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       Red, p.1

           Kait Nolan
 
Red


  Red

  Kait Nolan

  Red

  Written and published by Kait Nolan

  Copyright 2011 Kait Nolan

  Smashwords Edition

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

  Cover Art by Robin Ludwig of Robin Ludwig Designs

  AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a work of fiction. All people, places, and events are purely products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is entirely coincidental.

  License Notes: This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. The ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or obtain it from a library, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  For Allen,

  My everyday hero, who makes me laugh.

  All my love,

  K

  Acknowledgements

  As is always the case, this book would not be possible without the extensive brainstorming, pep talks, chocolate, and critiques of Susan “The Pink Hammer” Bischoff. Best crit partner EVER.

  Additionally, thanks to my agent, The Magnificent Laurie McLean, for seeing Red’s potential and mine and fighting to give us wings.

  Also thanks to my fabulous beta readers Claire Legrand and Andrew Mocete. Your reading updates were treasured.

  Chapter 1

  Elodie

  I was thirteen when I found out why my mother left me.

  It seems important to start my story there. The moment when everything changed and my life became a nightmare. The moment when my mother’s madness began to infect my father. Infect me.

  The letter that came on my birthday that year was such a shock to my poor dad. So many times, I’ve wished I’d thrown it away. That I’d never let him see it. But at thirteen, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the enormity of what my mother was imparting. I thought it was a joke at first. A cruel one.

  Dad didn’t. Instead of believing that she was mad, he took her words as the cold, hard truth. That I am a monster, just waiting for the proper catalyst to be unleashed. That I am cursed as she was.

  Today I know it’s true.

  I stared at the final line, the period a blotch of blue ink that bled into the page until I lifted my pen. It was worse, somehow, putting my fears into words. Words made a thing real, and I’d spent so long in denial. My ancestors all wrote of the curse in the weeks and months before they died, so it seemed fitting that I begin documentation of my own story to slip beside my mother’s letter, behind the final pages of the thick, leather-bound journal that held my gruesome family history.

  With a careful, slanting hand, I continued.

  I am seventeen today. Older than my predecessors by a full year. Nothing happened the way she said it would. As far as the history goes, all of them had given birth by now. All of them were dead by now. Some hunted and slaughtered. Some, like my mother, dead by their own hand. Maybe it’s because I haven’t transitioned yet, but I cannot see suicide as a viable alternative. The book hints of madness that accompanies the curse, but my mother seemed right enough in her mind when she penned the letter explaining things to me, arranging for its safe-keeping and delayed delivery, and seeing that the trail to my father was obliterated before she walked away from us, away from life, when I was only three days old.

  I cannot help but feel she took the coward’s way out, even if she thought she was protecting us. But was it cowardice? Each year since I got the letter, I’ve come out here, to contemplate whether I could do it. Each year I’ve brought a different weapon, testing, if you will, my willingness to end my own life, should it come to that. Acclimating myself to the idea. Pills the first year, though I learned from this book that our kind has a stronger constitution and requires something more definitive than an overdose. A rope the next. I wound up making a swing from it. Last year was my father’s pistol. The barrel tasted bitter and oily when I put it in my mouth. I managed to load the cylinder, but didn’t get so far as cocking the hammer.

  You see, I don’t want to die.

  I want a life, a future. I want to be normal. And I thought I was until yesterday morning.

  Then I smelled it. The succulent odor of bacon frying. So innocuous, really. I thought Dad had decided to cook breakfast, like he used to on Saturday mornings before the letter. We made it through the worst year, the worst of the waiting, and nothing happened. Nothing changed. I had hope.

  But there wasn’t any bacon frying. There wasn’t even anybody in the kitchen. Just a note from Dad that he’d been called in to work, and he’d be back in a couple of days.

  I don’t know what possessed me to follow the smell. I was hungry, I guess. I tracked the scent to the Redmond’s open kitchen window. They are our closest neighbors. A full three-quarters of a mile away.

  Humans do not have such fine-tuned senses of smell.

  But wolves do.

  What will be next? My hearing? My reflexes? The fevers that precede the first shift? How long do I have before I change? Before I lose my humanity like those who came before me.

  Will I have the courage to do what must be done?

  I glanced down at the bone-handled knife sitting beside me on the stone but didn’t touch it. Of all the weapons I’d tested, this was the first one that truly scared me. Pills were relatively painless. A rope, well if you did it right, that was pretty instant. Same with eating a bullet. But a knife… A knife was something else altogether. A knife meant you had to be sure, had to inflict pain, had to wait and watch as your life bled out, heartbeat by heartbeat.

  A knife had been my mother’s choice, according to the coroner’s report.

  Setting the notebook aside, I rose and paced a restless circle around the clearing. I had privacy here, out in the depths of the park with the slopes of the Appalachians rising around me like giant hands curved to hold the mist of morning. I wasn’t worried about being interrupted. None of the tourists would stray so far from the trails that snaked their way through the trees. And as far as I was aware, no one else knew about this place.

  Which made it the perfect spot to challenge myself.

  I circled back around, eyes on the knife. Even sheathed, it made my breathing hitch. It’s not like it was the very knife Mom used. That one was still in an evidence locker somewhere. I’d filched this one from Dad’s workroom, so it wasn’t cloaked in bad juju or anything. But I couldn’t look at it and not imagine blood. Oceans of it, spilling out of a warm body, skin growing paler and paler as the life pulsed across the stone in some horrible sacrifice.

  Dad always said I had an active imagination.

  I approached the knife, willing myself to pick it up. C’mon Elodie, you can do this. You can face the knife.

  Closing my hand around the hilt, I could feel the pattern carved into the bone handle where it pressed against my sweaty palm. A howling wolf. The irony. I was sure Dad would never have bought it if he’d known what I was.

  My heart hammered against my ribs, galloping with a fear I hadn’t felt in all my other trials. I wanted to run. To drop the knife and flee back to the sham of a normal life I’d struggled to build over the last four years. Instead, I unsnapped the leather strap that kept the knife in its sheath and slipped the blade free.

  It gleamed, polished and sharpened, well-kept as everything my dad tended, though he probably hadn’t used it in months. Nathaniel Rose took care of things—whether he wanted to or not. Mouth dry, I set the sheath aside and crossed to a green sapling. Tugging on a branch about the size of my pinky, I drew the
knife across it. Two swipes. That’s all it took to sever the branch.

  The Cheerios I’d had for breakfast threatened to make a reappearance.

  I moved back to the stone and sat, propping my right arm in my lap, wrist side up. The faint tracery of veins stood out like blue lace against my fair skin. I lifted the knife, but my hand shook so badly I had to stop and rest it against the rock. No way in hell was I going to accidentally slit my wrist while I was facing down this personal demon.

  This is a test, I thought. This is only a test. I imagined an annoying, high pitched BEEEEEEEEP! My snicker sounded muffled in the trailing wisps of fog. The sun would be burning it off soon, once it topped the eastern ridge. Best get this done with.

  The near laughter steadied me. I lifted the knife again and brought it slowly and carefully to my arm. Gooseflesh broke out at the kiss of the blade, its tip the barest of whispers against my skin. I focused on that point of contact, shutting my eyes, and reminding myself to breathe.

  I can do this.

  ~*~

  Sawyer

  “I’m not going.”

  I didn’t yell it, but my dad immediately changed into the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-you-anymore expression that had become the norm in the last eight months.

  “Sawyer, you’ve got to finish school. You were so close to graduating when you got expelled. If you’d just go to summer school, you’d finish up, graduate, and be ready to start college in the fall like we’d planned.”

  Oh of course, The Plan. Dad had been big on trying to get me back on The Plan since our lives fell apart. It was his way of coping, I guess. Ever the scientist, he wanted to restore order out of chaos. Like that could possibly repair the massive hole that was blown in our lives.

  I thought about the GED shoved under my mattress upstairs. It would be easy enough to settle this, but then it would look like I was on board with the program. He’d start trying to push me back into Normal Life, as if there was any such thing for people like us. Besides, it was something else to fight about, and these days, I needed to fight like I needed to breathe.

  “I’m. Not. Going,” I repeated, letting the edge of a growl seep into my voice and shifting forward into his personal space. My eyes held his in a dominance challenge that should have spurred him to action to knock me down a peg. I wanted the physicality of fists as a release from the pressure constantly building inside me.

  But he answered in words.

  “Your mother would be so disappointed in you.”

  My breath rushed out in a whoosh, as if he’d sucker-punched my gut. Because it was true. Then I leaned in, so close I could feel his shuddering breath on my face, and delivered the only retaliation I had against the accusation. “And whose fault is it she’s not here to say so herself?”

  The question slid home like a knife between his ribs, and even though I believed it, I still felt like a dick for sinking so low. His eyes shifted to gold, his lip curled in a snarl, and I knew I’d gotten what I wanted.

  At last. I balled my fists, body tensing to move, to finally let off some pressure. But the punch never came.

  “She wouldn’t want this,” he said, and his voice was guttural, already halfway to animal. He stepped back.

  Fresh fury boiled up. I whirled toward the back door, needing to get out, to move, to run.

  “Where are you going?” Dad demanded.

  “For a run.”

  He opened his mouth, to issue a warning probably, and I lifted my shoes in a sarcastic wave. “On two feet.”

  “Be—”

  I slammed the door, cutting off the caution and sprinted for the tree line. Once in the shadow of the trees, I paused only long enough to put on my shoes before resuming my futile escape. You can’t run from what you carry inside.

  My rage grew with every thudding step, the fog shredded by my passage. I was desperate to shed my human skin and hunt, but I didn’t dare. Not here. Timber wolves hadn’t been native to the area for at least a couple of centuries, and after what had happened to my mother in Montana, where we didn’t stand out in the least . . .

  I missed the rugged and unforgiving terrain of the Rockies. Not only because we blended in, but because it was wild. Everything here was too low, too worn, too soft, too civilized. I hadn’t been anywhere near civilized since my mother died.

  The air pressed close, humidity draping over me like a big soggy towel. A few more degrees and it would edge into truly hot and sticky. East Tennessee felt like a world away from home, where we were lucky if it got up to 70 as a high in the dead of summer. And I was stuck here. Even if I went along with The Plan and headed off to college in the fall, there would be conditions. Rules. Restrictions.

  Wolves don’t like restrictions.

  Something moved to my left as I burst free of a cluster of pines. A young buck. It spun away, springing toward safety. Even on two feet, instinct demanded I give chase. I bounded after it, pushing myself beyond human limits of agility and speed to keep the powerful haunches in sight. My muscles ached, and the pain helped to burn off some of the anger. By the time I lost the deer at the river, I was somewhat calmer.

  But it wasn’t enough. Nothing was ever enough. Our kind require the tempering influence of mated pairs. Two parents when we’re young and through transition. A mate when we’re older. I was only a few months beyond my transition when Mom was killed, enough in control that I wasn’t technically a danger. At least not once the blood rage had passed. But I certainly wasn’t winning Son of the Year awards.

  Dad had let the farmer live. The self-righteous, sanctimonious, son of a bitch who put a bullet through my mother’s brain was still walking around, still breathing. Fucking lauded for his actions. Because he, like the rest of his ilk who head up the calls to “thin out” the number of predators in the area in the name of “protecting” livestock, saw a wolf, saw an opportunity, and took it. One shot. One shot that should never have happened because Mom should have smelled the farmer, seen it coming. Taken precautions. But she’d been careless. Furious and careless because of a fight with my father. She’d gone out for a run to blow off steam, as I often did, and she had strayed where it wasn’t safe.

  Maybe my father could have protected her. Maybe he couldn’t. But as her mate, it sure as shit was his job to avenge her. To rip the bastard to shreds.

  He said that would make him into the monster our kind is reputed to be in legend.

  We weren’t so great with the agreeing to disagree.

  I didn’t know what I hoped to accomplish by goading him. Provoking him to some kind of action that let me know he was still an alpha male I could respect? Forcing his hand to go back to Montana and do what needed to be done. Or maybe just fueling the fury that was my constant companion. Anger was familiar and in its own way comforting. It was so much easier to cope with than the grief that threatened to swallow me whole.

  The sun peeked over the ridge, burning off the last of the morning mist. I wasn’t anywhere near a path I recognized. My explorations of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park hadn’t been too extensive in the month we’d been in Mortimer. Our house was just at the edge of the Park proper, which made for easy access—something I’d have to take more advantage of in the future.

  Rather than following my scent trail back, I stuck to the river. Might as well start mapping the area. I'd gone half a mile when I heard the hitched breath. Veering away from the river, I followed the sound into a copse of trees.

  I stayed low to the ground and crept closer until I could see who it was.

  The girl perched on a huge flat boulder on the opposite side of the clearing, her face raised to the sun so that her long black hair fell in shiny waves down her back. She was crying. Not that she was being noisy about it. She wasn’t hysterical or red-faced and wailing. She was absolutely silent. I caught the faint gleam of tears on her cheeks, saw her shoulders shudder with the effort of holding in her grief. And it was grief. I recognized the expression on her face as one I couldn’t bear
myself, and I wondered who she had lost.

  Conscience pricked. I should get out of here. What kind of asshole sticks around and watches a girl cry? But something about her pulled at me, so I stayed. It was as if her tears somehow released my own grief. I felt oddly soothed by it. Part of me wanted to go to her and offer…what? Comfort? I wasn’t any good at that. And she wouldn’t thank me for intruding. No doubt she came out here for privacy.

  Feeling like a voyeur, I started to back away.

  Spots of brighter sunlight flickered on her face, and I paused, looking for the source of the reflection. My eyes fell to her hands. The sun glinted off the blade of a knife where it lay poised against her wrist. She took a deep, shaky breath.

  My heart jolted, a thunder of rage and horror. No! I scrambled up, mustering every ounce of speed I possessed to get to that knife. But my fastest wasn’t fast enough, and the knife pressed into the white flesh.

  ~*~

  Elodie

  The knife was winning. Fear pulsed through me in waves, radiating from the epicenter where the blade pressed against my skin. I shook back my hair, trying to dislodge the sticky strands from my neck. And I thought of my mother.

  Had she wrestled with the decision like I was? Or had she done it quickly? A vertical slash deep between the tissue, straight to the artery. No going back. How long had it taken her to bleed out? If they’d found her sooner, would she have stood a chance?

  My stomach roiled. My shoulders bucked.

  If it came down to me facing off with death, I wouldn’t be doing it like this. But by God I was going to face down this knife and sit here until I got myself under control. I heaved a breath and repositioned the knife, steadying my hold.

 
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