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Authors: Amber Lynn Natusch

Fractured

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Contents

Cover

FRACTURED

Copyright

More by ALN

Dedication

Prologue

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

32

33

34

35

36

37

38

Epilogue

Connect with ALN

Next in the Series

Tempted by Evil

About the Author

Acknowledgments

FRACTURED

By

Amber Lynn Natusch

FRACTURED Version 1.0

Copyright © 2013 Amber Lynn Natusch All rights reserved.

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

ISBN-13: 978-0-9891023-1-5

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, businesses, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is entirely coincidental.

Published by Amber Lynn Natusch Cover Design by Jamie Rosen Editing by Jennifer Ryan

www.amberlynnnatusch.com

More by Amber Lynn Natusch

The Caged Series

CAGED

HAUNTED

FRAMED

SCARRED

FRACTURED

Novella 1

STRAYED

Novella 2

BETRAYED

The UNBORN Series

Coming in 2013

UNBORN

The Light and Shadow Trilogy By Shannon Morton and Amber Lynn Natusch Tempted By Evil

More Including Release Dates:amberlynnnatusch.com

facebook.com/amberlynnnatusch

Follow @AmberLNatusch

Tweet your thoughts through the book

To my husband,

who mends all that is broken, rights all that is wrong, and loves all that is unlovable.

Prologue

Silence...

It surrounded me, permeating the air while it clung to the trees. I felt hemmed in by it, claustrophobic. The sun was falling just below the canopy of autumn leaves far above my head, creating an eerie glow of fiery crimson and gold. I sat confused as I stared up at the ceiling of foliage. The trees hadn't started to change, not that I remembered.

A flash of memory jarred me to my feet: my fear, Scarlet's passion, Sean's anger, Matty's death. I was suffocated by it, reliving the moment when Scarlet shoved me down, down so deep inside myself that I drowned in the darkness of my soul, tucked away. Never to be let out.

Never to be found again. She told me this herself, told me I would pay.

I had lived in a state of black suspension from that moment on. No sense of time or place or existence, lost in a perpetual tunnel of night.

There was no escape. Scarlet had warned me several times that she wasn't to be trifled with, that her retribution would be epic. A liar she was not.

So why had she suddenly let me out? Why leave me stranded in the woods, naked, left to the elements, helpless? Because she knew it would bring back the personal hell I'd once lived through, when my parents were murdered and I Changed, my werewolf side emerging. Out of all my nightmares, it was the only one that I had on a recurring basis. She wanted me to live it again.

As if on cue, three darkened figures slowly wound their way towards me, weaving through the trees so fluidly that they nearly lulled me into a trance. Nearly.

My fight or flight response kicked in when I heard the screams that were ripped from my parents' throats that fateful night echo through my brain. I took off in a flat-out sprint in the opposite direction of their approach. My skin stung as the thick underbrush bit me repeatedly, but the pain motivated me.

I heard the rhythmic cadence of their running getting louder and louder behind me, but I didn't dare look. I recognized the sound. They weren't human. I was.

Knowing that my attempt to escape was futile, I panicked, hoping that Scarlet, angry though she was, would come to my aid as she always had in the past. If not for me, then at least to save herself. She had a reliable sense of self-interest and an undying commitment to staying alive. I screamed at her, both inside and aloud, searching through my mind for her, desperately seeking my other half.

The hit from behind me drove me face first into a fallen tree. The pain was immediate and fierce. As my vision narrowed and darkened, I had a very sobering realization.

Scarlet was gone.

1

I stared blankly at the intercom in front of me, afraid to ring it. I should have wanted to run straight into my home and resume my life, but I didn't. Instead, I wandered the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire aimlessly, soaking in the final few rays of sunlight that dusk was willing to afford me until I found myself standing outside Sean's building. It seemed I couldn't bring myself to ring that buzzer either.

I still wasn't sure how long I'd been gone, and I was even less sure about how warm the reception was going to be from those who were hurt by my absence, especially Sean. He'd nearly died because of me―or at least Ithoughthe had nearly died. The jury was still out on his whole invincibility schtick. Cooper would have only been informed about what had really happened if Sean felt it was necessary in order to find me, and that was a big “if” considering he may not havewantedto find me at all.

That left Cooper completely in the dark as to my disappearance, and I knew how mad that would drive him.

Deep down, I didn't want to believe that Sean would have withheld that information, but I just wasn't certain. I also wasn't convinced that Sean didn't want to find me; it was what he'd do to me when he did that had me worried. My gut said he wouldn't harm me, but my gut had been proven wrong before. I hoped I wasn't having a relapse of that behavior.

With a sigh, I focused my attention back on the buzzer beside the front entrance to the building. In my mind, I repeated the phrasejust liftyour finger and press itover and over again.But I couldn't. I wasn't ready for whatever dramatic scene that was sure to follow.

Instead, I walked away as the darkness of night began to settle in, and cut back through town to my place. All I wanted to do was slink into my apartment unannounced, crawl into my bed, and sleep for days, without having to explain myself to anyone. Not that I could, even if I had wanted to.

After a chilly walk home in the crisp fall air, I arrived home and reached my arm out for the door handle. I knew it would be locked, but I just had to check. Much to my surprise and extreme delight, it wasn't locked at all. Cooper had apparently picked up the same absentminded habit that I'd had of forgetting to lock the door once it closed. Or maybe he'd just left it open in the hope that I'd wander into the apartment one day. Either way, I was going to find out.

I crept up the stairs slowly, trying to detect whether he was home. I saw no lights from the street, but that didn't tell me a whole lot since only my bedroom faced out onto the road. If my door was closed, no light from the rest of the house would be seen. Once I reached the landing, I put my ear to the door, looking down at the floor. Still no light, and definitely no sound.

Anxiously, I tried the knob, which too was unlocked. I froze for a moment, wondering if something was wrong. It was such a knee-jerk reflex to assume the worst, though my history warranted that behavior.

With a deep, cleansing breath, I quickly talked myself down off of that ledge, reminding myself that all known threats had been eliminated before Scarlet had run off. Feeling more at ease about any pressing danger, I pushed the door open into a darkened living room and made my way quietly to the kitchen.

The fridge was full of leftovers; Cooper had clearly been home. He always cooked as if he was feeding twelve, but he usually ate two-thirds of it himself. I grabbed a bowl of noodles covered in sauce and started to inhale it, shoving fistfuls at a time into my mouth with my bare―and questionably clean―hands. It wasn't until I saw the contents of the fridge that I’d realized how hungry I actually was.

When did I eat last? Was she trying to starve me to death?

I stood up, closing the door as I stepped back out of the way. When I turned around, I slammed into a very muscled and extremely tense Cooper. The container of noodles crashed to the floor.

My eyes slowly worked their way up to meet his. His hands were balled into fists at his sides. His chest pumped, rising and falling at breakneck speed. His eyes glowed a dangerous yellow. He was close to Changing, his wolf trying to take over. My tears welled and spilled over, but I made no attempt to wipe them away. I kept my gaze fixed on his.

“Cooper, I—”

“Three weeks,” he growled, eyes still blazing.

“What?” I blurted involuntarily, totally confused.

“You've been gone for three weeks and you just waltz in here like everything is normal?” He inched towards me and I backed away from his anger.

“Three weeks!” I exclaimed. “How is that possible?”

“I searched night and day for you,” he continued, completely ignoring me. “I didn't sleep. I found your car, your phone, your clothes...”

“I'm sorry, Coop—”

“But not you,” he said, sounding suddenly mournful. “Never you.”

I reached forward to touch him, but dropped my hand immediately.

His rage was palpable, and I didn't want to stoke that fire any further.

“I didn't know,” I protested softly. “Istilldon't know what happened.”

“That makes two of us then, doesn't it?” he snarled. “Sean wasn't very forthcoming about what had occurred that night when he showed up here, encrusted in dried blood, and dragged me back to his place. All I pieced together was that you were gone and he was livid. I've been looking for you ever since.”

I dropped my eyes to the floor. Sean hadn't told him about the attack or Scarlet's involvement in it. It seemed cruel, even for Sean, to leave Cooper so far out of the loop.

I racked my brain for anything I could possibly say to smooth things over a bit with Cooper. Had it been up to me, I never would have left without filling him in, but it hadn't been my choice. Scarlet did what she did against my will, leaving me with a mess to clean up. I hated knowing how distraught I had made Cooper with my disappearance. Nothing felt right when he was angry with me.

And he was pissed.


Page 2

Just as I opened my mouth to offer some placating remark, he snatched me into his arms and hugged me violently. A rush of emotions emanated from him, relief being the primary―anger and love were right behind. As happy as I was to know that my empath abilities from childhood still remained intact even though Scarlet was missing, I would have preferred a much more pleasant way to test the waters.

As quickly as he'd taken me in, he let me loose, turning on his heels to walk away and grab his phone off the kitchen island. He rounded the corner to the hall, dialing as he went. Once my head stopped spinning and my vision sorted itself out, I followed behind, mute, still unable to formulate a defense of any kind. I didn't think claiming head trauma was going to help my case for very long.

“She's back,” he said gruffly. “Nope. About ten minutes ago.” He paused for a moment. I tried to hear the words that were being shouted at Cooper, but I couldn't make them out. The owner of the voice, however, I could.

“She says she has no clue...well, I think it's very interesting too,” he said, drumming his fingers along the wall, his back still to me. “She's skin and bones, but she doesn't look injured, if that's what you mean.

She's right here if you want to—”

He pulled the phone from his ear and hung up. The line had gone dead before he’d even finished his sentence. A knot immediately formed in my stomach, twisting tighter and tighter with every passing second.

“Sean doesn't want to talk to me, does he?” I asked sheepishly.

Cooper turned to face me slowly.

“No, he doesn't,” he said with a pause. “And I'm not entirely sure that I'm ready to either.”

He at least had the decency to look remotely pained while sharing his sentiment, his eyes returning to their human, hazel color. A moment later, the door to his room slammed shut, announcing the official end to my homecoming. I hadn't thought that much about how I'd be received upon my arrival, but I would never have guessed that hostility and the cold shoulder would be the options of choice.

Embarrassed, I schlepped my way to my room and quietly closed the door. I turned on the small lamp just inside, shying away from brightness it emanated; my eyes were having a hard time adapting to the light. Three weeks of virtual darkness seemed to have real-life lasting effects.

I made my way over to the bay window that faced the downtown streets of Portsmouth and looked out over them. Since it also faced the apartment of the one I wanted to talk to most, I quickly located the grand windows on the top floor of Sean's building. It was only two streets over from mine, and though dimly lit, there was just enough light to outline a figure hovering. A figure that immediately turned and walked away.

Darkness fell on his apartment only moments after. He had refused to speak to me only moments earlier. I guess he didn't want to see me either.

My stomach lurched at his actions, but I couldn't analyze the situation any further. I was thoroughly exhausted, and all I wanted to do was climb into my bed and sleep until the sun woke me. Stripping off the clothes given to me by my rescuers, I threw them in the trash. I scanned the floor for something to wear to bed, but found nothing. Someone had tidied my room in my absence, preparing it for my return. Too tired to rifle through my drawers, I threw back the covers on my bed before I plopped my naked, weary body onto it and wrapped the duvet up tight around me. I liked the feeling it gave me―warm and secure. I hadn't felt that way for a while.

I plummeted into a deep sleep instantly, but regretted it almost as quickly. An auditory montage of screams plagued my dreams. I saw nothing, but felt everything. The horror enveloped me, coming to a crashing crescendo of fear and pain that I could not escape.

When I finally broke free, I shot up out of bed, only to be greeted with more darkness. Frightened beyond measure, I launched myself to the wall switch, squinting tightly when the deluge of light assaulted my still-sensitive eyes. My breath came shaky and rapid while sweat poured down my face and back. I ran to my closet, pulled out a white robe and threw it on, fastening it snugly around me before heading out of the room.

I tiptoed up to Cooper's door, leaning my ear against it as soundlessly as I could. He'd told me once that I had the grace of an elephant, and he could hear me coming from miles away. I didn't want to wake him. What I did selfishly want was the feeling of safety he could offer in times of distress. Just being close to him helped, and that was exactly what I needed.

The door was shut tightly, so I carefully turned the knob, creating as little sound as possible, and pushed slowly inward. Cooper's back was to me, lit only by the moonlight penetrating the gap in the curtains. I really needed to get him some that fit the window better. He never stirred, so I continued my way in, stopping at the edge of the bed. I eased my way on as gingerly as I could, thankful that foam mattresses didn't transfer much motion.

Once on top of the comforter, I inelegantly scooted my way backward towards him an inch at a time. He'd have laughed if he'd been watching me; I'm sure I looked utterly ridiculous. Stopping just before I made contact with him, I balled myself up into the fetal position and tried to go back to sleep.

“Did you get lost on your way to the bathroom?” Cooper asked over his shoulder. His tone was cold, but his humor was back.

“Sorry,” I said, sitting up. “I'll go. I just—” I cut my explanation off at the start. He didn't want to hear my excuses. In fact, he'd been pretty clear that he didn't want to hear anything from me. Not for a while.

I moved to push off of the bed when his hand caught my wrist, turning me to face him as he rolled towards me. We shared a long moment eyeing each other in that lone sliver of light that shone across his bed.

“You 'just' what?” he asked, his voice noticeably softer.

“I can't sleep. The sounds in my head...,” I said, trailing off.

“Sounds of what, Ruby? What happened when you were gone?”

I wanted to offer him something concrete, something to help end the agony he'd clearly felt during my absence, but there was nothing to give.

Whatever horrors Scarlet had inflicted on the world while she’d held me hostage were unknown. All I had were occasional soundbites and audio snippets, none of which were encouraging.

“I don't know, Coop. Honest,” I said, tears again rolling off my face.

“All I know is that two days ago I was sitting in the woods, naked, freezing, and scared shitless. It was like—” I choked on the words that I couldn't bring myself to say. Cooper, seeing my distress, finished them for me.

“When your parents were killed?” he said softly, wiping the tears from my face.

“Yes,” I whispered.

“And you don't rememberanythingbefore that?”

“No.”

His face scrunched up in confused frustration.

“What happened with Sean? Why did you leave in the first place?”

“She tried to kill him,” I said quietly, staring at my hands resting in my lap. “Scarlet nearly let Matty stab him to death. He tried to get her to kill Sean, which she, of course, didn't do in the end. She killed Matty instead. The pain she felt...Cooper...it was unbearable,” I whispered.

“Angry...she was so, so angry. She told Sean he would pay and ran off.

Right before her escape, she shut me out. After that, I didn't see a thing.”

He stared at me in utter disbelief. I couldn't blame him; it was a lot to take in.

“I thought Sean was...? How did Scarlet...? Wait...how did you get back?” he stammered, barely able to finish his thoughts. I hesitated, not knowing what exactly to say to any of his questions. I really only knew the answer to one.

Sensing my anxiety, he pulled me down to lie next to him, and I nestled in close, still resting on top of the bedding. He wrapped his long, muscular arms around me, tucking me into the crook of his neck. My apprehension left me instantly. That was the homecoming I had wanted.

“Do you not want to talk about this tonight?” he asked, stroking my hair slowly.

“It's just that I don't have the answers, Coop. I can tell you a bit about the men who found me, but that's it.”

“Then start there.”

“Like I said before, Scarlet left me deep in the woods. When I came to, I saw them through the trees, walking towards me. It was like they knew I'd come to my senses, like they'd been following me for a while, waiting for me to snap out of it. Of course, I panicked and took off running, but as soon as I heard them behind me, I knew what they were.”

“Werewolves...,” Cooper said, his grip on me tightening ever so slightly. I wondered if he noticed.

“Exactly.One of them tackled me from behind. I cracked my head on a log and knocked myself out. I woke up a day later. They'd brought me back to the cabin where they lived. They patched me up, treating what they could, and then they helped me get home,” I said, hedging slightly.

“To mymate.”

“Your mate? But—”

“I don't know what they sensed, Coop, but that's what they said.

They treated me with the utmost respect. They never laid an unwanted finger on me the whole time I was around them―barring the tackling incident, of course,” I explained. “There was something about the way they said mate...it made me wonder if I might have been in trouble if they hadn't sensed what they did.”

“You might have,” Cooper growled. “And who exactly were these wolves?”

“I don't know. They must have mentioned their names, but I don't remember.”

“You don't remember?”

“Hello, I had a head injury. Wasn't thinking clearly.”

“You're a walking head injury,” he mocked, giving me a playful nudge in an effort to calm his growing rage. “So do you knowwhereyou were?”

“Somewhere up in Maine, they said. Near the Canadian border.

They said they had been trying to track me for a while, but they couldn't catch me. As far as they knew, I had only been in northern Maine for a few days. They never saw me before that.”

“So Scarlet was on the move?”

“I guess.”

“That would explain why it was so hard to find you.”

“I'm sorry, Coop. I know you tried. If I could have stopped her—”

“Make me a deal, okay?” he asked. “No more apologizing tonight. I think it actually makes me angrier.”

“Fine. Consider it retracted then,” I said, yawning. “I'm going to try and sleep now.”

“Okay, Rubes, but I gotta say that something isn't adding up with all of this,” he said, adjusting his arm under my head. “I mean...where's Scarlet? She didn't come out when you were in the woods; she didn't come out when I was ready to attack you. Shelivesfor moments like that.

Why didn't she come out to help you?”

“Because she's gone, Cooper,” I whispered in reply.

“Gone?” he asked, his disbelief apparent.

“Yep. Gone, as in left the building.”

“Butyou'rethe building. She's part ofyou.”

“Exactly.”

“I'm not trying to be thick here, Ruby, but I don't get it.”

“I don't either, Coop, but my guess is that whatever darkened space she shoved me down into is exactly where she's gone. I don't hear her. I can't feel her. And no amount of fear or anxiety even coaxes her,” I informed him. “Something went wrong, Cooper. Really, really wrong.”

“You need to tell—”

“Don't say it.Pleasedon't say it,” I said, propping myself up on my arms. “It's pretty plain that he wants nothing to do with me, and I certainly can't blame him for that. Telling him won't change anything.

Not right now, anyway.” I lay back down, cutting off the conversation before my true emotions spilled out. Sean's dismissal had been a knife through my heart.

Cooper kissed me on my forehead and pulled me in closer.

“If that's what you want. I'll leave it alone for now.”

I said nothing, but snuggled into him tightly. I was done talking about things I couldn't understand. Couldn't change. Couldn't fix. I wanted to press into the comfort that Cooper provided and dream the pleasant dreams that always came when I was in his net of safety.

Cooper washome.

And I was glad to be there.

2

"I know you're exhausted, Rubes, but you need to call Peyta," Cooper said as he expertly scrambled eggs. "I can't even begin to describe the stress she's been feeling. First the whole thing with her dad, then you..." He paused mid-stir, staring at the pan in his hand.

"Why do I feel like there's something else you're leaving off that list?" I asked while gingerly sipping my orange juice. After scarfing down the noodles the night before, I felt terrible―my stomach wasn't adjusting well to food.

He sighed heavily before turning to look at me.

"It's Jay."

My heart instantly sank. My attention was immediately brought back to the screams I'd heard coming from the hallway outside Sean's apartment the night that Scarlet took over. Jay had been out there, guarding the door.

“Nooo...,” I whispered, eyes searching Cooper's for any shred of evidence that what I feared wasn't true. All I found in his expression was pain.

“It was bad, Ruby,” he said soberly.

I couldn't listen. I sprang from my seat and headed straight for my room. I needed to find my keys.

“Ruby!” Cooper called to me as he pursued me to my room. “Would you wait a second?”

He caught my arm and whirled me around to face him.

“This is my fault,” I said, sniffling softly.

“It's not what you think, Rubes. He's not dead,” he said, still gripping my arm. “Sean got to him just in time, apparently, and then took him to Peyta. From what I've managed to surmise, Sean was in pretty rough shape himself when they arrived at Ronnie's.”

“Peyta healed them,” I muttered under my breath.

I felt sick. I fell to my knees, and what little food I'd been able to keep down came up violently all over the hardwood floor. I knew what it was like to look down at someone you loved and watch while their life slipped away. Luckily for Jay, Peyta wasn't a helpless bystander in that situation.


Page 3

“You need to sit down,” Cooper ordered, placing me on the edge of my bed. “I'll take care of this.” While he walked out of my room to find whatever materials were necessary to clean up the mess I'd made, I wondered if there were enough in existence to address the metaphorical one I was in.

I looked up to see my phone taunting me from my nightstand. “Go ahead...call her,” it seemed to say. “One call will fix everything.” Then it laughed at me—an evil, all-knowing laugh.

“Fuck you,” I muttered, staring it down.

“Fuckme?” Cooper thundered. I hadn't even realized he'd returned.

“Is that the thanks I get for cleaning up your breakfast?”

“I'm sorry, Coop,” I said, hedging slightly. “I wasn't talking to you...”

Before I could process why, he shot up quickly, grabbing my shoulders to pull me closer to his face. He glared deep into my eyes, searching them for something.

“Scarlet?” he growled. “You and I need to chat.”

Suddenly, his actions made sense. It had been a while since Scarlet and I had had one of our little back and forth banters. I didn't realize when I answered him what my outburst would imply.

“No, Cooper. It's not her,” I said softly, trying to calm him. His hazel eyes started to glow with a hint of gold. He was pissed off. Big time. “The phone...I was talking to thephone.”

A look of concern quickly bled through the anger in his expression.

It was apparent that he was unsure of how mentally sound I was in that moment. In fairness, I had been talking to an inanimate object.

“I don't know how I can face Peyta, Coop,” I explained as I tried to coax him into sitting next to me. “How do you say sorry for being a party to the near death of the man she loves?”

“Ruby,” he said, the warmth returning to his eyes, “she lovesyou, too. She's never given me even the slightest indication that she blames you for any of this. She's missed you.” He finally came to sit next to me, taking my hand in his. “She'smournedyou.”

“But I'm not dead,” I whispered.

“I know. In truth, I don't think she ever believed you were,” he said, tucking a stray piece of hair behind my ear. “You would have been so proud of her, Ruby. She was so brave. When she learned that you had disappeared that night, she called me right away. She asked what we needed to do to find you. She has been the driving force behind the store, keeping it going. All she talked about was how we needed to have it running smoothly so you wouldn't have to worry about anything when you got back.”

I felt a tear escape my eye, rolling slowly down my cheek while he continued.

“She eventually went on as though you were just out of town, about to return at any time. That's when I started to worry about her—we all did.” His face grew hard, trying to mask the pain he felt, but it didn't matter; I felt every ounce of it. “She tried so hard to keep up the act, but when she thought she was alone, her true emotions came through—she was in a dark place inside. She didn't think you were coming back, Ruby...she just needed tobelieveyou were.”

“I don't know what to say to her, Cooper. How do I explain something that I don't understand myself?”

“You think your return needs any explanation?” he asked, looking utterly perplexed. “Ruby, all that kid wants to do is wrap her arms around you and squeeze until they go numb and somebody has to pry her off of you.”

I wanted desperately to believe him, but so often I found myself on the wrong side of expectations. If that trend proved true in the Peyta situation, I needed to be mentally prepared for it.

“What day is it?” I asked, mulling something over in my mind.

“It's Sunday. Why?”

“Will you come with me?” I asked, giving his hand a squeeze. “To Ronnie's...will you go?”

He squeezed my hand in return.

“Go get cleaned up. I'll address your regurgitated breakfast while you do. We can leave as soon as you're ready.”

“Thanks, Cooper,” I replied, wanting to say more than I could bring myself to. We had so easily fallen back into our friendship, and I wanted to acknowledge it, but I knew my sentiments would somehow botch the moment.

I hoped that Peyta and I would be able to mend just as quickly.

*

The drive proved unbearably long, yet painfully short. Cooper guided the car along the familiar route while I fretted away in the passenger seat. As much as I was dying to see Peyta, a small part of me was terrified by the potential complications of the encounter and wanted to avoid them at all costs. I knew Cooper was speaking to me, trying to calm me, but I heard nothing. The voices of doubt in my mind drowned out all other sound.

When we turned into Ronnie's driveway, I felt as though someone was sitting on my chest. The pressure was intense, nearly piercing my heart.

“Did you call before we left?” Cooper asked, parking in front of the garage.

“No,” I whispered. “I thought it wouldn't matter. Besides...I didn't know what to say.”

“Well, I guess it’s a moot point now. Let's get this over with, shall we?” He popped open his door and got out of the car. I stayed where I was.

He paused partway up the path to the house, looking back to see if I was coming. He sighed heavily when he realized I wasn't following.

“Ruby,” he called, making his way back to the car. “You need to get out and―”

The front door opened abruptly, snapping our collective attention back to the house. Out stepped Peyta with an expression I'd never seen her wear—disbelief. Not once, in all that she'd been through, had I seen

'does not compute' register on her face. That day, I did.

I sprang from the car with an immediate need to hold her, but by the time I made my way to Cooper, she wore a very different face entirely. I didn't like it one bit. I'd seen that face too many times to count, but never on her. Stoic indifference looked all sorts of wrong on her, but she wore it like a veteran—her mother's daughter for sure.

“Peyta?” I called to her as Cooper grabbed my arm. I tried to pull away from him, but he held me firmly where I was. He felt what I couldn't feel because of my own fear—anger.

“When did you get back?” she asked. Her voice was eerily controlled. That's when I first felt the hostility rolling off of her in waves so large I thought they would have washed me away if Cooper hadn't held me steady.

“Yesterday,” Cooper offered.

“How did you get back?” she asked, folding her arms.

“P,” I started, trying yet again to move toward her. Cooper's hold was unyielding.

“Why didn't you call?”

“There was so much to sort out when I got back,” I said, hesitating.

She was right; I should have called. A friend would have called—so would a sister.

“I see,” she replied, her voice colder than ice.

“You're angry,” I said, trying to placate her.

“I would have called,” she said quietly.

“I'm sorry, Peyta. I really am,” I pleaded. “Please let me explain.”

“I don't need an explanation,” she said, turning back to the door.

“I'm glad you're back.”

She walked inside and closed the door, leaving Cooper and me dumbfounded in the driveway.

“What just happened?” I asked him, looking up for a sign in his expression. I found none.

“I have no idea.”

“I can't leave it like this, Coop,” I said, feeling helpless.

“Then fix it,” he replied without any words of wisdom. “You're the only one who can.”

I thought about the girl I knew—the happy, loving sprite, whose powers of sarcasm rivaled my own. I thought about what she meant to me and I to her. Then I thought about how I would have felt if she'd left without a trace, without any reasonable explanation. How would I have dealt with her absence? How exhausting would it have been to keep up a façade of optimism while inside I felt part of my soul eroding slowly?

Peyta had an uncanny ability to make sense out of the insensible because her view of life was black and white. Shades of gray didn't matter to her at all. When she had learned what Cooper and I were, she accepted it without a second thought because she knew us and loved us. That was what mattered to her; what we were did not. So why did the 'why' matter so much to her in that moment? I was home and that was what she wanted. The details were just shades of gray—or were they? Something was holding her back, and until I figured out the why behind it, nothing would be right between us. I needed an epiphany in the worst way.

Instead, I got Ronnie.

“She took your disappearance really hard, Ruby. You can't expect her to shed that armor at the drop of a hat, can you?” she asked, making her way to the edge of the porch. “I've never seen her this bad before, though. She won't talk to any of us about it.”

Her face looked more grim than ever, which spoke volumes given Ronnie's history. She was worried about Peyta too.

“What should I do?” I asked, walking up the path toward her.

Cooper stayed behind, which was fine with me. I needed to solve the problem without exploiting his relationship with Peyta.

“Explain why you did it.”

“She said she didn't want to hear it,” I lamented.

“And you believe her?”

“I don't know what to believe anymore, Ronnie,” I sighed. “I feel like everything has flipped on its ass since I've been back. Nothing is the same. Nothingfeelsright.”

“That's because it isn't. You of all people should know what it feels like to lose someone. It changes you. She didn't just loseyou,” she started, choking ever so slightly on her words. “She lost her father too.

Her world has slowly been crumbling around her, Ruby. Her uncomplicated view on life has become significantly complicated.”

“I can't fix that,” I whispered, coming to stand before Ronnie at the base of the steps.

“No. You can't,” she said softly. “But you can teach her how to survive it better than anyone else I know.”

I stood motionless, stunned by her words. Of all the things I expected to get from Ronnie when I returned, a nod of approval was not one of them. Once I collected myself, I started up the narrow stairs, trying not to get too close to her as I passed. She caught my arm when I stood beside her, halting my ascent up the final step.

“It's good to have you back,” she said, staring away from me, across the street. Her words were soft and gentle as was her hold on my arm.

However, her expression when she turned to me was not. “Don't ever pull a stunt like that again.”

Always black and white.

3

Swallowing hard, I pushed my way through the front door and quickly made my way upstairs to her bedroom. I knew she'd be there; it was her sanctuary.

Just tell her the truth. It's all you have to do . . .

I knocked lightly on the door, knowing that she wasn't going to answer me, so I turned the knob before she could object.

“Peyta,” I called softly. “I've got to get this out...”

I quickly found myself standing alone in her room, talking to nothing but the TV that was still on. Knowing she was in the house, I started to storm the upstairs, throwing open doors in search of her. I wasn't certain as to why a feeling of distress took me over, but I just knew something was wrong. The more I focused on it, the more panicked I felt.

Frustration, helplessness, and shame overtook me, inexplicably forcing me to understand her reaction to my homecoming.

Control...must get control.

I thought and felt those sentiments as if they were my own, and that's when I knew where I would find her. The bathroom door remained closed at the far end of the hall, and I charged it like a bull seeing red. I crashed through it with a thunderous sound, busting the door wide open to a scene that disturbed me more than any I'd ever seen before.

Peyta sat pantless on the edge of the tub, her back toward me, completely unfazed by my entrance. I watched as she drew her arm back fluidly, her hand gliding along the inside of her thigh. Only once that pass was complete did I see the razor she held delicately in her hand.

“No,” I gasped, lunging for the silver blade before she could do any further damage. She didn't even fight me when I ripped it from her hand.

One look at her face and I knew I why—her trance-like state nearly made my heart stop cold.

“It should hurt, shouldn't it?” she asked, staring eerily at the tile in front of her. The white tub below her bled slowly to pink. “But the deeper I cut, the better I feel.”

“Why?” I asked, using the last ounce of breath my lungs possessed to force the word out.

She turned her face towards me so slowly that it was an almost inhuman action—unnatural.

“I was sinking,” she said as I stared into dull, empty eyes. “This kept me from drowning.”

“Peyta,” I whispered, crushing her in my arms before the guilt could overtake me. “I never left you. I would never leave you...I need you to understand that. Do you understand that?”

“You all left,” she said matter of factly. “But it's okay. This makes it okay.”

“This,” I said, indicating her bloodstained and scarred thighs, “isnotokay. Peyta...this isn't like you. What's going on in your head right now? Please tell me. I'm begging you. You'rescaringme.”

“I told you―I was sinking. This made me feel like I had some control over things,” she explained. Her focus came back slowly, removing the frightening appearance of someone who'd been temporarily possessed. "There's just so much...so much I can't control,” she continued, grabbing a towel from the bar beside her and pressing it to her leg. “First my father, then Jay, then you. It was too much. Don't you ever feel like it's too much?” she asked in a tone far too casual for the discussion at hand. “I felt like my body was going to explode, like every cell in it was fighting with the one next to it. I didn't know how to let that emotion out.

Everyone expects so much from me. I couldn't very well fall apart, could I?”

I said nothing, only stared in disbelief at her words. How could someone answer a question so riddled with disturbing subtext?


Page 4

“Everyone needed me to be strong,” she said, the faintest of smiles painting her face. “And I was. I was there for everyone. My mom, Cooper..."

“But why was nobody there for you, P?” I asked, taking the towel from her hand so I could investigate the damage. “Why couldn't you lean on anyone?”

“That's not my role, Ruby.” She said it as though that fact was painfully obvious. It wasn't to me. “People have always expected a certain level of maturity from me, and this situation was no different. In fact, it called for me to be the best I'd ever been."

“What changed, Peyta? At what point did this all go so wrong?” I asked, begging for any shred of light she could shed on when things got so bad that she had resorted to mutilating herself. "Is this the first time you've done this?”

Judging by the faded silvery-white lines on her other thigh, it wasn't.

She saw where my eyes were locked and tried weakly to obscure my view of them, but the damage was done―I knew. It was the first time that night that the shame of her actions seeped through to the surface.

“I don't do it often,” she defended, wrapping the towel around her waist. “Maybe a handful of times total."

“Does your mother know?” I asked, shuddering at the thought of having to tell her.

“NO!” she screamed, grabbing my wrists so tightly that my hands started to turn purple. “You can't tell her either."

“Peyta,” I sighed, sitting down beside her. “You can't keep this from her. She's worried about you. She knows something is wrong.”

“It's fine, Ruby,” she snapped, moving away from me. Her anger had returned, and I knew that wasn't a good sign. I needed to find a way to dissipate some of her emotion so she wouldn't find herself in the tub, only hours later, dancing with a blade again.

“You want to get mad?” I asked, my voice rising slightly. “Fine!

Get mad at me. Take everything out on me. I deserve it. I left you, remember? Makemehurt.”

“I'm not mad at you,” she said, forcing a composed front.

“Bullshit!” I yelled before leaning in closer to her. “You may think you're fooling everyone, but you're not. Especially not me. You'refuriousat me for leaving―for what happened to Jay―because you know thatismy fault too, right? I'm the reason Matty attacked him. Hell, I'm practically the reason your father was killed too. Why don't you take that out on me? Go ahead, Peyta," I challenged, still up in her face. “Take that out on me.”

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, her bottom lip quivering slightly.

“Because I want you to channel your fucking emotions at someone other than yourself,” I prodded, desperately wanting her to let something out―anything. “You want to cut someone? Why not cut me? Why don't you inflict some pain on a deserving party for once?”

“But you don't deserve it,” she started, stepping away from me. She looked frightened.

“I do deserve it,” I shouted, picking up the razor and handing it to her. “Do it! DO IT!”

“I don't want to cut you!” she screamed, throwing her vice against the tiled wall of the shower. It ricocheted wildly back at us, causing me to flinch slightly as it fell to the floor at my feet. "I want to cuther!I want Scarlet to pay! I want that bitch to bleed. She nearly killed Jay,” she screamed before crashing to her knees on the floor. “He...I...I couldn't help him. He just laid there. Sean brought me a corpse―mycorpse, and I froze, just like I froze when my mom was dying. When you were dying. I nearly let him bleed to death in front of me.”

Her sobs came heavy between her words. Her emotional levy had broken, and this time tears, not blood, flowed freely through its cracks.

“For once in my life I didn't feel alone, like my past was finally going to stop haunting me, and then BOOM,” she yelled, slamming her fist into the wall, “everything crashes down around me. I can't take this!”

I couldn’t take it either.

The overwhelming surge crashed over me and took my breath away.

If those were the emotions she’d struggled with while I was gone, then I was thankful that the cuts on her legs were all she’d done in my absence.

The reality that I might not have had Peyta to come back to at all did nothing to normalize my breathing.

Before I could make myself useful to her, Cooper knocked on the door, and without awaiting the go-ahead, opened it immediately. Peyta scrambled to cover herself fully with the towel while I did a quick assessment of what he was about to see. It looked grim. The tub was still streaked with trails of crimson, the blade lying innocuously on the floor next to it.

“Everything okay in here ladies? I heard some shouting and—”

He froze once the door fully unveiled the macabre secret it had only just moments before contained. I watched as the tenuous nature of what he beheld unmasked his expression, disbelief setting in. He stared down at Peyta, who scurried more tightly behind my legs for shelter, before looking up to meet my gaze.

In a rare moment, we shared no words at all. With a single and deliberate shake of my head, I silently ordered him out of the room. He complied without question. I would explain everything to him later, as I always did, but he didn’t need the full impact. Seeing Peyta in that state for a second more would have given him that, and Cooper would never have forgiven himself for not seeing her strength for what it was at the time—a façade of bravery to mask her dark secret.

With a sigh, I moved quickly to lock the bathroom door before any more unwanted visitors could arrive, then I came to sit by Peyta, who had again perched herself on the side of the tub. She shook violently while she let out years’ worth of emotions in the tiny bathroom. All I could do was hold her and ride out the storm.

I cried with her, desperately needing to let out some emotions myself. Different personality types dealt with grief and trauma in different ways. Some needed to talk their feelings through, some stuffed them down deep enough that on most days they could function as though the feelings never existed. Others, like Peyta, held a certain volatility at bay with only the weakest of supports—add too many stressors to the pile and everything collapsed.

“She's gone,” I whispered, leaning my head against her as we rocked together on the edge of the tub. “I don't know where Scarlet went, but she's gone. I can't find her. I wish I had more answers for you, P, I honestly do, but I just don't. When Scarlet killed Matty, something snapped inside her. She took me hostage and ran wild for three weeks, only to let me out at the most inopportune moment,” I explained, wishing I could tell her more. “I didn't know how to break it all to you, but you have to know that I wanted to call you right away. I love you, Peyta.

You're my family.”

“I kept the store going for you,” she sniffled, gripping me tighter.

“I know you did, P. Cooper told me all about it. He was so proud of you.I'mso proud of you, but I'm worried too,” I said, pulling away from her enough to see her face. “I've seen plenty in this past year that scared me, but nothing has scared me more than what I just saw you doing here today. I can't let you continue this, and whether that means telling your mother or dragging you to some program somewhere, I'll do it. Nothing about this is okay, Peyta. You need help.”

“I know,” she whispered. “I don't want to feel this way anymore.”

“We'll fix it,” I said softly before kissing her head. “Together, we'll fix it.”

4

It took forever to get home.

After I helped clean Peyta up and made it abundantly clear to her that she needed to confront her mother about her issue or I was going to do it for her, I left her to it. I prayed that she would. That was a conversation I wouldsonot look forward to having with Ronnie.

When I emerged from the house, I saw Cooper sitting in the car, doors closed, engine off. His hands gripped the wheel as though he was driving while his gaze was off somewhere in the distance, unfocused and unsettled. He was rattled to the core by what he'd seen, just as I had been.

It appeared that I was dealing with it far better.

Nothing changed as I approached the TT or when I walked in front of it. He just sat and stared blankly out the windshield at nothing. When I popped open the passenger door, I got in with absolutely no response from him. He was clearly in shock. I didn't know what to do, so I sat there in silence, staring out the front window with him while I waited for him to come back to the present. To come back from whatever dark place he'd found in his mind.

As the minutes passed, I worried about what was going on inside the house. I wondered how Ronnie was taking the news. Eventually, I looked over at Cooper and gently placed my hand on his, which still gripped the wheel tightly.

“Cooper?” I whispered, trying to coax him back from wherever he was.

“She was...,” he started, unable to force the words out.

“Yes. She was,” I replied softly, giving his hand a light squeeze.

“Because you...”

“Yes.”

“But why? Whythat?”

“Because it's what she knows, Cooper,” I explained delicately.

“She's done it before. I saw the scars."

The leather under his hand groaned as he strangled the wheel. He hung his head down to his chest and slammed his eyes shut. After a minute, he pulled himself together enough to sit back up and release his grip ever so slightly, but he wouldn't face me. His gaze drifted straight ahead yet again.

“I thought she was taking everything so well at first,” he whispered in a confessional way. “I knew she would break down when she thought she was alone, but it seemed understandable. I had no idea..."

“You couldn't have known, Coop. It's not your fault.”

His expression was pained. He was fighting to keep his emotions in check.

“How many?” he asked out of nowhere.

“How many what?”

“Marks...on her legs. How many?” I frowned, not wanting to answer him. The answer I had to give was not going to help. "Ruby, please. How.

Many?”

“More than I could count in the short time I could see them. Some were fresh. Others were long healed,” I said, wishing I'd had better news for him. "She told me she's only done it on a few occasions in the past, but I'm not sure I believe her.”

He squeezed his eyes hard, wincing away from the information he’d requested. When he opened them again, a single tear escaped and slowly rolled down his face. Reflexively, I wiped it away.

“What do we do, Ruby?” His expression was pitiful when he finally turned to face me. It was plain on his face that he felt helpless, and it was a feeling he was beyond uncomfortable with.

“She needs help, and not the kind that we can give her, Coop. She needs counseling. I told her that she has to tell Ronnie or I'm going to do it for her. This can't be blown over."

“Will she do it?”

“I don't know, but I'm checking with her tomorrow. I'm not letting this go. God knows I don't want to, but I'll tell her mom if she forces my hand. Peyta needs all the support she can get right now. Fromallof us.”

He breathed out forcibly with one large gust, then fired up the Audi.

“Okay,” he said curtly. “Whatever it takes.”

“Agreed,” I added, forcing a smile.

He forced a grim one in return.

“I guess we should head home before any more enlightening facts can pop up.”

“It's still early, Coop. Haven't I taught you not to say things like that out loud? Don't taunt the Universe. It doesn't like it," I sighed. “I know these things. It seems to have it out for me more often than not.”

He put the car in reverse and rolled it gently down the driveway.

“Glad to see that you're on your best driving behavior in the new car,” I mocked, trying to lighten the mood a tad. "Don't think you played me with the whole 'I don't think you should drive when you're this upset'

thing. You just wanted to drive the new car.”

Once he hit the road he threw it in first gear and peeled out, literally burning rubber in Ronnie's neighborhood. He glanced over at me with a slightly haunted smile.

“What do you think I've been doing while you were gone? I spent a lot of time in this car trying to find you.”

“Cooper, I think you should slow down a bit,” I said calmly as I watched the speedometer steadily increase.

“I spent a lot of miles running up and down the Eastern Seaboard too,” he mumbled, begrudgingly obliging my request.

“I'm sorry, Cooper,” I whispered.

He gave his head a shake then turned and smiled at me. Truly smiled.

“I didn't mean to sound that way, Rubes. I just...” He paused for a moment to choose his words carefully. "I've got a lot built up too that needs to come out. I need to find an outlet for it.”

Filled with concern, my eyes darted toward him, searching his profile for explanation. I didn't like the subtext of his statement. Clearly seeing my distress, he elaborated.

“Not drugs, Ruby. Ahealthyoutlet.”

“Okay,” I sighed, sinking lower in the passenger seat. “I think we all need one of those all-inclusive vacations in Aruba or something. We're all woundwaytoo tightly at the moment.”

“Aruba,” he scoffed. “Your pale ass would practically go up in flames there.”

I wanted to argue, but he was right. Not wanting to admit that directly, I conceded the point.

“You know what I mean.”

“I think you have a little too much on your plate to be planning any trips,” he said with a chill to his tone. "You just got back from one.”

“How's that list of healthy outlets coming?” I asked curtly.

“Poorly. It's coming along poorly, apparently.”

“So it seems.”

Our conversation stalled momentarily as we rolled into downtown Portsmouth, neither one of us wanting to say the wrong thing and potentially start a fight. There were entirely too many emotions packed far too tightly in my little sports car. We needed to decompress.

Cooper suddenly chuckled to himself at some thought he hadn't gotten around to sharing with me. It was a nervous laugh that held a hint of instability. I was used to hearing that from myself―never him.


Page 5

“Well, at least you won't have to go to jail for Matty's murder.”

“What?” I exclaimed, wheeling around to face him. “I was a suspect? Holy shit, Cooper!”

“Of course you were,” he said flatly.

“Wow,” I muttered to myself as I sank in my seat. “I just never thought about the authorities, but I guess it makes perfect sense. I was the last one to see him alive." I tried to process what he had said. The last thing on my mind had been the human authorities, but it was an oversight of epic proportions. Why wouldn't I have been a suspect? I was the last known person he had seen that night.

That reality brought about an entirely new revelation.

“Wait! Why am Inota suspect, Cooper? I should be. There is no good reason why I wouldn't still be considered one. In fact, my absence should only strengthen their case," I rambled as my mind started to pull the pieces together. “Double holy shit, Coop! Icouldgo to jail for murder! Why would you joke about this?”

He gave me his 'don't be such a dramatic blonde' face, forcing me to sink down further into the seat.

“I'm not going to go to jail for murder?” I asked. He shook his head no, once.

“Why am I not going to jail?”

He graced me with that same condescending expression.

“Sean...” I whispered. I should have factored him into the equation long before then.

“Yet another mess he had to clean up for you.”

“Seriously, Coop. I know I deserve the attitude, but I'm going to need you to take the hostility down a notch or two. Just for today. Please,"

I pleaded, not able to deal with any more digs even though they were well deserved. “I'll make you a list of healthy outlets myself. Jogging, Tai Chi...ooooh, how about pottery.”

“Okay, okay, I get it. Point made. I'm sorry,” he replied, throwing both hands up in surrender.

“Hands on the wheel! Hands. On. The. Wheel!”

He looked over at me in all my craziness, giving me his most annoyed face. All I could do was snicker in response. Apparently, we were both a wee bit jumpy and prone to overreacting that morning.

Before I could make a flippant remark, a sobering reality slammed its way into my mind.

“Cooper,” I started, my tone questioning. “If I'm not a suspect, then what am I?”

“Technically,” he started with a sigh, “you're a missing person.”

Missing person...

“Oh my God. Are there people out looking for me still?”

He gave me a grim look.

“Not anymore. Your case is still considered open, but Boston PD

and Portsmouth PD both assume that you were murdered too, and your body never washed ashore like Matty's."

“Boston? Why are they involved? And what do you mean 'washed ashore’? Matty was never in the―”

“Sean makes things go away, Ruby. He wanted to get the heat away from town. My guess is that he dumped the body in the Charles River somewhere and it got dragged out to sea with the current. He washed up along the coastline."

“So why is Portsmouth still involved then?”

“Because that's where you were last seen,” he replied somberly.

“Alan questioned me. I told him the truth, that you walked out of our apartment that night and never came back." He paused for a moment and took a deep breath. “I also told him that I had no idea where you were going or who you were meeting up with, which was partially true. They made me take a polygraph. Guess I was a suspect for a little while too."

“I'm so sorry, Cooper. I had no idea.”

“Don't sweat it. Alan never believed I had anything to do with it from the get-go. He got me cleared ASAP so that they would focus their attention elsewhere," he said, blowing off his near-murderer status. “He's a good guy.”

“He's agreatguy,” I corrected. “Maybe you should take me to the precinct. I need to see him.”

Cooper immediately turned the car around illegally in a one-way, then pulled up moments later in front of the police station.

“Do you want me to come in with you?” he asked, searching my face for his answer. Though my nerves were high, my resolve was strong.

Like with Peyta, it was something I needed to do on my own.

“No thanks, Coop,” I replied with a tight smile. “I'm going to fly solo on this one too.”

He gave a nod. “I'll wait for you out here. And don't even start to argue with me. You're not walking home by yourself. Not today," he added. “Not for a while...”

I leaned over and kissed him softly on the cheek, lingering by his face for just a moment or two longer than necessary. I'd missed his smell.

Cooper always smelled amazing.

“I'll be right back.”

I hopped out of the TT and made my way up the stairs to the precinct, my stomach knotting tighter with every step. I didn't know what I was going to do or say once I was inside; I prayed for some divine intervention.

Once through the heavy double doors, I approached the presumably bulletproof glass that encased the front desk. A woman at the tail end of her fifties looked up at me, not unkindly, and spoke into the intercom.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, taking a deep breath. “I'm here about a missing person case.”

“I'll get one of the detectives down here right away,” she said as she picked up the receiver to page someone. "Can I please get your name, miss?”

“Ruby,” I said softly. “Ruby Dee.I'mthe missing person.”

5

Her blank and disbelieving expression quickly gave way to realization, and she buzzed me through the locked entrance to the main offices behind her. She whisked me down the hall, jabbering on about news reports and knowing that miracles did happen; I stopped listening to her. My stomach was in my throat, and even though Cooper was certain I'd been removed from the suspect list, it did little for my confidence once I found myself in the lion's den.

I followed her down the winding corridors and up a flight of stairs to the second floor where the detectives’ offices were located. Rounding the final turn, I heard a door squeak as an officer emerged from the bathroom a half step in front of me. In true Ruby fashion, I slammed right into him, not having had time to react.

“Sorry!” I exclaimed, spinning off his body with the momentum he created. “I'm so, so―”

I stopped cold once our eyes met. Alan stood before me only feet away, staring down at my frazzled self as though he'd seen a ghost. I guess, in all fairness, it wasn't such an irrational response; for all intents and purposes, I had been considered dead. My case still being open seemed a formality at best.

Not knowing what to do, I stood paralyzed, just staring back at him.

The reactions I'd received since I returned had been far from what I'd expected. Cooper had yelled and pushed me away. Peyta had feigned indifference then imploded. I wasn't certain I wanted to know what Alan would do. He was a no-bullshit kind of guy who always cut to the quick.

He wouldn't sugarcoat anything for me, and in that moment, I could have used a little powdery dusting.

The moment seemed to go on forever until, thankfully, the receptionist returned to retrieve me, not realizing that she'd lost me in the first place.

“Ruby, I need you to―”

“I've got it, Alice. Thank you,” Alan said, cutting her off mid-sentence. His eyes never left mine.

“Of course, Detective Beauchamp,” she replied, scurrying around him to return to her post.

“It's really you,” he mumbled. I'm not sure he meant to actually say it aloud. Before I could even respond, he advanced on me, scooping me up in his long arms and crushing me against his chest. "They thought you were gone, but...I never believed it. I knew this little kitten had a few lives left.” He pushed me out to arm's length to look me over, and I squirmed under the intensity of his gaze.

“I missed you guys,” I whispered uncomfortably.

“Come on,” he said, his voice taking on a more serious tone as he surveyed the hallway. “Let's have this conversation somewhere more private."

He ushered me into an interrogation room to ensure we wouldn't be interrupted or overheard. I wasn't clear on whether our 'conversation' was to be on or off the record, but I went obligingly regardless. I knew I had some serious explaining to do.

Pulling out one of the clichéd metal-legged chairs, he motioned for me to have a seat and situated himself on the far side of the table.

“You want some water or something?” he offered.

“No. I'm fine, thanks,” I replied, avoiding his gaze. “How are Kristy and the baby?”

“Good. They're down at her mom's right now, taking care of her.

She finally got her knees done.”

“Oh, that's great. She really needed that surgery. I'm glad Kristy could be down there to help...”

When I looked up at Alan, he merely nodded in response.Our ridiculous attempt at casual conversation quickly died, leaving an awkward silence that hung in the room as we stared at each other across the table. While we did, I watched a visible shift in him occur. He went from concerned friend to hardened-beyond-his-years detective in an eerie switch of personalities. It seemed I wasn't the only one capable of those.

“So, let's start from the beginning, Ruby,” he said, tenting his fingers against his mouth. “I think that would be easiest."

“Okay...,” I replied, not certain as to where “the beginning” was.

“You were at your place with Cooper, then suddenly left. Were you alone?”

I lied.

“Yes.”

“Where were you going?”

“To meet Matty.”

“Where?”

I lied again.

“Just in town...down by the docks. We hung out there sometimes,” I added for credibility. “There's an older couple that lives down there.

They've seen us there together before. You can ask them."

“No need,” he said flatly. His cop persona was in high gear. “Did you see Matty?”

“Yes. I saw him.”

“And what happened then?”

“I don't know...,” I whispered, trying to conjure up something to tell him that would go along with what he already knew.

“Were you attacked?”

“I'm not sure. I―”

“Was there more than one of them?” he pressed, leaning forward on the desk.

“I can't say...I don't know.”

“You don't know?”

“I don't really remember.”

“You don't remember? Whatdoyou remember, Ruby?”

“Not much,” I mumbled weakly.

“Where have you been for the past three weeks?”

“I don't know.”

“You don't know?” he echoed disbelievingly.

“No. Alan, I―”

“Because I'm having a hard time understanding how your friend ended up outside of Boston when you said you met him here in town."

“I―”

“And I'm also having a hard time swallowing that you don't know anything about how he died or who did it.”

“Why are you doing this?” I asked, a tear escaping the corner of my eye. He'd been so happy to see me only moments earlier. It appeared the honeymoon period was over.

“Because you're lying to me, Ruby. It's not the first time either, and it's getting under my fucking skin at the moment because I don't believe that you would lie to me unlesssomeonewas putting you up to it or you were trying to protect someone,” he yelled, slamming his hand against the table. “And I have a pretty fucking good idea who that someone is too. What has he gotten you into, Ruby? What did he do? And don't think for a second that I don't know about what happened down at Langley.

Your buddy was down there when McGurney was executed. That isn't coincidence in my mind.”

I stared at him, totally flabbergasted. He thought Sean killed Matty―killed both him and McGurney, for that matter. And worst of all, he thought I knew.

“Alan,” I said softly, tears still staining my face, “Sean did not kill Matty. He didn't kill McGurney either."

“Really?” he asked, his tone dripping with disdain. “You weren't there when some fucker shot my friend in the back of the head, were you?"

I offered nothing in response.

“I didn't think so.”

“But Sean called me from Langley...when he was flying back. HefoundMcGurney dead, Alan. Sean needed his help―information on a CIA cover-up that only he could provide. Why would Sean kill the one person willing to help him?" I asked, thinking my points were both true and valid.

“Because I have the sneaking suspicion that your friendSeanis a

'clean up your messes' kind of guy. I have no doubt that, once he got what he was looking for, he tidied up,” he rumbled, his tone low and menacing.

What was frightening about his accusation was that, as far as the supernatural world went, he was pretty much spot-on. "Is that what happened to the Carmilo kid? Was he a mess that needed to be cleaned up?”

I once again found myself meeting his question with silence.

“You'd be surprised at what I can dig up when the mood strikes me, Ruby,” he retorted. “I've been looking into your buddy, Sean. What's most interesting about him is the information Ican'tfind. I can't seem to locate so much as an address for your little friend. I'm not even sure he has a last name.”

“Alan, please...it's been a rough day already and it's barely kicked into gear yet. It wasn't Sean. You have to believe me."

“Then who?” he yelled, pushing his chair back quickly to jump to his feet. “Who was it?” He loomed over me like I was a criminal he was trying to break. Too bad he wasn't aware of the irony the situation held.

“I don't know,” I whispered, crumbling weakly under his frustrated energy.

“Tell me, Ruby,” he said in a warning tone. “Tell me or this changes things between us. I've given you a lot of latitude in the time I've known you because I haven't wanted to believe that you were complicit in that man's actions. But if you want to sit here and lie to my face like I'm some rookie that you don't know―whose family you haven't become a part of―then you're going to find out what it's like to be on my wrong side.”

“Stop it!” I screamed, bursting under the growing pressure in the room. “It wasn't Sean. I didn't see who did it. All Idoknow is that I don't remember a thing. Nothing! The last three weeks of my life are gone, Alan. Gone! I woke up in the woods somewhere in Maine. Some people found me and brought me home. I didn't even know I'd been gone that long. And from the second I got back, I've had nothing but animosity and aggression thrown my way with a healthy dose of accusation to boot. I can't answer your questions when I don't remember anything from the time I saw Matty until the time I woke up naked in some random forest.”


Page 6

I could barely manage, but I brought my gaze up to meet Alan's as he slowly withdrew his position, sitting back down in his chair. The look on his face was empty. I could practically see his mind trying to process everything I'd said after the fact, but I decided to continue anyway.

“Sean was on a plane when Matty died, Alan. I talked to him earlier that night. That's when he told me about McGurney...just like I told you."

He looked distant, like he was trying to put the pieces of a mental puzzle together but couldn't quite do it.

“That's what he claimed when he came to me about―”

“Wait a minute...what do you mean he came to you? What are you talking about?”

“It means that he came to my house to report you missing himself.

I'm guessing, given whateveroccupationit is that he's in, he wanted to take more creative avenues to find you,” he said, eyeing me tightly again.

“I didn't know about your friend Matty until long after Sean had come to me. Had I known at the time, I wouldn't have let him leave so easily."

“And now?” I asked, thinking Alan still wasn't going to believe my story. In fairness, it wasn't exactly true.

“There's nothing to do. The homicide is a closed case,” he said with a certain distaste. “A body was found just outside of Boston in the victim's car. He was identified as the Portsmouth murderer based on some evidence that was never released to the public. Carmilo's blood was found on his clothes and in the vehicle. The best the Boston PD could determine was that the perp had driven down to Hopkinton to dump the body in the river and let it wash downstream. What was left of it had wounds that indicated a fight had gone down. All we could assume was that the perp had been badly wounded and slowly bled out.” Alan leaned forward, elbows resting on the table, his head in his hands.

“Convenient―don't you think―that a murderer, who was already

'eliminated' by your own account, came back to life to kill your friend? I think it'shighlyconvenient, and I also think it's bullshit. I have no idea how Sean did what he did, but he manufactured this whole cover-up, and I want to know how and why."

So did I. Knowing that Keith James had been long since been burned to ash in Ronnie's backyard, I was acutely aware that it couldn't have been his body in that car that the BPD found. It made me wonder just whose body it was and exactly what lengths Sean had gone to to clean up my mess.

I had no explanation to offer Alan. He wasn't stupid; he knew that I knew more than I was letting on. As far as he knew, I was being evasive, but I knew that he couldn't prove his little theory. Sean and the boys had done exactly what Alan had accused them of, and consequently, done what they do best―make problems disappear.

“I don't know what more I can do here, Alan. I'm telling you what I remember, which is nothing. I have fucking amnesia or some stress-induced whatever that's blocking my thoughts. Hell, I could have been roofied for all I know. Hook me up to a polygraph if you don't believe me. Ask me anything you want about the last three weeks. I guarantee you I'll sail through it because I don't remember,” I postured, gaining a little composure. “If you want to talk to Sean, have at it. You'll have to find him first, and believe me, he's the type that can't be found if he doesn't want to be. He's a ghost.”

“You don't know how to find him? Get a hold of him?” he asked disbelievingly.

“Not if he doesn't want me to,” I replied with a twinge of sorrow in my voice. “He and I aren't what you think, Alan. I'm nothing to him now.

I can't help you."

I stood slowly, awkwardly picking at the hem of my tee. Alan told me that my refusal to explain would change things. I knew with one hundred percent certainty that he wasn't bluffing. The frustration and resentment that rolled off of him told me so.

“I'm sorry, Alan. I really am. I know you hate cover-ups and conspiracies more than anything, and finding the truth is a fundamental need for you, but I can't help you. I have a whole lot of things to figure out for myself right now, mainly what in God's name happened to me for the last three weeks,” I said softly, hating myself for having to lie. “Do me one favor, please...”

“What?” he asked, trying unsuccessfully to quash the hostility in his voice.

“Tell Kristy I'm sorry. I didn't do this to hurt any of you. I know you seem to have forgotten that in your quest for truth, but I'm a victim in all of this, Alan. Matty was my friend. I loved him, and I know for damn sure that he loved me too. Try not to forget that when you're painting horrible scenarios in your head of what you think went down that night."

Without another word, I walked around the table and straight out the door. I didn't wait for a response from him. I didn't want one.

Nearly in an all-out run by the time I got downstairs, I quickly made my way past Alice at the front desk before she buzzed me out. Through the double doors and down the flight of concrete steps outside, I fled to the TT that sat idling, waiting for my arrival. I practically tore the passenger door off before I jumped in and slammed it behind me.

“Sounds like that went well,” Cooper observed with his typical sarcasm.

“Drive,” I barked, not wanting to get into it.

“Another cheery homecoming?”

“Exactly.”

“Do you want some more good news or should I save it for later?”

he asked, losing some of his mocking tone.

“Fuck.What now?”

“I was reading the paper while you were in there,” he started, shifting uncomfortably in his seat before pulling into traffic. "Matty was in there―in the obituaries. Do you want to―”

“No!” I shouted, putting my arm up defensively as he reached between the seats for the paper. “I don't want to see it." I took a moment to catch my breath before continuing. “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you. Is that the good news you spoke of?”

“No,” he said plainly.

“Just lay it on me, Cooper. Please.”

“It said that his funeral is tomorrow. In Boston.”Fuck me. “What are you going to do?” he asked, eyeing me out of his periphery.

“I don't know...”

“I could go down with you, if you want to go.”

“No,” I said abruptly. “That's something I need to do on my own.”

He pressed his lips together firmly in a half frown.

“There's a freak storm coming up the coast. It's going to be brutal.”

“I've driven in snow before, Cooper. I'll be fine,” I replied, staring off towards my apartment as we rounded the final corner on the way home. "I'm not sure what I want to do yet. I'm going to sleep on it first.”

“Whatever you think is best.” Cooper parked the car in front of the shop and we simultaneously got out. “Go upstairs,” he ordered, throwing me the keys. “I've gotta do something in town. Go have a nap. I'll be home in a few.”

I nodded silently and did as I was told.

Once inside the main door, I schlepped my weary body up the stairs to the apartment. Exhausted didn't even begin to describe how drained I felt. I closed the door behind me and shuffled down the hall to my bedroom, flopping down onto the bed the second I reached it. Cooper wanted me to get some rest, and that was exactly what I was going to do.

*

Hours later I awoke to darkness surrounding me and a shrill beeping sound somewhere in my room. Disoriented and startled, I fumbled my way out of my bed in a panic only to crash into the night-stand by my bed. In my half-awake state, I had no idea where I was.

“Cooper!” I yelled, trying to control my rising unease.

As always, he was by my side in a flash.

“What's wrong?” he asked as he flipped on the bedside lamp. It illuminated the concern on his face.

“There was a sound, and I jumped out of bed to see what it was, but then I ran into the furniture...and it was so dark, and I...I...," I rambled, feeling increasingly ridiculous. “I didn't know where I was.”

He scooped me up in his arms and hugged me tight to his chest.

“You'rehome,” he whispered softly. “That's where you are. For good.”

And I was. Good or bad, drama or not, I was finally back where I belonged. I welcomed the feeling.

“Sounds perfect to me,” I said, smiling.

“Good. Now what the hell was this sound that woke you up in such a tizzy anyway?”

I pulled away from him to search the room for the most likely suspect. I found it lying on the table that had taken a chunk out of my leg only moments earlier. My innocent-looking cell phone looked at my laughingly. A text had been the cause of my near meltdown.

“My phone must have gone off,” I replied, walking over to retrieve it. I was surprised by what I saw―a message from Alan:Filled out theproper paperwork regarding your reappearance. BPD has been notifiedas well. It'll be on the news this evening. Be prepared for the backlash.

I'm sorry about today. Talk later.

“So much for my quiet reentry to life,” I mumbled to myself. “I guess I won't have to call the Carmilos to tell them I'm alive and coming.” I couldn’t keep the dryness out of my tone.

“Why's that?”

“Because I'm about to be breaking news. Alan spread the word about my return.”

“Well,” he said, scratching his head. “He didn't really have a choice, and in fairness, that cat had to be let out of the bag at some point. Guess now is as good a time as any."

“I guess so,” I muttered to myself, getting up to go into the living room and hunker down for the rest of the evening. I wanted to crawl into a cave and hide, but I'd already done that for three weeks, metaphorically speaking.

“Where are you going?” he asked, following behind me.

“I don't want to miss the big story,” I replied sarcastically. “I think I'll make a stiff drink for the show."

“Better make two, then. Can't have you drinking alone...”

I scoffed as I entered the kitchen, Alan's words running rampant through my mind.

Be prepared for the backlash...

The story of my life.

6

There hadn't been a Nor'easter like that in New England for decades.

Twenty inches of snow was forecast to pummel the coastline from the Providence area up, but only after an inch of freezing rain laid the foundation for treacherous road conditions. Just as the weatherman had predicted, it was the perfect storm.

While I drove to Boston, signs of that storm were already visible, the weather steadily deteriorating. Along with it went my resolve. I had dreaded that day, fiercely.

During the time the commute provided, I reflected on things that only deepened my sadness—my sense of loss. Thoughts of the hours Matty and I had spent together in dance class, joking around instead of paying attention, clowning our way through choreography, and stopping for food afterward. His twenty-second birthday party at his parents' house was one of my favorites. I loved his family, and they took me in like I was one of their own.

Carmen...Dominic...

The pain in my chest was excruciating when I thought of them.

They'd already lost one son by the time I had met Matty, and, because of me, they would bury another. I didn't know how I could face them.

I flew past exits on the interstate while I drove, and, before I realized what I was doing, I took one of them, turning off the highway in an attempt to loop back onto it to retreat north. I pulled into a gas station before my cowardice fully took over and tried to pull myself together.

My hands shook uncontrollably, and no matter how hard I gripped the wheel, it did nothing to quash the quaking.

Laying Matty to rest was not something I wanted to be a part of.

The three weeks I’d spent tucked away in Scarlet's mind had offered me a certain escape from reality. Though the events that had occurred on the night of Matty's murder played through my mind repeatedly, I could detach from them because I hadn't faced the aftermath. The final vision of Matty's decapitated body should have clearly illustrated that he was gone, but it didn't.

Burying what remained of him would.

I took multiple deep breaths before putting the car back in gear, driving off towards the entrance ramp for I-93 South. The rain was falling harder and the temperature plummeted as I drove. Funeral or not, the worst of the storm wouldn't hold off for long. My emotions couldn't be held back forever either, and I was suddenly in a hurry to get the whole ordeal over with.

I thought about watching from afar, hidden by trees or headstones nearby, so I could avoid the onslaught of grief I was sure to be bombarded with. It was cowardly, but I was certain that, when faced with the totality of my own grief, I would crumble under the weight of anything else. Matty was always so strong, both physically and emotionally. I selfishly wished for his strength in that moment. If I couldn't be strong, then I would at least be honorable and bear my pain publicly, for all who loved him to see. It was by my actions that he was about to be put six feet under, and I owed it to him to be there.

Cars thickly lined the street on both sides, forcing me to park nearly a block away. I had dressed for the unseasonable cold, but not the freezing rain. My black stilettos offered little stability on the icy walkways, and I teetered my way across the street to the main entrance of the cemetery.

“He always said you had impeccable fashion sense,” a voice called to me from inside the wrought iron gates. A man around thirty rounded the corner, headed in my direction. He was difficult to make out at first through the assaulting rain, but once I was closer, I saw that it was one of Matty's brothers-in-law.

“I guess I didn't review the weather as thoroughly as I should have before I left,” I said, walking towards his extended hand.

“Let me help you,” he said, placing my hand in the crook of his folded arm. “I had to run back to the car for another umbrella. Rosa's didn't hold up well with the wind.” I looked up at the flimsy, travel-sized one I held and prayed it would manage the weather. “I saw you on the news last night,” he said softly, uncertain as to where to take his observation after that.


Page 7

“I was going to call Carmen...”

“She was elated, Ruby. She'll be so glad to see you alive and well...even if she can't see Matty.” His tone was somber, and I fought against the growing sorrow he felt. We were awkwardly quiet after that as we made our way through the cemetery. I eventually lost my battle and his energy penetrated me, adding to my cloud of growing sadness. He had loved Matty like a little brother. That was plain.

As we neared the plot, I noticed the sea of black encircling it. My heart skipped, realizing what was in the center of that sea, and the end of my denial was official―tears spilled onto my cheeks effortlessly.

Without skipping a beat, my escort offered me a tissue, which I gladly took. I had left my purse in the car, not wanting to carry that and an umbrella in the likely event that I would fall and have no free hands to catch myself with. It also left me without my stockpile of Kleenex.

“Thanks,” I said, sniffling.

“I've gotten really good at having those on me,” he said soberly.

“There haven't been a lot of dry eyes in my house lately.”

Just then, he was called away by his wife, leaving me to deal with the metaphorical knife he'd just plunged into my side. I caused those tears. I brought that sorrow on his wife. His children.

I wanted to run back to the car and hide, but instead, I found a station near the rear of the massive crowd. Matty always joked about how expensive his wedding would be one day because his family was so enormous. Based on what I saw, he wasn't kidding; there were easily two hundred people in attendance. I did my best to blend into the background, but I made a pointed effort to be sure I could see his casket. For some reason, seeing it eased my pain rather than intensified it.

The sermon was done entirely in Italian, leaving me unable to follow, but the beauty of the priest’s words was apparent, regardless. The priest sang as Matty was lowered into his final resting place, his words traveling so clearly through the air. I felt carried away by them, then realized that I was actually walking forward toward the grave on guided feet. I swore I could actually feel Matty's arm around my shoulders, guiding me towards him―his resting place. When I finally stopped, I was standing right next to his mother, whose cries snapped me back to reality.

For years I had been influenced by the emotions of others, but nothing before had ever come close to the rawness that she felt in that moment. My knees buckled, and I fell upon them beside her, taking her hand in mine. Physical contact only intensified our connection, but it was what she needed and the punishment I deserved, so I stayed where I was, weathering her storm.

I looked up at the faces around me, red and tear-stained, and reached out for their energies―all of them. Taking it all on at once was masochistic, but pain had a tipping point for me, allowing it to become welcome and warming. In that moment, I wassothere.

The rest of the funeral was a blur. Someone helped me to my feet at the end, and I was engulfed by the swarm of people trying to pay their respects to Matty's parents. Emotionally exhausted from the ordeal, I tried to make my way out of the mob and back to my car. I had dropped my umbrella somewhere in my journey to join Matty's mom by the grave, so I was left exposed to the freezing rain that viciously pelted me with the gusting wind.

I wrapped my arms tightly around my stomach and tried to escape as quickly as I possibly could. My heels repeatedly sunk into the wet sod, eventually leaving me with no choice but to take them off or suffer a sprained ankle. My black-stockinged feet were frozen instantly, causing me to break into a jog through the centuries-old headstones, barely able to see through the veil of precipitation around me.

Once I located the entrance gates, I started to run full out, but I was no longer just running from the elements. I was running from Matty and the emptiness I felt without him.

In a flash, I was no longer running at all. Instead, I was sprawled out on the concrete walkway, hosiery torn, coat ripped, knees and hands bleeding. In my haste, I had overlooked a small grave marker, snagging my toe on it. It was a classic Ruby move. I hoped that somewhere Matty was having a chuckle at my expense.

I managed to pry myself off the ground and locate my shoes that had flown through the air during my fall. Soaking wet and completely disheveled, I decided to walk the rest of the way to the car. It seemed the safest game plan.

As I approached the gates, I heard a voice calling my name behind me. I turned to see Matty's mother, Carmen, hurrying carefully towards me. My heart sank instantly. Offering her support was one thing, having to face her directly was another. Even in my frozen condition, I could feel the sweat bead along my neck, rolling slowly into the back of my black cashmere sweater-dress.

“Ruby!” she called one last time before I acknowledged her.

“Carmen...,” I started, unsure of what to say. “I'm...I'm so sorry.”

That was all it took. I choked on the last word, unable to speak further.

“I know, Ruby,” she said, pulling me into a crushing hug. “My baby's gone. He'sgone.But you're still here...Matty would be so happy to know you're all right.”Her sobs came violently, body convulsing with the purging emotions. “My girls are all I have left now,” she eventually added after gaining some amount of composure. “How did this happen?

How could somebody take my Matty from me? From you?” she asked, her eyes searching mine wildly for answers.

I felt faint, thinking that I was going to pass out for certain, right there in front of her.Ihad the answers she sought.

“He loved you, Ruby. More than you probably even knew,” she said softly. “You were all he talked about from the moment you walked into that first class with the company. He marveled at everything about you for the longest time. We joked that he had a crush on you, which seemed to be exactly what it was in the beginning, but then something changed. It became more than a fascination with somebody who was more together than the girls he'd dated in the past; he knew you two were right for each other. After your first performance together, he came home and told us all that he had found the girl he was going to marry one day. She just didn't know it yet...”

She took my bleeding hands in hers, her expression becoming far more serious again.

“The news report said that you couldn't remember anything about that night, Ruby, about what happened to Matty,” she said, moving in dangerously close to my face. I couldn't breathe. I was so afraid of what she was going to say next that I stood frozen. “Regardless of what occurred, I am certain that he would be glad to know that his last moments were spent defending you.”

My knees weakened, but thanks to my grip on Carmen, I managed to stay upright. I saw the rest of her family off in the distance, headed our direction, and I panicked. Having all of them engulf me was more than I could bear.

“Carmen, I...I have to go,” I said, choking back a sob.

“Helovedyou, Ruby,” she repeated. “Please don't ever forget that.

He wanted you to be part of our family one day.”

I tried to pull my hands free, but the middle-aged woman's grip was like a vise. I started to back away, but she resisted, pulling me closer.

“Youarefamily, Ruby. You have been from the first time we met you,” she said, hugging me one last time. “That's what Matty would want.

We love you too, Ruby.”

I tried to return her sentiment, but it came out so strained and strangled that I'm not sure she understood. I didn't stick around long enough to find out, turning to flee the instant she let me go. It took only seconds to break through the entrance gates out onto the sidewalk in my stockinged feet. Momentarily forgetting where I had parked, I scanned the street for the TT, which was virtually useless given the density of the sleet falling rapidly around me.

Once I determined where I needed to go, I continued running down the street to my car. I needed to get out of the cold, out of the elements, and away from Matty's family before they could unknowingly inflict any more pain.

There were few cars on the road given the conditions, so I ran along the parked cars, hoping to make it easier to spot my own. As I neared the TT, I saw a man leaning against a car just across the street from me. He stood stoically, staring at me. I thought my day couldn't have gotten any worse, but, once again, the Universe had my number.

Sean moved to cross the street, and I screamed a sound so desperate and pained that the loud, shrill noise rang out through the neighborhood.

He froze in place, just staring at me, his face expressionless from what little I could see. My outburst hadn't been for him; it was for me―a cleansing of everything I'd pent up that day. Whatever fate Sean held for me, I couldn't face it. Not then.

He said nothing, just stood by his car, motionless. As more tears ran down my face, camouflaged by the falling sleet, I shook my head 'no' at him slowly, then turned and ran the rest of the way to my car. I got in without looking back and drove off as quickly as the weather would permit.

My body was numb, either from the cold or the fear and emotion that overwhelmed me. I fought hard against my growing rigidity to keep the car on the road. But regardless of what caused the icy feeling coursing through my veins and the paralyzing sensation overtaking me, I was very clear on one thing.

That was not the homecoming with Sean I'd hoped for.

7

It took me three hours to drive back to Portsmouth in the deteriorating weather. During that time, New England had amassed eight inches of snow and counting. The TT may have had appropriate tires, but thanks to the layer of ice already on the road, she didn't fare as well as I would have liked. Just outside of Seabrook, NH, on I-95 North, I found myself doing donuts in the center of the road, praying that I wouldn't hit any of the cars around me. Making it through that ordeal unharmed was a blessing, but I still had several miles to go, and I found myself white-knuckling the wheel the rest of the way. My distress over the funeral, as well as seeing Sean, had to take a back seat to the driving crisis at hand.

I heard my phone vibrating in my purse beside me, but didn't dare reach for it. Whoever it was could wait until I was safely home, in one piece. It was most likely Cooper checking to make sure I hadn't caused a twenty car pile-up on the freeway; the irony was that I almost did.

I was relieved when I pulled up to my home, wanting to just leave the TT out front and make my way inside as quickly as possible, but parking on the street was not an option, so I managed my way down the side alleyway and left my car in the secluded parking lot that was hidden between two other buildings. I knew I would be plowed in, but where to leave your car in a New England storm was always the million dollar question for those who lived in town, and I made do with what I could. I wasn't exactly in a hurry to go anywhere.

After cramming my battered feet back into my stilettos, I wobbled my way to the main entrance of my building, using the brick façade for stability. Once inside, I took a deep breath, leaning against the door for support. It had been a long, trying day, and I was so thankful it was over.

All I wanted to do was clean myself up, climb into some warm jammies, and curl up on the couch. With that plan in mind, I worked my way up the stairs to my apartment.

The sound of my clicking heels alerted Cooper to my arrival, and he swung the door open abruptly, looking the slightest bit frazzled.

“Jesus, Ruby. What happened to you? Are you okay?” he asked, eyeing my unkempt appearance.

“Long story, Coop. It's been a rough day,” I said, dragging my weary body into the house.

He flashed a look of acknowledgment, remembering why I'd been gone in the first place. He ushered me to the couch, his arm around my shoulders, and helped me sit down.

“How was it?” he asked softly, taking my hands in his. I winced slightly when he brushed a cut that was barely scabbing over. He frowned when he looked down and saw them, immediately getting up to go retrieve something from the bathroom and returning with a warm washcloth. Without another word, he started to clean them up.

“It was awful, Cooper,” I whispered. “He'sreallygone, and his family―the pain―I couldn't take it.” I watched while he delicately wiped the dried blood from my hand, turning the washcloth over and over in an attempt to find a clean area. “He loved me, Coop,” I admitted, my voice laden with guilt.

“Of course he did,” he said, finally meeting my gaze. “It's impossible not to.” He smiled weakly as he brushed a cluster of drying curls off my face, tucking them gently behind my ear. I leaned in and kissed him on the cheek with the same tenderness that he'd just shown me.

“That's not exactly what I meant,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward.

“I meant helovedme, and not just after his Change, but before. Long before, apparently.”

Cooper stopped cleaning my hands and looked at me intently.

“How long before?”

“Months,” I said, before hesitating; I wasn't sure I wanted to open my emotional can of worms. “His mother said he wanted to marry me. He told her I was the girl for him, and I killed him, Cooper. I can't take this!

The guilt is unbearable...” I launched off of the couch and paced frantically through the living room. Something had to give, and it needed to do it soon. The scream I'd let out in front of Sean was only a momentary release of pressure. If I didn't find an outlet for the rest of it, the lid was going to officially blow.

“Ruby, just calm down for a second,” Cooper said, following me on my wandering path through the apartment. “Youhaveto know that you didn't have a choice. He wasn't their son anymore―”

“But that's my fault too, Cooper! Don't you see? Everyone around me—close to me—pays a price for that! You, Peyta, Matty...evenSean.

The Beauchamps would have, if we hadn't caught the Rev when we did.

Christ, Cooper, theirbabywould have been killed. What kind of fucking person endangers everyone around them? Everyone they love?” He had no answer for me, though the pain in his expression indicated that he wished he did. “You see? Evenyoucan't deny it.”


Page 8

“Ruby―”

“No, Cooper! No placating statements from you, please. Youknowthat I'm right. I've struggled with this for months now, and every time I think the matter is resolved, a new casualty hits and I'm right back where I started again.”

“And where is that?” he asked, looking saddened.

“I'm cursed, plain and simple. Sean said that RBs were an aberration, but maybe it's not that. Maybeabominationis a better word, because precious little seems to be positively influenced by my presence, Cooper. Maybe I'm some force of darkness, meant to plague the world with tragedy and sadness. Maybe the PC was right to put us all down.”

“Listen, you're tired, you're emotionally exhausted. You need to eat something and rest. You're not thinking clearly right now,” he argued, making his way over to me.

“A good night's sleep isn't going to make this go away, Coop. I'm a fucking calamity,” I said, dodging him as he reached for my arm. “Maybe you should go...move out, before something else happens to you.”

“I'm a big boy, Ruby, and I don't know how many times we're going to have this very discussion before it sinks into that thick head of yours,”

he said, lunging for my arm again, successfully that time. “I'm. Not.

Leaving. Whatever chaos may come, you and I will face it together. Fate has bonded us, Rubes. For better or worse, we're a team.”

My eyes snapped to his face as soon as the words left his mouth. I’d been bitch-slapped by a realization.

“Apack,” I whispered softly, my mind scanning back to a conversation I'd had with Sean on the night of our first official date. We were rehashing an argument that Cooper and I had just had before I went to see him. I couldn't figure out something that Cooper had said to me; something regarding his feelings for me and how they'd changed. How he couldn't explain them.

I'm connected to you in a way that's beyond my comprehension...

It all started to make sense: Cooper's shift in power, his need to keep me safe, our bond; he had become analpha. Something in him had emerged the night he’d killed Gregory in the forest. Gregory himself had admitted that he'd underestimated Cooper's strength and power,and taking Gregory out only furthered those qualities. It explained how deeply he loved me and I loved him, but even more so, it made sense of why we could never quite get past being friends. We weren't meant to bemates;we werepack,and he was my alpha.

“What did you say?” he asked, his look of disbelief slowly melting into one of understanding.

“We're a pack, Cooper, you and I,” I said, standing my ground.

“Think about it. It explainseverything, especially why you go so nuts when you think I'm in danger. Your job is to protect me.Youare my alpha.”

For once in his life, Cooper was speechless.

I started to go into further explanation of my theory, but was rudely interrupted by a banging on the apartment door. My adrenaline spiked instantly—people pounding on my door in the past never boded well for me. Cooper shot me a look of irritation, most likely because I had once again forgotten to lock the outside door.

“I'm sorry,” I cried. “It's been a bad fucking day, Cooper.”

He muttered something while he made his way down the hall, frustrated by my ineptitude.

“It's as if youwantsomeone to just walk in and kill you,” he bitched, walking in front of me.

“Hey! At least they'd still have to get through the apartment door,” I protested as I hurried up beside him. I flashed him a grin that I hoped would soften him slightly. It did, but only minutely.

“You're going to give me an ulcer if you're right about this alpha thing,” he said, reaching for the doorknob. “Now would you mind stepping behind me, please? You're harder to defend when you put yourself first in the line of fire.”

“Yes, master,” I conceded, sidestepping into a spot directly behind him, just as he’d asked. A small part of me was put off by his domineering remark, but the reality was that he was right. He would die trying to protect me in any and all situations that I managed to get myself into, most of which could likely be avoided if I took a second to think before acting. Food for thought.

Perhaps we were both getting paranoid, given that we didn't even know who was at the door, but paranoia had served us well in the past.

The other reality I still had to face was that I was essentially human and more fragile than ever. Scarlet was gone, and I couldn't depend on her to heal me if I got shot up, stabbed, or nearly clubbed to death; yet another inconvenience of her absence.

Something in his eyes flashed at my submission, and it cemented everything for me. He really was an alpha, through and through. The question that stirred in my mind was: whatkindof alpha would he be?

“Shall we see what's behind door number one?” he tossed over his shoulder at me as he turned the knob.

What he revealed nearly stopped my heart.

8

“I see that you're still alive and doing well,” a voice said from the stairwell. Cooper growled at the man who looked past him at me. “I was worried about you.”

“Wewere worried about you,” another male voice added.

In front of Cooper and me stood the three men who had found me in Maine. One stood slightly in front of the others, so I took him to be the alpha. He was taller than Cooper and thinner too. His hair was a washed-out blond that he kept short, and his gray-blue eyes were large but dull, like he was in a constant state of exhaustion.

The two behind him were similar in size and shape, both of them with brown hair, but that’s where the similarities ended. Where one was muscular and scholarly looking, the other was a tad leaner with hardcore tats and steel decorating what I could see of his body, leading me to believe that there were many others just out of view.

“Ruby...,” Cooper prodded, wanting my explanation ASAP.

“Should I assume that this is the one you spoke of at the cabin?” the tall one asked, still ignoring Cooper to stare at me.

“Who the fuck are you?” Cooper growled, clearly unhappy with the situation.

“Coop,” I said, cozying up beside him. “These are the men I told you about. The ones who found me in Maine.”

“They're notmen,”he replied, still staring them down.

“Okay, fine, poor choice of words.” I looked over at the males on the landing and tried to figure out what exactly was important enough to make them drive through one of the worst storms New England had seen in years. “Why are you here?” I asked bluntly, not feeling up to idle chat when there was clearly none to be had.

“We need a favor, and since you owe us one, I figured that perhaps we could make an arrangement of sorts,” he said, folding his arms across his chest.

“Like what?” Cooper asked, cutting me off before I had the chance to ask the same question.

“Refuge.”

“Like you want tostayhere?” I asked, thoroughly confused. “I'm not a fucking hotel!”

The professorial-looking brunet stepped up to the side of the lanky blond. He looked wicked pissed off.

“We could have left you to fend for yourself in the woods where we found you,” he said, his British accent dripping with disdain. He didn't seem big on asking for help. “You didn't look too capable at that moment, so we intervened. I'd think that would buy us at least a chance to plead our case.”

Cooper's look was murderous. I had to physically grab his shirt to let him know he needed to tone it down a notch. They weren't looking for a fight, but they weren't winning any points either. Sensing Cooper's growing rage, the leader of their trio attempted to mediate.

“Alistair,” he said, his tone laced with warning. “Maybe you should step outside and cool off a bit. I don't think you're helping our situation at all.”

“Good idea,” Cooper growled in agreement. “Maybe you shouldallhead outside.”

I grabbed his arm and tried to calm him slightly because I knew he was dangerously close to letting his wolf out, and that was the last thing our little impromptu party needed.

“Okay, boys, I think we need to take this down a notch,” I said, moving to get in between the men. Cooper was not having it and pushed me behind him. “If you plan to accomplish anything here tonight, I suggest you guys tread very lightly around my boy Coop. He's got areallyshort fuse, especially when it comes to me.”

“Duly noted,” the blond replied, nodding once. “So how do you want to do this?” he asked, looking nervous that I was about to boot him out of my place.

“Why don't you start by reminding me who you are,” I told him, trying to slide past Cooper again.

“My name is Janner. This is Alistair, and the quiet one is Beckett,”

he said, motioning to the other two men.

“Janner? Likeyawner?” I asked, trying not to giggle. “How did I manage to forget that?” He had a strange accent that I couldn't even begin to place, so I shouldn't have been surprised that he had a crazy name to accompany it.

“Yes,” he said, his jaw clenching slightly. “It's a common name where I'm from.”

“So,Janner,what exactly is it that you need refuge from?” I said, eyeing him tightly.

“We're in a bit of a pickle...,” Janner started, choosing his words carefully. “We're in the market for a new pack. We thought maybe you would be able to help with that.”

“No,” Cooper barked, moving to slam the door in their faces. I lunged in front of him, stiff-arming the century-old door back open.

“Maybe we should hear them out, Cooper,” I said, looking up at him. “They did help me.”

“They did, though I'm sure that served their purpose more in the long run,” he snarled. “And had you not been mated, I don't think I would have liked how they went about helping you.”

“Probably not, but that didn't happen,” I argued. I looked back at Janner and company and tried to feel their energies. Something about them was guarded—I'd never felt that kind of shielding before and wasn't certain what to make of it. “Come in,” I offered, moving back out of the doorway. Cooper shot me a scathing look, which I ignored. “This should only take a minute.”

After they entered, Cooper pulled me aside and proceeded to bicker with me in front of them about me being crazy and irresponsible. I countered about him being rude and overprotective. We would have gone on forever, but a single statement jarred us both out of tirades.

“You are not her mate,” a gravelly voice called out softly. Cooper and I did an about-face to stare at Beckett, the quiet one. He may have been short on words in general, but he chose to use them when they counted. I wasn't sure I liked where he was going with that statement.

“Your bond,” he continued, moving towards me cautiously, “I don't sense it like I did before. It should strengthen around your mate, not weaken.”

I looked at Cooper with panicked eyes and saw that his feelings were very different than mine. His eyes glowed yellow, and I knew it was all about to go down because Beckett had to make that single observation known.

The other two men eyed me strangely then followed Beckett's lead, moving towards me slowly, their expressions curious. I didn't feel a menacing energy from them―I couldn't get a read on them at all.

“She isn't his,” Janner said, clearly coming to his own realization.

Cooper's growling was more menacing than I'd ever heard it, and I feared that, on the same day that I learned I had an alpha, I would lose him.

The trio kept approaching with little trepidation visible while I continued to retreat silently out the door after Cooper shoved me toward it. I quickly met resistance where I shouldn't have. Before I could turn to see what I'd bumped into, his energy slammed through me like a bull through a crowd.

Calm.

“No. She isn't his,” Sean rumbled over top of me. “She ismine.”

9

When I finally turned to see Sean's face, he was already leaning down, his lips at my ears.

“You didn't think you could get rid of methateasily, did you?” he purred, making every hair on my body stand up. Part of me wanted to cling to him violently; the rest wanted to run like hell. His comment was far too laced with double meaning for my liking.

When he pulled away slowly, I nervously waited to see the expression on his face. I was met with a middle ground of sorts. His curious smirk said “Are we still playing cat and mouse...I thought we were past that,” but his eyes told a different tale. Their forest green hue did not help to settle my need to flee.

“I am her mate,” Sean barked at the trio, who had ceased to move the second he appeared. “Anyone here care to challenge that?” He stood solidly, staring them down across the narrow divide.

Janner and Beckett slowly and deliberately shook their heads 'no'

while Alistair stared him down.

“Who the fuck―”

“Alistair!” Janner cried, shutting the other man up. “For once will you please keep your foot out of your mouth? He is not to be questioned, understood?” Alistair glared at the side of Janner's face, but said nothing else. He apparently followed directions better than I did. “I'm sorry...Alistair isyoung. He has a lot to learn yet.”

I looked Alistair over again, thinking he didn't look all that young to me, maybe a little older than myself. Then it dawned on me that he wasn't talking chronological age―he meant werewolf years.

“I think these clowns were just about to leave, Sean,” Cooper said, turning his attention away from the men for the first time. “Perhapsyouwould like the pleasure of showing them out? If not, I'm happy to do it.

Whichever you prefer.”

“No,” I said, instantly regretting my insubordination. I knew it would take a while for me to get the hang of not contradicting Cooper in front of others; our whole relationship had been built on bickering.

“Sorry,” I said, bowing my head slightly. “It's just...I'm kind of curious as to why they drove through one of the worst storms in New England's history to come here.”


Page 9

“I think I'd enjoy hearing that myself, Ruby,” Sean said from behind me. My hairs stood on end at the sound of his voice. It was calm and collected, but the undertone I felt was murderous. I had a sneaking suspicion that if he didn't like what they had to say, I'd be having a PC

clean-up crew taking care of my living room―again.

“Of course,” Janner said with an incline of his head to Sean. “We were all members of the South London pack. I'm sure you heard that there was some...dissonanceamongst the family.”

“I had,” Sean replied shortly, implying that Janner had better start telling him something hedidn'tknow, and fast.

Janner acknowledged the situation with a nod and continued.

“Then I won't bother to go into detail about the murder and unrest within the pack as I'm sure you're well apprised. I'll also assume you already know about the change in leadership that took place recently.” He paused long enough for Sean to shoot him a curious look. Sean had no idea what he was getting at. “Oh, I see,” Janner said flatly. “Well, there were those of us who felt the alpha was getting into things he shouldn't and sought to counsel him on the matter. Needless to say, the meeting did not go so well. He was killed.”

“And am I to assume then that you three were responsible for that?”

Janner nodded once.

“So you didn't mean to take his place?” Sean asked, moving forward.

“No. Only to stop the violence.”

“So you fled?”

“Yes,” Janner replied, dropping his gaze to Sean's chin. “He had many supporters within the family, and one of them was all too happy to take his place, ruling as he had. It was banishment or death. We chose the former.”

I looked over to see Cooper's expression soften slightly. He had been a member of a similar pack once, so he understood the quandary they were in.

“But why are youhere?” Cooper asked.

“We were allowed to leave with what we could carry and what money we could gather before our accounts were shut down. We escaped to the airport and got the first flight to the USA that we could. Once we landed in Boston, we asked where the best and most secluded camping area in the region would be, which led us to northern Maine. We've been hiding out ever since.”

“I don't understand,” I said, trying to work through the logistics of what he'd just said. “Why are you hiding out? Theyletyou leave...why not just go somewhere you want to be and start a new life?”

“Because, Ruby, they have no honor. They'll come for us when they think we've dropped our guards―become complacent. It's their nature.”

“Okay, but I still don't get why you'rehere,” I argued.

“We saw you in the woods,” he said, hesitating slightly. “There are stories―rumors―of a wolf so powerful that she can't be stopped by anyone or anything. A Rouge et Blanc,” he said cautiously, looking directly at Sean. “When I first saw you, I knew it was true. You are that wolf. We want to joinyou.”

“Are you saying I have a worldwide reputation?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“Jesus, Ruby,” Cooper sighed. “This is hardly a time to worry about your international street cred.”

“That's not what I was saying!” I snapped at him. “I'm just trying to clarify that there are people that know about me. That know what I am.”

“Yes, Ruby,” Beckett said gruffly, still flanking Janner like a good little soldier. “When you tore past us in the woods one night, red eyes blazing, we all knew. We just never imagined you'd show up on our doorstep. It's a sign.”

“I liked you more when you were quiet,” Cooper snarled. “She didn't show up on your doorstep. The way I heard it, you stalked her through the woods and then attacked her.”

Sean growled, lunging at the trio. He had Janner pinned to the ground before I even saw him move. Beckett knew enough to stand aside, but he looked pissed about it to say the least. Not knowing any better, Alistair attempted to aid his brother wolf and got tackled by Cooper for his efforts.

“Ruby,” Sean grumbled, still holding Janner tightly by the throat.

“Explain.”

“Nothing happened, Sean,” I said, finally grasping the severity of the situation. He was going to kill Janner if he didn't find my explanation satisfactory. “They found me. They fed me, clothed me, and brought me home. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them.” His grip lightened a miniscule amount. I realized I wasn't answering the right question.

I knelt beside him, wrapping my hand around his wrist, trying to lower my face into his line of sight.

“Sean,” I said softly, “they didn'ttouchme...okay? Nothing like that happened, I promise.”

His eyes were black as night, but when they finally met mine, a flash of emerald broke through, if only for a second. He released Janner and stood, hovering above him. I leaned forward to see if Janner was all right, but Sean snatched me by the shoulder and stood me up before I could even get near him.

“Don't touch him,” he ordered, still holding tightly onto my arm. “I think it's time for your company to go, Ruby.”

“Sean,” I started, choosing my words and tone very carefully. “They came to me because they need help. They did as much for me. I want to hear them out.Please.”

His chest rumbled violently, but his hostility never fully made it to his face― that he kept as expressionless as possible.

“Cooper, maybe you should take these mutts out of here for a while.

Can you handle that?”

“I'm not wild about your plan, Rubes,” Cooper said, addressing me before he answered Sean's question. Always a pissing contest with those two. "But yes, I can take them out of here for a bit. Maybe we'll go somewhere really nice and private so I can get some real answers out of these accent-wielding chuckleheads.”

“Cooper...,” I sighed, hating his attitude.

“I know, I know. Be nice to the strays, I get it,” he moaned. “You're such a buzzkill sometimes.” He looked over to the homeless trio and motioned for them to follow him out. Much to my surprise, they followed without so much as a word―not even from Alistair.

I caught Cooper's eye before he shut the door.Be careful,my gaze told him. His eyes drifted to Sean briefly then back to me saying,becareful yourself.

The door closed heavily, leaving Sean and me shut in with our growing silence. I could feel his penetrating stare willing me to look at him, but I couldn't. I was emotionally wasted and physically exhausted, and not up for the talk that I knew we had to have. How do you apologize for nearly killing the one you love?

Without explanation, I slowly started down the hallway to my room, knowing that he would likely follow my lead. He wasn't going to let me walk away; he'd said as much when he showed up at my apartment. What I wasn't sure about was how that conversation was going to go once it started.

My room was dark and chaotic as usual. I'd left for Matty's funeral in a frenzy, and the clothes strewn all through my room were evidence of that. It wasn't surprising―“vintage disaster” seemed to be the theme for it at all times unless someone else cleaned it for me. I didn't even bother making excuses for it; Sean was used to my affinity for messiness.

Since I'd arrived home, I’d never had the chance to change my clothes, or even take my coat off for that matter, and I found myself desperately wanting to get out of my somber, tattered attire and into something far more appealing, like a ratty T-shirt and sweats. Instead, I schlepped myself over to the window seat, which was dimly lit from the street lights outside. I plopped my butt onto the upholstered cushion, then pulled my knees up to my right side, leaning my left shoulder against the wall for support, and stared out the large glass pane.

My eyes suddenly felt heavy and began to close, shutting out everything around me―even Sean. My exhaustion knew no bounds.

“Ruby,” he said calmly, prompting me to acknowledge him. I couldn't read his tone though; he seemed reserved, like he was purposely holding back from me. I wondered if that was for his benefit or my own.

“Sean, I'm sorry about―”

“I'm here to talk, not listen,” he said, cutting me off. It was probably for the best, given my track record of digging holes deeper than they were to start with. “What happened that night...I know it wasn'tyou.You were not behind those actions.” I turned to see his face, all his features beautifully highlighted by the tiny strands of light that permeated far enough into the room. I wished he'd worn an expression to match. “But we still have a problem, you and I,” he continued. “Your inability to trust me has once again caused a rift between us.”

“Seems like a little more than a rift,” I muttered to myself.

“Quiet!” he snapped, and I jumped at the harshness in his voice. He slowly advanced toward me, and I wanted to mold my body against the wall, frightened by his behavior. “Aftereverythingwe've been through—

all the drama...the death,” he growled, still closing the distance between us. “When you came to me that night in the rain―the night you said you chose me―I thought things changed, and yet, only days later, I found myself nailed to the floor with knives, courtesy of Scarlet's lover andmate.” He wasn't shouting at me, but his voice was loud and menacing, and I'd have given anything to have been anywhere but in that room with him in that moment. I'd seen that rage before, but never directed at me.

He'd been angry, even fearsome when the whole incident in question took place, but he’d never had the energy to back it up. Cornering me in my room that evening, he did.

“You're scaring me,” I said, trying not to sound like the sniveling weakling I was.

“Good,” he said, leaning in close. “I want youterrified.” His black eyes told me everything I needed to know. Whatever proclamation he had made earlier in the night about being my mate was a ruse; he wanted to con everyone out of the apartment so he could punish me. I'd seen the justice he was capable of handing out and heard tales of worse. My day wasnotlooking up.

The tremors started low, coursing through my body, especially my hands, growing until they hit critical mass. At that point, there was no concealing the sheer horror I felt as my body knocked against the wall in a spastic, uncontrollable seizure. I felt like it was trying to purge something by literally shaking it out of me. Did my nervous system want to eject Scarlet to neutralize the threat? If so, I definitely preferred my blackouts to the new alternative.

It was hard to read Sean's expression because I couldn't get his face to stay still enough, but something in him shifted slightly. The rage was dying out.

“Where is she?” he growled, pinning my face against the wall in an effort to look me in the eyes. My jaw was spasming so badly that it made it too hard to talk. “Tell that bitch to get out here, now,” he seethed, his grip tightening.

I felt the tears roll in a jerky pattern down my face.

“She's gone,” I stammered, trying my best to be coherent.

“Where. Is. She?” he asked one last time, his irises and pupils bleeding into one large black orb of warning.

“Sean...please,” I begged. “She's gone.... I...I don't know how.

Please,pleaselet me go.” His grip eased and he backed away a foot or two, leaving me some breathing room.

“What do you mean 'gone'?”

“I thought Cooper told you,” I said, scrambling further away from him until I was pressed against the cold panes of glass. “When Janner and the other two found me in Maine a couple of days ago, that was the first time thatIhad been let out in what I later found out was three weeks’

time. Scarlet totally flipped out over Matty's death. I don't know what she did, or how she did it, but she stuffed me away somewhere in my mind, locked the door, and threw away the key.”

He eyed me dubiously.

“So for three weeks you had no idea what was going on around you?

What she was doing?” he asked, folding his hands over his chest. He thought I was lying.

“No! I had no idea, that's what I'm trying to tell you,” I yelled, my voice getting tight with emotion. “I'm not sure she planned on ever letting me out initially, but for whatever reason, she left me in the woods, cold and naked. Sheknewthose three were tracking her. I'd bet my life on it. I think she left me there to relive my past―the night my parents died,” I whispered, picking at the tattered hem of my coat. “She wanted me to pay, Sean. For both of us to pay.”

I rubbed my eyes, trying to clear my vision, but it was no use. The fatigue and excessive amounts of crying throughout the day had left them blurry and tired. Reading Sean's face was growing increasingly difficult, and I once again couldn't get a feel on his energy. He, like the boys from Maine, was shielding me from something.

“You can't sense her?”

“No.”

“You can't hear her?”

“No.”

“So she would have left you to face my wrath alone?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes, she would. She left me to face the refugee trio in Maine alone, and she was a total no-show when Cooper flipped out upon my return.”

My body still shook, but the convulsive nature of the movements had simmered down to a much duller roar, and my heart rate was finally slowing. I wanted to stand, to face his anger head-on, but I couldn't. After everything that had happened, that anger was warranted. It was hard to blame him for his hostility, especially with Scarlet. Though my fear demanded I run, I did something else entirely. I submitted.

Understanding my actions, his demeanor softened ever so slightly.

“I don't see how this is possible,” he said matter of factly, though there seemed the slightest hint of questioning in his tone. “She's a part of you. She can't just disappear.”

“She's a genetic expression, Sean. You told me that. Maybe the environment that first allowed her to come forward has now sent her back. You said RB's Changed because of trauma. Maybe trauma can Change them back...”

“Something is off about you. I sensed it at the funeral,” he said to himself. “So you think she's truly gone?” he asked, stepping cautiously towards me.


Page 10

I shrugged, biting my lip to fight back the tears welling in my eyes.

He turned away from me, pacing the room as he ran his hand through his hair slowly.

Then he put it through my wall.

“Fuck!” he yelled, slamming his other arm against my bedroom door. His anger startled me, and I once again found myself shaking uncontrollably. The rage that had simmered was bubbling over again.

Whatever shield he had in place wasn't capable of retaining that.

“This is not what I wanted,” he grumbled, his words coming from deep within his chest. “Not what I planned.” I said nothing in response, thinking that playing possum on the window seat was the best game plan.

He seemed to be talking more to himself anyway. “She'sthe one who needs to pay,” he said aloud as he paced alongside my bed. “Not you.

This is allherfault, and now she's conveniently gone.”

“Sean?” I asked, moving towards the edge of the seat. I'd never seen him so unraveled, uncomposed―unhinged.

“Do you have any idea howmaddeninglosing you has been?”

He jumped the bed in a single, effortless leap to land right at my feet. “All this time,” he said, staring out the window above me with vengeful eyes that seemed to fluctuate in color by the second. “All this time I thought youchoseto leave me...wanted to escape me, and yet here you are.”

In that moment, I did want to escape him.

“Why would I choose to leave you when I only just got you, Sean?

That makes no sense,” I protested gently, reaching for him before dropping my arm to my side.

“And you're the queen of rational thought?” he asked in a mocking tone, his dark eyes overtaking him.

“Hey! You have no idea what I did to keep you safe. IbeggedScarlet. Threatened her. Did everything I could think of to make her stop Matty. In the end, she did it to avoid her own destiny. She knew Matty was becoming what made him and she would not be suffocated by his love,” I said, standing to face him finally. Apparently, submission wasn't what Sean wanted after all. He appeared to want to know that I had some skin in the game and that I didn't just walk out on him at the most convenient opportunity. I could give him that in spades. “All I thought about when I was locked away in my own body was how I could get out and get toyou,”I told him, steeling myself against his glare. “Youconsumed my every thought. I didn't even know if you’d survived, Sean!”

He gave me nothing in response but a steady stare.

“You want to know the first thing I said when I woke up in Janner's cabin?”

Again, he gave me nothing.

“Is he alive?” I shouted, ramming my palm into his chest, his heart.

“I asked them ifyouwere alive! So don't you get all fucking pity party on me, like this whole thing has been a vacation for me. Do you know how maddening losingyouhas been? How crazy I made myself in my darkened prison, wondering if I was ever going to come home to you at all, and if I did, and you were still alive, wondering if you'd ever want to have me again? You wouldn't even talk to me when Cooper called you! I thought we were over, Sean, over...and that you hated me so much you couldn't muster the decency to tell me. Not even over the phone.”

With my face so near him, I could finally see a flinch of emotion, however fleeting it was. All it left behind was the tiniest trace of green in the blackened pools of his eyes.

“I'm sorry, Sean. I'm so sorry that I couldn't trust you with what I thought I'd done to Matty. But you have to understand that you don't make it easy for me,” I said, collapsing back down to the seat behind me.

“When reactions like this,” I said, waving my hand at him, “are what I can expect, I tend to choose a different course.”

“What I did tonight...,” he said, pausing slightly. “It had a purpose.”

“Scaring the shit out of me is one helluva way to make your point.”

“I didn't do it to scareyou,” he said, eyes blazing. “I did it to get toher. Shewas going to pay for her actions, not you.”

A flash of nerves ignited down my spine at his words.

“But Scarlet doesn't feel pain, Sean,” I admitted softly. “All you would have done was hurtme...”

He looked stunned for a moment, then I realized that maybe that was yet another little detail I hadn't bothered to share with him over time.

“I didn't know,” he said quietly. “I just...there's so much anger. I needed to get it out. Needed someone else to share my burden.”

Fear washed over him quickly, overriding whatever emotional barrier he had erected earlier, and he pulled me to my feet, yanking my coat open to access the neckline of my dress. He drew it down gently, then ran his hand delicately over my collarbones and across my sternum, examining any damage I’d sustained when he’d pinned me to the wall.

“It's hard loving something so fragile...”

“I know,” I whispered, turning away from him. His statement was an observation of my physical fragility. Mine was of his emotional one.

With that realization, his reactions made far more sense. His rage wasn't driven by fear at all, and, as that anger waned, all I could sense was guilt. Guilt and need.

“I want nothing more than to be the man you need right now...the man you had hoped to come back to,” he said, walking away from me, distancing himself from the moment we'd just had. "But I can't. I don't know how to explain it to you. No matter how much my mind knows that you are not at fault―that you are not to blame―a part of me still wants someone to pay.” His eyes wouldn't meet mine when he expressed something about himself that he clearly detested―a dichotomous nature that I, of all people, could easily wrap my mind around. “Ineedsomeone to pay. The beast will not rest until then...”

“Beast?” I asked hesitantly.

“My rage, bloodlust, black void of hatred―whatever you wish to call it. It cannot be quieted. I'm fighting for control every second I'm here with you now. Can't you feel it?”

And boy, could I.

“Yes, but there has to be a way to fix it...isn't there?” I asked beseechingly. “If Scarlet never returns, it can't be like this forever. You can't feel this way every time you see me, can you?"

He looked up at my pleading eyes. All I saw was a sadness so deep that it threatened to engulf me. Then it disappeared entirely, leaving only the menacing blackness that had dominated just moments before. With the return of that pigment came the return of his rage.

“And if there was a way?” he asked, stalking toward me slowly.

“I would take it.” The confidence in my words was directly contradicted by the knocking of my knees. Dark-eyed Sean was not easy to get used to having around, especially when I was the subject of his undivided attention.

“Do you trust me enough?”

“To do what?”

“To take that option?” he asked, meticulously assessing my every response. “To not harm you...”

“What are you going to do?”

“There are only two ways to release what I feel right now,” he told me, his voice cold as ice. “Killing you is clearly not an option..." His words trailed off as though, whatever option number two was, it may not have been favorable either. It made me glad that I hadn't directly answered his question about trusting him, given that my personal jury was still out on that matter at the moment.

“And the other option...?”

He spun me around and pulled my back firmly against his chest in a flash, holding onto my arms in an effort to keep me there. He exhaled heavily in my hair while he struggled to keep his breathing controlled.

“Tell me youneedme,” he said, rubbing his face slowly through my curls.

A jolt of fear shot through me, and I fought hard to overcome it.

“I need you,” I told him, my voice so quiet the words were barely audible.

A small rumble of satisfaction vibrated through his chest and into my back.

“Tell me youloveme,” he demanded, his nose gently stroking the lobe of my ear.

“I love you,” I replied as my pulse quickened.

The rumble became stronger as he nipped my neck with his teeth.

Suddenly, I felt the raw sense of need coursing through him, and, as a result, through me. It quickly started to make more sense to me why he was so concerned about my trust in him. He knew he was about to tread on unstable ground for me―ground that I had only begun to reinforce before Scarlet abducted me. Even in all his menacing wonder, he still did not wish to harm me, physically or otherwise. Not even to meet his most inborn instincts.

“Tell me youwantme,” he growled in my ear, his hold on me tightening.

“I want you,” I said, finding it hard to breathe, my mouth too dry to even swallow.

When his hands found their way to the hem of my dress, one thrust it up above my waist, the other plummeting down my pantyhose and underwear, settling on its clandestine destination.

“Say it again,” he ordered, body motionless, as if awaiting my permission to continue. My breath caught in my throat while I tried to respond.

“Sean―”

The second his name passed my lips, his hand instantly worked against the restrictive spandex surrounding it, furiously rubbing my body into a frenzy. My mind was overwhelmed, and I could barely process his words.

When his hand stopped and I caught my breath, I was able to comprehend.

“Say. It. Again.”

To reassure him that I understood, I pressed my body back into him as firmly as I could―as much as the weakness in my knees would allow.

“I want you,” I sighed, reaching my arm back over my head to touch his face. “Now.”

He intercepted my hand, pulling my arm back down to my side.

“No, no, no, little one. I'll be giving the orders tonight,” he whispered in my ear before violently pulling my underwear and tights down around my ankles. “I hope Cooper and the boys are out for a while.

I plan on taking my time.”

When his hand found me again, I gasped, trying to remain upright, but luckily for me, that wasn't part of his plan. Before I knew it my chest was pressed tightly to the window seat, arms splayed out beside me. I felt him press against me, the rumbling sound in his chest returning.

“I need you to know that I love you, Ruby,” he told me, sounding business-like. “Now tell me to fuck you...”

10

I startled awake in the middle of the night, shooting up in bed, still tangled in the covers. Beside me was nothing but empty mattress. He was gone.

I sighed heavily, slumping against my vintage wooden headboard.

I'd been naïve to think that everything would be fine after our encounter, which made me feel ridiculous for letting it happen in the first place. My head collapsed into my knees, which were tucked tightly against my chest, while I groaned in frustration with the situation as well as my stupidity.

“I'm over here,” a voice called from the shadows. My head snapped to attention, searching the darkness for Sean's location. It took me a moment to make him out, but sure enough, he sat motionless in my armchair tucked in the far corner of the room. “I was concerned that theenthusiasmyou showed earlier might have worn off by the time you woke up. I thought it best to leave you some space,” he explained, moving into the scant light the moon provided. “I didn't leave you...” His voice was tender and soft―my heart nearly melted. Such a stark contrast to the brute who only hours early had demanded my love. Now, the man left behind was scared he may have lost it.

“So, you've just been sitting here, watching me sleep?” I asked curiously, trying to lighten his mood slightly.

“You'd be surprised,” he said with a subtle curl of his mouth. “It's highly entertaining at times.”

I forced a smile in return, but he saw right through me as always.

“Do you want me to go?” he asked, his words again carrying a rare softness.

I didn't know what I wanted. Only hours earlier I'd gone through a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows that still had my head reeling. It's what woke me up in the first place. When Sean came into my apartment, my heart skipped a beat―granted that was partly fear driven―but his effect on me was still as intact as mine was on him.

Regardless, his anger remained, and given how the whole thing went down, he was completely ill-equipped to deal with that anger.

As for the sex, that was the most complicated event of the evening. I couldn't explain it, but somehow I knew heneededthat, not only for a release, but also for something deeper, darker―a punishment of sorts, meant to prove that he still had some level of control over me. As barbaric as that sounded, I understood it. It wasn't sex with the Sean I'd been with before, the green-eyed god who had saved me more times than I could remember. I’d had sex with his other half, his inner Scarlet, the black-eyed mercenary I'd grown to know and fear, and although he was intense, dominating, even brutal at times, I learned a very important fact from all of that.Heloved me too. Both sides of Sean loved me equally, though they had decidedly different ways of expressing it. Submitting to him was exactly what he'd needed to move past his rage.

“I'll go,” he said, making his way to the door.

“No!” I blurted out as I stumbled out of the bed, wrapped in my comforter. I crashed to the ground before scrambling inelegantly to my feet. “I'm sorry. I was thinking about something.”

“And?” he said, pausing by the door.

“I think I get it...what happened last night—” I started before Sean cut me off, looking moderately embarrassed.

“Ruby, I—”

“You forgive me now,” I said, taking my turn to interrupt him. “Youbothdo.”

I hesitated with my last statement, unsure that he would follow what I was attempting to say. Instead, he looked at me with wide eyes that clearly got my message.

“That's why you had to...why we...” I fumbled, trying to find a delicate way to describe the raw, angry sex that had occurred in my room that night. “It's like you have two sides too, but not literally, and yours isn't a wolf. It's something else, but oddly similar.Heneeded that from me―for me tolethim have that, didn't he...er, uh, you? Am I making any sense here, or―”


Page 11

“Yes,”he said, cupping my face softly.“You are, though the details are a little off as usual.” He smiled at his jab, but it quickly faded. “Of course I forgive you, Ruby. There was never any question that I would.

The question now is whether or notyoucan forgiveme?”

“Do I get breakfast out of the deal if I say yes?” I asked, smiling up at him while my stomach rumbled. It was one thirty in the morning, but our bedroom escapades had left me famished.

He leaned in slowly to kiss me, and I found myself with eyes closed, rising up on my toes to meet him. My heart beat faster and the electricity that flowed between us was in full force. Time stood still, the seconds drawing out painfully while I awaited his contact. When his breath tickled my lips, I parted them with an inhale of anticipation.

Instead of a kiss, I got interrupted by an unwanted banging on my door.

“Are you up?” Cooper shouted, knowing damn well I was since he could usually hear me from the living room. Without any acknowledgment, he slammed open the bedroom door.

“Seriously, Coop?” I snapped, scooping the blankets up around me tighter.

“Oh, please, Ruby. Like I haven't seen it before,” he sighed, flipping on the light. Sean growled. “I think we need a family huddle. These guys are making me crazy already. I think it's time for them to go.”

“I think it's time foryouto go,” Sean said calmly, staring Cooper down.

“Oh,” Cooper said, looking back and forth between Sean and me. “I wasn't interrupting, was I? So sorry. Please continue. I'll entertain your squatters while you two carry on with whatever it was you were doing. No problem.”

He turned off the light and threw the door closed behind him, punctuating his sentence with a slam.

“You two are really going to have to try and find a way to get along,” I told Sean, making my way to my walk-in closet. “It doesn't make things easier on me to have you two constantly at odds. And frankly, I don't even know why you are.”

“It's a male thing,” Sean offered for explanation.

I stuck my head out and gave him my best hairy eyeball.

“I still haven't officially forgiven you, you know,” I said haughtily.

“I could drag that out for months, if you'd prefer. It's kind of agirlthing.”

“Point taken,” he said, walking towards me. I pulled on my pants just before he cornered me in the closet. I kept my back to him while I fumbled with my tank top, trying to figure out which end was which in the dark.

“Does your offer still stand?” he asked, turning me around as I pulled the hem of my top down past my navel.

“It does, but now I'm tacking on good behavior. You have to promise to try,” I pleaded. “Cooper will be getting the same speech, if that makes you feel any better.”

“And what of the trio of foreigners in your living room? Must I be well-mannered to them too?”

“I'm undecided on that,” I said, pulling myself up to kiss him quickly. “I'll keep you posted.”

“Do that,” he said intensely. “I think Cooper's right about one thing; it's time for your unwanted houseguests to leave."

“Sean,” I breathed, preparing for a battle. “I really want to hear them out.”

“And I want toseethem out,” he countered, positioning his body only inches away from mine.

“And they came here to see me, not you, so I'm going to entertain their plea and then decide what to do,” I told him firmly. "This is still my home, and I'm still in charge of what goes on in it. I know that fact pains both you and Cooper greatly, but it's the truth and your reality.” His expression cooled ever so slightly. “Please, Sean. You ask me to trust you. Please trust me enough to do the right thing here."

His face contorted in such a familiar way that it startled me momentarily. He was giving me Cooper's famed 'are you fucking kidding me?' face. I knew that good judgment wasn't my strong suit, but there was something about the boys that seemed honest, despite their reserved energy. They saved me from my hell; I owed them one. If I could help them escape from theirs, then I would.

“Please?” I asked, pressing against his fortress of a body. “I'maskingyou to let me lead on this one.” His chest rumbled beneath me. “I promise, the second bodies need to drop, it's all you and Cooper."

“Well,” he started, pulling me up off the floor to wrap my legs about his waist. “Since you asked so nicely..." He pulled me in forcefully for a kiss. It was good that he was holding me up because my body went weak the instant he started.

He put me down moments later and straightened my disheveled clothes while I came to my senses.

“I like it when you ask for my permission,” he purred in my ear.

“I'll do it more often if that's the reward I get,” I replied, sounding mildly winded.

His eyes were darker than normal, but that wasn't entirely surprising. I was getting a crash course in how to navigate Sean's split personality. Why he had it in the first place was becoming clearer, though it was still a bit of a mystery. Exactly how it worked was too.

“Are you two fucking finished in there yet?” Cooper hollered from the living room.

“Coming,” I sighed, not looking forward to our family meeting.

Sean looked at me with a controlled harshness that told me he was having a hard time letting me take the lead. I placed my hand in his and gave a little squeeze.

“I guess we should get this over with,” I lamented.

“The second one of them screws up…” Sean started, eyeing me tightly.

“Agreed,” I nodded. “You can get medieval on them.”

He choked out a harsh and hearty laugh.

“I’ve never understood that saying,” he declared, pulling me towards the bedroom door. “There were periods in time far more torturous than that one. I actually found the medieval methods to be rather civilized."

“Of course you did,” I groaned, following him out to the living room.

The four men stared when we entered. Nervousness coursed from the Maine trio, and hostility rolled off of Cooper at an alarming rate. He really wasn't pleased with his babysitting role. Funny how he survived keeping an eye on me just fine.

“So what did you guys figure out during your little outing?” I asked, needing to break the silence in the room.

“Nothing,” Cooper said with great annoyance. “They only want to talk to you.”

“Seriously? They didn't say anything?”

“Not a word.”

Cooper was hanging on by a thin thread. His distrust was apparent to all parties present, and unfortunately for me, Sean was completely on his wavelength.

“And if I ask for answers?” Sean asked, his voice calm and menacing.

Janner shrugged slightly. “That is an entirely different matter.”

Cooper growled. I don't think he enjoyed being one-upped by Sean.

I decided to try and sort the mess out, seeing that it was still either that option or a bloodbath in my living room. The little cooling-off period Sean had mandated the boys take hadn't done anything to help. There was too much testosterone in too confined a space.

“You said you need refuge,” I started, trying to recall what Janner had said earlier. “But why here? Why do you think you're better off here with me? Withus?”

“Because of what you are,” Janner stated like that point was painfully obvious. “I have to admit that we were surprised that it was so easy tocollectyou in the woods that day. We thought we were possibly going on a suicide mission even attempting to approach you. But once we saw you sitting against the tree, you seemed so frightened―fragile even.

We were far more concerned with your well-being at that point. More so than our own.

“So we took you in and helped you, which afforded us an opportunity to see how the real you stacked up against your reputation.

Pleasantly, we found you to be far more rational than we had been led to believe. Had we not seen you in action prior to that, I don't know that we would be here now, asking for your help. You seem as though somehow, unlike other werewolves, you and your wolf are polar opposites.”

“Yes, well, I do seem to be a bit of an enigma,” I replied with a smile, trying to make light of his observation. He had hit the nail on the head and it made me uncomfortable. It seemed to have the same effect on Cooper and Sean.

“So what you're basically saying is that you want to hide behind Ruby's skirt just in case your big bad alpha comes looking for you?"

Cooper sneered. “You made your fucking bed. Figure out a way to sleep in it.”

“I don't hide from anyone, you fucking prick,” Alistair barked.

Cooper laughed.“I wouldn't even break a sweat killing you.”

“Well, I guess it's good that nobody will be killing anyone tonight, so we won't have to test the veracity of that statement," I interjected.

“Not yet,” Cooper and Sean chimed together. The two slowly turned to look at one another with the most unsettled expressions.

“Anyway,” I said, trying to bring the focus back to the issue at hand.

“You think that I'm going to take you in so that I can just invite trouble to my doorstep?"

“My hope, Ruby, was that you would consider our situation and think about it before readily dismissing us. The stories that I've heard never spoke of your dual nature. You seem so very human to me. I wonder if our plight could possibly appeal to that inflated sense of humanity. If Tobias were to find out about our location...," he said, letting his lack of completion speak for itself.

“You think he'd be dissuaded from coming after you because this seemingly too-human werewolf is actually a ruthless assassin."

“If you're comfortable putting it that way, then yes.”

“So I'm the 'just in case' plan?”

“In a sense.” His expression was surprisingly unapologetic.

The irony of the situation was too much for me. They wanted to be near me for protection, and I couldn't even take care of myself because Scarlet had taken a leave of absence.

“I don't really know how to tell you this, guys, but I'm not really going to be able to help much because―"

“Ruby!” Sean and Cooper yelled simultaneously. It was truly bizarre.

“I think what Ruby is trying to say,” Cooper started, “is that she's on a tight leash these days. She can't just go and take care of your problems without consequence." Cooper shot a glance at Sean and then back to the boys. “He may be her mate, but her survival is dependent on keeping her nose clean. All you three seem to want to do is dirty it for her.”

“I don't think it'll be an issue,” Janner countered. “If Tobias knows that we're aligned with you, I don't think even he would be dumb enough―or suicidal enough―to come after us. He enjoys breathing far too much for that.”

“That's quite a gamble,” Sean added. “And one that none of us are willing to make.”

“Agreed,” growled Cooper.

Flanked by the two men in my life, I looked over at the somber threesome. Beckett's face was impassive, but Janner and Alistair had looks of uncertainty and the energy to go along with it. Their shields had been dropped the instant the conversation started, and whatever they had hoped to accomplish by coming to my house during the storm of the century wasn't panning out. It looked as though they were running out of hope as well as options.

“Now that we've heard what you came here to say...,” Sean began, motioning toward the door.

I watched as Janner took a deep, cleansing breath before giving Sean and Cooper both a curt nod and leading his men to the door. Beckett followed without argument or acknowledgment of any of us. I looked on, feeling as though something just wasn't quite right. It didn't feel good sending them away. When I brought my attention back to Alistair, he stood steadfast, staring at me with a pained expression. He looked desperate to say something.

“Ali,” Janner called from the doorway. “We'll find another way...”

Alistair's eyes remained fixed on mine with a pleading gaze. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it and started to go to his packmates, a slightly defeated posture overtaking him.

“Alistair,” I called, lunging toward him. He startled at my approach, but halted all the same. “Is there something you want to tell me?

Something other than what I've heard?"

He looked to Janner, seeking permission with his eyes. Janner pressed his lips tightly and sighed before giving him a nod of approval.

Without skipping a beat, Alistair dropped a bomb on us.

“They've been going missing for a while now,” he told me, jumping right to the meat of his story. It left me completely bewildered.

“Who? Who's been going missing?”

“Pack members,” he said flatly. “At first, we thought it was coincidence. One or two had disappeared, but there always seemed to be a reason to explain away any doubt. Most were lower ranking members who weren't really in love with being a part of the pack. They would rather have been loners. Initially, we thought they'd all just buggered off."

Again, he looked to Janner with an air of uncertainty clouding everything around him. It was apparent that this was a card he'd hoped to not have to play.

“But later...,” I prodded, trying to drag it out of him.

“Later, it was random members of the pack. And the last one to be taken, she was my mate. Someone took my Jemma."

My shoulders sagged with compassion. The pain he felt was staggering, and part of me knew all too well what that felt like. The other part of me that also knew exactly what that felt like was still too AWOL

to care.

“When?” Sean asked, his booming voice startling me.

“A few months ago,” Alistair said, trying desperately to compose himself. “She left to run some errands one day and never came back."

“I'm so sorry, Alistair,” I whispered.

“What does this have to do with you staying here?” Cooper blurted out from behind me.

“Cooper!”

“Well?” he snarled. “It's a sad story and all, and I feel bad for him, but that doesn't have anything to do with us. Maybe you should send Sean over there to figure out what's happening."

“Have a little compassion, Coop! How would you feel if your mate were taken?”


Page 12

He looked at me angrily, but I could see him processing that thought. It eased the harshness in his face ever so slightly.

“Please go on,” I urged.

“The reason we killed the last alpha isn't quite what we let on before,” he said with hesitation. “The truth is that we acquired evidence indicating that he had been selling his own to someone for testing, but testing for what and by whom we never found out. I overheard him on the phone one night. He was talking to whoever had Jemma. He told them to kill the bitch if it wasn't working. He had her murdered.” He paused for a moment, squeezing his eyes shut tightly. “The rage I felt was unlike anything I've ever experienced. I tore him to pieces with my bare hands before I even realized what I was doing.”

“And that's why you left,” I uttered as my heart fell into my stomach.

“We had no choice,” Janner offered from his place in the doorway.

“Had we stayed, the repercussions would have been immense. The next alpha couldn't have allowed that kind of mutinous behavior, so he gave us one chance to escape with our lives. We took it. It was only later that we learned that he might have orchestrated the entire event. I'm quite certain he used us.”

“If you have served your purpose to him, why are you so convinced that he will come for you?” Sean asked frankly.

“Like I said before, he has no honor. And, to be honest, I think he was a little frightened by Ali's display that night," Janner explained.

“Many of the pack saw how easily he tore through our late leader. I was there. I've never seen anything like it in all my years, though I don't think it could be reproduced on demand. He was beyond lethal. Tobias will have that weighing on the back of his mind at all times, wondering if we'll come back for him. He was Deacon's right-hand man. He's known all along what was going on and decided to play both sides of the fence while it suited his purposes. I'm afraid he's still carrying out whatever had been started. From what we've heard through the grapevine, pack members are still going missing...”

“Interesting theory, but I'm not buying it,” Cooper said, moving closer to me.

“Would you not avenge Ruby if something were to ever happen to her?” Ali asked, his voice uncharacteristically soft and distant.

Cooper growled.

“I would stop at nothing to take down anyone or anything that harmed a single hair on her head,” he rumbled threateningly. "A point that you would be wise to remember―verywise.”

“Then you understand how I feel, and you know it gives validity to Tobias' fear,” Alistair added. “My revenge isn't complete until all who hurt Jemma are cold and dead.Allof them.”

Sean stirred behind me and I jumped; I'd nearly forgotten he was there.

“This Tobias,” he said, walking toward Alistair. “Do you have proof that he knew what was going on or that he's still doing it now?"

Alistair's expression went grim. “No, not directly. Everything we had obtained about Deacon's involvement was through Tobias. Even the phone call I overheard; Tobias had tipped me off to it. When we left, all that evidence was left behind, and I'm sure has been long since destroyed.

We were hoping that maybe the PC could assist us in locating some new information." Sean's eyes narrowed accusingly. “When we heard about Ruby, we also heard that she may have had some...influencewith the PC.

We were hoping that she would help us with that as well.”

“Sean,” I said quietly, “I know you're uneasy about this, but Alistair is right. You both would go to any length to hurt someone that tried to harm me or anyone else you love. Can't you empathize with his situation?

And, really, if there's some psycho selling off pack members to God only knows what fate, can you tell me you're okay with that?" He stared at me without responding, so I pulled out the big guns. “I was sold off...,” I whispered, moving closer to him. “Please, I want to help them. You have to understand why.”

I reached up onto my toes, not caring that everyone in the room was staring, and kissed him softly. His forest green eyes penetrated mine, telling me that he was willing to concede, but less than thrilled with the idea.

“I will have one of the brothers go to London to check on matters there,” he said, speaking over top of me to Janner. "And I'll alert those already there to be on watch for anything suspicious. Perhaps a mild crackdown will strike a little fear into this Tobias' heart, if he has one.”

“That would be much appreciated,” Janner replied with great sincerity.

“Thank you,” Alistair added. He looked so vulnerable standing in the middle of my living room― young and grief-stricken.

“Cooper,” I called as I turned to face him. “Can you accept this?”

He audibly sighed.

“I can. For now. But we're going to have to set some serious ground rules first. If it comes to a choice between our safety and theirs, those bitches are going down any day of the week."

“Cooper,” Janner said, lowering his head slightly to avert his gaze.

An act of submission. “We do not wish to bring harm to you or yours. If it becomes a situation where that is the bottom line, we will happily give ourselves up so as to divert any violence away from you both. Will that appease you?"

“It's a start...”

“Okay then,” I said, walking down the hall to the linen closet.

“Looks like we're going to have a good old-fashioned sleepover."

“No,” Cooper and Sean barked just seconds apart.

“They are not staying here,” Sean informed me. It was clear by his tone that there was no negotiating that point.

“Well, they could stay upstairs,” I offered in compromise. He looked at me dubiously. “Sean, it's late. Just for tonight. It should be fine.

It won't even be comfortable; they'll be miserable, doesn't that make you feel better?"

“Immensely.”

I loaded up my arms with every extra sheet, blanket, and comforter I could find. I didn't have extra pillows, so I stopped by the couch to swipe all the toss cushions I could find off of it. Cooper and Sean watched me intently as I did, neither one of them lifting a hand to help. It was their silent declaration that, though they had conceded to my desire to help our little stray wolves, they weren't happy about it. They were growing more and more alike every day.

“Here,” I said, loading up Alistair's arms with the bedding. “Follow me.”

I made my way out onto the landing and led the trio up to the third floor with Sean and Cooper pulling up the rear. I opened the studio up and flipped on the light. With a grand sweeping gesture, I showed my guests their accommodations.

“It's the best I can offer.”

“We're happy to take it,” Janner said, looking around the room. “I'll get everything else set up here. It's been a long night. You should get some rest."

“She doesn't need your advice,” Sean threatened.

“Of course,” Janner replied with a small bow.

With that, I was ushered down the stairs and back into my apartment, which was fine by me. The testosterone cocktail I'd been swimming in all night was starting to drown me, and I was thankful to find myself in my house with only half as much of it to deal with.

Cooper made a show of locking the door behind us before making his way over to me to give me a huge hug goodnight. Sean seemed to take it well until Cooper planted a long and gentle kiss on my cheek. It wasn't sexual at all―his energy told me as much―but he knew it would rattle Sean's cage so he did it for one last jolly before he went into his bedroom and shut his door for the night.

Sean's eyes were glued to the hallway that Cooper had just disappeared down.

“You know he just does it to rile you up, and you take the bait every time,” I informed him as I headed to the bathroom. He didn't follow. "Are you staying?” I asked while my stomach did a little flip.

He eyed me strangely in response.

“Of course, I'm staying,” he replied as though my question had been utterly ridiculous. Perhaps it was. "But I think I'll be staying out here tonight. Wouldn't want one of the boys to wander in while we all are sleeping.”

“Through the locked door?” I asked incredulously.

“Exactly,” he replied with a mischievous grin. I loved that grin.

“Suit yourself.” I shrugged and continued on my path to the washroom. “It's really too bad though. I wasn't quite ready to go to sleep."

I flashed him a mischievous grin of my own.

“Jesus Christ, you two.” Cooper's muffled voice groaned from his bedroom. “If I have to put up with this from now on, I'm moving out."

“No, you're not,” I quipped. “Who would you have to boss around all day? You know that's your favorite activity."

“Ugggh,” he lamented. “I hate it when you're right.”

“Love you too, Coop.”

I looked back to see Sean smiling at me.

“I see you two have straightened a few things out. I'm glad to see that,” he said, with an impish grin that implied he knew Cooper was my alpha. I don't know why it surprised me.

“Yep. We sure did, though it probably would have been easier had you just told me you knew.”

“I tried,” he said, suddenly right in front of me. I could never get used to how quickly he could move. "I was rudely interrupted by the Rev at the time. After that, there was always a crisis to attend to. That seems to be your gold standard, does it not?” The wattage on his playful grin turned up even further.

“It certainly is, so I'll let you off the hook this time,” I said, leaning in to kiss him gently before catching his bottom lip between my teeth and giving it a light, punishing tug.

“How gracious of you,” he replied with a whisper. “Now...how about we go and try to remedy that little sleep issue of yours."

11

With precious little sleep, I awoke the next morning only to have to drag my ass down to the shop and work. It would be my first official day back since Scarlet went AWOL with me weeks earlier; I was nervous, but excited all the same. It meant spending time with Peyta, which promised to be a double-edged sword, but she needed my help. I wanted to be there to support her like she'd always supported me.

As I made a move to slip out of bed, a large and muscular arm wound its way around my waist, pinning me down so its owner could gingerly nibble on my ear. My pulse raced instantly.

“Sean, I have to get ready to open the shop.”

“And you will,” he replied, working his way down my neck. “In a minute.”

“Nope,” I retorted, wiggling my way free. “I have a business to run, and you still have a mystery to solve, don't you? What are you going to do about what Alistair told us last night?"

He tensed slightly before answering.

“I've got someone on a plane there today.”

“Who?”

“Jay,” he replied after a slight hesitation.

“Oh...” It was all I could muster in response.

“He'll be fine, Ruby. He's a far better soldier than you―or even he―would ever give him credit for."

“It's not that,” I hedged, not wanting to spill beans that weren't mine to spill. “It's just...well, it's Peyta. She's not doing well right now, and I don't think it'll be good for her to know that Jay is in harm's way again."

He sighed.

“This is the world she lives in now, Ruby. I can't change that.”

“I know, but she isn't dealing well with it,” I added. “Putting Jay in danger isn't going to help that."

“Ruby, they will have to work through these things as we have. He loves her more than I can put into words,” he said, getting up out of the bed. I stared at the sweatpants hanging dangerously low on his hips. "He loves her nearly as much as I love you. They'll sort it out, I'm certain of it. And hecanhandle this mission. He hid his abilities to lead for eons because of Jer. He's not hiding them anymore. You should feel sorry for whoever is across the pond selling those wolves off. They're about to be in a world of hurt, not Jay."

“Okay,” I said, forcing a smile. He hugged me in response and kissed the top of my head firmly, letting me know it was going to be all right.

“He'll only be gone for a while, which means I'll finally have my place to myself again.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Jay's been staying in town while I was gone―while I was out searching for you and trying to find who killed McGurney."

“So, the other night when you hung up on Cooper...?”

“I was in Virginia.”

“That wasn't you in your apartment?”

“No. Why?”

I felt a rush of blood flood my cheeks.

“I...I thought it was you. You walked away from the window when I looked up at you. I thought you didn't want to see me."

“Jay was there, Ruby. Not me,” he replied softly. “I wanted to see you.”

“But you hung up on Cooper―”

“Because he called at a very bad time. I didn't have time to talk.”

“Why didn't you call back? I thought you hated me,” I whispered, averting my gaze.

“Do you still think that now?” he asked, pulling me tightly against him.

“Well, no, but―”

“I did not want to talk to you on the phone because I wanted to do it in person,” he said with a strain in his voice. "I knew that you would be at Matty's funeral. Please understand that as furious as I was with Scarlet, I never meant you harm. Watching her disappear through that door, knowing that she held you prisoner―it nearly drove me mad. I spent day and night searching for her to no avail. I can assure you, Ruby, if she had been anywhere on the face of this earth, I would have found her.

Eventually, I thought that perhaps you both did not wish to be found, and there were things that I had neglected that I could not any longer. Duty called. Duty always seems to call.” His voice was sad as he uttered his final thought.

“I would never have chosen to leave you,” I said, squeezing him tightly. “But I can't tell you how happy it makes me to know that you never held what happened against me."

“Never.”

I smiled.

“Well, I'msuperglad we just cleared that mess up,” I joked, pulling away from him.

“Agreed,” he replied dryly with a devilish grin on his face. “Now, as much as I would love to show you just how happy it makes me, I can't.


Page 13

You should go clean up for work. I've got matters to attend to. I'm assuming that Cooper will be keeping an eye on your new roommates to ensure their good behavior." His tone was soft but warning. He still didn't trust the newbies. “I think I'll have one of the boys stick around to keep an eye on you and Peyta...for good measure.”

“Sounds like a plan to me. I'm sure I can talk Cooper into it, but I'm going to owe him big time,” I informed him, tossing an off-the-shoulder long-sleeve top on. "I'm going to have to give him the car if I keep it up.”

“He can have the car, just not you.”

“Oh, I'm his and he knows it,” I said in mocking tone. “Now that we've straightened out that he's my alpha, I'll never hear the end of it! Helovesa chance to boss me around.”

“Don't we all,” Sean said, looking at me through hooded eyes. Those eyes were dangerous and destined to make me late.

“Okay, well, I'm gonna jet,” I told him as I wiggled into my skinny jeans. “When am I going to see you?"

“Soon,” he murmured. “Very soon.”

I walked over to him to give him a quick kiss before running down the hall to the kitchen.

“That's super helpful, thanks,” I yelled over my shoulder.

“I aim to please,” he called after me, following me out of the room.

I grabbed a water bottle and banana off the counter then made my way to the front door.

“Call me,” I ordered, turning to face the mysterious man in my life.

“And how will you answer?” he asked, flipping my phone over and over in his hand.

“Please. Like you couldn't figure out a way.”

“Where you're concerned, Ruby, I'llalwaysfind a way.”

*

The bells jingled when Peyta walked through the store entrance.

They were music to my ears. I was busy in the back workroom when she came in, trying to see if anything needed my attention while admiring Peyta's truly award-winning organizational skills. Like Pavlov's dog, I quickly made my way out front to greet her.

“Hey P,” I called out when I walked through the open door.

“I brought you a coffee from the place down the street that you love,” she said, walking toward me. “And I got you one of those pastry things too. You look skinny. They were out of chocolate but―” Her words cut off suddenly, as though some outside force had pressed pause, freezing her in place. Her eyes glazed while they widened, staring just beyond me.

“Peyta? Peyta, what’s wrong?” I asked, my concern ever-growing.

“Did something happen? You look like you've seen a… ”

12

“Ghost.”

My spine chilled as that single word narrowly made its way out of my mouth. A familiar but unwelcome sensation washed over me. I had hoped to never feel it again.

“Ruby,” Peyta called, still unable to pull her eyes away from whatever stalked me from behind. I, however, seemed unable to force myself to turn around and face it at all.

My abdominal scar burned as if the memory of Gregory’s attack was physiologically etched into it, and I prayed that I wasn't in for a repeat performance. By the look on Peyta’s face, she wasn’t up for a round two either. When her eyes finally met mine, they were filled with fear. Before I could do anything to calm her, I felt the faintest brush of something against my hair.

I had no intention of staying around to see what else he could touch.

“Run,” I mouthed to Peyta, barely making a sound. She didn’t hesitate, and neither did I. Darting for the entrance, she had the door ripped open only moments after I rounded the counter to join her. So much for no more running, though I felt that instance warranted an exception to the rule.

I turned to slam the door behind me, but what I saw looking back at me halted my progress. His body faded minutely with every stride Peyta took down the street, but his face was unmistakable. The expression it wore was too―the perfect mix of sadness and confusion. I’d seen it once before through Scarlet’s eyes.

“PEYTA!” I screamed at her just before she could round the corner at the end of the block. “Come back!Now!”

With hesitation, the tiny brunette jogged back toward me. I frantically looked from her to the ghost in my store, watching as his form solidified little by little with her approach. When she was only yards away, I cautiously reentered the shop. My hands shook—tremors growing

—as I approached him. His expression remained unchanged.

I was surprised he wore one at all, given that the last time I’d seen him he didn’t have a head.

“Matty?” I called, my voice cracking as my throat tightened violently. Tears rolled freely down my face; I barely felt them. Disbelief coursed too strongly through my body and off of his to feel anything else.

“You can see me,” he whispered, slowly bringing his hands before his face to investigate their solidity.

“Yes,” Peyta replied from behind me. “We both can.”

His attention drifted to her as she came to stand beside me. Her demeanor had done a complete one-eighty from what it had just been. Her energy was calm like it had always been when the subject of the ghosts came up, though it was tinged with a hint of sorrow when she looked at me.

When she looked at Matty, that sorrow turned to rage.

“Ruby—” he started before Peyta cut him off.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she fumed, her rage building rapidly. “You need to leave.”

“Peyta!” I snapped, grabbing her arm.

“He nearly killed Jay,” she yelled, turning hateful eyes on me. “It’s time for him to go...somewhere far away andverywarm.”

Matty and I both visibly cringed at her words. Peyta had clearly found an outlet for her emotions far sooner than I'd expected, though I wasn’t certain it was going to be an especially healthy one.

“What?” he asked, trying to make sense of what she had said. He seemed disoriented and confused, with no obvious recollection of the event Peyta spoke of. I broke out in a cold sweat. Would he remember what Scarlet did?

“You,” Peyta growled as she stalked closer to him, “you ruinedeverything. This is all your fault.”

“Ruby?” he asked, his wide eyes pleading for understanding.

I clasped a hand around Peyta’s thin arm to keep her from advancing any further. She was too enraged to see what I did. Matty was frightened.

“It’s okay, Matty,” I said softly, walking past Peyta. “You don’t remember. That’s all right. I don’t remember everything either."

“Are you...? You’re not...?” he started, unable to finish his thoughts.

“No, Matty,” I said as another rogue tear worked its way loose. “I’m not dead.”

He closed his eyes, and I watched as the tension left his body with one large exhale. Of all the things he had to be concerned about, my well-being was first and foremost on his mind. Instead of making me feel better, I felt infinitely worse. I thought I was going to be potentially dealing with the mindless, bloodthirsty rogue who had nearly killed Sean, but, much to the contrary, I found myself face to face with the man I thought I’d lost months ago. My Boy Scout.

“Thank God,” he whispered to himself.

“You leave God out of this,” Peyta snipped, picking up where she left off. “You won’t be seeing him where you’re going."

“Peyta, please,” I begged, turning my bleary eyes on her. “I know you’re angry, but—”

“But what, Ruby? He mowed Jay down without a thought and wounded Sean pretty badly too. You think I give a shit about how he feels right now? I don't, and neither should you.”

“Peyta, it’s not that simple.”

“Yes, Ruby, it really is.” It was her turn to grab me by the arm and squeeze for dear life. Her bony fingers dug painfully into my flesh while her eyes bore holes into my head. "He nearly took from me everyone that has helped to keep me grounded in this supernatural life. I don’t give afuckabout him. You shouldn't either.”

“Jay is alive, Peyta, and so am I.”

“Jaywon’t see me anymore. He may as well not be alive for all it counts now. I’ll never see him again, and it’s all thanks to him," she said, flinging an accusatory arm in Matty’s direction.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, suddenly feeling the same confusion Matty was.

“He wants nothing to do with me,” she replied with eyes as cold and hardened as her mother’s. “He never even bothered to tell me why, though I'm sure it has a lot to do with me nearly failing him—my complete inability to do the job I was born to do.”

“That can’t be right,” I argued, thinking that Jay had always been the sole voice of reason and perspective when all others were lost. "Did you ask him?”

“What about ‘he wants nothing to do with me’ wasn’t clear, Ruby?

He hasn’t spoken to me since I healed him. He won't answer my texts, my calls, and I have no idea where he is, not that it would matter much. I highly doubt he’d be willing to see me either.”

“Peyta, I don't know what to say.”

“There's nothing to say,” she said, her voice still cold. “I guess things make a lot more sense to you now though." She sent me a knowing glance then pinned her eyes back on Matty. She was right; her cutting made even more sense after knowing that she and Jay were done.

“Matty, do you remember what happened that night at Sean's?” I asked in an attempt to ascertain exactly what he remembered from that fateful night.

“I can't...I don't know. My head starts to pound whenever I try to put the pieces together.”

“Let me give you the Cliff's Notes version,” Peyta sneered. “Your crazy fucking wolf charged Jay and nearly tore his throat out before you went on a rampage with Sean, driving knives the size of machetes into each of his major joints and organs."

He pressed his eyes closed as if he was trying to hide from her words, but he couldn't, and eventually it was apparent that the fuzzy spots in his memory became crystal clear.

“You killed me,” he whispered, bringing his eyes up to meet mine.

“Matty, I―”

“You don't need to explain shit to him,” Peyta spat. “In fact, I'm pretty over this whole situation. I'll see you tomorrow, Ruby. I'm out."

She snatched up her belongings and stormed through the door without another word. I was hot on her heels.

“Peyta, wait. Please,” I called at her as she made her way to the corner and down the alley. She moved fast for someone with legs far shorter than mine. Pausing to let me catch up, I slammed into a wall of hostile energy as soon as I did.

“No. Not this time, Ruby. This is too much.”

“I'm worried about you, P. Why didn't you tell me about Jay earlier?”

“Why? It wouldn't change anything. He's not going to listen to you if you try to smooth things over, which, by the way, you're not going to do, understand me?"

“Of course I won't, but we need to talk about this.”

“I'm all set with talking today. It doesn't help anyway.”

“Oh, and your solution does? Have you even told your mother about that yet?”Her glare told me she hadn't. "I'm not letting this go, Peyta. I love you too much for that. I swear that I'll call her right now unless you promise me that you're going to go to her shop right now and tell her. I'll be checking in with her tonight to be sure you did.”

She sighed heavily, fighting back her tears.

“Fine.”

“Peyta, please understand that regardless of what happened, the Matty that's standing in my shop right now, he's not the one that hurt Jay.

He never would have done something like that until your father infected him. Matty didn't stand a chance―he was destined to become what made him. Please don't hold that against him.” I choked on my tears that I could no longer withhold. “I never got to say goodbye to him properly.

Please let me have that.Please.”

She tried to remain angry at me, but she was above projecting her hostility, and soon her rage petered out to sadness. Sadness for her, for me, and maybe even the slightest bit for Matty. The calm after the storm always afforded the perspective that couldn't be found in the moment.

“Okay,” she sighed, starting back down the alley to the main road.

“But I'm not staying. I'll hang out just long enough for you to say goodbye. That's it."

My tears rolled off my cheeks freely. I was elated and horrified by what was about to happen. I'd never wanted something more and less at the same time.

As we walked down the street, I took her hand in mine and gave a squeeze. The minute tightening I felt in return made me smile through the pain. We entered the store together, expecting to find Matty where we'd left him, but he wasn't. We searched high and low, but the reality was plain. Matty was gone and I'd missed my chance to tell him how sorry I was.

I’d missed my chance to say goodbye.

13

“NO!” I screamed, slamming the workroom door shut. “I have to tell him, P. I just have to.”

“Don't panic yet,” she said in an unsuccessful attempt to calm me down. “It doesn't mean he'sgone, gone. He may have just gone somewhere else for a while.”

“Do you think so?” I asked, my desperation plain.

“I don't know. I wasn't very focused on what state he was in. I didn't get a read on how long he had before he'll fade."

“Fade?”

“You know,” she said, trying to urge me to see the obvious. “Cross over.”

“Oh.”

“Listen, I'm sorry about this. I know he was your friend, but I can't help blaming him for what happened,” she said apologetically. "I never knew the person you claim he was before he tried to kill Jay and Sean and then drove Scarlet away.”

I didn't know what to say. Her points were valid, her feelings warranted. I couldn't help but think how I would have reacted if the shoe had been on the other foot. My guess was not nearly as well as she did.

She may have gone off on him, but she'd still held some measure of composure. I wouldn't have.

“So, I'm going to head out,” she informed me, rocking back on her feet slightly. “But I'll be back tomorrow. Maybe he'll stop by then...and maybe I'll have calmed down about it by then too."

“Sounds like a plan.” I forced a smile, hoping that she was right about Matty. “Go see your mom. I believe you still have things to tell her."


Page 14

She smiled tightly and nodded once.

“Come here,” I ordered before scooping her up into a big hug. “Tell her everything too. She needs to know that you and Jay are having issues.

This isn't time to skimp on the details." She shot me a dubious look.

“Well, yes, skimp onthatdetail. We still don't need her knowing about the PC.”

“I'll manage to leave that one out,” she joked weakly. “I'll see you tomorrow.” She turned away from me, heading toward the door before stopping just short of it. "And, Ruby? I really am sorry about my meltdown. If I can help you say goodbye to the Matty you claim he is, I'll do it.”

“Peyta, I am hardly one to talk when it comes to epic meltdowns. If you need to, melt away, my dear. I'm totally good for it."

She giggled as she walked through the door, tossing a parting goodbye over her shoulder. Those shoulders were carrying a lot of weight. I hoped she was on her way over to her mother's to unburden them.

*

Hours later, I found myself mindlessly playing with a trio of silver hammered beads on the front desk. I couldn't manage to do anything that required focus on any level. My mind was a million miles away in Clusterfuck Land, trying to sort through all the craziness in my life. I had been working under the impression that the CF list and I had finally broken up. Perhaps I jumped the gun on that assumption.

By the time I was entirely too frustrated to stay at the shop any longer, I put a note up on the door saying that we were closing early and locked up behind me. The unseasonably cold weather was still going strong, but I'd planned ahead for once and brought my down vest and mittens with me to work. I slipped them on outside the door and took off to walk through town. It always brought me clarity when I needed it, and I hoped that trend would continue as I made my way down to the docks.

There was one more person I needed to see since my return.

The wind whipped down the winding streets of Portsmouth, stinging my cheeks to a rosy pink. It felt refreshing and was exactly what I needed to bolster my resolve. When I rounded the final turn by the waterfront, I looked down at the boats in the marina―and my heart sank instantly. The houseboat was gone.

Sighing heavily, I proceeded down to the dock anyway. It brought forth a wave of bittersweet emotions. I had nearly died there thanks to the keen and sociopathic efforts of the Rev. Gavin had been the one to save me, but in the aftermath of his efforts, he caused a whole new dilemma for me. For whatever reason, he seemed hellbent on warning me off of Sean, and it almost worked for a fleeting moment. Almost.

I had come back to get those answers he promised me and to find out once and for all why he had it in for Sean so badly. It was clear that Gavin wasn't telling me something, but thewhatwas a gnawing question mark in my mind that needed to be erased. For good.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn't going to get much of anything out of someone that wasn't there. Frustrated, I plopped myself down at the edge of the dock, making sure to keep my feet well above the water line. Not only was it way too cold to dip my feet into, but it was also just a little too soon after my near drowning with the Rev to tempt fate.

I knew how much fate adored me.

As I stared off into the harbor, searching for answers that weren't there, a familiar voice nearly scared me right out of my pants―and into the water.

“I don't think that went so well for ya last time, missy. I don't suggest ya be trying it yet again.”

Gavin.

I turned to find the aged version of him, cocking his head at me in mocking. He had poured the accent on pretty thick, making me a little concerned that he and I were going to be starting off on the wrong foot, just as I had with nearly everyone else upon my return. As far as I knew, Gavin only spoke with that accent when he was good and riled up.

I seemed to have that effect on him.

“Wasn't planning on it,” I smiled, pulling myself up carefully so as not to repeat the impromptu swim he was implying. I didn't think it was likely that Scarlet had decided to take swim lessons during the three weeks she took off and held me captive in my mind.

“I haven't seen you around here for a while...” He trailed off at the end, leading me to offer up an explanation.

“Yeah, well, it seems that I took an unplanned vacation of sorts.”

“Indeed. The kind that requires teams of police and volunteers to dredge up Portsmouth Harbor and the greater portion of the lower Charles River," he said, narrowing his eyes slyly. “I think you need a better travel agent. The one you have did a shit job.”

“No arguments on my end.”

I wondered just how much he knew about my little three week disappearance, but I didn't want to offer up anything more than I needed to. I was there to get answers, not give them. Instead, we stared at each other silently for a moment, neither seeming to want to budge on their agenda.

Finally, I caved.

“I got your note...”

“Did you now?” he mocked, dialing the accent back to his normal American one. I hoped it was a good sign. "Did you actuallyreadit?

Seems it might have saved you some grief.”

“How do you figure that?”

He smiled wide.

“The dark-eyed one has a bit of a temper, doesn't he? Even withyou.”My mouth hung agape in response to his words.How could he knowthat?“I warned you about him. I'm wondering how long it will take for you to decide that I'm telling the truth.”

“Probably about as long as it takes you to give me something solid to go off of as far as evidence is concerned. Or maybe once you stop talking in riddles and actually explain in detail why you think he's bad news for me," I quipped, irritation tainting my tone. “Either would be fine.”

“And that's exactly what I'd planned before your little escapade, or should I say,Scarlet'slittle escapade?”

My irritation started to bleed to anger. Even when he shouldn't, Gavin seemed to have all the answers about everything, and I had none. It felt like the early days of Sean and me, minus the animal attraction and occasional flirting.

“I came here to talk to you. If all you’re going to do is be an all-knowing prick about everything, I'll leave," I said, starting to make my way past him. “I don't suppose it really matters anyway. You'll know where to find me.”

He caught my arm just before I was out of reach.

“You may not like my methods, Ruby, but I can assure you that everything I do for you is in your best interest."

“Hmm, that sounds oddly familiar. I think I've heard it before,” I mocked, rolling my eyes up and to the right as though contemplating something. "Oh, that's right. I believe the 'dark-eyed one’has used that line on me a time or two, and, correct me if I'm wrong, he is the one that you're warning me against, no?” My observation was met with a sour look. "Interesting. Shall I hold that against you too?”

“I don't care for your tone.”

“And I don't care for your double standards.”

“You seem to be awfully fond of his,” he purred, his voice and energy laced with disdain. “And I don't recall ever threatening to kill you.

Would that be helpful? Would you be more likely to listen to me then?"

“No,” I replied flatly, “I wouldn't. Sean can pull that off. You can't.”

“Yes, it's actually quite amazing the feats that Sean can 'pull off'

when he's motivated. I think I'll tell you some of those stories about him soon, but not today,” he said condescendingly. “You're not ready to hear them just yet."

“Well then, why are we still here talking? You're not going to tell me anything helpful and I'm over it, so...?"

“Tell me something, Ruby. Did you sleep with Sean the night I warned you about him just to spite me, or had that been on the agenda from the get-go?"

My skin crawled as every hair on my body stood at attention.

Apparently, the list of things he knew about was far longer than I had bargained for.

“Like it's any of your fucking business. How could you possibly even―”

“You're easy to follow. You don't pay any attention to your surroundings, and, for your information, I was trailing you to be sure that the Rev didn't come back and finish you off," he snarled as the sparkle died out of his eyes. “You went tohisplace and didn't come out for an hour or two. When you did, it was clear that something was wrong, given the speed with which the dark-eyed one peeled out onto the street."

“And from that you determined I slept with him?”

“Are you denying it?”

“What does it matter?”

“Because this is how he works, Ruby. I've seen it time and time again. He destroys those closest to him,” he said, willing me to read between the lines. When I didn't, he did it for me. "I believe you've had the pleasure of meeting Sophie.”

“Yeah, though a 'pleasure' is hardly what I would call it, and just what are you getting at there?” I growled, not liking the direction our conversation was taking. "Sophie was a damn headcase as far as I'm concerned. She was a well-contained sociopath, and I would know. I've met more than my fair share of them over the past year or so.”

“Yes, she certainly was,” he chimed, scratching the side of his face where his five o'clock shadow lurked. "I wonder how she got to be like that.”

“Are you trying to tell me that Sean is the reason for her bat-shit crazy status?” I asked, nearly choking on the words. "No way. Noooo way is that true. There are a million reasons why that girl could have melted down over the centuries, and that's assuming that she resembled a human being at some point, which Ihighlydoubt is true.”

He shrugged ambivalently while he stared me down.

“Are you willing to bet your sanity on that? Yourlife?”

“I've bet my life on less,” I replied, feigning indifference―but I was full of it. Both his words and energy were penetrating me, chewing away at my bravado and eating through my defensive façade. I was starting to doubt Sean, and perhaps rightfully so. He would never talk about his past. Maybe there was a really good reason for that avoidant behavior. Maybe I really didn't want to know who he was. Or who he had once been.

“Well, if you keep heading down the path you are on, I can assure you that it'll only end one way, Ruby―with heartache, destruction, and death,” he warned, his voice as soft and chilling as a haunting tune.

“Secrets kill, Ruby, and not just people―relationships too, especially when those secrets can't stay hidden away forever. Light eventually falls on even the darkest of corners.”

And with his words, I felt the last of my resolve to defend Sean slip away. Gavin was right, or at least he sure made me feel that way. My life wasn't headed in a positive direction, and it was likely that Sean's involvement wasn't improving that fact.

“I have to go,” I whispered, needing space and air and a way to escape the sinking feeling in my chest. I turned away from him, heading back into town, when he called after me one last time.

“Ruby? There's one more thing,” he said, sounding oddly satisfied with himself. “Your new house-guests...I'd keep my eyes on those three.

Something about them just doesn'tfeelright to me. I'm sure you can sense it as well.”

All I could sense was impending doom and an overall uneasiness that I wanted desperately to escape. I took off running through town, headed home to find Cooper. I needed to figure out what all this enigmatic double-talk meant and what the hell I should do with it.

Unfortunately for me, Cooper wasn't the most objective wall to bounce things off of when it came to certain topics of conversation. He was not a fan of the UK threesome, a fact he had made abundantly clear, nor was he a big Sean supporter. If I'd gone running in there flipping out about both, he would have been all too happy to get on board with Gavin's observations, and, though a part of me seemed to crave that, another fought fervently against it. I did not want to believe his words, truth or not.

Even if my denial meant my demise.

*

“Ruby,” Cooper growled as I walked in the apartment door. “So good of you to actually join us. We need a family huddle.Now.”

Before I'd even made it two feet in the door, I was whisked away to my bedroom by my elbow and plopped down on my bed. Cooper was pissed.

“What the fuck are you doing leaving these ass clowns with me all day? I'm not a goddamn babysitter, Ruby. You wanted to keep them.

You're going to help me deal with them. They can't just hang out all day doing God knows what in town. I still don't trust them and neither should you. I'm going to have to keep tabs on them, and I am so not doing that alone.”

“We can hear you, you bloody wanker,” Alistair shouted from the living room.

“I know you can fucking hear me, dickhead. That's the point. And this is America―try insulting me in a way that doesn't require translation.”

“A wanker is kinda like a douche―” I volunteered before I was cut off for my efforts.

“Iknowwhat a fucking wanker is, Ruby, thank you very much.”

“Right. Sorry,” I replied, wincing slightly. He was wicked angry. “I didn't mean to be gone forever or stick you with them, but...”

“But what, Ruby?”

“I had to go to work, and then something else came up, and I had to deal with that.”

“What came up?” he pressed, leaning toward me.

“Nothing crazy,” I said hesitantly, trying to stall. “I ran into that old guy, Gavin, in town. You know, the one that left me that note? I couldn't seem to duck out of our conversation politely. I'm sorry. What do you want me to do with the boys from now on? Take them to the shop with me? Have them say ridiculous things to Peyta to cheer her up?”

“No!” he roared. “I don't want them anywhere near her.”

“I was joking, Cooper. Of course I'm not going to bring them around her.”

“Good,” he barked, staring me down. I half expected his eyes to turn that familiar shade of black that belonged to Sean when he was in similar humor. “They need to move out, Ruby. There's just no way around that.


Page 15

Even if I thought they were on the up and up, there's no room here, and there are too many people that would be endangered if something goes awry. I know you know I'm right about this."

I sighed, not wanting to discuss the matter.

“Okay, but I don't want you running them out of town. Not yet. I know you don't believe their intentions are pure, but you also know that I have a way of knowing those kinds of things. I don't get anything from them that leads me to believe that they're going to do anything other than annoy the shit out of you and take over my third floor," I argued. “The bathroom situation might get sketchy here soon, but I've dealt with you. I can deal with them too.”

Fine,” he said, turning on his heels to stalk out of my room. “But we are still going apartment hunting tomorrow. I hope these assholes have money. And, yes, Alice, I know you can still hear me."

He had already conjured up insulting pet names for them. I couldn't tell if that was good or bad.

“But then how will we keep an eye on them if they move out?” I asked, feeling like we were going in circles.

“I guess I will have to go with them,” he mumbled, clearly unhappy with that reality. “You, however, will be staying here. Far away from them."

“Um...didn't you just tell me that you weren't going to babysit them on your own? I may be blonde, Cooper, but this is getting confusing even by brunette standards."

“I know,” he snarled, his eyes flaring gold. “You are going to stay here because that is what's best." He shot me a glance that nearly seared my flesh. “I don't want you around them. Am I understood?”

And then it hit me. Cooper was pissed because he had no choice but to babysit the boys. I couldn't do the job because of my lack-of-Scarlet status. He was torn between wanting to punish me and wanting to keep me alive.

“Do you want me to send them away?” I asked sheepishly.

“Yes,” he snapped, “but I know that, for whatever reason, you're convinced they need to stay. I'll play along with that plan for now, but I swear on all that's holy, one screw-up and they're dead. Not sent away.

Just dead."

“I wish I could explain it to you, Cooper...”

“I'm in no mood to hear it even if you could, Ruby.”

Ruby―not Rubes. Things were worse than I had thought.

“Okay. Not tonight,” I said softly, thinking of something else I needed to talk to him about that he wasn't going to be happy to hear.

“Coop? There's something else,” I admitted quietly, not wanting to get into the whole Matty deal.

“Does it involve anything life-threatening?” he asked, rubbing his forehead.

“Um...no.”

“Is it about P?”

“No.”

“Great. It can wait then. These guys are sucking away my will to live at an obscene rate. I can't deal with any other issues today."

Without another word to me, he stalked into the living room and ordered the boys upstairs, threatening them with bodily harm and death if he heard them rouse at all before morning. Alistair started to complain about being hungry but seemed to think better of it when Cooper began growling at him. I watched the three of them disappear from my home before Cooper slammed the door behind them, waiting to hear their footsteps ascend to the loft above. Once he seemed satisfied that they were where they should be, he walked down the hall to his room and closed the door. He didn't even toss me another glance.

I was too wired to go to bed, my mind reeling with all the newly gained half-truths and warnings from Gavin, and the new reality that Cooper would be moving out. Instead of trying to sleep, I went to the living room and plopped down on the couch in silence. The quiet was sobering and isolating.

Who knew living with so many others could make me feel so alone?

14

I didn't want to open the shop the next day. I'd slept terribly, leaving me with sunken eyes that just couldn't quite focus on anything no matter how hard I squinted. Eventually, I just stopped trying.

Cooper was milling about the apartment, and as much as I wanted to talk to him to figure out a solution to our family crisis, I just couldn't deal with any more hostility from him. Instead, I studiously avoided him, sneaking into the bathroom as best I could while he banged around in the kitchen cabinets. Unfortunately for me, I wasn't nearly as stealthy as I thought I was.

"I know you're up," he called from the adjacent room. "And you pee louder than anyone I've ever met. If you're trying to avoid me, it's not going to work. Besides...I owe you an apology. You might want to come out here so you don't miss anything."

I finished up in the bathroom before joining him in the kitchen. He was leaning his hip against the edge of the stove, arms crossed, face stern. He didn't look like he was feeling overly remorseful.

"I'm sorry I snapped about you leaving me with thegirlsyesterday. I don't like them being here―that hasn't changed―but as much as I may dislike it, they did help you, and if you feel that they're legit, I'm going to trust you. You know...trust? That thing that you and Sean don't have? Yes, that trust. We're a pack, Ruby. We are going to start acting like one. And, as my first official order as your alpha, I want to reiterate the casually-made comment from last night that I don't want you alone with them.

Period. End of story."

I was dumbfounded. I hadn't expected an apology, no matter how creatively it was wrapped.

"I can't explain why I want to help them, Coop; I just do. But you were right to be mad at me. I can't just dump them here and then go along like everything is fine and dandy, business as usual," I replied, moving in to wrap my arms around his waist. It was easier than having to look him in the eye. I sucked at apologizing. "I'msorry, Coop. I'm just not quite sure how to fix this until we find them somewhere to go." I hedged slightly before amending my statement. “Somewhere for all of you to go."

"Well," he started, squeezing me a little tighter, "you could start by getting that boy toy of yours to lend me his Navigator so I can cart them around in style while we look for apartments."

I laughed, thinking that Cooper was far more desperate to get his hands on his own car than I'd thought.

“Why don't you take their car?”

“Apparently, it wasn't so muchtheircar as it was anacquiredvehicle. They ditched it outside of town when they came here. That's where it's going to stay. We don't need the cops finding a stolen vehicle here, nor do I need them driving around town unsupervised."

"Agreed,” I said with a smile. “And, yes, I'm pretty sure I can sweet-talk Sean out of the SUV."

"Oh, I have no doubt that you can get just about anything you want out of that one at this point, except maybe the truth, though I'd really rather not think about your methods for trying," he said, pushing away from me slightly. "I'm going to go wake the ladies up for our long day of house-hunting. Wish me luck."

"You won't need it," I called to him as he reached for the door. "Just wiggle that ass of yours at the realtors and you'll get whatever you want."

"Ha! Too bad it doesn't work on the trio upstairs."

"Maybe it does," I said with a wink. I was met with one in return.

"Perhaps I'll go test out your theory..."

“Don't be upset when it works!”

A harsh laugh rang out through the hallway as he closed the door behind him. And with that, he was gone.

*

Having firmly decided to be an irresponsible business owner and keep the store closed for the day, I posted some lame excuse on the shop's door before deciding to head over to Ronnie's. I was grateful that my inheritance had left me enough money to be mildly aloof regardingREWORKEDwhen situations arose, but it wasn't a luxury I would have forever, a fact I needed to keep tucked away in the back of my mind.

The reality was that I was far more concerned with Peyta and whether or not she had let her mother in on her little secret than I was about working that morning. If she had told her, I wanted to be sure that Ronnie was handling it well. Nothing was more important to Ronnie than Peyta, but when blindsided, her reactions weren't always the most well thought out or sensitive.

I enteredBetter With Ageto find nobody awaiting my arrival; it appeared deserted. Just as I was about to call out for her, my panic rising, I heard a laugh from the back room.

Agiggle.

Then I heard the low rumblings of a man's voice.

More laughter.

"Ronnie? It's me," I said tentatively. I wasn't entirely sure what I was interrupting.

"Ruby!" she yelled before an outbreak of scurrying and whispering broke out in the back storeroom. "I'll be right out."

"Don't worry," I mumbled under my breath. "I'm not coming in."

A minute later, Ronnie stumbled through the beaded curtain, smoothing her vintage blouse out and fussing with her hair. A moment after that, a familiar man followed.

“Ruby, you remember Malcolm," she said, trying her best to not look like she'd just gotten caught making out under the bleachers in high school.

“Yes," I replied with a tight smile. "It's nice to see you again."

He looked a tiny bit sheepish as he ran a hand through his disheveled hair.

“Always a pleasure to see one of Ronnie's friends."

The three of us stood awkwardly for a moment, ignoring the neon pink elephant―or herd of them―in the room. I felt like they were multiplying while I stood there. Eventually unable to smile uncomfortably any longer, I cracked.

“Is this a bad time, Ronnie? I could come back later...”

“No, no, it's fine. We were just,” she started, taking a pause to grin at Malcolm, “lookingfor something in the back.”

Like a condom...

“Right, well, I just came over to ask about Peyta,” I said, shooting her a glance that said 'read between the lines, please'. She got me loud and clear.

“You can ask whatever you need to,” she informed me, taking a step closer to Malcolm. “He knows. He knows everything."

“Oh, okay.” I stumbled on the words. Was I missing something more than I thought? The two had history, that was plain from the first time I'd met Malcolm Reed. He was afriendfrom a long time back. A friend of her husband's. A friend from theUnderground. The piece of the puzzle that I seemed to be lacking was when he'd become someone present enough in Ronnie's life to warrant knowing the most intimate details of her daughter's mental well-being. Perhaps I had missed more in those three weeks than I bargained for. “So Peyta told you? Told youeverything?”

“She came to me about it yesterday,” she replied, regaining some of the sharpness of feature that I was accustomed to seeing on her face. “She said you were going to tell me if she didn't.” I nodded. “I'm so glad you pushed her about this, Ruby. I had no idea.”

Her guilt wove around me, wrapping me in an energetic blanket that nearly suffocated me. Ronnie was not likely to forgive herself for her oversight anytime soon. Maybe never.

“So you're getting her help? I looked up some really great places that deal with this specific disorder. Did you find somewhere for her to go or do you want the list?”

“Malcolm was able to help get her into a therapist in Boston. The doctor is an old grad school buddy of his. We never would have gotten in without his help. There's a one-year waiting list, and it's a cash-only practice. Even if I could have secured an appointment there, I wouldn't have been able to pay for it.” Her gaze dropped as she fidgeted slightly, picking at her nails. It was apparent that Ronnie thought she’d not only failed her daughter in emotional support, she also thought she'd failed to provide for her too.

“Hans was a housemate of mine,” Malcolm started, allowing Ronnie to get a hold of herself. “We've kept in touch over the years. I called in a favor to him and he agreed to take Peyta on as a courtesy to me.” He smiled warmly and took Ronnie's hand in his. “Veronica, there's no need to feel badly about it; besides,” he said, a tiny glint of mischief flickering in his eyes, “it gave me a chance to bring up some interesting photos of him that I found in my attic not too long ago. He'd have done anything to keep those off of the internet.”

“You didn't!” Ronnie gasped.

“No,” he roared with laughter. “But that snapped you out of your self-loathing for the moment, didn't it?”

I had to laugh too; his move was well played. I could see why Ronnie liked him. I was starting to like him more as well.

“So she's in good hands then?” I asked, trying to compose myself.

“The best,” Ronnie replied. “And I have you to thank for that too, Ruby. I'm not sure I would have ever figured out what she was doing without you.”

“If I hadn't caught her in the act, I wouldn't have either, Ronnie.

None of us would. You should have seen Cooper after he walked in on the aftermath. He was in bad shape about it. He blamed himself for not being more of a help to her.”

“He was busy doing his job, Ruby. He was out looking foryou,”she said, her voice taking on that familiar seriousness that I'd come to find comforting from Ronnie. From anyone else it would have seemed threatening, and on occasion, it still was. “Peyta isn't Cooper's responsibility. She's mine. Tell him it's not his fault, please.”

As if just putting it together, she narrowed her eyes and cocked her head slightly to the side.

“Is that why he left the house the other day looking pale as a ghost?

He walked right past me without so much as a word. I figured he'd overheard something he didn't mean to and that had freaked him out a little. Now it's starting to make more sense.”

“Yeah, poor guy. He might need a therapist now too,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood slightly. “Got any other friends you can call favors into, Malcolm?”

The room boomed with his low and hearty laughter.

“I'm afraid not, Ruby. But I have some senators I can blackmail if that ever comes in handy.”

“You never know,” I cautioned. “I'm pretty adept at getting myself into trouble.”


Page 16

Ronnie's sly smile lit up her face.

“Like no one I've ever met.”

*

I stuck around and chatted with Ronnie and Malcolm, orReed,as she referred to him in a more casual atmosphere, then excused myself, sensing that they still had some unfinished storeroom business to finish.

It still floored me that Ronnie, orVeronica, as he called her, was acting like a carefree teenager, but it made me oddly happy for her―envious too. What I would have given to have had a midday sexual encounter in the back of my shop. Instead, I usually filled that time with one crisis or another. Carefree was an approach to life that I couldn't afford to indulge.

With that in mind, I made my way back to the shop to open for at least part of the day. Peyta had asked for the day off and would have been disappointed to know that I shucked all my responsibility at the first sign of her not being around. There were only a few hours left in the business day, so I decided to work on some pieces out in the showroom so I could do double duty. I hoped my tired eyes would allow me to accomplish that.

I found that customers always enjoyed seeing me fiddle with the jewelry. They seemed to love knowing how something came to be―the steps taken to create a particular outcome—as if seeing and understanding how a piece was molded and shaped gave it greater appeal.

Maybe it did.

Perhaps that same concept applied to people as well. Did we love them more when we knew their full story? How they came to be who and what they were? Or was the mystery what kept us coming back for more, slowly enticing us, knowing that once the truth was out, the appeal would be lost?

I wasn't sure I wanted answers to those questions.

15

After close, I stuck around for a little longer, knowing that Coop and the boys weren't back yet. Not wanting to give the illusion that I was open, I dimmed the front lights and locked the front door, flipping the sign to closed. I then made my way to the back to finish the earring I had nearly completed.

Focusing hard on twisting the tiny wires of the intricate piece together, I didn't expect to hear the jingle of the door bells, and almost didn't hear them at all. Almost. My heart surged as I shot up from my chair; I knew I had locked the door that time. Panicked and unarmed, I bolted into the showroom, unsure of what fate awaited me. Fearing the worst, I never imagined who I would find waiting for me.

Sean donning a Cheshire cat smile was pretty low on my list of possibilities.

“Did I startle you?” he asked, knowing damn well he'd scared the shit out of me. “I was hoping to find you alone. Looks like I accomplished that for once.”

“You almost found medead,” I retorted, breathing hard. “You won't be smiling when you give me a damn heart attack.”

I should have known it would be him. He had a key for everything.

“How are your refugees?” he asked with a certain cheeriness to his voice. I didn't buy it for a second.

“They're great. They're making Cooper insane, so that should make you happy.”

His smile widened, taking on a genuine quality.

“It does. Very much so.”

I shot him my angry parent face.

“You promised, Sean. You swore you would try to get along with him!”

“Old habits,” he replied, trailing off as he shrugged ambivalently.

“...are going to be the death of me,” I murmured in response, leaning against the counter while my heart rate tried to normalize.

“Nothing is going to be the death of you, Ruby.Nothing.” I looked up to see all the humor wiped from his face. Forest green eyes met mine, telling me that playtime was over. There was no mocking in his statement.

“You said you were trying to get me alone,” I prompted, hoping to easily transition to what it was he had come for. When my heart started to race a little with his approach, I realized that my body was hoping it wasme.

“Was I?” He fluidly made his way toward me, closing the distance between us. Only the front counter separated our bodies, and he swallowed up that space quickly, leaning forward over it to prop himself up on his elbows. It put him at eye level, pinning his once again emerald irises on me. “I did want to see you alone, Ruby. I wish it was for a moreentertainingreason.” While his eyes raked me over, his energy surged through me, and my body reacted as it always did. “Jay is over in London, looking into the pack. It seems that the boys' story checks out thus far.

Their previous alpha is gone and the new one is dirty, that's for sure, but he's smart. Whatever he's up to, he's keeping it well under wraps. Nobody is talking, especially not his pack.”

“Somehow I find it hard to believe that your brothers weren't able to coerce answers out of them.”

Another noncommittal shrug.

“They know how to interrogate effectively, if that's what you're getting at. So I'm left with two potential implications. Either these pack members truly don't know anything, or they fear Tobias more than they fear us,” he said, his expression hardening slightly. “Andthatwould be a fatal error in judgment on their part.”

No shit.

“How is Jay doing?” I asked casually, hoping to gain a little insight into that situation.

“He's well,” he replied curiously, eyebrow in full force. “How's Peyta?”

“Just dandy,” I quipped, still trying to play it cool. As we stared at each other, I couldn't help but wonder if there was more to the disappearance of Jay from Peyta's life, and, if there was, if Sean knew more than he was letting on. Before I could let my imagination run away with me, I changed the subject. “So how's the stuff with McGurney coming? Anything new to go off of?”

He smiled a cunning smile, knowing that I'd just changed the subject intentionally.

“Professional hits are not easy to trace, Ruby. Someone very powerful, with a vested interest in keeping things quiet, called in that hit on McGurney. I've got as many PC brothers as I can spare on the case, but nothing has turned up as of yet. Whatever McGurney had intended to show me that night must have exposed someone enough for them to go to great lengths to shut him up for good. Unfortunately for me, I got there too late. His house was wiped clean. Everything was gone.”

“There has to be some way to get into Keith's file without CIA clearance or somebody on the inside.”

“Maybe, but it doesn't matter now. Keith James no longer exists in their database. He's a ghost―a specter. Whoever knew we were onto them wiped out his entire existence as if he never once set foot in Langley.”

“Holy shit...”

“Indeed.”

“So you just walk away from it?” I asked disbelievingly.

“Not a chance,” he growled, eyes narrowing. “Now we pour on the heat like there's no tomorrow, because for someone there won't be. I want to know exactly who's behind this. If the government has somehow stumbled upon the werewolf population, I need to flesh out exactly who knows what and how deeply that knowledge permeates.”

He stopped himself before continuing. I had a pretty good idea what he'd do to those in on it. He didn't want to confirm my suspicions.

“So until then?”

“Until then, we dig, interrogate, and dig some more.”

“Alan isn't going to give up on McGurney, Sean. He's certainly not going to let you off the hook for it either.”

The third shrug of the evening.

“Alan doesn't concern me.”

“He's my friend, Sean. And currently he thinks you had something to do with it. That concerns me.”

“Absurd. Why would I kill my own contact?”

“I don't know, but he doesn't trust you at all, and I can't blame him for that. Everything that he knows about you revolves around lies, cover-ups, and murders. He thinks you're a criminal―a high-end one. The kind that doesn't get caught,” I informed him, my voice taking a stern tone.

“He knows you had something to do with Matty's body dump and the corpse posed as the Portsmouth killer in a car in Mass somewhere. He has you pegged, Sean. He's not going to let up on you. He's going to dig and dig until he finds something, or, in your case, doesn't findanything,which will only incriminate you further in his eyes.”

“Why are you so concerned about this? He can't do anything to me.”

“I know that, but he's my friend. I'm close to his family, and I can feel that slipping away because he doesn't trust me now. He thinks you're blackmailing me, or using me―I don't know exactly what he thinks is going on, but it's not good. He thought that maybe I killed Matty and that's why you covered it up, for fuck's sake! He wants answers, Sean.

Badly.”

“And he'll have them when I find out who killed McGurney. The ones he needs to hear, anyway.”

I didn't want argue. I had other issues that needed attention, and I knew that starting a fight over Alan was not going to be the best way to segue into them.

“Fine,” I whispered, pushing away from the counter.

“Ruby,” he said with caution in his tone. “I don't wish for this to be difficult on you, but I must do my job. If I find out that the government knows about your kind, I can't begin to tell you the shitstorm that will follow.” He came around the counter to join me in the tight area behind it. His presence always seemed to take up more space than it needed, like the intensity of his energy demanded it. I eased against the wall to make room for it. “I've told you more than I should have already,” he said, reaching for my face. My eyes closed instinctively, awaiting the contact.

“Sean,” I said softly, the words catching in my throat when his hand grazed my cheek. “I need to tell you something.”

I opened my eyes to find him staring at me from only inches away, his expression holding a hint of amusement.

“Offering up information to me?” he mocked, leaning his body against mine ever so slightly. “Who are you and what have you done with my Ruby?”

My Ruby...

“I'm being serious,” I grouched, though it came out as more of a breathless protestation than anything else. That was Sean's effect on me.

“I can see that,” he purred as my hands drifted up into his hair of their own volition.Traitors.

His lips were on mine, soft and coaxing as if they were trying to con me out of my attempts at a serious conversation. They were painfully close to succeeding. I was falling into his scheme beautifully when I felt a strange buzzing against my hip. Once. Twice. The third brought a growl from deep within Sean's chest.

“I have to take this,” he said, abruptly pulling away from me to head for the door. “I'll be right back.”

Suddenly, I felt like I needed a cold shower.What had I been justabout to tell him? Oh...Matty!I knew that it was going to open up a can of worms, but I'd learned from my past, and keeping secrets from Sean never panned out well. I was taking a new approach.

I watched him through the front window, standing stoically, his back toward me. Whatever his conversation was about, it wasn't good.

The more still Sean was, the deeper the crisis.

Minutes later, he returned, looking reserved. Things were worse than I thought.

“I have to leave tonight, Ruby,” he said like it was an admission of guilt. “I had wanted to take you somewhere. I had it all planned, but―”

“It's okay, Sean. I understand.”

He smiled weakly.

“I know you do. It's one of the best things about you. You understand me.”

Within seconds he was back behind the counter, pressing me against the wall that I'd only moments earlier managed to peel myself off of. His arms caged me in as his body hovered just far enough away to not be touching me. The distance seemed painful.

His breath tickled my ear, his mouth playing dangerously close to it.

“You wanted to tell me something. Can it wait until I return, or should you tell me now? You decide.”

My brain was scrambling in a severe case of sensory overload. Too many things to process at once were threatening to blow a circuit. I wanted to kiss him, tell him, then throw him out the door as quickly as possible so I could avoid the fallout. It was cowardly but honest―a step in the right direction as far as I was concerned.

“It can keep until later,” I whispered, my air coming in and out in sharp gusts.

“Very well,” he said slyly. “I'll look forward to later then.”

He slid out the front door seconds later, and I was left clutching my chest, feeling like I had the first time he'd come to my store―confused and frustrated. My frustration was of the sexual variety.

With a sigh, I headed toward the front door to lock it―again―when a familiar face popped up in the window. Waving a paper bag that undoubtedly contained baked goods of some sort, Ginger smiled warmly as she waited for me to let her in.

“Hi,” I said, stepping back to allow her entrance to the shop. “It's good to see you!”

“No, Ruby,” she said with sad eyes, “it's good to seeyou.I wasn't entirely sure that I would ever again, but not Gavin. He knew you'd be back. I wish I had his confidence in things sometimes.” She gave me a hug, wrapping her old and weathered arms around my waist. She was frail in appearance, but those arms held a strength that far surpassed expectation, and I started to ache slightly from the tenacity of her grip.

She really had worried for my safety, which was ironic given that her husband seemed to know so damn much. Apparently, he wasn't very forthcoming with her either.

But for all that Gavin appeared to lack, his taste in spouses was top-notch. Ginger had always been nothing but motherly, caring, and quick to rein in her husband when the situation warranted. She'd come to check up on me after my near drowning by the Rev and was once again on my doorstep to see how I was.

And she brought tasty treats to boot.

She smiled as she caught me looking at her brown paper bag of deliciousness and laughed.

“I believe you said these were your favorites last time,” she said, handing me the bag. I opened it to find her killer chocolate chip cookies.

Mysteriously, two were in my hand a second later on a mission to my mouth.


Page 17

“You're the best,” I told her, motioning toward the front counter. I stepped around back and grabbed the stool I kept there, offering it to Ginger.

“Thank you, dear, but I don't want to stay long. I'm sure you have more pressing things to do than indulge my need to be sure that you're indeed safe and intact.”

“If it means you're bringing goodies, you can check up on me anytime,” I replied with a wink as I bit into my second cookie. She beamed with approval. Her intense gaze and parental vibe made me wonder something that hadn't occurred to me before. “Ginger,” I started, putting my cookie down, “I hope you don't mind me asking, but...do you have any kids?” She looked at me longingly, and I instantly regretted asking. I'd hit a nerve of sorts, her sadness pouring out freely. “I'm sorry.

I don't know why―”

“Don't fret, Ruby,” she said, patting my hand in the most comforting gesture. “No, I do not have any children. Neither does Gavin.”

I looked at her sympathetically, not knowing what to say. “He had none before me, and it seems that ourincompatibilitywould not allow for us to bear any.”

Silence hung heavy between us for a moment, forcing me to address the thought running rampant in my mind. Could Sean and I have children? With all his daddy issues and my not-so-stellar parental models, would we even want them? I found it funny that something I'd never given any previous thought to suddenly seemed like a life-changing revelation.

“Whatever made you ask that?”

I shrugged, embarrassed.

“There was something about the way you were looking at me―I've seen my friend Kristy watch her little boy that way. I'm sorry if I offended you.”

“Of course not, dear. You'll have to try harder than that if you wish to.”

“That's not a challenge you should carelessly throw out,” I replied with a laugh. “I seem unbelievably gifted at saying the wrong thing at the worst possible time.”

She smiled wryly.

“I wouldn't beat myself up about that, if I were you. Perhaps you come by that honestly.”

“I'm not sure,” I said, grabbing my half-eaten cookie off of the counter. “But I guess you're probably pretty used to dealing with it. Gavin seems to have a knack for pissing people off, pardon my language.”

“That he does,” she said, chuckling. She grabbed a cookie and lifted it as though giving a toast. We clinked our treats together like glasses of champagne, bonding over her enigmatic spouse.

“Ginger, can I ask you something else?”

“Certainly, Ruby. Anything.” Her composure was instantly regained.

“Does Gavin always speak around things? You know, talk in riddles, or is that just something he enjoys doing to me for his entertainment? I know he's old. Maybe he just needs to get his kicks in new and irritating ways.”

She pressed her lips tightly, taking a sharp breath before slowly letting it out. Laying her cookie down, she took my hand in hers and clasped it firmly.

“Ruby, Gavin has faults―many of them―but believe me when I tell you that he has nothing but your best interest at heart,” she said earnestly. “Webothdo.”

“But why?” I prodded, desperate for some level of understanding.

“He holes himself up in that boat, hidden away from everyone and everything supernatural, and then suddenly gets involved when the Rev comes to town, but only to help me? It makes no sense.”

“I know it seems that way, Ruby, but Gavin knows you're special.

He wants to see you safe without risking exposure. He's survived this long by being smart and cunning. If it weren't for him, they all would have been extinct by―” She cut herself off abruptly, unwilling to finish her defense of Gavin. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that.”

The woman I'd known to always be so formal and poised was suddenly flustered and very much in a hurry to get out of my shop. In a hurry to get away fromme.

“Who?” I asked, not wanting to let her leave without clarification. I needed to know what she wouldn't tell me. “Whowould have been extinct?”

“I'm sorry, Ruby. I have to go,” she told me curtly, collecting her handbag to leave. “You'll have to talk to Gavin. I shouldn't have said that.” She stopped just shy of the exit before turning to face me. Her expression was pained, her energy dissonant. “Please forgive my evasiveness. It is not my story to tell.”

I started to badger her further, but she sped surprisingly fast down the sidewalk, and I just couldn't bring myself to chase her down and demand answers. She wasn't in a position to give them and even I was above threatening a little old lady. For the first time since I'd returned, I was glad Scarlet wasn't around.

*

I was not pleased to know that Gavin's much better half was equally capable of being mysterious, and as I contemplated the newest CF in my life, four more pulled up in front of the building. To be fair, it was more like three and a half. Cooper wasn't a full-blown issue since his morning apology, but, judging by the look on his face, he was headed in that direction.

I stepped out to greet them, thinking that sucking up was the best plan of action.

“You look pretty hot driving that gargantuan vehicle, Coop,” I told him, grinning ear to ear.

He totally took the bait.

“I look hot in everything, Ruby. You should know that by now,” he replied with a sly smile.

“What about us?” Ali asked, stepping out of the SUV. “We don't look hot?”

“You look twelve, Alice,” Cooper spat over his shoulder. “Ruby isn't a pedophile.”

I laughed, even though I tried not to. It was just too good.

“You look pretty sexy too, Alistair, but it's hard to look badass crawling out of the backseat.”

He looked at me with a deflated expression, then shrugged.

“Fair enough,” he said, pulling bags of food out from the back of the car. “But do I look better as a delivery boy?” He wiggled his eyebrows at me playfully.

“Yes. That suits you.”

“Come on, Alice,” Cooper called from the doorway to the residential part of my building. “All of you, upstairs.Now.”

Without complaint, they all filed in while Cooper held the door open for them, watching their every move.

“I'll be right up,” I told him, opening the shop door. “I just need to grab my stuff and lock up.”

I ran back inside and did just that, then made my way upstairs.

When I opened the apartment door, I was surprised to see the foreigners sitting on the couch, eating their takeout. Cooper hadn't relegated them to their floor above. I smiled slightly. Maybe they were growing on him?

“Your dinner is on the counter,” Janner called to me as I threw my purse on the sofa table by the door. “Pad Thai. Cooper said you'd like it.”

“Sweet! Sounds awesome. I'm going to go clean up a bit first, then I'll be right out.”

“Hurry up,” Alistair called out as I disappeared down the hall. “You don't want to miss out on all the family fun!”

“You're not family,” a voice grumbled from the kitchen.

“But you're always saying we need to have family huddles...”

“Right, but you're never actuallyinthe huddle, therefore you're not family,” Cooper argued. “Being the topic of conversation doesn't mean you're in.”

“You boys are going to be the death of me,” I shouted from my bedroom before shutting the door.

Cooper was suddenly very silent, as were the others. Then it dawned on me. My choice of words was exactly the outcome that Cooper feared most.

If I was honest, deep down, there was a small part of me that feared it too.

16

Our night was surprisingly drama-free―enjoyableeven. Cooper looked relatively miserable for the better part of it, but even he cracked a few times when Beckett, with his incredibly dry sense of humor, ragged on Alistair for the various infractions he hadn't realized he'd committed.

Alistair was the most entertaining when he was trying to be serious, a trait I'm sure was equal parts annoying and endearing to those who knew him best.

It made me wonder what his mate was like.

On occasion, throughout the night, I got that strange guarded feeling from one or all of the boys. I just couldn't wrap my head around it. There was nothing negative or malicious about it: more of an interruption of sorts. At least that's what I felt. It reminded me of how Sean's face could go completely impassive at the drop of a hat, masking whatever was going on inside his mind. The neutral but impenetrable tone to their energy made them impossible to read. What I had trouble understanding was the timing of it. It never occurred when any awkwardness plagued the conversation (and that was often), but just seemed randomly interspersed throughout the night. Was it a coping mechanism of sorts, born of necessity in a pack that seemed as riddled with evil as Cooper's? If so, I wondered just how much they weren't telling us about the atrocities they’d faced under the rule of the alpha they had destroyed and how horrific their deaths would be should they ever be discovered. It made even more sense as to why they wanted to align with the baddest wolf on the block.

Too bad she was on an untimely leave.

I wanted to ask them more about their pasts, but Cooper was always around, and they just didn't seem willing to open up much around him. I couldn't really blame them. He wasn't really warm and fuzzy when it came to the boys.

I went to bed with a rare sense of calm, though my body was completely exhausted. In my amassing fatigue, I managed to walk squarely into a wall that hadn't exactly moved since the day before. It was a blonde moment of epic proportion, and I was thrilled that nobody had witnessed it. I wouldn't have lived it down anytime soon.

The next day started out without a hitch. Peyta was back at work.

The boys had two promising homes to check out and had planned to spend the rest of the day better organizing their temporary abode. Cooper would be supervising that activity. Sean sent me a message in the morning saying that he would be back in town that evening. He had plans for us and made a point to put “plans” in all caps. Whatever they were, they sounded promising. Lastly, I got a call from Kristy, who was still down south with her mother, who was recovering from surgery. I heard Louie jibber-jabbering in the background, and my heart nearly melted. In the few weeks it had been since I'd seen him, I could already hear the changes in him. The cliché was true: kids really did grow up too fast.

It took me a while to get off the phone with Kristy. She wasn't going to be convinced that I was okay until she got to physically see me and hug me to death. I promised to call her soon and made her give my little buddy a squish for me with a big, sloppy smooch for good measure. I heard him squeal in the background while she did it before yelling,

“Aunty Booby! Booby smooch me. Booby smooches.” He was just too cute for words.

Since the call ran longer than expected, I was late to work as usual.

If I didn't know better, I'd have thought Peyta was the responsible business owner and I the slacker employee. Graciously, she didn't taunt me too much when I crashed through the front door with a coffee carafe in hand.

“Nice to see you this morning,” she mocked, lifting a quizzical brow. “Did you get dressed in the dark or something?”

I looked down quickly to see what she was getting at. When I was greeted by the tag of my shirt, which was not only facing out but also turned in the wrong direction, I got her point.

“No,” I lamented, “but I was in a hurry.” Embarrassed, I scurried past her, leaving my coffee on the counter as I made my way to the back to rectify my wardrobe mishap. She followed me back.

“Long night?”

“Kind of.” I didn't want to go into great detail because she didn't know about the UK trio, and Cooper wanted to keep her in the dark as much as possible. Sean agreed. We knew she was as well protected as she was going to be with PC boys surveying the shop while she and I were there. Given the tenuous nature of her mental status, we didn't want to add to her stress level any more than necessary. Once the boys were out of the house and we knew what we were going to do with them, we would let her in on our little secret, or secrets, as the case may have been.

“Are you being evasive on purpose or are you just tired and grouchy?” she asked, leaning a shoulder against the wall.

“I'll go with the latter.”

“Path of least resistance?”

“Always.”

“I'll allow it this time,” she sighed, feigning annoyance. “Next time, I expect all the sordid details.”

“Deal.” Conceding was far easier than arguing with her and was clearly the best option given Peyta's genetic predisposition to get to the bottom of things when you least wanted her to. She was just like her mother.

“So Mom said you stopped by yesterday,” she said, changing the subject.

“Yep...”

“Was Malcolm there?” she asked curiously, her face impassive.

“He was.” I did my best to be as neutral as Peyta. I couldn't tell if she was trying to get a read on how I felt about him, or to hide her sentiments.

“So, what did you think?”

“He seemed fine. Better than fine, actually. He made a horribly off-color remark that made me laugh. How bad can he be?”

She said nothing, only eyed me from the other side of the room.

“Anything else?”

I sighed.

“Your mom seems happy with him―like a different person almost.

I saw glimmers of her hardened edges, but it was as though he filed them off with a single glance,” I explained with a shrug. “And what he did for you, P...”

“I know,” she whispered, looking away. “I met with the therapist yesterday. Mom let me go by myself. I need to do this for me.”

“How was it?” I asked softly, moving slowly toward her. “Did you like this über specialist?”

She looked at me thoughtfully for a moment.

“I did. I really did. It's like he understood me. He knew where I was coming from.”

“Well, that's great, P!”

“I know. It really is. I'm not sure how to thank Malcolm for his help though. We never could have afforded it without him.”

“Peyta,” I said firmly, “I would have made sure you got what you needed. I don't like to talk about it much, but my inheritance was substantial. I would have paid for it myself, if it had come to that.”


Page 18

She smiled up at me with watery eyes.

“Well...thanks, Ruby,” she said, giving me a hug around my waist,

“but it looks like Daddy Warbucks beat you to the task. I could use a car though.”

“Get in line,” I joked. “Cooper's been singing that tune for a while now, though I did manage to snag him a car from Sean. It seems to have placated him for the time being.”

“Fine,” she grumbled in true teenager fashion. “I had to try.”

“Of course you did. Now how about you go out front and earn your keep around here. I have trinkets to make.”

*

The store was remarkably busy, so I got little done in the back. I’d forgotten that the holiday season was approaching and people would be getting a head start so as to avoid the Thanksgiving through Christmas shopping melee. I wasn't about to complain; business was business, andalwayswelcome.

We worked straight through our normal lunch break, and, as the town courthouse's bell chimed three o’clock, I realized just how hungry I was. Judging by the lack of animation in Peyta's face, she was dragging too.

“Do you want to shut down for thirty minutes? We could go grab something upstairs.”

“Yes, but we need to do it quickly or you'll be carrying me up there.

I'm starving.”

Not wanting to have to piggyback her up the stairs fireman-style, I shut down the shop and left a note on the door stating we'd be back by 3:30. We hurried upstairs, making our way into the apartment and directly to the kitchen where Peyta quickly found a bag of chips to nibble on while I ransacked the fridge for anything edible. The boys had a showing just outside of town at a little after three, so I knew the coast would be clear long enough for us to eat and run.

“Okay,” I started, knowing our food situation was looking grim, “we have pickles, cheese, cranberry juice, and something in a Tupperware container towards the back. I think we might wanna leave that one alone actually. It looks fuzzy.”

“How about soup?” Peyta suggested, pulling two family-sized cans from the pantry.

“Fabulous!” I cried, starting to rummage through the drawers for the can opener. It was nowhere to be found, and I quickly remembered why. “Um...P, I have to run upstairs for a sec. I'll be right back.”

“Why?” she asked, looking at me strangely. It was a look I got fairly often.

“I need to go grab something to open those things. Just sit tight and eat your chips. I'll be right down.”

“You left your can opener upstairs?”

“Yeah,” I replied weakly. “I get hungry when I dance sometimes. I must have forgotten it. I just need to run up and grab it.”

“Why are you acting so weird?” she continued, hot on my heels.

“I'm not.”

“You are.”

“Peyta, seriously. I'll be right back.”

“Why don't you want me to come?” she asked with her mother's seasoned detective glint in her eyes.

“Because I just about had to carry you up the stairs, remember? Sit.

Eat chips. The longer you keep badgering me about this, the longer it's going to take to actually have lunch. We have customers to serve, don't we...?”

“Fine,” she grumbled in response. We were two skinny girls who really needed our blood sugar to stay above a certain level to maintain civility.

Without any further protestations from Peyta, I sped up the stairs to the third floor, praying curiosity wouldn't get the best of her. I didn't have an excuse prepared for why it looked like I had people squatting in my studio. Actually, I did, but I wasn't going to tell her that.

Once I entered the space, I took in the mess. Thankfully, it was relatively well-corralled at the far end of the room, but it was still a bit of a disaster. Clothes were strewn about, twisted up in the sheets, blankets, and pillows that they were using for their temporary beds. Topping it all off was a large green trash bag, stuffed to nearly overflowing. Those boys liked to eat, and one in particular. Alistair had a canned pineapple infatuation. Maybe they didn't have it across the pond, or maybe he was just odd, but he was definitely the reason why I found myself on the hunt for a can opener.

With my pressing need to hurry, I attacked the chaotic pile, throwing things around at will, doing my best to track down the missing kitchen utensil. It became abundantly clear in my search that it was time for those runaways to do some laundry. Even if I had found the opener in that pile, I wouldn't have used it.

Coming up empty-handed, I sighed aloud, pressing my hands on my hips as I scanned the rest of the relatively vacant room for my missing item. Then I spotted it, sitting benignly on top of the stereo that I adored―the one that had been dormant for weeks. I ran over and snatched it up, turning quickly to head downstairs.

I slammed right into Peyta. That girl was sneaky―for an almost-human.

“Jesus!” I screamed, clutching my chest. “You scared the crap out of me, P!”

“Um, Ruby?” she asked, looking at the mess I'd scattered about.

“Do we need to have an intervention or something? Leaving your room a complete disaster is one thing, but when it spills over onto an entirely different floor of your home, I think it's time to get some help.” She pried her eyes from the boys' stuff to meet mine. “Should I see if my therapist has any buddies who specialize in some kind of hoarding-like disorder?”

I laughed nervously, trying to usher her out of the room.

“Nope. I just need to hire a cleaner, that's all. Let's go eat.”

“Wait a minute,” she said, grinding to a halt when she saw a pair of stray boxers that had landed near the exit. “Why do you havemen’sunderwear up here? This isn't your stuff, is it?”

“Well, no. Not exactly.” I cringed as she went over to investigate further, praying for a distraction of any kind to derail her from her mission. She was like a dog on a trail; she wasn't going to let up easily.

In a rare act of kindness from heaven above, I got what I asked for.

“Ruby?” a male voice called from behind Peyta and me.

Matty...

17

When I turned to see him, he grinned shyly, making him look younger than the last time I saw him. His expression tightened slightly when he saw Peyta come up behind me, but she soon put him at ease. She was all apologies.

“Matty...the other day,” she started as she nervously avoided eye contact. “I may have overreacted. I didn't realize that you weren'tyourselfwhen everything happened.”His face was blank while he stood still, staring at Peyta as she muddled her way through her explanation. “I know who made you; you didn't stand a chance. Ruby told me that you―theoldyou―would never have done those things. I was so upset about Jay...about Ruby too. I took it out on you, and that may not have been entirely fair.”

She was beyond uncomfortable; I could feel the erratic vibrations humming around her body.

“I'm sorry too, Peyta,” he said softly in response. “I wish you could have known me before.”

I felt the tears start to sting the back of my eyes. In that moment I wanted nothing more than to have him back―for Peyta to have the chance to get to know him. But it would never be. Matty couldn't stay.

I walked away as the first tear fell. Bracing myself against the cabinet that held the stereo, I hunched forward, doing my best to contain everything that threatened to escape me. Then he was right behind me.

“Don't cry, blue eyes.” His hand brushed my cheek lightly, and I lifted it up toward him. “You'll force me to do something embarrassing to cheer you up.”

He reached around me to turn the stereo on. I watched, completely infatuated, as he pressed the power button on and cued up one of the many playlists. Peyta's powers allowed Matty, like Gregory, to make contact with objects and people around him. It implied that Matty was a pretty powerful wolf as well, but I was already more than aware of that.

He expertly scrolled through it until he found what he was looking for. When he did, he laughed. Drake's “Take Care” came blaring through the speakers at an uncomfortable volume, the bass violently shaking the floor. It felt amazing.

Just as he had on so many occasions in dance class, Matty started clowning around in a grand effort to cheer me up. It always worked. He'd picked a hip-hop piece that was done by a guest choreographer for our company. Hip-hop wasnotmy forte, and he knew it. He'd shown me up that class, but I never let him know it. He was mocking me in true Matty fashion, and I totally took the bait.

Hook, line, and sinker.

“Remember this?” he goaded, easily breaking out the choreography we'd learned months earlier. “I believe the term 'hot mess' was thrown around during that class. It was aimed at you, was it not?”

“I got better at it while you were in LA,” I retorted.

“Well, let's see it then, white girl.”

“Who are you calling white, Italian boy?” I snipped, taking a long and dramatic slide in his direction before I busted out the steps to that section of the song. He was in total sync with me in seconds.

I saw Peyta snicker in the mirror while she watched us go head to head in a dance-off of epic proportion. Dancing with a ghost easily qualified as epic, regardless of how ridiculous we appeared doing it.

“Looking better this time around, Ruby,” he mocked, sliding in behind me as we both watched the other in the mirror.

“Ha! I look good all the time,” I retorted. “You just haven't noticed.”

He stopped suddenly, catching my arm. His touch felt strange the longer he held on, like it was leaching me, draining me slightly.

“I always noticed, Ruby,” he said, leaning into my ear. “You just didn't notice me noticing.”

My heart sank.

I pulled away to look at him and assess the expression on his face.

Unfortunately, I never got the chance.

I felt them enter the room before a word was said. Before their bodies were visible to me. Anger crashed into my back as I spared one glance over at Peyta's blank expression. I knew the jig was up―big time.

I wanted to hide, but knew that was an impossibility, so instead I turned to face the music―or the alphas, as the case seemed to be. Facing an angry Cooper would have been bad enough, but with Sean at his side, forming a wall of hostility, it was just about more than I could take.

Before I could even get a word out in my defense, Cooper started in.

“What. The. Fuck.” It wasn't really a question, more an acknowledgment of how, once again, I'd managed to not let him in on crucial information.

“Cooper,” I protested. “I can explain.”

When I started to move toward their collective boiling rage, Matty stepped between us. He thoughtIwas the one that needed protecting.

I looked at them beseechingly, but when my hopeless stare turned to Sean, all I saw was a wild, fearsome look in his pitch black eyes. His energy crashed with violent waves in our direction, and I feared we were seconds away from his war cry that would threaten to shatter the windows as well as any hope that I could salvage the situation.

Cooper started in on me again, but Sean silenced him with the slightest of hand gestures. His eyes never left Matty, glaring at him with emotions bubbling under the surface that I couldn't even place. He wouldn't look at me as I slinked around from behind Matty. He didn't speak to me either.

I watched his hateful stare pierce Matty and wished that I'd just told him that his ghost had returned when I had the chance. My body was failing me, hovering between the two of them as though somehow I alone could keep the shitstorm that was brewing at bay. The one thing I knew about Sean was that there was no stopping him. Ever. He would have some form of revenge, and I wondered just how big the cost would be for him to get it.

Suddenly, his arm drifted up slowly, extended toward me. His eyes wouldn't meet mine, but his body would. Knowing that he was affording me the choice to go to him, I did my best not to falter, and I laid my hand in his softly, half expecting to be yanked toward him before a brawl broke out. Instead, he led me gently over to him and Cooper.

“Sean,” I whispered, knowing he'd hear me anyway. “This is what I was trying to tell you about the other day. I wanted you to know that Matty was back; I just didn't knowhow. And then you had to go...”

“I don't want to see you ever again,” he rumbled, and my heart plummeted. My pleading eyes shot up to his face to find that, once again, his were pinned to Matty. “This endsnow,” he threatened. “If it doesn't, you won't enjoy the outcome.”

Matty scoffed.

“I'm already dead,” he replied, splaying his arms wide, displaying his ever so slightly translucent form. “What exactly do you think you're going to do that trumps that?”

Sean's face gave nothing away, but I felt a surge from him, a rush of some sort, and I knew that he was barely keeping himself composed. He'd secretly prayed that Matty would come around again so he could show him just what was worse than death.

“A wise man wouldn't ask such a question for fear of finding out the answer.”

Every hair on my body stood at attention while he purred those words.

“Cooper,” he growled, his voice so low it was hard to hear over top of the music that raged on around us. “Take Peyta somewhere far away and safe.Now.”

I watched as Cooper hesitated. I wasn't sure if he didn't want to appear weak, or if he didn't want to leave me alone with Sean. Eventually, he walked over to her, wrapping his long arm around her petite frame and ushered her to the door. That's when I first noticed that the boys were there. The three of them were crammed together in the doorway, watching curiously as everything unfolded. Cooper snarled at them slightly when he approached, signaling for them to make way.

Peyta was asking questions before they even left the room. The one she repeated the most was, “Who are they?” Cooper was going to have some serious explaining to do on the drive to her house.

The farther away Peyta got, the more Matty faded, but his bravado never wavered. He stood his ground against Sean in their silent battle until he was almost gone.


Page 19

“I'll see you around, blue eyes,” he said before his silhouette vanished entirely. My heart seized a tiny bit.

“But I won't see you...”

Saddened, I walked through where Matty had just stood and shut off the stereo. The silence was deafening.

Sean's eyes finally fell upon me, but I couldn't read them at all. The deep pools of black gave nothing away.

“What in the bloody hell wasthat?” Alistair asked, slowly making his way into the room.

“Long story,” I replied with a shaky voice. “You guys stay up here, please. Cooper will be home shortly, and I don't want to get shit for something else when he gets back.”

Alistair looked as though he wanted to argue then thought better of it. Janner eyed me as sympathetically as his unexpressive face would allow. Surprisingly, it was Beckett who had something to say.

“You loved him,” he said softly, his face impassive as always.

I nodded.

He gave a nod in return and took a step back away from the door, clearing a path for me. Sean placed his hand on my lower back and guided me forward to the landing then down to the second floor. His hand never left me as we entered the apartment or while we made our way down to my bedroom. When he closed the door behind him, a tiny jolt of fear shot through me.

“How long have you known?” he asked quietly.

“The day before yesterday. Sean, I had every intention of telling you when you stopped by the store, but―”

“I didn't let you,” he replied, cutting me off. “I know you sensed my anger upstairs, Ruby, but it was not for you. I didn't let you tell me the other day. I cannot hold that against you.”

I was floored. That was not the speech I was expecting to get at all.

It was almost impossible to process.

“So you're not mad at me? At all?”

“No.”

A nervous laugh escaped me.

“Do you think I'll get off this easily with Cooper?”

He shot me a look that said, “You'll get away with whatever I tell him you can get away with.” Point taken.

I slumped down onto the bed and propped my elbows on my knees, dropping my head in my hands. Sean moved towards me silently, but I felt his approach as I always could, his body calling to mine in the most inexplicable way. His tall frame blocked the light above as he loomed over me like a dark-eyed angel. In a sense, he kind of was. When I finally lifted my head to see him, his eyes displayed a much lighter shade of green when they met mine.

“I missed you,” he said softly, cupping my face in his hand. I pressed my face into his touch, soaking up every bit of it.

“I missed you too.”

“I had an evening planned for us the other night before I was so rudely pulled away. Can I make it up to you?”

“Well, since I hadn't known we were going to be doing anything at all until after you told me we couldn't go, I'm not sure you need to, but I'll take it, if you're offering.”

I slowly stood up before him, leaving our bodies inches from one another, still connected by that single hand to my face. Then his lips were on mine, light and sweet as if he hadn't been ready to do murderous things only minutes earlier. He truly was a two-sided coin―a product of two diametrically opposed parents.

“Then I should go,” he mumbled over my mouth, not wanting to break our kiss to explain. “I have to get a few things...”

My heart cartwheeled around in my chest.

“Okay,” I replied breathily.

“I'll be ready for you in an hour.”

I'm ready for you now...

He looked down at me and laughed, undoubtedly knowing what I was thinking because, true to form, it was plastered all over my face.

“I'll be there,” I replied, trying to play it cool.

He laughed a little more.

“I'll be back to get you,” he said as he headed toward the door.

“I think I'll walk, if that's okay. I've got some things of my own to do, you know.Importantthings,” I told him with the slightest hint of mocking. I may not have been as smooth as he was, but I could do sarcasm like nobody's business. It was the next best thing as far as I was concerned. “I'll meet you at your place in an hour. Maybe. Maybe I'll be fashionably late just to keep you guessing.”

Again with the laughter.

“Ruby,” he said with a voice smoother than silk. “You won't want to be late.”

18

He was right; I didn't. But, as luck would have it, I inevitably was.

Even after the shenanigans upstairs, I returned to work without Peyta to finish out the day. Cooper stormed into the store about ten minutes after I returned, none too happy about what he had just witnessed. He calmed down uncharacteristically fast when I pointed out that he was the one who shut me down when I tried to tell him about Matty. He wasn't happy about it, but he admitted it was his fault. I'd gotten two of those in one week, and I wondered when the third would drop. Thingsalwayshappened in threes.

By the time I kicked him out, I only had half an hour left to clean up and close down the store, run upstairs, and get myself ready. It took an hour and a half.Thirty minutes late and counting.A frantic text on my way out of the house to Sean was the best I could do to remedy the situation.

The air was brisk with an edge of humidity to it. If the temperature had dropped any further, snow would have inevitably fallen. I pulled my coat tighter around me and buried my face deep in my pink hand-knit cowl while I ran through the downtown streets in an effort to make up for my tardiness. I was making great time until I hit Sean's block.

That's when everything got derailed.

I rounded the corner right into Gavin, who stood waiting―waiting forme.

“Ruby,” he said, looking down at me. He was parading around as his younger self, the one who’d pulled me from the bay where the Rev had attempted to plant me deep below the water's edge. I still wasn't used to seeing Gavin that way, so it took me a moment to realize who he was, and I stifled a scream just in time.

In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have.

“Ginger mentioned she saw you with the dark-eyed one.

'Canoodling' was the word she used, I believe.” His eyes were hard and shrewd, attempting to pry my head open and search for the answers himself, knowing it was likely easier than confronting me for them.

“So she's spying on me too? Awesome. I would have thought she was above being your lackey,” I snapped, trying to step around him.

Quick as lightning, his arm was out, blocking my way.

“Ginger adores you, and, if I were you, I'd watch how you speak about her.”

“Sweet! We're going to skip right to threats then, are we?”

“If need be,” he growled. He lowered his arm in an attempt to lessen the tension between us, but as far as I was concerned, we were way beyond that. “Ginger told me that she said something she shouldn't have.

She's very protective of me, Ruby. You mustn't rile her up like that.”

“She did. Something about extinction and how you apparently saved the day. Funny that she clammed up as soon as the words left her mouth. I couldn't get a thing out of her after that.”

“It's not her story to tell,” he said, leaning in closer. “And I'll tell it when and if I choose to.”

“Well, unless you plan to do it right now, I'm late,” I informed him, shooting a glance up at Sean's building.

“You're not making this easy for me, Ruby,” he said, closing the distance between us to an intimate gap, our bodies nearly touching. “I'll have to try harder to convince you.”His hand grasped my elbow. It wasn't an uncomfortable pressure, but what coursed through me as a result was.

“He is your enemy―ourenemy. Do you understand me?”

I shook my head, trying to clear the fuzzy sensation that was wrapping around it, suffocating my rational thought. My heart warred with my brain, each telling the other that it was right. Love versus truth.

“No,” I said, snatching my arm away, “I don't understand. If you want me to believe your creepy ramblings, then give meanswers, not more questions for once. And don't talk around shit either. Ihatethat.

You want me to stay away from Sean then give me something solid. Tell mewhowould have been extinct without you.”

“No,” he replied, low and menacing, “but I'll tell you who did the eradicating. I believe he's upstairs waiting for you right now.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a photo. It was old and weathered. He handed it to me without explanation.

The picture was of a stunning raven-haired woman who would have been around thirty at the time. Beside her was a towheaded toddler with wild, untamed curls. It was hard to make out under the street lamp, but around them was a pale, hazy glow.

“What is this?” I asked, trying to make sense of his offering.

“A good faith token.”

“And how is it that? I don't even know who this is.”

“That's you,” he explained with an irritated tone, indicating the child. “Andthat,” he said, pointing to the young woman, “is someone that I could not keep safe when the time came.” His energy fell heavily around me. There was true sadness behind his words. “Keep this for now,” he continued, his voice slipping back from the distant tone it had just held. “You have so few mementos of the happier times.”

With that, he started to walk away.

“Butwhois she?” I pleaded, begging to know. My childhood had always been a blacked-out blur, and I was desperate to know just who the mysterious woman of my “happier times” was.

“When you're ready to believe the worst of the dark-eyed one, ask him. He knows.”

“He's notalldark, Gavin,” I argued defensively. “He's equal parts dark and light.”

Gavin whipped his head around to stare me down, further emphasizing the importance of the point he was about to impress upon me.

“Heispart angel, Ruby,” he agreed, his eyes menacing and mocking, “but does that imply he'sgood? You seem quick to base your favorable opinion on the illusion that angels are all creatures of the light.

But what happens when that light has been snuffed out?” He paused to assess my reaction, searching for a sign that he was getting through to me. “I wonder just how convincing your illusion will be when your faulty logic crumbles from beneath it.”

“So you're saying there arebadangels?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes. The Dark Ones. They are the things that nightmares are made of.”

A nervous scoff escaped me.

“Isn't that what you say about Sean? That he's what nightmares are made of?”

A broad and satisfied smile crossed Gavin's face.

“One and the same, Ruby,” he called over his shoulder as he walked away. “They are one and the same...”

19

I stood alone in the street, staring in the direction where he had disappeared into the night. With the innocuous photograph still in my hand and visions of an evil Sean etched into my brain, the barrage of questions started to race through my mind, none of which were going to be answered anytime soon. Gavin was scheming, but I didn't know why.

Apparently I knew the woman in the picture but had no clue how. Worst of all, Sean allegedly could tell me who she was, but, somewhere deep down inside me, a seed of doubt had been planted. Was he as dichotomous as I thought he was? A product of both good and evil? Did I really want to know the truth if it meant collapsing the house of cards that Sean and I had so precariously built? Was that all Gavin was trying to do, and, if so, why? To what end?

I needed to figure out his end game and fast.

As I looked down at the picture one last time before tucking it into my coat pocket, I wondered about the stunning woman who looked so happy to be staring down at me. I'd never remembered feeling overly loved as a child, and judging by the pure joy in her face, she loved me more than anything. She looked at me the way Kristy looked at Louie.

Forcing those thoughts aside, I made my way across the road and over to Sean's building. Instead of a growing sense of anticipation with every step, all I felt was doubt overtaking me. It pissed me off that I was letting Gavin's mind games get to me, and I wondered why I let him play them at all.Answers. He has answers,I reminded myself.Supply and demand was a bitch when the supplier had a warped sense of how to distribute the information.

With leaden feet, I climbed the stairs to Sean's apartment.

Hesitating before the door, I swallowed my lingering insecurities as best I could, hoping that I could overcome them. Love could conquer all, couldn't it?

Before I could knock, he was there, smiling down at me with the face of an angel.Light or dark,I found myself wondering as the happiness slowly bled from his expression.

“What's wrong?”he asked, stepping out to meet me on the landing.

I took a step back.

I needed to get a hold of myself before irreparable damage was done. Letting Gavin's curious riddles plague my mind was not a way to live, nor was it fair to Sean. He had no way to defend himself against Gavin's ambiguous accusations, and I had no intention of going to Sean with anything until I had more solid evidence. All that would prove was that I didn't trust him. After everything we'd been through, I owed him more than that. And yet, one single photograph threatened to undo it all―a photograph and an unsettling feeling that Gavin attached to it.

Something wasn't right about the situation, and come hell or high water, I was going to figure out exactly what before it swallowed me whole.

“I'm sorry,” I said, shaking my head a little for clarity. “It's been a long day. Can I come in?”

“Of course,” he replied, stepping back into the apartment. He watched me acutely, no doubt trying to read me like the open book he always found me to be. For once, it looked as though my novel was closed.

“I'm sorry I'm so late,” I told him as I slipped out of my coat.

“I expected you to be here about ten minutes ago. I was getting mildly concerned.”

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