I had no idea what time it was when I Shifted, but I knew that it had to be hours and hours that my Wolf spent frolicking around the preserve. She ran, she howled, she snapped at the rushing water in the stream with her teeth and splashed around for a little while. She hunted twice and snagged a couple of rabbits. She rolled around in mud and leaves. She strayed off the grounds of the preserve, and I didn't insist that we turn back till I could sense we were really far away.
By the time the sun was beginning to peek over the horizon, and rays of light stretched up past the heavens, and coral and orange hues colored the sky, I knew we needed to Shift back. It was time to call Shaun and return to the city.
My Wolf resisted. I hadn't seen her this happy in such a long time, but we were risking running into early-bird, sunrise-watching humans, and she huffed in irritated agreement. She receded into the back of my mind once again, and again, I welcomed the snapping of bones and stretching of skin as I reassumed my human form.
I let my backpack fall from my shoulders, and I pulled out my panties and my shoes. I untied my now-filthy clothing from my ankle, and wrinkled my nose at the feeling of muddy, wet fabric as I pulled my shirt on over my head. It stuck to my skin. I shivered violently. I rummaged around for y cell phone, sent Shaun a text message, and started walking in the direction of the parking lot.
I feel better, my Wolf purred.
I really did. My mother's warning was stuck on repeat in my subconscious, but the pink bracelet was stuck there, too. I didn't own that bracelet. I took solace in that little detail. Maybe my mother's premonition was wrong, and maybe I wasn't in danger at all.
I briefly wondered if the vampire attack and my predicted kidnapping were related, but I brushed it off. I felt much more in tune with my Wolf. I felt invincible. If any of these humans so much as looked at me the wrong way, I could kill them easily.
I wouldn't, but I could.
I passed by a few people on the trail, presumably heading up to Butler Reservoir. If I had the time, I'd stick around to watch the sunrise, too, but I had to get back home so I could get ready for work.
Shaun was already waiting for me in the parking lot. When I climbed into his car, his eyes widened.
"What the f**k happened to you?" He sounded genuinely concerned.
I glanced down at my clothes as I buckled my seatbelt. "Night hiking," I said, with a nonchalant shrug. "I'll pay to have your seat cleaned."
"Okay, I guess."
With that, we left. Shaun told me about a sketchy guest at the hotel who had stayed in a room down the hall from his. Once he tried to change the subject and pried about my night a bit too much for my liking, I told him, "I had a great night. Saw a family of rabbits. Skipped some rocks on the lake. Gotta get some rest now, though. I have to work today."
"You're going to work? Did you even sleep at all?" he asked incredulously.
"I'm about to."
I shifted around in my seat, trying to get comfortable. I wound up with an elbow propped against the window, using my seatbelt as a sort of sling for my head.
I'd never taken a more restful nap.
My Wolf woke me when we were about five minutes from home. I lifted my head from the seatbelt, rubbed my eyes, and yawned.
"Oh, good," Shaun said, upon noticing I was sitting upright. "We're getting real close to your house. I was contemplating kidnapping you."
My anxiety immediately spiked, but I made the hasty, split-second decision to play along anyway. I reminded myself that I didn't see Shaun as a threat. "Next time, don't think, just act. Missed your window of opportunity with me."
"I said I was contemplating. Hadn't decided yet."
"Don't think, just act," I repeated. He chuckled in response.
We turned onto the road where I lived, and my jaw dropped at the scene before us. Multiple police cars, lights flashing, were clustered on the street in front of my brownstone. Shaun pulled the car to the curb and parked a few doors down.
"I promise I wasn't really going to kidnap you, Natalie," he said firmly, looking me dead in the eyes.
I laughed. "I don't know what the f**k this is," I said, gesturing towards the police cars.
"Weird offer, probably, but do you…I don't know. Do you want me to stay?"
I gave him an appreciative smile. "I can manage. How about I call you if s**t hits the fan?"
"Natalie," he said lowly, and leaned towards me slightly, "are you selling drugs out of your fancy-ass apartment?"
I laughed heartily. "Absolutely. Don't go too far, I'll probably need a getaway driver."
I paid Shaun for the ride and included another hefty tip. He tried to decline my money altogether, insisting that he wasn't even working and that this ride was a favor. So, I opened his glove box, left the money inside, and got out of the car without another word.
I watched as he maneuvered around the police cars. I focused on his black Kia till he turned the corner and I couldn't see him anymore. My Wolf was whining and yipping. Something was very wrong. I walked down to my building, ascended the stairs, and pushed open the door, but of course, there were police officers everywhere, blocking the stairs to go up to my unit.
A female officer caught my eye. She had dirty blonde hair, and it was tied back into a low ponytail at the base of her neck. Recognition flitted across her features when she saw me, and she immediately came bounding over to me, leaving the officer that she had been talking to behind. He was portly with a receding hairline, and he regarded me with the same look of recognition.
"Natalie Novak?" The woman came to a halt in front of me, studying me with an eyebrow c****d, likely in confusion.
"Yes, ma'am, that's me."
"I'm Officer Trubiano." She extended her hand, and I shook it politely. "Where were you last night?"
I glanced down. I was such a mess, I looked homeless. "Visiting family in Jersey. We went out to a nature preserve to watch the sunrise—my cousin's big into nature. I misjudged the pitch of a slope in the trail, slipped, and almost tumbled right into a stream."
"Is that right?"
I wasn't sure if she was buying it, but that didn't necessarily discourage me. "Yes, ma'am. I was in a hurry to get back home and didn't have time to change into clean clothes. I've got to get ready for work."
She grunted in response, scrutinized me in stony silence, and then she asked, "When's the last time you heard from your neighbor, Christie Langston?"
My brows knit together in confusion. "We had dinner together on Monday night. I haven't heard from her since," I answered, frowning. "Did something happen to her?"
"We aren't sure. Nathan just filed a missing persons report," Officer Trubiano said. She pulled a little black leather envelope out of her pocket. "If you hear anything from Christie, or if you learn anything pertaining to her whereabouts," she paused to produce a business card from the envelope, "call this number." She handed me the card, and continued to eye me suspiciously.
I took it, and stood rooted in place, gaping at her like an i***t.
She asked me a few more questions—what family was I visiting, where in New Jersey, and who drove me home—and then she let me go. I didn't think she was satisfied with her assessment of me. I could feel her gaze burning into my back as I finally climbed the staircase to the safety of my apartment. My legs felt unsteady and my hands were trembling. As soon as my front door was shut behind me, I fell against it and placed my hand on my chest. My heart was pounding. I took a few, deep steadying breaths.
Christie was gone. What the hell happened? I pushed off the door and went to take a long, hot shower. I let the stream hit my face, washing away the dirt and grime and sweat that coated my skin from Apshawa. I scrubbed my hair and untangled a few dripping wet leaves and even a small twig.
I stepped out of the shower, toweled off, and dressed. I texted Jill and Ken and told them both I was taking a personal day. I peeked out my bedroom window, which faced the street, and I saw no police cars. I head downstairs to talk to Nathan.
"Nat." He answered the door with a weak smile. His eyes were read and puffy. "I had a feeling you'd be by."
He stepped back to let me in. I sat down on the couch in the living room and he sat in a nearby armchair.
"What the f**k happened?" I asked.
Nathan sighed and leaned back in his chair. He ran his hands through his sandy blonde hair and down his face, blinked a few times, sniffed, and cleared his throat. "I don't know what the f**k happened. She was texting me on her way to work yesterday morning, like always, but then she just…stopped responding. I didn't think anything of it, because it's Christie." He paused to chuckle. "She talks to everyone. I figured she just got distracted."
I didn't speak. I watched him stand and trudge over to the window across the room. I waited patiently for him to continue. He had his back to me and his head was down. I could tell he was having a hell of a time keeping it together, and truthfully, I was surprised that he could at all.
He turned back around and returned to his seat. "I didn't hear from her all day. I still thought nothing of it, like a f*****g moron. I came home from work, and went to bed. I woke up at about 10:30 at night, and she wasn't here. Still had no texts or calls from her, either. She just…disappeared. Dropped off the face of the f*****g planet.
"I waited up all night, and I kept calling and texting. I finally remembered I could track her location. Location services? You know, on the phone?"
"Well, she's not sharing her location with me anymore. Her phone isn't off." He pulled his phone out of his back pocket, tapped around on the screen, and called Christie. He put the call on speakerphone. The seconds seemed to drag on, and the hopeful anticipation building in the room was almost tangible. Finally, we got her voicemail, and the hopefulness fizzled. I sat in silence as the cheery sound of her voice filled the room, and he let her entire voicemail message play. A single tear fell down his right cheek, and his lips were pressed together in a hard line, brow furrowed deeply.
"I called the cops this morning around 7am, not too long before you got home." He tucked his phone back into his pocket, his shoulders slumped, a dejected expression on his face. He wiped his cheek, and blinked away more tears.
"So, what now?" I asked.
"They're looking for her. I guess now we just wait for them to find her."
The next day was Thursday. I went to work. I called Kate on my way home. She was doing great, and so was baby. She told me about the new line of jewelry she was realeasing on her Etsy shop, and she excitedly told me she had sent me a few pieces in the mail, just because. She relayed what little information she had about recent pack business, but she was never one to involve herself in that much.
I hesitated, as I didn't want to cause her any unnecessary stress, but I ultimately told her about the vampire attack and about Christie's disappearance. I didn't tell her about my mother's premonition.
Friday, I went to work. I walked home with my head down. Friday was uneventful, but not a second passed that I didn't feel desperation and sorrow, brought on my Christie still being gone, even if these feelings weren't at the forefront of my mind. They were simmering just below the surface, all day long. My mother's warning was still nagging at me, too, but I still didn't own any pink bracelets. Her warning brought on more of an annoying curiosity. I was no longer anxious about it.
Saturday, I attended a networking event with Jill, Ken, and several of our employees. I hadn't even thought of the event all week. Ken mentioned it in passing on Friday morning, and I spent all day scrambling to prepare.
We had a full day of listening to speakers. Ken was set to speak, too. He droned on about advertising techniques and establishing a stable, reliable team. Our little group mingled, and I drank four filled-to-the-brim glasses of wine, but I didn't bother acting tipsy. I caught Ken staring at me a handful of times, a hungry look in his beady eyes. We secured two new clients. I went straight home after the event was over, declining an invite to grab a late dinner with Jill, and I checked in with Nathan. He fell apart as soon as we sat down in the living room, and we wound up making plans to get breakfast the next morning. I suggested it—I noticed that he hadn't left the house at all since Wednesday.
But, early on Sunday morning, a body was found in Williamstown, four and a half hours away from the city. It was burned beyond recognition, however, dental record helped to identify it as our Christie Langston. Nathan, understandably, was inconsolable. Two police officers were on his doorstep at 9am, about an hour before we were planning to leave for breakfast. I noticed their cruiser parked by the curb outside my bedroom window, and I strained my ears to listen to their steps as they climbed the stairs to Nathan's apartment.
I eavesdropped on their exchange, and I felt guilty, but I already knew. Nathan slammed the door in their faces and locked it. Not a single one of his pained screams went unnoticed by me, but I didn't think it was thanks to my highly sensitive hearing. I was sure that his screams could be heard all the way out on the street. I felt every single one. I wished desperately that there was something, anything, I could do to console him, but of course there wasn't.
My father called me just before dawn. I was awake, poking around my apartment aimlessly, daydreaming about the massive breakfast platter I was going to eat.
Apparently, the Alpha of the Black Summit pack had connections in the city. He'd contacted Dad right before Dad contacted me. Christie wasn't dead, as far as we knew, unless she didn't survive being turned. The charred body in Williamstown wasn't hers, but said connections knew the vampires who snagged her on the subway would be planting it.
I wasn't sure what to do with this information. "Are all these things connected?" I asked.
"What do you mean?" Dad asked.
"I mean, they took Christie on Wednesday morning, and I witnessed a separate vampire attack on Wednesday afternoon, and Mom had a premonition that I was kidnapped. Is it all related?"
"I doubt it, Nat, but heed your mother's warning. Seriously. Keep your eyes and ears open. Maybe it's just a large coven passing through your area. I don't know."
"A large coven?" Large covens were insanely uncommon. Unheard of, even.
"I don't know, Natalie. Alpha Reid said that he only knew what his connections knew, and what I'm telling you is all he offered me."
We ended our call, and soon thereafter, the police were at Nathan's.
I would rather Christie was dead, my Wolf said softly, when Nathan's screaming started. I'd rather she was dead than become one of those creatures.
I just hoped I never saw her again.
As I listened to Nathan's cries of despair, I showered, dressed, and blow-dried my hair. I still intended to go to breakfast—I was starving. Angry rumbling in my stomach aside, Nathan's screams eventually turned into pitiful sobs. Just the sound of him tugged mercilessly at my heart strings and tears filled my eyes. I had to leave before I lost it, too, despite knowing what really happened to Christie.
I was still sad, of course, but I was strangely comforted knowing that burnt corpse wasn't her. My Wolf was right, though. I'd rather she was dead.
As a courtesy, and because I figured I'd need to act like I didn't know what he'd just been told, I stopped at the apartment below mine to see if Nathan would come to the door. I didn't think he would. I knocked a few times, and waited. His sobbing never stopped. The door never opened. I sent him a quick text message about noticing the police, and about how I was heading to breakfast, and that I wasn't sure what was going on, but to let me know if he wanted me to bring him a doggy bag. I wasn't expecting him to answer.
I left. It was a dark, overcast day, and thunder rumbled in the distance. I headed in the direction of my favorite little café, called Julie's. It was only a few blocks away from home. They had the best, butteriest, flakiest croissants in all of New York City, and I walked with an anticipation-driven pep in my step.
My phone pinged and I pulled it out of my pocket. It was Glenn. It read, "Are we still on for tonight?"
I chewed the inside of my cheek, and sent a short response. A simple, "Yup."
He texted back almost right away. "Great, see you tonight." There was a winky face emoji at the end of his sentence. I slipped my phone back into my pocket and continued on my way. Glenn's intentions for tonight were clear. We'd probably order a pizza, and we'd have boring, vanilla, missionary s*x, just the way Glenn liked it. Boring or not, it would be a welcome distraction.
I was seated at a table at Julie's next to a big window, and not a moment after I sat down and took off my coat did it start to rain. The rain came down in sheets, pounding against the glass. The view I had of the city streets were still perfectly picturesque, in spite of the blur from the fat rain droplets. I ordered a chai tea, two fried eggs, a croissant, and a fruit bowl. My chai tea was brought to me quickly, and I drank it with the warm mug clasped in both hands as I stared out the window and watched the storm. I watched people run past, carrying umbrellas or using newspapers or purses to shield themselves.
The very same second that my waitress placed my food in front of me, the café door opened with a rumble of thunder and a gust of wind, and an intoxicating scent hit me like a brick wall. It was woodsy, with notes of cedar and a delicious manly musk. My eyes snapped up to find the source of this positively irresistible smell.