All but dragging my heels across the cement aisle, Cinder and I reach the first stall – the horse who had called to our arrival. I can smell the manure from here and wrinkle my nose in disgust. I wasn’t made for the western life. I suppose I wouldn’t know if I was… but I’m drawling a line. Right here. Right now. A big, fat, ‘no horse crossing’ line.
The horse’s head bobs up and down – surely it’s expecting to be fed. I zone in on its mouth. Are those teeth?
“Do I fetch it an apple?” My voice reaches hysterics and I attempt to sooth myself by tucking a stray hair behind my ear. “I don’t know what I’m doing, Cinderson.”
Cinder glares at me. Probably for using his full name. I could care less about his feelings and insecurities right now. I’ve got enough of that going on all by myself.
“This is Dot. Dot is not an it. Dot is a she.” Without looking, he lifts his hand and strokes her soft white nose, mocking my fear. A white stripe travels up the middle of her face until it reaches her flat forehead. The rest of her fur coat is a shade of reddish-brown, and the rump is white surrounded by speckling spots. “She’s a fat little girl, but don’t let that fool ya. She’s as quick as a whip.”
“Little?” I laugh without humor, but he doesn’t respond. I have no doubt she’s as quick as a whip, which is why I’ll be standing over here… avoiding the four-legged beast who stares at me expectedly. He strokes Dot with a gentle hand, one which I had assumed he’s never possessed because the words that flow from his mouth are dripping with outlandish diarrhea, making the horse manure look like child’s play.
Stepping to the right, he approaches the next horse. It’s a bohemeath, completely black, and half asleep. It’s bottom lip droops enough to stick a finger inside, and his tail absentmindedly whips the flies biting its side.
I stay in front of Dot’s stall, refusing to go an inch further. In my mind, Dot was the lesser evil. “That thing could eat me in two chomps. Forget that. It’s so big, it could slurp me like a wet noodle.” Hell no. H-E-L-L no. I’m bone-y. The slurp would be messy and most uncomfortable.
“This is Buck. Buck is also not an it. Buck is a boy. Let’s try and remember our anatomy, shall we?” Rolling his eyes, he turns to a stall directly across and points. “And that’s Pinky, the asshole.” His tone holds so much disdain, that I glance at him first and note his curled top lip.
So, the cheerful, charming, and annoying Cinder could actually get his panties in a wad. Vengeance drips in his veins after all. Until this point, I’ve only seen Cinder take one conversation seriously, and I had assumed his aversion to the topic of significant others was a sore spot. My, my, was I wrong. His tone alone raises goosebumps over my skin. There’s a darker man under all those jokes. He may not be aware of it, but he’s just made it my mission to dig a little deeper into all things Cinderson.
“Pinky?” I turn to get a look at the horse with such a ridiculous name and pretend like I didn’t just catalog this side of Cinder’s personality. “Why would anyone name a horse after a finger?”
And just like that, his personally changes. He beams at me and rocks on the back of his heels. “You ever seen the movie where the villain holds his pinky to his lips before he executes his evil plan?”
I grind my jaw. With Cinder’s more tolerable emotion dissolving as quickly as a snowflake in a dessert, I’m allowed a moment of irritation. “That sounds like a terrible film.” Not that I watch films anyway. Maybe I have in the past, before my memory evaporated. But I wasn’t going to tell him I’m too poor to go to the movies either. Or rent one, for that matter.
Cinder’s mouth drops in mock shock, and he swats a fly who tries to enter. “We can’t be friends.”
“I thought you were my hostage.” My words are a mumble, my eyes on Pinky. He’s all white and the skin around his eyes, nose, and ears shine through the minimal fur, a pale pink. The horse’s eyes are a glass blue, almost white. They look as though a galaxy lies within. I could get lost in them for hours. “Hostages aren’t friends. Hostages also shouldn’t speak.” Yeah. That was an asshole thing to say, but the anxiety at the reminder of my lack of memory causes me to say crass remarks. It can’t be helped, and if Cinder truly wants to be my friend, he’ll learn which buttons not to press.
Cinder stuffs his hand in his back pockets. “You’re really coming out of your shell there, Jinx. I gotta say, I’m not digging it.” It doesn’t take a generous to hear the lie in his tone. “You’re just rude. Completely unapproachable.”
I turn a quirked brow at him. “And yet here you are.”
He nods. “It’s a talent of mine to seek the weakling and prop them up with my enlarged self confidence. I wear it with pride, right here.” He taps his shoulder.
More like massive ego.
Grasping the loops around my jeans, I wiggle my hips and hike my jeans higher, if only to avoid punching him. I notice his gaze dropping and following the movement. It takes everything I have to not snap my fingers and bring his attention from my ass. A change of topic should do the trick. Perhaps one he’s reluctant to talk about. “How often are you here?”
He shrugs. “Quite a bit.”
“Are you and Dr. Chloe a thing?” With repetitive taps, I reach over and poke his chest, hard, with each next word, letting loose some of my aggression. “Mr. I Don’t Have a Girlfriend.”
“My kind -“ he breaks off his sentence and I cock my head. His kind? He covers his mouth with a closed fist and coughs. “I don’t believe in girlfriends.”
Opening my mouth to question him further, I quickly snap it shut when both doors swing open, and the woman I saw from the commercial strides in, heading right for us without a pause in her steps. “He only wishes I was his girlfriend.”
Her shoes squeak, damp against dry concrete, and the middle of her scrubs are soaking wet. She must have bathed the puppies I saw playing in the yard.
Reaching out her arm, she waits for me to shake her hand. “I’m Dr. Chloe Bane. Norbert told me your name was Jinky?” I stare at her palm. I’ve never shook a hand before. I’ve seen it on TV, I know why and how it’s done, but nerves cackle inside my gut regardless. I don’t want to be touched. Every time someone has touched me, they were trying to kill me.
Cinder barks out a laugh and I glare in his direction. “Jinx.” I reluctantly grasp her hand and shake, correcting my name with a stern voice. It’s better to shake, then have questions form in their heads to be asked at a later time. Personal questions. Questions I have no answers to.
Chloe’s cheeks blush. “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. Norbert is terrible with details.”
I shrug and drop her hand. “It’s alright, Dr. Bane.”
She places her hand over her heart. “Please, call me Chloe.” I nod and she swivels to Cinder. “Did you give her the tour? Or did you get lost staring at her ass?”
My eyelashes flutter against my cheeks at her bold question. There was no shame or accusation in it. She knows Cinder well. As in, it’s possible they actually hang out as friends instead of the occasional romp.
“Ouch, Chloe. Is that what you think of me? That hurts. It truly does.” She continues to stare at him expectedly and he purses his lips before answering her question. “A brief one.”
Pinky takes that moment to kick his stall wall, repeatedly. I jump at the sound, the horse’s aggression so thick in the air, I can taste it through my nose. Cinder’s face darkens and he slowly turns to the horse. His fingers curl into tight fists, and he takes a challenging step forward. Pinky pins his ears back and bites the open space between them, a warning I’m sure. It would have been enough to make me cower, but Cinder stands his ground, refusing to move an inch. His back is rigid and quivers with tense muscle. It’s almost an alpha versus alpha standoff, neither backing down from the other. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just an animal, after all.
“Stop bothering Pinky-pants, Cinder.” Chloe chuckles nervously. “You know he’s never going to like people. Standing there, challenging him, won’t help matters. Just leave him be.”
I turn to Chloe and exhale the pent-up sigh I’ve been holding. A bird swoops down from wherever it was perched on the high ceiling beams and lands on the gate to an empty stall. “So when do I start?”
Chloe shrugs and looks around as though her calendar is written on the stalls. “Today, if you can. I can finish the tour. I’m sure Cinder,” she says his name loud to grab his attention. “Needs to get going and open the bar for lunch.”
Cinder ignores her, his attention still on the white horse. The horse paws the ground and rams his shoulder into the gate, and still, Cinder doesn’t move an inch. I’m not even sure if he’s blinking.
“Cinder?” I take a step in his direction.
“Oh, don’t you worry about him,” Chloe begins. “He likes to rile that horse up and be top dog. The horse is a bit off, if you ask me.”
I continue, taking careful baby-steps in Cinder’s direction. “Off how?”
I hear Chloe fidget. “They caught this one out in the woods. No one has claimed it, and it’s definitely not wild because it’s been well cared for. No one has been able to go near it. Cleaning his stall has been a chore itself.”
If you ask me, something feels more off about Cinder than the horse – something I can’t explain, yet I’m familiar with the feeling. It’s clogging the air, charging it with a thick and potent atmosphere. A predatory feeling, maybe? A sense of danger? The way he’s standing, un-moving, sets me on edge and a shiver runs up my spine.
“Cinder?” I reach out carefully, and touch his shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Under my hand, I feel the vibrations of a deep rumbling growl. Through all the noise in the building, I can’t hear it, but I can feel it shaking his shoulder blade.
He doesn’t answer, and against my better judgment, I step in front of him. It’s never wise to confront the aggressive, yet it’s enough to catch his attention. He shuts his eyes, tight, but not before I catch a glimpse of his iris’. They were glowing a brilliant shade of green, but he shut them so fast, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing what I was seeing. I frown and take a step back, my brain coming up with ways I could have possibly hallucinated the color of his eyes. People’s eyes don’t glow, and they’re never that color. Yes. Yes, my paranoia is getting the better of me. Perhaps this was a mistake coming here. I’d be less on edge if I stuck to the original plan and ran for my life instead of trying to stand my ground.
Shaking his head, he opens them again and cracks a smile. “Sorry. I was lost in a daydream.” He tilts his chin over his shoulder. “What’d you say, Chloe?”
I follow his gaze to a wide-eyed Chloe. She stammers and wipes a hand down her mouth to cover the worry. “Um – the bar. You heading out to open the bar?”
“Sure.” He rocks on the back of his heels, his arms still crossed over his chest. “Are you working here tonight, or are you going to close the bar for me?”
I swallow the pool of saliva in my mouth, a slight tinge of fear making it gather in my cheeks. “Sure. I can close the bar. This is just a part-time position, right?”
“Right.” Chloe’s voice cracks. “Just in the mornings. We have an evening crew.”
I nod to her.
“It’s settled. I’ll see you later then, Jinky.” Cinder smirks before he turns on his heel and marches toward the door. He crawls his finger across Chloe’s shoulder as he passes, and dramatically exits by pushing both doors wide open.
I growl into the phone, my grip dangerously tight. More and more supernatural creatures keep popping up on our territory, and still, we know nothing about their appearance until they’re dead. “What do you mean he’s not human, Bre?”
Her huff whistles through the speaker loud and clear, the beta female’s authoritative voice reminding me of her ranks. “The lab tech called and confirmed it. He has an extra chromosome, just like us.”
I scowl as the door opens and the pack begins to file in, giggling and chatting. They notice me on the phone and lower their voices to quiet hushes.
Wolf shifters are nosy creatures, and when they take a seat and watch me as though I’m about to perform a magic trick, I think nothing of it. It’s to be expected. The pack never keeps anything from each other. It’s how we’ve survive this long. “You’re sure he’s not a shifter?”
“Yes, I am. Evo is sure. Kenna is -”
I look at Reese. “Kenna is there with you?” Reese perks up, raising her head from a slouched position. She enjoys Kenna’s company, often paying them a visit to check on their little one. More so than friendship, I think she admires Kenna’s strong-will. People tend to gravitate toward the strong.
“Yes,” she responds, drawing out the word in confusion. “Would you like to talk to her?”
“No, no.” I shake my head as though Bre could see. “Do me a favor. I’m going to send Reese and Rex to you. They’ll examine the body, but I need you to get Kenna to work her magic.”
Kenna, the Alpha female of the Cloven Pack, and Evo’s mate, has the ability to read people’s emotions. She knows when they’re lying and when they’re being honest, even if they don’t speak.
“Sure. Hold on a sec.” A muffling sound comes from Bres side, and I imagine she placed her phone on her shoulder.
“Jacob?” A new voice asks.
I run a hand over the skin on my head. I didn’t mean for Bre to pass the phone. In fact, I told her not to. Although some gravitate toward Kenna’s personality, I’m not one of them. Her crass nature sets my teeth on edge. “Kenna?”
“Listen, Alpha Man. I can’t read the dead’s emotions. Once their ticker stops ticking, that’s it.”
I sigh and briefly close my eyes. “That’s not what I meant. The knowledge of supernatural beings shouldn’t be in the hands of humans.”
Kenna hisses, gathering what I’m suggesting. “Sweet baby Jesus. I didn’t think of that. You want me to find out who all knows about this?”
“That’d be great,” I mutter, annoyed. “Call me back when you have answers.” I cringe as the words pass my lips. I’m going to regret giving orders to this woman. The last thing anyone should ever do is give that woman orders.
She clicks her tongue. “And what if the news has spread further than the lab tech?”
I rake my eyes over the pack. Shifters have incredible hearing, and if their concerned expressions are anything to go by, they’ve overheard every word. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”