Being Red: Chapter Nine

Henley is released the next day, and although she’s feeble as a newborn deer, already she begs to come train with the team. I won’t allow her on the mat, but I agree to let her watch.

“She shouldn’t be here,” Hayden grumbles, arm locked around my chest. “She should be at home resting.”

After fighting Loren and getting a taste of Kellan’s strength, sparring with Hayden is nothing. I fight wolves frequently, but those two are on another level. There must be something to being the alpha after all. I twist and slip away from Hayden. I circle, scanning for weakness.

“You’d rather her go stir crazy?” I ask. “She’s only watching. She’ll be fine.”

He just grunts and lunges for me. I dodge easily, my mind wandering to how I might find a way to hit the gym with the wolves to better hone my skills. I won’t always be able to spin the situation in my favor using seduction or by playing the damsel in distress; my fight with Loren is proof of that. I hate to admit it, but Loren could have killed me. With the alpha there as backup, I should be dead. If I weren’t useful to their cause, I’m certain I would be.

Hayden’s fist grazes my ribs, bringing me back to the fight at hand. I grab his wrist and use the momentum of his own attack to throw off his balance. He tucks, rolls, and pops back into a crouch a few feet away.

“Well, I don’t like it,” Hayden argues. “She needs rest to recover.”

Glenn and Casey pretend they can’t hear us from just one mat over and continue to spar, their motions overly enthusiastic and awkward in turns.

Henley on the other hand speaks up for herself, “She can hear you,”

Her tone tells me she is rolling her eyes. I grin as I punch her brother in the stomach, this time only pulling back a little at the end to lessen the blow. He wheezes harder than usual.

“Henley is a member of my team, and her health is my priority,” I assure him. “That’s why she’s sitting out. To rest. And recover.”

“She’s my other half, and I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to her,” Hayden presses. He exhales sharply, stepping back to run a hand through his hair. “You wouldn’t understand.”

I drop my fists to my sides and pause my attack, brow furrowed.

I may not have a twin, but I want to tell him that each and every member of my team is family to me and I would hate to lose any of them. I want to voice how scared I was while Henley lay in the hospital and remind him who was there with her the entire time, even when he wasn’t. But he already knows all this. Or perhaps he does not know me like I think he does?

No, Hayden is merely stressed. He’s being an inconsiderate asshole because he’s worried and on edge. The rational part of me knows I should cut him some slack.

The angry part wants to demand he tell me what the hell’s gotten into him.

But I don’t.

“I thought I was your other half,” I tease to lighten the mood, my smile forced.

Hayden doesn’t look at me, and everyone else is pointedly avoiding me gaze as well. I stand up straighter to show that he doesn’t bother me. Somewhere deep in my chest, his comment stings, and I know my joke isn’t really a joke at all, but I ignore all those annoying little feelings.

“That’s enough for today,” I say, my tone leaving no room for argument, a clear dismissal.

I pull the wraps from my hands and head to the locker room to shower without another word for the team. I don’t want to see the furtive glances they give each other behind my back. Stripping, I step into the shower and let the water wash over me. Footsteps approach shortly after, and I know Henley has followed me.

“Red?”

I sigh silently. “What’s up, Hen?”

“I’m sorry,” she says. “For Hayden, I mean. I know he’s just worried for me, but he shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s not your fault,” I assure her.

“Thank you for being there for me when I was unconscious.”

“Of course,” I say. “You’re a member of my team. You’re family.”

“I just wanted you to know I’m grateful.”

“I appreciate you telling me,” I say. For some reason, this conversation is exhausting, and I just want her to leave so I can finish showering in peace. “Go get some rest,” I tell her.

“I will,” she assures me. “Good night.”

Her footsteps retreat, and I am blessedly alone.

I stand motionless under the stream of hot water and breathe out long and slow. Only when my body forces me to draw breath do I step from the shower and dress. Physically I am ready, but I do not want to go home just yet. Hayden will be there, and I’m not in the mood to face him right now. I also can’t stay here and risk Gregor coming to any conclusions of his own.

I gather up my things and head to my car. My mind is oddly blank on the way home, as if numb to what occurred. A lovely defense mechanism, the logical part of my mind tells me. The rest of me is convinced that I don’t give two shits either way as long as Hayden pulls his head out of his ass and apologizes when I go inside.

I figure I better give him more time to stew, so once I pull into a vacant space, I sit in the parking lot for what feels like an hour. Sitting idle doesn’t help one bit, so I slide my cell into the glovebox for safekeeping and grab my running shoes from the back seat. I pull them on, tossing my boots onto the driver’s side floorboard. Then I lock my car, tuck my keys into the side of my sports bra, and jog towards the park that offers access to a trail system a few blocks away.

Although it is getting dark, the path is well lit, and the combination of watching the trees pass and keeping my body moving puts my mind at ease. I dip onto a side trail that slowly climbs to a lookout over the city. I breathe in deeply, enjoying the ache in my legs and the musk of the forest in the chill night air. I push myself to the top, breathing heavily as I scan the city lights twinkling below. When my breathing calms, I sit on the bench and attempt to enjoy the view.

For some reason, I can’t quite get comfortable. And it’s not because of the hard wooden seating. The more I think on it, the more I begin to feel as if I am being watched. I am fairly certain that if it were Kellan, or even Loren, he would have announced himself already, and I know my team hasn’t tailed me up here. Strangely, the sensation reminds me of the night I dealt with Woodsworth. I get up and pace, my back now to the beautiful cityscape, and scan the treeline.

Unable to shake the feeling that I’m not alone, I say, “Show yourself. I know you’re out there.”

“Your senses are much less useless than most humans’,” says a woman’s voice from the shadows at the edge of the woods. “No wonder he’s made you his lap dog.”

My lip curls at the slur, and I wonder who she means. Gregor comes to mind first, then Kellan. I’m not sure which is worse. “Who are you?” I ask, happy to ignore that train of thought. And to confirm my suspicions, “And why have you been following me?”

A tall blonde woman in artfully ripped jeans and a cropped white tank steps into the light. “I’m Valerie,” she informs me, flicking her hair over her shoulder. “I’m hurt. You really don’t recognize me?”

Why would I? I wonder, afraid to ask her and poke the bear, or wolf rather. No human would stalk and approach me in the dark like this. “Sorry. Have we met?” I ask instead. “And you still haven’t answered my question.”

“You murdered my mate,” she says, the tail end of her sentence more of a growl than actual words. When I give no reaction, she elaborates, “Blake Anden.”

I figure now is a terrible time to tell her I have no way of remembering who her mate might be in my long list of assignments. “I assume an apology won’t cut it?” I ask, slowly sliding into a wider stance and bracing for a fight.

I have no weapons on me, and I curse myself for leaving home without them. I don’t even have my phone to call for backup. Even though I have run these trails without incident hundreds of times before, I should never have let down my guard. Cursing won’t help, but a litany of obscenities runs through my mind.

Valerie looks me over with obvious disdain. “Of course not. Nothing you can say will change or remedy anything. Only your death will satisfy me now.”

She prowls closer, and I back up to put the bench between us.

“Running away won’t work,” she sneers.

I jump at the chance to get her talking and distract her as a means to level the playing field, for right now, she has every advantage. “I just like the view from over here,” I say with false bravado.

“You won’t be making jokes when I’m sinking my teeth into your throat,” she says, eyes gleaming with anticipation.

“I’d like to think you won’t get that far. I rather like my neck just as it is,” I say, frantically digging for my keys as she vaults over the bench. So much for keeping her busy.

“Nothing will save you now, human,” she snarls, her teeth elongated into fangs.

I dodge so her momentum carries her past me and drive my left elbow down into her back. The blow is hard enough to have given a human pause, but Valerie merely grunts. I am ready with my car key grasped firmly in my right fist when she whirls with supernatural speed to face me. When she lunges, I rush forward to meet her, plunging my key into the meaty tissue just to the left of her armpit with all my strength, a sharp exhale strengthening my attack.

Valerie screeches and pulls away, taking my makeshift weapon with her as she backpedals, dancing out of reach. She rips the key from her body and throws it to the ground.

“You bitch!” she accuses, clutching at the wound, blood welling between her fingers.

I see both shock and anger in her eyes. She underestimated me, but she won’t make that mistake again. I keep the pressure on her in a desperate attempt to maintain the upper hand.

She circles to my left, evading my fists and elbows. I pivot with her. Mirroring her motion, I force her to stay on the move or weather my hits. I swing my forearm in an arc. Valerie maneuvers so that I miss her face, but my other fist lands a blow on the wound directly below her shoulder. She snarls, more beast than human, and lashes out with the unnatural strength of her kind. My shoes skid in the loose dirt under the barrage, and my head snaps to the side when she lands a punch on my cheek followed up with a sharp knee to my stomach.

I struggle to breathe, but I keep my footing, just barely, and force myself to focus. Her style is rough, for unlike me, she is untrained, but she has sheer strength and rage on her side. I need to act fast or risk her quickly wearing me down.

On her next attack, I grab Valerie’s arm and throw her over my hip. The takedown, so satisfying in the gym, is a victory short-lived in a real fight. Valerie is on her feet again within the span of a moment, agile like a wolf even in her human form.

She evades me, but I do not relent. I have no surefire way of delivering a killing blow, and she was right that I have little chance of escape by simply running, but I sure as hell won’t have any chance of winning this fight if I remain on the defensive. Or if she shifts.

So I use every ounce of training I have. Valerie dodges the punch I aim at her wound with my left hand and blocks the following swing from my right. I take the opening she leaves me and smash my foot into her kneecap. She falters, and my fist connects with her jaw. Once. Twice. My fingers are on fire.

Valerie recovers terrifyingly fast. She tears into me with her fists, and it’s all I can do to block the assault. I miss the next fist she throws and take an uppercut square to my chin. My teeth crack together, and I fall backwards and land on my back. I have no time to check to see if all my teeth are still in place. I taste blood.

I know I need to stand, to fight, but Valerie’s black leather boot rests on my chest, pressing me firmly into the ground. I squirm and grab her ankle, my attempt to shove her off me futile.

“Say goodbye,” Valerie growls, her skin rippling.

A moment later, a snarling wolf stands on my chest, teeth bared and hackles raised, crushing the air from my lungs. With her in her animal form, there is nothing I can do. Her only real weak point is her injury, and there is no way for me to exploit that in this position. Meanwhile, she has massive teeth and jaws that will easily rip out my throat. In short, I may as well be dead already.

Logically, I know this. But sheer self-preservation makes me wrap my arms around my own neck in a last ditch effort to protect it, a final bid for survival at all costs, even for just a few moments longer. Logic has nothing to do with it. Nor with my flailing legs.

I suddenly kick air as the weight on my chest vanishes in a blur of fur and fangs.

I don’t question it, I twist painfully onto my hands and knees and propel myself towards the trees. My lungs burn and my heart beats hard and fast against my ribs. As soon as I see a tree large enough, I launch myself up its trunk, expecting fangs to catch up and tear into me at any moment. Only when I am safe in its branches, my fingers scraped and bloody, do I look down.

My vantage point is obscured by foliage, but I see that a large wolf with a mottled coat of grey and brown has joined Valerie. The wolf circles her, its coloring making it appear as little more than light and shadow against the dirt, and Valerie limps to keep her fangs bared in its direction. She visibly favors her left leg. The newcomer doesn’t hesitate long or draw out the fight. The beast darts in and closes its jaws around Valerie’s throat, dragging her to the ground. She lets out a piercing whine and writhes in the larger wolf’s grip. With a jerk of its massive head, the wolf tears out Valerie’s throat.

Her body goes still, and I freeze. Either I am the luckiest damn girl alive, and this is a rescue. Or my night is going to continue on in a similar bent as it has thus far, and this huge wolf is here to claim its prey from a weaker rival.

The grey-brown wolf slinks over to the tree I am in without so much as sniffing the breeze, and my muscles tense. I am both horrified and impressed. The massive creature stops just a few feet shy of the trunk and sits, looking up at me as if asking why I have not yet come down. I make no move to do so. I just return its gaze, sizing up my potential adversary. The wolf licks its black lips with a long pink tongue, probably to clean the blood from its muzzle, although any red is impossible to discern given the darkness and the variation of colors in its coat. I bet this intimidating creature is nearly invisible when stalking through the forest. The unnerving thought is made less so accompanied by the wolf’s non-threatening behavior. Blinking up at me, the beast adjusts its forefeet, picking them up and settling them back in the dirt one at a time, and wheezes impatiently.

After only a brief moment more of our staring contest, I can’t help but test a theory. I don’t dare call it a hope.

“Kellan?”

The wolf bobs his head, stoic even as a beast, and I want to believe him. His presence feels familiar somehow, yet my training urges me to be sure, to demand proof.

“Shift,” I say, hoping it sounds more like a command than a desperate plea.

The request is twofold. Yes, I want to be sure this wolf truly is Kellan, however, I would be lying if I said I didn’t find his animal form unsettling.

The huge grey-brown wolf shifts before me. I have seen the process countless times, but there is something elegant about the way the alpha manipulates his form, his body seeming to liquefy and almost flow into that of a man. I wonder if the shift has always been like this and perhaps I just failed to notice or appreciate it. Before witnessing this transformation, shifting always seemed painful, like fist-sized rocks rolling around beneath the skin rather than water rushing to fill a vessel of a new shape.

“You’re not usually this quiet, Dearg,” Kellan says, and I realize I’ve been openly staring at his naked body.

“I’m fine,” I say, my eyes lifting to his face. His chin is smeared with blood, and I grimace.

“I have found that when a woman says she’s fine, she is in fact not fine at all,” says Kellan.

Why does this man always have the most infuriating things to say? I wonder. Out loud, I tell him, “Don’t think of me as a woman. Think of me as your colleague. And your colleague is telling you there is nothing wrong.”

“Colleague?” he asks, pondering for a moment. I narrow my eyes at him, wondering what he’s playing at. “That has to be a step up from mortal enemy, so I’ll take it. Now are you going to come down or stay up there all night?”

“Are you going to put on some clothes?” I quip back, jumping down from my perch to land in front of him.

“I’ll shift back if I’m making you uncomfortable,” he says.

I don’t know which makes me less comfortable, his nakedness or his lupine form. Not that I’ll admit to either. “I don’t care what you do,” I say.

“When colleagues,” he says pointedly, “say they don’t care, I have found it to mean that they do in fact care.”

I glare at the alpha. He grins back without a modicum of shame.

“I really could care less as long as the result gets me armed and dangerous again,” I say, feeling rather naked myself without any weapons. “Please just get me out of here and dispose of her before anyone stumbles upon the remains of an oversized wolf.”

Kellan chuckles and prods me towards my apartment. “Of course, Dearg.”

I want to tell him again to quit using that nickname, but I am done fighting for tonight so I just walk. I take a few steps before a leathery nose prods my fingers, and I jump, fighting a scream. Kellan does an approximation of an eye roll and drops my key in front of me. I never heard him go back to get it, and a chill runs down my spine.

The most frightening thing is not that he could have killed me before I ever noticed, it’s that I am just now learning how truly terrifying the creatures I have hunted for most of my life can be. Even with all my guns and knives, I realize that in a fair fight, I’m as ill-prepared and defenseless as Little Red Riding Hood on her way to granny’s house.

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