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The sun went down over Chicago, bathing the enormous city in red and orange. I barely noticed. Sitting between a pair or metal trash cans in a damp and moldy alley, I was so wrapped up in my misery that I hardly even noticed the stink. I cradled my injured arm close to my body. My leg had scabbed over, but I couldn’t move at anything faster than a slow limp. Dried blood had practically glued my clothes to my skin. Those were going to be a nightmare to take off later.

 

I’d been sitting here for hours. I’d probably stay here a few more hours. That is, if I ever decided to move at all. What would be the point? I’d finally found an enemy I couldn’t beat, and now everything I’d been working for was gone. If I couldn’t kill Kaylie, I’d never get the stupid glove back. If I didn’t get the stupid glove back, I couldn’t go back to Hendricks. If I couldn’t go back to Hendricks, all I could do was to wait for Majestic to find me, lock me up, and torture me with their sadistic experiments.

 

It was all over.

 

I hugged myself a little tighter. I should have felt terrified, or at least heartbroken. I’d just had my own worthlessness hammered into my thick skull so hard that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. But all I felt was nothing. Whoever found me first, be it Majestic, Hendricks, or Kaylie’s pack, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything anymore. I just wanted to sit here, where trash like me belonged, and never, ever move again.

 

A shadow fell over me, but I didn’t look up. At first I’d been worried that the restaurant staff in the building behind me would throw me out, but they hadn’t even given me a second glance. To them, I was just another homeless person, something they probably saw a hundred times a day. A homeless person who was bloodier than usual, but a homeless person. nonetheless. They would throw away their trash, turn, and leave without saying a word.

 

“There you are.”

 

I felt like I should have jumped, or been startled, or something. Instead, there was just the same nothingness. I looked up to see, not a restaurant worker, but Dex standing above me. The setting sun seemed to make a perfect burnt orange halo around his head.

 

I looked back down, not saying anything. Dex watched me for a minute, but when I didn’t move, he sighed and sat down across from me, back against the old brick wall.

 

“I’ve been looking for you for hours,” he said, heedless of the mess he was making of his nice suit. “Are you all right?”

 

I didn’t answer. Did I look all right? Covered in blood, my clothes torn to shreds, I was surprised nobody had called the police on me yet.

 

“Right,” he went on, picking up on my mood. “Stupid question. Here’s a better one: what the hell happened back there?”

 

There was something in his voice, his tone, that lit a spark of defiance inside me. It was small but, compared to the emotionless void I’d been wallowing in, it felt like a wildfire. I looked up at him again, gritting my teeth, and a soft growl escaped my throat.

 

Dex pointed at me, his eyes grave. “You could have killed her easily. You could have killed all of them! But instead you decided to handicap yourself, and you got freaking mauled for it! Why, Amber?”

 

I started to shake, half from anger and half to keep from crying. His words were hitting me harder than he knew. Or maybe he did know, and this was exactly how he wanted me to feel. Up till now, I’d been able to handle everything myself. As Amber. No murderous, bloodthirsty monsters needed. But today, when it’d mattered most, Amber had failed. I was only alive because of the wolf. That sent such a storm of emotions whirling around inside of me that I almost thought I’d be blown away with it. The thing that had taken everything from me, that had killed Kimberly, was the only reason I was still alive.

 

And you have no idea how much it hurt me to admit that. It made my other injuries feel like scrapes and bruises.

 

“Well?” Dex demanded.

 

“I can’t do it,” I whispered back.

 

He leaned forward. “You can’t do what? Change?”

 

I shook my head. “No. I can change. I almost did. But I can’t let myself.”

 

Memories of that night three years ago flashed through my mind. Destroying Stark’s cabin, defeating Becky…chewing poor little Kimberly’s arm off. It sent a wave of tears rolling down my cheeks, smudging the blood that covered them.

 

I whispered, “I can’t control it. If it ever gets out, it’ll go on another rampage. More innocent people will die. I can’t let that happen, Dex. I won’t!”

 

“Amber—”

 

“Not even if it kills me, Dex!”

 

He leaned back, and for a few minutes we both just sat in silence. The sun went down, the moon came up, and its power washed over me. My arm and leg began to tingle. The moonlight would heal the injuries Kaylie had inflicted, but it would take time. Days, maybe even weeks. I wouldn’t—

 

“Why do you do this to yourself?” Dex asked, interrupting my thoughts.

 

I looked up at him, confused. “Do what?”

 

“Beat yourself up like this. Blame yourself for everything that happens.” He gestured vaguely at me. “It’s like you want to be miserable.”

 

“Blame myself…” I gaped for a second. “Dexter, I did all of that! Who the hell else can I blame?”

 

He began to count on his fingers. “Hendricks. Becky. Stark. Majestic.” He hesitated, then said, “Me.”

 

“They didn’t—”

 

“Yes, they did, Amber! If Becky hadn’t attacked your packhouse, your Silverblood side wouldn’t have emerged. Becky wouldn’t have been in your house if Hendricks hadn’t tricked you into rescuing her. Hendricks wouldn’t have been after you if Stark hadn’t bit you. Stark wouldn’t have bitten you if Majestic…If I…hadn’t let him escape.”

 

“But…”

 

Dex stood up, knocked over one of the trash cans, and sat down next to me. He put an arm around my shoulder, pulling me a little closer.

 

“None of this is your fault,” he said into my ear. “You’ve been doing amazing, Amber. The world has thrown the worst it has at you, and you survived. You’re stronger than you think. And that’s not just because of your wolf.”

 

Slowly, my breath quivering, I turned to look at him. “No. If I was strong, I would have…”

 

I didn’t get to finish—because he kissed me.

 

I swear, at that moment my heart stopped. His lips pressed against mine, ignoring the dried blood that crusted my face. He was warm. Those feelings I’d had in the car came back, suddenly and powerfully enough to make me forget the humiliating defeat I’d just suffered. Even my injuries suddenly seemed to hurt less. At first I was surprised. I wanted to pull away, slap him, something. Kissing a girl out of nowhere may look romantic on tv, but it’s actually a pretty bad idea—especially when the girl is a pissed off werewolf.

 

But instead I let myself melt into the kiss, leaning more heavily into him. It only lasted a few seconds, but when he broke it I felt…recharged. Like something good had finally happened to me, even if my head was spinning too hard for me to figure out what it was. I reached up and grabbed him by the jacket, suddenly afraid that, now that I’d found something to be happy about, he’d disappear in a puff of smoke.

 

“You can’t give up. I won’t let you,” he said, his face still only a couple of inches away from mine. “You’re too good for that.”

 

“But I can’t…”

 

He cut me off, “You got knocked down once. So what? You’ve been knocked down more times than you can count. But you know what really matters?”

 

I looked him in the eye. “That I got back up?”

 

“That you got back up.”

 

I tightened my grip on his jacket as another new feeling seeped into my chest: anger. Anger at Kaylie for thrashing me like she had. Anger at Hendricks for putting me in this position in the first place. But more than anything, anger at myself for how close I’d come to giving up. I felt my wolf stir inside of me, the first thing it’d done since helping me escape. For once, this was something we could agree on.

 

This wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

 

I took a deep breath. “So, what do we do now?”

 

Dex smirked. “We get you back into fighting condition.”

NEXT CHAPTER: 1/16/2021

Chapter Thirty One

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