Scarlet Page 25


She watched the fingers, half mesmerized, and didn’t realize that the light had flickered away until the pressure of Wolf’s touch lifted from her back.

They prowled on.

Soon the train was behind them, the noise of lost civilization fading in the chatter of crickets and toads. When Wolf seemed satisfied they weren’t being followed, he led them out of the forest and back down to the tracks.

Despite the growing distance between them and the train, neither spoke.

Just as the sun was kissing the horizon, almost blindingly bright in those rare moments when it could be glimpsed through the trees, Wolf stopped and turned back. Scarlet halted a few steps ahead of him and followed his gaze, but she saw nothing but overgrown sticker bushes and long shadows that had no end.

Her ears were perked, listening for another howl, but she couldn’t pick up anything but bird chatter and, overhead, the squeaks of a colony of bats. “More wolves?” she finally asked.

A long silence, followed by a terse nod. “More wolves.”

It wasn’t until he started walking again that Scarlet released a captured breath. They’d been walking for hours without sign of another train, a cross-section of tracks, or civilization. On one hand, it was beautiful here—the fresh air, the wildflowers, the critters that came to the edge of the brush to watch Scarlet and Wolf before scurrying back into the ferns.

But on the other hand, her feet and back were sore, her stomach was growling, and now Wolf was telling her that the less loveable creatures of the forest were prowling nearby.

A chill rushed up her arms. Untying her hoodie from her waist, she tugged it on and yanked the zipper up to her neck. Pulling out her portscreen, she deflated to see that they’d gone a mere eighteen miles; they had another thirty to go before they reached the nearest station.

“There’s a junction coming up, in about a half mile.”

“Good,” said Wolf. “Whatever trains were scheduled to come through on these tracks won’t be making it through any time soon. We should start seeing some trains after the junction.”

“And when this train comes,” she said, “how do you plan on getting us onto it?”

“Same way we got off the last one.” He sent a sly grin toward her. “Like jumping off a barn, was it?”

She glared. “The comparison doesn’t work as well for jumping back onto a train.”

His response was that same teasing smile, and Scarlet turned away, thinking that maybe she didn’t want to know what his plan was, so long as he had one. A late-flowering shrub trembled just off the path and Scarlet’s heart thumped—until a harmless pine marten crawled out and disappeared into the trees.

She sighed, annoyed at her restlessness. “So,” she said, disrupting Wolf in another backward glance. “Who would win in a fight—you or a pack of wolves?”

He frowned at her, all seriousness. “Depends,” he said, slowly, like he was trying to figure out her motive for asking. “How big is the pack?”

“I don’t know, what’s normal? Six?”

“I could win against six,” he said. “Any more than that and it could be a close call.”

Scarlet smirked. “You’re not in danger of low self-esteem, at least.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing at all.” She kicked a stone from their path. “How about you and … a lion?”

“A cat? Don’t insult me.”

She laughed, the sound sharp and surprising. “How about a bear?”

“Why, do you see one out there?”

“Not yet, but I want to be prepared in case I have to rescue you.”

The smile she’d been waiting for warmed his face, a glint of white teeth flashing. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had to fight a bear before.” He cocked his head toward the east. “There’s a lake that way, maybe a hundred yards. We should refill the water.”

“Wait.”

Wolf paused, glanced at her.

Scarlet’s brow was creased as she inched toward him. “Do that again.”

He took half a step back, eyes glinting with sudden nerves. “Do what?”

“Smile.”

The order was met with the opposite response. Wolf shrank back, his jaw tense as if to be sure his lips stayed locked together.

Scarlet hesitated only a moment before reaching for him. He winced, but didn’t move as she cupped his chin and gently pulled open his lips with her thumb. He took in a hissing breath, before touching his tongue to the point of his right tooth.

But they were not normal. They were almost fang-like, with sharp, elongated canines.

She realized, too slowly, they were like wolf teeth.

Wolf turned his face away, locking his jaw again. His whole body stayed tense, uncomfortable. She saw him gulp.

“Implants?”

He scratched the back of his neck, unable to look at her.

“That Order of the Pack sure takes this wolf thing seriously, don’t they?” Finding her hand still hovering in midair, her fingers dangerously close to tilting Wolf’s face back toward her, she let it fall and tucked it into her front pocket. Her heart was suddenly racing. “So are there any other oddities I should know about? A tail, perhaps?”

Finally, he met her gaze, flushed with insult until he found her smiling up at him.

“I’m joking,” she said, offering an apologetic grin. “They’re only teeth. At least they’re not implanted on your scalp like that guy at the fights had.”

It took a moment, but soon his embarrassment started to melt, his scowl softening around the edges. His lips turned up again, but it was not another true smile.

She nudged his foot with her toes. “All right, I’ll accept that smile for now. You said you heard a river nearby?”

Seemingly grateful to be released from the conversation, Wolf ducked back from her. “A lake,” he said. “I can smell it.”

Scarlet squinted in the direction he’d gestured, seeing nothing but more trees, the same old trees. “Of course you can,” she said, following as he pushed into the undergrowth.

And he was right, though it was more a pond than a lake—kept fresh by a creek that flowed in and out on the far side. The shore changed from grass to rocks before disappearing beneath the surface, and a cluster of beech trees hung their branches toward the water.

Rolling up her sleeves, Scarlet splashed some water on her face and slurped up big handfuls. She hadn’t realized how thirsty she was until she found that she couldn’t stop drinking it. Wolf busied himself dunking his hands and pulling his wet fingers through his hair, making it stand in each direction again as if it had gotten too tame during their trek.

Refreshed, Scarlet sat back on her heels and glanced across at Wolf. “I don’t believe it.”

He met her gaze.

“Your hands aren’t twitching,” she said, gesturing at the palm set loosely on his knee—it instantly flexed into a fist, his fingers uncomfortable beneath her scrutiny. “Maybe the forest is having a good effect on you.”

Wolf seemed to consider this, his brow drawn as he topped off the water bottle and nestled it into the bag. “Maybe so,” he said, then, “Is there any more food?”

“No. I didn’t realize we’d be living off our own reserves.” Scarlet laughed. “Now that you mention it—here I am thinking the fresh air must be working a miracle, when you’re probably just suffering from low blood sugar. Come on, maybe we’ll come across some wild berries or something.”

She moved to stand when she heard quacking on the other side of the lake. Half a dozen ducks were making their way into the water, paddling out and dipping their heads beneath the surface.

Scarlet bit her lip. “Or … do you think you could catch one of those?”

As he shifted his attention to the ducks, a daring grin spread over his face.

He made it look easy, prowling up to the unsuspecting birds like a born predator. But if Scarlet was impressed, and perhaps she was, it was nothing compared to his awe as he watched her de-feather the dead fowl like a trained expert, pricking holes in its skin to allow for the outer layer of fat to drain out while it cooked.

The trickiest part was lighting a fire, but with a quick search on her portscreen and a clever use of the gunpowder in one of her gun’s cartridges, Scarlet was soon mesmerized by the gray plumes of a small fire winding their way toward the forest canopy.

Wolf’s attention was off in the woods as he stretched his long legs in front of him. “How long have you lived on the farm?” he asked, digging his heel into the dirt.

Scarlet settled her elbows over her knees and stared impatiently at the duck. “Since I was seven.”

“Why did you leave Paris?”

She peered up at him, but his attention was caught on the tranquil water. “I was miserable there. After my mom left, my dad preferred to spend his time at the bar instead of with me. So I came to live with Grand-mère.”

“And were you happier there?”

She shrugged. “It took some getting used to. I went from being a pretty spoiled city kid to getting up at dawn and being expected to finish my chores. I had my share of rebellions. But it wasn’t the same … when I lived with my dad, I used to throw fits and tantrums, break things and make up stories and anything I could, just to get his attention. To get him to care. But I never did any of that with Grand-mère. We would sit in the garden on warm nights and just talk, and she would actually listen to what I said. She treated my opinions like they were valid, like I had something worthwhile to say.” Her eyes fogged as she stared into the ashes beneath the flames. “Half the time we’d end up fighting with each other, because we both have such big opinions and are too stubborn to ever admit we’re wrong about something, but there would always reach this point, every single time, when one of us would be yelling or just about ready to stomp away and slam the door, and then my grandma would just start laughing. And then of course I would start laughing. And she’d say that I was just like her.” She gulped, tightening her arms around her knees. “She’d say that I was bound to have a tough life, because I was just like her.” Scarlet rubbed her palms against her lashes, smearing away the tears before they could fall.

Wolf waited for her breaths to steady, before asking, “Was it always just the two of you?”

She nodded and when she was sure she’d stifled the tears, peeled her hands away. She sniffed and reached forward to flip the wings, their skin already blackened. “Yep, just the two of us. Grand-mère never married. Whoever my grandpa was, he’s been out of the picture for a long time. She never really talked about it.”

Prev page Next page