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Authors: Michelle Clay

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BOOK: The Bad Wolf
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Paste hung in clumps and looked like someone had blown snot on the back of her head. Thick tendrils dripped onto the shoulders of her shirt then trickled down her back.

Ryan didn’t realize he had stood up until Ms. Adams turned to glare at him. “Since you’re so concerned, why don’t you go to the lost and found to find her a clean shirt?”

The teacher
spoke in a somewhat mocking tone. Maybe she still held a grudge over the fight he and her son Josh had gotten into last summer. He’d broken Josh’s arm and had spent the first semester of this year in alternative education classes.

“Damn it.” His curse caused the boys at his table to fall into a fit of giggles. He thrust his mask into Gary’s hand. “Make sure nothing happens to it.”

Travis continued to laugh and his eyes sparked with malicious humor.

In a snarling voice that would send shudders up anyone else’s spine, Ryan said, “I told you to leave her alone.”

Travis grinned up at him, but there was a wary look to his gaze now. He probably was afraid Ryan would punch him. He said, “How sweet of you to protect the outsider.”

“Maybe she’ll let you help
get her shirt off,” Josh laughed. The rest of the classroom burst into wild laughter, but he ignored it as he pushed through the door in search of Chloe.

He found
the bedraggled girl outside, just around the corner of the building. Her back was pressed against the bricks and her face was hidden behind trembling hands. “Why does everyone hate me?”

Her hair
looked like a failed attempt at dreadlocks. If she hadn’t been so upset, it might have been hilarious. Who was he kidding? It was still comical in a black, sadistic way. At least he thought so until she removed her hands from her face. The grin twisting his lips immediately died.

Chloe’s eyes were red and puffy from crying. Her face was blotchy and her bottom lip quivered. She looked as though she might break into more tears any
second.

“Just leave me alone, okay?”

Ryan sighed. He’d love to walk away from this. Instead, he dug his car keys out of his pocket then gripped her arm. “Come with me.”

“Wait!” Fear radiated from her brown eyes. She didn’t trust
him and he supposed he hadn’t given her much reason to at this point.

He showed her the keys.
“I’ll drive you home.”

She shrank away from him. Her eyes stared at his outstretched hand as though she expected him to strike her. She even cringed when he grasped her arm.

“You want to go back to class like that?” He realized his grip might be a little rough so he let go.

“No,” Chloe hung her head
.

“Then come
on,” he said in a gruff, inpatient voice. Crying females were not something he liked to deal with. It made him feel absolutely useless.

She locked her legs and
gazed up at him with wide, worried eyes.

His patience had begun to ebb away.
“What?”

Chloe blinked rapidly and looked anywhere but at him. “I don’t trust you.”

“Suit yourself. School’s out in about thirty minutes anyway.” He narrowed his eyes on her. When she clapped her hand over her mouth to silence a sob, he said, “Can’t you just call your parents?”

She shook her head. “Mom’s in Fort Collins and won’t be back until after track practice.”

Ryan shoved his hands into his pockets. He didn’t know how to make her feel better or cease her crying. And man, did he wish she’d stop.

He led her through the parking lot to his Jeep. When she realized he had led her to his car, she stiffened. “
Won’t I get in trouble for leaving?”

She looked concerned and he suspected she wasn’t as worried about leaving as much as leaving with him. He unlocked the door then cast a sideways glance at her. “Sometimes you have to bend the rules a little. This is one of those times, Chloe. Get in.”

“Um…”

“Haven’t you ever skipped class before?” Of course she hadn’t. She was probably the type who loved going to class and being
Miss Popular.

She looked like a wounded animal when she gazed up at him. He had to get away from her. He didn’t care about her, didn’t want to be sucked into her dilemma. “Would you feel better if Jenna
went with us?”

Chloe wiped her cheek with the back of a hand and nodded. Her
gaze didn’t quite meet his.


Wait here.” Ryan jogged toward the building. He rushed down the hallway toward Jenna’s last class of the day. When he reached it, the teacher gave him a skeptical look. He offered a charming smile and lied, “Mrs. Grimes already signed her out.”

The irony of relying on Jenna to rescue him from a bad situation was not lost on him. He
paced the hall and muttered to himself while she grabbed her things.

Moments later, she scurried down the hallway after him. Her
long purple skirt flapped behind her like some sort of crazy sail. “Wait up! What’s going on?”

“Just deal with this,” he said as he navigated the rows of cars.

They found Chloe right where he’d left her, sitting on the curb next to his red Jeep Wrangler. Thankfully, she had stopped crying.

Jenna ran the last few steps and inspected the younger girl. “Oh, Chloe. Don’t worry, we’ll get you cleaned up.” She glanced over her shoulder at Ryan. “It was the pack, wasn’t it? Why can’t they just leave people alone?”

Ryan handed over the keys and stepped aside to allow Jenna access to the driver’s door. He studied the mess in Chloe’s hair. “Hurry, before I change my mind.”

“I’m all sticky.” Chloe wiped her
hands against each other in an effort to remove the sticky glue. “What if it ruins the seats?”

Ryan unbuttoned his shirt.

A fierce blush crept onto Chloe’s cheeks and she looked the other way. “What are you doing?”

“Where’d you get that bruise?” Jenna demanded when he shrugged out of the material.

“Doesn’t matter,” he grumbled, having forgotten about the ugly mark on his lower back.

“You’ve been fighting?”

He chose to ignore her and instead extended the shirt to Chloe. “Here, put this on.”

He draped the soft cotton over her shoulders then buttoned the
top button to keep it in place.

Jenna got into the car after Chloe was tucked safely inside, but hesitated. “Aren’t you coming?”

“No.” Already he was headed toward the other side of the parking lot. It, like most areas in town, was bordered by trees and mountains. “I feel like running.”

He reached the other end of the parking lot
when Jenna started the engine. Trees surrounded him by the time he dropped to his hands and knees.

Chapter
Four

 

Today marked a full week in Hunde and it seemed like absolutely nothing had changed. Each morning Chloe’s alarm clock went off and she hit the snooze button until her mom forced her out of bed.

Karen was prepared for the argument this morning. “Before you even ask, yes you have to go to school today.”

“I hate it here!” Chloe rolled over then covered her head. “I want to go home.”

“Just try to make some friends, honey.”

“I have!” she wailed. “Everyone hates me.”

“They
don’t hate you,” Karen answered, clearly not understanding the enormity of the situation.

She groaned at Karen’s inability to see
or sympathize with her dilemma. Talking to people used to be easy for Chloe. It came so natural and people usually wanted to be her friend. Here in Hunde, it was awkward and painful. Aside from Jenna no one spoke to her unless they were being cruel. The pack, and even some who didn’t hang out with them, took immense joy in tripping her or making fun of her. Amy had shoved her against a locker yesterday and she still had the bruised hip to prove it. No one in Hunde was willing to give her a chance.

“They poured g
lue over my head,” she reminded her mother. “Everyone’s mean to me.”

“Boys do things like that when they want a girl’s attention.”

“Yeah, maybe in kindergarten. What about when they’re rude and kind of scary?” A certain dark haired boy came to mind. “What does that mean, old wise one?”

After a few seconds, she uncovered her head to see why
her mom hadn’t answered. The room was empty.

“Figures,” she
muttered then struggled out of bed. Her movements were zombie-like as she dressed in her favorite dark wash jeans and a light grey peasant top. She might as well wear a burlap bag for a dress and tissue boxes for shoes. It wasn’t like anyone cared or noticed how she dressed anyway. No matter what she did to fit in, to be like them, it came back and bit her.

She smirked at the mirror as she pulled her hair into a sloppy ponytail. Maybe if she found some younger kids to
harass it would win their respect. She might as well kick a puppy or two while she was at it.

When she turned to leave the room, she spied Ryan’s shirt lying across the back of the chair in the corner. She wondered if he was mad that she hadn’t ret
urned it yet. Did he even care?

Chloe plucked the soft fabric off the chair
to inspect it. Amazingly, it was free of paste. She’d seen it done in countless movies so she lifted the soft material to her face and breathed in his scent. It was faint now, but somehow inviting and familiar. Her stomach flip-flopped and her cheeks grew warm.

Ryan was
such a mystery to her. He was unfriendly and constantly made her feel as though she was nothing
more than
a bother. Then he would do something sweet like last Friday when he’d offered to take her home and had given her the shirt right off his back. With one last glance in the mirror, she tossed the shirt across her bed.

She came into the kitchen with only
a few minutes to spare before the bus was due to arrive. “Will you let me practice driving tonight? Only losers get picked up by their moms.”

Instead of answering Karen took a sip of coffee, sat it aside then picked up the newspaper lying on the table. It was dated two weeks before they had arrived.

She and her mom had found a bundle of old newspapers in one of the cupboards when they’d cleaned the kitchen. Several were still stacked on the edge of the table. “Why do you still have all those old papers?”

“I thought it might help me get to know the town a little better,” Karen said absently. “Besides, I can use them as kennel liners
when I’m done.”

A headline caught
Chloe’s attention. It read:
Local School Animal Slaughtered
. Scanning further down, she learned the animal was found after a long holiday weekend. Its head and upper body had been forced through the fence. Part of its face had been chewed away, and its throat opened.

Chloe
stopped reading when she spied the grayscale photograph of the mangled animal.
Gross!
“You didn’t answer me. Can you take me driving?”

“Maybe.” Karen folded the paper then sat it aside. She picked up the steaming coffee mug next to her left hand.

“Maybe means no,” she huffed.

“I have a lot to do, Chloe. I have to finish unpacking, get the clinic open, and find time to fix up this
old house.” Karen said with a spark of annoyance. She gestured toward the front of the house. “I’d also like to get the living room and your bedroom painted.”

Chloe propped her chin on her hand and nodded. Her mom hated anything domestic. She’d never baked a cake in her life and the idea of painting a wall probably
killed her.

“I can paint my own room.”

“I also need an electrician to look at the breaker box because it pops every time I use the microwave and dishwasher at the same time.” Then, more to herself than Chloe, she said, “Sometimes I wonder if it was the right choice to move out here.”

Karen would have continued had Chloe not interrupted her tirade. “You’re the one who decided to drag us to this hell hole.”

“Chloe…”

She held up her hands in mock surrender and decided to steer the conversation
back to the original subject. After all, picking your battles prevented a lot of wars. Or so she’d heard countless times. She was still testing out the theory. “I’m sixteen now, Mom. I’m practically the only person at school who isn’t driving. When can I get my license?”

Chloe stared at her untouched orange juice and soggy Cocoa Puffs. “I could drive myself to and from school. Then
I wouldn’t have to take the bus every morning. You wouldn’t have to stop what you’re doing and come get me after practice either.”

“You don’t have a car yet,” Karen pointed out. “And I need mine.”

She rolled her eyes then sighed. “The clinic is just down the drive. You could walk?”

“And what if I have
to go deliver a calf? Should I make the rancher come get me?”

Chloe groaned.
“No, but I was hoping you’d let me borrow it sometimes. At least until I can get my own?”

Her mom stared at her over the paper. “You haven’t had much driving time. You need more practice.”

Biting back a curse, Chloe smiled sweetly. “I’d have more practice if you’d take me out and let me drive.”

Karen said, “Soon, okay? Let me get the clinic set up first. Until then, I won’t have a lot of time.”

“You mean you won’t make time.” Chloe pretended to read the back of the cereal box. “I wish Dad was here. He’d spend time with me.”

Karen sat her coffee cup down with a clank. H
ot liquid sloshed over her hand, but she didn’t seem to notice. The newspaper was tossed aside then drifted to the floor. “Well he’s not, is he? I think he’s made it clear that he’d rather spend time with someone else.”

As soon as the words were spoken, Karen clapped a hand over her mout
h. Her eyes widened with shock. “Oh honey, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

It was true though. David
had totally skipped out on her birthday Saturday. However, he did call to say he was stuck in a meeting. Chloe figured it was another of his lies. Those were the same things he told Karen each time he was with his secretary. He’d sent flowers, as if that was supposed to pardon him for missing her sixteenth birthday. She’d been so disappointed because she’d half expected him to get her a car for her sweet sixteen.

Chloe pushed away from the table
with an overdramatic groan.
Sweet sixteen?
What idiot came up with that saying? A girl’s sixteenth birthday was supposed to be special, magical, a new chapter in her life. Chloe’s was the furthest thing from it.

Her
three closest friends in Fort Collins didn’t even come. They couldn’t be bothered to see Chloe on her birthday. It wasn’t like they had to drive right back either. They were invited to stay overnight. Only one called with an excuse. She supposedly had to babysit her little brother. The kid was thirteen, for goodness sake, hardly an age that required constant supervision.

Even though she was uninvited, Jenna had sho
wn up. The sweet and thoughtful emo-goth, or whatever she was, had been her only guest. They’d made the best of it, eating cake and watching movies. Chloe pretended not to be disappointed. By the time the other girl had gone home, Chloe realized she kind of liked her. Karen had been wary at first, probably due to Jenna’s outward appearance, but had warmed up to her as well.

Karen reached for Chloe’s hand, bringing her back to the here and n
ow. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not true.”

She shook her head and raised a hand to ward off her mothe
r’s apology. “No, you’re right.”

“Your father loves you. I’m sure he wouldn’t have missed your birthday
if he could help it."

“He can’t stand me either. Not since…”

Karen wrapped her arms around Chloe in a suffocating hug. “You did the right thing. He was the one at fault and he knows it.”

***

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Chloe kept her head down and avoided as much grief and ridicule as she could. She tried her best to stay positive. Life certainly wouldn’t get any better if she submerged herself in self-pity and the loathing of everyone who upset her. Of course, that was easier said than done.

Travis and the others tried to rile her and Jenna when they’d walked by at lunch. When their name calling and taunts hadn’t worked, they’d turned th
eir attention to another nearby table.

After Chloe searched the
lunchroom's faces for what seemed the hundredth time, Jenna said, “He wasn’t hungry. He’s listening to music in his car.”

It was downright embarrassing that
Jenna had figured it out so easily. Surely he and Jenna weren’t dating, because it was Amy who always hung all over him. If Jenna minded, she didn’t give any indication. Ryan drove Jenna to and from school everyday. They also sat together at lunch all last week. Chloe imagined their relationship must be very complicated.

“I can’t
picture him and Amy ever dating,” she blurted out when she remembered Jenna’s confession. “She’s so evil.”

Jenna cocked an eyebrow then glanced over her shoulder. “
I used to have a crush on Josh. He used to be a nice guy. We even played together as kids.”

Chloe wrinkled her nose. Josh was okay, but his
crude demeanor and willingness to do whatever Travis said made him ugly in her eyes. Jenna waited a moment for her to digest this information then said, “I went on a date with him last summer, but it didn’t go so well. Ryan broke his arm.”

Chloe
choked on her chocolate milk. “What happened?”

Jenna lowered her voice in a solemn whisper. “He
put his hand up my skirt. Oh, and he told his buddies that he slept with me.”

Finally the bell rang and the cafeteria began to clear out. Chloe gathered her things and heade
d off for her last few classes.

“See you later!” Jenna called as they left the building and went separate ways.

Art class was probably the best part of the day. The class continued to study the history of Venetian masks and hers was almost done. It was a pretty thing with lots of red and gold seed beads. She was immensely protective of it, as she expected the others to destroy it. But that wasn’t the best part.

Ms.
Adams moved her to Ryan’s table! She’d given no explanation, just told Chloe to move over there. Physically she sat closer to Gary and Allan because Ryan occupied the entire opposite end of the table. He possessed a menacing presence that she couldn’t get around. It was kind of scary really and just in case he snapped, she didn’t want to be in the line of fire.

Even though
it meant sitting with Allen and Gary who giggled like third graders at their first boy/girl party, it was worth it. Not only did she get away from the mean kids, but she didn’t have to endure Travis’s hands on her. When she sat at that table, he constantly grabbed at her and tugged her hair. Yesterday he’d even pinched her butt. Amy and Kelly were absolutely evil with their catty remarks. They attacked everything from her hair to the clothes she wore. Nothing she did seemed to win a nod of approval. Maybe she was just trying too hard.

Just sitting near Ryan counted for something. For whatever reason, no one messed with her. Even Travis and Amy, who
were the meanest, tended to stay at their own table. Every now and then Travis would lean his chair back and flick beads at her.

She cast another glance at Ryan and caught his eye. He
scowled then dropped his gaze back to the mask in his hands.

“I still have your shirt,” she
whispered with a hesitant smile. “I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

Josh
waggled his eyebrows while Amy glared. Ryan’s jaw clenched. “Just give it to Jenna.”

BOOK: The Bad Wolf
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