Scarlet Page 26


“And you didn’t have any siblings? Or … adopted siblings? Wards?”

“Wards?” Scarlet swiped her sleeve across her nose and squinted at him. “No, it was just me.” She added a branch to the fire. “How about you? Any siblings?”

Wolf curled his fingers into the rocks. “One. A younger brother.”

Scarlet barely heard him over the crackle of the flames. She felt the weight of those three words. A younger brother. Wolf’s expression showed neither affection nor coldness. He struck her as someone who would be protective of a younger sibling, but his face seemed hardened against that instinct.

“Where’s he now?” she asked. “Does he still live with your parents?”

Leaning forward, Wolf adjusted the nearest duck leg. “No. Neither of us have spoken to our parents in a very long time.”

Scarlet refocused on the cooking bird. “Not getting along with your parents. I guess that’s something we have in common, then.”

Wolf’s grip locked around the drumstick, and only when a spark lanced out at him from the fire did he retract his arm. “I loved my parents,” he said with the tenderness that had been missing when he’d mentioned his brother.

“Oh,” she said dumbly. “Are they dead?”

She flinched at her crudeness, wishing just once she knew when to hold her tongue. But Wolf seemed more resigned than hurt as he picked through the rocks beside him. “I don’t know. There are rules that come with being a member of the pack. One is that you’ll cut all ties with people from your past, including your family. Especially your family.”

She shook her head, baffled. “But if you had a good home life, why did you even join them in the first place?”

“I wasn’t given a choice.” He scratched behind his ear. “My brother wasn’t given one either when they came for him, a few years after they took me, but that never seemed to bother him like it bothered me…” He trailed off, tossing a stone into the water. “It’s complicated. And it doesn’t matter anymore.”

She frowned. It was unfathomable to her that you wouldn’t have a choice to live that lifestyle, to leave your home and family, to join a violent gang—but before she could press him further, Wolf’s attention swiveled back toward the train tracks and he leaped to his feet.

Scarlet turned, her heart landing in her throat.

The man from the dining car crept out of the shadows, quiet as a cat. He was still smiling, but it was nothing like that teasing, flirtatious grin she’d seen on him before.

It took her a slow, blank moment to recall his name. Ran.

Tipping his head back, Ran sniffed longingly at the air.

“Lovely,” he said. “It seems I’m just in time for supper.”

Twenty-One

“I’m so sorry if I’ve interrupted you,” Ran said, lingering beneath the forest canopy. “The scent was simply too enticing to pass up.” His eyes were on Wolf as he said this and the twinkle behind them made Scarlet’s toes curl in her shoes. Grasping the handle of her pistol, she dragged it in toward her hip.

“Of course,” Wolf said after a long silence, his voice dark with warning. “We have plenty.”

“Thank you, friend.”

The man walked around the fire, passing by so close to Scarlet that she had to shrink away to keep her elbow from brushing his leg. The hairs stood up on her forearms.

Ran sprawled out opposite the fire from her, lounging as if the shore were his own private beach. After a moment, Wolf settled down between them. Not lounging.

“Wolf, this is Ran,” said Scarlet, flushing from the awkwardness. “I met him on the train.” Wishing she could restructure her emotions into nonchalance, she busied her hands with turning the duck pieces. Wolf inched closer to her, keeping himself as a block between her and Ran even though his face was tinged red from being so close to the flames.

“We had a lovely conversation in the dining car,” said Ran. “About … what was it? ‘Righteous lupine wannabes?’”

Scarlet glared at him. “A topic that never ceases to fascinate me,” she said, tone even as she pulled the duck wings and legs out of the pit. “These are done.”

She took a drumstick for herself and handed the other to Wolf. Ran didn’t complain about the two bony wings, and Scarlet grimaced when he pulled the first apart, cartilage popping loudly at the joints.

“Bon appétit,” said Ran, picking at the meat with his eerily sharp nails, juices dripping down his arms.

Scarlet nibbled at the meat, while her two companions attacked their shares like animals, each keeping a wary eye on the other. She leaned forward. “So, Ran. How did you get away from the train?”

Ran tossed the clean bones of one wing into the lake. “I might ask you the same.”

She pretended that her heart wasn’t pulsating erratically. “We jumped.”

“Risky,” said Ran with a smirk.

Wolf bristled. The relaxation that had graced his features before was gone, replaced by the simmering temper Scarlet had seen at the street fight. The tapping fingers, the jostling foot.

“We’re still a long way from Paris,” said Ran, ignoring Scarlet’s question. “How unfortunate this turn of events has been. For the plague victim, of course.”

Scarlet adjusted the breast meat. “It’s awful. I’m grateful that Wolf was with me or I’d probably still be stuck there.”

“Wolf,” said Ran, enunciating it very carefully. “What an unusual name. Did your parents give it to you?”

“Does it matter?” said Wolf, tossing away his bone.

“I’m only making conversation.”

“I’d prefer silence,” Wolf said, a growl in his tone.

After a moment in which the distrust was palpable between them, Ran faked a gasp. “I’m so sorry,” he said, picking the last bit of meat from the bones. “Have I stumbled upon a honeymoon? What a lucky man you are.” His face taunted as he pushed the shredded meat into his mouth.

Wolf curled his fingers into the sand.

Squinting at the man through the haze of smoke and heat, Scarlet leaned forward. “Is it my imagination, or do you two know each other?”

Neither denied it. Wolf’s focus was pinned to Ran, a twitch away from attacking him.

Suspicion sliced through Scarlet’s thoughts and she gripped the gun. “Roll up your sleeve.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Ran, licking the juices as they dripped down his wrist.

Clambering to her feet, she leveled the barrel at him. “Now.”

He hesitated only a moment. Expression unreadable, he reached for his left wrist and rolled the sleeve past his elbow. LSOP1126 was tattooed across the muscle of his forearm.

Anger boiled up inside Scarlet, every bit as hot as the coals beneath the fire. “Why didn’t you tell me he was one of them?” she hissed without taking her focus or the gun off the tattoo.

For the first time, Ran’s composure stiffened.

“I was hoping to determine why he’s here and why he’d approached you on the train, without alarming you,” said Wolf. “Scarlet, this is Ran Kesley, a Loyal Soldier to the Order of the Pack. Don’t worry, he is only an omega.”

Ran’s nose wrinkled at what Scarlet could tell had been a low insult.

She swapped her attention between the two. “You could smell him on me,” she said. “When I came back to the car, you knew—and you knew he was following us, all this time! How—?” She gaped at Wolf. The unnatural eyes. The uncanny senses. The teeth. The howls. The idea that he’d never had a tomato before. “Who are you people?”

Hurt flinched across Wolf’s face, but it was Ran who spoke. “What exactly have you told her, brother?”

Wolf stood, forcing Ran to tilt back his head to hold his stare. “She knows I’m no longer a brother to you,” he said. “And she knows that no one with that mark can be trusted.”

Ran smiled at the irony. “Is that all?”

“I know you have my grandmother!” she yelled, startling a flock of swallows out of the nearest tree. Once their flapping had gone quiet, the woods settled into a thick hush, Scarlet’s words still ringing. Her hand started to shake and she forced it to be still, though Ran continued to sit sprawled and at ease on the shore.

“You have my grandmother,” she said, more slowly this time. “Don’t you?”

“Well. Not with me…”

White sparks flashed across Scarlet’s vision, and it took all her willpower not to pull the trigger and erase his smugness. “Why are you following us?” she said when the throbbing rage had become a manageable simmer.

She could see him calculating his response. Planting his palm on the rocky shore, Ran pushed himself to standing and brushed the dirt from his hands. “I’ve been sent to retrieve my brother,” he said, as casually as if he’d been sent to the store for milk and bread. “Perhaps he did not tell you that he and I are part of an elite pack given a special assignment. That assignment has been canceled, and Master Jael wants us to return. All of us.”

Scarlet’s stomach tightened at Ran’s meaningful look, but Wolf’s expression was filled with more distrust and shadows than it had ever been.

“I’m not coming back,” he said. “Jael no longer controls me.”

Ran sniffed. “I doubt that. And you know as well as anyone that we don’t allow our brothers to leave us.” He rolled his sleeve down over the tattoo. “Though I confess, I haven’t missed having one less alpha around.”

The wind shifted, sending sparks from the fire into Scarlet’s face and she stumbled back, blinking them away.

“Did you really think it wise to come here, without Jael to protect you?” said Wolf.

“I don’t need Jael’s protection.”

“That would be a first.”

With a snarl, Ran leaped forward, but Wolf danced out of his reach and retaliated with a fist aimed at Ran’s jaw. Ran blocked, grasping Wolf’s fist and using the momentum to spin Wolf around and lock his elbow around Wolf’s neck. Wolf reached back, grasped Ran’s shoulder, and flipped Ran over his head. Ran landed with a solid grunt, his feet smacking the water.

He was up again in a blink.

Scarlet’s hand trembled, the gun dancing between the two, her pulse galloping. Ran was shaking with smothered rage, while Wolf was carved from rock, shrewd and calculating.

“I really do think it’s time for you to return, brother,” Ran said through clenched teeth.

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