Home > After Darkness Falls (After Darkness Falls #1)(13)

After Darkness Falls (After Darkness Falls #1)(13)
Author: May Sage

“Stupid,” she amended. Talking hurt, but she was too ecstatic to notice. “You can say stupid. I didn't know where I was going.”

“Whatever. You survived without a bite, that's the main thing.”

He extended his hand to help her up. The ground was starting to feel freezing, so she took it gratefully and thanked him.

The huntsman pulled a roll of cash out of his suit jacket. She hadn't noticed, but he'd run in a damn suit.

“We should split the money,” she suggested.

Jack shrugged. “Nah, I only run for fun. The winner is whoever arrives first after me.”

She inclined a brow, intrigued. What was this race about?

But the rest of the huntsmen were arriving, bearing equally puzzled expressions. Her question would have to wait.

“No way.”

“She won?”

“Shit. Well done, newb.”

“She went through the wolf territory.”

Now, puzzlement gave way to horror and awe.

“Holy shit. Did you have to outrun wolves?”

She laughed.

“No, actually. One of them helped me cross the village undetected.”

They asked her to tell, and retell, every moment of her interaction with the wolf. Chloe didn't know why, but something told her to keep Avani's name out of it. If there really was an issue between wolves and huntsmen, it wouldn't do to say who had helped her. What if Avani got told off for it?

Gwen arrived second to last, racing fast against a blonde huntsman who lost at the last second. Chloe found herself feeling rather guilty. The moment Jack had said "Go," she'd raced forward, completely forgetting about Gwen and leaving her behind.

The witch didn't seem to mind, though.

The walk back to Adairford was a lot of fun; the huntsmen were into teasing each other, punching each other, and no one excluded her or Gwen.

“Love the hair, by the way,” said one of the girls. Natalie? Something like that. “Good luck getting an ombre like that in town, though.”

Chloe laughed. Truth was, she’d had her hair cut but not colored. It grew dark at the roots, and then all its color faded, turning to dishwater blonde. Her father’s and brother’s hair was the same, but they'd both kept it short—and dark.

She didn't mind now, but as a kid, it had sucked. Children have a way of teasing each other for being different. The prom queen types had many things to say about her bad dye job until she gave up and just started to color it brown.

These days, she didn't care, and no one else seemed to either.

“That won't be a problem,” she said, pointing to her head. “Natural color.”

“Cool,” Natalie told her.

The creature watching at the edge of the Wolvswoods narrowed his eyes.

An Unexpected Bequest

The Snuggy Snot, the one pub in town, was a three-story building with red bricks and wooden beams—positively charming, like so many things in Oldcrest.

"Is it your first time here, Cheetah?" Jack asked as they passed the threshold and entered the warm foyer.

Chloe sighed delightfully, rubbing her poor frozen hands together.

Scotland in January, to a woman used to Louisiana, felt downright arctic.

"Yes. Won't be the last," she predicted.

Jack laughed, gesturing to the bar. "That's old Lewis Campbell, his son Joe, and his daughter Mairi. Lewis left the pack in the Wolvswoods to build this place twenty years ago. Smartest man in town. He's probably a millionaire now. It's the only place we can relax. Most of us come once a day at least."

"Nice!" She followed Jack, eager to ask her questions now that she had him to herself for a minute. "Hey, what was that about? The race. The wolves think you do it to annoy them. And you're sponsoring it yourself with a wad of cash…"

"Curiosity killed the cat," he replied.

Chloe had heard that about a billion times in her life.

She pointed to her derriere. "No tail. Come on, spill. Are you really just trying to get on their nerves?"

Jack sighed.

"Hey, Cheetah!"

Was that nickname really sticking? She hoped not.

She turned to the blonde who'd lost the race. The woman didn't seem to mind. Smiling, she asked, "What's your poison?"

"Anything on tap, please."

"Good girl!" she replied before moving on to the other runners.

Chloe redirected her attention to Jack. "Well?"

"Well," Jack echoed, "I am, believe it or not, not a kid having fun by pulling the wolf's tail, so to speak. I set up races through the entire territory—and yes, mostly close to dangerous sites—because my men need real-life training while we linger here. Sparring in the Institute’s courtyard is too easy, too clear-cut. Pissing off one of the most ancient wolf packs in the world? Running close to the cursed caves up in Coscnoc? That gives them real-life experience."

"But that's actually dangerous. They could get hurt."

Or worse.

Jack shrugged. "They certainly could get hurt raiding a bleeder's den in South London, too. And that's what we do, what we’ll go back to doing after we leave. I came back here because getting my PhD is a requirement in my position—and many huntsmen followed me. Too many. It wouldn’t do to let them go soft."

It made a lot of sense. Except…

"What about me?"

Jack didn't say anything. She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms on her chest.

"What about me?" she repeated. "I could have been in danger."

Shit, she probably had been. What would have happened if Avani hadn't found her?

Jack shrugged. "I was curious. Besides, the guys push themselves harder when there's new blood in the race."

"You put me in danger because you were curious," she repeated.

"And," Jack added, "fairly certain you could take care of yourself."

She was speechless for all of ten seconds. Then, the blonde thrust a pint of beer in her hand and Chloe did the only useful thing she could do: she drank half of it in three gulps.

Jack wasn't entirely an asshole, but he also wasn't the sort of friend she should have. She strongly suspected she didn't want him as an enemy either. Chloe made a mental note to keep a healthy distance in the future, which wouldn’t be easy. He was…magnetic. Charismatic. Maybe even fun. But she’d try.

Gwen had opted for a gin and tonic—not the best idea after a run. They were all parched and accumulating empty glasses faster than they should. Really, they all should have ordered a bottle of water before even drinking anything alcoholic, but failing that, beer was a better alternative.

Chloe was halfway through her second pint when Gwen ordered her fourth gin.

She didn't know the woman very well, but after abandoning her in the woods, Chloe decided not to let her face this trial alone.

"Do they have snacks here?" she asked the group.

"Yeah—pork scratching, crisps, olives, that sort of thing. They also cook basic food until nine."

It was just past eight. Chloe went to the bar and ordered ten cheesy fries, digging into her pocket for the newly acquired wad of cash.

The whole lot was twenty-five pounds, and she added a fiver of tip on top. When the food arrived, she definitely was popular. Chloe let everyone help themselves but did her best to shove a plate in front of Gwen as often as possible.

An hour later, they walked back to the edge of Adairford—well, Gwen wobbled—and returned to the dorms.

"Come this way," she said, herding Gwen to the kitchen.

She didn't want to mess with the screaming kettle, so she warmed up water in the microwave and, just like Blair had the previous day, made Gwen a hot chocolate, hoping to get some non-alcohol-infused liquid into her.

"You'll want to put an alarm clock on before crashing," she told her, remembering Levi's advice.

Gwen's eyes were closing where she stood. She smiled happily and nodded.

Right. That alarm clock would never be set.

"Where's your phone?"

She handed it to Chloe. Remembering that Gwen had professed to want to study art, Chloe decided to set the alarm for seven o'clock, giving her plenty of time to sleep off the drunken stupor if she crashed soon.

They drank a pleasant hot chocolate—too thin and not as good as Blair’s, but okay—and headed up to the second floor.

"I'll meet you downstairs at eight, all right?"

Once in her room, Chloe closed her eyes and sighed. She half-wished she'd drunk a little more in order to avoid what was coming—the usual replay of her day, her week, her month, her life.

Why was her brain so damn annoying? Anxiety sucked.

When she opened her eyes again, she gasped and marched straight to her bedside table.

There, next to a small lamp, was a package, and on top of it, a familiar transparent flask.

The sleeping draught.

She hadn't expected it at all tonight. She'd been pretty rude to Levi the previous evening, and he'd seemed rather annoyed with her on the staircase.

But he'd sent her one anyway.

Sitting on her mattress, she opened the plain white box underneath the potion. She had zero clue what to expect.

Chloe felt strange—a little confused, very excited, and rather suspicious all at once.

When she was done tearing at the sticky tape, she opened the box to find soft dark blue fabric inside.

She pulled it out and her jaw dropped. It was a coat. Not the sort of coat she could have afforded at any point in her life. A wool and cashmere double-breasted coat with the nicest lining and big gold buttons with a crest. She put it on and moaned in delight. She didn't think she'd ever worn a piece of clothing quite so comfortable, and there was no doubt that she'd remain warm throughout the Scottish winter, even if Gwen made it snow again.

It was so damn perfect.

Too bad she couldn't accept it.

Battle Plan

"All right, here's the list of requirements to get your MBA," Blair stated, slapping three stapled pieces of paper on top of the breakfast table. "The entire prerequisites and curriculum."

   
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