An odd numbness had crept into Lilith’s limbs.
The sun had fully set. Rivton was a pale glow on the opposite shore, the feeble light barely bridging the distance. The forest was quiet—haunted—even the rustling of the leaves stilled by the darkness.
She crouched by the shoreline and dipped her hands into the icy water, then pressed her palms against her cheeks. The cold stung. How long had she been here? Her throat was scratchy and her clothes were clammy against her skin. Hesitant, Lilith cupped her hands together and knelt to drink. Was it safe?
Of course it was, Lilith remembered. She was already infected.
The shock had taken its time to set in. Left standing alone in the middle of the wilderness, Lilith had looked around her and all of a sudden realised that if Sam was right, this was her home. If Sam was right, she didn’t deserve to go home to her family and friends. It was then that Lilith’s emotions had scattered beyond the reach of reason. She’d been so focused on getting home and putting everything behind her that there was still so much she didn’t understand, so much that she hadn’t stopped to question.
She sank back onto her haunches, stared at the packet of nitum by her feet. Where did she belong?
Lilith picked up the nitim, slid it into her pocket. Perhaps she was only hesitating because of the implications of the bond. There couldn’t be any other reason . . .
If only she’d questioned Sam further. What had made him throw away his life underground? What could possibly have appealed to him about living as an infected? She had the bond to blame, but he had been free of influence. What had made him choose a life no one would want?
The adrenaline had Lilith moving before she even knew what she was doing. She jumped, felt her back connect with a tree as she brought her fists close to her body, ready to fight back. The man looked familiar, but Lilith couldn’t quite place him. He was tall—taller than Silver—with dark hair that fell into his eyes. High cheekbones, feminine lips. But the way he looked at her was all male.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
He held up his hands. “It’s Jake. From Silver’s pack?” A wink. “I’m wounded that you’ve forgotten me.”
A werewolf. Her fists would be of no use against him. Lilith let out a deep breath and allowed her arms to fall to her sides. “You gave me a heart attack,” she snapped, trying to buy herself the time to think.
Jake chuckled. “I have that effect sometimes.” He took a cigarette from behind his ear and placed it, unlit, between his lips. “Ready to go back?” he said.
“Can you . . . give me a few minutes?”
When he shrugged, Lilith knelt by the water on the pretence of washing her face.
Sam’s offer wouldn’t last forever. If Jake took her back to the pack, she’d lose her chance to go home. What if she gave him the nitum in exchange for her own release? Her fingers brushed against her pocket . . . then she realised that if Jake found out about the nitum, nothing could stop him from taking both it and her. For all that she was supposedly affected, she was too weak to fight.
“So, what did he do?” Jake asked. He was leaning against a tree, hands crossed behind his head. “Silver, I mean. He must have done something to piss you off.”
“Isn’t keeping me a prisoner enough?”
“If you really wanted to escape, you would have gotten a lot further than here.” A smirk. “Even walking at your two-legged pace.” His expression softened. “You won’t be sold off to the slavers, you know. Silver, Fang and I wouldn’t have allowed it anyway, but thankfully the Guild’s decided to give us enough cash to buy the nitum.”
Her fingers brushed her pocket again, but she held the truth back. Not here, not to him. Only Silver could be trusted. She would go back with Jake, deliver the nitum, and then leave again to find Sam. It was the only logical course of action. The fact that the bond was skewing her desires only made it more important to return underground, to be safely beyond its reach.
“The Guild treat their own well,” he continued gently. “You’ll be looked after there. I know that living above ground was never your plan, but it’s not all bad. You’d be surprised.”
Infected. She swallowed past the knot in her throat and said, “I don’t think anything could surprise me anymore.” She straightened, kept on Jake’s right to hide the bulge of her pocket.. “I’m ready. Are you taking me back to Silver, or is he still with Manda?” Lilith had meant to sound cool but her voice came out hard.
“Manda’s gone.” He hesitated. “Look, kid, Silver’s got his rough edges, but even he has a heart beneath the jerk attitude. Besides, you can’t judge us all by his actions.”
“Rae wanted to kill me or sell me to the slavers. She’s not the only one in the pack who feels that way.”
He grinned. “Well, I’d never do anything to you that you didn’t want me to.”
“Yet,” she muttered.
Jake didn’t answer for a moment. Then he said: “I hope one day you’ll look at me as a friend.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Instead of leading Lilith into Rivton, Jake took her to a small clearing on the outskirts of the forest. Only Amber and Howl were there; Lilith breathed a sigh of relief when she realised she wouldn’t have to face Rae. But where was Silver?
Amber stormed over, lifting her chin to glare at Lilith. “I can’t believe you ran off!” Her expression was fierce. “What do you think would happen to Vera without the ransom money?”
Jake moved between them, placing a hand on Amber’s shoulder. “Hey, calm down. No harm, no foul, right? She’s here now.”
Even he cringed when Amber rounded on him, nostrils flaring. “There’s more than one life at stake. Who could be selfish enough to put a baby’s life at risk?” She shot a glance at Lilith.
Jake squeezed Amber’s shoulder firmly. “No one blames for your losing Lilith. And anyway, it’s okay now. She’s here.”
“No, it’s not okay.” Amber blinked rapidly. There was a look on her face that . . . It was a look of pure need, as if it were her life on the line instead of Vera’s. Her chin was quivering, and she kept her eyes open unnaturally wide. Lilith had to look away.
Jake pulled Amber in for a hug. He wrapped both arms around her. “Shush, it’s okay.” He ran a hand through her hair, soothing the tangles. He looked at Lilith and nodded towards Howl. She took the hint and made her way over.
Howl was drawing figures in the dirt with a stick. He glanced up when Lilith approached. “Silver’s watching over Vera,” he said, as if knowing what she wanted to ask. “We’re not allowed to visit.”
“But I need to speak to him.”
Howl shrugged, went back to his drawings.
As the minutes ticked by, Lilith felt her anxiety grow. She had to see Silver to give him the nitum and make him call off her ransom to the Guild, but Amber was still crying into Jake’s shoulder. She caught his eye and beckoned, but he shook his head. What if Sam decided to take back his offer? Lilith didn’t belong above ground: of that, she was now sure.
Finally Amber and Jake came over. Amber’s eyes were a little red, but she seemed otherwise fine.
“I need to talk to Silver,” Lilith announced.
Jake shook his head. “We’re camping here tonight.” His expression turned apologetic. “We’re taking you straight to the Guild tomorrow. Al thought it was best to keep you and Silver apart.”