An Urban Fantasy retelling of Little Red Riding Hood
Tourists. A New Yorker. Another New Yorker–a good looking one too. Tourists. They gave the cupcakes in the front display lusty looks while one of them tried to open the locked shop's door. I smiled, pointed to my watch, and held up both my hands. Ten minutes till Riding’s Sweetshop opened. They acknowledged my hand signals with good humor and I went back to placing cupcakes on the aqua blue tiers in the display window. Mom always said I could tell a newbie from a native like a merengue from a marshmallow. “It comes from growing up Greenwich,” she said. “Sienna!” Mom called from the back. “I’ve got more pumpkin latte ready.” I finished transferring the salted-chocolate-pretzel and red velvet cupcakes from an aluminum sheet pan and turned to go, when I spotted him. Something about the guy froze me where I stood. It wasn't the careless brown hair or worn leather jacket. It wasn't the way he sauntered past my window like a mercenary strutting away from an explosion. No—it was the way he looked right at me. Not the treats. Me. And not even with the flirty, trying-too-hard-to-be-smooth gazes of a New York City womanizer. This guy held a quirk of amusement in his brow, as though he knew me. But I'd never seen him before. For a second, I stared back. That gleam in his mischievously handsome eye gave me pause and a tingle ran up my spine at the half-grin he wore on his face. This guy was neither local, nor tourist. He knew Riding's was more than just a confectionery. And that could mean only one thing. My defensive instincts surged. No. Please, not now. We hadn't seen his kind since before Dad... The guy winked. I scowled. He smirked and kept walking. I watched the window long after he disappeared. Not because I thought him irritatingly hot. I swore I'd never let myself be attracted to guys like that, especially the ones with that amount of swagger. No. I watched to make sure he didn't come back. We'd been at peace for so long, the last thing we needed was another one of them. The tourists knocked on the window. I started, checked the time, and held up a finger before heading to the back. I still had two minutes. The sudden, fiery need to shield my entire world from any possible threat settled behind the walls I'd built around my heart. I shouldn't worry about some dude staring at me from the street. In a city like this, there was never a shortage of people with wandering eyes and high opinions of themselves. I took a cleansing breath and brought the empty sheet pan back to help Mom move more cupcakes. “Customers are getting ancy,” I said as I set the sheet pan on the stainless steel counter. Mom finished sprinkling freshly grated cinnamon over a batch of pumpkin latte cupcakes. She had a smudge of buttercream on her cheek. Strands of gray wove through the auburn hair pulled away from her face, a foreshadow for what my own hair would one day become. “Take these, I’ll open the door.” She fished a set of keys from her pocket and hurried through the doorway to the front. A jingle of keys later, she greeted the customers with an enthusiastic "Welcome, come on in." I took the pumpkin cupcakes through the door. Mom helped me transfer the last few cupcakes while the customers chatted and browsed the baked goods. “Oh, I forgot to tell you Gran called,” said Mom. “Yeah?” I asked. “What’d she want?” "The usual," Mom replied with a shrug. "Asked how the shop is doing. Wanted to know when you're going for a visit." I smiled. "What kind of day would it be without Gran asking when I'm coming to visit her?" "A cold day in Hades?" said Mom without missing a beat. This time, I laughed. "Did you tell her I've been busy saving the world, one cupcake at a time?" "Yep. She just said I'm working you too hard." I mimicked the sound of a whip and made the flicking action with one hand. Mom gave me a playful kick on my butt. "Take this back, sassy pants.” She took a red velvet cupcake from the display, put it on the sheet pan, and handed it to me. “Save the red velvet for Gran." I nodded, but didn't say anything. Red velvet had been Dad's favorite too. While Mom turned to answer a customer’s questions, I paused to watch the window for a few seconds. No guys in leather jackets. Good. I returned to the back to put the cupcake in the fridge and the sheet pan on the rack. No need to tell Mom about the guy I saw–not when it was likely nothing. We’d both worked hard to heal from Dad’s death; bringing up old wounds would only do harm. So I straightened my shoulders, set my jaw, and went about my day helping Mom sell her culinary magic. We were both fine. And we’d stay that way.
Later that day, I came out of the gym with my sweaty hair caught up in a messy bun after a particularly intense workout. In addition to regular visits, training hard was something both Mom and Gran encouraged me to do. "Our world needs strong women, Sienna Riding," Gran always said. And she was right. Though the Ridings hadn't seen hide nor hair of anything nefarious for a year, I couldn't stop training. I recalled the last time I saw Gran, on the recent anniversary of my father's death. She'd given me one of her rare hugs, then stared at me, her face framed by her snowy hair and her piercing green eyes boring into mine. She repeated her mantra: "Stay strong. Our world needs strong women." But my reverie, and my steps, came to a sudden halt. Across the street, lounging at an outdoor table and sipping from a disposable coffee cup, I caught sight of the guy again—leather jacket and all. He looked at me and raised his coffee cup as though in a silent toast. I quickly looked away and resumed walking. Was he mocking me? My blood ran hot and my jaw tightened. What if I went back and... No. New Yorkers might be used to the weird and the macabre, but exposing just how weird and macabre their city truly was didn't seem like the best idea. If only Dad were here. But he wasn't. So I shook my head to rid the guy and his stubbled jaw from my mind. He couldn't be what I thought he was—maybe he recognized me from the sweetshop. My phone rang and I answered it gladly while I kept my chin down and continued along the busy sidewalk. "Hi Shelsey," I said into my phone. "Hey!" my friend replied. "You coming tonight?" "Tonight? Oh, right. It's Friday," I said, half to myself. "Uh, I'm not sure." "Oh, come on," her bubbly voice dipped. "You haven't been out with us in forever!" This wasn't entirely true. I'd hung out with my friends during the day. But I hadn't been out with them late at night since before my dad died. "I know..." I snuck a glance back at the coffee shop. The guy was gone. Where he went, I didn't know and I didn't care, so I turned my focus back to my conversation. "I'm sorry, I've just had so much going on. My family has been keeping me busy." "I get it, sweetie," said Shelsey. "But it's the weekend. Come with us! We're going to that new dance club on 8th. Let's dance, let's drink, let's have some fun." Leaving Mom alone during my afternoon gym session was one thing, but after dark? "Hey," said Shelsey, interpreting my hesitant silence. Her voice became compassionate. "It's okay if you're not ready." My two best friends didn't know the truth about how my dad died. But that didn't stop them from wanting to do everything they could to help me heal from the grief. I shook my head, even though I knew Shelsey couldn't see me through the phone. "No, I'm okay. And yes. I could use a night out." "Yay! Wear something cute. I'll have way more game if I'm the second hottest girl in the club." This time, I laughed out loud. "What are you talking about?" "You'll be hottest, I'll be second. Well, third, if Danica can get off work in time." I laughed again. "First of all, you're the curvy blonde any guy would kill to date. And second, how does being the third hottest girl help you get more dudes?" "Easy. Only the hounds go for the hottest girl. You and Danica can fight them off and I can dance the night away with a cute, and way more sensible Prince Pre-Med." Shels had a crazy good talent of cracking me up—something I'd sorely needed this last year. After recovering from another belly-laugh, we arranged a time to meet at The Sticks nightclub, gave our farewells, then I put my phone in my bag and quickened my stride. The waning afternoon sun cast golden light through the trees and over the Greenwich Village brownstones along the street. I inhaled the scent of coffee mingling with garbage, motor oil, and the heady aroma of a red oak whose leaves were just beginning to turn with the changing season. I paused at a stoplight before crossing, when it happened. A sudden prickle at the back of my neck sent my nerves on edge. The smell of rotting dumpster, though common in New York, seemed stronger. Did it mean what I thought? Or was I just being paranoid? I didn't look. Not yet. Gripping the handle of my bag, I turned to the left instead of continuing straight on, looked both ways, and crossed the street. I didn't see anyone. At least, not anyone suspicious. Not even leather-jacket guy with his conceited, almost feral demeanor. And anyone with an ego that large couldn't hide easily. I kept walking and the odor dissipated, replaced by the mouth-watering scent that always lingered near Riding's Sweetshop. My anxiety faded.
The sounds of a busy night in Greenwich Village filtered through my closed bedroom window. I slipped some bangles onto my wrists, smoothed my curled waves of burgundy hair, and paused to size up my appearance in the mirror. I wanted to go out with my friends tonight. I should go. It had been too long since I'd... what? Relaxed? Had fun? Mom walked by my bedroom, but backtracked and leaned against the door frame. She tilted her head. "Too much hardware," she said with a playful smirk. I huffed. "Gran would say it's not enough." I adjusted my cocktail dress to make sure I had things covered that needed covering, then reached for some earrings from my jewelry box. Looking at my mom's reflection through the mirror, I bit my lower lip. The circles under her eyes had deepened these many months without Dad. When I had told her about the invitation to go dancing tonight with Shels and Danica, she encouraged me to go. But leaving her alone sent pricks of worry to my heart. "You sure you'll be okay?" She waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, sure. I'll catch up on my T.V. dramas and eat the rest of the ice cream." She came up behind me and hugged me around the shoulders. "You're twenty-two. No girl your age should keep herself cooped up. You go have fun. The doors are locked and the wards haven't failed us yet." I let my mom's love cradle me like a little girl for a moment. Then she let me go and turned to leave my room. "Mom?" I said. She stopped and looked back. "Please call if you need me." Her face softened. "Same to you. And you look stunning." I smiled, grabbed my handbag from the nightstand, took my red peacoat from the hook beside the front door, and left the apartment to go down and find a cab.
When the cab slowed in front of the night club, I looked out the window. A neon sign spelled out The Sticks in bold lettering above the doors. When I paid the cab fare and stepped out, pounding music from inside reverberated through my chest. And something else... I gave my head a tiny shake. Bad memories and the strange day I'd had kept playing tricks on my brain, trying to sour the glamour of Manhattan nightlife. Still, I hesitated. Maybe I should go. I reached back toward the cab. "Sienna!" someone called. I stopped and searched the crowded line outside the club and found my friends dressed to the nines. Shelsey had bought a new black dress that flattered her curves and the color of Danica's blue jumpsuit made her dark skin shine. They beckoned with the wide grins and loud squeals required of every twenty-something woman wearing heels over four inches. Seeing my friends helped bring me back to the now. I left the cab and fell in line with them. "Sienna Riding, you look fabulous, girl!" said Shelsey, giving me a tight hug. Danica pulled me in next. "How are you?" she asked into my ear. When I didn't reply at first, she pulled back. Her liquid black eyes gave me a hard stare. "I'm okay," I replied. "Really." Her face softened. "Good, because I've missed this." I smiled. "I've missed it too." The girls talked and laughed while we slowly made our way to the club's entrance. The lights, the sounds, the rhythm—it ignited the veins with intoxicating energy. But as much as I wanted to join in on the excitement, something still felt off, like a single acrid note in a symphony. I tried to ignore it. Have fun, I said to myself over and over. You need this. But while Shelsey and Danica chatted, I scrutinized the line of people waiting to enter the club. No one followed me, or watched me. Not like this morning. Aside from my past traumas trying to mess with my mind and ruin my evening, everything seemed fine. Normal. Safe. Inside the club, I left my peacoat at the coat-check and walked on with Shelsey and Danica. Colored lights flashed. The base thundered. Dozens of people moved in time on the dance floor while others lined the bar. It smelled of booze and bodies... and that same cloying, rotting stench I sometimes caught a whiff of on the streets of New York. My senses jumped to overdrive. "Do you smell that?" I asked Danica. She wrinkled her nose and sniffed the air. "Someone's wearing too much body spray?" she asked. "No, it's..." I trailed off. The smell, inside a club, meant either the health department needed a heads up, or something was here that shouldn't be. But no one else in the club seemed to notice. "I smell tequila shots," sang Shelsey. No, this definitely wasn't tequila or body spray. Without the heightened olfactory senses born to every Riding, the smell is often mistaken for trash and easily dismissed. I stopped and scanned the room, but the girls tugged me along as they laughed their way toward the dance floor. "You guys," I shouted over the music, still searching to see if I could find the source of the deathly scent. "I think we should go." "What?" said Shelsey. "Babe, we just got here! And I got my eye on something nice and I wanna work the room a little." Her gaze seared toward a group of tall-dark-and-handsomes standing near the bar. I tried to laugh it off. "Okay, Bombshelsey," said Danica. "Let's go dance, come on." "You go ahead, I'm going to get a drink," I said. From the bar, I could watch and wait, just in case the smell wasn't what I thought. "Okay, but hurry up," said Shelsey, who gave my wrist an affectionate squeeze before she and Danica danced their way to the middle of the fray. I turned to the bar, where a few bartenders took orders and served drinks. The nearest one–a striking, dark-haired guy with eyes bluer than humanly possible—flashed a wide, friendly smile at me as I approached. He seemed somewhat familiar. Maybe I'd seen him around the Village before. "What are ya drinking tonight, my lady?" he asked. My lady? How smooth. I smiled back. "Shirley Temple, please," I said. I needed my wits about me, especially if I had to pry my girls away from here. A predator lurked somewhere in all this chaos. The thought crawled like a parasite under my skin. The bartender placed a glass on the table with a light pink, fizzy drink and a lime wedge on the rim. "Here ya go." He gave the table a quick, light slap, then took another person's drink order. I sipped the drink and checked the room from over the glass. Shelsey and Danica took full advantage of the dance floor, whooping and shaking what their mamas gave them. But the smell. Where was it coming from? A second later, the bartender leaned closer to me as he wiped the counter with a wet rag. "I don't mean to scare you," he said, loud enough for me to hear over the music, "but that guy over there has been staring at you ever since you walked in here." I straightened, but kept my eyes locked on the bartender. He nodded toward a corner behind me. For a moment, I didn't look away. Alarm bells screamed in my head and my heartbeat tripped. The predator was near. I swallowed down my apprehension, stirred my drink with the straw, and subtly turned to survey the room again. I couldn't let the nearby danger know I was aware of it, so I kept my face impassive. Soon the crowd cleared enough for me to see someone leaning against the wall across the room. Him. The guy who walked by Riding's front window this morning. The same one who had toasted me from the coffee shop this afternoon. He now leaned against the wall across the room with his arms folded and, like the bartender said, he stared at me. The predator's smell intensified. Still, I pretended not to notice. Sudden moves would only provoke the thing that hunted me. A light hand touched my shoulder. I looked over to find the cute bartender standing a step away. "You okay?" he asked. "Is that guy a problem?" I looked back. The guy in the leather jacket had gone. "No," I said quickly. "No problem. I just..." I checked on Shels and Danica again. They now stood in the midst of the guys at the bar. I had to take care of this. If I didn't hurry, someone was going to die. "Can I call you a cab?" he asked, jutting his thumb toward the bar behind him. "No, I'll be fine," I replied, turning back to the bartender and putting my hand on his bicep. The contact sent a small hum down my arm. "I just need to go. Would you mind walking me out?" He smiled again. "Of course." He turned to his fellow bartenders. "Yo!" he called to them. "I'm taking five." Another nodded and went back to serving drinks. The bartender then guided me with a light touch just above the small of my back. Protective. The way any gentleman should. We wound through a few more people milling about the club, stopped at the coat-check for my jacket, then stepped through the door and into the night air. A dark, autumn chill had settled over the city. I fought off a shiver while nervously fidgeting with the hem of my skirt. "I'm happy to wait with you if you're still scared," he said, his voice light with concern. He looked up and down the street as though to check for any apparent danger. "That's so nice of you. I would appreciate that." Cars passed, people walked, but I could smell the creature, feel it near. Biding its time. Waiting for the right moment to strike. "Could you walk with me just a little bit, if it won't get you in trouble?" "Sure." He offered his arm. I took it and we began a slow stroll away from the entrance of the club. The booming music began to fade but that smell, like death and decay, lingered. Any moment now. "I'm Sienna," I said. "What's your name?" "Ulrich," he replied. "I know, I know," he rolled his eyes. "My parents' taste was a little archaic." "No, I like it. It's good to meet you, Ulrich." "It's very good to meet you too, Sienna." His eyes roved over my face. "Has anyone ever told you your eyes are amazing?" I asked. He smiled. "Thank you." "I know that sounds corny." I gave a nervous laugh, hoping he didn't notice the slight quiver in my voice while I waited for all hell to break loose. "Not corny at all," he said. His voice deepened just a bit. He stopped walking. "You're quite beautiful yourself." I bit my lower lip. He took a step closer and inhaled as though smelling something in the air. "Tell you what," he continued. "Are you hungry?" "A little. But don't you need to get back?" "Nah," he said. "The others have me covered. You look like you need some company. And to be honest, I'm starving." "Great." I pulled Ulrich toward a side-street. "I know a really good falafel place nearby. Let's take a shortcut." "You took the words right out of my mouth." He grinned again, flashing a wide row of perfect teeth. "What an incredible smile you have," I said. He laughed. "All the better for scarfing down something delicious at a street corner, right?" We turned off the main road and headed down the pavement, where the smell of decay intensified—possibly from the dumpster we passed. But probably not. The street light behind us flickered. My heart pulsed. Despite the cool air, sweat broke out on my back. We continued down the alley, where a few passed-out homeless people lay huddled in an alcove along the brick wall. Witnesses... would it change anything? I doubted it. "So," said Ulrich, "Sienna... like the color red." "Well, more of a dark, reddish-brown," I replied. "Like your hair." He smiled. "You know, red is my favorite color." I looked down at my hair falling down the front of my red coat. For a moment, my father's face flashed in my mind, triggering and threatening to render me completely helpless. Deep breaths, Sienna. Remember what you are. Keep your head on. Reaching down to my thigh, my senses moved to overdrive. Ulrich stopped walking and looked up. "Look." He pointed. "I just saw a shooting star." No he didn't. He just needed me to look away. So I did. I looked up and pretended to search the narrow, black skies between the stacked buildings—as if the bright lights of New York City didn't blind everyone to the stars above. I pretended not to notice when Ulrich slipped behind me and that I wasn't waiting for the tell-tale signs that would confirm my suspicions. Three... two... one... A deep growl rumbled behind me. I whirled around to see a mass of black fur bounding toward me on all fours. My training clicked on. I dropped my handbag, pulled the "hardware" Mom joked about from the sheath strapped to my thigh, and whirled the knife toward the snarling beast. The silver weapon swiped the wolf between the neck and shoulder, but didn't cut deep. With a guttural yelp, the creature shook its head and swiped a paw at my weapon. The knife slipped from my fingers and clanged on the ground. I cursed, then waited while the wolf circled, its yellow eyes fixed on me and its hackles raised. I feinted right. The wolf dodged left. I glanced between the terrified people on the ground and the wolf's grinning face. "Come on," I said. "Come get me." But the wolf continued to circle, until a scream at the other end of the alley drew the blood-lusting creature's attention. I lunged for my dropped dagger. The monster turned back toward me and opened its maw wide, showing an unnaturally sharp array of teeth. I scraped my fingers on the ground as I clutched the hilt of my dagger, then dove out of the way and rolled to a stop in a crouch. But in a split second, the creature's enormous paws landed on my shoulders. Its hot, putrid breath exhaled on my face just as my weapon found place in the wolf's chest. I shoved it off me and wiped sticky saliva off my cheek. The wolf twitched and writhed until it lay still. My lungs heaving, I stumbled to my feet and tugged my skirt down. A rustling behind me made me turn. The homeless people still lay there, watching with glassy-eyed horror. A quick glance in either direction established no other witnesses—at least, none who stuck around. I reached back to my thigh and retrieved a marker-thin aerosol can from next to the knife’s sheath. The people huddled against the wall were either too stunned to move, or they'd stopped caring about what happened to them. Still, I pulled the cap off the can, strode over to the traumatized people, and sprayed a fine mist in front of their eyes. In about two minutes, they'd forget everything that had happened in the alley. After capping the spray and replacing it at my thigh, I sighed and went back to the wolf. I should have known a shifter had moved into the neighborhood. It had been too quiet for too long. Thank goodness I only had to fight one. I reached down, pulled the knife from its flesh, and wiped it clean on my dress. I kept it drawn. Then, from around the corner of the alley, another person appeared at a run. When he saw me, he slowed. I glared at him, his leather jacket, and his stupid, unkempt facial hair. Giving the dead shifter a wide berth, I stomped toward the intruder, my heels loud on the pavement and my knife solid in my palm. "Who are you and why have you been following me?" I asked him. He looked down at the shifter, then back at me. "Was it the bartender, then?" he asked. "None of your business. Now answer my questions. You've been stalking me all day. What are you doing here?" "Looks like I'm here for the same reason you are," he replied with a chin-jerk toward the wolf. His accent sounded slightly southern, his voice deep. "Sorry I wasn't here sooner. I followed another dude almost four blocks before I figured out he wasn't going to eat his date." "I had it handled," I said. "Yeah, you did," he replied with a smirk, as though impressed I'd done just that. Great. Another arrogant maverick who thought himself a hunter. I'd seen several passing through the city before my dad died. They loved to stop by Riding's Sweetshop to try and gain some kind of apprenticeship with him. None of them lasted long. They were nothing more than brawn chasing glory. "Who are you?" I asked again. He tipped his head back a little. "Timberland Chase. Visiting an old friend in New York and thought I'd take out a few shifters while I'm here." I narrowed my eyes. Timberland Chase? It sounded made up. "Right. What's your real name?" He held my gaze for a few seconds. "Timberland Chase. But you can call me Tim, if you want. Or Timber. Whatever rocks your socks." "Fine, fine," I interrupted. "We'll pretend I believe you." I looked down at my hands, still holding my knife, and realized they were covered in fur and blood. I put the knife away and stepped over to my fallen handbag to pick it up and get out some wet wipes. "So you're here for a courtesy call and thought you'd hunt shifters? Or is there another reason you're following me around?" "You ain't a shifter, are ya?" he asked, the side of his mouth lifting in a teasing half-smile. Ugh. I looked away from Tim's—Timberland's—nope, I'm not doing it. I looked away from Chase's way-too-charming grin and continued to wipe at the blood on my hands. "I don't have time for this," I said. "My friends are still in the club and the shifter's body—" Before I could finish, metal flashed from Chase's hand and a gun fired twice. I jolted in shock and looked over my shoulder to see the wolf lying limp, mere feet away from me and definitely not where I'd left it. "Never bring a knife to a gunfight, sweetheart," said Chase as he put his gun back into a holster hidden in his jacket. I released a grunt of frustration, stomped toward the ingrate, and grabbed his arm to pull him from the alley. "And never fire a gun in the middle of Manhattan, you idiot," I said. "You couldn't use a silencer, or something?" "Nah, Betty's perfect just the way she is," he replied. He patted his jacket where he kept the gun. "Well, this place is going to be crawling with cops in exactly thirty seconds and we have a dead wolf in the middle of the alley." "No sweat, honey, I gotcha." He pulled a plastic cylinder from his coat pocket similar to my memory mist, strode over to the wolf's body, and slammed the cylinder like an epi pen into the wolf's body. It immediately began to smoke and dissolve like flame to paper. I watched in surprise for a second. "What is that?" "Concoction of silver nitrate and a few other doo-dads. My mama's invention. Also, you're welcome," he said. I'd been staring at the disintegrating wolf with amazement, but stopped and rolled my eyes. "You couldn't do that before shooting the gun?" I grabbed his arm again. "We still need to get out of here." He didn't try to pull away from my grasp. "You wanna help me track the rest of them?" he asked. "Help you?" I said in disbelief. "I don't need your help." "Nah, I can see that." He let me lug him out of the alley with a smile, as though enjoying it. "But shifters always run in packs. Where there's one, there's—" "I know, I know," I said. We came out of the mouth of the alley. I looked both ways to find a taxi while taking out my cell phone to call Gran. The street was a lot emptier than before. People had a tendency to clear out when a gunshot sounds nearby. "The cops will be here soon. You need to get out of New York." I hailed an oncoming cab. It pulled over, but Chase didn't get in. "I'm just saying..." he continued talking, but I ignored him as Gran's phone went to voicemail. "It's me," I said into the phone. "Confidential voicemail following." I waited a few seconds. "Came across a shifter at a club. It's all taken care of and the body is disposed, but some genius who thinks he's a hunter fired the loudest Glock on the planet—" "And saved her life," said Chase loudly into the phone's receiver. "And it's not a Glock, it's an Axeman Pro .45." I rolled my eyes. "I'm putting him in a cab and sending him off. Call me when you get this message." I ended the call. The cab driver did a swift beep on the car's horn. "Hey, you need a ride, or what?" he shouted in irritation. "Yes, he does," I replied. "Fine, I'll go," said Chase, opening the cab door. He paused and looked back at me. "By the way, the shifter? He had dozens of victims to choose from, but he went after you." I held up my arm, displaying the coat I wore. "Shifters are attracted to the color red. It's not rocket science." "Why do you think we kept running into each other today? I wasn't tracking you." He saluted me with two fingers. "Stay gorgeous, Sienna Riding." He slid into the cab. "How did you...?" He winked and shut the cab door. I looked back at the alley, then at the club. If Chase had been tracking the shifter, who had ignored other victims to come after me, then... My heart shot to my throat. "Mom." I ran after the cab, which had just begun pulling away from the curb. "Wait!" The cab screeched to a stop. I grabbed the handle and climbed in. "Well, hi there," said Chase, as though he had happened upon an old friend in the back of a pine-scented New York City taxi. I gave the driver the address to Riding's Sweetshop, pulled out my phone, and hit the call button on Mom's number. "Come on, pick up." Chase frowned at me with concern. "What's wrong?" Mom didn't answer. I dialed again. Still nothing. Panicking, I sent a quick text message to Shelsey and Danica to let them know I had to leave the club early. If what Chase said was true, and the shifter was after my family, then my friends didn't have anything to worry about. I hoped. "Can you please go faster?" I said to the driver. He picked up a little speed, but got stopped by a red light. "What's the matter?" Chase asked. I redialed Mom's number again. "First tell me how you knew my name." Again, the voicemail picked up. I swore and redialed. Chase whistled. "Sienna Riding, do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" "Shut up!" I cried. When the voicemail began, this time I waited for the beep. "Mom, I don't know if you've gone to bed or if your phone is on silent, but please call me back!" I ended the call, put my phone in my handbag, and covered my face. "Hey," said Chase. He put his hand lightly on my shoulder blade. "It's gonna be okay. If she's anything like my mama, she's made of tougher stuff than—" "How do you know about us?" I demanded, straightening in the seat to force his hand off my shoulder. "Start explaining, now, or I'll add you to the body count." He pressed his lips together as though to repress a laugh and glanced at the cab driver. I looked over as well and saw the driver giving me a quizzical look through the rearview mirror. "I told you,” said Chase. “I'm Timberland Chase. And our grandparents were friends." "Our grandparents?" He looked at the cab driver again. I nodded and kept silent. Talking shifters and hunters wouldn't be the best conversation topic at the moment. So I waited, until at last, the cab pulled up in front of Riding's Sweetshop. "Why are we here?" I didn't tell him our apartment was above the sweetshop. Instead, I opened my handbag to pay the fare. Chase put his hand over both mine. "I got it. Go." He did his chin-jerk thing toward the shop. I hurried out of the cab, but only because the situation was desperate. I didn't have time to lecture him about my life having no room for charity or chivalry, unless it meant taking out another shifter. I ran to the rolling metal gate of the sweetshop and hurried to get out my keys to unlock it. My hands shook, delaying my progress enough that by the time I had the key out, Chase caught up with me. But I shouldn't have bothered. As I brought the key to the lock, I noticed it had been broken. A shockwave of fear pulsed through me. I hauled the gate up. The sweetshop's front door lock looked like someone had put a sword through it. "Sienna, wait," said Chase, but I ignored him and burst through the door. I stared in horror at the claw marks striping the walls. The front display tiers lay twisted and broken on the floor and the signs displaying our confectionary flavors had been torn from the walls and cracked. Circling the shop, my heart crumpled seeing the destruction. "Wow. They really don't like you guys, do they?" said Chase as he examined the damage. He had his gun out again. "Put that thing away," I said, and rushed from the front of the shop, to the back. They had turned the place over. Ingredients littered the floor. Aluminum pans lay bent at odd angles. The ovens had been pulled away from the walls. Rolling carts lay on their sides. A big dent in the wall looked like it had had a mixer thrown into it. The mixer itself lay in pieces. "What were they looking for?" he asked. "I don't know," I replied. My phone rang and I fumbled to answer it. "Mom?" "Sienna!" she cried. "I'm so sorry, I forgot to turn my ringer on. Are you all right?" "I'm fine—are you?" "Yes. What's going on? You said there was a shifter?" "They've torn the shop apart." I looked around again. "Did they try to get to you?" She moaned. "No. I've been watching a really noisy show and thought maybe the neighbors were watching something loud too. I looked outside, but couldn't see anyone." They were clever. Too clever. "Is anything missing?" Mom asked. I looked around helplessly. "I have no idea." Crunching over broken glass and ingredients, I searched the cupboards, then turned to the nearest fridge and opened it. The red velvet cupcake I'd set aside for Gran was gone, along with all the other unsold red velvet cupcakes. The rest of the baked goods were still there. Untouched, as though whoever took the red velvets had done it carefully. Methodically. "Did you sell all the red velvet cupcakes?" I asked Mom. "No. I put the leftovers in the back fridge. Why?" "They're gone." The line went silent for a long moment. "Mom?" "They've learned," she said. "They know." "Know what?" I asked, trying hard not to panic. "What's going on?" said Chase somewhere in the background. "I'm coming down," cried Mom. "We have to get to your Gran!" "No. You stay where you are." I marched out of the bakery. "I'll go make sure she's okay. In the meantime, explain to me what it is about the red velvet that you haven't told me." "It's the reason we haven't seen any shifter activity for so long," said Mom. "Your dad invented a poison that only affects shifters. Humans can eat it all they want and it won't hurt them. But they must have found out about it somehow." Of course. Red velvet. The color red awakened a shifter's bloodlust. Even in their human form, they wouldn't be able to resist it. If they ever came by Riding's looking for us, they'd buy a red velvet cupcake thinking it an innocuous treat to satisfy their craving for the color—before satisfying their craving for blood. "Could they have eaten the cupcakes?" Chase asked and I realized he stood close enough to hear Mom's end of the conversation on the phone. I should have noticed. He smelled like worn leather and aftershave. "No, otherwise there'd be bodies in here," I replied, stepping away from him. He smelled too good. My nose needed no distractions. I picked my way back through the bakery, but stopped as something occurred to me. My heart throbbed. "Mom... did Gran ever come by for her cupcake?" Mom hesitated again. "No." "I've got to go." I hurried for the shop's entrance. "Call the police to report the robbery, but stay at home, no matter what!" She argued with me, her voice frantic, but I hung up the phone and called Gran. Like before, it went to voicemail. "What's going on?" Chase asked again. I didn't answer him. My fingers tingled as I struggled to pull the rolling gate back down. "Sienna." His voice gained a worried edge. "My mom is fine. But I think something might have happened to my—" I couldn't finish. Dread crept up my chest like a rising flood. "Your grandma?" Chase asked. When I didn't answer, he turned to the road held his hand up to hail a cab. "She's a Riding," he said. "Chances are, the shifters are the ones that'll need rescuing from her." I paced until a cab pulled over. Chase opened the door for me and I climbed in. Part of me wondered why I kept trusting him, but the stronger part worried more about Gran, so I kept quiet all through the ride to Midtown. When the cab finally reached Gran's apartment—a massive Renaissance revival building ironically labeled The Cottages--I paid the fare before barreling onto the sidewalk and into the lobby. The doorman recognized me and waved me through. "I'm with her," said Chase from behind. Then, "that's a nice uniform, man. I can tell you run a tight ship." The doorman chuckled. I ignored the exchange and jabbed the elevator button. Inside, I stood in one corner with my arms tightly folded, dreading what I'd find once we arrived on Gran's floor. Chase stood in the other corner of the elevator. He kept glancing at me, but I pretended not to notice. At last, we reached the apartment with the ornate mahogany door and the golden door knocker. The herbal scent of wormwood permeated the hall. The door appeared untouched. But so had the rolling gate in front of Riding's. I pulled a key to Gran's apartment from my handbag and unlocked the door. Then I drew a knife from my thigh and turned the golden knob. My heart pounded a painful rhythm as I stepped into the apartment's sumptuous entrance hall. "Gran?" I said. In my fear, my voice barely carried. There was no answer. Chase came up close behind me. "Go ahead," he whispered. "I'll cover you." I didn't know this man. I shouldn't trust him. Somehow, feeling the warmth of both his words and his proximity bolstered my courage. But not only had I led him to my home in the Village, I'd brought him past the protections we'd set at the entrance of Gran's. I quickly turned and held my knife to his neck. "If you betray me," I said, "I'll spill your blood all over this priceless Persian rug and not lose a second of sleep over it." His brows rose and I realized how close I stood to him, with one hand on his chest. His face morphed into that ridiculous half-grin. "Promise?" he said. I pushed him away. "You go first." He kept his eyes on me while he got his gun out again and held it in both hands. I gripped my knife and waited while he walked into the main living area. Like a cop at a crime scene, he pointed his gun in front of him and he scanned the room, then whistled. "Your grandma's loaded," he said, looking around at the paneled walls, carved moulding, luxurious furniture, and spiral staircase to the second floor. "Her money. Not mine." He shrugged. "No disrespect." He then relaxed and lowered the weapon. "Nothing here." Chase turned to look back at me, when a door to the right slammed open and a growling blur of black and brown jumped out and tackled him. The gun flew from his hands as he went down. I cried out in shock and leapt toward the wolf as it snarled and twisted, trying to sink its teeth into Chase's face. My knife plunged into the wolf's back. With a half-scream-half-howl, it arched its back. But it didn't relent. Chase scrambled away while the wolf turned on me, snapping and thrashing its body trying to take a bite out of me. I pulled out the knife, and tried to stab it again, when the flailing wolf slammed me into a side table and sent a lamp flying. Blood scattered over the shining floorboards. The knife fell. A wide set of teeth bore down on me, so I punched the wolf in the face. Its teeth cut my knuckles. It made another snap at me, but its teeth fell short of my neck when Chase barreled into its side and knocked it into the couch. I scoured the floor trying to find my knife, but instead found the cold handle of Chase's gun. I turned and aimed, but Chase and the wolf moved too fast. "Sienna, shoot it!" Chase cried. It was too late to worry about the consequences. I grit my teeth, cocked the gun while the creature wrestled Chase, and fired. The bullet landed in the wolf's hip. Still not a kill shot, but the pain of it slowed the wolf enough to give Chase enough time to lunge for my fallen knife and thrust the blade into the side of the wolf's neck. For the second time that night, I watched a shifter die. My heartbeat galloped as I sat on the floor of Gran's bloodstained apartment. I lowered the gun and gazed at my bleeding hands, my scratched up arms, and then at Chase, who got to his feet. Breathing heavily, he looked at me, but quickly turned away. "Fix your dress," he said. I looked down. My skirt had hiked up enough that my boy-short underwear peeked out. I pulled the dress's hem down. "Thanks," I said, grateful for more than just the heads-up about my hemline. He walked over to me, gently took his gun from my hands, went back to the wolf, and shot it in the head. Then he looked back at me. He had a deep scratch on the side of his face and his eyes shone brighter, more earnest. "You all right?" he asked. I nodded, but of course I was lying. We stared at one another for a moment longer before a sound broke the deathly stillness: movement from somewhere nearby. "Gran?" I called into the apartment. My voice shook and I cleared my throat. "Gran, are you here?" I took a steadying breath. Chase began opening doors. I looked into the room the wolf had jumped out of. Another closed door inside it had claw marks on the wood. "Here." I hurried toward the door so fast, I nearly slipped in my tall heels. Chase came in behind me. I grasped the handle of the door and pulled. Trembling and whimpering, Gran sat in a crumpled ball in the corner. Her usually sleek white hair fell in wisps from its knot on the back of her head. "Gran!" I cried and hurried to help her up. "What happened?" On her other side, Chase took her by the arm. "You all right, Mrs. Riding?" he asked. Gran straightened. She placed a hand over her heart and took a breath before arranging her face into a dignified frown. "I'm fine," she said. She cleared her throat just like I had done when I was trying to regain my composure. Then she smoothed a hand over her hair and straightened her blazer over her blouse. "You both arrived just in time." Gran turned a sharp eye to me. "Is your mother all right?" I nodded. She did too. "Thank you, Mr. Chase," said Gran. "I apologize that our meeting had to be under these circumstances." "No worries, ma'am," he said. "Glad I could be a help." "I see the two of you have met." She paused to give us both a glance. "But come, let us see to those wounds. Don't want them to fester." She beckoned us to the bathroom, where she pulled out a medicine bag from a locked cupboard while she grilled Chase and I about the nature of our meeting. During our recounting of the night's events, she poured alcohol and colloidal silver onto each of our scratches and nodded at intervals with her spectacles perched on the end of her nose. Gran then insisted on giving each of us a rabies shot and stitching up one of the slashes on Chase's arm. "These should heal up just fine, but I'm going to have the both of you take an oral tincture each day for the next week to make sure," said Gran. "And... thank you both. Had you not arrived, the shifter would certainly have found me." "How did it get in?" I asked. "The wards held fine at my apartment. Why did they fail here?" "I'm not sure," she replied. "But we'll find out. If there's a war to be fought, we will fight it. The Riding and Chase families have long been allies on this front." A war? Chase gave a small but determined nod. I kept quiet. My fists clenched. Like so many times today, my dad's face rematerialized in my mind. He'd have accepted the challenge without question. And once upon a time, I would have too. But now, even though I had killed or helped kill two shifters in one night, all I wanted to do was cover my face and run. I couldn't do this again. The moments before I heard Mom's voice and found Gran safe nearly broke me. Losing anyone else in this fight against shifters would break me for sure. But I couldn't say it in front of Timberland Chase, no matter what he'd done, or how buddy-buddy our families were. And I couldn't say it to Gran, the woman who'd fought shifters her entire life, who'd lost a husband and a son to them. Even now, though the danger had passed and my wounds had been dressed, my hands shook, my eyes welled, and my heart threatened to burst. Then a hand rested on my shoulder. I looked up to see Chase gazing at me intently, as though he knew exactly the battle raging in my thoughts. Add another thing to my list of secrets: that his touch brought a calm over me. A man I'd just met who managed to both bolster and irritate me at the same time. Gran raised an eyebrow at me. "Sienna?" I took a deep breath. My burdens hadn't become lighter; but somehow, I felt another set of strong shoulders had come to help me bear them. "We need to get rid of the body," I said. I looked at Chase. "Tim has something that'll do the trick." He smiled and reached for his jacket. "Then what?" he asked. "Then we hunt down the rest of them," I replied.