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|Thirteen(Women of the Otherworld #13) by Kelley Armstrong|
Dead leaves crackle under my paws. Somewhere in the forest an owl hoots softly. It has finished its hunting and rests contented, not caring who knows it’s around. A rabbit bolts out of a thicket and halfway across my path, then realizes its mistake and zooms back into the undergrowth. I keep running. My heart pounds. Against my rising body heat, the air feels ice-cold, stinging as it storms through my nostrils and into my lungs. I inhale, savoring the shock of it hitting my insides. I’m running too fast to smell anything. Bits of scents flutter through my brain in a jumbled montage that smells of freedom. Unable to resist, I finally skid to a halt, throw my head back, and howl. The music pours up from my chest in a tangible evocation of pure joy. It echoes through the ravine and soars to the moonless sky, letting them all know I’m here. I own this place! When I’m done, I drop my head, panting with exertion. I’m standing there, staring down into a scattering of yellow and red maple leaves, when a sound pierces my self-absorption. It’s a growl, a soft, menacing growl. There’s a pretender to my throne.
I look up to see a brownish yellow dog standing a few meters away. No, not a dog. My brain takes a second, but it finally recognizes the animal. A coyote. The recognition takes a second because it’s unexpected. I’ve heard there are coyotes in the city, but have never encountered one. The coyote is equally confused. Animals don’t know what to make of me. They smell human, but see wolf and, just when they decide their nose is tricking them, they look into my eyes and see human. When I encounter dogs, they either attack or turn tail and run. The coyote does neither. It lifts its muzzle and sniffs the air, then bristles and pulls its lips back in a drawn-out growl. It’s half my size, scarcely worth my notice. I let it know this with a lazy “get lost” growl and a shake of my head. The coyote doesn’t move. I stare at it. The coyote breaks the gaze-lock first.
I snort, toss my head again, and slowly turn away. I’m halfway turned when a flash of brown fur leaps at my shoulder. Diving to the side, I roll out of the way, then scramble to my feet. The coyote snarls. I give a serious growl, a canine “now you’re pissing me off.” The coyote stands its ground. It wants a fight. Good.
My fur rises on end, my tail bushing out behind me. I lower my head between my shoulder bones and lay my ears flat. My lips pull back and I feel the snarl tickling up through my throat then reverberating into the night. The coyote doesn’t back down. I crouch and I’m about to lunge when something hits me hard in the shoulder, throwing me off balance. I stumble, then twist to face my attacker. A second coyote, gray-brown, hangs from my shoulder, fangs sunk to the bone. With a roar of rage and pain, I buck up and throw my weight to the side.
As the second coyote flies free, the first launches itself at my face. Ducking my head, I catch it in the throat, but my teeth clamp down on fur instead of flesh and it squirms away. It tries to back off for a second lunge, but I leap at it, backing it into a tree. It rears up, trying to get out of my way. I slash for its throat. This time I get my grip. Blood spurts in my mouth, salty and thick. The coyote’s mate lands on my back. My legs buckle. Teeth sink into the loose skin beneath my skull. Fresh pain arcs through me. Concentrating hard, I keep my grip on the first coyote’s throat. I steady myself, then release it for a split second, just long enough to make the fatal slash and tear. As I pull back, blood sprays into my eyes, blinding me. I swing my head hard, ripping out the coyote’s throat. Once I feel it go limp, I toss it aside, then throw myself on the ground and roll over. The coyote on my back yips in surprise and releases its hold. I jump up and turn in the same motion, ready to take this other animal out of the game, but it scrambles up and dives into the brush. With a flash of wire-brush tail, it’s gone. I look at the dead coyote. Blood streams from its throat, eagerly lapped up by the dry earth below. A tremor runs through me, like the final shudder of sated lust. I close my eyes and shiver. Not my fault. They attacked me first. The ravine has gone quiet, echoing the calm that floods through me. Not so much as a cricket chirps. The world is dark and silent and sleeping.
I try to examine and clean my wounds, but they are out of reach. I stretch and assess the pain. Two deep cuts, both bleeding only enough to mat my fur. I’ll live. I turn and start the trip out of the ravine.
In the alley I Change then yank my clothes on and scurry to the sidewalk like a junkie caught shooting up in the shadows. Frustration fills me. It shouldn’t end like this, dirty and furtive, amidst the garbage and filth of the city. It should end in a clearing in the forest, clothes abandoned in some thicket, stretched out naked, feeling the coolness of the earth beneath me and the night breeze tickling my bare skin. I should be falling asleep in the grass, exhausted beyond all thought, with only the miasma of contentedness floating through my mind. And I shouldn’t be alone. In my mind, I can see the others, lying around me in the grass. I can hear the familiar snores, the occasional whisper and laugh. I can feel warm skin against mine, a bare foot hooked over my calf, twitching in a dream of running. I can smell them: their sweat, their breath, mingling with the scent of blood, smears from a deer killed in the chase. The image shatters and I am staring into a shopwindow, seeing nothing but myself reflected back. My chest tightens in a loneliness so deep and so complete I can’t breathe.
I turn quickly and lash out at the nearest object. A streetlamp quavers and rings with the blow. Pain sears down my arm. Welcome to reality—changing in alleyways and creeping back to my apartment. I am cursed to live between worlds. On the one side there is normalcy. On the other, there is a place where I can be what I am with no fear of reprisals, where I can commit murder itself and scarcely raise the eyebrows of those around me, where I am even encouraged to do so to protect the sanctity of that world. But I left and I can’t return. I won’t return.
As I walk to the apartment, my anger blisters the pavement with every step. A woman curled up under a pile of dirty blankets peers out as I pass and instinctively shrinks back into her nest. As I round the corner, two men step out and size up my prospects as prey. I resist the urge to snarl at them, but just barely. I walk faster and they seem to decide I’m not worth chas-ing. I shouldn’t be here. I should be home in bed, not prowling downtown Toronto at four a.m. A normal woman wouldn’t be here. It’s yet another reminder that I’m not normal. Not normal.
I look down the darkened street and I can read a billet on a telephone post fifty feet off. Not normal. I catch a whiff of fresh bread from a bakery starting production miles away. Not normal. I stop by a storefront, grab a bar over the windows, and flex my biceps. The metal groans in my hand. Not normal. Not normal. I chant the words in my head, flagellating myself with them. The anger only grows.
Outside my apartment door, I stop and inhale deeply. I mustn’t wake Philip. And if I do, I mustn’t let him see me like this. I don’t need a mirror to know what I look like: skin taut, color high, eyes incandescent with the rage that always seems to follow a Change now. Definitely not normal.
When I finally enter the apartment, I hear his measured breathing from the bedroom. Still asleep. I’m nearly to the bathroom when his breathing catches.
“Elena?” His voice is a sleep-stuffed croak.
“Just going to the washroom.”
I try to slip past the doorway, but he’s sitting up, peering nearsightedly at me. He frowns.
“Fully dressed?” he says.
“I went out.”
A moment of silence. He runs a hand through his dark hair and sighs. “It’s not safe. Damn it, Elena. We’ve discussed this. Wake me up and I’ll go with you.”
“I need to be alone. To think.”
“It’s not safe.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
I creep into the bathroom, spending longer than necessary. I pretend to use the toilet, wash my hands with enough water to fill a Jacuzzi, then find a fingernail that needs elaborate filing attention. When I finally decide Philip has fallen back asleep, I head for the bedroom. The bedside lamp is on. He’s propped on his pillow, glasses in place. I hesitate in the doorway. I can’t bring myself to cross the threshold, to go and crawl into bed with him. I hate myself for it, but I can’t do it. The memory of the night lingers and I feel out of place here.
When I don’t move, Philip shifts his legs over the side of the bed and sits up.
“I didn’t mean to snap,” he says. “I worry. I know you need your freedom and I’m trying—”
He stops and rubs his hand across his mouth. His words slice through me. I know he doesn’t mean them as a reprimand, but they are a reminder that I’m screwing this up, that I’m fortunate to have found someone as patient and understanding as Philip, but I’m wearing through that patience at breakneck speed and all I seem capable of doing is standing back and waiting for the final crash.
“I know you need your freedom,” he says again. “But there has to be some other way. Maybe you could go out in the morning, early. If you prefer night, we could drive down to the lake. You could walk around. I could sit in the car and keep an eye on you. Maybe I could walk with you. Stay twenty paces behind or something.” He manages a wry smile. “Or maybe not. I’d probably get picked up by the cops, the middle-aged guy stalking the beautiful young blond.”
He pauses, then leans forward. “That’s your cue, Elena. You’re supposed to remind me that forty-one is far from middle-aged.”
“We’ll work something out,” I say.
We can’t, of course. I have to run under the cover of night and I have to do it alone. There is no compromise.
As he sits on the edge of the bed, watching me, I know we’re doomed. My only hope is to make this relationship so otherwise perfect that Philip might come to overlook our one insurmountable problem. To do that, my first step should be to go to him, crawl in bed, kiss him, and tell him I love him. But I can’t. Not tonight. Tonight I’m something else, something he doesn’t know and couldn’t understand. I don’t want to go to him like this.
“I’m not tired,” I say. “I might as well stay up. Do you want breakfast?”
He looks at me. Something in his expression falters and I know I’ve failed—again. But he doesn’t say anything. He pulls his smile back in place. “Let’s go out. Someplace in this city has to be open this early. We’ll drive around until we find it. Drink five cups of coffee and watch the sun come up. Okay?”
I nod, not trusting myself to speak.
“Shower first?” he says. “Or flip for it?”
“You go ahead.”
He kisses my cheek as he passes. I wait until I hear the shower running, then head for the kitchen.
Sometimes I get so hungry.
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by K. L. A. Fricke Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
BY KELLEY ARMSTRONG
A WORD FROM KELLEY ARMSTRONG
BITTEN: THE PROLOGUE
A FINAL NOTE FROM KELLEY …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This book goes out to all the readers of the Otherworld. For those who discovered it with Bitten a decade ago, to those who just discovered it a month ago. You took a dream and you made it real. Thank you.
Typical guy. You fight through hell—literally, hacking through legions of beasts and zombies and demon-spawn—to sneak home and spend a few stolen minutes with him … and he’s not there.
Eve grumbled as she paced around the tiny houseboat, multi-hued blood dripping from her sword. “Where the hell are you, Kris?”
Her angel partner, Trsiel, couldn’t cover for her much longer, and she’d really wanted to check in with Kristof. He’d been keeping an eye on the living world for her, watching as his sons and their daughter got caught up in this mess. There really wasn’t much a ghostly father could do to help, but the check-ins made them both feel better.