“All right. Stop everything.” Kenya brings the palms of her hands up. “It’s midnight, and you know what that means.” Her lips curl into a wicked grin, and I shake my head.
Here we go.
Kenya had been more excited about my upcoming twenty-first birthday than I was, but only because it meant I could officially join in on my best friend’s escapades. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I could have already tagged along on those wild nights way before what Kenya calls my Freedom Day, thanks to my fake ID. It was a rite of passage to procure one at my old high school in Chicago, and I’ve had mine since I was sixteen.
When I moved to Crimson Hollow to take care of my grandmother two years ago, I left my party days behind. That’s why I never told Kenya about my illegal document. It had been an adjustment for sure—not forsaking the parties, but leaving life in the big city. I missed the noise, the chaos, and my friends. But most importantly, I loved how my busy life kept me from being stuck inside my own head for too long. Strange thoughts roamed freely in my brain when there was no other stimuli, thoughts that felt like they belonged to someone else. And that scared me.
“I’m not drinking twenty-one shots,” I say loudly enough so everyone in our group can hear me over the loud music in the bar. There are six of us in total—four friends from Crimson Hollow’s community college, Peter, who is my coworker at the hardware store, and me.
“Aw, come on. You don’t turn twenty-one every day.” Kenya pouts.
“True, but if I want to live to see another birthday, I’d better stick with one shot.”
Kenya opens her mouth, but Peter cuts her off. “One shot is fine. Don’t be a pusher, Kenya. Not everyone can guzzle down alcohol like you do and survive.”
Peter winks at me from behind his thick-rimmed glasses before turning to the bar to order the shots. I appreciate the support, but I suspect it comes with expectations. I’m fairly certain Peter’s friendly feelings for me have evolved to more. I caught him staring at me several times at work in a wistful manner. Even Kenya has noticed he acts differently around me. It sucks because I don’t see him that way. He’s a nice guy and cute, but there’s no chemistry between us. At least not on my part. In reality, the only time I came close to that blissful feeling people in love gush about was with my ex, Alex.
No, I can’t go there. Not on my birthday.
Peter returns with tequila shots in hand, then hands me a glass. “Need salt and lemon?”
“No. I’m good.”
He raises an eyebrow while the beginning of a smirk blossoms on his lips. I’m beginning to think people in town believe I’m a boring wallflower, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Whatever. Let them assume that’s the case. It’s not like I talk much about my previous life in Chicago.
Once everybody has their drinks, Kenya raises her glass. “To Amelia Redford, the best friend I didn’t know I needed. Thanks for coming to Crimson Hollow, girlie.”
“Cheers!” the rest of the group shouts.
With a smile, I bring the shot glass to my lips and throw my head back, letting the fiery liquid go down my throat. It’s been a while since I drank anything stronger than beer, and it burns. Shaking my head, I shudder, ready to put my empty glass back on the counter. But a tequila bottle materializes out of nowhere. Suddenly, my glass is full again.
Raising an eyebrow, I look at Peter. “What’s this?”
“Sorry, Red. I think you need more than one shot.” He smirks.
I narrow my eyes. “Traitor. I have to work tomorrow.”
“No, you don’t. I gave you the day off.”
My jaw drops. As he’s the owner’s son, he can do that. But I’m annoyed he took away my shift without asking first. If I’d wanted to, I could have requested the day off. I hadn’t for a reason—to have an excuse to bail on my birthday party early. I don’t like leaving my grandmother alone for too long, but sometimes it’s easier to say I’m tired or I have an early shift at work instead of explaining. The truth always leads to worried or pitying glances from my friends, and I’m tired of them. Cancer sucks, but Wendy Redford is putting up a hell of a fight.
I gulp down the second tequila shot with a jerky movement. Annoyance simmers low in my gut. For the rest of the night, avoiding Peter will be my goal. The background music cuts off abruptly, and a skinny guy hops onto the stage to introduce the band. The Howlers are playing tonight.
Kenya whistles, joining the cacophony of shouts and applause from the crowd. It’s a popular rock band—especially among women—the reason being the lead singer Samuel Wolfe. He’s the typical bad-boy rock star—tall, dark, and sinfully gorgeous. I usually scoff at those stereotypical men, but I can’t deny the guy has a presence. When he saunters onto the stage in his beat-up leather jacket that does little to hide his ripped body and wide shoulders, something unfurls in the pit of my stomach.
Jesus, it’s like when he came in, the air went out.
After he thanks the skinny guy, he gazes out at the crowd. His hair is shaved on the sides and longer on top, so when he tilts his head, a strand falls across his face. He smiles as he says good evening, revealing adorable dimples on his cheeks. Seriously? Like he needs another hot factor. His velvety voice makes my heartbeat kick up a notch, and my mouth goes dry. Hell and damn.
Music explodes, and everyone is into it immediately. Samuel doesn’t play an instrument. Instead, he holds the microphone as if he’s making love to it while he belts out lyrics I don’t recognize in his raspy and addictive voice. Goose bumps break out on my skin, and I barely notice I’m inching closer to the stage. It’s almost as if I’m in a trance. I’ll berate myself later for my lack of control, but right now, I can’t stop staring at him.
I’m in the thick of the crowd when my gaze collides with Samuel’s electric blue eyes. He doesn’t break the connection, but seems to sing only for me. I’m immediately ensnared by his intense stare. When he sends a wink in my direction, I feel like my heart is going to explode. What the hell? Since when am I susceptible to hot men in leather? I’ve always gone for the preppy boys.
My irritation snaps me out of whatever hypnotic spell Samuel put on me. Turning, I head back to the bar, elbowing whoever is in my way. Peter is talking to one of my classmates, but his attention quickly diverts to me. Shit, so much for avoiding him.
“More tequila?” he asks.
I don’t want to get hammered, so I open my mouth to say no when my phone vibrates in my purse. Quickly, I fish the device out. It’s a text from my grandmother.
“Is there something wrong?” Peter asks.
“It’s my grandma. Apparently, Elliot has run away and she’s freaking out.”
“I’m sure he’s fine.”
“Yeah, but I should go home and look for him.” I glance back at the crowd, searching for Kenya.
“What? Are you serious?” Peter sounds disappointed, his eyebrows furrowing to match.
I find Kenya all the way to the front of the stage, ogling the sexy singer without shame. A spike of jealousy surges out of nowhere, making me see red, which is crazy. Why would I be jealous? The Howlers lead singer is nothing to me. The tequila is definitely creating havoc in my brain.
To be safe, I text Kenya. Slipping away without a goodbye is the smartest course of action. I doubt she’ll let me go without a fight otherwise. It’ll take a while for her to notice my text, and a sliver of guilt pinches my heart. She was super excited about tonight—way more than I was. I can be a sucky friend sometimes.
When I step outside the bar, I pause to take in a deep breath of night air. I still haven’t gotten used to the clean and fresh smell of the forest that surrounds Crimson Hollow or the fact that thousands of stars can be seen in the midnight-blue sky.
The street is quiet, a far cry from the busy and loud music venue. Without the cacophony, it’s easier to think straight. The tequila gave me a nice buzz, but as much as I’d like to blame alcohol, my insta-lust reaction to Samuel Wolfe can’t be explained by drunkenness. Not that it matters. He’s a notorious manwhore—at least that’s what Kenya tells me—and I have no intention of becoming another notch on his belt.
I veer toward the main square, hoping to find an available taxi there. Crimson Hollow is too small for Uber. I knew I shouldn’t have caved and let Kenya drive tonight.
Not a minute later, I hear hurried footsteps behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I grimace when I discover it’s Peter coming after me. “What are you doing here? I thought you wanted to stay.”
“Nah, I just came out tonight because it was your birthday. I’ll give you a ride home.”
Exactly what I don’t want.
“Pete, are you sure? How many shots of tequila have you had?”
“Just two and lots of water as well. Don’t worry. I’m good, Red.” He taps my shoulder before lacing his arm with mine. “Come on, my truck is parked just around the corner.”
I bite my lower lip. There’s no way I can refuse Peter’s offering without offending him. During the drive, he wants to chat about the store and some of the ideas he has to bring more customers in. I appreciate his dedication to his father’s business, but I’m not in the mood to talk shop. So I turn on the radio until I find an upbeat song I can sing along to.
Grandma’s house is out in the boonies. It’s a chalet in the woods accessible only through a dirt road, and a fifteen-minute drive away from town. When I moved in, I begged her to consider relocating to the city and closer to the hospital, but Grandma is a stubborn lady. It took me a long time to get used to the isolation. In the first few weeks, I would jump at any sound coming from the forest surrounding the property. Now, I’m completely used to it. Kenya finds the forest creepy, but the peace and quiet have grown on me.
All the lights in the house are still on, which means our stupid dog hasn’t turned up yet. It’s past one in the morning. When I find that rascal, I’m giving him a tongue lashing. As crazy as it sounds, I’m sure the dog can understand every word I say.
“Thanks for the ride,” I say, my hand already on the door handle.
Peter grabs my forearm before I can open the passenger side door. “Wait. I got you a birthday present.” He bends across the gap between our seats to reach the glove compartment. I tense at the proximity.
“Here,” he says. “I hope you like it.”
A big lump gets stuck in my throat when I recognize the label on the small box Peter hands me. It’s from an expensive jewelry store in town.
Peter, what have you done?
“You didn’t have to get me anything,” I say.
A wistful glint shines in Peter’s eyes, and it’s obvious he’s gathering the courage to say something I don’t want to hear. Quickly, I open the box, revealing a necklace with a beautiful heart-shaped pendant inside. The stone is dark red.
“Before you say anything, that’s a crystal, not a ruby. But one day I’ll get you a real precious stone.”
Ah, hell. Peter’s voice is shaky. I can’t look into his eyes, so I keep staring at the necklace as if it will somehow give me a clue about how to let him down gently without breaking his heart.
“Thank you. It’s a beautiful gift,” I finally manage to say.
Inching closer, he touches my face with the back of his hand. I freeze, clutching the box tighter in my hands. He’s going to try to kiss me. Crap, I need to go now. I pride myself for being courageous most of the time, but when it comes to hurting someone I care about, I’m a total chicken.
“Red, I’ve been meaning to ask you something for a while now.”
“Pete, I-I have to go. Thanks for the gift.” I’m out of the car faster than a speeding bullet. “I’ll see you next week.”
I run to the house without a glance back until the front door is open. Only then do I turn around and wave at Peter. I can’t see his face, but I can imagine the look of disappointment in his expression.
“Amelia, is that you, hon?” Grandma asks from her bedroom.
Every time I come home, she asks the same question. I don’t know who she expects to come through the door. A burglar wouldn’t make the same noises I do.
“Yes, Grandma. Did Elliot come home yet?”
She walks into the living room, still wearing her day clothes. I frown, the irritation aimed at our stupid dog renewing. She should be sleeping by now.
“No. I suspect he caught the scent of a bitch in heat. He’s probably still busy.” She chuckles.
“Great. Well, I’d better end his party. It’s late, and you need to go to bed.”
“How was the birthday celebration?” She stares at Peter’s box. “Is that a gift?”
I hand it to her. “Yes, from Peter.”
Her eyes widen a fraction. When she opens the box, she whistles in appreciation. “Somebody has a crush.”
“Yeah, it seems so.” I let out a loud exhale. “But I don’t like him that way. What should I do, Grandma?”
She returns the box, but now her eyebrows are furrowed and her mouth is pinched. “You need to tell him the truth.”
I’m not surprised by her reply. One of the first lessons she ever taught me was that honesty is one of the greatest virtues in the world.
“I was afraid you were going to say that.” Moving to the console table by the front door, I set the box there. I can’t keep this gift.
“It’s better than stringing the poor guy along, isn’t it?” She arches an eyebrow, making my guilt double.
“I’m not stringing him along,” I say, my voice getting a little harder as I go on defense mode. “I never gave him any indication I was interested.”
With a shake of her white head, she says, “It doesn’t matter. An infatuated heart sees what it wants.”
My shoulders sag. I have to come clean to Peter eventually, but I can’t worry about that now. I have a horny dog to find.
“Let me go look for Elliot. I’m tired, and I want to go to sleep.”
I take off my high-heeled pumps, then replace them with sensible boots. Just as I’m about to head out with a flashlight in hand, a howl echoes.
Apprehension freezes me where I stand. “Crap. Was that a wolf?”
Grandma peers over my shoulder as her gaze goes out of focus. “Maybe. You’d better take the shotgun just in case.”
Grumbling, I grab the weapon from its mount on the wall. It belonged to Grandpa. When he was alive, he taught me how to shoot. But it was only when I moved to Crimson Hollow that I finally understood his love for hunting. I took the sport of shooting as a distraction from being homesick, and I’ve already won several competitions. Grandma says I’m a natural. It’s the only reason I’m not afraid to venture into the woods to search for Elliot while there’s a wolf nearby.
With Grandpa’s gun in hand, I’m the predator.
I search the perimeter near the house before I go deeper into the woods. Despite the summer night, a chill penetrates my light jacket. That bitch better be worth it, Elliot.
The foliage becomes denser the farther away I get from the house. Even with the full moon above, barely any silvery light streams through. It’s only when I come near a creek that the trees turn scarcer, negating the need of a flashlight to illuminate the way. After I shut it off, I wait a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the gloom.
“Elliot,” I call out in a half-whisper, but all I hear is dead silence.
I continue searching until the sound of a twig snapping to my left makes my heart jump into my throat. A small furry animal skitters by. “Fucking squirrels.”
I turn on my heel, then freeze mid-step. Only a yard away from me, there’s a wolf partially hidden by shrubs and shadows. I swallow hard as my body’s immediate reaction is to panic. But I quickly take control of my emotions like Grandpa taught me.
The wolf’s low growl tells me it wants to make a meal out of me. Not tonight, buddy.
Slowly, I bring the muzzle of the shotgun up and take aim. The wolf moves forward, his growling much louder now. Despite the confidence in my shooting skills, I can’t help the spike of adrenaline that shoots up my veins. It’s the thrill of the hunt. My finger twitches against the trigger, ready, but I don’t want to kill the animal. When the creature takes another step forward and howls, I move the aim slightly to its left and press the trigger. But instead of a loud bang, there’s only the pitiful sound of a low click.
“Ah, hell,” I say right before the wolf pounces.