• MLMagee

An excerpt from My Brothers' Keeper

This is the first book I wrote back in 2013 and self-published in 2014. Let me know what you think after reading it!

An owl, perched on a limb somewhere in the canopy of trees above the boys as they sat on fallen logs around a dying campfire, hooted as the dark clouds moved to reveal a full moon. Bradley appreciated the moon’s light as he set the scene on his paper, the towering trees swaying as their leaves rustled in the light breeze. He and the guys shared a bond that was rare in Thick Hollows, and he knew it.

Brad had always gotten a kick out of writing, and he was seriously considering majoring in journalism when he went to college next month. He was so engulfed in his writing that he didn’t notice Chris, Travis, and Malcolm shaking across from him until he heard their painful groans. “What the hell, guys? Cut it out. We’re supposed to be taking this seriously.” Then Chris fell over to the ground screaming in agony. Travis and Malcolm followed suit just as Nick and Brad started shaking.

Brad jumped up and immediately crumpled to his hands and knees. “What’s happening to me? The pain!” he cried.

Brad couldn’t hear his own screams. He couldn’t focus on anything but the excruciating pain, like acid was running through his veins and scorching his body. To his shock and horror, the pain then got worse. He could feel every bone in his body, from his skull down his spine and ribs to the tiniest bones in his toes, snap and then, somehow, stretch. He looked down at his hands, his fingers growing, sprouting hair, and he knew. He knew.

~

It was quiet in the Manning house. The master suite with its wide hardwood floors, three long beige walls, and one deep red accent wall emitted the comforting feelings of elegance and airy romance. The full-length mirror and dresser trimmed with deep cherry wood matched the four-poster antique bed that dominated the far wall.

The fireplace on the opposite wall was still warm from the evening fire that had long since died. The crystal terrace doors that opened to the outside patio and gardens shown bright from the light of the full moon that seeped into the room.

Ian and Willow were asleep in their massive bed, tangled in satin sheets wrapped together in the afterglow of their slow, passionate lovemaking. Both were unaware that this would be their last time together.

Upstairs, Scar slept in a room fit for a princess. Her walls, as baby blue as the morning sky, held picture collages of friends and family and posters of her favorite bands. The entire room was bordered by white Christmas lights her mother helped her hang one Saturday morning.

Scar had a large rosewood vanity with hairbrushes and combs and other trappings of a teenage girl. The vanity matched her bookshelves, which were stacked with the books she loved to read and little knick-knacks she’d collected over the years. The centerpiece of the room was her queen-sized rosewood bed canopied in lace with its white and blue satin comforter, in which Scar was currently cocooned.

Klark and Kyle slept like the dead in their twin beds on either side of their room down the hall. The room was as large as a three car garage and held two of everything, from the toy boxes to the closets. On their walls were football and basketball posters and pictures of their sports teams. On the floor between their beds were piles of toys they’d neglected to put away before they crashed face first into their beds.

Across the hall from Scar’s room was Max’s nursery, the walls covered in murals of puppies running over prairies and children happily flying kites. An antique rocking chair sat in the corner of the room, beside the crib that Max was quickly outgrowing.

Through the glass terrace doors facing the woods, beamed the full moon’s light into the nursery and over Max’s crib. In his crib, Max sat quietly giggling at the rainbow of lights he’d created, a different color light glowing from each of his fingertips. Near the edge of the woods that met the Manning’s backyard, something howled at the moon. Engrossed in the light emanating from his fingers, Max didn’t hear the howls or see the movements as something burst through the woods and rushed toward the house.

Scar heard glass breaking and the crashing first, but it was Max’s screams that had her jumping out of bed and racing toward the nursery, screaming his name. When she reached the threshold of his room, what she saw towering over Max had her stunned with fear. The creature was easily eight feet tall with thick black hair covering its body, a werewolf, his long pointed fangs and claws sharp as knives.

“Max!” Scar screamed as the beast swiped at her baby brother.

Max remained untouched because of the impenetrable force field he’d put up around himself. The wolf turned to Scar, and she knew she would never forget those eyes. The wolf growled. “Lettie!”

Max dropped his bubble of protection and threw his arms out in the direction of Scar as if reaching for her. The werewolf charged her, and Scar, only focusing on her brother tried to run to Max to get him out. Both she and the wolf collided into opposite sides of an invisible wall, Scar outside the force field while the wolf was on the inside with Max.

Scar started banging on the shield as the wolf turned back toward her brother. “Max, let me in! Max, don’t do this! Take this down now, Max. This isn’t a game! Let me in now! Mom! Dad! Help! Max, let me in! Take this down, Maxwel, now! It’s going to be okay. Just let me in!”

Tears streaming down her face, Scar banged on the wall until her hands bled. She could see the werewolf closing in on her brother.

The next several seconds seemed to happen in slow motion to Scar. Max flew out of his crib and was only a few feet away from her when the beast’s claw hit him. “Lettie!” Max cried as he was dragged down.

“No! Max, it’s…” Scar was knocked off her feet by a white explosion that threw her out of the nursery and into the wall across the hall just as her parents ran up the stairs and into Max’s room. Scar struggled to her hands and knees and crawled into the room after her parents.

Through her graying vision she could see that the room was destroyed but the monster was gone. Her mother was backed into the corner and screaming hysterically, and her father was standing on shards of glass that used to be the terrace doors, looking out toward the forest.

Max was sprawled face up in his own blood with two long scratches marring his beautiful face. There was so much blood on his face, on his clothes, and staining the carpet that she just knew Max was dead. With her vision blurred and the ringing in her ears louder than her mother’s sobs, Scar crawled to Max’s body.

She watched Willow fall to her knees beside Max and wave her shaking hand over him. As she did, the scratches and blood disappeared from his face and body. All that was left of the attack were his shredded pajamas and the blood in the carpet, his skin perfectly smooth again.

Somehow her mother’s gesture made the scene before her worse to Scar. What was the point of her using magic to make the wounds that caused his death vanish when she couldn’t use it to make death itself go away and bring Max back. It was pointless. The blood, the scars, that monster, this terrible emptiness would be forever singed painfully in her mind. All of it was just too much for her.

Lying down beside Max, she took his lifeless hand and let the darkness surround her.

When Scar came to she was lying on the sofa in front of the fire in the living room—in the same room they were all playing in less than six hours ago. Now Max was dead.

Unaware of the tears running down her face, Scar hugged her knees to her chest as the image of her baby brother covered in blood on the red stained carpet replayed in her mind. My fault. It was all my fault. I didn’t save him. I didn’t protect him, and I watched him get killed, she thought. Staring into the fire, Scar felt empty and strange and cold. She was so cold, afraid that warmth would never be able to reach the ice far beneath her skin and bones.

At least Klark and Kyle were asleep while... Scar’s mind went blank as panic gripped her. “The twins.”

With a desperate sob she lunged up the stairs and into their room. The beds were empty. “Gone. They’re gone like Max. This isn’t happening. The monster didn’t come in here. This is a dream.”

But deep down she knew it was not a dream. Scar was gasping for breath as she ran down the stairs in the direction of the whispering voices in the kitchen. Her parents and another man she knew to be her father’s old partner, family friend, and her godfather, Lieutenant Calvin Bleekley, all up when she stepped into the kitchen doorway.

Distantly she wondered when he’d flown into town.

“Scar, you’re up,” her dad said as her mother reached out for her.

Scar took a step back and shook her head. “Where are Klark and Kyle?”

“Scar.” Willow headed toward her and stopped when she saw the look in her daughter’s eyes.

“Where?” she could only whisper, but Scar knew they heard her.

Ian answered. “They’re in our bed. Sweetie…” But she was already racing off.

Scar found her brothers asleep in her parents’ bed just as Ian had told her they would be. She looked them both over until she was satisfied that they were okay. Then, in a desperate need of comfort she felt she didn’t deserve, she climbed in the bed with them.

She was so thankful that the werewolf hadn’t gone after Klark and Kyle too, grateful as well that they hadn’t seen what happened to Max. She wouldn’t wish that sight on anyone. She felt so alone. Knowing that the night was far from over and hiding in her parents’ room wouldn’t make it all go away, Scar gathered her courage to do what she had to.

“She’s in shock,” Willow whispered.

Ian saw the tears on Willow’s cheeks and thought halfheartedly about comforting her, but he couldn’t gather the energy or compassion. Maxwel was dead, and it was her fault just as it was his. But Willow was the witch and the reason Max was a witch. She was responsible for Max having the same fate as her cursed family.

Even as he was cursing her, he cursed himself. I should have listened to my parents. I should have been fast enough to save my baby boy. Miserable, his self-control close to its breaking point, Ian sat quietly contemplating.

“Scar’s tough. She’ll fight through her shock and talk to us,” Bleekley said.

Willow turned on Ian as if he’d spoken the words. “You absolutely will not interrogate our daughter while she’s in this state of mind.” She threw her hands up to emphasize her point.

“It is too late to be a cop now, Ian. You weren’t fast enough, or trained enough, or smart enough to save Max. Now my baby is dead.” Willow’s voice broke and she turned away, unable to look at Ian any longer.

Familiar with the look on his partner’s face, Bleekley interjected before Ian said something he would regret. “Willow, the faster we ask Scar what she saw, the sooner we can take steps to catch whoever did this. And it might help Scar to talk about it instead of bottling it up.”

“Yeah, we have to put Scar through all of this because Ian didn’t catch who did this to my son. He couldn’t even do that.”

Ian knew everything she said was right, but he was not going to sit there and listen to her push this all on him when she was as much to blame as he was. He got up to leave the kitchen, then came to a stop when he spotted Scar standing at the threshold.

“The twins are fine,” Scar stated weakly, more to reassure herself than the others. “They’re fine.” She felt better after saying it out loud.

Ian and Willow walked toward Scar, but again she shook her head to stop them. She couldn’t bear to have them touch her or try to comfort her when she was at fault for Max’s death. But she couldn’t voice the truth because she knew it would be so much worse to have them turn away from her, as she feared they would. How can anyone believe what really happened?

Afraid to look her parents in the eye, Scar turned to Bleekley as she sat down at the table. “I know the procedure. I’m ready to tell you what happened, and I’ll answer any questions you have.”

Not sure what to do, Willow touched Scar’s shoulder. “Scar, baby, you don’t have to do this right now.”

Scar kept her eyes on Lieutenant Bleekley as if her mother hadn’t spoken. “Please.”

“Okay.” Bleekley thought he understood. “I’m going to record this to make sure we don’t miss or forget anything. Is that fine with you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay then.” He hit the record button on the machine sitting on the table. “Today is Saturday, July 31, 2003 and it is 2:30 a.m. This is the statement of Scarlette Noel Manning.

“Now, Scar, start from the beginning whenever you’re ready and just tell us what you remember.”

The use of her nickname comforted her, and she closed her eyes and took a deep breath to gather her strength. After a moment, Scar opened her eyes and began. “I was asleep in my bed when it all started. There was a crash…”

She described the horrific events that would become her nightmares for years to come. At some point during her statement, her father pushed away from the table to stand at the sink and look out of the kitchen window. Her mother just sat beside Scar with her hands fisted tightly on the table as tears steadily ran down her face.

Scar wished she could take away her parents’ hurt. She wished she could make it all go away, but the time to do something had long since passed. Finished with her statement and suddenly exhausted, Scar looked up at Bleekley. “Is that enough?”

“It is, yes. If you remember anything else, tell your dad or you can call me.”

“I will.”

“And you know if you just want to talk, we’re here for you, Scar.”

Finally, she looked at both of her parents. It took everything in her not to go into their arms and cry the tears she was still holding back. Instead she smiled weakly and pushed away from the table. “I know.”

She walked out of the kitchen and up to her room. Ian turned away from the window. “I’ll walk you out,” he said to Bleekley and walked out of the kitchen without a backward glance.

Bleekley covered Willow’s fisted hands with his and squeezed before he got up to leave. Outside, he put his hands in his pockets. Because he knew Ian would shake off any comfort he tried to offer, he waited in silence.

“You know I hate it when you do that.” Ian stopped pacing and turned to his old partner.

“Do what? I’m just standing here while you walk a hole in your front porch.”

“Just shut up.” He walked away to continue pacing.

“That’s what I was doing before you said something.”

Ian just kept on pacing. “A werewolf Cal, what am I supposed to do with that?”

“Are you sure it wasn’t some sort of a subconscious deal? Like her mind overcompensating during a horrific ordeal and she projected the man who really did this into something scarier—literally imagining a man into the monster he is for murdering a baby.”

“Yeah I’m sure because it’s Scar; she’s thirteen. I think she knows exactly what she saw. Now if it were the boys giving that statement, I would have questioned it as you are now. I still wouldn’t have dismissed it.

“We’ve heard stories floating around about werewolves in this area, but no one has spotted one or isn’t admitting that they have. I should have looked more into it.”

“Look, Ian, you know Willow was wrong about what she said. She’s just upset. You did everything you could.”

“Willow was right. Everything she said was right.”

“I don’t want to hear that crap from you, Ian. You know…”

“I know that I could’ve done more. I could’ve saved my son. I heard the glass shatter; I heard it Cal. But I didn’t sense any danger. I thought it was all a dream until I heard Scar’s scream, and by then it was too late. But now, I have nothing but time. I’m going to find this beast, Cal.”

“Ian, you can’t…”

“I will hunt him down, after office hours and without a badge, and I will kill him. I’ll kill them all.”

Bleekley knew there was no getting through to Ian or convincing him otherwise. “Well, at least let me help you. We’ll get some sleep and start fresh tomorrow.”

“You’re staying?”

“Because of everything that’s happened tonight, I’ll let that stupid question slide. I’m not going anywhere until this case is solved and we find the monster that did this.”

“No, Cal. I have to do this alone.”

“Look…”

“No.” Ian put his hand on Calvin’s shoulder and squeezed. “No. I’ll see you in the morning. Come back here around seven, and we’ll drive in to the station together, but when we find it, he’s mine.” He turned, walked back into the house, and shut the door.

Although Bleekley was nowhere near finished with the argument, he was too frustrated and exhausted to follow Ian and hash it out. So he walked to his car and drove to his hotel.

~

Bradley woke up in the woods with the orange glow of the dawn’s sun in his face and every part of his unclothed body aching. His head was pounding to the beat of a thousand soldiers marching to the front line, guns blazing and horns blasting. Groaning, he struggled to his knees and held his head in his hands to ensure it didn’t just fall right off his shoulders. When the worst of the headache was over, he was able to concentrate.

“Shoot!” He couldn’t remember anything besides sitting in the clearing with the guys drinking beer. Then he remembered the camera, that they had recorded everything this time.

Ignoring his aching body, Brad pushed off the ground and ran to the clearing. The guys were already there, dressed and picking up the mess. Scattered on the ground were pieces of broken pens and pencils, trampled scraps of paper, and what used to be the clothes they were wearing the night before in piles of shredded material.

Malcolm threw Brad some old jeans and a T-shirt. “I’m sick and tired of this. I guess the paper thing was a bust. What about the camera?”

“Crap! The camera isn’t where I set it up last night,” Nick said as he walked to where the camera used to be.

“Here it is,” Travis said as he walked through the trees back into the clearing. In his hands were several pieces of what was previously a state of the art digital camera.

Nick groaned. “Shoot! My dad’s going to kill me. He loved that stupid camera more than me. Who did this?”

“Whoever did this, all of this,” Chris swung his arm out to include the trashed campsite, “didn’t want us to know what’s been happening to us. It all has to be connected, the blackouts and the fact that the record of what we did has been destroyed.”

“So what could make the five of us have blackouts at the same time once or twice a month?” Brad asked.

“It’s not drugs because we all got tested for that last month.” Picking up the last of the debris and stuffing it in one of the trash bags they’d brought, Malcolm tied the bag and joined the others around the remains of the fire.

“Do you think it was witchcraft? Do you think it was Ash?”

Bradley rolled his eyes. “The town witch?” Brad snorted as he air quoted the word witch. “Come on, Nick. You can’t really believe in all that stuff?”

Nick shrugged, too embarrassed to admit that he found the whole notion of witches and magic really cool. “Well do you have a better explanation?”

“I’m with Nick on this one,” Christopher said. “What happened to us makes a little sense if you believe that magic is real, and so we can’t completely rule it out. But on the half chance that Ash is the witch he claims to be and magic is real, what does he have against us? And all this started happening about four months ago, so why then?”

Christopher had a logical mindset and so he was far from accepting that magic was the cause of their problem, even though all their other avenues had been dead ends. But he also knew this was a possibility they could not ignore given their utter lack of any leads.

Malcolm didn’t like where this was going one bit, but it made complete sense to him. Their minds were being controlled by an evil witch. And not just any evil witch, but one that pretended to be good and, when you least expected it, would kill you. That was the worst kind of evil. “This isn’t good, you guys. Have any of us done anything to make Ash hate us enough to want to kill us?”

Brad laughed. “Mal, not you too. No one is going to kill anybody. That’s not where this is going.”

“Yes, Brad, me too. And that’s exactly where this is going. Right now it’s just blackouts he’s causing, but what if he gets tired or bored with just blackouts. What else is he going to take out of our control? And seriously, what’s with him taking our clothes?”

“I say we stop all this talking and go take care of him. I’ve never liked that stupid showoff anyway.” Travis pushed past his friends to pick up his bag off the ground.

Nick, anger rising, got in his face. “Travis, what did you do?”

“You’re going to want to back up there, Nick. So I relieved him of some of the items in his shop a few months back and broke a couple of his windows to let some air in the stuffy old place. It’s not like he knew it was me, so who cares? But I’ll show him what happens for messing with us.”

“He’s a witch! Of course he knows it was you! This is your fault, and we’re all paying for it because we were dumb enough to be friends with you.”

Brad stepped between Travis and Nick. “Everybody calm down. Nick, cut it out; you know that’s not true. And damn it, Trav. I thought we were past all that crap. We’re going off to college in a week, and you can’t keep doing this. But we’re not going to confront Ash today, not yet.

“We’re all on edge right now. We just need to go home, clean up, and get some sleep. We’ll meet up later. Tonight’s the start of a new month, and so we have some time to think about how best to deal with this. Okay?” He looked at each of his friend’s faces to make sure everyone was in agreement.

“Why don’t y’all come over to my house for dinner? Mom’s doing the whole fish fry meal,” Chris said as he picked up his stuff.

“Sounds good. I’ll be there,” Nick said.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Malcolm said.

Still mad, Travis said, “Yep,” and stormed off.

Brad sighed. “Count me in. Y’all go ahead. I’m just going to hang here for another minute. See y’all tonight.”

As the others moved off into the woods, Bradley sat on one of the fallen old logs and again put his head in his hands. He couldn’t believe that he was actually considering the validity of what the guys were saying. What if magic existed? And what if Mr. Ash was a real witch? What would he do to them next, and what could they do about it? Too tired to think about it any longer, he got up to head home.

Scarlette woke with her face bathed in sunlight. She rolled over to bury her face in the pillow in the hopes that she could get a few more minutes of sleep and found herself hovering five feet above her bed. She gasped.

Her reaction caused her to shoot higher until she hit the ceiling and fell face down on her bed. She got up and raced across the hall to Max’s nursery only to find it empty. Before her emotions could consume her, she turned around and walked out of the room.

She knew Max was gone. She had witnessed his death. So how could she be levitating? Wary of whether or not she had imagined what just happened, Scarlette sat cross-legged on the floor, closed her eyes, and concentrated.

When she opened her eyes, she once again found herself suspended in the air. “I don’t understand. How is this happening?”

Then she remembered the white explosion right before Max was killed. She didn’t know it was possible for someone to transfer their powers to someone else. Well, in all actuality, she had to admit to herself, she didn’t know much of anything about magic. But why did he do it?

Guilt and despair engulfed her, and she slowly descended to the ground as she recalled what she had been thinking only yesterday. She’d been thinking that she would give anything to be a witch, to have powers and be special. She didn’t want power like this, at such a cost. Scarlette would have gladly given up these powers, or anything else, if it meant getting Max back. But she knew that wasn’t possible.

Max died trying to protect her, and she now vowed that his death would not be in vain. She would research everything there was to know about magic. She would practice and be the best. She would be the most powerful of witches for Max, for herself, and for her family. No werewolf, or anything else, would ever take what was hers again.

Determination and excitement radiated off of her in anticipation of what was to come. Scarlette knew just where she needed to go, and she ran to her bathroom to get ready for the day. Thirty minutes later, she closed the front door behind her and started the short hike into town.

Scarlette was relieved, and not a little surprised, that her mother did not ask questions or say no altogether when she said she was walking into town alone. Shrugging, she decided not to think too much about it and walked a little faster to get far enough from the house in case Willow changed her mind.

As Scarlette was passing the edge of the woods, Bradley walked out of the trees. Scar turned when she saw the movement out of the corner of her eye and sighed. Bradley was dressed in faded jeans ripped at the knees and a red Hawks shirt, the well-defined muscles chiseled into his beautifully long light brown arms on display.

Although he was as dirty as she was clean, all she wanted was for him to hold her and tell her everything was going to be okay. But that would never happen, and she had things to do anyway.

It wasn’t at all strange to her that Brad had just come out of the woods looking as though he’d slept in the dirt all night. Scar knew that he and his friends liked to camp out in the woods every now and then. All the cool kids hung out in the woods on weekends. She could have been one of those cool kids if her mother didn’t refuse her every wish, but that was a resentment for another day.

She waited on the side of the street and watched as Brad walked up to her. Ignoring her racing heart, she looked up. “Hi Bradley.”

“Hi, kid.” Brad saw her big beautiful brown eyes heat up at his greeting. Something in his lower stomach twisted.

There was something about her eyes that had always gotten to him since the first time he met her. That flash of anger only made her eyes more intriguing. They seemed capable of breaking through any façade, looking right into you, seeing only you. Her eyes always looked as if they held secrets, and just now, under all the anger Brad saw what he thought was a haunting despair.

Suddenly having a strong urge to touch her face, Brad crammed his hands in his pockets and stuck to small talk. “Where are you headed?”

Why, the nerve! Just because he was four years older than she was did not make him a man and her a child! Eyes blazing, chin out, she turned on her heels and walked away. Bradley just fell into step beside her. Blast his long, spectacular, muscular legs! “It is none of your concern where I’m going. I am not a child. I do not need a bodyguard or an escort, so you can go on back to the woods and play in the dirt.”

When Brad stopped walking, Scar smirked to herself thinking that she’d won. She turned her head to smile deviously at him over her shoulder. Abruptly, she stopped in her tracks and her smile faded when she caught the look on his face. He seemed lost and confused, scared.

The emotions that showed so clearly on his face triggered the grief that she’d been so desperately trying to hold back. Turning back around, she ran to him and grabbed his hand. “I didn’t mean it; I’m sorry.”

Unconsciously Brad brought the hand clasped in his up to his cheek, relishing the feel of her. What was it about her? What was she doing to him? She’d reminded him of his troubles, then just as quickly made him forget everything simply by touching him.

Snapping out of his thoughts, Brad looked down at Scar, his stare intense. “Why are you crying?” He quickly wiped the tear at the corner of her eye before it had the chance to roll down her face.

Scar was having trouble breathing. She couldn’t seem to stop looking at her hand that was still encased in his. “I…” she broke off and looked away, fully aware that she almost dumped everything on him. What was wrong with her? What was he doing to her? Why, when he was touching her, did she feel like she could tell him anything and he’d listen, that she could trust him?

Sure she liked Brad, Scar thought, but how could she tell him that a huge chunk of her heart had been ripped out and in its place was a raw, bleeding, indescribably painful hole. She focused on him again and saw that he was still staring at her, his eyes searching for something, and she felt like he was looking in her soul to find it.

Ungrateful of how uncomfortable he was making her, Scar snatched her hand from his grip. “It’s nothing, nothing at all.”

“You’re a bad, liar Scarlette. I saw your face before I joined you. You thought no one was watching, and so you let your guard down and your emotions surface. But I was watching. You’re pretty good at hiding what you feel when you’re around people, but I can still see traces of it in your eyes. So you’re not that good.”

Her chin shot up at that. “And what about you, Bradley Stone? You’re not as hard as your last name suggests. I saw your face after I made that comment. What about that?”

Inhaling sharply, he narrowed his eyes. “I asked you first,” Brad said through gritted teeth.

“That’s real mature. And you called me the kid.” Once more Scar spun around on her heels to walk away. She had things to do anyway, she reminded herself again. She did not need this from Bradley, Mr. High and Mighty, right now.

His rising anger was banked by the hilarity of her dry sarcasm. Far from ready to see her go, it was his turn to grab her hand. Brad pulled her back around, causing her to grab his arms for balance while he held hers.

Scar could feel him flexing the muscles in his biceps under her hands. She looked him straight in the eye. The look Scar was going for was indifference, disinterest, but she was betrayed by the slight curve at the corners of her mouth. He was arrogant, yes, but there was a playful charm in Brad that she wasn’t capable of pretending to be immune to.

His smile was smug. “You are a kid, Scarlette Manning. You’re only thirteen,” he said as his hands moved up her shoulders until he was cradling her face. “And you’re so beautiful,” he whispered.

The retaliating remark that was on the tip of her tongue died and the anger behind it evaporated. Her mind suddenly became clouded and it was nearly impossible to think.

“I don’t like it when you cry. I hate seeing that mixture of pain and sadness in your eyes; it does something to me,” he murmured.

Scar couldn’t breathe. What is happening to me, she thought again. Her stomach was tied in knots and her heart was beating so hard she thought it would implode.

“Tell me,” Brad urged as his thumbs lightly rubbed her cheeks. “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong with me?” Not wanting to give himself the chance to think it through, he leaned in to kiss her lips.

When Scar’s eye fluttered closed, he stopped only an inch from her mouth. She looked so innocent and fragile, so young. What was wrong with him? Hadn’t he just said that she was a child? Scar was practically still a baby at thirteen, and he’d very nearly kissed her. And he still wanted to, more than anything. I am the lowest kind of man, he thought.

When she started to open her eyes, Brad bolted upright and brought her in for a hug. He knew, if he looked into those big brown eyes now, he’d be lost. Even the hug had his heart racing. Had he ever felt like this with other girls? Brad was sure he hadn’t. What was so different about Scar?

He had no clue. At the moment, Brad couldn’t think of anything but her. She felt completely right pressed up against him. She fit perfectly. She smelled like the flowers his mother grew and kept around the house. There was something comforting in that alone, something that made him think of roots and lifetimes and forever.

He wasn’t ready for that, and he definitely couldn’t afford that with someone 36 so young and…pure. Pure. Oh God, I have to stop this. He had to let her go.

With her eyes still slightly closed, Scar missed the wary uncertainty on his face. Trying to rid herself of the slight sting of rejection, she wrapped her arms tighter around him and laid her head on his chest, sighing. Scar had been so sure that her dreams would come true, that Bradley would kiss her. She’d secretly always wanted him to be her first kiss, but she guessed he didn’t feel the same. So she put the thought aside and basked in the pleasant feeling of him pressed against her.

Brad was glorious, amazing, perfect; and not only had he noticed her, but he’d said she was beautiful. And Scar could tell he meant it. She couldn’t believe that she had ever doubted trusting him. Of course she could trust him; she could tell him anything.

He wanted to kiss her, more with every passing moment. The strings of his self control were on the verge of snapping. I must be crazy, completely insane! That was the only explanation for why he was carrying on like this, the only possible rationalization for why he felt as though she had a tight hold on his heart and, if he wasn’t careful, her tight hold would become unbreakable. He pulled away.

She is only thirteen, for Pete’s sake, the same age as my little sister. It was best to keep thinking of her as he always had. He took a step back. “Tell me, Scar.”

Bracing herself, Scar took a deep breath and closed her eyes to gather her courage. Outside of an official statement, he would be the first, and she knew, most likely the only person, she talked to about what happened. “Max was killed last night.”

“I can’t…” Brad’s words drifted to a stop. When Scar’s statement sunk in, he snatched her up by her arms. “What did you say?”

Not expecting anger or the pain he was inflicting, her eyes flew open. “You’re hurting me.”

He shook her once. “What did you say?”

“You’re…”

“No, before that.”

“I said my baby brother, Max, was killed last night.”

When the first tear fell from her eye, Brad dropped her. He didn’t think he’d ever been this angry. He saw red at the corner of his eyes, and it was rapidly spreading. He didn’t know what he would do, but he felt as though he was capable of anything. “Who?” he growled, oblivious to his shaking.

“Not who. What.”

“Excuse me?”

“A werewolf killed Max, not a person.”

Instantly Brad’s blood turned to ice and his rage morphed into a gut-wrenching terror. “What? I don’t…”

“A werewolf broke into Max’s nursery and killed him. He came from the woods.”

“The woods? How do you know? Did you see him come out of the woods?” His tone was accusatory.

“Well, no, but the woods come to the edge of our backyard and the nursery faces the woods. So I know that’s where it came from. You and your friends better be careful hanging out in the woods the way you do.”

“My friends? Did you see more than one?” Brad grabbed her arms again and bent down in her face, his tone frantic and his eyes filled with panic.

“No, but there’s rarely ever just one, right? I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more of them,” Scar said in disgust.

“No.” Denial, anger, anything was better than the feeling of panic and guilt that assaulted him now. He realized that he’d awakened earlier that morning practically at the Manning’s back door. Deep down a part of him knew that what she was saying was right, that he and his friends were… What if he was the one who killed…

No! Scar is crazy, he thought. Mr. Ash was just playing tricks on them, that was all. There was no way they were werewolves. “No,” he repeated with more finality. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You probably just dreamed it or something.”

“I dreamed… If I dreamed my brother’s death then why is my mother making funeral arrangements right now? If I dreamed it, then why is Max not here?” The tears were streaming down her face. She didn’t have the energy to stop them. She’d opened up to tell him the truth and he was throwing it back in her face, calling her story lies.

“That’s not what I meant, Scarlette.”

“Well, what did you mean, Bradley?”

The bitterness in her tone only fueled his own. “I meant that it was a man and you just imagined it as a werewolf. You know, the whole monster in the closet thing.”

“You insensitive, heartless jerk! What was I thinking telling you anything? I didn’t imagine anything. I was there. I saw that werewolf leaning over Max in his crib. I saw it swipe at Max with its sharp claws. I saw that monster kill my brother. So don’t you dare treat me like some child with an overactive imagination.”

Brad knew that he should apologize to her for putting that anger and hurt in her eyes, for causing the tears running down her face, but he couldn’t seem to stop. “A child is exactly what you are; you’re only thirteen,” he repeated.

“You sure weren’t treating me like one a minute ago.”

“That was a mistake, a lapse of judgment, and you hugged me.”

Scar inhaled sharply and stumbled back as if he’d pushed her. “That’s not true! You can’t mean that.”

“I do. Every word.” He felt miserably sick, but she had to be wrong. And yet he knew she wasn’t. What if it was him, the werewolf that had... Scar would hate him. He had to get away from her. Good thing he was going off to college next week. There would be plenty of girls, and his work, of course, at Harvard to keep his mind off Scar and her brother.

“Like I said, you’re just a kid, Scar, and there is no such thing as werewolves.”

Scar wiped the last of her tears. She was done crying in front of him. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “Fine, don’t believe me. But I know what I saw, and I’ll never forget what he looked like. I’ll never forget anything about that werewolf, and I’ll kill him if I get the chance.”

Brad’s eyes widened, his heart racing with fear. “Stay out of the woods, Scarlette. Don’t try to be a hero.”

“What do you care? You don’t believe what I saw even exists.”

“I don’t, but for once, just listen to me. Don’t go into the woods after dark.”

“Why did you ask me what was wrong in the first place if you don’t care?”

“I was just trying to be nice.” Shrugging, he feigned disinterest, but he felt like the lowest form of scum.

Her chin shot up as she desperately held on to the last of her pride. “Well, don’t do me any more favors, Stone.” Scar turned around and walked toward Witch’s Lair. Brad hugged me, she thought as another tear fell from her eye. She wiped it away with conviction.

As if this terrible grief wasn’t enough, he had to add a broken heart to her ailments. She hated Bradley Stone and hoped she never saw him again. With a new found determination, Scar ran the rest of the way to Mr. Ash’s shop. It was time for her to begin the rest of her life.

 

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