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Under my skin, p.16

Under My Skin, page 16


Under My Skin

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  Kate sighed and shifted in her chair. Like she knew I was holding back and was disappointed I didn’t trust her or the crew enough to tell the truth. How easy was I to read?

  “For her to spend all that effort, use most of her magic, and then not communicate her will. It doesn’t make sense…” Kate shrugged. “So, what’s the game plan?” she asked Alec. “Tonight’s the full moon, the werewolves will be at their strongest. If more beasts are going to be made, it will happen at midnight.”

  “The witching hour,” I noted. “Why does so much of what we do come back to clichés?”

  Kate smiled. “Well, all clichés originate in some truth. That’s why they keep cropping up. At the witching hour magical energies and other paranormal strengths peak.” She paused and met my gaze. I could feel her willing me to tell the crew what I was. “You might want to make a mental note.”

  “Speaking of mental notes—” I tapped my finger to my temple, hoping no one noticed how unsteady that finger was. “I almost forgot. I had a bizarre bathroom confessional with Olivia today.”

  “You did?” Brit’s eyes widened. “When?”

  “After art history.”

  Brit leaned back in the couch. Her black lined lips slanting down at the corners. “You have to learn to share. You never tell me anything good.”

  Kate shot me another pointed glance, I looked quickly away. She could hint all she wanted. I wasn’t ready.

  “Anyway, Olivia told me Travis got this weird tattoo right before he disappeared.” I plucked a napkin from the metal dispenser. “Anyone got a pen?”

  Kate handed me the one tucked behind her ear.

  I sketched out the wolf-and-skull image from art class. “We both—I mean, Olivia wigged out when Stantial showed the class a bunch of slides from Rome. This was one of them. An emblem painted on a limestone wall.” I omitted the part about the wall and the painting being exactly like the mental barrier I’d used to block Wade. They didn’t need to know about Wade’s stroll through Eryn-land. When I was done, I spun the napkin around so the others could see.

  I expected the sketch to get a reaction—energy sizzled through my fingertips from drawing the image—but I didn’t expect Brit to gasp and bury her face in Matt’s shoulder.

  “What?” Matt wrapped his arms around her. “Brit, what is it?”

  “My brother, Blake, had the same tattoo done a few days before he died.” Brit said, her voice muffled against Matt’s chest.

  Kate examined the sketch. “This is old, powerful.” She dropped the napkin on the table. “It’s a brand. Those who bear it are marked.”

  “Marked?” Matt kept his arm tight around Brit’s shoulders. “As in they didn’t have those tattoos done willingly?”

  I shrugged. “Oh, they probably got them willingly enough. Or thought they did. Olivia made it sound like Travis had gone from hating tattoos to being obsessed with them—with that one anyway.” I avoided Brit’s gaze as she peered at me from the haven of Matt’s arms. “Stantial said scholars think it’s an emblem for a warrior cult that thought they were descended from werewolves.” I swallowed hard. “Lots of shapeshifters trace their origins to Rome.” I didn’t mention I knew this because my mother was one of those shapeshifters.

  Brit tugged free of Matt and shifted to face me, her eyes swimming in black-washed tears. “Blake would never have gotten that tattoo if he’d known…”

  I reached out and grabbed her hand. “I know. Whoever gave him and the others the design for that tattoo sure didn’t show them the fine print.”

  “And that would be?” Alec raised a brow.

  “Get branded with that thing, and you’ve agreed to become one of them. A werewolf.”

  Brit’s face crumpled, and Matt glared at me as if everything was my fault.

  But he wasn’t the one with gory images flashing through his head. Someone, or something, had beamed the werewolf mark into my mind. Why?

  I made myself meet Brit’s fixed stare. At least she’d stopped crying. I couldn’t have asked her what I had to if there’d been tears. “I know this is a painful topic, Brit…but…your brother died about six months ago, right? And from what everyone says, that’s around the same time peoples’ pets started to disappear.”

  Brit nodded and rubbed her arms as if warding off a chill. “Blake died in a car accident, so everyone says. It happened during my dad’s shift, and he arrived first at the scene. He said Blake was a mess. His body all mangled.” She swiped at her running nose. “He said Mom and I didn’t have to see him. We didn’t want to. Who would want to see their brother, their son, like that? I wanted to remember him alive, strutting around the house with that huge ego of his, stinky feet and all.”

  Brit crumpled into Matt again. This must be crazy hard for her to deal with. It would be worse if I told her my father had been working on a cure for wolven that might have worked on werewolves too. How did I tell her there was a wafer-thin chance to save her brother when I had no idea where my father had stored his anti-were stash? After my parents disappeared, I found no trace of his work in the house or at the pharmaceutical company. Which accounted for the freaky things happening to me lately. Had the drugs only suppressed my wolf? Or had they altered it somehow? The changes I’d been experiencing…were they normal for wolven?

  Or was I different?

  Was I evil? Why could Wade read my mind? Why the interest from Logan? Did he know about my father’s drug?

  I had the sneaking suspicion that Sebastian had a key role in Redgrave’s current situation. His wanting me to come here, his assurances that he’d find out what happened to my parents…it all felt so contrived now. Like I’d been led by my nose.

  Only now that I was off my father’s drugs, I smelled the bitter scent of betrayal.

  Brit stared down at the sketch. “If it’s true, and the chief turned Blake into a werewolf, then he must have some dirt on my dad. That’s the only reason Dad would lie about Blake’s death.” Her red-rimmed eyes met mine. “God, I hope he didn’t lie. Please let Blake be at rest and not like those things we hunt.”

  “It’s going to be okay, Brit.” Matt gently brushed her hair back from her face.

  Envious, watching them entirely too intently, I wondered what it would be like to have someone tell me things would be okay—what it would be like to actually believe them. I turned to find Alec considering me as if he was wondering what it would be like to reach out and tuck a tendril of hair behind my ear, to have the right to touch me and not have me pull away. The heat in his eyes made me breathless. Instinctively, I cupped my hand over the cross he’d given me, embracing the singe of my skin.

  A customer left the café, letting in a gust of air and the scent of burnt cotton candy. Sickly sweet and far too perky for gloomy grey skies. Paige was close. I spun in my chair and placed my hand on the cool glass of the café’s large window. The frost melted. My fingers slipped along the wet surface as I rubbed a spot clear so I could see outside.

  “Oh, no…” I groaned. Across the busy road, a shop door opened and Paige stepped out, shoving her hands into her gloves. I pressed my nose to the glass. “Kate, tell me the tattoo parlor isn’t that black building across the street.”

  “Actually, it is,” Kate said, turning around.

  “Why? What did you see?” Brit asked.

  “Paige. She came out of there. She’s peeking down her sleeve at her arm like maybe she got a tattoo.”

  “Oh, that can’t be good.” Kate rubbed her fist on the glass to clear her own porthole-sized view. She glanced at Brit. “Didn’t you say she dated Wade?”

  “Yeah, and she’s totally obsessed with him.” I pushed out of my chair and bolted for the door. The rattle of quickly abandoned spoons and coffee mugs rang out as the crew trailed behind me.

  Outside, Paige had already sped away in her car. I screeched to a halt on the sidewalk. No way would I let her see me in the rearview mirror, chasing after her car like a dog.

  “Should we go after he
r?” Matt asked. “The hatchback is parked around the corner.”

  “You’ll never catch up,” I told him. “She’s given me a few rides to school, and let’s say that Paige thinks of speed limits as more of a minimum requirement. She probably went back to school to stalk Wade. It’s her favorite pastime. Whatever thrall he used on her was a doozy.”

  Kate grimaced. “If her mind is weak, then, yes, a vampire’s glamour or thrall can have lasting effects.” She quirked a brow at me. “I have a spell to reverse its effect. Being around Wade would make her ill. It’s quite effective.”

  Brit’s eyes widened with interest. “How ill are we talking?”

  “Thanks, Kate,” Alec cut in, “but I think we can use Paige’s fascination with Wade to our advantage.” He glanced across the busy street at the parlor. “If Paige has been marked, the werewolves will be after her. And we’re already monitoring Wade’s nocturnal activities. If Paige is glued to Wade’s side, that makes our job easier.”

  One of the town’s pint-sized buses slowed to a stop in front of us.

  “You kids need a ride?” the driver called out, her voice rumbling like the diesel engine. “The designated pickup is at the post office, but you can hop on here.”

  “Hey, Janice.” Kate flashed a wide smile. “We’re loitering, sorry. I’ll have a steamer ready for you after your shift. Be sure to drop by the café.”

  “Absolutely.” The driver adjusted her hat and cranked the door shut.

  “Wow,” I said. “This really is a small town. Everyone knows the bus driver. Everyone knows my aunt and uncle…”

  Kate gave me a brief hug. “It’s a small, fabulous town. And we’re glad to have you in it. But if we don’t get this Harbinger thing figured out, it will be the last place anyone will want to live.”

  “You’re right.” Matt zipped up the jacket he’d grabbed on the way out of the coffee shop. “We should find out what Paige was up to at the parlor, so we know what we’re dealing with.”

  “So far Logan has only turned guys into werewolves,” Brit said. “Why would he turn a girl? They’d be weaker.”

  I laughed. “Oh no, they’re not. Females are tough, unpredictable. I hate to say it, but the lunar cycle combined with PMS…that’s something to be avoided at all costs.”

  “All right, eww.” Brit made a face. “Point taken.” She bit her lip. “Maybe Paige went inside to buy jewelry. Whip does sell other stuff in the parlor, right?”

  Kate glanced at Alec. “That’s true. He sells crosses, for one.”

  “Can we get past the cross already?” Alec folded his arms. “With Eryn’s uncle causing all that trouble for Harbinger, who knows what Logan might do? Turning Paige would be the ultimate revenge.”

  “Let me go first,” Kate said, taking the lead. “If you go charging in there with your faces all growly like that”—she nodded toward me, and I spent considerable effort smoothing my expression—“Whip will be diving for his shotgun before you can say blood stains are bad for business.”

  We jogged across the busy road—well, busy by Redgrave standards—ignoring the horn blasts. You’d think we were in downtown Vancouver the way these people drove. Alec and Kate discussed how best to deal with Whip, while Matt and I trailed behind. We were at the parlor door when I noticed Brit had walked to the crosswalk a half a block down.

  I shot Matt a questioning look.

  “She can’t run like we can,” he said defensively as if I’d called him a sorry excuse for a boyfriend, one who’d ditch his girlfriend and make her take the long way—which I hadn’t, but I sure was thinking it. “She wouldn’t have made it with all that traffic. Brit knows when to let us forge ahead. Sometimes she has to hang back and let others use their strengths.”

  “Speaking of Brit—” I groaned and dug in my pocket for my cell. “What time is it? She’ll be late for her midterm and…” My words trailed off as I stared at the time displayed on my phone. Noon. How was that possible? We’d left school around noon, and we’d spent at least forty minutes in the café.

  I was shaking my phone side to side when Brit walked up beside me and laughed.

  “It’s not broken. I told you time moves at its own pace in Conundrum.”

  I met her amused gaze. Then shot a disbelieving glance at Kate, who gave a sheepish shrug and pulled open the heavy metal door to the parlor.

  “I told you she isn’t as young as she looks,” Brit whispered in my ear.

  I revised my opinion of Kate’s witchy powers as I followed her through the door. If she could wrangle time like that, the sky was the limit on her real age, not to mention her magic. Bizarre.

  Whip’s store bore all the trappings of a mystic shop. I’d certainly been in enough with my father to recognize the usual junk. Skulls, shrunken heads, dried bats—you name it—hung from exposed rafters, and metal shelving held old leather bound books with taped-together spines. Scented candles and smoking incense sticks competed for airspace.

  Talk about overkill.

  The immediate war between vanilla and sandalwood made my head pound, but underneath, the deeper, darker odor of emotions set my nerve endings tingling. Grief, revenge, insecurity. Whip’s customers each had their own reason for seeking out his services, and echoes of those motives lingered in the air.

  A stocky guy with a red bandana on his head, wearing a black bowling shirt with red flames roaring across the chest, stood behind a glass display counter. His beefy forearms were covered in tattoos, and an actual bone jutted through his pug nose. A bone! Spurs jangled as he sauntered around the counter, revealing faded jeans, ripped at the knees. He was old-school rebel, complete with Harley Davidson boots.

  He tugged Kate to him in a lingering hug that lifted her off the floor as he tossed a suspicious glance at the rest of the crew over her shoulder. “You brought the town outcasts. I tell you, I get all the best customers.” His arm dropped to Kate’s waist, and he tucked her against his side. He nodded to the younger couple. “Matt, Brit.” Then he gripped Alec in a firm handshake. “Alec, I swear, if you’re here to change your mind about that cross again—”

  Alec tensed, and he twisted his head slightly back toward me. His tawny skin flushed a deep crimson that rose up his neck.

  “I won’t exchange it.” Whip slapped Alec on the shoulder. “You give her that masterpiece, and the girl’s gonna be eating out of your hand.”

  Kate’s shoulders shook with silent laughter.

  “I think that’s an overstatement.” I stepped forward. “But, yeah”—I fingered the cross around my neck casually for a second, the silver rasping like sandpaper on my sensitive fingertips—“I like it.”

  “You like it.” Whip snorted. “It’s been blessed by a priest, sanctified by the local high priestess, and she likes it?”

  “She’s pulling your chain, Whip.” Kate laughed softly as she smoothed Whip’s ruffled, tattoos. “The Goddess knows it’s easy enough to rattle. I don’t think Eryn appreciated the ‘eating out of your hand’ comment.” She made a face. “Neither did I. I hope you don’t say stuff like that about me.”

  Whip gave Kate a cheeky grin, then eyed the cross around my neck. “Anyone who can put our Alec in the tizzy he was in choosing that cross is a friend of mine.” He wore a conspiratorial smile. “Welcome, Eryn.” He studied the rest of the group. “But I have a feeling this isn’t a social visit. What can I do you for?”

  “Eryn’s cousin was here. Thin. Blonde.” Alec wiggled his fingers near his head. “Lots of curls.”

  Whip snorted and shot me a look. “She’s your cousin? My condolences. That one is a piece of work. Wanted some ink. I gave her a temp, but I don’t think she’ll be back.”

  Paige really had come in for a tattoo. Yikes. I wrapped my arms around my chest as a shiver of unease caught me off guard. “A temp? What’s a temp?”

  “I take the design the customer wants,” Whip said, “and make a temporary tattoo out of it—put it in the right spot so they can try it out for a fe
w days before committing to the real deal.” He shrugged. “I can tell when someone’s serious or not. That girl was wishy-washy.”

  “What was the design?” Brit asked, her voice sharp. “Was it the one Blake had done? The wolf and skull?”

  Whip’s eyes widened. “You’re right,” he said slowly. “It was the same. Blake and a bunch of kids had the same ink done. I forgot about that.” He frowned and rubbed his temples as if clearing a foggy memory. “I never forget my ink, that’s odd.” He shot Kate a look. “I may not know everything about what you do for this town, but even I can tell this isn’t right. I never forget a tat. But I did.” His face paled. “Have I done something wrong?”

  “Not you, Whip. Never you.” She patted his tat-filled arm. “But you might have been under a spell, or a compulsion, to do the tattoos and then forget about it. We’ve found a connection between the tattoos and all the terrible incidents going on around town. It’s more than what you’ve heard on the news. Our kind of more.”

  From the resigned look on Whip’s face, this was old hat for Redgrave.

  Chapter 10: Convince Me

  We left the parlor in a rush to get back to school for Brit’s exam. The world had clicked along at its usual pace while we were in Whip’s tattoo parlor. Brit said Kate could only manipulate time in the café, where her magic was strongest. Something about a preternatural time convergence in the crawl space under the java-sipping customers’ feet.

  When Brit started talking magicks and techy jargon I sorta didn’t pay much attention. Did we have to kill it? Banish it with silver? Those were the details I cared about.

  But I did wonder about one issue. If the timedoodle thingamabob existed in a fixed location under the café, did that mean Kate started to age whenever she left it? It had certainly seemed like she couldn’t get back to Conundrum fast enough.

  I guess we all had our quirks.

  Like Brit and her obsession with getting a decent education.

  Back at school, Brit took off for her exam, Alec and Matt went to their classes, and I intended to go to mine, but at the last minute decided to skip. I shoved my Career and Life Management text back into my locker. Really, what could I possibly learn from a class like that? I didn’t exactly see myself as career girl material.

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