Authors: Christine Johnson
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
SIMON PULSEAn imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020First Simon Pulse hardcover edition June 2011Copyright © 2011 by Christine JohnsonAll rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.SIMON PULSE and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.For information about special discounts for bulk purchases, please contact Simon & Schuster Special Sales at 1-866-506-1949 or[email protected].The Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureau can bring authors to your live event.For more information or to book an event, contact the Simon & Schuster Speakers Bureauat 1-866-248-3049 or visit our website atwww.simonspeakers.com.Designed by Paul WeilThe text of this book was set in Adobe Caslon Pro.Manufactured in the United States of America2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataTKISBN 978-1-4424-0776-3ISBN 978-1-4424-0778-7 (eBook)
CLAIRE'S HUMAN FORM offered no protection from the chill in the moonlit clearing. She shivered as the early-October breeze licked at her arms and cheeks. Wrapping her arms around herself, she stared across the circle, wishing her mother would hurry up and start the ceremony.
A tangled pile of branches waited in the center of the pack. Marie kneeled down in front of it and leaned in, the mist of her breath kissing the outermost tips of the twigs.
Claire's mother closed her eyes, focusing. The graceful lines of her body tensed for an instant, and then it was over. The fire ignited with a roar, pulled into existence by the force of Marie's will.
The light and heat spread through the clearing, changing the texture of the air. The forest crackled with power—it was as though the fire had woven threads of lightning, tying the members of the pack together, linking them to something larger than themselves. As the flames grew, the feeling intensified, humming along Claire's skin, whispering to her about the things she could do.
Begging her to become a wolf.
The pack stood in a circle around the fire, all of them silent. Waiting. The flames leapt before them, the trees towered behind them, and the full moon shone down from above. Everything was ready for their transformation. Marie raised her arms, and with her voice full of the authority that came with being the pack's Alpha, she began to chant.
She called each of their names, and Claire shifted from foot to foot, aching for the warmth of her fur. As she edged closer to the fire, Claire noticed Judith staring at her. She quickly turned her attention back to her mother but kept Judith in her peripheral vision. From her spot next to Marie, Judith regarded Claire with narrowed, judging eyes.
Claire forced herself not to raise a what's-your-problem eyebrow and kept her attention trained on her mother. The chant was almost over, anyway. Anticipation tugged at Claire as Marie called her name. This was only her second full moon ceremony since she'd completed her transformation, but every second she spent in the woods—every time she looked at themoon hanging in the sky like an ever-changing jewel—she loved it more.
There were no secrets in the woods the way there were in her human life. There was just the pack. And the ceremonies.
And the hunt.
Marie lowered her arms.
"And now it is time. You may transform."
The words hung in the air, tantalizing as a ripe apple. Claire forgot about Judith. She forgot about everything but the unbelievable joy of slipping out of her human form and changing into her wolf self. Paws appeared where her hands and feet had been, and her skin gave way to thick gray fur. Claire's teeth grew sharp, and she felt the sudden, familiar heaviness of her tail.
The instant she changed, her senses sharpened. She could see the individual twigs high up in the trees. Could hear the rustling of something small—a mouse, maybe, or a chipmunk—in the undergrowth. And the smells . . . It was almost painful at first, how many things she could smell when she transformed. In her wolf form she could tell that there were four kinds of wood in the ceremonial fire tonight and she could smell the sweet, sighing scent of the autumn leaves dying on the trees above her.
And she could smell pain—the sharp, unbearable scent of pain. It startled Claire, and when she heard a worried whimper coming from Katherine, one of the other Beta wolves, she knew she wasn't the only one caught off guard by the odor. The scent was coming from Victoria, who sat on the forest floor, paws splayed awkwardly, panting hard. After Claire, she was the youngest wolf in the pack, but she was groaning like an old woman.
Sorry,she huffed, in the nonverbal language they shared in their true forms.The more pregnant I get, the harder it is tochange. I'll be okay in a second.
She hadn't been pregnant that long, and Claire was horrified by how fast her belly had grown. Werewolf pregnancies didn't last as long as human ones, which made having a baby especially difficult, because it was so hard on the human part of the woman. Claire had seen it—the terrible way Victoria's skin had stretched, how the sudden change in her shape and weight had made her hips hurt so much that she could barely walk.
Beatrice, Victoria's mother, walked over and sat next to her, leaning against her flank like she was propping Victoria up.
Marie, can you hunt without us?
Victoria staggered to her feet, her belly swaying underneath her, dragging her spine into a bowl-shaped curve.
No, no, no! I'm okay. I can go. She licked at her muzzle anxiously.
You reek of pain. You will stay here. And your mother will staywith you. The four of us can complete the hunt on our own. The weight of Marie's command made Victoria sink back down onto the ground. She looked relieved and disappointed in equal measures. Beatrice just looked relieved.
Marie turned to Judith, Katherine, and Claire. Let's go.
Without waiting for a response, Marie trotted off into the woods, her ears pricked forward and her nose high, searching for prey. The other three wolves followed. Claire kept to the back of the pack, since she was the newest wolf. She didn't mind—there was more to do at the back of the hunt than stuck in the middle, anyway. While Marie tracked in front, Claire kept her senses trained behind them, searching for an animal that might not have been able to find a good enough hiding place. Judith and Katherine loped along in between.
It was hard work, running along with the hunt. Marie set a punishing pace and expected the rest of them to keep up. Claire had taken to jogging in her human form, to make sure that she was in shape. She'd die of embarrassment if she was gasping for breath the way Katherine was. If Marie had taught her anything, it was that being a werewolf was a privilege, a life-and-death-risking double identity, and Claire had every intention of living up to that.
Behind her, there was a single, soft noise in the forest. The sound of a step.
A misstep, more like.
Claire whirled around, her head lowered and her shoulders hunched, sniffing the air frantically. The odor was not quite like deer—it smelled muskier. The animal part of her brain supplied the answer at once.
Claire gave a soft yip. Her mother pulled up short and circled around, nearly colliding with Judith and Katherine, who scrambled to get out of the way.
Marie pressed close to Claire, her nose quivering.
Judith stared over Marie's shoulder at Claire, her lips drawn back ever so slightly, showing her sharp, pale teeth. It was a dominant move—almost an accusation. Everything in Judith's posture told Claire she should have stayed at the back of the line, kept her mouth shut, and let one of the senior wolves find the moose.
Before she could stop herself, Claire rolled her eyes. Judith took a warning step forward.
Marie's soft yip froze Claire and Judith in their tracks. Whether she hadn't noticed what was going on or she was just ignoring it, Claire couldn't tell. Either way, her mother's tail waved approvingly.
The praise made Claire shiver. The anticipation of sacrificing a moose—even if it was a young one—zinged through her. The other two wolves shifted behind them, silent as the shadows themselves. Marie turned and acknowledged them with a look.
Claire, you circle around with Judith, and Katherine and Iwill cut off the path.The order was given noiselessly, all eye flicks and twists of her ears.
The wolves didn't waste any time. Judith and Claire ignored each other completely as they streaked through the trees toward the doomed animal.
In a matter of moments, the quiet of the forest was broken by the moose's panicked bellow. And then it was over. They dragged the heavy, lifeless moose back to the clearing, in preparation for the feast.
Later, when the moose had been disposed of and their whiskers were clean again, the wolves ringed the fire once more. Claire hated this part—squeezing back into her human skin after the freedom of being a wolf. It was like slipping into a scratchy set of bedsheets. She got used to it quickly enough, but she dreaded the initial, prickly discomfort.
And Claire still wasn't used to going through the full moon ceremony without Zahlia. Zahlia had been dead for two months, and though they were not allowed to speak of her— even to say her name—the ragged hole she had left in the pack sent a shudder through Claire every time she passed too close to the memory.
After all, Zahlia had been her friend. Before Claire had found out that Zahlia was murdering humans. Before her "friend" had set up Claire's mother for capture. Attacked Claire's boyfriend. Turned on Claire.
Before Claire completely disappeared into the black hole of the Zahlia nightmare, Marie gave the signal and the wolves transformed. As much as she wanted to stay in her lupine form, her mother's command had to be obeyed. With a sigh, Claire slipped back into her human skin.
Victoria stood next to her, dressed, but with her distorted stomach uncovered. The hem of her shirt had twisted, and she struggled to yank it over her stretched belly. Embarrassed, Claire averted her eyes.
"Damn it!" The curse was quiet enough, but Claire could hear the tears in Victoria's voice.
"It's okay," Katherine soothed. "It'll be over soon enough. They say that the end is always the hardest part. Just think— probably only one more full moon to go, and then you'll be a mother. Oh, I'm so jealous. I always wanted a little baby to squeeze and hug."
Marie cleared her throat, silencing them.
"As the Alpha of our pack, there are many decisions that fall to me—including when to hold the traditional celebration of our newly transformed wolves."
Claire forgot all about Victoria. She stared at her mother, her eyes wide with questions.
Marie looked over at her. "On the night of the new moon, two weeks from now, we will gather here especially for you. You will be expected to do a short demonstration of the basic skills—transforming, hunting . . ." The tension drained out of Claire. She knew how to do those things. And she even had something extra: the ability to hear others talking even when they were miles away. Not all wolves had that sort of long-distance hearing. Sure, she had to focus pretty hard, but still, she could do it. It might even be sort of fun, to have the attention of the group like that. She started to nod at her mother, but Marie interrupted her.
"Of course, you will also be required to light the ceremonial fire."
Claire's head stopped moving midnod.The ceremonial fire. Shit.
She couldn't do that.
She'd been trying for weeks, but in spite of all her efforts, the only way Claire could create a flame was if she had a match handy. Of course, she hadn't admitted that to her mother. She hadn't wanted to seem that inept. Not being able to light the fire was worse than embarrassing. She might as well be having trouble tying her shoelaces.
Without being able to light the fire, she wasn't a normal werewolf—she couldn't prove that she could connect herself to the foremothers and tap into their power.Oh, crap.
Her mother smiled at her. "And to celebrate your success as a wolf, you will lead the hunt that night."
The idea lay in front of Claire, rich as chocolate cake. Just participating in the hunt was her favorite part of the gather ings. It was the only thing in either of her lives—human or wolf—that required her to use all her senses to their fullest. The wild intensity of the chase, the pride of completing the sacrifice to the Goddess, and the frenzied joy of the feast that followed were consuming. She couldn't imagine anything better than that.
Except actually getting to lead the hunt. She wouldn't let anything get in the way of that. Not even her mental block against lighting the stupid fire.
Marie interrupted her galloping thoughts. "You are ready for this, yes?"
"Um, sure." Claire swallowed hard. She couldn't bring herself to admit that she actually wasn't ready. "I mean, it'll be fun, right?" The last word came out as a squeak.
"It's not just fun," Judith snapped.
Claire took in her mother's lifted eyebrows, and concern crawled over her, spider legged and sharp fanged.
Marie gave Judith a grudging nod. "True." She turned to Claire. "It does confirm that you are a complete wolf. There's no need to worry about it, though." She laughed. "Incomplete wolves are practically a myth, even the consequences for being one are almost medieval. It will be a wonderful celebration. I've been looking forward to it since you first changed—I can't wait to see you lead the hunt."
The words buzzed around Claire's head, and she struggled to stay calm. Marie dismissed the rest of the pack and put out the fire. As the embers turned to ashes, Claire took deep breaths, letting the achingly cold air dull her panic.
When the only light in the clearing was the glow of the moon overhead, Claire and her mother headed for home. The sound of their feet crunching quietly through the last of the fall leaves was the only noise—there was nothing else to distract Claire from the worried pounding of her heart.
After a few wordless minutes, Claire couldn't stand it anymore. "Why didn't you tell me before? About the new moon gathering?"
Marie reached up and fiddled with the silver chain around her neck. "Because I didn't decide until tonight that it was time. After Victoria has the baby, she'll be excused from her pack duties for a few months. I didn't want her to miss the ceremony, but it was clear when I saw her tonight that she will certainly be pregnant for a while longer."
Claire started to say something but snapped her teeth shut before the words could come. Talking would just get her into trouble. And it wouldn't make any difference anyway. She knew her mother. There would be no begging for an extension. No bending of the rules.
She had two weeks to learn how to light a ceremonial fire or she was going to utterly humiliate herself. In front of the whole pack.
* * *
When they finally arrived home, Claire made a beeline upstairs. She was still fired up from the hunt and on edge from the announcement about the new moon gathering. It was already after two—if she didn't find a way to unwind, she'd never get any sleep before school the next day.
She looked longingly at her running shoes. Going for a run, even in her human form, was the only thing that really calmed her down lately. But it was too late to go running. Anyone who saw her jogging at this hour was bound to thinksomethingsuspicious was going on.
She kicked the shoes into her closet and grabbed her phone—there were two messages. The first was from Matthew, her boyfriend. He sounded exhausted. With only five days left until the state soccer finals on Saturday, the coach had them on a crazy practice schedule. Still, in spite of the fatigue in his voice, he told her that he hoped she'd had fun at the gathering and that he'd see her in the morning. And that he loved her.
The words sank into Claire like sunshine. Matthew always had that effect on her. No matter what, he made her feel like whatever was going on, she could handle it. It didn't hurt that he was the only human in Hanover Falls who knew about the werewolves. He was a secret-keeper for the pack, a gardien. He protected them, and they protected him. Being honest with him about who and what she was made it a lot easier for Claire to keep lying to everyone else. Like her best friend, who had left the second message. Emily's words came out all in a rush. She demanded to know why Claire wasn't answering her phone at almost midnight, unless she was asleep, in which case Emily was very sorry for maybe waking her up, but she really, really needed the blueblack nail polish she'd left at Claire's the weekend before and could Claire bring it with her tomorrow, please?
Claire laughed, loving Emily's signature, caffeine-fueled intensity. She deleted the message and grabbed the little glass bottle off her dresser, stuffing it into her backpack. She looked longingly at her bed, but she was still too wired to sleep. Instead, she trudged into the bathroom and turned on the shower, hoping the hot water would help. With her mother's announcement tying knots of tension in her shoulders, though, there might not be enough hot water in the whole city to relax her. School the next day was slow-motion torture. Her exhaustion from the gathering and the constant, nibbling worry about the upcoming new moon ceremony were a dizzying mix. Claire staggered through the halls toward her locker, having survived first-period history without falling asleep on her desk or chewing her nails down to the quick. Considering how she felt, that counted as a major success. She dropped her bag in front of her locker, sending a dust bunny flying.
"Oh, yay! Yayyayyayyay! You're here!" Emily bounced across the floor with a huge smile on her face. Her hair still startled Claire. After Emily had gotten back from her forced exile at her aunt and uncle's farm last summer, she'd chopped off her hair. It was short and sort of spiky in an irregular way that looked good on her, but Claire couldn't quite get used to it. She kept expecting to see the long, smooth ponytail Emily had worn since the fourth grade.
Emily started talking well before she actually got to Claire, her questions flying out of her mouth like a flock of sparrows. "Did you get my message? Did you bring the nail polish? Are you okay? I waited for you before class, but you never showed and I got worried. . . ."
Claire blinked, trying to digest all the words. She ticked off the answers on her fingers. "Got the message, brought the polish, fine-but-tired. I was up late and I overslept." She grinned at Emily. "Okay?"
Emily held out her hand. "Polish first. It's an emergency."
Claire dug it out of her bag.
Emily took it and then pointed the bottle back at Claire. "So, if you were up late, why didn't you answer my call?"
"My phone died. I didn't realize it until I went to bed, and by then it was way, way too late to call." The lie was as easy as blinking. She didn't even feel guilty anymore. Not really. Not when she knew what the consequences would be if anyone found out her identity. The thought made Claire's stomach sway inside her. "You look like you're going to faint or throw up or something." Emily leaned forward. Claire could smell the fakesweet scent of strawberry Pop-Tarts on Emily's breath, and it reminded her that she'd skipped breakfast.
"Your pupils are all funny. Are yousureyou're okay?"
Claire blinked. Swallowed. Shook her head, then nodded.Oh great, Claire. Way to look totally together.
"I'm fine. Just tired, really. And hungry. So, what's with the manicure urgency?"
Distraction was always a good tactic. And with Emily, it usually worked.
"So, that's the other reason I was calling." Emily glanced around the hallway and dropped her voice. "That guy Ryan, in art class? The one who does all the charcoal work?"
Claire nodded again. It was hard to keep track of Emily's endless string of potentially datable guys, but she vaguely remembered something about a blond guy who'd been making Emily's toes curl in the art room.
"So, yesterday, he came over while I was painting, and he told me that I held the brush like it was an extension of my hand. And the way he said it . . ." She shivered happily. "Anyway, if he's looking at my hands that closely, then I should probably redo my raggedy polish, you know? Because—"
Emily cut off midsentence as a pair of arms wrapped around Claire's waist from behind. For a wafer-thin moment she tensed, but then the familiar hint-of-cinnamon smell that meant only one thing—Matthew—wafted over her. She melted back against his solid chest.
"Hey, yourself," she said.
Emily was staring at her expectantly. It was obvious that she wanted to say something more about Art Guy but that she didn't really want Matthew around while she rehashed the goings-on in her romantic world.
Matthew bent down and tucked his chin over Claire's shoulder. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" There was a heavy, serious note in his voice that made Claire's skin prickle.
Emily's eyes widened.
From down the hall, Amy Harper's blond ringlets bounced as she waved frantically. She was loaded down with posters, and she had a roll of masking tape around her wrist. Even though she'd only been in town a couple of months, Amy had managed to get on practically every committee in the school. She had a dentist's-dream smile and boundless energy, and she was genuinely one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. She was also into pottery—seriously into it. Apparently, some gallery back in Pennsylvania sold her stuff.
She and Emily spent a lot of time together in the art room and had gotten close fast, which Claire had sort of appreciated, since it took some of the pressure off her. Amy was there for Emily when Claire couldn't be. Claire had to admit that itmade her a little jealous—as much as she loved being a werewolf, all the power and freedom and feeling of specialness that came with the transformation had come with a price. And having to share her best friend with the petite, perky-sweet Amy was part of it.
"What's up?" Emily called back.
"Can one of you guys please help me tape up these posters? I have a quiz in precalc, and I don't want to be late!" Amy shifted the stack of paper from one arm to the other, blowing an errant curl out of her eyes.
The "you guys" surprised Claire. Amy wasn't friends with Claire or Matthew, but then again, she was so nice, she probably automatically included everyone. Like a kindergarten teacher trying to make sure everyone got a turn.
"Sure thing. Be right there." Emily looked pointedly at Claire, let her eyes skitter over to Matthew, and then twitched her lips. Which was Emily-speak for I'm going now, but youwill tell me what the hell he wants to talk to you about, and I don'tmean next week.
"We'll finish catching up at lunch," Claire promised, distracted by the catalog of things that might make Matthew sound so serious. Emily zipped off down the hall, arms already outstretched to catch the sliding pile of posters.
Claire turned to Matthew, her heart doing a sort of hiccuping stutter-step as she looked up at him. Claire had spent her entire sophomore year nursing a huge crush on Mat thew—along with most of the girls in her class. Somehow, she'd been the one lucky enough to catch his attention. That he'd stayed with her after finding out she was a werewolf was nothing short of a miracle.
"You sound strange," she said. "What's up?"
Matthew nodded his head toward Emily and Amy. "It's about that, actually."
Claire looked at him expectantly. Her heart quivered against her ribs, nervous.
"The posters that Amy's taping up everywhere? They're for the Autumn Ball." He reached up and rubbed the back of his hand. "I—I really want to go. To take you. But I know that you're not exactly into dances, and I don't want to drag you if you'd be supermiserable."
Claire blinked, wondering briefly if she'd be less confused if she hadn't been so worried that he was going to tell her something terrible. "What makes you think I'm not into dances?" she finally asked.
Matthew cocked his head at her. "Well, I've never seen you at one before. Emily's usually taking over the dance floor, but I just thought . . ."
Heat rushed into Claire's cheeks. She cleared her throat, trying to get up the courage to admit the truth. Matthew was the one person she could always be honest with, so lying about something so small, sohuman—it seemed stupid. But that didn't make it any less embarrassing. "I . . . um. Yeah. See, the thing is, no one's ever asked me before. And Emily always had a date, so I didn't want to tag along stag, and it was easier to just pretend that I didn't want to go in the first place."
There. She'd said it.
Matthew's mouth dropped open. If he laughed, she'd kill him.
"So, you're saying you'll go with me? You don't mind the dress and the corsage and the awkward photos and stuff?"
The girliest, most human part of Claire did a little dance of glee at the words "dress" and "corsage."
"Of course I'll go with you. I would love to!" She grinned, swatting his chest with her hand. "Geez, the way you looked before, it was like you were going to tell me that you were moving to Arkansas or something."
Matthew frowned. "Sorry. It's just, finals are on Saturday, and things have been—"
"Tense?" Claire interrupted. "Pressure filled? Insanely exhausting?"
"Yeah, those would work." He smiled the wide, genuine smile that made his eyes crinkle up the tiniest bit at the corners. "But after this weekend, it'll all be done, one way or another."
Down the hall, there was a series of high-pitched squeals as one of the show choirettes opened her locker and a flotilla of helium balloons drifted out. Claire wondered if she should stuff Matthew's locker before the state finals—usually it was something that guys did for girls and not the other way around, but she wanted to dosomething.Maybe she'd just make a sign to hold up at the game, the way the rest of the team's girlfriends did.
Claire stretched up and kissed him, just as the warning bell rang. "You're going to be fantastic. The match is going to be fantastic. And I'm going to be right there, screaming my head off. Now go, before you're late."
"Yeah, you're right. I hope you're right." He turned and hitched his bag up on his shoulder. "I love you."
"I love you, too." She threw herself into the scurrying mass of people who were scrambling for classrooms, and as she headed down the hall she caught sight of one of the leafframed posters. She was going to an actual dance. With an actual boyfriend.
Claire smiled to herself. Emily was going to die a thousand deaths of retail happiness when she heard.
WHEN CLAIRE GOT to the cafeteria at lunch, Emily was already waiting for her, intently picking the raisins out of a bagel. As Claire slid into the chair across from her, Emily looked up, then grabbed an enormous, half-finished bottle of Diet Coke and took a swig.
"So? What was Matthew's deal? He looked like he was going to tell you that he ran over your dog."
"I don't have a dog," Claire muttered, distracted by Emily's busy fingers. "Why did you get a raisin bagel? You hate raisins."
"Yeah, well, the hot lunch was meatloaf, and the only other bagels were garlic." She wrinkled her nose.
"Oh, right. And you can't reek of garlic when you see . . ." Crap. She couldn't remember Art Guy's name. Something short. Nick? Jack? Ian?
Claire's mouth opened and shut like a fish out of water. Emily raised a freshly polished fingernail and pointed it accusingly at Claire.
"You forgot his name, didn't you?"
Crap, crap, crap.There was no way out of this one. Claire squeezed her eyes shut.
"Sorry. Please don't kill me—I really was listening, but then Matthew sort of made me forget what you and I had been talking about."
Emily went back to her raisin excavation. "It's Ryan. And I'll forgive you this once, because Iknowyou're going to help me analyze everything that happens in art class today." She dropped her mangled bagel and picked up her soda. "I really want him to ask me out. He's Arizona-in-the-summer hot, and besides, my lack of a boyfriend is making me depressed." She sighed. "So? What did your Prince Charming want to talk to you about?"
Claire bit her lip. "You're going to love it."
Emily put down the soda. "What?"
"I'm finally going to a dance! He asked me to go with him to the Autumn Ball. Like, officially. He thought I didn't like dances because he hadn't ever seen me at one before. That's what he was nervous about—can you believe it?" Emily went very, very still.
"Oh my God," she whispered. "You're actually coming to a dance?" She let out a squeal and bounced up and down in her plastic chair, which shook on its scrawny metal legs. "You! At a dance! We are so goingshopping.And I am totally going to get Ryan to ask me and then we. Can go. To a dance. Together! Finally."
Claire reached into her bag and yanked out a sandwich. "I know. I'm so excited. And I definitely need you to help me find a dress, just as soon as I can wrestle a credit card away from my mom."
Emily immediately began outlining a preshopping strategy and debating whether they should double or if it would be better for Claire to have a more "romantic" one-on-one before-dance dinner with Matthew.
Claire ate her sandwich, nodding along with Emily's increasingly complicated plans. She didn't care when they went shopping or whether they got a limo—things felt normal between her and Emily, and she just wanted to enjoy it. This was how she wanted the rest of the year to be, and she was going to work damn hard to make sure she didn't do anything to ruin it.
That night, Claire slipped off into the woods to work on starting a fire. She headed straight for her favorite practice spot, the little opening in the pine trees that was enough space to work in but so well hidden that she wasn't worried about being seen. She swept away the pine needles until she had a ring of bare earth large enough for a pile of branches. Starting small seemed like a good idea, so Claire gathered up an armful of twigs, making sure they were all dry enough to burn.
Just after her transformation was complete, Marie had explained to Claire how to light the fire, but since then she'd never bothered to ask if Claire had managed to succeed. In the clearing, Claire arranged the kindling exactly the way her mother had shown her. After everything was set up, Claire stood over the sad pile of sticks, clenched her fists, closed her eyes, and imagined a fire. She held on to the picture in her head, eyes still shut, and listened for the sound of crackling bark. Waited for the scent of wood smoke. For her shins to get warm.
She opened one eye and checked. Nope. No fire.
She shook out her hands and stretched her neck before trying again. She had to relax. Being so tense wasn't helping.
Hours passed in the cold, dark forest. Birds roosted in the trees above her, then woke and flew away again. Claire stood in the shelter of the familiar pine trees until her feet and back ached from being motionless for so long. She visualized fire until the image of leaping flames was burned into the backs of her eyelids, but as soon as she opened them, the uncharred pile of wood stared back at her mockingly. If it had a tongue, it would have stuck it out at her.
Claire flopped down onto the forest floor, her heart pounding from the frustration and the wasted effort.
In her pocket, her cell phone rang. The noise startled her. It sounded so alien in the quiet rustle of the night forest. She wasn't the only thing surprised by the sudden sound in the darkness. The tiny creatures in the woods around her fell silent as everything but Claire held its breath.
A breeze ruffled Claire's hair. With a sigh, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and saw that it was already after midnight.
And Matthew was calling.
"Hey. How are—" He paused. "It sounds windy. Where are you?"
Claire stood up and brushed the bits of dirt and leaves off her shirt. With one swift kick, she sent the unburned twigs skittering across the clearing, so that they came to rest in a natural-looking scatter. Screw it. She'd come back the next night and try again.
"I'm heading home, actually." She turned and started to walk. "You're up late."
"Yeah. I couldn't sleep." His voice was ragged with worry. She could hear Saturday's game hanging over him.
Claire took a long breath. She knew that the state finals were a big deal. A huge deal. Matthew had been recruited by some schools, even offered scholarship money, but he still hadn't heard from his top choice—UCLA. There would be a Bruins rep at the game. Watching him. Making little notes that could determine his entire future.
"Matthew, it's going to be fine. You're amazing—you've been amazing at every match this season, and there's no reason this game is going to be any different."
He sighed. "I hope you're right."
She laughed. "Of course I'm right. I'm always right. Don't you know that by now?"
"I know, I know. I wasn't calling to talk about it, anyway. So. Where're you headed home from?" He was trying to keep his voice light, but he wasn't completely successful.
Claire crouched low and slipped through the hole in the brick wall, stepping onto her lawn.
"The woods," she said, "but I just made it back to the house. Last night wasn't as fantastic as it could have been. I mean, the gathering was fine. But it turns out that the pack is having a special gathering for me. Like, where I'm supposed to demonstrate my—" She paused. "My skills." Her words were heavy with meaning.
"I don't see the problem. You're good at all of that, right?" He sounded distant, and she could hear him shifting around in an edgy sort of way.
Claire stared up at the dark windows of her house. "Except lighting the fire. I can't do that part." Her voice came out in a whisper.
"I—oh. Well, I'm, uh, sure you'll work it out." His voice was as bright and fake as a cheerleader's smile.
Something tightened in Claire's chest.
But what if I can't? What if I screw up so amazingly that I can'tever lead the hunt?
Claire didn't say anything. She looked up at the moon. It was still nearly full, just the tiniest sliver missing from one side. She knew it would shrivel away to nothing all too fast, but she didn't want to add to Matthew's worry if she didn't have to. He was plenty anxious about his own stuff—after all, he was about to be judged too.
Claire shook herself. "Sure. Right. Anyway, I'm home, and I need to go to bed. And you do too."
"Yeah. At this rate, we're both going to be zombies tomorrow." He yawned. "I love you, you know that?" he asked, sounding like his old self again.
"I love you, too," she whispered.
The intensity of her worry rubbed against her, making her want to strip off her human skin and run until she was too tired to care about anything. But instead of transforming and sprinting through the woods until she had run herself out of her self-doubting, Claire flipped her phone shut and trudged into the house. Pretending she was just an ordinary human. Pretending everything was fine.
* * *
By Friday she was a wreck. Claire sat in the forest, surrounded by little unburned piles of kindling. Nothing would light. She wrapped her arms around her knees and stared at the stack of sticks in front of her, wondering what it would really be like to fail in front of the whole pack. If she couldn't figure out how to getsomethingto catch fire, that's exactly what would happen.
She didn't want to ask her mom for help, mostly because she didn't want to admit just how much trouble she was having with something that was supposed to come naturally to werewolves. It would be almost as bad as admitting that she couldn't wag her own tail. Claire pressed her forehead into her knees, the denim blotting out the mocking, unlit wood in front of her.
Two more days. I'll just practice for two more days. Then, if I stillhaven't figured it out, I'll talk to her.
The idea that she might really be an incomplete wolf was so awful that she couldn't even think it any louder than a whisper. But there was a little voice at the back of her head that had started muttering ugly, doubt-filled things, and once it knew it had gotten her attention, there was no way to shut it up.
Part of her knew she should stay where she was and try again to make some sort of combustion happen. But Matthew's game was the next day. All the other soccer players' girlfriends would have flowers and cards and signs with their boyfriends' jersey numbers on them. Claire wasn't going to let Matthew down by being the only one sitting there at the state finals with nothing. Even if it meant missing out on a little bit of practice. She still had more than a week until the gathering. That would be plenty of time to work things out—to keep herself from being humiliated, from having everyone think she wasn't as good as any of the other wolves.
At least, she hoped it would be plenty of time. Saturday morning dawned, full of heavy gray clouds and the promise of colder weather. Claire was relieved. At least by nightfall Matthew's stress would be over. And the game would be a good chance for her to think about something else and blow off some steam. She was even looking forward to the traditional postgame celebration at the diner.
And then afterward she promised herself, she'd head straight for the woods and practice.
She'd been up way too late trying to make a decent-looking sign, but she'd finally managed it. It was just Matthew's number inside a glittery heart, but it was big enough that he'd be able to see it from the field. After doing her best to drown her fatigue with coffee, Claire tugged on a pair of leggings and a T-shirt with a disintegrating collar. She had hours until the game, and the caffeine had made her way too jittery to sit around the house. The only thing she could think to do—at least, in the daylight—was go for a run.
She paused on the front porch, stretching out her left calf and adjusting her earphones before taking off down the driveway. She loved the shock in her chest as the thud of her shoes against the pavement reverberated into her ribs and her lungs stretched, trying to keep up with her sudden effort.
Just when her muscles had really warmed and loosened and the running started to feel almost—but not quite—as good as when she was in her wolf form, Claire reached the edge of the forest. Seeing the shadows between the trees sent a flutter of anxiety through her, undoing most of her relaxation. She wanted to be there, in the woods, practicing. She turned her eyes back to the road in front of her, training her gaze on the cracked pavement. She needed to stay focused on Matthew right now. On her human life.
Besides, there wasn't anything she could do about her werewolf existence until it got dark.
With the road spooling out in front of her like a ribbon, Claire inhaled long and slow and matched her pace to the drum-beat rhythm of the song that poured through her earphones. She let the repetition calm her, numb her, until she wasn't worried about fire lighting or Matthew's scholarship chances. Until she was just running. Breath and motion and nothing else.
When she was sufficiently sweat soaked and soothed, Claire jogged home and hurried to shower—she had time before the match started, but she wanted to be early enough to get a good seat. After she was clean, she pulled on jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt that was cute enough for Louie's. Then, for luck, she threw on one of Matthew's sweatshirts. She ran her thumb over the slightly-frayed edge of the cuff, imagining all the other times he had worn it, all the times it had been his skin inside the soft fabric instead of hers. A happy little shiver ran down her spine. She grabbed her phone off her vanity, sending Matthew a quick "I love you and you're going to be fabulous" text before shoving it in her pocket.
In the kitchen her mother sat with her hands around a cup of coffee and stared out the window. There was an untouched sandwich in front of her. Claire took a deep breath, gripping the edge of Matthew's sweatshirt for support. She hadn't spoken to her mother much since the gathering, which wasn't such a big challenge. Marie worked crazy hours, meeting with clients, working her contacts, and playing with new equipment when she wasn't involved in an actual photography session.
Claire was mostly relieved that her mother hadn't seemed to notice how much time she was spending in the forest—that she wasn't questioning whether or not Claire was ready for the new moon gathering. Claire grimaced, wishing she wasn't going to be paraded around like a trick pony—or trick wolf. Whichever.
As if she could hear Claire's thoughts, Marie turned to Claire and took a sip of coffee.
"Good morning, chérie.Actually, afternoon almost, isn't it? Are you just waking up?"
"No. I went for a run. Did you need me to check in or something?" The last sentence came out with a fish-hook barb on the end of it, and Claire bit the inside of her lip, hoping it wasn't going to get her in trouble.
Just pretend everything's fine long enough to get through thisafternoon. That's all I have to do. Then I'll spend every possible secondgetting a handle on the fire stuff.
Her mother raised an eyebrow, but she let the comment slide. "Matthew's game is today, yes? The important one?"
"Yep. I was wondering—um, is Lisbeth coming this afternoon? I sort of need a ride."
"Emily isn't going?"
"No. She has a family thing she couldn't get out of. Plus, she doesn't really love soccer, you know?"
In spite of the fact that Claire and Matthew had been dating seriously for months, Emily and Matthew still hadn't become friends. At first it had seemed like Emily didn't want to butt in. She'd made lots of innuendo-laced comments about a couple needing to "get to know each other" without interruptions. But lately Claire had been wondering if there was more going on. Interspersed with the eyebrow-waggling one-liners, Emily had been mentioning third wheels and unwanted spinsters.
"You look extremely thoughtful." It was a statement, but there was an obvious question underneath it. Marie was always worried about Emily—or, more specifically, Claire slipping and Emily figuring out the truth. "I'm just not awake yet." Claire shrugged off her mother's curiosity. "So, can you drive me?"
Her mother shook her head. "I've got client calls starting in half an hour, and I'll be busy straight through dinner." She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "But they are sending a car for me for the dinner. . . ." She slid off her chair and padded over to the coat closet. When she came back, the shiny black oval key fob dangled from her hand.
Marie held them out. "Why don't you take my car? You have a license. There's no reason you can't drive yourself."Do not squeal. Do not squeal. Do not squeal.
Claire cleared her throat as casually as she could. "Are you sure?"
Her mother stared at her pointedly. "I trust you with far more than a car on a daily basis. I know you will be careful."
Claire reached out and took the keys, reveling in the sharp weight of them against her palm."Thanks," she said. "This is actually great—I'll be able to give Matthew a ride home after Louie's."
Marie smiled. "See? Better for everyone, then." She looked at the clock. "I'd better go prepare for my calls. Enjoy your afternoon."
"Sure thing." Claire grabbed her bag and headed for the garage before her mother could change her mind. She'd driven plenty of times—with Marie in the passenger seat. She'd even driven Matthew's car a couple of times at the very end of the summer, when he'd pulled a muscle in his calf.
But she'd never had a car all to herself before.
The Mercedes sat in the garage, all glossy black paint and sinfully soft leather. Claire hit the button that opened the garage door and slid behind the wheel.
This was going to be good.
Really good. The match was intense. All the players knew what was on the line, and they were playing hard, not keeping anything in reserve. They weren't afraid to get injured—they were all hitting each other as hard as they could without getting thrown out of the game. By the midway point of the second half, Hanover Falls was up, one to nothing. That's when the right back came flying out of nowhere and slammed into Matthew as he dribbled the ball toward the goal. A two-footed hit in the box that meant a free kick. If it went in, it would come close to sealing the game.
Claire held her breath, curling her toes against the soles of her shoes. The adrenaline pulsing through her heightened her senses until she could hear Matthew's determined, nervous breath. The scent of tension—sharp, bitter—poured off the players on the field, strong enough to make her wrinkle her nose. Matthew took two steps back, squinting against the sun as he lined up for his free kick. There was a rip in the back of his jersey, remnants of the illegal hit he'd taken moments earlier.
Claire watched as intently as the rest of the fans. She'd never been really interested in a sport before she started dating Matthew, but the speed and athleticism of soccer appealed to her, and once she'd learned the rules, she cheered and hissed as loudly as any other fans, even when Matthew wasn't on the field.
Matthew shrugged one shoulder, and Claire gripped the cold metal of the bleacher as he ran at the ball. The solidthunkof his foot hitting the black-and-white sphere echoed across the field, and Claire—along with the rest of the crowd— jumped to her feet as the ball sailed past the goalie and swept into the back of the net. The free kick put Hanover Falls two goals ahead of Lawrence with twenty minutes left in the match. Claire sat perched on the edge of her seat, hoping they'd done enough to win. Willing it to be true. Her nose twitched and her confidence grew. There was no way Lawrence could make a comeback. Their players all reeked of exhaustion.
Claire watched impatiently as the time on the game clock ticked away. The sensation of a certain win swelled inside her, sending pinpricks of barely contained excitement into her hands and feet. When they entered the two minutes of injury time, she was on her feet, yelling with the rest of the crowd.
The referee's whistle sounded, signaling the end of the game.
Claire let out an enormous whoop and hugged the random girl sitting next to her, who hugged Claire back just as enthusiastically. She let go, turning to watch as Matthew celebrated with the rest of the team, slapping shoulders and getting cuffed on the back of the head.
He turned and caught sight of Claire. A grin spread across his face, and he jogged over to her. Claire climbed down the bleachers, stepping over people and purses, hoping no one noticed she was doing it a little more quickly, more easily, than a human would. Her feet hit the ground at the sidelines.
Heat spread through Claire's middle as Matthew came to a stop in front of her, smelling like clean sweat and grass and the sort of sweet-apple scent of happiness.
He scooped her up and swung her in a circle. "We did it! Can you believe it? We actually did it!" He set her down, leaned in, and planted a quick kiss on her lips.
His joy was so genuine and so all-encompassing that it wrapped around her, tight as his arms, filling her with a lemony-light giddiness. "Are you kidding?" She linked her hands at the small of his back. "Of course I can believe it. That free kick was absolutely amazing, Matthew."
"Thanks." He fidgeted with the hem of his jersey, looking uncharacteristically nervous. "I just hope it impressed the UCLA scout. I hope like hell he's writing the words "full ride" in there." Matthew's gaze flicked to the top of the bleachers, and Claire followed it. She spotted a man with an out-of place tan and an unnecessarily heavy jacket scribbling away in a leather portfolio.
Matthew blew out a long breath, his normal expression— calm and confident—returning to his face. "Anyway, I guess I just have to wait and see. No use worrying about it right now."
Claire grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze. "It'll be fine. It'll be more than fine."
"You ready to eat?" Matthew asked.
Claire nodded. She was always ready to eat. Ever since she'd become a full werewolf, her appetite had been insane. She was also starting to feel antsy about getting into the woods—as the sun slid to the west, she could feel the seconds ticking closer and closer to her practice time.
"Awesome. Let me just grab a quick shower, and I'll meet you outside the locker room, okay?"
Matthew. In the shower. Claire's insides quivered.
"Sounds perfect," she said.
She watched him walk away, his cleats throwing up little clumps of dirt as he went. In her back pocket, her phone started chirping. Claire pulled it out and glanced at the caller ID. It was Emily.
"Hello?" Claire answered.
"Claire! Hey! So, is it over? Did they win?"
"Yep, and mostly thanks to Matthew." Claire heard the pride in her voice.
"That's awesome. Tell him I said congrats." There was a pause—it was tiny, but it caught Claire's attention. "So, I know you're doing the team celebration stuff tonight, but I wondered if you wanted to come over after? If the thing at Louie's doesn't go crazy late. You could spend the night, even."
Claire closed her eyes. She wanted to go to Emily's, but she really, really needed to get into the forest.
"I wish I could, but I think that the celebration at the diner is going to go pretty long. . . ." It was hard to outright reject Emily. She hated saying no to her best friend. She missed her. But she needed to figure out how to create fire, without having to ask her mother.
"No, it's okay. I knew it was a long shot." Emily's words were reassuring, but there was hurt in her voice, thin and bright and sharp as a needle. "Just call me tomorrow, okay? I want the dish. Something's bound to happen at Louie's. I just know it."
Claire's laugh had a note of regret in it. "You know I'll tell you, first thing."
"Okay, go do the whole jock's-girlfriend thing. I'll talk to you soon." Emily hung up.
Claire sighed and tapped her phone against her leg. At the top of the bleachers, the UCLA scout stood up and stuffed his portfolio into a battered leather briefcase. The stands were mostly empty—a couple of people from school were huddled around someone's cell phone, and a few parents were clearly waiting to drive their kids home. One of the adults glancedover at her, and the expression that flashed across his face made Claire jump. He looked . . . he waslookingat her. Almost like he was checking her out.
His face was vaguely familiar. Sort of like one of the fullbacks'. Someone's dad, probably. Which was totally gross, but whatever. She was a werewolf. She could take him out without blinking if she needed to.
She returned his stare, her shoulders thrown back and her hands curled into fists at her side. It was a dominant posture. Fearless. Claire watched his piggy little eyes widen in surprise, and he dropped his gaze, studying his battered tennis shoes like the winning lottery numbers were written on the laces.
Satisfaction poured through her, hot and sweet. She couldn't fail at the ceremony. She couldn't stand to let anyone look at her the way that guy had—like she didn't count, like she could be used. She couldn't be some sort of incomplete wolf.
But before she could ensure that didn't happen, she had a date to go on and a best friend to worry about.
LOUIE'S WAS BUZZING with people, and most of them had come over to say hi to Matthew at one point or another during dinner. Claire stole the last of Matthew's fries while Doug Kingman grilled him about the recruiter who'd been watching the match.
Doug shook his head. "Man, I'm just saying. If you get a full ride to UCLA, I will totally die of jealousy. I'd have the acceptance letter tattooed across my chest. Seriously. I'm already booking my plane ticket to visit you."
Matthew shrugged. "It's a long way from being a done deal. And it wouldn't be so bad to end up here at the uni versity." He glanced over at Claire. "Closer to home is pretty good, you know."
Claire swallowed hard. She was only a junior. She and Matthew hadn't talked much about next year—what it would mean for them if he got into UCLA. If he left. Just thinking about it made her miss him, even though he was still within touching distance.
Doug slapped the table. "Well, you know you'd be a seriously big fish in a tiny-ass pond if you stayed. Everyone in this town practically worships your dad. Hell, maybe I should think about going into lycanthropy research."
Matthew smiled, but it was tight, fake. "Yeah. It's a really great career."
Claire stuffed a French fry in her mouth to keep herself from making a smart-ass comment. A suspicious smart-ass comment. She'd gotten a lot better at keeping her thoughts to herself over the last couple of months, but sometimes people were so ignorant that it made her want to scream. And anyone who thought that Dr. Engle was a good guy was definitely ignorant. The "cure" he'd developed for werewolves didn't really work. He'd only tested it on men, and since all werewolves were women, that meant he'd never actually tested it on a werewolf. The poor humans Dr. Engle experimented on were all in permanent comas. He'd used his clout in the scientific community to cover up his failures, to boot. How a man like that could have had a son like Matthew was beyond her.
Doug looked over at the door, where Kate-Marie Brown stood, tapping her foot impatiently.
"Whoops. The girlfriend awaits. If she's late for curfew, I'm pretty sure her dad will kill me. Which would make it really hard for me to take her to the Autumn Ball. Later, guys." He half-sprinted over to the door.
Claire's mouth dropped open. "Doug is dating KateMarie?" She stared at the two of them wrapped around each other in the entryway of Louie's. Kate-Marie was as close to royalty as the senior class got. She was pretty, she could sing, and she was the one who decided who was in and who was out. If you cared about your social standing at Hanover Falls High School, you cared what Kate-Marie thought.
Matthew glanced back over his shoulder. "Yep. It's only been a couple of weeks, though. He jumps every time she snaps her fingers."
"Yeah, well, she is kind of hypnotizing, in a bitchy sort of way."
Matthew snorted and grabbed the bill off the end of the table. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
Claire stood up and stretched, walking with Matthew toward the cash register. An itchy feeling crawled over her, her instincts telling her to be careful. She glanced around the diner, trying to find the source of the prickly sensation. Her gaze drifted to the far end of the counter, and she spotted the person who'd been watching them.
* * *
Amy was making her way toward Claire and Matthew, with a smile on her heart-shaped lips and a sparkle in her green eyes. Claire felt herself tense.
Though Claire was hardly some sort of gigantic oaf, Amy was about five inches shorter than she was, and wispy as a cloud. Claire instantly felt awkward. Clunky. She hadn't really felt that way since she'd completed her transformation, and it startled her.
"Hi, Matthew. Great game. That penalty you took totally clinched it!" Amy flashed him a blinding, orthodontist-white smile before turning her attention to Claire. "I didn't even see you until the end of the game, and you were way at the other end of the stands—I'm so bummed we didn't get to sit together! I was hoping we could hang out."
Hang out? A quiver passed through Claire. Why was Amy paying so much attention to her?
Claire gave her an apologetic shrug. "Maybe next time?"
If next time was in a million years and Claire wasn't a werewolf.
So, actually, maybe never, but there was no good reason to be bitchy. She gave herself a mental shake. Amy was Emily's friend. She was nice to people. She probably cried during ASPCA commercials.
"Definitely next time," Amy grinned, looking like she'd won the lottery. "You two off to the after party?"
"We haven't decided yet," Matthew said.
Claire slipped her hand into Matthew's and gave Amy her best, Marie-inspired fake smile. She braced herself. "Are—are you?"
Amy shook her head. "I'd love to, but I figure it's a team thing, and besides, I promised Emily I'd spend the night at her house."
Claire's smile crumpled. She knew that she had bailed on Emily a lot lately. It wasn't that she wanted Emily to spend Saturday night home by herself, but she couldn't help feeling a little bit replaced.
I'm the one who told Emily no. I can't be upset about this.
"I wish we could stay and chat, but I'm whipped." Matthew squeezed Claire's hand, interrupting her racing thoughts and bringing her back down to earth. "I think we're heading out."
"No problem. I'm leaving pretty soon myself. Talk to you guys on Monday!"
Matthew pulled Claire toward the parking lot, but she couldn't resist a quick glance over her shoulder. Sure enough, Amy was watching them go. Amy saw Claire looking at her and waved, and Claire waved back without thinking.
All at once, they were through the door, and the chilly air wrapped its fingers around them, pinching Claire's wrists and tugging at her ears. The parking lot was dark, and the two of them wound their way carefully through the cars. "Are you sure you want to leave?" Claire asked. "I mean, we have a good forty minutes before you have to be home."
Matthew grinned. "On a normal Saturday night, that might be true. Tonight I don't have a curfew."
"I . . . oh. Wow. That's, um, . . . ," Clare stammered. She'd counted on being able to work on her fire lighting. Really, really counted on it.
Disappointment crashed across Matthew's face. She made herself smile. She could give up one night of practicing. This was Matthew's shining moment—what sort of girlfriend would she be if she couldn't put him first for that?
"That's great," she said. "So, where to? The after party?"
Matthew made a noncommittal noise.
Claire hit a button on Marie's key chain, and the car's headlights flashed.
"Can I drive?" he asked.
"The Mercedes? Are you kidding? My mom will smell you on the steering wheel, and I will never, ever get ahold of these keys again."
She walked around to the driver's-side door. Matthew followed her, and she turned to face him.
"Very cute, but you're still not driving."
"I'm not trying to drive." Carefully, he edged her back until she was squeezed between him and the car. He wrapped his arms around her, cupping the back of her head with one hand to protect it from the metal.
He leaned in close and smiled at her. "We may have seen everyone at Louie's, but I'm not quite finished celebrating," he whispered.
He kissed her, his full mouth warming hers before he caught her lower lip gently between his teeth. Claire's knees wobbled, and she heard herself make an incoherent noise.
"There is an after party, but I don't want to go." Matthew pulled her tighter against his chest. "I just want to be with you."
The tingle in her middle headed lower, and she sighed happily, forgetting about everything except him. The next morning, Claire woke to the sound of pots and pans banging around in the kitchen.
What the hell? Is mom actually trying to cook something?
Claire stumbled out of bed and dragged herself downstairs to see what was going on. Lisbeth stood in the kitchen, dressed in lounge pants and an old T-shirt. She was halfway through cooking what looked like an omelet.
"Uh, morning," Claire croaked.
Lisbeth whipped around, her face a strange mix of happiness and irritation. "Oh, hi, Claire-bear."
Claire frowned at the nickname. It was cute when she was younger, but now it was just irritating. "Um, what are you doing here? It's Sunday," Claire pointed out, sliding onto one of the high stools around the island. "I know. Your mother called me early this morning to see if I could come stay for a day or two. Apparently, her dinner last night went so well that they all decided to fly to New York for some editorial meetings. They left late last night." She flipped the eggs in the pan with more force than was really necessary. "She didn't think it would be a good idea for you to be alone for too many days, even if she did leave you with the car keys." Sarcasm hardened Lisbeth's usually mellow voice. "I just don't get why she didn't call me before she went. What if something had happened to you last night?" She shook her head, clearly frustrated with Marie.
Claire shrugged. "Nothing did. It's fine, Lisbeth."
The truth was, if something had happened during the night, they had fire alarms and working telephones, and if someone had somehow gotten into the house, Claire was more than capable of defending herself. The real reason her mom wanted Lisbeth around was so that there would be someone to report back on what Claire did. For all her mom's proclamations about trusting Claire, she couldn't stand not being in control. Even if it meant using Lisbeth as a stand-in.
Claire rubbed her sleep-gritty eyes. It could be worse. She loved Lisbeth, and it would be nice to have some time together, just the two of them. Like old times. Besides, Lisbeth slept like the dead. Claire had snuck out plenty of times when Lisbeth lived at the house. She'd be able to get into the forest to practice without any trouble, and that's all that really counted. She glanced out the window and noticed for the first time that rain was splattering against the glass, filling the dip in the pool's off-season cover.
Crap.There was no way she could practice in the rain.Crap. Crap. Crap.
She ran a hand across her forehead. Matthew's stress was over. His goal had won the game, and if UCLA had any sense, they'd be sending him a scholarship offer as fast as they could type it up. He had to be feeling fantastic this morning, facing a day with no pressure, no stress.
But Claire still couldn't light a fire, not the right way, and the new moon was barely more than a week away. The calendar weighed on her. The rain mocked her. And the worry about what it would mean if she failed burned through her veins, hot and achy and terrifying in its hugeness.
Lisbeth slid the enormous, fluffy omelet in front of Claire, interrupting her descent into a full-blown panic attack.
"I guess you probably want some of that vile coffee." She shuddered.
"Yeah, but I can make it."
"No." Lisbeth shooed her back into her seat."Eat that before it gets cold. It won't kill me to make you one pot of coffee." She pulled the grounds out of the pantry. Claire took a tiny bite of her breakfast. It was delicious. Perfect.
But she'd completely lost her appetite.
She sighed and pushed away the plate.
* * *
Hour after hour, the rain poured down. By late morning the constant tapping of the drops had made her restless and edgy. She knew that Matthew had to be exhausted, and she didn't want to call him and wake him up. She settled for sending him a "call me when you're up" text.
She'd promised she'd give Emily any major gossip from Louie's, and the whole Kate-Marie Brown/Doug Kingman thing definitely counted. Claire picked up the phone and snuggled down into the couch, looking forward to a long session of rehashing the night before. The rain might be keeping her out of the forest, but it did have a bright side.
Emily answered immediately.
"Hey! You're alive! How was it?"
"Good—I mean, the match was fantastic, and then Louie's was fun. But I'm calling because I have serious news about Kate-Marie Brown for you."
"Oh, yesssss. Why don't you come over? We're having pancakes. Gossip is always better with maple syrup." Claire could practically hear Emily jumping up and down. And her mom's pancakes were legendary. Claire's appetite came roaring back. She had eaten those pancakes a hundred different times on a hundred different Sunday mornings, and the idea of something so familiar made her mouth water almost as much as the thought of the batter sizzling on the griddle.
"I'll be there as soon as I can get Lisbeth in the car."
Half an hour later, Claire waved good-bye to Lisbeth and ran up the front path to Emily's door, grimacing as the rain pelted her face and snatched at the hems of her yoga pants. She pushed open the front door, and the warm, sweet smell of breakfast washed over her.
"Hello?" she called.
"Up here!" Emily's voice sailed down from her bedroom.
"Hi, Claire!" Mrs. Lucero shouted from the kitchen. "Pancakes are on the way. You want a cup of coffee?"
"No, thanks," Claire said over her shoulder, already halfway up the stairs.
At the door to Emily's room, she jerked to a halt. Emily sat on her bed, surrounded by Styrofoam leaves in varying sizes. She had a bottle of glue and a tiny brush in her hand. On the floor in front of the bed, Amy sat with a couple of huge bowls of glitter.
Something inside Claire broke—like a cracked fishbowl, shiny and dripping. Every time it seemed like something was finally going to be the way it always had been, it changed. Why hadn't Emily told her that Amy was here? The memory of Amy telling her the night before that she was spending the night at Emily's resurfaced. But it was nearly noon—why was Amy still here?
"Hi, Claire!" Amy looked up from dipping a gluey piece of leaf-shaped foam into one of the bowls. Her curls were piled on top of her head, caught there with a pair of chopsticks. A few errant flecks of glitter sparkled across her cheekbones, making her look sickeningly adorable.
"Uh, hi." Claire glanced down at her soggy running shoes. Imagined her sloppy ponytail.
Emily grinned at her, a smudge of white glue marking her cheek. "We're making fall look fancy." She pointed to an army of glittered Styrofoam leaves drying in ranks on top of the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday paper. "Wanna help?"
Claire lowered herself to the floor. Emily's room felt strange—Claire was so used to it being just the two of them. Amy's presence shifted something in the air, knocking things off balance. "Um, sure."
"Oh, awesome!" Amy handed her a bowl of orange sparkles. "This is going to go so much faster with three people. Just scoop the glitter over them until they're totally covered." She looked down at her glue-and-glitter-smeared fingers and sighed. "We're going to be walking disco balls by the end of this."
"Can you believe Amy got roped into doing this?" Emily asked, handing Claire a glue-drenched acorn. "They're totally taking advantage of the fact that the word 'no' apparently doesn't exist in her native language—you know, Philadelphian." Emily shot Amy a meaningful look.
Amy laughed, an inside-joke sort of laugh that squirmed unpleasantly over Claire's skin. She and Emily were getting so close. Claire wanted that back. It would be too hard to keep her true identity a secret from Amy and Emily both, but watching the two of them start the sort of boundaryless friendship that she'd had with Emily, before all the secrets, before all the hiding . . . it made her chest ache so badly that her ribs were nearly cracking with it.
Claire dropped her Styrofoam into the bowl, turning her head as a puff of sparkles rose into the air and settled on her lap. "How many of these are you making, and why, exactly?"
"Five hundred," Amy announced. "They're decorations for the Autumn Ball. I know it's ages away, but I figured I needed to get a jump on it since I have so many to make. It's so nice of you guys to help!" She smiled at Claire. "You and Matthew are already going—now Emily and I just need to find dates and we'll be all set!"
The way she said it made it sound like they would all be going together. Claire looked up at Emily, trying to gauge her best friend's reaction. Emily was focused a little too intently on the half-coated leaf in front of her, and the tips of her ears were cotton-candy pink.
Slowly, Claire reached into the bowl and sent a drift of glitter cascading over the acorn while she chose her next words.
"Yeah. I'm excited about the dance." She tried to sound casual.
"You should totally join the dance committee," Amy said. "I mean, we need more people, and you're obviously good with glitter." Emily laughed, and Claire did too, surprised at the wit peeking through Amy's perky veneer. An unexpected warmth flared in Claire, catching her off-guard. For a moment she saw how it could have been—the three of them—if Claire hadn't had so much to hold back.
"I—that sounds fun, but I don't think that Kate-Marie Brown would approve of me having a hand in major school social events," Claire said.
Amy rolled her eyes. "Kate-Marie doesn't rule the world."
"She sure thinks she does," Emily groused, putting glue on another leaf. "God, Claire, remember when Yolanda wanted her to come to your birthday party last summer?" She looked over at Amy. "Kate-Marie blew her off just because she didn't want to deal with the pool thing."
Amy shuddered. "Well, that I can actually relate to. You really have a pool?"
Claire nodded, uncomfortable.
"Ugh. They terrify me. I can't swim at all. I'm a total solidground sort of girl. So, I guess Kate-Marie and I agree on one thing, at least."
"We'll try not to hold it against you," Emily joked.
From the kitchen came the sound of a griddle being thumped into the sink. "Girls?" Emily's mom called up the stairs. "The pancakes are ready! Come and eat them while they're still hot."
"Oh, yum!" Emily reached for a damp wad of paper towels and pulled off a handful, wiping her glue-coated fingers on them and handing the rest to Amy.
Amy wiped the glitter off the perfect ovals of her little fingernails.
"I'm starving," she announced. "And I totally want to hear about the after party and stuff last night. God, you must have been up all night—I can't believe you're not an exhausted mess today! What's your secret? Seriously. I have a billion quizzes next week. If you have a secret energy drink or something, I want in."
The questions sent an angry jolt through Claire. She workedso hardto keep her secrets hidden, and Amy, with all her cheerful and well-intentioned bonding crap, was on the verge of ruining everything. Claire had a sudden urge to snarl at Amy—to startle her into silent submission.
But this wasn't the woods, and Amy wasn't a wolf.
"Yeah." She cleared her throat. "I'm pretty much all about caffeine."
Claire's lupine side lunged inside her, pushing at the cover of her human skin. She was right at the edge of transforming, balanced on a thread-thin line between human and wolf. She stayed motionless as marble, tracking Amy's movements with her eyes, until she was a hundred percent sure she could control herself. Until she knew she could stay human.
With shaking hands she set the bowl of glitter on Emily's bed, her gaze sliding over the bedside lamp. The memory of the epic fight Emily and her mother had when Emily broke it last year swam into Claire's mind. How Emily had come storming over to Claire's house. How, later, they had tried to glue it back together, adding shells and buttons and bits of yarn to hide the places where the ceramic was missing. She could still hear the echo of the two of them laughing so hard over the derangedlooking results that even Emily's mom couldn't stay mad.
Last year. When Claire still thought she was human.
With her wolf self roiling and snapping underneath the tender barrier of her smooth, pink skin, last year seemed untouchably far away.
It tore at her to do it, but Claire knew she had to leave. The stress of being around Amy—with her intense scrutiny and the way she made Claire so achingly jealous of her relationship with Emily—it was too much. Claire could feel her control slipping. She couldn't afford that. The risk to Emily was far too great. After all, if she ever found out what Claire was . . . It was against the laws of the pack to kill humans, except in cases of selfdefense. Killing someone who knew a pack member's identity definitely counted as self-defense, since it was only by keeping themselves hidden that the werewolves stayed alive at all.
The thought of Emily—happy, bouncing, warm-skinned, very alive Emily—being hunted by the pack made Claire's insides tremble. She would do anything to keep that from happening. Including telling a skyscraper-high stack of lies.
Emily stood in the doorway, looking back at her with a confused expression on her face.
"You coming?" she asked. "You're about a zillion miles away."She doesn't even know how true that is.
"C'mon." Emily jerked her head toward the kitchen. "It'spancakes."
Claire wanted those pancakes more than anything. Wanted a normal Sunday morning with Emily—just Emily—when she wasn't endangering her best friend's life. She stood up, wiping her hands on her pants. "I think I'm going to head out, actually. I'm not all that hungry. Lisbeth cooked this morning—you know how that goes."
Emily's mouth opened and then shut again. "But—but how will you get home?"
"I'll run. It's just a couple of miles." Claire shrugged. She tried to keep her face calm, but she was dying to leave before her mask slipped—before Emily guessed just how upset she really was.
"You'll run? God, Claire, you really have changed, haven't you?"
Hearing the question was like touching a live wire—painful and shocking and way too close to the truth.
"Hey, I'm still the same old Claire. I'm just in better shape." Claire fake-smiled, shifting from foot to foot, trying to get her wolf self to shut the hell up for a minute.
"Oh, sure. You had to go and get into somethingathletic." Something wistful drifted across Emily's expression as she fiddled with the door's hinge. "We didn't even talk about KateMarie, though." "Yeah, I know." From the kitchen, the sound of Amy and Mrs. Lucero chatting pricked at Claire's ears. Made her feet itch to get moving. She edged toward the door. Emily noticed and stepped back to let her through. "Soon, okay?"
Emily caught up to Claire as she padded down the stairs. "We should go to The Cloister. We haven't been there since school started, even. The espresso machine is probably twitching from withdrawal."
The mention of the coffee shop on Fourth Street where Claire and Emily had been more regular than the regulars brought a smile to Claire's face. A sad, genuine smile full of years of history and meaningless secrets that she and Emily shared. All those things that had come before. She threw her arms around her oldest friend and squeezed hard enough to make Emily squeak.
"That's a perfect idea. Next weekend, okay? You and me and our old table by the window," Claire whispered.
"Emily? Claire?" Amy's voice called. "Are you guys eating or what? 'Cause I'm starving here."
Emily turned to answer her, and without waiting, Claire slipped out the front door like a shadow and ran off down the street, relishing the stinging chill of the rain on her face. She willed herself not to turn around and check whether Emily was watching. Forced herself to move forward, step after step, until she was too far away to look back.
TUESDAY MORNING, CLAIRE woke from an uneasy sleep and lay in her bed, trying to put her finger on what had woken her. Something was different.
It had stopped raining.
Claire's breath came rushing out in one long whoosh. Tonight, finally, she'd be able to practice. And with her mom extending her stay in New York, it would even be easy to sneak out to do it while Lisbeth slept.
The day dragged, but the afternoon finally faded into evening, and Claire sat in her room, half-doing her homework, rereading the same page in her history book three times without absorbing a word of it. She was itching to get into the forest.
Cracking her back, she stood up and headed to her closet. She had to move—going for a run was the only way she'd be able to stay sane until Lisbeth went to bed. Claire slipped on her shoes and bounced down the stairs.
Lisbeth was curled up on the couch with a cup of tea and a book.
"I'm going for a run," Claire announced. "I'll be back in a little while."
"Are you finished with your homework?" Lisbeth asked.
Claire shifted from foot to foot, aching to feel the rhythm of her feet against the asphalt—four feet against the forest floor would be better, but running in her human form was still better than nothing.
"Not exactly," she said, "but almost. I'll be back in plenty of time."
Lisbeth glanced out the window. "You'd better—it's dark out there.Wear something reflective, okay?"
"I'll put on my white jacket," Claire promised, backing out of the room.
She grabbed the jacket off the hook, and then she was outside, in the chilly, still-damp air. She took a deep breath and started to run.
Five miles out, she finally felt herself start to relax. Her thighs hurt from the pace she'd been keeping, but it was a good hurt. A distracting hurt. From the trees along the side of the road came the quiet sounds of things settling down for the night. It was better than listening to music.
The sound of a car's tires thrumming over the road came up behind her. Claire moved to the side to let the car pass, but instead it slowed, crawling past her and then coming to a halt. The growing darkness and solitude that had seemed so calming a minute before suddenly seemed precarious. Her senses flared as the wolf inside her swam to the surface, her instincts grabbing hold of her. Shaking her. Taking over.
Claire wasn't scared. Not exactly. She was mostly afraid of someone doing something to force her hand, putting her in a situation where she would have to defend herself. She widened her stance, ready to bolt into the woods.
Dr. Engle stuck his head out the window. "Claire? What are you doing out here by yourself?"
A rough-edged relief spread through her. Figuring that the danger she knew was better than the danger that she didn't— and also because it would look weird otherwise—she straightened up and walked a little shakily toward Matthew's dad.
"Just out for a run, Dr. Engle. Is that a new car? It looks really nice," she said. Her voice was a shade too bright. But she was already out of breath from jogging, which would probably be enough to hide her discomfort.
"A loaner," he said. "The brakes are out on the other one. Can I give you a ride home? This stretch of road is too deserted for a girl to be running alone on." As usual, his attempts to be concerned were too patronizing to ring true.
"Don't worry, there are plenty of bushes to hide in if the bad guys come driving up," she joked.
Dr. Engle leaned a fraction farther out the window, peering into the trees beyond Claire. "The woods aren't always safe, either. After last summer, you should know that."
The words froze Claire's blood, and she stood gaping at Dr. Engle. His lips thinned into a satisfied-looking line. She knew that he didn't intend the double meaning she heard in his words. He wouldn't be offering her a ride if he had any suspicions about her being a werewolf, but it still made her shudder.
"Thanks for the offer," she simpered, hoping a stickysweet act would get him off her back. "But I'm not that far from home." She'd been planning to run awhile longer, but she just wanted to get out from under Dr. Engle's probing gaze.
"Well, be careful," he admonished, pulling his head back into the car like a turtle retreating into its shell. "I suppose I'll see you at the house sometime," he called through the window. Slowly, it slid shut, and he drove away.
Claire could practically feel him watching her in the rearview mirror.
She turned and ran back toward her house with the ice from Dr. Engle's comments still chilling her veins.
There was no room for error with him around—he was too vigilant. Too committed.
And much, much too scary. Claire sprinted up the drive with her sweat-dampened shirt slapping against her as she went. Lisbeth was going to freak out about how long she'd been gone, and Claire wanted to have time to shower and shake off her encounter with Dr. Engle before she headed back out into the woods to practice. The minute Lisbeth went to sleep, she promised herself, she'd be out the door.
She opened the back door and stepped inside, wavering the tiniest bit from the weird sort of vertigo that came with stopping after a long run. Lisbeth was waiting for her.
"Forget something?" she asked Claire in her best I'm-thegrownup-here voice.
Claire blinked, looking down at the white jacket she'd put on before she'd left.
"Like, your phone?" Lisbeth held it up and Claire reached for it, as if she could erase the mistake by getting the phone into her hand—as if her fingertips could apologize. She was supposed to take her phone with her when she went for a run.
"Um, sorry?" she offered.
Lisbeth shook her head. "I swear, keeping you safe is like trying to make the rain fall up." She held out the phone. "It's been ringing off the hook. Since I know you're not dead in a ditch somewhere, I'm going to bed."
"Okay." Claire took the phone and checked the screen. Five missed calls. "Good night."
"Come get me if you need anything," Lisbeth sighed, heading for the stairs.
Claire nodded, only half-listening. Her voice mail icon was flashing frantically. All the missed calls were from Emily.
She dialed the number.
Emily answered on the first ring. "Finally! Where have you been?"
"Sorry," Claire apologized. "I went for a run and forgot my phone."
"Again? Seriously, Claire, the phone only works if the battery is charged and you have it with you."
The memory of Dr. Engle's pale eyes peering into the woods shivered over Claire's skin. "Trust me, I know. Is this a bad time? Is it too late?"
"Nah. I'm just trying to make a green glaze to put on this pot that Amy helped me throw yesterday."
Amy's passion for pottery was right up Emily's alley. Nothing artsy held any appeal for Claire, but right then she wished it did. Maybe she should take another crack at sculpture.
"So, what's up? Why all the calls?" She glanced out her bedroom window at the night-covered woods. Just a few minutes and she'd be out there.
Emily took a little, hitching sort of breath. "It's Ryan."
The guy from art class. At least this time Claire remembered. "What about him?"
"So, you know we've been flirting like crazy for days, and I really thought he was on the verge of asking me out. But after the last bell today, I saw him in the parking lot with Lindsay McCracken."
Emily was crying. Claire could hear it. She went into the bathroom and sat down on the edge of the counter, not wanting to lie on the bed in her sweaty clothes. "Okay," she said slowly. "Well, maybe he needed a homework assignment or something."
Emily choked out a little laugh. "Unless she wrote the vocab words on her tonsils, I don't think so. They were steaming up the car windows, and they weren't even in the car."
Claire made a face. "Ew. Ouch."
"Just wait," Emily sniffled. "It gets worse."
Claire looked at the clock. She was dying to get into the forest, but Emily's voice had that just-getting-warmed-up sound to it. Claire stared at the shower, wondering if she could put Emily on speaker while she cleaned herself up.
The choked sob that came from the other end of the phone answered her question. Emily needed her. And not on speakerphone.
"Worse how?" she asked.
"I ran into Yolanda—like, literally ranintoher because I was watching the PDA horrorfest, and she said that Ryan asked Lindsay to the ball today." The last word was more of a wail.
Claire took a deep breath. "Oh. Wow. That sucks."
"I know! I mean, I really, really thought he was going to ask me out, but apparently he's just an outrageous flirt." Emily bawled.
"Well, then, aren't you better off with someone else?" Claire offered.
"Not necessarily. I mean, as a long-term boyfriend, obviously he's not a good choice. But I needsomeoneto take me to the dance, and it would have been nice to have a couple of warm-up dates first. I could have dumped him afterward if he was still playing Prince Charming to half the school. Now what am I going to do?"
"You have time to find another guy to go with." Claire bit one of her cuticles, trying to think through some possible dates for Emily.
"Not really. People are mostly paired up. The posters Amy plastered all over school kicked everybody into date-finding high gear. Isodon't want to go stag, Claire, not when this is the first-ever dance that you're actually going to. Stupid Ryan with his stupid flirting. Hang on." There was a muffled sound as Emily dropped the phone and blew her nose. "Sorry. Anyway, I'm going to end up being that lame-o dateless chick who's hovering by the DJ during all the slow dances. I just freaking know it."
A mix of sympathy and frustration rolled through Claire, sweet-sour as a lemon drop. She wondered if this was how Emily felt all those times she'd gone to a dance while Claire stayed home.
They spent awhile batting around possible date ideas, none of which went very far.
Claire sat up suddenly. "Hey! What about one of Matthew's friends? The whole soccer team can't possibly have dates. I could ask him—see if he could put out some feelers."
"Okay, first of all, don't say 'put out some feelers,' because it sounds squicky. Secondly, I donotwant to be that überdesperate loser friend who needs a mercy date. I havesomedignity left, you know."
Claire squeezed her eyes shut. "I didn't mean it that way. Really. I was just thinking it might be an easy solution is all."
Emily's exhale hissed and rattled in Claire's ear. "I know. I didn't mean to be so edgy. I'm just not used to being in this situation. I swear to you, this is the last time I ever put all my eggs into one potential-date basket."
They talked awhile longer, until finally, Emily quit crying and started to pull herself together.
"Okay," she said. "Maybe you're right. Maybe it's not the end of the world."
"Not even close," Claire assured her. "We'll fix it, I promise. Tomorrow is another day and all that, right?"
"Right," Emily said. "Actually, shit. Today is another day. Oh my God, it's already after midnight. I'm sorry—I didn't mean to keep you up so late."
"It's okay, I didn't have anything else to do," Claire lied. "But you'd better go to bed or you'll be all puffy in the morning."
"You're right. You, too. I mean, not the puffy bit, but the rest of it."
They hung up, and Claire stared through the open bathroom door at the clock on her nightstand.
She hopped off the counter. She'd shower later. If she hurried, really hurried, she'd still have a little time to practice. Claire knelt on the damp ground, focusing on the tiny pile of sticks that lay in front of her. She'd searched the thickest parts of the forest to find branches that weren't completely sodden. She'd made a little circle out of stones and everything. There were dead leaves underneath, for tinder. But the sticks were in exactly the same state they had been an hour ago.
Frustrated, she tossed her head, attempting to get her bangs out of her eyes. She was going to have to get home, and soon.
Claire stared at the little pyre she'd made. One of the leaves fluttered in the breeze, and a shower of leftover raindrops pattered down onto her.
Why couldn't shedothis?
She could hear her mother's voice in the back of her head admonishing her to move inside the wood and leaves with her mind. To bring in a hot little spark, the same way she could hold a feeling of heat in her wolf form when it was cold. Claire groaned in frustration. She'd tried imagining a spark. She'd tried picturing big flames and little flames and freaking house fires' worth of flames. Nothing ever happened. No matter how hard she tried to visualize the branches getting hot enough to light, they never so much as twitched.
She wanted to just reach in there and start rubbing two of the sticks together until they caught. At least she'd be able to say she started a fire without a match. That would almost count, right? Of course, she didn't really know how to start a fire that way, either. She was pretty sure it was something about friction, about the way the edges of the wood rubbed up against each other until they made so much heat, a little spark just sort of appeared between them.
Just then, a sensation she couldn't quite place slipped through her muted human senses, bringing her sharply to attention. It was like she was standing on a boat that had suddenly listed just a bit—a shifting.
Something had changed.
A tendril of smoke drifted up from her pile of kindling, and Claire froze, watching it. The misty gray curl rose into the air like a hot breath, then broke apart and disappeared. Nothing caught fire, but there had been smoke. And that meantsomethinghad happened. A wild little giggle rose in her throat, and she had an insane urge to dance around the clearing.
Because even though something had been holding her back from starting the fires, the smoke scribbled across the sky told her that she might not be an incomplete wolf.
She wished she knew exactly what she'd done differently, so that she could push it further, into actual flames.
She straightened up and cracked her back. The moon had moved farther than she'd expected across the sky. It was so late that it was practically early. She'd come back and try again, but right then, she had to get home. Claire crept up the stairs toward her bedroom. She could hear Lisbeth snoring—all she had to do was slip into her room and pretend that she'd been there all along. She tiptoed over the creaky board in the eighth step and steadied herself against the wall with her fingertips.
She took a deep breath and nearly choked. She reeked of smoke—the smell of success. Her throat was raw with it, and her eyes stung every time she blinked. Miles away, deep in the forest, the stack of dead twigs lay, rigid, like victims of some bizarre crime.
Suddenly, Claire heard the nearly inaudible swish of a door opening, its bottom edge brushing over the thick carpet. She froze. Over the last few months, she had gotten too used to being the hunter. She had forgotten the immobilizing terror of being the prey.
"Claire?" Her mother's voice whispered from down the hall. Claire could barely hear her over Lisbeth's snoring. "Come in here. Now."
What the hell was her mother doing here? She wasn't due home from New York until tomorrow. The tone in Marie's voice was unmistakably punishing.
Damn, am I actually going to be in trouble for this?
She blew out the breath she'd been holding, crept past Lisbeth's door, and headed for her mother's room.
Marie sat on the edge of her bed, looking displeased. Her slender arms crossed over her chest. Even though it was the middle of the night, she looked impeccable, her crow-black hair wound into its usual sleek bun, her clothes smooth, and her makeup unsmudged.
"You're home," Claire said. As soon as the words left her mouth, she wanted to kick herself. It just made her sound guilty.
"As are you. Do you have any idea what time it is?" Her mother's foot jiggled impatiently.
"Um, sort of late?" Claire answered.
"It isverylate." Her mother's voice was clipped.
Claire hung her head, trying to look as submissive as possible. "I was out practicing. It's been raining since you left, and I had to wait until Lisbeth went to bed—"
Her mother's eyes narrowed. "Practicing what?"
Claire bit her lip. She didn't want to lie to her mother, but she really didn't want to admit that she hadn't quite managed to light the fire.
Even if it is only a matter of time. The next time I get to try, it'llbe right there.
"All the stuff for the ceremony. I just want everything to go okay at the new moon."
Her mother's posture relaxed a fraction. "I suppose I can understand that. And I appreciate your commitment to your role. But I still don't like you being in the forest alone so late without anyone knowing where you are. Werewolves are not invincible. You know that as well as anyone."
Her mother's reference to last summer hit home. It all came rushing back—the horrible, panicked anxiety Claire had felt when her mother had been captured—the suddenness of the memory half-drowning her.
"I know we're not invincible. Matthew knew I was going to be in the forest tonight. And I had no idea you were coming home from New York, or I would have told you where I was going too." Her voice had started to rise, and she caught herself—the last thing she needed was to wake Lisbeth.
Marie's expression softened. "Well, it's good to know that you took some precautions. I—I suppose I might have overreacted a bit. I was not expecting to find your room empty, and I—" She hesitated, spots of color appearing high up on her cheekbones. "I suppose I'm not used to worrying about you this way."
Claire scrubbed her sleeve across her tired eyes. It was as close to an apology as she was likely to get. "Okay. Well, I'm glad you're home. I'm going to take a shower."
"Yes. Of course. Good night, then."
Alone in her room, Claire tossed her forest-dirty clothes into the hamper. She was exhausted, which meant that tomorrow was going to suck, but it didn't matter. She wouldn't embarrass herself at the new moon gathering next week, and right then, that was more important than being tired during chem.
Way, way more important. The slam of locker doors and the jostle of a thousand students trying to get to class echoed around Claire. She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against the metal shelf at the top of her own locker, breathing in the musty smell of textbooks and ancient gym socks. Her head throbbed, and she promised herself that no matter what, tonight she'd go to bed early. She was used to getting by on much less sleep than a normal human needed, but she'd had too many late, frustrating nights in the forest.
"You okay?" The warm, low voice spread through her, speeding up her heartbeat and easing the pounding behind her eyes. She peeked over at Matthew, who was leaning against the locker next to hers. His backpack was slung over one shoulder, and his hair was still wet. He looked amazing. As usual. Claire smiled, tilting her face up for a quick good-morning kiss. "I'm fine," she said, "but I'm kind of tired."
Matthew's forehead wrinkled the tiniest bit. "Okay. Why?"
"So, I was, um . . . practicing?" Claire gave the word some weight, letting it hang there, so that Matthew would know what she meant.
"Yeah?" He leaned in close, his eyes looking worried as he scanned the faces of the people walking past them.
She glanced around, wondering what was making him act so weird. It wasn't like anyone could guess what they were talking about. She wouldn't take a risk like that. She couldn't. "I got it to smoke," she said. "On my own and everything." The words were sweet as frosting in her mouth.
"Wow. See? Everything works out."
"Well, I mean, it's not quite—"
The edgy look disappeared from his face, and Matthew turned his full attention to her, interrupting her midthought. "So, please, please tell me that means you'll be free on Friday night?" His eyes glittered.
Claire hesitated. She hated to turn him down when he was looking at her that way. By Friday she should have had plenty of time to do the fire thing again. To make sure that it would work at the gathering.
"I guess so. Why?" Claire grabbed her history book and shoved it into her bag.
"Yolanda's parents are out of town, and she's having a party." He hitched his bag higher up on his shoulder.
Claire bit the inside of her cheek. If Yolanda Adams was having a party, it would be a madhouse. A huge, pulse-pounding, wall-shaking, keg-in-the-kitchen event. Yolanda never met anyone she didn't like, and everyone loved Yolanda. Especially when she was throwing one of her famous "my parents are on another weekend trip" parties.
"Do we have to go? I just—there's a lot on my mind." The words slipped out before Claire could stop them. It wasn't that she didn't have time to go to Yollie's, but with the gathering so close it just felt so trivial, so . . . human. She couldn't really afford that much distraction when she needed to stay focused on the fire lighting that was looming ahead of her. "Maybe we could hang out a little bit, just the two of us? Then I'd still have time to do that, uh, thing I've been working on."
Claire slammed her locker door and looked up at Matthew, waiting for him to say something.
"You could still do . . . whatever, after the party," he said. "And I maybe sort of already promised Yollie we'd be there?" An apology lurked in his eyes, like a fish caught in a net.
"So, I guess we're going to Yolanda's?" she asked.
Matthew reached up and slid a hand through her hair. "C'mon. It'll be fun." He gave her the sort of smoldering look that made her forget her own phone number. "And I promise to completely distract you from everything else. But right now, we're going to be late for class."
With her knees still less than solid, they turned and headed down the hall—Claire's history class was only two doors down from where Matthew had economics.
"So, what time? On Friday, I mean?" she asked.
"Eight-ish? Any later and there won't be any street parking left."
Claire sighed. Everyone really was going to be there.
"We'll have some time soon, just the two of us," Matthew said, stopping in front of his classroom door. "I swear. Triple swear. Take-me-out-in-a-field-and—"
Claire rolled her eyes and smiled at him. "You don't have to take it quite that far. What about Saturday night? My mom has a work thing. You could come over, and we could watch a movie or something."
"Deal." Matthew smiled back and disappeared into econ.
Watching him walk away made Claire's mouth water. She was already looking forward to Saturday.
Claire flopped down at her usual lunch table and waited for Emily. She yanked a soda and a sandwich out of the front pocket of her backpack and opened them, scanning the cafeteria. Matthew was in physics—he had the late lunch. But at least that gave her some time alone with Emily. It was sort of weird, how much less time they'd been spending together since school started. As long as they'd know each other, Emily had been the busy one. The one who constantly had a (constantly changing) boyfriend. The one who was always involved with some project in the art room or tied up with after-school activities. Claire wasn't used to being the one who had to schedule in her best friend.
She craned her neck, checking the soda machines. Emily usually fed her Diet Coke habit before showing up at the lunch table, but she wasn't anywhere to be seen. Claire pulled off the bean sprouts that Lisbeth had tried to hide underneath the cheese, and watched the lunchtime buzz while she waited.
Emily came racing in, winding her way through the tables. She came within millimeters of clipping one of the basketball players with her overloaded messenger bag, which she promptly tossed onto the floor next to Claire.
"Sorry I'm late!" She was breathless and panting, eyeing the line in front of the soda machines. "English was horrible, and then I was talking to Amy about the disaster in the parking lot yesterday. We were making plans for this weekend, and I just totally lost track of the time. Oh my God, I've got to go get a Diet Coke, or I will never everevereversurvive Spanish this afternoon. Be right back!" Emily plunged her hand into her bag, pulled a handful of change out of the front pocket, and sprinted toward the soda machines, cutting in front of some poor freshman who was studying the drinks indecisively.
Amy. So that's who had stalled Emily. Claire was a little surprised to hear that Emily had rehashed the Ryan incident with Amy. She thought the two of them had already sorted it out.
Emily hustled back to the table clutching two Diet Cokes and slid into a chair across from Claire. "Okay. Sorry. God, what a week! I so cannot wait to go to Yolanda's on Friday. And no matter what, Iwillfind a date for the dance there, so help me God. Even if I have to go with a monosyllabic football player or something. You and Matthew are coming, right?" She opened the first can of soda and drank about half of it in a single swallow.
"You're—you're going to Yolanda's?" Claire blinked in confusion. She hadn't known that. Yolanda's parties weren't usually Emily's thing.
"Yeah, I know. They're usually a little bit too jock-beer-fest for me, but Amy really wants to go, and so I thought, what the hell, you know? I need a date, and it's the perfect hunting ground. Plus, I know Matthew's usually more into that stuff, so I figured maybe I could actually spend a Friday night with you for once."
"That sounds great." Claire's sandwich suddenly tasted better. She didn't even mind the stray sprouts. Having Emily at the party would make her feel a lot better about abandoning her practice plans.
"Awesome!" Emily took another swig of her drink. "So, are we still on for coffee Saturday afternoon?" Her eyes were jumping around in a way that made Claire instantly suspicious.
"Yeah, we're still on. Why?" She kept her voice light.
Emily spun the soda can around in her hands. "So, um, the thing is, Amy heard us making plans last weekend, and I sort of ended up inviting her along. Is that okay? She's never been to The Cloister. Can you believe it? And since she heard us talking about it, she's dying to see what it's all about, so . . ."
"No, that's fine. Whatever you want. I'm sure she'll . . . She'll . . . I mean, I can't wait to hear what she thinks of Yolanda's famous parties." Claire bit her tongue to keep herself from saying anything else. She shifted in her seat, trying to shake off the irritation that spread through her like a thorn-covered vine, pricking her ribs as it grew. She knew Amy was Queen of the Nice Girls, but suddenly it seemed like she'd pushed herself into every corner of Claire's life. She couldn't exactly get mad at Emily for changing their plans, though, especially when it sounded like Amy was doing everything in her power to get Emily to bring her along. Claire had been unexpectedly changing plans on Emily for months.
"Thanks." Emily looked relieved. "I really think it'll be fun." The first bell rang, and she shotgunned the rest of her soda. "Caffeine for lunch. Yummmmm."
"Okay, I'm off to the torture that is Spanish class. I'll text you later, and we'll figure out what we're wearing to Yolanda's."
Claire faked a smile. She couldn't care less what she wore to the party. It would be clothes, not fur, and that was all that mattered.
"That sounds great." She stood up and grabbed her bag. "Talk to you later."
Emily waved over her shoulder and swept out of the cafeteria, which had turned into a mass-exodus.
Claire turned and headed for class. A few more days. One lousy party. Then she could get through the new moon gathering and back to normal life.
At least, as normal as a werewolf 's life ever got. That night, Claire was planning to slip off into the woods, but her mother eyed her running clothes with suspicion.
"Are you going for a run or into the forest?" she asked.
"You are ready for the gathering, yes?" she asked.
"Yeah," Claire said, with more confidence than she felt. "I mean, I'm sure it's going to go fine."
She didn't want to see the disappointed look that she knew would appear on her mother's face if she admitted she was having trouble.
"All right. Well, enjoy your exercise."
"Thanks," Claire mumbled, slipping out the door.
She ran the long way into the woods, jogging a couple of miles down the road to a quiet spot where the trees strayed close to the pavement. It was a perfect cover—she'd be able to tell her mother, truthfully, that she'd been for a run, but she could still go make sure that she was ready for the new moon ceremony.
She hurried to the main clearing, the one where they met for the gatherings. It was closer than her practice spot. She stepped into the open space beneath the trees, which was darker than usual since it was lit only by a thin arc of the crescent moon.
Only, she wasn't alone.
"OH! I'M SORRY." Claire froze at the edge of the clearing.
Victoria was sitting on a log, her arms wrapped around her enormous belly. She looked up at Claire. "Don't be sorry. I heard you coming, and you're allowed to be here as much as I am." Her voice was flat, lifeless, and Claire began to worry. Victoria had always been so nice—timid, maybe, a little nervous, but nice.
"Are you okay?" Claire asked.
Victoria shrugged. "I guess. Mostly. I can't sleep anymore—that's why I walked over here. My hips hurt, and I get heartburn and—" She stopped suddenly, looking up at Claire with a miserable smile on her face. "Sorry. There's no way you want to hear about all this pregnancy stuff."
"No, it's fine," Claire protested as sincerely as she could. Shedidn't really want to hear about it, but she didn't want to make Victoria feel any worse than she obviously already did.
"Nah," Victoria said. "It's boring. But it's completely taken over my life, and I can't think about anything else." She sighed. "I feel like I'm barely part of the pack anymore—I can't do half the things I'm supposed to."
"But you'repregnant."Claire protested.
"Exactly!" Victoria huffed. "That's all I am anymore. 'The pregnant one.' I miss being justme.I miss participating." She shook her head. "My mom's so nervous, and now yourmom's nervous. It's like it's a requirement for being the Alpha—that suddenly you have to be paranoid about everything. It feels so awful to watch everyone else run off to hunt while I'm left behind. You must've felt the same way last summer. I can't stand seeing the rest of the pack doing all the things I would be doing if I weren't stuck behind this belly."
Victoria had never been this honest with Claire. Claire lowered herself onto the hard ground and stared over at Victoria. It made her miss Zahlia, being with Victoria, just the two of them. Not the crazy, death-hungry wolf that Zahlia had turned out to be, but the friend that she'd seemed like in the beginning. Claire missed having a wolf friend. Someone she could talk to—really talk to—who knew what it felt like to be in wolf-skin. To change back and forth. To feel the pull of the moon.
"I'm sorry," Victoria said. "I shouldn't be dumping all of this on you. . . ."
"It's okay," Claire said. "I understand. I—" She hesitated. If she was honest with Victoria, Victoria might run straight to Marie, making Claire look like even more of an idiot.
But maybe she wouldn't do that. The possibility of being Victoria's friend glittered in front of her, close enough to touch. Dazzled by the idea, Claire reached out.
"I've been having some trouble, too. I know how it feels to watch the other wolves doing something you know you should be able to do." Her voice was barely more than a whisper. "I haven't lit the ceremonial fire. I tried for weeks and weeks, and I finally made some twigs smoke the other night . . . but that's the only time."
Victoria's mouth fell open. "But everyone can do that."
Claire felt her face crumple like a used tissue.
Victoria caught herself. "Sorry. I—does your mom know?"
Claire stared up at the sky, her eyes going everywhere except to Victoria's shocked, sympathetic gaze. "I didn't want her to be disappointed. And I've been sort of embarrassed about it. I mean, Judith already looks at me like I'm some pigtailed kid who's tagging along for the ride. I didn't exactly want to reinforce that idea, you know?"
Victoria made a scoffing noise. "Judith just has a hard shell. She's been through some difficult things. Last summer didn't exactly make it any better."
"Well, anyway, I don't mind if you know, but you won't say anything, will you?"
Victoria shook her head. "I know what it feels like to be the Alpha's daughter. Everyone expects you to be perfect, and there's always the threat of someone running to your mother." She smiled. "I'll make you a deal. I won't tell your mom about your trouble with the fire if you won't treat me like some sort of delicate flower just 'cause I'm pregnant."
"Deal," Claire said.
"You know, if you want, I could help you with the lighting—give you some tips," Victoria offered. She looked excited for the first time in ages.
"Sure," Claire said, though her palms were damp with selfconsciousness.
"Awesome. Let's find some kindling."
They made a small pile of twigs, and Claire crouched in front of it while Victoria sat back down on the log. Claire focused on the wood in front of her, trying to block out the humming of her nerves and the itchy feeling of Victoria's watching eyes. She tried to remember the sensation of the branches rubbing against one another—the heat that came with it.
But nothing happened.
Victoria waited. Claire felt a fresh bead of sweat form on her brow.
"Maybe"—Victoria paused—"try in your wolf form. It's easier, I think. You don't have to fight through that human layer."
Claire hadn't thought of that. Since she'd have to do it in her human form at the ceremony, that's how she'd been practicing. But Victoria's idea seemed worth a shot, since all the things that she did in her wolf skin had come easily, as though she'd always known how to do them.
She transformed quickly, feeling a little awkward about being unable to communicate with Victoria, who sat patiently in her human form while Claire bent her snout to the twigs. They were more real to her in her wolf form—more complex. Like their matter wasn't as set as it seemed when she was a human.
She reached out with her thoughts, pushing the sticks to light, to burn.
The clearing stayed every bit as dark as it had been. There was no fire.
"I feel you working at it, but something's justoff,"Victoria said. "You have to push them to transform, but the fire's already in there. The way your wolf self 's always inside you, even when no one else can see it. Like this." She narrowed her eyes, and the pile in front of her burst into flame so quickly that it was more like an explosion than an ignition.
Claire made a low noise in her throat to show that she understood. It was the closest she could come to talking. "Transform back," Victoria suggested, "and try again." She stacked up a new pile of small branches while the other fire crackled and died, already using up its meager fuel.
Claire pulled on her smooth-skinned form, slipping quickly into her clothes. "At least that felt different," she said. "It's like I can see what I need to do but I can't quite reach it."
Victoria pursed her lips, thinking. "Maybe I can try with you." She lowered herself to her knees across from Claire. "Okay, just do what I do, step by step." She stared into the tiny pile of tinder. "Look right into the middle. I think it's easier if you keep your eyes open. Focus on putting a layer of fire over the top of it the same way you put a layer of fur over your skin."
For several long moments, the twigs lay cold and dark in front of Claire. Panic rose inside her, ugly and prickly. But then she felt something tug at her, like the wind tugging at the leaves.
And a spark caught.
The sudden light broke her concentration. The crackling of the twigs spread like a whisper through the clearing.
Claire rocked back on her heels, shaken and uncertain. Her eyes met Victoria's across the flames.
"Did I do that, or did you?" she asked.
Victoria's surprised expression mirrored hers. "I really don't know. That was weird. I mean, it was like it sucked the fire out of me or something."
Something inside Claire twisted. "So, that's not how it's supposed to feel?"
Victoria pushed her hair back off her face. "It's not how it feels when I do it, but maybe that means it was you? Or . . . maybe it was because we were both trying?" She stretched. "Ugh. I'm getting knotted up from sitting too long."
Claire's eyes went straight to Victoria's enormous belly, and she suddenly felt ridiculously selfish.
"You've stayed out way too long, and it's all my fault. I'm sorry. You should get home."
Victoria frowned. "I don't want to leave you when it seems like you're so close to being able to do it." She rubbed her hips like she was testing them.
"No, it's fine. I think I get it. Really. Besides, I need to head back before my mom gets suspicious," Claire said, standing up and brushing off her pants.
Victoria waddled over and gave her an awkward, sideways hug. "This was really nice," she said. "Having someone else who knows what it's like to be the Alpha's daughter—it makes me feel a lot better about things."
"Me too," Claire said, returning the hug. "Be care—"
Victoria gave her a sharp look.
"I mean, have fun getting home," Claire finished.
Victoria laughed. "You too."
Claire turned and jogged back through the woods, heading for home and praying that her mother would believe she had just been for a really, really long run.
* * *
Friday night, Claire sat in her room, staring at herself in the mirror and trying to decide if big silver hoops were too fancy for the party. As she got dressed for Yolanda's, she grew more and more excited. She was ready for the new moon gathering, and without that stress, she was dying to see Matthew and Emily.
There was a knock at the bedroom door and Lisbeth poked her head into the room and glanced around.
"Your mother's not in here, is she?"
Claire shook her head. "I have no idea where Mom is."
"Huh. She was looking for you—I figured I'd find you together. Anyway, I'm leaving for the weekend. Mark actually cooked eggplant curry from scratch, and I sort of have to be there to eat with him." She sighed.
"You don't sound all that excited about the eggplant curry." Claire wrinkled her nose.
"'Vegetable' is not a bad word, Claire. Mark just likes to spend alotof time together. I'm not used to it, I guess. I miss hanging out with you." Lisbeth looked at her, the rejected clothes splayed on the carpet, the tube of opened-but-unapplied lip gloss in Claire's hand. "But it doesn't exactly look as though you're going to be sitting home pining for me."
Claire rolled her eyes, ignoring the nostalgia that was inching its way over her. "Just because I'm not 'pining' for you doesn't mean that I forget you exist the second you walk out the door or anything."
"Especially not when I leave you with these as a reminder." Lisbeth opened the door a little wider and revealed a plate full of chocolate heaven. "Triple fudge nut brownies. Can I come in?"
Claire nodded and sat up. She really wanted to finish her makeup in peace, but Lisbeth's brownies were impossible to turn down. Besides, she needed to get ready to go, and Lisbeth was likely to leave her alone a lot sooner if she said yes.
"Is anything special happening at the party tonight?" Lisbeth slid the brownies onto Claire's vanity and pulled one off the stack.
"Just too many people gossiping too much with too many camera phones involved. You know, the usual," Claire said, picking up a brownie and taking a bite of the dense, still-warm chocolate.
"Well," Lisbeth said around the food in her mouth, "if there's ever anything going on—or going to go on—or that you're . . . thinking about, you can come talk to me if you want to. I promise not to freak out."
Claire choked on her brownie. She didn't know whether Lisbeth was talking about drinking or sex or what, but she didn't want to find out.
"Well, I'd better go. Apparently, Dr. Engle's taking some new fancy researcher on a tour of the woods tonight, so I've gotta drive home the long way to get around the news vans."
The words closed around Claire like a cage. Penning her in. Trapping her. The burned-out fires she'd left in the woods blared in her mind like a warning siren.
Lisbeth gave Claire a quick hug. "Mark's probably already wondering where I am. I'll see you on Monday, okay?"
Claire's phone chirped at her, and she picked it up. There was a text message from Emily.
Claire waved, focused on Emily's text, while Lisbeth closed the door. The message started off with OH MY GOD!!!!!!!
Emily liked to text in all caps. She said it gave her messages more excitement.
Claire glanced at the clock. It was a little after seven thirty, which meant the party had probably just started picking up.This should be good.
She opened the message. It said, simply, THE STREET IS ALREADY FULL! WHEN ARE YOU GETTING HERE???
"Is everything okay?" Her mother appeared in the doorway.
"Just Emily. About the party." Caught off guard, Claire put the phone down.
"Ah. You look . . . stressed. Is everything all right?"
Claire hesitated. The two choices hovered in front of her, waiting. She could either tell her mother and deal with the fallout of Marie knowing how much trouble she was having with the fire lighting, or she could sneak off into the woods alone and hope that she didn't get caught by some eager reporter or research-happy lycanthropist.
If researchers are in the woods, I'll hear them coming . . .Ishouldbe able to outrun them.
"Um, yeah. It's fine. Just—Emily's wondering when I'm getting there is all."
Marie nodded, spinning her tea mug thoughtfully in her hands. "Well, I have some work to do. Enjoy your party." She ghosted away from the door, and Claire let out a long, thin breath.
She wasn't at all sure she'd made the right choice.
On the bed behind her, Claire's phone beeped.
Oh, crap. What am I going to tell Emily?
Claire snatched her phone off the bed, ignoring the texts, and dialed Matthew.
"Hey, babe. I was just leaving to come get you. What's up?" He sounded so upbeat and relaxed that it just highlighted how tense Claire was.
"Something came up. I don't have time to explain, but I have to go into the woods for a little while."
He cut in. "So, you're bailing on the party?"
Claire blew out a long breath. "No, but I'm going to be pretty late to Yolanda's. Can you tell everyone that—I dunno—that my mom dragged me to dinner and it ran late or something?"
"Sure," Matthew said, and she wondered if she was imagining the edge of irritation she heard in his voice. "I can do that. What about Emily?" "I'll text her," Claire said, "which I need to go do right this second, 'cause if I'm not downstairs in exactly two minutes, I'm going to be cutting this way too close. Thanks for covering for me. You're the absolute best." It sounded like groveling, but she meant every word.
They hung up, and Claire sent Emily a text saying that she was stuck with her mom but she'd get to the party as soon as she could. She added some smiley faces and exclamation points, hoping that it would keep her desperation from showing, and sent it. She was already halfway down the stairs by the time she got the phone back into her pocket.
After a brief glance toward the basement, Claire slipped out of the house. In the woods, Claire stayed in her human form. It was earlier than she usually went into the forest, and the noises of the daytime animals settling down to sleep made her edgy. She was used to more quiet.
With her ears straining for any sign of reporters, Claire maneuvered her way into the clearing. When she stepped out of the pine trees, the sight of the tiny, blackened pyres made her throat tighten. They looked so ceremonial, the way they were so perfectly centered in the ring of trees. It was horrifyingly obvious that they weren't leftover campfires or lightning-struck patches, and Claire had no doubt that they would have been suspicious of the fires if Dr. Engle and his entourage had stumbled across them.
As quickly as she could, Claire scattered the burned sticks, tossing them into the underbrush. When the charred remains had been dealt with, she got down on her hands and knees and swept her fingers through the pine needles, mixing the ashes into them until it looked as natural as any other tiny clearing in the woods. The whole time she worked, she listened to the sounds of the forest, becoming more comfortable as the familiar night sounds took over. She knew the creak of a branch settling beneath the weight of an owl and could recognize in an instant the patter-swishof a raccoon moving through the bushes.
She sat back on her heels and looked over the clearing one more time. Maybe she should transform, just to see if she'd missed anything. She'd be able to smell any big patches of ash she might have left. Without hesitating, Claire struggled out of her clothes, cursing the hook-and-eye closure of her shirt for slowing her down. She practically ripped the tiny pieces of metal apart, yanked the top over her head, and transformed before the fabric hit the ground.
She stretched out her hearing over the miles of forest, just as a precaution. Since in her true form she had the ability to hear over insanely long distances, she might as well use it. She scanned the forest. Without a specific person to focus on, it was harder to hear than usual. Her senses spun like an oldfashioned radio dial searching for a signal. And then, somewhere off to the southwest, she heard it.
A nasal female voice. "We're already in the trees—I amnothiking through therein the dark just so that you can get a more 'authentic' shot,Jim."Shit. The reporters.
Claire gave a hurried sniff in the direction of the clearing. She could smell one imperfect bit at the far edge, and she hesitated.
It wasn't worth getting caught over.
Claire grabbed her clothes with her mouth and ran through the woods, praying that Dr. Engle and his entourage weren't coming the other way through the forest. She tried to listen—to see if she could hear the scientists—but she couldn't focus enough to hear and run at the same time. It was almost worse than running from something—at least then she'd know for sure where the threat was and which way meant escape. All she could do was run like hell and hope that she made it out.
When the trees thinned enough that she could see a deserted stretch of road, Claire practically whimpered with relief. Only the fear that someone would hear her kept the noise from rattling in her throat. Quickly, she transformed, tugging on her clothes. Claire pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. It was damp from where she'd held it between her teeth—she'd been more afraid of losing it than drooling on it.
It was eight thirty. The party would be in full swing, but she was pretty sure she was only about half a mile from Yolanda's. It was going to be a long walk, though, since she was wearing heeled boots and didn't have a jacket. Still, the party was the best alibi she could have, for Marie and the lycanthropists both. She toyed with the idea of calling Matthew to come get her, but that would be even harder to explain to everyone, and she'd already asked an awful lot of him for one night, anyway.
She smoothed her shirt over her jeans, wrapped her arms around herself, and started to walk. The rhythmic ringing of her boot heels against the pavement sounded too loud against the obsidian silence of the night, and Claire shuddered, chilled by more than just the wind.
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER, Claire stood at the end of Yolanda's driveway. The front door to the house had been left ajar, and a strip of yellow, music-filled light sliced across the lawn like a beacon. Claire edged her way into the party, overwhelmed by the rush of heat and the crush of bodies. The rooms on either side of her were dark. And loud. And crowded. Down the hall was the kitchen, where she glimpsed a dented silver keg sitting in an enormous tub of ice.
She headed in that direction, scanning the faces for Matthew or Emily, nodding to people she recognized and trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell of beer and desperation and excited sweat that filled the house. Yolanda came out of the den, where the flickering blue glow of a gaming system flashed across the faces inside. She spotted Claire and threw her arms around her neck.
"You're here! Oh, I'm so glad. Matthew said you had to do something with your mom. Oh my God, you're freezing! Did you walk here, or what?" Her eyes were sparkling, and her teeth were bright against the smooth, dark skin of her face. This was Yolanda in her element, throwing the best party of the year, flitting from person to person like a butterfly in a roomful of flowers.
Claire untangled herself from Yolanda's hug. "It's just really hot in here, I think. Sorry I couldn't get here sooner. Hey, have you seen Matthew or Emily?"
Yolanda pursed her lips, thinking. "They were in the living room a while ago. You might check there."
"Thanks." Claire wound her way back to the living room, where the pulse of a bass beat shook the pictures on the walls. In the corner next to the stereo, a couple of people with flashlights were joking around, sweeping the beams of light over the group in the middle of the room. One of the glowing strands darted across Matthew's smiling face. Claire took one step forward before realizing that he was dancing with Amy and Emily, the three of them goofing around on the dance floor like they were the oldest friends in the world. None of them were looking over their shoulders. Not looking for her, not worrying about anything. A ripping sensation tore through Claire's chest as she watched the three of them. She should have been the one out there with Emily and Matthew. But it wouldn't be the same. Things wouldn't be that easy if she were with them. Amy could be Emily's friend without hiding anything—without worrying what would happen to Emily. And Matthew didn't have to keep any of Amy's secrets.
Claire took a step back and collided with someone.
"Claire! Hey, you made it!" Doug Kingman slapped her shoulder. "Matthew's in here somewhere. Have you found him yet?"
"He's, uh . . . dancing." Claire nodded in the direction of the dance floor. Maybe if she acted like it was no big deal, it wouldn't be.
Doug shook his head. "That boyseriously can't dance. You need to get over there and save him from himself."
Before Claire could protest, Doug grabbed her elbow and dragged her into the throng of people.
Matthew spotted them coming, and his face lit up. He hurried over to Claire, picking her up and spinning her around.
"Hey, babe. I'm glad you finally made it." His smile was genuine, and so was the kiss he pressed against her mouth.
Amy appeared next to them, smiling, her hair a tumble of sexy-messy curls.
"Hey, Claire. I'm so happy you're here! You missed all the drama—there was anincident,and Matthew and Emily had to rescue me."
"Robert Gorman found his way into the party. He roped Amy into dancing," Matthew explained. "I don't think she really knew what she was getting into."
"Oh. Ew." Claire tried to look sympathetic. "Well, I'm glad Matthew saved you, then."
"Hey! What about me? I was a knight in shining armor too. Or, a princess in shining armor. Whatever. You know what I mean." Emily swayed a little bit at Claire's side. She was drunker than Claire had thought.
Amy rolled her eyes conspiratorially at Claire and shook her head in Emily's direction. She leaned closer to Claire.
"Matthew said you were going to be late because something came up with your mom. That's such a bummer. What happened? Is everything okay?" She was trying so hard to be nice. But keeping Emily safe was hard enough—Claire couldn't imagine spinning enough lies to hide her secrets from another friend.
"Oh. Yeah. Fine. Just, you know, one of those stupid parent things." Claire waved a hand, as though she were only being vague because the details were so boring. She hoped that Amy would take the hint and drop it. She so didn't want to spend the rest of the night ducking Amy's questions about what Claire liked to do in her spare time and avoiding the I'llshare-if-you'll-share sort of confessions that she knew would follow. In another reality she'd probably really like Amy, but her world just wasn't big enough for that. The curiosity in Amy's eyes gave way to hurt, and Claire grew tense, her toes curling against the soles of her shoes. Amy looked over at Emily and said in a half-joking way, "So, she'syourbest friend—is she always this wildly communicative?"
Claire felt a little muscle in her jaw jump as she clamped her teeth together. "It was no big deal, that's all."
Emily looked at Claire and bit her lip. Claire could see it in Emily's eyes—the memory of last year, of all the other years, when Claire would have complained to her in excruciating detail if a Marie-related incident had made her hours late for a party.
Damn. Damn, damn, damn!Claire struggled for a way to rescue the situation—to make Emily forget that she'd even been late. Amy cleared her throat and linked her arm through Emily's.
"Being saved from a potential stalker makes me superthirsty. Come get something to drink with me?"
Emily squinted down at her cup. "Yep. I like that idea."
Claire sighed. At least Emily getting drunk was probably a pretty good way to make her forget about Claire's weird late arrival.
Well, "good" isn't quite the right word for it." Effective," maybe.God, I sound just like my freaking mom. Fantastic.
Amy and Emily wove their way toward the kitchen, and Matthew caught Claire's hand and dragged her back into the crowd of dancers. She wove her fingers through his, trying to shake off the awkward, bad-friend moment.
"C'mon. Let's dance." He pulled her tight against him, his clean, cinnamon-laced smell making her sigh happily.
It only lasted a few seconds.
Someone near the front window yelled, "Cops!"
"Shit. Let's go." Matthew grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the hall.
Claire's heart skipped a beat. Adrenaline flooded her veins, making her want to change. The light in the hallway hit them as she struggled to remain in her human form. Getting arrested would be bad, but transforming would be deadly. She bit down hard on the inside of her cheek, forcing herself to stay smooth skinned.
Around them, the party was half chaotic escape attempts and half drunk-and-ignorant partying. Since Claire and Matthew were sober, it was pretty easy to wind their way through the mess.
"Where are we going?" Claire asked as they broke into a jog.
"Garage." Matthew's face was grim as he pushed open a door and the cold, dank smell of cinder blocks and motor oil washed over them. "I figured this might happen, so I parked two blocks over," he said, his voice echoing a little bit. "We can cut through the backyard if we hurry. The cops never come in right away, 'cause then they have too many people to deal with. They give the people who are mostly sober a minute to make a run for it, and then they just haul in the really drunk ones." He sounded like he'd done this before.
Claire hoped he was right. And she hoped Emily and Amy were getting the hell out of the house too. Once she and Matthew were outside, her senses took over. She heard the whine of the sirens, saw every welcoming hiding place. Faintly, she heard the crunch of hard-soled shoes on the gravel walk at the front of the house.
"They're almost to the front door," she whispered, her pulse thudding in her ears.
"Then we'd better get a move on."
They darted across the lawn in the shadow of an evergreen bush and jumped over the picket fence into a neighbor's yard. Claire turned toward Yolanda's and saw people streaming out the back doors like rabbits scattering, hopping in crazy patterns, hiding in stupid places. She wanted to wait for Emily, to make sure she was okay, but getting caught would mean too much for Matthew. His scholarship hadn't come through yet, and Claire wasn't going to be the one responsible for ruining his chances at UCLA.
Her senses sharpened, begging her to run. Her fingernails itchedto become claws, and the dull edges of her human teeth ached to turnsharp and pointed. Struggling against the pull of transforming, Claireforced herself to look away. She grabbed Matthew's hand, and thetwo of them dashed around the neighbor's house, across a street, andthrough another set of yards. In the last one a golden retriever camearound the corner, and Matthew jumped a mile. The dog's ears wentback,though, when it caught Claire's scent, and with a quiet whine itslinked back around the corner with its tail dragging on the ground.
Submissive, her mind said first.
And then, prey.
The thought went through Claire like an electric charge. A painful shudder rolled over her. She could feel her fur, painful under the confines of her skin. Pushing its way out.
"Oh, shit," she whispered, frantically scanning the yard.
"What?" Matthew hissed.
"I—I—" The words caught in her throat. "Don't look at me! I'm going to change. Just—just leave me alone." She had to find a place to hide, but she didn't want him dragged in by the cops in the process.
"What,now?"A horrified look crossed his face.
She didn't answer him. She couldn't. Claire bolted behind a little barn-shaped storage shed at the far corner of the yard. She wasn't even close to being hidden, but it was the best she could do.
She tossed off her clothes, pressing herself close to the rough wood, willing herself to stay human. The fur crept out along her hands as they cramped themselves into paws. Her nails lengthened into claws.
And that's when she heard the footsteps.
"Claire?" Emily's voice rang out across the yard.
Oh, no. Oh please, no.
"She's—she's not here, Emily."
Claire could hear Matthew step toward Emily, heading her off.
"Is she hiding back there? Are you guys hiding back there?" Emily's words were half-slurred. Claire could tell from the direction of Emily's voice that she was looking at the shed, where Claire stood, caught between her two forms, struggling to get back into her human limbs.
If Emily saw her, there would be no way around the consequences. The pack would kill her best friend, and it would be all Claire's fault. Because she lost control.
That is not going to happen. I am not going to let that happen.She glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could jump the chain-link fence without anyone seeing her.
"No. Claire took off ahead of me. I'm—I'm meeting her, uh, somewhere."
God, he's a terrible liar.Claire licked at her whiskers. She'd never heard him trying to cover for her before, but Emily was bound to see through this. Even if she was drunk.
"Emily?" Amy's voice came from somewhere far off and to the right. "This way! Come on, run!"
"Oh! Sorry, Matthew. Gotta go. Um, good luck." The thud of Emily's footfalls receded into the distance. Claire lay panting behind the shed, the fading rush of adrenaline sending shivers through her limbs. She took a long, whistling breath in through her nose—gaining just enough control over herself to change back into her human form. She did it quickly, yanking on her clothes just as Matthew's head appeared around the corner.
"Damn, that was close." His eyes were wide, and there was a tremor in his voice.
"I know. She almost—" Claire's voice broke, and she sagged against the splintery wood. "You should have left. I told you to leave!"
Matthew's jaw tightened. "She would have seen me anyway. I didn't know what else to do—what else to say." His voice shook. "But she didn't see. You're . . . you again, and she's off hiding in the bushes with Amy."
Claire just shook her head. Emily had been feet—feet—away from finding out exactly what Claire was. And Claire would never be able to live with herself if the pack came after Emily because of something Claire did—because she was so stressed that she hadn't been able to stop herself from transforming.
It was never going to happen again. She would do whatever it took to make sure that Emily stayed safe, even if it meant keeping Emily at arm's length. Just the thought of it made Claire lonely, but it was better than the alternative.
Matthew interrupted her wandering thoughts. "I know it's been a rough few minutes, but we are sort of running from the cops here, remember?"
"Right. Sorry." She could see his car from here. It was parked just on the other side of the bland, two-story house in front of them. They crossed the yard, the crunch of fallen leaves loud under their feet. Matthew hit the button to unlock his car, and they both slid inside.
It was over. They'd made it. Matthew drove them out of the neighborhood, taking a convoluted way around Yolanda's block to avoid the cops.
Shaking from the adrenaline, Claire leaned against the window. A stray wolf hair shimmered on the leg of her jeans, and Claire plucked it off, opening the window just a crack and dropping it into the cold October air. Getting rid of the evidence.
Matthew drove her home. The tension in the car was so thick that Claire could barely breathe. When she got home, Claire hurried upstairs before her mother could see her. She didn't want to explain why she was flushed, and if her mother knew—smelled—that something Claire had done posed a danger to the pack, there would be hell to pay. That was the only time Claire's human side really mattered to Marie—when it endangered the precious, protected bubble of her wolf life. And Claire was never going to let that happen.
There would be no more close calls. Ever. Even if it meant becoming a hermit.
Upstairs, Claire got ready for bed and sent Emily a text, asking her to call or text or something to let Claire know that she was okay. A text seemed safe enough. Normal. Human.
She flipped her phone shut and slipped into bed, where she dreamt restlessly of jealous dogs and ringlet-crowned intruders. And running.
Lots and lots of running.
THE NEXT MORNING, Claire had a text from Emily. It was time-stamped at nearly two thirty in the morning, and from the number of bizarre typos, it looked as though Emily had still been pretty wasted when she sent it. But at least she'd made it home, and she promised to tell Claire the whole "ftory" when they had coffee.
She went downstairs and flipped on the TV. The local news was on, doing some story about adopting shelter puppies. The next segment started with a shot of a nervous-looking reporter standing in the forest. Claire tensed, her fingers curling around the remote control.
"We're here live in the woods on the west side of the city, where visiting lycanthropist Dr. Masaharu Otsuke took a tour early this morning. Dr. Otsuke's visit represents a major coup for the university's research department, whose international funding has dropped sharply in the wake of this summer's failed attempt to cure a local werewolf. Dr. Otsuke will spend the next few days assisting the Federal Human Protection Agency's investigation into the werewolf 's death, which occurred while it was under the care of local lycanthropist Dr. Charles Engle."
Claire leaned against the back of the couch, her teeth clenched.
They cut to footage of the night woods. The glare of the television lights bounced off the tree trunks, making the forest look stark and menacing.
The reporter droned on. "In addition to touring the forest, Dr. Otsuke will be the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by the Rotary club, and a special fun run is scheduled—"
Claire clicked off the TV, a pleased relief spreading through her. There was no mention of anything having been found in the woods. No evidence. Nothing weird. Her secret was safe.
At least, for the moment.
That afternoon, Claire's mom actually let her take the car—again—so that she could meet Emily and Amy at the coffee shop on Fourth Street. She didn't have a ton of time before she had to get ready for her date with Matthew, though, since Emily had texted her and pushed back the time. Twice. Apparently, having a hangover the size of Montana made it pretty hard to get out of the house.
When Claire walked into The Cloister, Emily was already sitting at their usual table in the front window, nursing an enormous latte. There was a long, thin scratch across her right cheek. Her eyes were puffy, and she had the pale, sallow look of someone who's had a rough night. Besides which, Claire could smell her hangover. The poisoned, cheap-beer scent seeped out of Emily's skin.
"Hey." Claire shrugged out of her jacket and dropped it onto the chair across from Emily. "How're you?"
Emily winced. "Not so loud, okay?"
Claire bit back a smile. She hadn't exactly been yelling.
"Let me go get my coffee, and I'll be right back."
Emily nodded, reaching for the cup in front of her.
Claire got her own drink and settled herself at the little table. "I'm so sorry we got separated in all the craziness. What happened to you and Amy?"
Emily snorted. "It's a little tough to remember all of it. I ran and found Matthew, but he was waiting on you, I think. Anyway, Amy was more sober than I was, and she managed to hide us and a couple of other people behind a hot tub in Yolanda's neighbor's yard. The cops walked right by us. We got really, really lucky, 'cause according to what everyone was posting and stuff this morning, they snagged atonof people. What about you and Matthew? You guys found each other and everything?"
Claire could still feel the rough wood of the shed against the palms of her hands. She could still taste the terror that had flowed through her when she transformed. It had been so close. Emily had been so close. The coffee swirled unpleasantly in her stomach, and she resolved yet again to keep Emily out of harm's way.
Claire worked to keep her face casual. "We were both sober—we got separated for a minute, but we found each other. He'd parked a couple of streets away." She shrugged. "We drove home. No big deal."
Emily grunted. "Lucky. Why wasn't he drinking, anyway? I thought the soccer season was over."
"It is, but he's still waiting to hear from UCLA about scholarships. If he gets caught drinking—if he gets in trouble—it could ruin his chances. He's worked so hard that he's not going to screw it up now, you know?"
Behind Emily, the door swung open and Amy walked in. She looked like she was in better shape than Emily was, though her hair was slightly less perfect than usual and there were delicate lavender-colored circles under her eyes.
"Hi, guys." She stared around the coffee shop, taking in the worn and pitted church pews in front of the pastry case, the collection of fancy crosses that lined the walls. Her eyes widened when she spotted the handwritten menu of drinks with names like Liturgical Latte and Antichrist Americano.
"This is wild." She took a deep breath. "Ooooh, and the coffee smells fantastic." Amy wandered over to the counter and returned with a steaming mug that held something frothy and vanilla scented. "Wow. This place is really great. I can't believe I haven't been here before!" She slid into the open seat between Claire and Emily.
"It's good coffee, and they don't care how long you stay," Claire said. "We've been hanging out here since freshman year."
"Really?" Amy looked confused. "I'm surprised I haven't heard Emily mention it more, then."
Claire flinched. "Well, we haven't had as much time to hang out here lately, I guess."
"We hung out here a lot pre-Matthew, is what she means."
Amy shot Emily a meaningful look that made Claire instantly uncomfortable. It was the sort of look that said she and Emily had talked about Claire's lack of Emily-time before. "Yeah, boyfriends can be a huge time suck. Plus, if there's anything, you know,complicatedgoing on, then it's doubly distracting." Amy looked like she'd just pinched Claire and was waiting to see if it had hurt.
Claire rubbed her arm distractedly. Anything complicatedgoing on? What was that supposed to mean? Was Amy trying to convince Emily that there was more behind Claire's disap pearing act than just Matthew? If she was at all suspicious . . .Oh, hell.
Claire cleared her throat. "So, um, other than the cops barging in and hiding behind hot tubs, what did you think of Yolanda's famous party?"
Amy lit up. "Oh my God, it was so fantastic! The music was awesome. And Matthew is so nice, Claire—you're so lucky."
A teasing smile spread across Amy's face as she stared over at Emily. "Ooooh, and guess what? Emily has a date for the Autumn Ball!"
Claire stared over at her best friend. "What? You do? Why didn't you tell me?"
Emily groaned and slouched lower over her cup. "Because it's Randy Steigerson."
Claire felt her mouth fall open. "Ran—wait. Seriously? You're going to the Autumn Ball with Randy Steigerson?" Randy was the editor of the yearbook. He was tall and sort of gangly. And he had a weird habit of leaning too close to whoever he was talking to.
"He was trapped behind the hot tub with us. Like, for hours. And he gave me his jacket when it got cold. . . . I don't know. I'd had an awful lot of beer before we got stuck back there." Emily put her head down on the table. "It's weeks away. Maybe I can get out of it."
"You look sort of green," Amy said.
"The Randy Steigerson reminder sent me over the edge. This coffee's not working. I need greasy food. Like, now."
"Why don't we go to Louie's?" Amy suggested.
"Perfect." Emily picked her head up and looked at Claire. "You in?"
Claire glanced at her cell phone. Matthew was going to be at her house in an hour and a half, and she still had to shower and change before he got there. She wasn't really finished talking to Emily, but maybe she could use her plans to convince Amy that the only complication in her life was a boyfriend obsession.
"Um"—she hesitated—"it's just . . . it's gotten sort of late, and Matthew and I have plans. . . . "
"Can you call him?" Amy asked. "We haven't even told you what happened with Kate-Marie yet!"
Claire bit her lip. "I know, but we already had to reschedule once because of Yolanda's party. . . ." She did her best to look torn yet love struck. "Why don't you two go ahead?"
Emily scowled into her coffee. "Fine. I'm going to the bathroom. I'll be right back, and then we'll go."
Claire watched her best friend walk away, each step driving the sadness and shame deeper into her heart. Each thud of her pulse made it worse. How could it have come to this? She wanted her best friend back—wanted to sit in the familiar coffee shop and have the sort of long, tangentfilled, soul-baring conversations they'd always had. Amy glanced over at Claire. Curiousity and disappointment glimmered in her green eyes.
"It's too bad you can't come with us." Her voice was soft, gentle, but Claire could smell her suspicion.Crap.
"Yeah. Sorry. Maybe I can make it next time," Claire said.
Amy took a long sip of her sweet-smelling drink. "I hope so," she said, turning to face Claire. "I think Emily's awesome. But it's weird, because even though you're her best friend, I know pretty much nothing about you. We should hang out more." Her earnest look startled Claire. There was nothing hidden in Amy's expression—no double-speaking smile, no Morse-code glance.
A year ago, Claire might have given someone the same look. But not anymore. Now she was always triple-checking her expression and weighing everything she said, making sure that a secret didn't slip out between her teeth while she wasn't paying attention.
Before Claire could recover enough to say anything, Emily came out of the bathroom.
"Okay, kids. I need fries. Now."
Claire scooped up her car keys and looked at Emily. Seeing her best friend standing there obviously trying not to look dejected, her defenses weakened. "Call me tomorrow? Maybe we can go shopping or something next week." Claire's voice sounded small. Emily looked over at her, surprised.
"Sure," she said. "Of course."
"Good." The miserable knot in Claire's middle loosened. Maybe it would be okay if they could hang out, just the two of them, away from the stress of Amy and all her suspicions and curiosity and general interfering.
A mischievous smile spread across Amy's face. "Yeah," she chimed in, wrapping her arm around Emily, "you have to find a dress suitable for Randy Steigerson."
Emily groaned and buried her sea-green-tinted face in her hands as Amy dragged her out of The Cloister, shooting Claire a scrutinizing sort of glance as they went.
Claire sagged as the door swung shut behind them. Amy was right about one thing: Claire's life was definitely complicated. After a quick shower followed by a long session of try-thingson-and-pile-the-rejects-on-the-floor, Claire was mostly ready for Matthew. The doorbell rang before she could decide if her ballet flats were too dressy for a movie night.Whatever. Bare feet are sexy, right?
She looked down at her unpainted toenails. Nail polish looked ridiculous on wolf claws, and after one transformation ending in pink-tipped paws, Claire had abandoned pedicures. Better to have plain human feet and look not-insane in her wolf form.
Claire hurried down the stairs and flung open the front door. "Hey." Matthew grinned at her.
"Hey, back," she said. "Come on in."
Since Lisbeth had left hours ago and Marie was off on a shoot, they had the house to themselves.
Up in Claire's bedroom, Matthew flopped down on the bed, rolling onto his back and tucking his hands behind his head.
"So, did Emily make it home okay from Yolanda's last night?"
Claire sat next to him, leaning back against the headboard. "Yeah. Drunk, but okay. Sorry again that I was late to the party. It turns out that your dad took some Japanese researcher into the woods," she said simply. "I—" She hesitated, embarrassed. "I accidentally left some stuff around that I shouldn't have. I had to go fix it, and it's a good thing I did, because some reporters came and everything."
Matthew's mouth fell open. "I'm so sorry! I knew he'd gotten a last-minute meeting with that other researcher, but I had no idea they were going into the woods, I swear. I would have told you—"
Claire held up a hand. "I know. It's not your fault, Matthew."
"What sort of stuff did you have to clean up?"
"Burned things." The memory of the other night sent a tingle through Claire's middle. "From when I was working on how to light the fire the werewolf way."
His eyes darted around the room. "The Matchless Wonder, huh?"
It sounded like he was joking, but he was uncomfortable. She could smell it—an edgy, hungry sort of smell. Like he thought she was bragging. Or like she'd told him something she should have kept secret.
But he's a gardien,she reminded herself. He's allowed toknow this stuff.
"Anyway"—she cleared her throat—"I'd accidentally left the burned-out piles in the woods. I didn't want my mom to find out and be pissed, and I didn't want your dad . . . Well, at least it's fixed now." She fiddled with a loose thread on the edge of one of her pillows. "Maybe when I get it—like, really get it—I can show you."
"Are you supposed to do that?" Doubt swam through his voice.
Claire froze. Her insides had gone all shivery, and not in a good way.
"I mean, you are a secret-keeper," she stammered. "The whole point is that I don't have to hide stuff from you, right? But I guess . . . it is just supposed to be for ceremonies and stuff. Maybe . . . Maybe at a gathering sometime?" Claire said.
"Yeah, sure." Matthew reached out and tucked a strand of Claire's hair behind her ear, a concerned expression on his face.
Claire swallowed hard. He'd seen her in her wolf form before. He'd watched her transform, even. But it had been a long time since he'd witnessed any of that, and all of a sudden, he didn't seem anxious to repeat the experience.
She looked up at Matthew, forcing herself to smile. "Let's just drop it, okay?"
"Sure," he said. "Come on." He stood up and held out a hand to her. "I'm starving. Let's go downstairs and find something to eat."
She reached out and took his hand. The two of them headed for the kitchen, but the feeling of Matthew's warm fingers wrapped around her own wasn't sending the usual rush of sparkling-hot blood through her veins. The longer the little knot of tension held on, the more freaked out she got. She'd never felt this way around Matthew. Ever. If anything, she'd always beentoo relaxed around him—too connected. She didn't understand what was happening. It was like everything had shifted just enough to make it hard to keep her balance. She didn't like this new, slant-floored world, but she wasn't sure how to straighten things out. Matthew headed straight for the fridge, pulling out a pan of lasagna that Lisbeth had made the night before.
"God, I love your house. There's always something amazing to eat."
Claire hopped up onto the counter and perched there. "I think Lisbeth just feels guilty that there's not as much for her to do around here anymore, so she cooks."
"Well, I still love it." Matthew hummed to himself as he slid the pan onto the counter. He moved in front of Claire. "You're blocking the plates."
She hadn't exactly meant to sit in front of that cabinet, but the teasing intensity of the look Matthew gave her made her glad that she had. The tangle inside her melted under his gaze. Gently, he nudged Claire's knees apart and stepped closer, wrapping one arm around her hips and pulling her against him. His lips grazed her neck, tracing a path from just underneath her jaw to the top of her collarbone. She wrapped her arms around him as his mouth met hers with the sort of burning kiss that sent electric tingles through her every time.
"What about the lasagna?" she managed to whisper.
"Screw the lasagna." She wrapped her legs around him, and he lifted her off the counter. "Couch." He kissed her. "Now."
She laughed as he carried her to the den and dumped her unceremoniously on the deep, fluffy couch. She stretched out on the welcoming cushions, and Matthew lay down next to her, picking up exactly where he'd left off in the kitchen. Sometime later, Claire heard the faraway crunch of tires against gravel. She pulled away from Matthew, tugging down her shirt and sending up a tiny prayer of thanks that her mother had never paved the driveway. Matthew sat up blinking at her as she smoothed her hair. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Did I do something?"
Claire reached behind herself and flipped on the sidetable lamp. "My mom's home," she said, turning on the TV and searching for something she and Matthew could believably have been watching.
Matthew cocked his head, listening hard. "Are you sure?"
Claire raised an eyebrow at him. "Your hair is sticking up."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the unmistakable sound of the garage door opening rumbled through the house.
Matthew swiped at his hair. "I may never get used to your supersonic hearing." He grabbed a throw pillow that had fallen onto the floor and shoved it behind his back. "Right. So. What are we watching?"
There was a clank and a thud in the kitchen.
"Hello?" Claire's mom sounded tired. And vaguely grumpy.
"In here," Claire called back.
Marie poked her head around the corner. Her face was paler than usual, the contours of her cheekbones painfully sharp underneath her skin. She smiled when she saw Matthew, though Claire noticed her nostrils flaring ever so slightly. Claire willed herself not to blush. Other people only had to worry about not looking guilty when they got caught making out. Claire had to worry about smelling guilty, too.
"How was the shoot?" Claire asked. Talking about photography was the only sure way to distract her mother.
"Miserable." Marie pursed her lips. "They could hardly afford me, so the rest of their budget was nonexistent. The space was terrible, and the lighting was worse." She closed her eyes briefly.
"You okay?" Claire asked, concerned.
"Just tired and hungry. I noticed there's some lasagna on the counter. Have you eaten?"
"Um, not yet," Matthew admitted, a pink flush creeping into his cheeks.
"Well"—Marie cleared her throat—"Why don't you join me, then?"
Claire opened her mouth to say no, but Matthew, who was clearly experiencing some sort of embarrassment-induced insanity, leapt in first.
"Sure," he said. "I'm starved."
"Wonderful." Marie smiled. "I'll get the plates." The three of them sat in front of identical dishes of scaldinghot lasagna, the noodles hard at the edges from being microwaved too long. With the tines of her fork, Claire toyed with the fossilized cheese at the edge of the plate. No wonder her mother never cooked—she couldn't even heat things up without ruining them. Lisbeth's job was safe forever.
Marie eyed Matthew in a way that made Claire's stomach flutter to the ground. There was a thoughtful crease between her mother's eyebrows that Claire didn't like at all. "You know, Matthew, it has been some time since you've been to a gathering. Perhaps we should make arrangements for you to attend the special ceremony we have planned for Claire."
A needle of panic pierced Claire, making her bolt upright in her seat. Matthew was already being weird about the pack stuff, and now her mother—her Alpha—was inviting Matthew to the new moon gathering? To watch her demonstrate her abilities?
"Oh, I wouldn't want to—I mean, I'd probably just be in the way." Matthew was gripping his fork so tightly that his knuckles had turned white.
Claire froze. There was no way she could complete the test if he was there freaking out while he watched her transform. Not to mention the hunt.
Oh, holy crap. I cannot let him see that. It will totally push himover the edge.
Marie spoke carefully, her voice carrying a note of command. "You won't be in the way. Quite the opposite—you're important to the pack, and I'm looking forward to seeing you there."
The words sent a shudder through Claire.
Matthew glanced over at her. "You okay?"
She forced herself to smile. "Yeah. Sure. Just not that hungry after all."
"How can you not be hungry for this—" Matthew's focus drifted over her head, and his face paled. "Oh my God, is it really eleven o'clock?" He picked up his half-empty plate and carried it over to the sink.
"I've got to get home or I'll be in serious trouble." He turned to Marie. "Thanks for dinner and all."
Marie waved her hand dismissively. "It was Lisbeth's doing. I'm glad you were here, though. It's good we had a chance to talk."
Matthew turned to Claire. "Walk me out?"
She slid off her seat, carefully avoiding her mother's toocurious gaze, and followed Matthew to the front door. He grabbed his coat from the little chair where he'd tossed it and shrugged it on. When she wrapped her arms around him, she breathed in a whiff of his warm skin mixed with clean wool and the faintest hint of woodsmoke—an autumn version of the Matthew scent she knew and loved. He didn't lean into her embrace, though. Claire noticed it and stepped back.
Matthew edged toward the door. "I'll call you, okay?"
"Absolutely." With a last, lightning-quick kiss, he headed for the driveway. The icy air that swirled in behind Matthew chilled Claire, but the sudden distance that had appeared between them froze her to the bone.
She had to find a way to rescind her mother's invitation. And she had exactly forty-eight hours to do it.
"WELL, CHÉRIE, YOU'RE the one who talked with him about the new moon gathering." Marie stacked the rest of the dishes in the sink. "And he is a gardien.It makes sense for a secret-keeper to stay reasonably well-connected to the pack. Strong bonds make for strong loyalties, after all."
Claire crossed her arms in front of her.
"Yeah, but he and I were just talkingabout it. Inviting him to the gathering to see me change and stuff without even checking with me is not okay!" Though, to be honest, she was starting to think that she'd made a massive mistake when she told him about the gathering in the first place.
"I don't want him there while the pack is watching me— just me—like that."
It wasn't exactly true. But she wasn't going to throw Matthew under the bus by telling her mother thathedidn't seem to want to be there.
Her mother turned to her. "He is part of the pack, Claire. Being a gardien,a secret-keeper, ties him to us. It is not wrong for him to be there."
Claire scrubbed at her eyes, frustrated. "I know that! I mean . . . it's just sort of complicated."
Marie stepped closer to her, cupping the back of Claire's neck in her hand.
"It will always be complicated, chérie.That is the nature of being what we are."
Claire narrowed her eyes and ducked out from underneath her mother's hand. Marie might be right, but Claire wasn't going to admit it. She stalked over to the stairs, looking back at her mother.
"He's not coming. I won't do it. I'll stand there and not do a single thing if he's at that gathering."
Her mother's nose twitched—an unhappy warning about Claire's commanding tone. She stared hard at Claire, the dominance of her position as Claire's Alpha and mother obvious in her eyes.
"You will absolutely perform as you are commanded. If you choose to disobey me, there will be extremely serious con sequences. Matthew will attend, and you will find some manner in which to cope with your feelings." Marie's language got really stilted, which meant she was about three words away from slipping into French. She was seriously angry. She turned away from Claire, dismissing her.
Claire drew in a deep breath, stomped up to her room, and threw herself onto her bed. She stared up at the ceiling. The unfairness of her situation swirled around her like a fog, clouding her thoughts.
I could lie. Tell Matthew that he wasn't allowed to come after alland tell the pack that he got sick or something.
Claire wasn't above lying. She wasn't even uncomfortable with it anymore—not after months of living a life that was halftrue at best. But she knew that if her mother ever found out, there would be hell to pay, in a very literal sense. And of course, she'd never lied to Matthew. Not about anything that counted, at least, and deep down she knew she couldn't start now.
She rolled onto her stomach and pulled the pillows over her head. All she wanted was to keep Matthew home, where he belonged, far away from the dead-eyed gaze of the new moon. Monday morning, Claire stood at her locker, shoving the binders and books she needed into her bag.
A pair of familiar-smelling hands—freesia lotion and watercolor residue—snaked over Claire's shoulders and covered her eyes.
"Hi, Emily." Claire spun around to face her. Emily's mouth was smiling, but there was something stiff and unhappy in her eyes.
"Wow. You sound cranky," Emily said. "And you never called me yesterday. What's the story with that, huh?"
Claire took a deep breath. True, she hadn't called Emily. But she'd been so worried about Matthew and the gathering, and then she'd gotten distracted with her homework—besides, she was the one who'd asked Emily to callher.
"Sorry," she said. "I was studying for my chem test."
Emily made a face. "Ew. Why? It's not until tomorrow. I thought maybe we could study together tonight."
With the gathering scheduled for late that night, there was no way Claire could make plans with Emily. Claire's mouth went dry as she searched for an excuse. "Um, I can't tonight. I have . . . Mom has a work thing, and I have to go help her with it."
It was such a thin lie that it was practically see-through.
A disbelieving crinkle appeared between Emily's eyebrows, and the little jingle that Claire's nerves had been playing all morning turned into a full-blown orchestral score. Today was not a day she could afford to screw up, and she was already making a mess of it. Lying practically counted as a werewolf ability.
She was failing before the gathering had even started. "You've been helping your mom an awful lot lately. Marie's never exactly been a TV-perfect sort of mother—why so much togetherness all of a sudden?" Emily asked.
Claire shrugged. "I think she wants me to follow in her footsteps or something. But you know I can't take pictures for crap. Can I come over on Wednesday?" she asked, changing the subject.
The crinkle disappeared, and Emily's eyes lit up. It made Claire feel so much better, seeing Emily so happy.
"Absolutely! Anything special you had in mind?"
"Yep." Claire nodded. "It's only a few weeks until the Autumn Ball. Since I've never been to a dance, I need to start thinking about a dress, and you know I'm no good at making these sort of decisions without you. I want to make a game plan before I start the misery of trying things on."
Emily let out a little squeak. "Yay! Of course!" She was practically bouncing. "You know, it's almost worth going with Randy—at least you and I will finally be at a dance together!"
The warning bell rang.
"I've got to get to history," Claire said. "See you at lunch?"
"Absolutely!" Emily turned and disappeared into the hurrying crowd.
Claire watched her go, dying for it to be Wednesday. For the gathering to be over and to be able to just do nothing with Emily.
As the day wore on, Claire got twitchier. Edgier. She tried to focus on the shopping websites Emily talked about at lunch, but she couldn't concentrate. She needed to think through everything she had to do one more time. How to light the fires. Transforming. Leading the hunt.
At least she had the long-distance hearing. Not all wolves could do that, and it would probably impress Judith and Katherine. At least, a little bit.
Between classes, she looked for Matthew in the halls. She finally saw him ducking into physics, just before the bell rang. He flashed her a smile like sunlight, but she barely had time to return it before she dashed to Spanish. Disappointment rumbled through her. It was the last chance she'd have to see him before the gathering. She wished they'd been able to talk—it would have been nice to hear him say he was excited or proud orsomething.
After her last class, Claire made it back to her locker and spun the lock, more than ready to escape school. Lisbeth was supposed to pick her up, and Claire wasn't even dreading the New Agey music that Lisbeth played in the car. She just wanted out of the hallway chaos.
But she hesitated before she pulled open the locker door. For years she'd watched other girls open their lockers and find flowers or balloons or tight-folded notes inside—wishing them luck on something or another. Kate-Marie's locker looked like a gift shop half the time. It was the sort of thing that Claire had always been jealous of—that kind of obvious attention. And it was exactly the type of thing she thought Matthew might do, especially since they hadn't had a chance to talk.
A hopping little anticipation started in Claire's middle, and slowly she pulled open the locker door.
And saw nothing. Just books, and a stray sweater shoved onto the shelf. No half-wilted carnation, no card. Not even a "good luck" scrawled on a piece of notebook paper. Claire sagged under the surprising weight of her disappointment. She grabbed her books, slammed the door shut, and practically ran for the parking lot.
"You okay?" Lisbeth frowned as Claire threw herself into the car and swung the door closed with more force than was necessary.
"Yeah. Fine." Claire slouched down in the seat and closed her eyes. "I'm just ready for it to be Tuesday."
Lisbeth put the car in gear and headed for the exit. "I can still tell that something's bugging you. You can talk to me about it, you know. I don't bite."
That was probably true. If Claire actually told Lisbeth about all the things that were bothering her, Lisbeth would be too busy running shrieking in the other direction to bite anyone.
"I'm stressed about my chem test tomorrow." It wasn't a lie, and it would probably get Lisbeth off her back.
"Oh. Well, at least you have a whole night ahead of you to study, right?" Lisbeth's voice was so perky-bright that it made Claire want to scream. Instead, she nodded.
Once they were home, Claire escaped to her room while Lisbeth tackled a mountain of laundry. Claire tried everything she could think of to calm herself down—listening to music, watching bad TV, reading her English assignment. Nothing worked. The minutes ticked by at an annoyingly steady pace. She resorted to pacing the room.
She was on the verge of going to ask Lisbeth to teach her some sort of magical yogic breathing, figuring she could blame it on pre-chem-test stress, when her mom appeared in the doorway.
"You look tense."
"Hi to you, too," Claire snapped. Of course she was tense.
"You have no reason to be worried." Her mother's voice was softer than a whisper—a vibration on the air. "You know how to do everything—more than everything, with your extra hearing abilities."
Claire tried not to dwell on the fact that that wasn't entirely true. She'd come really, really close to starting the fire, but that was far from a guarantee that she'd be successful enough to lead the hunt that night. Especially with her boyfriend staring at her while she tried.
"But everyone will be there. Watching." She eyed her mother resentfully. "Matthew, too." "You are my daughter." Her mother's voice was no louder than before, but it had a razor edge that cut Claire to the quick. "You are stronger than your nerves, and I expect you to be flawless tonight. Because I know you can be."
Her mother shot her a pointed look. "I will meet you downstairs at eleven thirty. That way, we will have plenty of time before the others arrive. I suggest you try to get some rest."
Marie turned and disappeared down the hall.
Claire walked over to the door, closed it, and resumed her pacing.
By the time eleven thirty rolled around, Claire had practically worn a bald patch in her carpet. With her nerves chattering, she threw on some old sweats and skittered down the stairs to meet her mom. Lisbeth had left hours before, after giving Claire a hug and a pep talk on the benefits of knowing how to balance a chemical equation. Claire and her mom had the house to themselves, but Claire still found herself moving quietly. She'd done so much sneaking in and out of the house over the summer that it had become a habit.
Her mother was waiting in the kitchen, dressed in hightech light-but-warm running gear.
"Ready to go?" her mother asked.
Claire hesitated. What she really wanted was to have a few minutes alone in the woods before she had to face the judging eyes of the pack. She looked at her mother and shook her head.
"You go. I'll be right behind you."
Marie gave her an appraising look, but there was no disappointment or suspicion in it. In fact, she looked almost understanding.
"Fine. Don't be long, though, chérie.This is not a night to be late."
"I won't be." Claire crossed her arms, wrapping her hands tight around her ribs. She watched her mother slip out the back door and glide across the dark lawn, a shadow among shadows, all but invisible.
After giving her mother a few minutes' head start, Claire stepped out into the frosty night air. It was mid-October— soon they'd be starting the steep slide into the long, frigid winter. Overhead, the stars spit and sputtered in between a few wispy clouds, and there was a hole in the sky where the new moon hung, black and cold.
Claire stepped away from the house and faced the almost leafless arms of the woods. Her heart crashed against her ribs. This was it. Her night to prove herself as a wolf. She squared her shoulders and hurried across the grass toward the waiting trees.
Once she stepped through the ragged opening in the brick wall that ringed their property, once she smelled the dying-leaf scent of the forest, everything changed. The swirling chaos of nerves she'd been dealing with all day became a focused determination. This was where she belonged.
She took a deep breath and ran off through the trees, following the path around the underbrush, over the fallen pines. In the distance she could just see the clearing. Without the fire, it would be invisible to a human eye, but Claire could see the starlight that penetrated the now sparsely leafed canopy.
As she stepped into the clearing, Claire's attention went straight to the flat, empty circle in the middle. The place where the fire would be. There was a small pile of branches stacked haphazardly off to one side.
"I started collecting the wood for you," her mother said, emerging from the trees on the far side with her arms full of kindling. She passed the awkward bundle to Claire.
"You might as well begin building it. The others will be here soon."
"Yeah. Okay." Claire arranged the branches the way she'd seen her mother do it before, creating a perfect little pyramid of wood. Behind her, there was acrunch-swishof footsteps against the forest floor.
Beatrice stepped out of the woods, her white hair gleaming. She turned toward Claire's mother, baring the side of her neck.
"Marie, I greet you."
"As I greet you, Beatrice." Her mother nodded solemnly.
Beatrice turned to Claire, her face cracking into a wrinkled web as she smiled.
"Claire! I greet you," she said, reaching out a gnarled hand to help Claire to her feet. "I greet you, Beatrice." Claire got to her feet. "Where's Victoria?"
"Here I am." Victoria bumbled out of the woods, her belly even larger than it had been the last time Claire saw her. "Marie, I greet you," she huffed.
"And I greet you, Victoria." Marie bit back a smile.
Claire greeted her, trying not to stare at her swollen middle.
Victoria hugged her. "Do not ask me about the baby," she whispered into Claire's ear.
"I wasn't going to. I'm too nervous," Claire whispered back.
"Good. But don't be. Now let me sit down." Victoria lowered herself awkwardly onto the ground.
Beatrice dragged Claire over to one side of the clearing while Marie and Victoria talked about the baby.
"I want to give you something," she said quietly, reaching into her pocket. She pulled out a square of cloth, unfolding it carefully. In the middle was a necklace. A perfect black circle of onyx with a tiny diamond set in its center hung from a delicate silver chain.
Claire's mouth dropped open. It was gorgeous.
"My mother gave it to me at my new moon gathering. To remind me that my power was there even when I couldn't see it." Beatrice pointed a twisted finger at the sky. "Just like the moon. That's why we do the gathering during the new moon, you know." "I—I didn't know," Claire stammered. She felt her cheeks flushing with heat despite the kiss of the cold air. "I can't take that, Beatrice—I mean, it's beautiful. And it's so nice of you, but it's too much. And shouldn't Victoria—"
"Nonsense." Beatrice pressed the necklace into Claire's hand. "I gave Victoria a gift for her new moon gathering, but now I'm giving this to you. I'd love to see you wear it. And when you succeed tonight, it'll make me feel like I had a little part in it."
Claire closed her fingers around the pendant and threw her arms around Beatrice. "Thank you. I love it."
"Good." Beatrice squeezed her tight.
"Claire?" Her mother called. "The others are here."
Claire reached up and fastened the delicate chain around her neck before she turned to greet Judith and Katherine. Judith was eyeing her as though she were a piece of fruit that wasn't quite ripe, but Katherine was smiling at her in an encouraging way. Like she was a puppy at a dog show. Claire swallowed hard and made herself greet them confidently. Still, the reminder that not everyone believed in her the way Beatrice did sent a shiver of doubt through her, like a crack in a pane of glass.
Before she was forced to start making small talk, Claire heard something crashing through the underbrush. The flicker of a flashlight beam splintered the darkness of the woods, and the breeze brought Matthew's scent into the clearing. The other wolves stiffened, and Claire felt herself tense along with them. She'd never understood their hesitation before—had never gotten why a gardienwould cause that sort of reaction.
But she could see it on their faces. It didn't matter that he'd been invited. It didn't matter that he knew their secret, that he kept it willingly.
He was human. And anything human in the woods was dangerous to them.
Matthew finally broke through the edge of the trees, his eyes going straight to Marie. "I'm not late, am I?" he asked. Worry shimmered across his face.
Marie stepped forward, wrapping an arm around him and pulling him into the middle of the clearing.
"Not at all. We were just getting ready to begin."
Marie steered him over to the edge of the circle and sat him next to Victoria and Beatrice. Judith and Katherine arranged themselves across from the trio, putting as much space between Matthew and themselves as they could. Claire ended up between Matthew and Judith. Her mother stood across from her, staring over the pile of wood. Matthew shrank into himself, barely even glancing at the other wolves. It was so obvious that he didn't want to be there. There might as well have been a neon sign buzzing over his head saying DESPERATE TO LEAVE.
Claire bit down on the inside of her cheek and forced herself not to stare at him. Marie raised her arms over her head, and the group fell silent. She lowered her arms and stood in the darkness. With her shoulders square and her chin high, she began to speak.
"Welcome, all of you. Tonight we gather to witness the abilities of our newly transformed wolf. We will support her, but we will not assist her." She looked deeply, unflinchingly into Claire's eyes—a show of her status. Claire tore her gaze away, focusing instead on the waiting pyre.
She took a step back and motioned Claire closer to the pile of branches. "The first step in our ceremonies is the lighting of the fire. It connects us—spiritually and viscerally—to our ancestresses, and through them to the Goddess herself. The fire that comes from us, through our will, shows all who watch that we are part of the unbroken chain of werewolves that travels back to a time before memory. Their power gives us power—and the fire is the symbol of that strength."
Even in the darkness, Marie's eyes were luminous as she turned to Claire—like the spark of fire inside her shone so brightly that it was visible.
"Claire, you may begin."
Claire opened her mouth to say thanks, but the words caught in her throat.
She knelt, the ground cold and unforgiving beneath her knees. The stack of firewood was much larger than anything she'd lit before. It loomed in front of her, as if the ghosts of a thousand werewolves were staring down at her from the top.
Maybe I should have practiced on bigger branches.
Trying to stay calm, Claire picked two small twigs near the bottom of the pile, whose tips just touched. She took a deep breath, which was a huge mistake.
The smells in the clearing intensified in a blink-short moment. Support and excitement and doubt and nerves swirled together, choking Claire.
She could smell Matthew sitting across the clearing. His own scent, the maleness of it, strange in the protected clearing. It tugged at her attention, making it hard to concentrate.
"Claire?" Her mother prompted.
"Sorry." Claire turned her attention back to the twigs, focusing hard on the point where they came together. Seeing the molecules getting hot. She tried to give herself over and feel the same pulling sensation she'd had the night she practiced with Victoria.
She closed her eyes, trying to block out everything except the twigs. Matthew shifted, and the sound of his jeans scraping against the ground, the catch in his breath, drowned out Claire's own thoughts. She turned away from him and tried again.
She shook her head, her heart pounding harder with each second that passed.
She tried again, willing the flames to come. Behind her,she heard Judith clear her throat impatiently. After several painful minutes, Claire looked up at her mother's shocked face.
"Can I transform? I think . . . maybe I can do it in my wolf form."
Marie shook her head slowly. Her eyes were wide. Horrified. "You must be able to do it in your human form. That is how the ceremonies begin. You—you cannot do this?" she whispered.
Claire slumped miserably in front of the branches.
"I've made smoke," she said. "I'm just . . . I'm nervous. Sorry."
"You'll get it," Katherine said in a too-chipper voice.
Marie shot her a silencing look. "All wolves can do this. All wolves have to be able to do this." Her voice was filled with an embarrassed rage that made Claire want to sink into the ground.
"Marie," Victoria said carefully, "she's trying. None of us are perfect, at the beginning."
Having someone speak up for her made Claire feel a tiny bit better.
But not much. Her cheeks still burned with shame.
"This is not about perfection." Marie was practically shaking. "This about doing the basic things we can all do. Victoria, I want you to take Matthew home, now." She turned to Matthew. "I am sorry. As you can see, we have some unexpected pack business to attend to. Victoria will make sure you get home safely."
Victoria made a disappointed noise. "If there is pack business, I want to be part of it."
"Matthew needs an escort, and I have selected you." Marie's voice was crackling with barely contained emotion. "I am your Alpha, and I am telling you to take him."
Victoria struggled to her feet, anger glowing in her cheeks. "Come on, Matthew. We've got to go."
Matthew stood up, looking like he wanted to say something but also like he wanted to bolt out of the clearing. He shot Claire an apologetic glance that made Claire's insides shrivel into dust. She had never been so embarrassed in her whole life.
"I'll see you," he said awkwardly, turning to follow Victoria.
"This way," Victoria said, steering him into the woods.
Claire and the rest of the pack watched them go. She was never going to get over this. She'd humiliated herself in front of Matthew and the pack. Leading the hunt was a lost dream.
When their footsteps faded, Marie turned to Claire. "Why did you not tell me you were struggling?"
"But I thought I could do it! I made the smoke before, and maybe sort of lit it another time. I just . . . It was hard to focus," Claire protested.
Marie looked over at Beatrice. Claire's mother had a look of uncertainty on her face, a hesitation that Claire wasn't used to seeing there.
"Is there any way around this?" she asked. "The consequences are so serious . . ." Marie's voice faltered. Beatrice frowned, the wrinkles in her forehead deepening. "She must be able to do it." She looked sympathetically at Claire.
"I know." Marie closed her eyes, thinking, and then turned back to Claire. "The best I can do without violating out laws is to give you a bit more time. The naming of Victoria's baby will take place the night after she is born. Smoke is not good enough—nor, unfortunately, is your word. You will have until then to master this skill and perform it without error, or I will be unable to keep you from suffering the repercussions."
Claire's mouth went dry. "What happens if I can't do it? If I fail?" The words came out in a croak.
"You are not to fail." Marie pressed her lips together. They were white as snow.
"But what happens if I do?" Claire dug her fingernails into the dirt, steadying herself.
"Then you would be considered an incomplete wolf, unable to do the things that are part of a werewolf 's nature. And we would have to"—Marie looked as though she were gagging on the words—"mark you as one."
The panic that swept through Claire was so cold that it numbed her and burned her at the same time.
"Mark me how?" Claire's voice was barely louder than a breath.
Judith leaned forward, her eyes bone hard and blood dark. "The top of your left ear. We cut it off. That way, any pack— any wolf—who sees you knows immediately that they're looking at a werewolf without the right skills. A mongrel who can't be allowed to help make decisions or participate in the pack the way a normal wolf can."
The edges of Claire's vision went fuzzy, and her hand automatically went to her left ear, covering it. Protecting it. The twisted expressions on Katherine's and Beatrice's faces made it clear that this wasn't some sort of nice, neat operation that would involve anesthesia and pain meds—that it would be as vicious and brutal as Claire could imagine.
"But—but you wouldn't have to. I mean, couldn't you . . . ," she stammered, still holding the side of her head. Not believing that they'd really go through with it. Not her own mother. Not her own pack.
Judith's voice was smooth and rigid as steel. "It's part of our laws, Claire. Enforcing them is your mother's responsibility. If she doesn't do it, the pack will. I will. If another pack—even aseule—found out that we'd broken the laws just to protect an Alpha's daughter, they'd have no respect for us. We'd be targeted. Possibly even attacked. Our territory, these woods, would be considered up for grabs." She hesitated, regret fluttering across her face. "I wouldn't do it because I want to hurt you, but because there are so many threats to our pack, and they don't all come from the human world. Making exceptions weakens us."
Marie interrupted her, the crease between her eyebrows and the lines on the sides of her mouth deepening as she spoke. "Judith is right. As much as I wish things were different, everything she has said is true." She took a step closer to Claire, lowering her voice. "All you have to do is light the fire, and you will be a Beta wolf, like the rest. Whole. Able to hunt, able to advance in the pack, someday." Marie blinked rapidly, and Claire realized that she was actually crying.
Oh, holy . . . they're going to cut off my ear. If I can't do it,they'll actually cut off my freakingear.
Claire felt herself sway.
"What about the rest of the ceremony?" she managed to ask.
"You don't look like you're in any condition to continue," Marie said, her face smoothing as she gained control of herself, "and since we're postponing the fire lighting, I don't see why we can't do the rest later as well."
"I think that's a good idea," Beatrice offered, her kind voice wrapping around Claire like a bandage.
"Then you may go," Marie said, dismissing the other wolves with a wave. "We will not gather again until the next full moon. Unless, of course, Victoria has the baby sooner than I anticipate."
Claire shuddered. There was no way to know how long she had. She was going to have to master the fire lighting, no matter what. No more late-night phone calls with Emily. No more parties or soccer matches getting in the way. Not when the consequences for failing were so severe.
Leaving the other wolves behind, Claire and her mother walked back through the forest together, headed home.
"I am not planning to harp on tonight's failures," her mother said quietly.
Claire waited, her feet moving mechanically along the path.
"But do noteverkeep a secret like that from me again. If I had known you were struggling, I might have been able to do something to help you. But now that the pack knows, now that it has been set in motion, my hands are tied."
Claire gritted her teeth.
She means that Judith is tying her hands—and taking my ear, if Ican't light the fire.
The thought pounded through her head like an unending drumbeat of dread, growing louder and louder until it was the only thing she could hear.
SHE WAS SO late to school the next day that she went flying into her first-period class, still in her coat, her hair wet and cold against her cheeks. She hadn't seen Matthew or Emily— hadn't even stopped by her locker. Which was just as well, since that meant she still had her chem notes with her. The horror of the night before faded a little with the first bell, and with an uncomfortable thud Claire landed right back in the middle of her human life, complete with the need to pass chemistry.
She flicked through the flash cards under her desk, trying to look like she was paying attention to the history lecture at the same time. Class ended way too soon. Claire shoved the note cards back into her bag and hurried out the door, hoping she'd at least be able to ditch her coat before she had to face the test.
Matthew was waiting for her. He looked nervous and exhausted. Exactly how Claire felt. "Hey, there. Did you—" His eyes scanned her, looking for something. "Wait—have you been to your locker yet?"
Claire shook her head. "I overslept," she said, juggling her coat in her arms.
"Well, if we hurry, you'll have time." Matthew grinned at her.
She narrowed her eyes. Whatever she'd been expecting after he left the gathering, it wasn't this.
"Okay. . ." she said, turning to walk toward her locker. Playing along.
When she opened the door, her confusion rose and swirled until she was dizzy with it. Inside was exactly the sort of thing she'd expected to find yesterday. A gorgeous yellow rose, its ruffled petals filling her locker with a cloying smell. There was a little note wrapped around the stem. Slowly, Claire reached for it, unfurling the paper.
Good luck on your Chem test—not that you need it! You're too brilliant to need luck on this one.
Claire turned to look at Matthew. She knew her disbelief showed on her face, but she didn't really care. He had completely ignored the new moon gathering, which had been massively important, but he was wishing her luck on a stupid chemistry test? Did he really think she cared that much about a school test after the disaster of the night before?
Irritation scratched its way up Claire's insides. He really couldn't deal with the fact that she was a werewolf. And she didn't know what to do about that.
But not now. I can't deal with it now—I'll just have to manageuntil after I figure out the fire thing.
Not having her ear mutilated had to be her priority. After the naming, she could sort out her tension with Matthew.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Your face just went all funny."
"Oh, thanks. That's exactly what every girl wants to hear in the morning," Claire joked. Well, half-joked.
"You know what I meant," he insisted. "Are you okay?"
Swallowing hard, Claire leaned up and gave Matthew a quick kiss.
"Fine. Just tired. Thanks for the flower."
Matthew looked vaguely disappointed, which only made Claire more irritated. And nervous, since the new distance between them wasn't getting any shorter.
"Okay, I've gotta go face Mr. Gould's own special form of torture," she said.
"Huh?" Matthew looked confused.
"My chem test." Claire sighed. "I'll call you later, okay?"
With her eyes trained on the buffed gloss of the tile floor, Claire trudged down the hall. On Wednesday afternoon, Claire and Emily walked out to the parking lot. The clouds overhead were low and gray, promising rain by nightfall. Emily unlocked the car with the key fob, and Claire sighed with jealousy.
"I know, right?" Emily said, tossing her bag into the backseat. "When is your mom going to break down and get you a car?"
"Probably never," Claire grumbled, sliding into the passenger seat. "I'll have to beg you and Matthew for rides until I'm eighty."
"Well, at least she's getting you a dress for the Autumn Ball!" Emily drove toward the edge of the school's grounds, pausing at the stop sign and wiggling her eyebrows at Claire. "And guess what. You'll never guess—I'll just tell you. I'm having an after party the night of the ball—it's going to betheafter party, actually. It's going to be so much fun." She hesitated, just for a second. "You can come right? I mean, you and Matthew?"
Emily's excitement was contagious, and Claire started to feel the buzz of dresses and tuxes and after parties—all the normal stuff that the human side of her had been missing. "Of course we'll come," Claire said. "How on earth did you get your parents to agree to it?" "It's their anniversary." Emily's eyes glinted wickedly. "They're going to Cabo for a couple of days, and they're leaving me with the house all to myself."
"Aren't you worried about getting caught?"
Emily shook her head. "I'll have days to clean up. And besides, it's the only way to salvage a night with Randy Steigerson."
Emily looked genuinely miserable about her date, but after so many dances when Emily had boyfriends she was crazy over and Claire sat home, Claire figured one less-than-stellar date wouldn't kill Emily.
"So, you really can't get out of that one?" she asked.
"No. First of all, Amy pointed out that he's actually a really nice guy, he's just sort of . . . awkward. But it's not like he's going to corner me in the limo or spike my drink or anything. And besides, it's getting sort of late to find another date, and I'mnotgoing stag, and I'm double not missing the first-ever Autumn Ball that you're coming to! So, it's Randy Steigerson and then a kick-ass party."
"I'm . . . I'm glad you figured that out," Claire said, finally. More hurt had leaked into her voice than she'd intended.
"I called you first," Emily said quietly. "About the whole Randy thing. But you were so busy with your chem test and hanging out with your mom . . . and when Amy called to tell me she'd found a date for the ball, we just sort of hashed it out."
Emily was right—she had called, the night of the new moon disaster. And Claire hadn't been able to call her back. How would she have explained a two-in-the-morning phone call without making Emily completely suspicious? And anyway, Amy had certainly leapt right in. It was already hard to have the same sort of relationship with Emily that they'd had before. But Amy was making it freaking impossible. For a moment, Claire was so lonely for her old life—her old friendship with Emily—that her throat closed up with the ache of it. She swallowed hard, trying to pull herself together before Emily noticed that she was on the verge of tears.
"So, who's Amy going to the dance with?" Claire asked. Her voice was almost steady.
"One of Randy's friends, Julio, asked her, mostly 'cause he knew Randy had asked me. Amy doesn't really know him, but it's not a huge deal. She told me that she mainly said yes since the guys want to double. Which is fine with me. At least I'll have one friend around, you know?"
A little puff of air flew out from between Claire's shocked lips.
Emily's eyes widened, and she put one hand up to her mouth, like she was trying to cram the words back in. "Oh my God, Claire, I totally didn't mean that the way it sounded."
Claire struggled to regain her composure. "No—I mean, I know you didn't—"
"I just figured you'd either want to go with just Matthew or that the two of you would end up going with the rest of the soccer guys is all. The whole reason I'm going with Randy is so that I can be at the dance with you." Emily looked so upset that Claire felt her own throat start to tighten.
She put a hand on Emily's arm. "Stop freaking out. Amy's your friend too, and I'm glad you're doubling with her. Besides, I'm guessing that I'll be stuck having dinner with Kate-Marie and Doug, and youknowthat's not going to be any fun."
Emily laughed—a short, hard, rough-edged little laugh. But it was a start.
In Claire's book bag, her cell phone started to ring. Claire bent over and dug it out of the front pocket.
"Claire. I'm glad I reached you." It was her mother, and she sounded distracted. The hair on the back of Claire's neck stood up. Her mother didn't get distracted. "Are you coming home? I need to speak with you. It's important."
Claire's breath caught in her throat. It was something about the pack. It had to be. Her mother never sounded like that about anything else.
"I'm on my way now," she said. "And, um, Emily's with me."
"Well, she'll need to drop you off and go home. I'm sorry, but it can't wait."
"What do you expect me to do?" Claire asked. "We have plans!"
"Change them," her mother said sharply. "I'll see you when you arrive."
There was a click, and the line went dead.
Marie had hung up on her. Claire's anger sharpened her vision, bringing everything into intense focus. The stop sign looked like it was edged in razor blades.
Emily frowned. "What's going on?"
"My mom just canceled our plans is what," Claire fumed. "Like nothing matters except pack—" she caught herself. Right at the edge of the precipice, with nothing but bloodthirsty rocks below.
"Pack?" Emily echoed, her head craned to the left as she searched for a break in the traffic.
Claire's secret sat between them in the car, almost visible.
"Packing." Claire said, scrambling for an explanation. "Packing for a trip. Lisbeth's gone, and Mom doesn't know how to work the dryer. I'm sorry. I have to help her, and it's going to be miserable. Can we reschedule?"Please let her buy it. Please, please, please.
Emily frowned, a faint aura of suspicion hovering around her, like a fog that wouldn't quite clear. "Will it really take that long?"
"You know my mom," Claire said simply, hoping it would be enough.
"Yeah." Emily rolled her eyes. "I do. This sucks! I wanted to look for dresses online."
"I know. We'll go shopping at an actual store though, okay?" Emily grumbled, but Claire felt herself backing away from the neck-smashing ledge she'd been balanced on. Emily knew how strange Marie could be, and for once it was working in Claire's favor.
She leaned her head against the cool glass of the window and wondered if it was even safe for her to be out in public. If she was this bad at being a werewolf, maybe the pack should cut off her ear.
The thought burned, and Claire flinched away from it.
Maybe she'd just work on being a better wolf. When Emily dropped Claire off, Claire found her mother sitting at the kitchen table, tapping her foot impatiently. There was a half-finished cup of tea in front of her and the smell of something amazing coming from the oven.
Claire sniffed. "Chicken?" she asked.
Marie nodded. "Lisbeth put it in before she left. Apparently, something will beep when it's ready to be eaten." She fiddled with the tag on the tea bag. There were circles under her eyes, and the lines on either side of her mouth were deeper than usual—twin, shadowed slashes.
Claire dropped her bag onto the floor and slid onto one of the bar stools at the kitchen island. "So? What's so urgent?"
Marie looked up at her. A muscle in her cheek twitched, a warning to Claire to watch what she said. "You know that Victoria's time is soon—that the baby is coming. Since the gathering will be almost as important for you as it is for Victoria, I wanted to tell you what will happen. And then I want to see exactly where you are with the firelighting. I do not want to be surprised like that again. After dinner, as soon as it is late enough, we will go into the woods together."
Claire clenched her teeth. She hated being micromanaged by her mother. Being ordered around like she was five. With her molars grinding against each other, she managed to nod.
"Good." Marie cleared her throat. "So, when the baby is born, we will have a ceremony to welcome her. It's done for every New One." A smile—warm, genuine, and very brief— crossed her face. "We had one for you, when you were born."
Marie's gaze was far away, seeing a memory instead of the kitchen. "I had no idea what to call you. Since there was a full moon the night after you arrived, we had a double ceremony— your naming and the full moon, combined. I was so tired that I could barely think, but then I saw the moonlight glowing against your brand-new skin. That's when I knew you would be named Claire." She blinked, her eyes clearing, seeing Claire and the kitchen again.
"It means 'light,' your name. It suited you. It still suits you." She lifted the cup of tea and took a sip. "So. We will have the same sort of celebration for Victoria's baby. I've been speaking with Beatrice about it. I didn't remember just how much was involved. It has been many years—yours was the last naming I attended. I'd forgotten much of it." The stress had returned to her mother's face, making her look older. Tired.
"Is it . . . is it bad?" Claire asked. She was worried about the expression on her mother's face. "You look sort of freaked out."
"No—not at all." Marie looked startled. "A naming is one of the most joyous ceremonies we have. It's a celebration, and when Victoria gives the baby her name—if she has picked the right name—some truly remarkable things will happen. If it is the right name. But then, I said that already, didn't I?" She sagged a little in her chair, pulling the tea mug right to the edge of the table. "It is just coming so soon after your new moon gathering. I had"—she cleared her throat—"I had underestimated the amount of effort these sorts of unusual gatherings would require. There are particular sorts of wood to be gathered, a preparation of herbs that I have to make for Victoria to drink, and it will be nearly impossible to find them in the wild with winter so close."
Her mother shut her eyes. "And, of course, I am worried about you. I'm fond of your ears." She paled, and the tea trembled in her cup as her hands shook. "I can't stand the thought of you being hurt. There is just—it is a great deal to handle at one time. And I am still new as an Alpha."
She gave Claire a wan smile. "I suppose we are both having—what is it called? A trial by fire?"
So that's why her mom had seemed so stressed lately. It made sense, and Claire was surprised she hadn't realized it sooner.Beinga werewolf was so hard—trying to juggle the different sides of her life, to meet the demands of each without showing any strain. Claire understood why werewolves chose one side or another to favor. Judith's human life was just a thin veneer for her wolf self, with no more depth than a Halloween mask, and Katherine did the bare minimum required of her as werewolf, making the life she had to keep secret as small as possible, so it would be easier to hide.
And they were just regular, Beta wolves. Claire couldn't imagine the impossible pressure of being the Alpha. To be responsible for the whole pack had to be exponentially harder. The Alpha was the one who made sure that all the ceremonies were done when and how they were supposed to be. On top of that, the Alpha had to ensure that the pack maintained its secrecy, and she had to keep tabs on each of the wolves and watch the outside world for any signs of a threat. And though her mother had no human friends to speak of, she still had a busy and dangerously public career to manage. Just thinking about the responsibilities her mother carried was overwhelming. No wonder Marie looked like she was just barely holding things together. Of course, every time Claire thought about the punishment that waited for her if she failed to light the fire, she wanted to run shrieking into the woods and never come back. So she wasn't exactly the poster child for stress management either.
"Yeah, trial by fire. That's what it's called." The timer on the oven began to beep, and Claire slid off her stool, picking up the oven mitts that Lisbeth had thoughtfully left on the counter. She pulled the chicken out of the oven and set the pan on the stove, breathing in the smell of the roasted meat.
"So, what will I have to do?" she asked, pulling two plates out of the cabinet, shivering a little at the realization that she'd kissed Matthew in that exact spot. The heat that spread through her had nothing to do with the still-hot oven and everything to do with the ghost touch of his lips against the tender hollow beneath her ear. She could still feel his hands sliding around the small of her back, his palms pressed against her spine as he pulled her tighter against him. For one melting moment, everything else dropped away and she floated, lost in the memory.
Marie's tea mug clinked against the table, and Claire shook off the daydream, embarrassed about the burn that lingered in her cheeks.
The naming. Right. Focus.
"You will light the fire." Marie said. "After you have done that, Victoria will give the baby her name." She reached up, fiddling with the clasp of her necklace.
Claire slowly reached for a knife to cut the chicken with. "And then what?"
She slapped the hastily carved chicken breasts onto the plates and put dinner on the table.
Marie took a careful bite of her chicken, looked up at Claire, and gave her a thin smile.
"And then, if it goes well—if the fire is lit correctly and Victoria chooses the right name—the Goddess will bless the baby by putting out the fire. At least, a part of the fire. But if something goes wrong, it is like getting a bad fortune. It predicts a lifetime of difficulty for the baby. It's mostly ceremonial—the fire doesn't actually go out, but the pack searches for evidence that some bit of it has been extinguished." Her mother's face hardened. "But it can go the other way, too. I heard of a naming where a tumbleweed blew into the fire after the name was given. The fire actually grew—it was devastating for the pack."
Claire stared down at her plate, her mind racing.
Marie cleared her throat. "But I'm sure it will be fine. I believe it will. And then after that, you will demonstrate your hunting ability and your long-distance hearing." A pinched look crossed her face. "We will have to separate the ceremonies somehow. Nothing is killed at a naming. I'll have to figure that out, too, I suppose."
Claire wasn't the only one under pressure. They all had to play their roles or the baby would suffer.
But not because of me. I'm not going to have my ear cut off, andI'm not going to be responsible for dooming Victoria's baby.
She'd light the fire at the ceremony, no matter what it took.
ONCE IT WAS deeply dark, Claire followed her mother into the woods. The skin on the back of her neck stung with the embarrassment of needing her mother's help. The noise of the dried leaves beneath her feet sounded like snickering, like the forest was laughing at her ineptness.
They ended up in a small clearing, much like the one Claire usually practiced in.
"I'll go find some wood," Marie announced.
"Wait." Claire looked around. "There's plenty of stuff here already." She bent down and picked up a few small twigs, stacking them in the middle of the clearing.
"But that's nothing." Marie frowned. "The ceremonial fires are much larger than that—they take more energy, more concentration, to start."
Heat crept up into Claire's cheeks. "But if I can light the twigs, then they'll feed the larger fire," she countered.
Marie shook her head. "That is true when you are using matches or a lighter. But to do it with your mind, you must have enough power to shift the energy of the whole pile or the spark you create won't take. It will sputter and die."
Claire's shoulders slumped. "I didn't know that."
Marie smoothed back her hair. "Well, why don't you go see what branches you can find, and I will do the same. We'll make a proper pile and see what you can do with it."
It didn't take long for them to build an average-size stack of wood in the middle of the clearing. Marie stepped back, leaning against a tree. "You may begin when you are ready," she offered.
Claire crouched down in front of the branches, pushing at their heaviness with her thoughts, struggling against the cold inertia of the wood.
She tried again, but it was just like the new moon gathering. Her heart began to race with the memory of it.
"You must be calm, chérie,or it will not work. You must be confident and focused."
"How can I be focused when you're interrupting me?" Claire burst out. Marie straightened, adjusting the cuffs of her shirt. "I'm only trying to help, Claire."
"Well, staring holes into my head isn't exactly helping! I was doing better on my own." Claire shoved her hair back from her face.
Marie went still as stone. "If you want to be left to practice alone, I will go. It is your ear. It is your future. I leave the responsibility in your hands." She turned to leave, looking defeated. A sharp sliver of regret pierced Claire, but she was too proud to call her mother back.
She'd just have to do it on her own. Claire listened to the near-silent retreat of her mother's footsteps and turned her attention back to the pile in front of her, trying to control her panic.
She could do this.
Except she couldn't. Hours later, even though her eyes and knees and brain ached, nothing had happened.
Exhausted and frustrated, Claire threw back her head and roared, her human voice echoing startlingly off the trees. She slumped over, her head buried in her hands.
She sat that way, listening to the stunned silence of the forest around her, wishing the trees would swallow her up. Claire practiced on her own every night. Her fingernails were permanently dirt stained from being dug into the forest floor, and her back ached from spending so many hours hunched over like an old woman.
Her mother hadn't said anything to her about the fires since she'd left Claire in the forest, but Claire could see her aching over Claire's failure. Claire knew that Marie could read it in the set of her shoulders, in the deepening of the circles beneath eyes. It just made her practice harder, determined to save herself.
Saturday night, she stumbled home. When she made it back to the safety of her room, she called Matthew, aching for his warm voice the same way she ached for a hot shower— wanting something that would unknot her.
"Hello?" His voice was vague with sleep.
"I woke you up—I'm sorry," she said, her voice too loud in the quiet of her room.
"No—well, I mean, yes, but it's okay." She heard his sheets rustle in the background and wondered briefly if he slept shirtless. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," she spat, pacing the floor. "Really nothing. The same sort of nothing that's been going on all week."
"Oh." He cleared his throat. "You're still working on that?"
"Of course I am! I don't know how much time I have left before Victoria has the baby, and I'm getting scared, Matthew. Really scared. I still can't light the fire, and if I can't—" The words stuck in her throat. She took a ragged breath and tried again. "If I don't do it, the pack will cut off part of my ear. And there's no way around it."
There was a long, heavy pause. Claire could hear him breath ing. "I don't know what to say," he finally admitted. "It's . . . obviously, it's awful, but there's nothing I can do about it. I mean, maybe you should just focus on doing whatever you've got to do to fix it, instead of talking to me."
It was like she'd been punched.
"You're—you're just going to abandon me?" she squeaked.
"I'm not abandoning you, Claire. I'll still be here afterward. But there's no way I canhelp you." His voice dropped. "This is a pack thing. And I'm a human."
She stood frozen in place. "You're a gardien,"she whispered.
"Yeah. I know," he said, the words heavy as anchors. "I love you, and I'm worried for you, but talking to me doesn't change anything. I can't change anything. You understand, right?"
"I guess," Claire said. What she really meant was, Of courseI don't.
"Listen, you should get some sleep. I'll talk to you tomorrow,okay?"
"Sure." She was so stunned that she could barely form the word.
"Good." Matthew sounded relieved.
Claire closed her phone, still not quite believing the conversations she'd just had. She didn't know what was making Matthew back away from pack stuff—why he acted like it was some sort of poisoned apple he'd been forced to eat. After the naming, though, she intended to find out.
* * *
The next day, she woke up under a tangled sheet of desperation. She had to do something. She needed help.
One quick call, and a very worried-sounding Victoria agreed to meet her in the clearing that night, so she just had the long, miserable rest of the day to get through.
The only thing that distracted her—that saved her—was running. She jogged for miles, until the pavement disappearing beneath her human feet was all that she could focus on; until her teeth ached with the exertion. If Victoria couldn't help her tonight, Claire didn't know what she was going to do.
When she got to the clearing late that night, Victoria was already waiting for her.
"Whoa. You look like hell." The words were out of Victoria's mouth almost before Claire was completely through the trees.
"Right back atcha," Claire retorted, looking at Victoria's puffy face and lank hair.
She laughed. "Fair enough. I take it you haven't become a fire-starting guru yet?"
Claire shook her head sadly. "No. If you can't help me tonight, I think I'm screwed. How about the name?"
Victoria shook her head. "Nothing definite yet." She sighed. "Let's focus on your problems. They seem more fixable at the moment."
"Okay," Claire said grimly. "I'll build the fire." Mostly, she just went into the woods and pulled the same branches she'd been using back into the center of the clearing. She dumped them in pretty much the same spots each time. It didn't take long to retrieve them and put them back into a pile.
"Well, you're fast at building a fire, at least," Victoria offered.
"Yeah, but I don't think this is exactly a partial-credit situation. I have to light it," Claire said. "I'm sorry I had to drag you out here. Again."
Victoria looked at her. "I'm happy to help you. I've needed help with plenty of these things." She snorted. "I mean, look at the trouble I'm having with the naming. Istillneed help. There's no shame in that. I think that's why we have packs to begin with. If we were supposed to be completely self-sufficient, why wouldn't we all be lone wolves,seules?"
"I never thought about it that way," Claire said quietly.
Victoria shrugged. "I have a ton of respect for your mother. I think she's an amazing Alpha, and I wouldn't go against her. But I don't think being her daughter puts you in an easy spot."
Victoria had put Claire's tangled feelings into words so easily that it stunned her. With Matthew acting so weird and Emily needing to be kept in the dark, it had been too long since someone really understood Claire.
"You don't know how awesome it is to hear someone say that," she said.
Victoria smiled. "I've been the Alpha's daughter. It's hard as anything. It's like nothing you do counts, but everything you do gets judged."
Claire looked over at the unlit fire, her nerves tingling uncomfortably. She knew that her own judgment was as close as the kindling. "I have to do this," she whispered.
Victoria nodded, her lower lip caught anxiously in her teeth. "Try. Don't think about it too long, just reach out for it with everything you've got."
Without even bothering to kneel down, Claire tried to push aside the wood, to find the fire, but it was like swimming with her clothes on: everything felt impossibly heavy and wet. She shook with the effort, searched desperately for the clarity that came with being a wolf. For one second, she pushed back the heavy curtain of her humanness, and she shoved at the dull wood with her thoughts.
A flame danced along a single branch. Not deep or fast or consuming, but enough to catch. And spread.
Enough to burn.
"Yes!" Victoria did an awkward, hopping little dance toward Claire, who burst into laughter at Victoria's ridiculousness, at the giddy lightness bubbling in her own chest.
"I did it! Did you see? A real fire!"
"How could I miss it?" Victoria giggled. "Look how quickly it's taking off!"
The two of them stood, admiring the flames.
"You know you need to keep at this," Victoria warned. "Make sure that you can do it wherever and whenever you need to."
"I know. There's too much at stake to ride on one success. But it's a start, right?"
"Better than," Victoria assured her.
The two of them sat around the fire until it had faded enough to put out.
As she walked home, Claire thought about the naming. Victoria had helped her so much. She desperately wanted to find a way to return the favor. But names weren't exactly falling out of the sky.
She slipped into the house, sifting through her thoughts like sand, searching for a solution. The next week passed in a blur. At night, Claire slipped into the woods, lighting the fires again and again, scouring the forest for anything that would burn. Until she knew she could do it.
Until it was easy.
Halloween—and the full moon—were just a couple of days away. They would have a short gathering—quiet, late, doing only the minimum required. Doing more would be too risky. There was too great a chance that some thrill-seeking human would be wandering through the woods.
Marie's face grew even more severe as the Halloween gathering approached, and Saturday morning, for the first time, Claire noticed threads of silver appearing in her mother's hair.
"Are you okay?" she asked, watching as the sun caught the glimmering strands while her mother stood near the window. Marie had a jeweler's loupe pressed to her eye, checking her lenses for tiny scratches and microscopic blemishes.
"Hmm?" Her mother was distracted.
"You just look sort of stressed is all." Claire wrinkled her nose at the box of cereal on the counter. She missed the days when Lisbeth cooked bacon and eggs on Saturday morning.
"I'm fine, Claire. Did you need something?" Marie snapped. Startled, Claire grabbed her cereal and slunk toward the living room.
"No. I'm going shopping with Emily. She's picking me up in an hour—I just thought I should let you know."
"Shopping?" Her mother looked up. "You hate to shop."
"It's for a dress. For the dance?" Claire prompted. She waited for understanding—recognition—to cross her mother's face. Instead, she just looked confused.
"What dance?" her mother demanded.
"The Autumn Ball. At school? I'm going with Matthew, remember?" Once again, anything that had to do with Claire's human life sailed right over Marie's head, as unnoticed as a distant airplane or a passing cloud. Claire's fingers curled around her spoon in frustration. She wasn't just a wolf. But that was the only part of her that her mother cared about. Obviously. "Oh. Fine." Marie nodded toward the back hall. "Take the blue credit card from my purse. Don't buy anything foolish, please." She turned her attention back to the lenses lined up on the table in front of her.
Claire stomped down the hall and rummaged around in her mother's bag, pulling out the credit card and sliding it into her back pocket before flopping down in the den to eat her cereal.
She wished Lisbeth was around to tell her not to spill milk on the couch or to ask her what stores she and Emily were going to. At leastshe'dbe excited to see Claire's dress.
Assuming she found a dress.
Claire crunched through her breakfast. When she was finished, she stretched out on the sofa, watching TV and listening for the sound of Emily's tires against the gravel. The instant she heard it, she leapt off the couch, abandoning her cereal bowl and grabbing her jacket. She darted out the door without saying good-bye to her mother. Why should she bother? It wasn't like Marie cared where she was going or when she'd be home. Not unless it somehow involved claws and fur in the forest.
Emily looked startled to see Claire barreling out of the house.
Claire opened the passenger door and slid in. "I am so glad you're here."
"Obviously. I haven't even put the car in park yet. What's going on?"
Claire shook her head. "Just . . . my mom being my mom." She blew out a long breath. "Okay. Sorry. I promise I'm not going to be cranky today. Besides"—she reached into her pocket and slid the blue plastic rectangle out far enough for Emily to see—"I've got her credit card. And I intend to use it."
"Well, hallelujah," Emily laughed. "Let's get you to the mall before you come to your senses."
The sun streamed in through the car window as Emily sped out of the driveway, going too fast as usual. Claire stared out at the high, clear, impossibly blue sky that meant it was going to be one of those perfect autumn days. It was hard to stay angry when the grass was still green but the leaves were painted with color, when the sun was still warm but the wind promised winter and she was with her best friend. She leaned back in the seat, feeling the last of her bad mood slip away.
"Time for music?" Emily asked with a sideways glance.
CLAIRE WALKED INTO the mall, trailing Emily the way a hiker trails a guide through a particularly dangerous jungle. The smell of floor cleaner mixed unpleasantly with the plasticy scent of new clothes and stale, food-court fried rice. Claire wrinkled her nose and focused on Emily, who was making a beeline for the nearest department store.
"Okay." Emily reached up, unconsciously respiking her hair. "So, first we're going to hit the sale racks at Nordstrom's, though we probably won't find anything there."
The idea of stretching out the shopping unnecessarily made Claire twitch. "Why not just go straight to the place where we're most likely to get an actual dress?" She was dying to havea dress, to see it hanging in her closet and be able to pet it. She just wasn't excited about the process of finding one.
Emily raised a lecturing finger, not breaking her pace. "Parental assurance. If she freaks about how much you spend, it's much better to be able to honestly say you bought the least-expensive thing you liked. Hence, the sale rack. Where you won't find anything, but after looking at it, you can shop with a clear conscience."
Claire snorted with laughter. The two of them breezed past the shoe department and up through accessories to where the formal dresses were. Claire followed Emily into the sea of clothing racks full of glimmering fabrics in a rainbow of colors, like a school of exotic fish.
After quickly rejecting the downright hideous dresses on the sale rack, Emily and Claire moved into the rest of the department and loaded their arms with dresses. Emily added two to the pile for every one that Claire picked out. When the salesladies started rolling their eyes, the two of them finally headed for the dressing room.
"Okay," said Emily. "These are the rules: As long as whatever you have on doesn't make you look like a dachshund in a tutu, you have to come out so I can see it. Deal?"
Claire sighed. With the stack of dresses she had hanging in the fitting room, it would take forever to do it Emily's way. "What're the other rules?" she asked.
"Just one more. No whining or you're buying lunch." Emily winked and then disappeared into the little cubicle where her own massive assortment of formal wear was waiting.
Claire pulled the first dress off the hanger. It was blue, with a deep V-neck and a ruffly bottom. She slipped it over her head, looked in the mirror, and frowned. She didn't have enough of a chest for the neckline, and as a result, the tight bodice made her look thick around the middle. And the ruffles were way too fussy for her. Still . . . it wasn'thorrible.She might as well go show it to Emily.
Claire stepped out into the aisle of the dressing rooms, being careful not to trip over the frills at her feet.
"Claire? Oh, how funny!" Claire spun around and saw Amy framed in the curve of the three-way mirror. She was wearing a blue dress. Exactly the same blue dress that Claire had on. The only difference was, it fit Amy perfectly. Sure, the hem puddled on the floor, but the ruffles balanced out her waterfall of curls, and the blue fabric made her eyes look like summer leaves. And the bodice was exactly right, the V-neck sexy without being over the top.
"Hey, Amy." Claire forced a smile, crossing her arms over her chest. "That dress looks great on you."
"You think?" Amy asked. "I've tried on about a million—I can't even tell them apart anymore."
Emily popped out of her dressing room, half-zipped into a zebra-print gown. "Amy? Oh my God, this is so great! Are you here by yourself?"
"I was supposed to meet Yolanda here, but she bailed on me."
Emily's eyes went from Claire to Amy and back again. "You guys have on the same dress!" she exclaimed, a giggle running underneath the words.
"Yeah, I'm not getting this one," Claire said quickly. "It looks much better on Amy than it ever would on me." The compliment was honest, and Amy glowed.
"Thanks," Amy said. The sincerity in her voice made Claire want to put her guard up. Okay, so part of her wanted to be friends with Amy, but it just wasn't possible.
Amy gave Claire a grateful smile. "I'm so short. I always feel like I look like a kid playing dress-up, you know?"
"Polly Pocket goes to the prom?" Claire said, raising a joking eyebrow.
Amy snickered. "Dead on."
Bantering with Amy was like getting swept into an ocean current. It was so quick and thrilling that Claire could—for a second—ignore the danger.
"You look amazing," Emily reassured Amy. "Now we just have to find a dress for Claire. And one for me." She frowned down at the zebra-print. "I think this is too safari chic for Hanover Falls."
The fact that she'd said "we" didn't escape Claire. Apparently, their shopping trip had just turned into a shopping trip plus one. The surprised happiness that flooded her was so electric, she expected to get a shock when she reached for the dressing-room doorknob.
"I'm going to go change," she announced, stepping back into the cubicle and shutting the door. She leaned her forehead against the dusty slats and took a long, slow breath, forcing herself to calm down. To slow down.I'm just going to focus on finding a dress.
Claire turned to face the pile of clothes in front of her. The red and black and silver fabrics passed under her gaze, but her eyes stopped when she spotted a sliver of green near the black. Dark green, the same color as the heart of the pine trees deep in the forest. Just looking at it made her feel calmer. More controlled. She reached for it instinctively.
It was long and one-shouldered—silk with a floaty piece of organza skimming down from just underneath the bust. Claire licked her lips. It was going to work. It was going to be perfect. She could tell from the little tingle in her fingers as she slid it off the hanger.
She shucked off the blue dress and stepped into the green one with the same confidence she had when she stepped into the woods.
She pulled the zipper up and turned to look in the mirror. A shiver of excitement passed through her as she stared at herself.
It was amazing. The color set off her pale skin and dark hair, and the flow of the dress made her look strong and elegant and slender all at once. Plus, the single shoulder and gathered bust helped hide the fact that she wasn't well-endowed enough to hold up something strapless. As long as she wore heels, it wouldn't even need to be hemmed.
Barely suppressing a gleeful and hopelessly girly squeal, Claire opened the dressing room door.
"Hey, Emily! Guess what?" she crowed.
Emily poked her head around the edge of her own door. "Wha—whoa." Her eyes widened. "Oh, hell yes. That is so your dress. That is so sosoyour dress. Unfair! How did you find it so fast? You look unbelievable!"
Claire glanced over at Amy, who was standing on a little dais while a bent-backed woman slid pins into the hem of her dress. Amy's mouth had fallen open in a sort of shocked admiration.
"Claire, it's fantastic!" She shook her head happily, her curls bouncing around her shoulders.
Claire looked back at Emily and grinned. "It's pretty knockout, huh?"
"You two are already done!" Emily frowned. "Okay, let me hurry this up, and then we can all go look for shoes and stuff." She shut the door, leaving Claire and Amy smiling at each other.
Claire caught herself, dropping her smile and ducking back inside the dressing room. She caught the briefest glimpse of surprise and disappointment on Amy's face before she shut the door. Claire slid out of the dress, ignoring the twinge of sorrow in her middle. She promised herself she was going to be more careful. No more getting swept away.I cannot juggle another friend right now.
She pulled on her jeans and looked at herself in the mirror. She had to focus on what she had already. On not risking Emily. On not losing Matthew. And on keeping her left ear whole. The three of them stood in front of the jewelry display, the rows of fake pearls and glittering rhinestones making Claire's eyes ache. She'd already bought her dress and a pair of shoes and a purse—she was on shopping overload.
"Hey, I have the best idea!" Emily picked up a pair of crystal-studded earrings, holding them up to her ears. "Why don't you both spend the night at my house tonight? We can make it a real, old-school slumber party. We could stop and get ice cream on the way. Plus, we can talk about where we want to go to dinner before the ball and stuff."
"I'm in," Amy said, riffling through a rack of fancy hair clips. "I'm going to need a major sugar fix after all this."
Emily frowned and looked at Claire. "Oh, crap. You have a date with Matthew, don't you?"
"Yeah." Her disappointment was as sharp and unexpected as a bee sting. "I wish I could cancel and hang out with you two instead. Especially now that you've mentioned ice cream. I'll be craving it like crazy all night."
"What's with all the weird cravings?" Emily asked. "Don't think I haven't noticed that you've been eating a ton more meat than usual." Emily turned to Amy. "She's, like, an antivegetarian. Are you just doing that to piss Lisbeth off, or what?"
Amy cleared her throat. "There are lots of reasons to have weird cravings." A dark-winged shadow fluttered across her face.
"Yeah. Maybe it's a growth spurt," Claire joked, hoping the humor would ring true.
"So, do it," Emily said. "Bail on your plans and come watch bad TV with us."
"I can't." Claire sighed. "There's a bunch of stuff that I have to talk to him about." She'd meant to imply that they needed to talk about the dance, but there was a stony heaviness to her words.
Amy's eyes widened. "Is everything okay?"
"Sure," Claire said, waving a hand. "We just have some stuff to sort out."
Emily cocked her head to one side and opened her mouth. Claire scrambled for some new subject before Emily could start asking questions.
"So, what about this necklace?" she asked, grabbing a strand of creamy pearls with a rhinestone pendant hanging from it.
Emily closed her mouth and rolled her eyes. "It would look great. If you were going to an old-lady lunch or something." She glanced over her shoulder. "Hang on. You wait here—I think I saw something back there that would be perfect for your dress. Stay with her, Amy, and make sure she doesn't buy anything horrible, okay?"
"I'll tie her hands behind her back," Amy said with a laugh, holding a sparkling pair of earrings up to her ears.
Claire laughed, trying to relax now that they were safely back on the subject of accessories, but everything inside her bristled. Her human side. Her wolf side. All of her was on edge.
"Hey, Claire!" Katherine popped out from behind a display of bracelets, waving wildly.
Claire froze. Was she kidding? Couldn't Katherine see that she was with other people? Other distinctly human people?
"What are you doing here?" Katherine chirped. She dropped her shopping bags and hugged Claire. "It's such a killer sale—I couldn't resist picking up a few things." She looked around, her mouth falling open when she saw Amy.
"Hi." Amy smiled her most winning, adults-always-likeme smile. "I'm Amy Harper."
"Nice to meet you," Katherine said, looking at Claire in a way that said she was surprised Claire had friends.
"Katherine is a, uh, friend of my mom's," Claire said.
"Oh, just an acquaintance, really. It's been ages!" Katherine's whinnying laugh made Claire cringe.
"Oh, well, um, nice to meet you, too." Amy shifted awkwardly from foot to foot, giving Claire a why-is-this-so-weird sort of look. "I haven't met Claire's mom yet, but I've seen some of her pictures. They're amazing."
"Oh, right. Her pictures. I don't, um . . ." Katherine had gone bright red, and a sheen of sweat glistened at her temples.
"Here! I found it!" Emily came sprinting back, a necklace clutched victoriously in her hand.
Claire turned, and Katherine cleared her throat awkwardly. "Well, I can see I'm interrupting. I'm going to go. . . ." She scrabbled for her shopping bags. "Tell your mom I said hi, and that I'll see you guys, uh, soon."
Claire wanted to smack her. No wonder Judith always stuck so close to Katherine. It was like Katherine's mouth was always three steps ahead of her brain.
Katherine swept off toward the shoe department, leaving Claire, Emily, and Amy staring after her.
"Who was that?" Emily asked.
"A friend of my mom's," Claire said simply. "Let me see the necklace you found." She held out her hand.
"I'm surprised you don't know her," Amy said. "She was all over Claire like some sort of long-lost aunt or something."She was half-joking, but there was something suspicious in her voice at the same time, and Claire struggled to get Amy talking about something else.
Emily handed her the jewelry, her gaze still trained on Katherine and a confused, betrayed expression on her face. "No, I've . . . I've never met any of Marie's friends, I guess."
"What are you and your mom doing with her?" Amy asked, toying with a pair of earrings. "She sounded like she was really looking forward to it, whatever it was."
Emily looked over at Claire, interested. Waiting.
"I . . ." Claire scrambled for an answer. A good answer. This was why she couldn't afford to be friends with Amy. A tooth rattlingly, face slappingly great example of why it would be a horrible idea. "I think she's coming to the house to have some pictures taken. I dunno."
She held up the necklace that Emily had given her. "Oh, Emily, this is perfect!" Claire gushed in a desperate bid to get their attention off Katherine.
The necklace really was perfect. The simple rhinestone choker would be amazing with the green of the dress and her dark hair.
"It'll be great with the neckline. And it's not too fussy, either. I know you hate that." Emily looked ridiculously pleased with herself.
"Thanks." Claire reached over to hug her. "You're the best."
"What are friends for?" Emily said.
Claire looked at Emily and Amy, who were both beaming. She wished she had an answer to Emily's question, because the echoing silence hurt like hell.