muscles flexed around a piercing in her cheek. She flipped up a section of the counter and draped her arm over Brit’s shoulder. “Okay, girls, let’s sit with your menfolk and talk shop. Glad you could join us, Eryn.” She gave me a conspiratorial wink. “I hoped that special brew I made up yesterday would do the trick, but I wasn’t sure.”

  “Ah, yeah, thanks. Worked like a charm,” I said, uncomfortable that I’d lied to this friendly, young witch. I couldn’t bring myself to tell the others that Wade had been toying with them. Kate’s magic was about as effective on Wade as control top pantyhose on a Sumo wrestler—some things couldn’t be contained.

  Kate didn’t look a thing like the members of the coven my father had bartered with years ago. They had indeed lived up to the witch stereotype—except for the green face paint. An ancient coven was cloistered away in the foothills of the Ardenne Mountains. I had no idea what my father had traded to get my silver athame, but it was major. Well, not fork-over-your-firstbor
n major, obviously—but still, Mom always said Dad had made a huge error in judgment that day. Wolven and witches usually didn’t get along in the paranorm world. They were both far too outspoken for their own good.

  Kate was no exception.

  “So, Alec,” she said, dropping into one of the chairs across from the couch. “Did you give Eryn her present yet?”

  Matt choked mid-gulp on the iced tea Brit had handed to him. She pounded his back until he could breathe and then squished between the guys to sit on the couch.

  “It’s not a present.” Alec seemed to be choosing his words carefully. “It’s supposed to give Eryn some protection. How many times do I have to tell you that?” He made a face at Kate and pulled his feet off the coffee table when she stabbed her finger into his calf.

  I stood clutching my latte. Confused. Embarrassed. Excited…

  A gift that wasn’t a gift? For me?

  “Sit down here.” Kate waved me into the chair beside her. “The other one wobbles.” I sat down, appreciating the cool air radiating from the bay window behind us.

  Kate laughed at Alec’s dark expression. “This guy,” she said, pointing at Alec, “came into the café five minutes after we opened this morning, asking me where he could get Eryn a…” She hesitated. “No, I won’t ruin the surprise.”

  “Ignore her, Eryn.” Alec met my gaze for a second, as if gauging my reaction.

  I gave a throw-me-a-bone shrug, hoping someone would fill me in on what was going on.

  “Kate loves to make every little thing a big production.” He reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out a small parcel, a few inches long, neatly wrapped in white tissue paper. “Brit told me you didn’t have one, so I picked this up at the shop across the street. Every hunter needs basic protection. You can’t do better than Christian symbols.”

  Alec was officially blurting. Usually I had that honor. The burnt toast scent of his uncertainty, his nervousness, started my own pulse racing. I unfolded the tissue paper, while Kate loudly insisted that if I liked it, she had told Alec where to look. The tissue rustled in my hands. My clumsy fingers ripped the fragile paper in a few spots. Something tumbled onto my palm—an antique cross pendant, its dark patina embellished with vines and a single rose resting in the heart of the cross.

  The silver cross etched itself into my palm as I examined it, but the burning pain barely registered. What Alec had said was true. We were lucky to have a few go-to defenses against vampires, all thanks to one of the original vampires, Judas, who’d betrayed his friend for a few silver coins. Ever since then, crosses and crucifixes repelled vampires. Holy water burned like acid, peeling away their preserved skin right down to the bone.

  But the cross and its history wasn’t what had me riding a wave of emotions. With the crew sitting around me, waiting for my reaction, and the gift in my hands, I could almost trick myself that these were my people. That I belonged. Cared for and cared about.

  But as the silver singed into my palm, foreboding—dark and overwhelming—settled in my stomach, destroying my fairytale moment. This was going to end badly. For all of us. I knew it, and yet I couldn’t walk away from Alec and Brit and Redgrave.

  I could help. I refused to betray them in their hour of need. Loyalty could be so aggravating.

  “So, do you?” Anxiety edged Alec’s words. “Like it, I mean. You can exchange it if you want. The shop is across the street.”

  Our eyes met. I held his gaze. I needed to be watching him while I did this. More than a guy giving a girl a token present, this was acceptance on a silver cross platter. My heart on a spike.

  “I love it,” I murmured, then put the leather cord around my neck, careful to hide the red welt in the center of my palm. The cross weighed me down like an oath, a promise I wore on my chest. It settled on my rust colored sweater in the dip between my breasts.

  Kate and Brit made admiring noises, while Alec stared at the cross, watching it dip and slide with my every breath. Breath that came faster the longer he looked. He met my gaze again, his eyes dark with wanting. He flushed and grabbed his coffee mug.

  “Like I said.” He shrugged casually. Too casually. “It will give you more protection against Wade and his father.”

  Matt snorted. “Well, I’m glad that’s settled. Since it wasn’t a present or anything.”

  Okay, maybe Matt didn’t exactly want me around.

  Brit slapped his shoulder, her lips twisted in an exaggerated pout. “You know, you can get me non-presents like that anytime you want.”

  I tuned out their banter as my heart pounded deep in my chest, like it could shatter me into a million pieces. Alec had given me a silver cross, an icon passed down through the ages from the ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, to the Christian symbol of ultimate sacrifice. Meant to protect the innocent.

  What protection existed for a creature that walked two worlds? Yet, belonged to none? Even now, with the heat of Alec’s cross burning through my sweater, that beastly blood boiled in my veins. No symbol, no matter how holy and reverent, prevented Wade and his sire from pursuing me. They knew I wasn’t human. Being half wolven ensured that in my case, the usual rules didn’t apply.

  I was paranormal fair game.

  And Lord help me, around Wade, I couldn’t think straight. Like I stood outside myself. Like maybe if Wade chased me, I’d enjoy getting caught. I had two hearts as well as two kinds of blood pulsing through me. I twisted in my chair, leaning heavily away from the crew, afraid Kate would pick up my emotions.

  Crack. The wooden armrest of my chair split under the shift in pressure. My body jerked.

  Kate reached out to steady me.

  “Oh, now I remember.” Kate laughed. “That one wobbles”—she pointed to the empty chair beside us—“and this one is totally falling apart.” The armrest now pointed due south, hanging by a rusted nail and a prayer. I tried to pop it back into place.

  “Whoa, what happened to your hand?” Kate grabbed my forearm and twisted it none too gently. The armrest slipped from my fingers to swing from the nail, exposing my palm. The imprint of the cross appeared as a raw, festering welt on my flesh.

  “Nothing.” My chest tight with apprehension, I used some wolven strength, attempting to yank my wrist from her grasp, but Kate held on. The others, still razzing Alec about exactly what constituted a guy-to-girl present, hadn’t noticed the tug-of-war over my hand.

  Kate’s amused expression faded. She studied me for a moment. Her power simmered in the air around us.

  The hair on my neck vibrated with the mystical charge. My arm tingled strangely under her touch. I held my breath and braced for a blast of witch’s magic. For her to denounce me to the crew. To Alec.

  But the air stilled, and Kate only folded my fingers into a fist, hiding the wound.

  “Liar,” she mouthed and removed her hands.

  I released my breath in a shuddering sigh.

  “You know, boys,” Kate said, interrupting Matt and Brit’s fun, “it’s too bad your mother doesn’t come into town. Marie hasn’t met Eryn yet, has she? I know she’d love her. Eryn seems like a real straight shooter, and Marie’s so big on honesty and hunter loyalty.”

  I cringed at her pointed words.

  Matt snorted. “Mom avoids Redgrave the way fugitives avoid donut shops.” He angled his chin toward me. “Not even the chance to tell Alec I-told-you-so about Eryn lured her to town.”

  Alec shifted on the couch, glaring at his brother. I frowned. Matt had taunted Alec before about their mother. That she had revealed a secret about me. But what?

  Brit tapped her watch-less wrist. “I hate to break up the Alec burnfest, but I can’t miss my English midterm next period.”

  Kate made a face. “You’re all business today.” She glanced at me. “Eryn, I asked Brit to bring you here today to give you a warning. Your uncle has a reputation as a do-gooder. Lawyer, married to a kindergarten teacher, upstanding citizen, quick to lend a helping hand. But this time his do-gooding has lande
d him in the middle of a paranormal hailstorm.” She took a sip of her black coffee. “Covens from all over the area are heralding a substantial increase in activity. It’s like paranorms are relocating. Seeking untried ground.”

  “Exactly.” Alec twisted on the couch, his face intent. “That’s where your uncle comes in, Eryn, with his clients being run off their land. I did some checking at city hall, made like I was interested in working construction for the summer. They told me the real estate market was booming, so I’d get a job no problem. Seems Harbinger bought up most of the ranches and available properties surrounding Redgrave.”

  Matt shook his head. “What do they want with Redgrave? Most people can’t wait to get out of this town.”

  “There’s the appeal,” Kate said. “An isolated population, miles of unclaimed territory…” She focused on me again. “Eryn, one more thing’s been bugging me about your vision.” She waved a hand when I started to protest. “I mean your dream. Did Wade’s mother say anything to you? Give you some clue of her intent?”

  “What do you mean, her intent?”

  Kate’s gaze locked on mine. “Did she give you a message? A warning?”

  I kept my face blank. “No,” I lied. “She cloaked me so Wade and Logan wouldn’t detect my presence, and then she…died.”

  Matt snorted, his face a mask of disgust. “You mean Wade killed her.”

  I shot him a dark look. “Yes, but he had no control over what he was doing.”

  Alec’s head snapped up at that. I swallowed and pushed back the sudden rush of images—the witch demanding I watch her fate unfold, telling me only I could save her son. Wade feasting at his mother’s neck. The torment on his face when he realized what he’d done.

  “That’s all I can tell you, Kate.” I leaned on the chair’s only secure armrest. “That’s all that happened.”

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