The Reluctant Huntress: Chapter 1 (Uncorrected)

Updated: Aug 20, 2019


NOVEMBER


Fog drifted in from Lake Michigan, driven by the icy November winds. It swallowed the stars, leaving the moon to float like a forgotten pearl above the town of Kedwin.

I scanned the sky from my hiding spot beneath a rusted pickup truck. I saw no signs of Dad’s hunters. Of course, because I couldn’t see the Hawk Unit didn’t mean the shape-shifting bastards weren’t out there.

Watching.

Waiting.

At the worrisome thought, my eyes flew back to the diner across the street. The blinking neon sign above its door identified it as the Silver Spoon Diner. It was an ambitious name for a pair of rusty shipping containers welded together and covered in peeling yellow paint. It looked like the kind of place that even cockroaches would avoid.

That was why Mom had chosen it, of course.

She was waiting inside. I could smell her from across the street. Her nauseatingly sweet smell was all I had to go on these days since I had no idea what she looked like anymore.

Mom was a Jumper. It was her gift, and her curse, depending on how you looked at it. Jumping had allowed her to rip her soul from its body and put it back together in a new one. Over and over again. Perfect for escaping Dad’s hunters and their traps, but horrible in every other regard. Ripping the soul apart had its consequences.

The most obvious one being the smell that lingered for weeks.

I had begged Mom not to Jump bodies. But she’d done it anyway — all to save my precious sister.

Not that it would do much good. Aubrey was doomed. Azure had sealed her fate when he prophesied that her death was the only way for Aramithian exiles to earn Celo’s forgiveness. No one had challenged Azure’s prophecy. No one had asked why Celo, the ruler of Aramith, was ready to give his long-denied mercy. The exiles had cared only about what Celo’s forgiveness meant: immortality.

Bastards!

The darkness of night bled red. Sparks of fire burst from my hair and floated away in the night like fireflies.

Stupid. Stupid bastards!

Fearful of being spotted, I took deep breaths and rolled my shoulders, all the while nudging away the anger and hatred and fear. With great reluctance, they slithered back to their hiding place. Six feet deep. The place where I buried every lousy thought, memory, and feeling.

The night settled around me again, brushing cold fingers across my warm skin and scalp. Balancing on my elbows, I studied the diner.

There were five people inside. One of them did not belong. One of them was only playing a human. Mom, where are you?

She was not the waitress who moved about with ease as though she knew every nook and cranny of the diner. I ruled out the young woman sobbing into her plate of fries, also. Mom never cried, not even for show.

The withered man nodding off at the counter was a definite no. Mom wouldn’t choose a body weakened by age. That left the painfully thin woman or the bewhiskered man. They sat across from each other in a booth near the back. I dismissed them both when the man leaned across the table and stuck a finger into the woman’s afro. Mom would never stand for that nonsense.

I searched the other tables for personal effects. A black bag and a coffee mug were on a table nearest the door. Perhaps they belonged to Mom. She might’ve gone to the bathroom or stepped outside to smoke—

My eyes flew back to the booth near the back as the bewhiskered man jolted to his feet. Cradling his crotch, the man roared something at the painfully thin woman and then wobbled out of the diner. The other patrons turned to stare at the woman.

I did, too.

Mom?

The woman pulled her striped sweater around her thin shoulders and settled back into the booth. Then, slowly, as though it was a mere curiosity, she scanned the night sky and the streets outside the diner. Her deep brown skin turned ashy.

Mom!

My heart slammed against my breast as I crawled out of my hiding place. I dashed across the street, dreadlocks slashing at the black night like bloody whips and backpack bouncing on my back despite its tremendous weight.

“Grab a seat wherever you like,” the waitress sang when I stepped into the diner. “I’ll take your order in a minute. Specials are …”

I tuned her out. Mom sat up and waved a thin, boney hand. She looked older up close. Tired, too. A slash of white fabric kept a canopy of ringlets away from her large moss-green eyes and haggard face. There was a cunningness about her, though, that gave steel to her thin frame.

It’s the soul that matters.

It’s the soul that matters.

It’s the soul that matters.

Knowing the truth didn’t make it easier to cross the room to her side. I missed her old body. The elegantly freckled nose that used to twitch right before she flashed her gap-toothed smile; the long, sturdy arms and coarse curls—

“Why are you covered in dirt?” Mom demanded.

Her voice was unfamiliar. Brittle and sharp like a rotting twig.

“I was hiding under a truck,” I said. “It couldn’t be helped.”

Her large eyes flicked over me, sliding past my dirty blue leggings and white sweater to zero in on my dreadlocks. “I keep hoping you’ll grow out of your Grandma Shaw’s face,” she said. “Those dreadlocks don’t help, of course. Nor your eyes.”

Here we go.

“I suppose it’s your father’s face,” she continued. “Lefu is in many ways, a carbon copy of his mother. Didn’t inherit much from his father except a taste for cruelty with a side of gin.”

I took a careful breath through my mouth as I sat across from her. The table was sticky and streaked where someone, probably the waitress, had tried to scrub away the rust and food.

Folding my hands on my lap, I forced a smile. “It’s nice to see you too, Mom.”

The skin between her brows folded together. “You’re angry at me?”

I slumped lower in my seat. “I’m not, it’s… I’m Pyrokinetic. I can’t Jump to a new body because you don’t like the way I look.”

Red hair, blue eyes, and pasty, freckled skin weren’t the only things I had inherited from Dad’s side of the family. They had also handed down the ability to create and control fire.

Mom shook her head, green eyes wide and swimming with an apology she’d never voice. “The resemblance is a bit shocking, that’s all. I can’t be the only one who’s pointed it out.”

She wasn’t, but I had no intention of telling her that. “It wouldn’t be so shocking if you hadn’t left me behind.”

“I know, I know.”

“Besides, you’re the one who chose to marry into the Shaw family.”

The skin around her eyes crinkled as her lips lifted in a smile. It seemed out of place on her face, as though the previous owner hadn’t had much practice at it. “I don’t regret marrying Lefu, in spite of what we’ve become to each other. We made you and your sister. For that reason alone, I wouldn’t change a thing if I had to do it all over again.”

“So you say,” I mumbled.

“I can’t believe you’re fifteen years old already. If we were in Aramith, you’d be considered an adult. Allowed to marry and have children of your own.”

“I’m not fifteen for another four hours.”

“I know, honey. I was there.”

Mom picked up her grease-splattered menu and thumbed through the laminated pages. I opened my menu, too. Perhaps the diner had pre-packaged food items. Anything prepared onsite would likely come with a side of listeria. “We should get food that travels well,” I said, skipping to the to-go section.

“Is Aubrey still on a vegetarian diet?” I asked.

Mom shook her head. “She’s quite salty about it, too. As if it’s my fault that her new body craves bacon cheeseburgers.”

Aubrey had inherited Mom’s ability to Jump bodies. “Well, weren’t you the one who picked it out?”

“I chose it for its lean muscles and common face, not its tastebuds.”

I bit back a goading smile. Mom rarely complained about Aubrey. The two were irritatingly close. “Where is she hiding out at while you’re here?”

Mom looked up from the menu. Her eyes darted around the room twice before meeting mine. “Your sister is safe. That’s all you need to know.”

“Safe here, or safe far from here?”

“Safe.” Mom gave me a meaningful look that I knew meant the topic closed. Lowering her eyes back to the menu, she said, “See anything you’d like to have?”

I closed the menu and set it aside. “I’ll get something on the road.”

“What about the sweet potato fries? The turkey burger sounds decent, too.”

“I’m not very hungry.”

Regret darkened Mom’s moss-green eyes. “You should get something now.”

My stomach turned ill with panic. “What is it?” I choked out. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing.” Her eyes went flat, emotionless, like a stranger’s. “Can’t a mother talk with her daughter simply because she wants to?”

“We can talk on the road,” I said.

“Or we can talk while I eat. I’m famished. It’s been at least two days since I’ve had a decent meal.”

“How can you fill your stomach with questionable food when the Unit is hunting you?”

Mom quirked an eyebrow. It was her don't-be-stupid brow. She somehow made it work on every face she wore. “There will never be a time when I’m not running from the Unit, Morgan. Hunters are always around the next corner or over the next hill. If not them, then their scouts, or some nosey exile looking to earn points with Azure.”

“I know, but—”

“No, Morgan, you don’t know.”

I lowered my eyes. Mom was right. I had no idea what it was like to be hunted by the Hawk Unit because I’d been left behind with Dad when she ran off with Aubrey.

“In any case, there’s a time for everything. Chit chat and questionable food included.”

The panic in my chest eased. Maybe I’d read too much into that earlier look. It wouldn’t be the first time. “Fine, what do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know. What about the Rottweiler? Is he still alive and breathing?”

“Of course Phyllis is alive!” I glanced around, hoping no one had heard what she’d asked. Not that anyone here would know of my long and sorry history in pet ownership. “I haven’t had an incident in years. I can’t believe you’d ask a question like that.”

“Sorry, sorry,” she said, but there was no remorse in her voice. “We’ll talk about something else. Let’s see, Ollie and the bookstore?”

With a huff, I pulled on a dreadlock and rolled it between my fingers until the errant strands flattened. Ollie had meant to tighten my dreadlocks yesterday, but we had ended up on her couch eating ice cream and posting book reviews.

“Ollie and the store are fine,” I said. “Bookstore sales are still pretty high since Landon hasn’t caught the eReader bug yet.”

“It’s only a matter of time, though. I love the smell of ink and paper, but I’d probably switch to an eReader if I could afford to.”

“You should have told me you wanted one. I could have bought it for you.”

She shrugged a boney shoulder. “It was a silly thought, Morgan. Let’s be honest, where would I even charge it? Paperbacks are easier.”

“Mom you own five books, all stained and dog-eared. How many times are you going to read about Edna Pontellier and her screwed up life?”

“I like Edna. Besides, reading the same stories, over and over, helps right my mind after a Jump.”

A Grand-Canyon-sized pit opened in my chest. I scanned Mom’s haggard face, wondering if its exhaustion belonged to her or the body’s previous owner. I hated what Jumping did to her. Hated how much she lost and never recovered after each Jump. Bits and pieces. Well, bits and pieces added up over time.

“You can’t keep ripping your soul apart,” I said, unable to keep the pleading from my voice.

Mom made a sour face as she reached for her coffee. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“I’m only saying—”

She slurped, rudely, intentionally cutting me off. “I hear Joshua will be Pinned as Captain tomorrow.”

Fear dragged cold fingers up my spine. “He won the election by a landslide.”

“You know I used to change his diapers?” Mom slammed the coffee mug on the table, sloshing coffee everywhere. “He spent more time at our dining table than his own. And now he’s hunting Aubrey like the rest of those jackals!”

“You should probably keep your voice down.” I eyed the window. The fog had thinned, some, but not enough that I could see more than a few yards past the diner.

“I ought to wring his ungrateful neck!

“Mom, stop—”

“Better the Captaincy had gone to that bumpy-nose buffoon!”

It was impossible not to make a face. “Hebrew’s nose is second to none. Even Azure says he’s the Unit's best Hound to date.”

“That may be, but he’s also as dumb as a rock. Joshua, on the other hand, is cunning and agile. And as if that wasn’t lethal enough, he can read Aubrey like a book. He knows how she thinks, and how she moves.”

“And whose fault is that?” I said, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice. “Aubrey spent every waking moment with him when we were kids. Just the two of them. And you encouraged it.”

Mom glared at me as though I’d sprouted wings. “It’s not like I knew our lives would turn out like this.”

“Well, it did.”

She sat back with a huff and chewed on her bottom lip until the skin was bleached white. “Aubrey still loves him; can you believe that? She still hopes he’ll run off and join her one day.”

My heart fluttered oddly in my chest. How could Aubrey still hope for a future with Joshua? How could she even want one? And why did the idea of him running off to join her make me want to puke?

“Did the little snake at least invite you to his Captain’s Banquet?” Mom said.

I blinked and focused on her face again. My cheeks burnt hot with guilt. “It was nothing by a pity invite.”

“No wonder you’re so grumpy,” Mom said, softening a bit. “You could have told me you wanted to attend the Banquet with Sam.”

The mention of Sam awakened the flesh memories of his fingers and lips, roaming, exploring, my body. Flesh memories could not be erased. They could only be dulled with time and other memories. “I don’t care about the banquet,” I said and tucked my hands beneath the table so I could claw, uselessly, at my thighs.

“Don’t be silly.” Mom reached for her coffee again, a small, secret smile on her lips. “The Captain’s Banquet is the biggest event in Landon. It’s where many couples get their start.”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Why can’t we talk about Sam? Your first love is a big deal—”

“I’m not in love with him,” I said, unable to keep the edge from voice. “I haven’t even seen him since Dad strung him up by the ankles two months ago.”

Mom barked out a curse, spewing a mouthful of coffee down the front of her striped sweater. I pulled a handful of napkins from the dispenser. She took them and dabbed at the stain forming on her chest, her eyes never leaving mine.

“Dad caught us together,” I confessed in a shamefully, tiny voice.

“Caught you together doing what?

“Stuff.”

Mom crushed the napkins into a ball. Her eyes raked over me, as though she could tell everywhere Sam’s hands had been by looking.

“Sam and I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “We were just curious.”

“Next time, read a book!”

“I did read a book. That’s what made me curious.”

“You’re fourteen, Morgan. What if you had gotten pregnant?”

Heat blazed across my back and up my neck. It didn’t spill out of me, though; instead, it festered like poison, like a secret I couldn’t bring myself to voice. Grinding my teeth, I pressed a hand to my abdomen. I couldn’t feel the u-shaped scars through my sweater, but I knew exactly where they were.

“I’m not pregnant,” I said.

“So you used protection? Pregnancy isn’t all you have to watch out for these days. There’s a slew of nasty diseases that’ll make you wish you’d gotten knocked up.”

“I didn’t have sex with him!” I scrambled out of the booth, dragging my bag with me. “Can we get out of here? Please. I promise you can lecture me on sex once we’re out of town.”

“Morgan—”

“Please, Mom!”

Guilt, raw and unmistakable, darkened her moss green eyes. She swallowed. Twice. As though something more than words was lodged in her throat. Panic returned. This time it wormed its way into every inch of me, forcing itself between skin and muscle and marrow.

“You can’t send me back to Dad,” I choked out. “I won’t go.”

She ducked her head and opened the grease-splattered menu again. She turned the pages with trembling, brown fingers. “Remember that chocolaty, butterscotch thing you used to live on as a kid? We should order a few of those to celebrate your birthday.”

“I don’t want a scotcheroo bar! I want to go with you!”

“Scotcheroo! That’s it!” She waved to the waitress.

“You promised I wouldn’t have to go back this time!” I said, stabbing the table with a finger. “You said, once I turned fifteen I could join you and Aubrey on the run. You said I wouldn’t have to put up with Dad—”

“You gals ready to eat?” sang a voice behind me. “We have fresh steak and eggs if you’re hungry for it.”

I clamped my mouth shut and straightened. It was the waitress. Her heavy-lidded eyes were kind, and her smile friendly. It barely distracted from her ill-fitting yellow uniform and nest of unwashed copper curls. Tossing a threadbare kitchen towel over one shoulder, she pulled out a notepad and pen.

Mom grinned at her like the two were old friends. “We were actually hungry for scotcheroo bars. Are they any good?”

“Good enough I can’t stick to a proper diet.”

Mom laughed. “Sounds like me back in the nineties.”

“You’re so phony,” I said, loud enough for the whole diner to hear.

The waitress gulped. “Oh, well … anything else?”

“A grape soda for my daughter,” Mom said, “and black coffee for me unless you have something stronger hiding back there.” Her face was still friendly, but there was steel in her voice.

“To go,” I added.

“Er …”

“Fine,” Mom said. “To go.”

The waitress hurried away, whispering her thanks to sweet baby Jesus.

When she was out of earshot, I stabbed Mom with a dirty look. “You are not sending me back.”

“I thought you’d be happy,” she said, matching my gaze. “Seeing as how you haven’t taken a proper breath since you walked into the diner.”

“Because this place smells like unwashed feet and burnt grease.”

“So it has nothing to do with the way I smell?”

I fisted a hand on my hip and sucked in a deep breath. It was a mistake. A big, fat choking and coughing mistake. Mom’s face burnt the purple-red of fresh berries as she watched me. My throat was raw by the time it subsided.

“I shouldn’t have come,” Mom said.

I plopped back to my seat, feeling like a brat. “I’ll get used to it.”

“I only stink so bad because those stupid humans fight to keep their bodies. It’s the struggle that leaves behind a strong magical residue.” Sighing loudly, she looked toward the counter where the waitress stood pouring coffee into a paper cup. “No matter how crummy and sad their lives are, they always fight to keep it.”

I stiffened. “You plan on stealing her body.”

“Yes.”

Somehow, I managed to keep the revulsion from my face. I knew Mom and Aubrey had to steal bodies. Jumping was their only defense. Still, Mom had laughed and chatted with the waitress.

“Perhaps you should take an Aramithian’s body instead,” I said. “It’s only fair that the exiles pay the price since they are the ones who wanted you dead.

Setting her face in a scowl, Mom began pulling apart her discarded napkin. “I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, Aramithians can smell me coming. Even when I manage to sneak up on them, their magic fights back on their behalf. It makes for a messy Jump.

“Still … do you have to take her body?”

“You sound like your sister. These days, I can only get her to take a body if the human is dying or abusing it.”

“Can you blame her for feeling guilty?”

Mom’s lips twisted in a bitter smile. “You think I don’t feel guilty? You think I’ll enjoy ripping out that woman’s soul and tucking mine into her flesh?”

“Of course not, but—”

“But nothing! In the last two weeks, I have had to Jump four times. It never gets easy. Not one Jump.”

Four? I reared back, the words clattering in my head like a cymbal. “Why so many?”

“Or was it five?”

“You don’t remember?”

Mom’s hands stilled. She met my shocked gaze, blinking. “It’s tiring to keep count.”

I knew she wouldn’t listen, but I couldn’t make myself shut up. Not when Mom looked like a wrongly put together jigsaw puzzle. “You need to stop Jumping. Give your soul time to rest.”

“I can’t.”

“But you know what will happen if you keep this up.”

Sucking air through her teeth, she pulled the sweater tightly around her rail-thin frame. “Of course I know what will happen, Morgan. It’s my mind that’s being ripped to shreds, my soul that’s got holes in it. In any case, what’s done is done, and it cannot be undone. Far too many rips. Far too many missing pieces.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way!” A sob slipped out before I could stop it. “Please.”

“You talk like I can just stop Jumping and put my feet up.”

“You can!”

Her eyes narrowed on me. She sat up. “And your sister—”

She stopped as the waitress appeared at our table with a small black track. Mom didn’t bother to smile or meet the woman’s gaze. She simply glared at me, chest rising and falling from the effort to remain calm. “I’ll settle on my way out,” she said and waved the waitress away.

“Take your time,” the waitress said. Her cheery sing-song voice was gone, replaced by a wary attempt at politeness.

“Aubrey cannot die for a lie!” Mom said the moment we were alone.

I jerked back. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Doubt is written all over your face.”

“Convincing me is not the issue,” I said, leaning forward and making my voice gentle. “It’s the exiles who will never believe Azure’s prophecy is a lie. Especially when it’s coming from you.”

“But it is a lie!”

“It doesn’t matter. The exiles will never believe a Jumper.”

Jumpers were the first to join the uprising when Celo’s twin brother, Charr, challenged him for Aramith’s throne. With their help, Charr infiltrated the Hawk Unit and gathered an enormous following. Unfortunately, Celo crushed Charr and the Hawk Unit, along with their supporters. Those who survived were stripped of their immortality and banished to a life of death and decay on earth.

Exiles blamed Jumpers for the banishment and treated them little better than dogs.

But Mom’s lips stretched in a broad smile. As though none of it mattered. As though the exiles wouldn’t sooner cut her throat than hear her speak.

“Which is why I’m not going to be the one saying it,” she said. “I found someone to help me get the word out. If he agrees to help, then Aubrey is as good as safe. He’s the kind of man that makes things happen.”

Her eyes swept the diner. No one had come or gone in the time we’d started talking, but her voice dipped lower. “He calls himself Lazarus. We met once, years ago, back when I still thought I was a Dud. He’s the one who revealed that Aubrey and I were Jumpers. Until then, I assumed we were ungifted like my half of the family.”

My chest swelled — with hope, with relief. I scooted to the edge of my seat. “Do you think he could help me Jump bodies?”

“Morgan, we’ve been over this,” Mom said, quirking a don't-be-stupid brow. “Dual gifts are rare, especially in those who are Pyrokinetic.”

Disappointment tasted bitter on my tongue. Sitting back from the table, I opened my grape soda and downed half the bottle. Mom continued, lit up with hope and excitement.

“Anyway, it’s taken months to track him down again,” she said. “I had to pay one of his acquaintances to arrange a face-to-face in Detroit. She’s a nasty little creature, not at all my sort, but she assured me that I’d get to see him.”

“So you’re hoping he can get the word out that the prophecy is a lie?” When she nodded, I asked, “When do you meet him?”

“Tomorrow.”

“I’m going with you,” I said, putting every ounce of steel I could muster into the words.

Mom’s eyes rolled to the ceiling. “You’re going back to Lefu. I cannot protect both you and Aubrey. Attempting to do so will get us all killed.”

“I’ll take my chances!”

“And what of the rest?” Shaking her head, Mom emptied a packet of sugar into her paper coffee cup and mixed it in with a wooden stir stick. She still did not meet my gaze. “Aubrey and I often sleep in sewers and dumps. We rarely find a bed, not to mention a hot bath or a decent meal. “

“But I can help with that too! Grandma Shaw left me a ton of money when she died last year.”

“You have to—” Mom stopped, the paper cup an inch from her lips. “Lefu released your inheritance? All of it? What about Aubrey’s share?”

“Grandma Shaw left it all to me. Dad deposited it into my account two weeks ago.” It had made me feel icky at first, seeing so many zeroes in my account. I hadn’t planned on touching a dime of it, especially Aubrey’s share. “We could take some to live on,” I added. “It’s not like it’ll make much of a dent anyway.”

Mom swallowed. “We could … do that.”

“Yeah?”

“But what was Lefu thinking?”

I barely heard her as my heart swelled with excitement. I reached for the bill the waitress had left on the table. Flipping it over, I scribbled down my ATM code. “We should hit every ATM on our way out of town. I’ll take the ones on the west side, while you take the ones on the east.”

Some genius exile from way back in the day had married science and magic together to create a numeric code that turned any ATM machine into an access point to the Aramithian Money Network Fund, a banking system designed exclusively for exiles.

“We can’t withdraw the money,” Mom said.

“Of course, we can. There are at least a dozen ATMs in town.”

Mom snatched the slip of paper away and crushed it. “You’re not thinking this through.”

I deflated like a stomped on balloon. “Are you really so determined to leave me behind that you’d pass up free money?”

“And are you so determined to escape your father that you don’t see his trap?”

“Trap?” I asked, breathless with panic.

“Why else would he let you have the money?”

“Because it’s mine.” I knew it was a lie the moment the words left my mouth.

Mom’s hand shook as she picked up her coffee. Steadying the cup with both hands, she took a long sip. “Only an idiot would give a teenager access to that much money, and Lefu is no idiot. He is intentional.”

My eyes swept the diner, assessing every face anew. “Do you think Dad knows we’ve been in touch?”

“He probably suspects or hopes. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that I’d eventually contact you. Lefu probably hopes you’ll offer me the money.”

My head dipped. I was such a fool. Dad had known it, and now Mom did too. “So, what now?”

Setting her coffee aside, Mom clasped her hands on the table and pinned me with a cold, determined gaze. My entire body slumped as the fight left me. I didn’t know what else to say. How could she send me back to Dad? Back to a life of forever being looked at as the daughter of a Jumper and a traitor?

“Why do you always save her and not me?” I whispered.

“That’s not what I’m doing.”

“But you are sending me back!”

“Because your sister needs me more.”

“I need—”

“Not as much as she does!” Mom spat the words with venom, showering me with spittle. A storm raged in her eyes as she stabbed the table between us. “Aubrey’s had to give up everything: her body, her peace of mind, her home. All because that charlatan, Azure, wants to bleed her dry on his altar! No one wants you!”

I wiped her spittle from my cheeks with shaky fingers. “That’s where you’re wrong. Dad wants me for his Hawk Unit.”

Mom’s entire face slackened with shock. Several heartbeats later, she blinked. “Lefu wants you to become a hunter?”

“Now do you see why I can’t go back to Landon?”

Her eyes slid over me, narrowing. “Do it. Join the Hawk Unit.”

I tried to speak, but it felt like my chest had caved in. Mom leaned across the table, eyes hard with determination. I watched her lips move, barely noticing the way her sickly sweet smell corked my nose.

“Aubrey needs someone on the inside,” she said, pointing at me as though there was any doubt who she meant. “It’ll give you access to information about hunts, kettle formations, and schedules. You’ll be able to tell us where scouts are posted so we can avoid being sniffed out in the first place.”

I pressed my back into the seat, wishing I was on the other side of the world. Hell, I’d settle for the other side of the diner. “Let me get this straight. You want me to let the Hawk Unit tether my soul to a hawk and break every bone in my body so Aubrey can be safe?”

“Yes!”

“Have you lost your mind?” I whispered.

“Probably, but we all have to make sacrifices if Aubrey is to live!”

Squeezing my eyes shut, I fought tears. But a traitorous sob escaped my throat. I grabbed my backpack and slid out of the booth. But Mom’s fingers clamped down on my left wrist.

“Dry your eyes,” she snapped.

A breath caught in my throat, and tears came harder, pouring out of me like water leaving a pipe. I couldn’t help it. Mom hadn’t touched me in years. She claimed it was to protect me from carrying her scent back to Landon, but I’d started to believe that maybe she didn’t want me close.

“I said to dry your eyes,” Mom hissed. “Tears are for the weak.”

I tugged my wrist free, rubbed my cheeks dry, and then glared down my nose at her.

Mom sat back and curled her fingers around the paper cup again. “For this to work, you’ll need to get close to Joshua,” she said in a cool, methodical voice. “He hunts only with the fastest and most skilled hunters in the Unit. Become one, and you’ll have his attention and his trust. If you fail at that, then befriend him. Shadow him. Bat your eyes if you must.”

Her words made my skin crawl. “So you want me to whore myself out, too? Ten minutes ago you were berating me for being with Sam!”

Mom’s knuckles turned white where they gripped her coffee cup. “I said to bat your eyes not let him feel you up like cheap fruit at a market. There’s a difference.”

I bit down on the urge to scream. There was no point. My hurts, fears, and disappointments wouldn’t matter to Mom anyway since I wasn’t Aubrey.

“Anything else?” I growled.

“Yes.” Shouldering a ratty messenger bag, Mom slid out of the booth. Her lips made a half-hearted attempt at a smile. “Happy birthday.”

Snatching the scotcheroo bars from the table, I marched out of the diner.

#chapterone #reluctanthuntress

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