They’d left her behind.
A hot ball of shame and anger lodged in Chloe’s throat as she ran along the dirt track through the forest. Bad enough Coach Wharton had bluntly told her to go home, that she couldn’t keep up, but her so-called teammates had run off without so much as a backward look.
And maybe Coach was right, maybe she couldn’t run as fast as the rest of the track team, but it wasn’t in her to give up.
They were too far ahead now to realistically catch, but if she took the shortcut and really pushed it she could run the last bit of the loop with them.
Chloe put her head down and increased her pace, until her feet flew down the trail, crunching on yellow leaves, until her lungs heaved and a bright stitch of pain pinched at her side. It felt good to push her body to its limits.
A furtive rustling noise alerted her that she was no longer alone. Half-hidden among the evergreen trees, a wolf paced her.
A surge of hope washed the fatigue out of her muscles. Had one of her teammates dropped back to run with her and encourage her? Judy, maybe?
But the wolf hung back in the trees, and her heart sank back into her cross-trainers.
Not a companion. What then? A baby-sitter? Coach couldn’t possibly think she’d get lost. Unlike him, she’d grown up running these trails. Was this a test to see if she’d keep training on her own or wimp out and go home?
Chloe pretended not to notice the wolf and kept running, concentrating on keeping her stride easy and smooth. If this was a test, she’d pass it. If this was some kind of hazing, meant to scare her, then she’d endure that too and prove that she belonged to the Pack.
Because she did. She had all the extra werewolf strength and agility: her senses were keener than her townie classmates, and she’d had no difficulty qualifying for the high school track and field team. Her townie classmates simply couldn’t compete physically with Pack. In human form she could outrun everyone but Dean. But her fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays had passed, and she still had not Changed.
All the other teens in her age group had. Even Judy, the smallest and most nervous of them all, had Changed into her wolf form three full moons ago.
And when track and field started up again in September Coach had wanted them to run in their wolf forms. Because while there were townie kids on the other sports teams, Coach Wharton had decreed a limited number of slots on the track and field team and filled them all with Pack. Practices were mostly just an excuse to spend time together. What they were actually learning from Conrad Wharton was how to control their werewolves.
Chloe risked another glimpse at the wolf, trying to identify who it was by its colouring. Not all white like Coach. Not red like Judy. Other than that she couldn’t tell. She got only flashes of white and grey and maybe brown between the tree trunks.
She ought to have known it wasn’t Judy. Ever since her Change, Judy had started acting as if she were better than Chloe.
Judy’s smugness and the veiled contempt in Coach Wharton’s eyes rubbed Chloe’s ego raw. For most of her life Chloe had been the leader of the Pack teens, and now everyone was Dominant to her. Last week, Coach Wharton had told Dean that she might never Change because she was too afraid of the pain. Her! Who’d never so much as whimpered during one of Coach’s brutal three-hour training runs.
And now that contempt had spread to the other kids like an infection. They closed their shoulders against her when she approached, as if she were a townie.
Tears burned in her eyes, blurring the trail. She accidentally stepped on a root and her ankle twisted beneath her. Pain shot up her leg. The bonfire raging inside demanded that she keep running through the pain, keep trying to catch them at the end of the shortcut, but her dad had lectured too many other Pack members about the stupidity of ignoring pain.
Chloe dropped onto a fallen log at the side of the trail and sucked down some of the water in her squeeze bottle. Her ankle would be fine in a moment. Werewolves healed fast--so fast it took something major to kill them--but she’d probably just lost all chance of catching up with the Pack.
How could she have all the werewolf gifts and not have the ability to Change? It wasn’t fair, but every generation there were a few Recessives, werewolves by heritage who were unable to Change. Also known as Duds.
Chloe's fists clenched. She was not a Dud. Glaring, she suddenly caught the blue eyes of a wolf staring out at her from behind a screen of underbrush.
Chloe shot to her feet, temper pumping through her. “Stop lurking. I know you’re there. I'm not blind.” Did her Packmates think they could scare her? Puh-lease. She'd grown up among werewolves.
The wolf faded back into the brush. Chloe nodded, satisfied, and sat back down.
But when she resumed her run, movement flashed in her peripheral vision. The idiot wolf had started tailing her again. Fine, we can play it that way. Chloe pretended not to notice, waiting until her sharp ears told her that her pursuer had ventured a little too close, then suddenly reversed direction and cut left into the trees.
A thick stand of young pine kept the wolf from retreating. It hunched its shoulders and growled at her. Chloe stopped in surprise. The wolf had a creamy chest and underbelly, black back and tail, blue eyes and a distinctive black stripe bisecting its forehead. Who was it? None of the wolves in her Pack had colouring like this one.
The wolf couldn't be wild. Real wolves stayed far, far away from Pack territory, and this one was just standing there, staring at her head-on, unafraid. Unless the animal was sick? Chloe sniffed the air. Instead of the Pine Hollow Pack scent, the wolf smelled of wildness, musk and a hint of iron. No odour of disease. All the Pack kids got rabies shots as a matter of course, but Chloe's veterinarian dad had made sure she could recognize the signs of it, plus distemper and other canine ills. This wolf wasn’t sick, so it had to be a werewolf.
Its pelt lacked the shine of a healthy wolf, and its ribs protruded. It was skinny and not full-grown. Her nostrils flared. "That better not be you, Gail,” she threatened. Judy's little sister was thirteen, a not unheard of age for the Change, but—
She stepped forward. The wolf snapped its teeth at her and broke left past her into the trees.
Instinct made her give chase, but she stopped after a few steps because—hello?—four legs were always going to be faster than two.
In frustration, she shouted after the werewolf: “I’m going to find out who you are and kick your butt!”