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Chapter Seven

It belonged to Maizies mother, Gray said.

Lillys?

Found it a few weeks after the accident. He placed the gold quarter-sized locket in Grannys hand. The clasp was broken. I had it cleaned and repaired.

Grannys sad blue eyes peered at him beneath the hood of her lids. You kept it all this time?

Gray shifted his focus out the glass doors to the open backyard of the Green Acres Nursing Home. His face warmed. Im not sure why I didnt return it sooner. Maybe because there was nothing left of Donnas to keep. Maybe because Riddly and Lilly had taken something of mine and I wanted to take something of theirs. Foolish. I dont know.

Granny reached her withered hand over to his. He could feel her tremors, age keeping her constantly off balance, unsteady. You needed it more than us. Maizie was too young for a piece like this and II wouldnt have known what to do with it.

Thank you, Ester. It was a poor excuse, but hed take it. You have it now and I believe youll find the photos inside quite useful.

Granny looked to the locket, her thin fingers working its tight seal. Her thumbnail wedged between the oval halves and the locket popped open. Seconds passed as her mind processed the images and a bright smile blossomed across her face.

Gray knew what she saw. Hed stared at the photo of the young Hood family and the one opposite of Riddly holding an infant Maizie a million times over the years. Such a photo didnt exist of his family. He and Donna never discussed children. Ironically, he hadnt realized how much hed wanted a photo like that until the possibility of it was taken away beneath the crush of an SUV.

Gray forced his thoughts from old dreams and wishes. Maizie mentioned youd had a visitor. Someone pretending to be Riddly.

Grannys cheeks flushed apple red, a bashful smile flickering across her thin lips. Oh, I know Riddly wouldnt want me to sell my little cottage. Not without a good reason. It was all my imagination. My mind plays tricks on me sometimes, yknow.

I dont believe it was your mind playing tricks this time, Ester. I think someone is trying to take advantage, using whatever tactics he can, to get his hands on your property. And Im fairly confident I know whos behind it.

The news brought a flash of relief to her eyes. An instant later resentment took its place. Advantage, you say? Uhmph. Well see about that. The next time that ol dog comes around, Ill Her pledge died on the air, her gaze flicking to Gray.

He knew her thoughts without hearing them. Shed been tricked once, believing her deceased son was visiting, issuing orders, how would she know differently next time?

Gray cupped his hands around hers, still holding the open locket. This will help. Wear Lillys locket. Look at the pictures next time someone calls himself Riddly. Remember where it was found. That Riddly is gone. That Lilly and Donna are gone. Cadwick may resemble your son, but not enough to stand up to his photograph, or those kinds of potent memories.

He couldnt stay with Granny 24/7 and trying to ban Cadwick from the premises wouldnt work any better than Maizies attempt had. Gray had used his werewolf-enhanced charm and familiarity with the staff to skirt around Maizies restricted-visitors list, but Cadwick was a master at zeroing in on a persons pay-off point. Hed locate the weakest link in security and buy his way in.

No. Granny would have to use her mind and wits to protect herself. The locket would help.

You never got to bury your wife, did you?

Grannys question caught him utterly by surprise. He stuttered. His mind shifting gears so fast he didnt have time to throw up the barriers that would keep the most painful of the memories at bay.

No. Ishe No. Donna died before she could shift back to human form. They disposed of her body as they would any roadkill. He winced at the term, his heart pinching.

You couldnt request they leave her with you? The accident happened on your land.

Gray shook his head. If only itd been that easy. If only hed been able to think clearly, quickly, maybe he couldve come up with a way. Taking thecarcassis procedure. There was nothing I could say that wouldnt seem strange. I had to think of the pack. Protect the rest from curiosity or suspicion.

Gray had given permission to the Hood family alone to use the shortcut through his forest from the housing subdivision on one side to the cottage on the other. He would never advance such trust again. The police arrived as fast as they did because Riddly and Lilly Hood had betrayed their agreement.

Another car, friends of the Hoods, was following behind when theyd hit his wife. Because of them, because of the police and ambulance and everyone else mulling around in his forest, hed had to stand by, helpless as they thoughtlessly disengaged his wifes body from the mangle of metal. They tossed it in the back of the tow truck like it was so much debris. Carted his wife away to be burned to ash in a city furnace. Or God forbid, something worse.

His only consolation was that nothing like it would ever happen again. Hed closed the single-lane gravel road, technically just two tire paths with weeds growing between, immediately after the accident. He planted trees, encouraged undergrowth, so that by now there was barely any sign the road had ever existed.

Granny shifted the locket to one hand and wrapped the other around Grays palm. It was an accident, dear. I know you blame my Riddly, but he didnt have a mean bone in his body. He wouldnt have wished the kind of suffering you and Maizie have endured on his worst enemy.

I dont blame him. Gray was surprised how easily he said it. Hed been thinking it from the start, but never out loud. It was my fault. Donna and I were arguingfighting. I accused her of cheating and she ran out. I didnt go after her.

He remembered the smell of another man on his wife, a man he recognized. There was no suspicion, no guessing. He knew shed been with someone else. The rub was he wasnt as upset over her infidelity as he was with himself for not feeling more betrayed. He loved Donna, but there was something missing between them, something that only became truly perceptible after shed turned him. Maybe children wouldve made a difference, filled that missing piece between them. Hed never know.

I was happy for the distance between us, he said. UntilJeezus, I can still hear that sound, that crash, like an explosion. I knew before I started running. I knew Donna was gone. I could feel it.

I heard it too. Granny shuddered. What an awful sound. I knew my boy was gone. Im just thankful my Little Red survived. Lord knows how she did.

Gray knew how shed survived. Hed been the one rushing headlong down the hillside over the butchered swath of forest so fast no one saw him go by. With the family friends useless, gawking down at the ruin from the road through the rain and darkness, it was up to Gray to assess the damage.

The truck was on its roof. Hed recognized the unmistakable odor of death, a mix of bodily fluids and cold meat. The parents were dead. The smell told him before hed reached in to check for a pulse. Neither had been wearing seatbelts. They were gone before the truck stopped.

Their little girl, Maizie, was buckled into the backseat, but the shoulder strap had slipped to strangle across her neck. She was unconscious, her little face turning blue. But she was alive-barely.

He tried to unbuckle her, but the lock had jammed in the roll. Breaking it was nothing for his enhanced strength. Her little body fell into his arms and for a strange moment, gazing down into her slowly pinking face, he could breathe. His mind didnt allow him respite for long, though. The sound, the thunderous explosion of metal and glass, the hideous thud, and the instinctive knowledge Donna was gone all came crashing in on him anew.

He laid Maizie in a soft patch of ferns and slowly made his way to the front of the truck. He couldnt see her at first, the way the truck was lying, the rain, the darkness, made seeing anything difficult. Then he crouched and peered under the front of the truck. Only her tail and hindquarters showed, soft brown fur, wet with rain, and blood.

Gray raced around the truck to the drivers side front wheel. Donna lay at an angle, pinned between the fender and the tree, her front paws, chest and head spared the crushing weight of the truck. She was dead. She was dead before the truck had stopped-God willing.

How long had he stood there? How much time passed? He wasnt sure. Maybe if hed snapped out of it quicker, reacted faster, maybe he couldve gotten Donnas body away before the police showed up. But once the first cop tripped and stumbled his way down the hill, it was too late. These people and their pretty little redheaded girl had altered his life irrevocably.

And now that pretty little redhead was poised to do it again.



Chapter Six | Little Red and the Wolf | c