“Are you coming to the party tomorrow?”
Rafe had replayed Maya’s words a dozen times since she’d said them, assessing and reassessing her tone. Did she really want him at her sixteenth birthday party? Was she just being nice? Or worse, was she being nice because she’d met Annie and felt sorry for him?
It shouldn’t matter. The party was his opportunity to finally be accepted by the other kids in Salmon Creek, which would make it much easier to find the girl with the paw-print birthmark.
But it did matter because it was Maya.
When he’d met her in the principal’s office, his first day at school, he’d thought, She’s the one. He was looking for a skin-walker. That meant a girl with Navajo or Hopi blood, and Maya was obviously Native, the only person he’d seen in this tiny town who was.
His second thought had been, Damn, this is going to be easy. Not that Maya herself looked easy to charm. The proud tilt to her chin and the challenging glint in her eyes said that she wasn’t going to fall for him quickly, but he didn’t care. Trying to convince her to go out with him wouldn’t be a chore at all. He’d have wanted to try even if she wasn’t the one.
Once she’d left—after totally blowing him off—he’d realized she probably wasn’t the one. Yes, the dormant skin-walker genes ran in Hopi and Navajo families, but everything his mother had said about “the girl” suggested she wouldn’t look Native.
One way their families had hid to avoid extinction was intermarriage. Rafe’s father—whom he’d never met—was mostly Hispanic. Before his mom died, she’d told him about “the girl,” and said her mother didn’t look as if she had a drop of Native blood—light-haired, fair-skinned, and blue-eyed. She also seemed to recall that her father had looked Caucasian as well. Maya considered herself full-blood Native, and she looked it.
Still, he’d taken a couple of runs at her, only to be completely stonewalled. His ego had tried to insist she was just playing hard to get. He knew how to get a girl’s attention. Knew just the right grin to give her, just the right look to make her think he was interested. When he gave Maya that look and grin, she stared at him like he’d just crawled out of a swamp. Eventually he couldn’t deny that her blaring “not interested” signal was genuine. So, with regret, he focused his attention elsewhere.
Until now. Because in the last couple of days, he’d had reason to think Maya might still be “the girl.” A month ago, he’d have been thrilled. Now?
He shook his head and checked the cheap alarm clock resting on a stack of crates—makeshift storage for the cabin. If he was going, he’d better get ready. The party had already started.
Was he going? Yes. There’d never been any question, really. He just wished he felt more confident that the invitation had been genuine.
He looked over his meager wardrobe. What would Maya like? Dumb question. If he knew that, he’d be wearing it every day.
He glanced at Annie. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, watching him. When he looked over, her face lit up with a smile, basking in the attention like a puppy. He growled under his breath and looked away.
Stop thinking about her like that. She’s not an animal. She’s your sister.
“What’s wrong, Rafael?” she asked, dragging his name out in an affectionate singsong.
“Nothing.” I want to ask you what I should wear to impress Maya. I want my big sister back, the one I could talk to about this, the one who could help me. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Are you going to Maya’s party?”
“Good.” She uncrossed her legs and crossed them the other way. “She’s pretty, and she’s nice. I hope she’s the one.”
I’m not sure I do.
Annie giggled. “I think you like her.”
“Maybe.” He glanced over. “What should I wear?”
She looked up and he held his breath, waiting. But her brow furrowed and she looked confused for a moment, before laughing.
“Clothing,” she said. “I think you should wear clothing.”
“Yeah, probably a good call.” He walked over and gave her a quick hug, hoping she couldn’t see his expression, and if she could, that she didn’t understand it.
Rafe tramped through the forest. Maya had written Daniel’s address down for him, but he really didn’t need it. Salmon Creek was what his mother would have called a flyspeck town. Fewer than two hundred people. He knew where Daniel lived, even though he’d never been there.
He shouldn’t have told Annie that Maya might be the one. It only got her hopes up. Not that she really understood why they were looking for “the girl.” He’d told her why. Because he hoped this girl could lead them to the scientists who’d reactivated their dormant skin-walker genes. Because those scientists might be able to fix Annie. She’d gone along with that, but he knew she didn’t understand. Didn’t know why she needed to be fixed. That was, he supposed, the one blessing to having Annie deteriorate intellectually instead of physically—as long as her basic needs were met, she was happy. If Rafe wanted to find this girl and that would make him happy, then she was quite content to go along with it.
He left the woods once he reached town. He’d have been more comfortable staying in them and circling around to Daniel’s house. Living in the woods for the last few months had jump-started his own latent skin-walker instincts. But he should go through town whenever possible, let the locals see him, get accustomed to having him there. He’d lived in small towns before, but never one as tiny and tight-knit as Salmon Creek.
When he arrived at Daniel’s house, he rang the bell. No one answered. He rang again and double-checked the address. Had Maya sent him to the wrong place? No, that wasn’t her style. Besides, he could smell Daniel here.
He went around to the back porch. It was definitely Daniel’s place—there was a boxing ring set up in the yard.
Rafe peered through the patio doors. There were gifts on the table and what looked like . . . a papaya? The door was cracked open, so he slid through, calling “Anyone here?” Last thing he needed was to have Daniel thinking he’d broken into his place.
He walked around the gift pile. Shit, he should have brought a gift. What the hell had he been thinking? It was a birthday party. Maybe he should leave now, before—
No, Maya wouldn’t expect a gift. Again, she wasn’t the type.
When he got to the other side of the pile, he saw an arrow carved in the fruit. Okay . . . strange local customs. He followed the arrow to the patio doors. When he stepped out again, he saw another one, pointing into the forest.
Papayas. Why . . . ?
Because it rhymed with Maya. Maya Papaya. Probably a nickname from when they were little.
As Rafe walked to the next fruit, he felt a pang of envy. He wondered what it was like to have old in-jokes like that with your friends, ones that went back to childhood, ones that everyone knew. They probably rolled their eyes. Not that old joke again. But for a kid who’d never stayed long enough in one place to earn a nickname, much less to have in-jokes, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Comfortable. Secure. Two feelings Rafe hadn’t experienced since his mother died.
As soon as Rafe stepped into the forest, he heard voices. Being a skin-walker meant he had first-rate hearing. Not that you needed it to hear Corey, whose voice boomed through the late-evening forest. Loud, boisterous, in-your-face, Corey always made his presence known.
Rafe had figured Corey would be there. He’d also expected to hear the next voice that cut through the still night, but it still made him cringe. Hayley had asked the other day if Rafe was going to the party. He’d said he wasn’t, so he’d hoped she wouldn’t bother coming.
He shouldn’t think that way. Hayley seemed nice enough. Just not his type. And she tried too hard—too quick to laugh at his lame jokes, too quick to get all fluttery when he turned on the charm. She didn’t deserve the way he was leading her on, blowing hot and cold. But he knew that was the way to make her fall for him; and with her at his feet, every girl in Salmon Creek was making his job here much easier by following her lead. Every girl except Maya.
He followed the voices until he could see Corey and some of the others standing at the foot of a cliff. Being part cat meant Rafe had amazing night vision, too, so he stayed there, getting a feel for the situation. And looking for Maya.
He didn’t see her there. She must be. It was her—
A laugh. Daniel’s laugh. He recognized that, too, and when he heard it, he knew where he’d find Maya. Just find Daniel. He followed the laugh—up—and saw them clutching the side of the cliff.
Maya leaned over to say something to Daniel. She was grinning, her eyes glittering, all her attention focused on Daniel, and Rafe felt . . .
Oh, hell. There was no question what he felt. Jealous. Daniel was her best friend. Which was . . . unusual. But things were different in Salmon Creek. When you didn’t have a lot of classmates to choose from, if you found someone you really clicked with, gender didn’t matter.
As for Daniel, though . . . Rafe had a feeling it wasn’t just friendship for him. Maybe Rafe was just jealous, imagining more between them, but one thing was clear—Daniel was not going to be happy that Rafe was here.
Whatever Maya had said made Daniel laugh and give her a shove. She swung on the belay and shoved him back, then zipped down before he could strike again. As they laughed and joked, Rafe knew that’s what he was really jealous about. When Maya was around Daniel, he saw the girl he really wanted to get to know better. He could hardly even coax a smile from her.
He stayed in the woods and watched as Maya climbed up the cliff again, against Samantha this time. Racing, he realized as he overheard them discussing the bet. Maya won. She also beat the next couple of guys.
After the last race, as Maya undid her harness, Rafe walked from the forest. “Is the game over? Or is there room for one more?”
He continued toward Maya, studying her face, trying to read her expression.
“You’re late,” she said. Her voice was light. Teasing? No, she probably just had a lot of adrenaline from the rush of the climb.
“Yeah, had some trouble getting away. Then I figured I was in the wrong place until I saw the gifts and followed the papayas.”
Rafe stopped in front of her and smiled. He didn’t think about what kind of smile he was giving, whether it was the right one for the situation. He just smiled. And she smiled back.
“So did I hear right?” he said. “Race to the top? Winner gets a kiss?”
“Maya’s done seven climbs in a row,” Daniel said. “You can race me.”
“But I don’t want to kiss you.”
Everyone laughed. Everyone except Daniel.
“If she says no, she forfeits the new grips,” Corey said. “She had to defeat all comers. That was the deal.”
Daniel shook his head. “I’m the one who offered. So it stands as is. He’s late.”
“I am,” Rafe said. “So it’s up to Maya. She’s already won. I’m just the bonus round.”
He grinned. Maya laughed, then said, “You’re on.”
As Rafe took off his jacket, he snuck a look at Maya. Was she the one? He’d thought she couldn’t be, then he’d heard about the mountain lions coming around lately, and how often she saw the reclusive big cats. He wanted to say that it meant nothing, but when you added it all up—the cats, the Native blood, Maya’s love for nature—it seemed like it had to mean something.
Which should make him happy. More than happy. He’d finally found the girl who could help him fix his sister. So why did he keep hoping he was wrong? Because he wanted Maya for himself. He didn’t want to be chasing her because she could be the key to this whole mess with Annie and the experiments. He wanted to be just a regular sixteen-year-old guy, chasing Maya because he liked her.
But he wasn’t a regular guy. Couldn’t be, for Annie’s sake. If he did manage to get Maya to go out with him, he had to check for the birthmark. If he found it, he had to tell her everything. Tell her it was all a lie. He was a lie.
She’d never forgive him for that.
He told himself that what he felt was nothing. He didn’t know Maya well enough for it to be something. She was just a girl. There’d been others before and there would be others again. But when he looked over at her and caught her looking at him, his heart did an extra thump and he really did hope it wasn’t her.
And if it was? Then he was screwed and all he could tell himself was that he’d done it for Annie. That’s what mattered. All that mattered. Someday maybe he would go back to being a regular guy. Or maybe he wouldn’t. But for now, what he wanted wasn’t important.
One last look at Maya, then Rafe turned away and let one of the guys help him into the harness.
Source: Kelley Armstrong