Every time someone opens a storybook and reads the four magical words Once upon a time…, my granny gets eaten a few hours later. Boy, it sucks!
Glad that this morning’s staging of our play is over, I slip into Princess Cinderella’s castle and close the heavy door. The loud thud echoing off the high ceiling makes me cringe, and I quickly place a finger in front of my lips. “Shhh!”
Yes, doors actually listen. I believe they even talk, but that might just be a rumor Alice brought home from Wonderland.
I toe off my scruffy boots next to the coatrack. Their soles still bear half the forest after today’s adventure, and I don’t want to mess up this immaculate place. I slip off my yew bow and quiver from my shoulder. The twelve cedar arrows rattle inside as I hang both on a hook on the wall. One doesn’t waltz fully armed into a tea party—or at least that’s what they keep telling me. I push off my hood but leave the red cloak on.
Wide, marble stairs with golden handrails invite me to the other side of the great hall. An invitation I cannot refuse. I sprint up, taking two steps at a time, and turn left at a junction to a long corridor. My friends’ laughter drifting out from the parlor farther down tells me which room to enter.
Four princesses are seated around a neat, white coffee table with morning tea in delicate china cups before them. Once again, they are all dressed in marvelous, colorful gowns. I wave in greeting and then steer toward Snow-White. The princess with hair as black as a raven feather hates her name and once said she’d much rather be called something cool like Rocking Thunder. Ever since that day, we keep calling her Stormy.
I slump down next to her on the noble sofa with its gold-embroidered, blue cushions. Her white skirt accidentally catches beneath me. As she tries to tug it free, I help her by quickly lifting one side of my bottom. Then I pull up my legs and wrap my arms around my knees with my cloak tugged close, mimicking a stark, red iceberg floating among the royals.
Cindy slides a cup of strawberry tea across the table in front of me. “Hey, Riley, what rained on your parade?” Her porcelain face splits into a grin as she leans forward, briefly blocking the beams of sunlight shining into the warm room through the five tall windows. “Did the Wolf bite you on the ass again?”
Right, maybe what I said about Once upon a time before wasn’t entirely the truth. In some fairy tales, the girl actually knocks into a prince who kisses her, loves her, marries her, and gives her a giant closetful of gowns in his palace. At least, it’s like that with Snow-White and Cindy. In Bellina’s story, too. Dang it, Briar-Rose aka Rory doesn’t even have to do a whole lot for her happily ever after. Toward the end of her tale, she just lies down for a short nap, and Prince Phillip takes care of the rest. All my friends get kissed and fall in love, over and over again. Not me.
“Man! Do you even know how lucky you girls are? I want me a prince, too!” I pick up the chipped cup on its saucer. “At least they don’t bite.”
Bellina hides a snicker behind a cookie, and a light flush appears around her nose. Okay, so maybe her prince does, but I don’t believe the Beauty minds.
“Well, well.” With a curious gleam in her green eyes, Rory tosses her wavy, golden hair behind her shoulders. She sits up straighter to face me. “Didn’t you always say that boys were good for nothing and you weren’t interested? When did you change your tune?”
Yeah, when? Must have happened sometime after slipping on the wet forest floor in the dead of night because some weird child in a faraway land called The Reality couldn’t wait until the morning to read their new storybook. Then a monstrous wolf almost ate me at dawn because he was still hungry after being forced to give back my gran. The new fang marks on my left butt cheek will shine for a week!
“The whole fairy tale thing is so unfair.” I sniff the tea and pray I won’t shoot to the ceiling like a giant. Things like that have occurred in this castle before, when the Caterpillar and the crazy Hatter were around for a visit. Ever since that crazy afternoon, I make sure to check the coatrack for a hat sized 10/6 or for a hundred pairs of tiny shoes in the corner before touching any darn food in this place!
“Out of us all, I got stuck with the short stick.” After the first cautious sip of tea, I squeeze my eyes shut and wait a panicky second, but nothing happens. Phew! Relaxing, I drink some more. “I want my own happy ending. A real one! With a real prince who will kiss me and love me and take me to his castle.” I stir the tea with a silver spoon and watch as the red-tinted water swirls around. “Not a guy who smells like a wet dog in the rain and prefers to crawl into my granny’s bed instead of mine.”
Not that I would ever want Jack in my bed. Ew! A spooky shiver travels down my spine at the image. Okay, he actually is some kind of gorgeous. At least on days when he doesn’t grow a wolf skin and put me on his menu for dessert. But those days are rare. And even then, he isn’t right for kissing or marrying. He simply lacks the manners for that. And, evidently, the crown.
“So you think you can only find romance with a prince?” Briar-Rose smothers a yawn with her hand. She, too, had to act out her tale today, and is obviously still suffering from the aftermath of her sleep curse—even though the spell is broken. “What makes you believe they’re any better with love stuff than other guys?”
“Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?” I put my cup down, nail her with a meaningful stare, and then tick off my next points on my fingers. “You have a prince. Stormy has a prince. Cindy has a prince, and Bellina has one, too.” Fair enough, Bellina’s Prince Dominic might be a little hairy at times, but he is one of the blue-blooded thugs in Fairyland, after all.
Snow-White puts some honey into her tea and daintily licks the rest off the spoon. “And in your eyes, love comes with a royal title and a palace? I mean, there are thousands of tales in the world, and not all have a prince in them.”
“Exactly what I’m trying to say!” I fold my arms over my chest. “Peter Pan is no prince, and Wendy is still single. Duh!”
“Hm. Your logic is unassailable.” Cindy taps a finger against her bottom lip and cuts a look at the ceiling. “Alice never warmed up to the Hatter, either.”
There we go! “And you all know Dorothy, who gets a Scarecrow, a Tin Man, and a Cowardly Lion? She keeps clicking her heels together to go back to Kansas. Every time.” I make a stern face. “Hence…no prince, no romance.”
“Wait a moment. What about Aladdin and Jazzie?” Rory counters, making me snap my head to her. “Aladdin is a thief and, obviously, they can’t keep their hands off each other.”
“Naah. Jazzie’s a princess,” I point out. “In their tale, the roles were just switched.”
“True.” Snow-White scratches her chin. “Jazz always wore the pants, long before she even met Al.”
“You might be onto something here,” Bellina supports me now, pointing a finger my way as she narrows her eyes. Then the Beauty gets up from her chair and paces back and forth in front of us. Her heels clack on the stone floor underneath the hoop of her marvelous purple dress. She can never sit still for long, especially not when she’s pondering. “The list of royal love stories in this country is long. Even the red-haired fish girl—” She whirls around to us. “What’s her name again?”
“Avalyn,” we all groan and cut her tired glances. For some stupid reason, she constantly forgets the mermaid’s name.
“Ah, yes. So she gets Prince Sebastian, right? Ann-Marie marries the Frog Prince. And Rapunzel is a kidnapped princess herself.”
“See?” I raise my eyebrows and gesture wildly with my arms. “Love only happens among royals. Nobody has ever read about a girl from the woods falling for a verminous pooch.”
Rory lifts her nose, disgustedly pushing away her cake and wiping some crumbs off her pink dress. “Ugh, you think Jack has fleas?”
I shrug it off. “Sometimes, I see him scratching his ear with his hind leg when he’s in wolf form, but that might be out of habit.” He actually does it a lot when he’s nervous. And he always gets like that before the ending of our story. I probably would, too, if the Huntsman was going to cut my belly open with a knife to free my latest lunch.
Ignoring our speculation about Jack’s hygiene, Princess Cinderella leans across the coffee table and pats my hand. “So, not all fairy tales end with love. That’s just life.”
“Yeah, but if they don’t, at least those characters get to do some cool stuff in their stories.” I grab my ankles, my feet still flat on the couch. “Take Hansel and Gretel, for instance. No romance, but an entire house full of candy to crunch. What do I get? A small piece of cake and wine, and I’m not even allowed to eat it because the basket is for Granny.”
Cindy tips her head to the side and presses her lips together. I don’t know how to interpret her look. Five seconds later, she grabs a platter from the table, holds it out to me, and lifts one eyebrow in hope. “Macaron?”
I drop my forehead to my knees and groan.
“Don’t hang your head, sweetie.” Cindy hugs me tightly in the great hall after our tea. The other girls left an hour ago, so I had some time alone with my bestie to swoon over the hotties in the latest issue of The Character Magazine and read about the most recent escapades in Fairyland. Delivery weasels tend to get distracted in the woods and misplace parcels. I’m missing two months’ worth of issues, so I have to rely on Cindy these days to provide my weekly celebrity fix. Her charming husband picks up the magazine for her from the Magical Press each Tuesday, right after it releases.
Another advantage of having a prince at hand. Just saying.
While I tie my boots, Cindy squats down in front of me and places her hand under my chin to make me look into her starlit eyes. “You know you didn’t get the worst deal with your story.”
That’s easy for her to say. As soon as this heavy door closes behind me, she’ll skip into the study, drag Prince Jason into the living room, and cuddle up to him in front of the home cinema.
The only thing I can cuddle up with is the old blanket on my couch. Or Jack Wolf, who recently ate my grandmother. I prefer the blanket.
But I give a quick nod anyway and smile courageously at my friend. As we both rise again, she holds out my bow and quiver.
“You’re right.” It’s not the worst story in the forest, just one without romance. “I guess I could be a green witch and get squashed by a house at the end of my tale, right?” That would really screw up my day.
She laughs, but I see the shivers spreading over her bare arms at the mention of the Wicked Witch of the West. That woman is a grumpy old hag, and not only in her story.
“Come to the market with me tomorrow?” Cindy changes the subject as I turn and open the door.
“Sure,” I call over my shoulder and wave goodbye as I leave Castle Grove, the home of most of my princess friends. “Meet me by the fountain!”
She didn’t actually have to ask me to come. Strolling through the market of Grimwich with my best friend on Mondays is as much a non-changeable tradition as the stories we each play out. Even though she’s generally the only one who buys anything. But that’s because I don’t have a chamber filled with treasure to spend on excessive luxury. I don’t own a castle, remember?
But it’s okay. The forest provides whatever I need to survive: food, wood, and animal skin. The rough life in the wilderness has turned me into a formidable archer, and I’m excellent at fending for myself. Besides, Granny is a great tailor. Sometimes, she designs me new clothes. Simple garments made of linen or the leathers I bring her after skinning my prey.
This pretty, hooded cloak is one of the first things she ever made for me. Apparently, a fairy gave her the red satin many, many years ago, and it’s supposed to always protect me from harm. I broke my wrist last summer…so much for the protection. Still, I don’t ever take it off. Well, I do. To sleep. But that’s it.
It’s why they call me Red Riding Hood.
Unfortunately, shoes are something I do have to spend money on. I look down at my feet as I tramp through the Wood of 1000 Dawns. These boots are barely two years old, practically brand new. Certainly good enough to walk another decade in. To raise the money for this pair, I had to paint all the white roses in the Queen of Hearts’ wondrous garden red. No shit. Not a very grateful job.
Behind a line of hazel bushes up ahead, I see the straw roof of my cozy little hut. A thin trail of smoke from the fire I made this morning still puffs from the chimney. A warm feeling floods me at the sight. There’s hardly any interesting booty for thieves to steal in my house, so the square windows stay open all summer long. As I approach, a robin, usually nested under the roof, greets me from the window ledge with a happy chirp. I pluck a raspberry from the shrub winding up the pole of the porch as I walk up the steps and place it in front of my tiny friend with a smile. “Enjoy, sweetie.”
No matter how much I sometimes wish for a different ever after for myself, I always take in a deep, happy breath when I cross the threshold of my cabin. Sure, there might not be a marble staircase leading to floors above—heck, there isn’t even a second floor—but this is home to me.
I leave my boots by the door and flop onto my comfy couch. A few years ago, Tinker Bell had talked me into adopting her discarded flat screen when she moved into an apartment in Grimwich with Thumbelina, Humpty Dumpty, and Godfather Death. I guess she felt a little sorry for me when she saw my puny place.
With no satellite reception this deep in the woods, a TV just sounded like a bad joke. Of course, I didn’t tell her that. You should never hurt a pixie’s feelings. Very bad idea, trust me. It was a nice gesture, though, so now the device just collects dust in the cellar until she notifies me of a visit—which isn’t all too often, thank the fairies. That thing is darn heavy and quite cumbersome to carry up the stairs.
Lacking the common luxuries of the people in town, I pick up my alternative entertainment from the coffee table: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The book is property of the Grimwich Library and, yikes, that boy has a tough story to act out in his universe.
I skim through the volume to page 302 because that’s where I stopped reading last night when the urge to go out and play with Jack set in. Scooting deeper into the cushions, I pull up my knees and lean the book against my thighs, starting with the first paragraph on that page. Oh, Harry, what kind of trouble did you get yourself into this time?
After the second paragraph, I close the book and put it back on the coffee table. The early afternoon sun shines like a bright smile through the window, right into my face. I get up and carefully pack a bottle of red wine and a marble cake into my neat, woven basket. An embroidered doily goes over it to cover the items from nosy birds or other hungry animals in the forest.
Slamming my shoes together outside helps shake off most of the dried dirt from earlier. I slip them back on, strap my bow and quiver to my back, close the door, and walk off along the narrow path through the trees that leads to Granny’s. All the way, I hum a sweet tune from my childhood. Only when I start skipping, happily swinging the basket beside me, do I suddenly feel like I’ve done this all before and realize what the hell is going on.
Skittering to a stop, I lift my face to the sky and shout at the treetops, “Are you kidding me?!” Holy storybook, it hasn’t even been twelve hours since I last walked that way and started the tale with Jack and Granny. They can’t be serious, expecting me to act it out a second time today.
That I didn’t notice what was happening straightaway isn’t unusual. When the familiar pull of the story sets in, it’s always hard to tell which are my real thoughts and which belong to the tale. There was one time I didn’t figure out I was in the game until Jack snapped at me from Granny’s bed and almost ripped my cloak apart.
That was a bit of a rude awakening.
Because the call is so very intense, the only thing I can do is keep walking. But, dang it, I refuse to hum the stupid song and decide to meet Jack with a sinister expression instead. I know where to find him. Right down this path at the crossroads. He’ll be leaning against the signpost, hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, one leg angled, and his foot flat against the pole. His dark eyes will glint through the wild, multihued strands of black and brown hair falling over his forehead as he watches me draw closer. He’ll wait a few seconds, and then he’ll crack a tiny, lopsided smile. Because he always does. He’s done so for as long as I can remember.
I like the music in this pub. It’s the reason I come here so often. For the band, the scotch, and to play pool with Phil and Sebastian.
My feet resting on the low bar of the stool, I bounce my right leg to the rhythm of the Town Musicians of Bremen, who perform their rock songs on a small stage at the back. The food’s mostly a turn-off here, but they make good fries. I love fries. Wish I’d had some to go with Granny Redcoat this morning. With a bucket of ketchup. The old bag tastes like castor oil and porridge. Always a battle to stuff her down my throat.
I pick a fry from the basket on the bar that Tweedledee—or was it Tweedledum?—placed in front of me. Heck, I can never tell those two apart. Between a breath of the cigarette smoke and the stale odor of beer in the dimly lit place, I bite off the end of my fry.
“Whiskey and fries for breakfast?” The throaty laughter that follows accompanies a royal hand swiping some of my food. “Looks like you had a tough night.”
I half turn my head to greet Phillip with a growl and then eat a little faster because I know he’ll keep reaching into the basket until it’s empty. Normally, I don’t mind sharing, but today, I’m starving. “Get your own food, you son of a king.”
“Can’t. I’m used to being fed,” he retorts insolently, grinning around the stick in his mouth as he grabs a few more fries.
I push the basket to the other side, out of his reach. “Then go back to Castle Grove and have your girl cook you something nice.”
My jacket draped over the bar stool next to me kept him a free seat. He tosses the leather on the counter then pulls the stool noisily closer and sits down. “My girl’s hanging out with your girl at Jason’s castle right now, and I don’t think she can even make scrambled eggs.”
An alarmed gasp makes us both turn around to a frozen Humpty with two glasses of Chardonnay in his pale hands. His eyes and mouth are three big Os.
It’s funny how color always rises in Phillip’s face when he accidentally treads on someone’s toes. Tough guy or not, one’s true fairy-tale traits are hard to shake off. “Sorry,” my pal mumbles an apology to the flamboyant egg, rubbing his neck as we watch Humpty Dumpty flitter away with the drinks. As he takes a seat in a booth by the door with Christopher the Tooth Fairy, I return my focus to my meal.
“The regular princess meeting again?” I pick up the subject of earlier when Phil said something about our girls. Sure, Riley isn’t really my girl. Not in the romantic sense. But officially, she is. Fairy tale law binds us closer together than a superficial ring on her finger ever could.
“Gossip girls, I’d rather call them.” Phil snorts a chuckle and runs a hand through his fair hair before he orders a beer and then turns back to me. “They’re undoubtedly trashing us from the first second ‘til the last.”
My teeth catching Riley’s behind this morning is certainly something that she will bring up in front of her friends. I normally don’t act out of my role. She was in such a cheeky mood today, though, permanently taunting me with her favorite name for me, that I couldn’t resist reminding her what a nice set of fangs her puppy dog actually has.
A secretive sneer tugs at my lips. She really has a fine ass. I would love to get my teeth on it without her cloak in the way for once. I bet I could make her yip like a wolf.
I finish my fries, leaving three in the basket and pushing them in front of Phillip. While he scarves them down, I dilute the salty taste on my tongue with a draught from the scotch and then wipe my mouth on the sleeve of my black T.M.o.B. band t-shirt. What can I say, I really dig these guys. Elbowing my friend, I point a thumb over to the pool table. “Care for a game?”
He nods, licking his fingers free of salt. We slide from our stools, head over, and I pull the release lever. A familiar rumble sounds from inside the table as the balls quickly roll down one after another into the removal window. Phillip sets them up in the black plastic triangle. In the meantime, I pick up a cue and rub the blue chalk over its tip. With a high toss, I throw the other cue at the prince.
He catches it one-handed and chalks it, too, when the sound of a well-known voice draws both of our gazes to the door. At long last, Sebastian comes into the pub with a half-dreamy, half-crazed look. The clock above the door says ten-thirty. Phillip steps in front of me with a mean smirk on his clean-shaven face as he rolls the sleeves of his red shirt up to the elbows. “Loser has to bring Sebastian home today.”
That triggers my laugh. If Prince Sebastian joins us this late on a Sunday morning, it means his own story of The Little Mermaid held him up. The curse the Sea Witch casts on him shortly before the end of his tale badgers him so much that he usually gets wasted afterward to flush every remaining ounce of it from his body.
I take my half-empty glass from the bar and place it on the edge of the pool table. Then I lean down with a grin and aim for my first shot. “Deal.”
The balls scatter, the red one disappearing into the left corner pocket. Red is always the first one I dunk.
“Nice shot,” Sebastian says in greeting and slumps onto the wooden chair by the small, round table close to us. He pours himself a glass of red wine from the bottle he picked up at the bar on his way over and knocks down the first half. Then he refills it, tips back with the chair, and stacks his booted feet on the table, swaying the glass in our direction. “Cheers.”
I sink two more balls but miss the fourth shot. Damnit. While Phil has a go at the game, I take my scotch and sit down opposite Sebastian. We clink glasses and both take a sip—me a small one, him virtually inhaling his drink.
“Easy there, your royal highness,” I mock him. “Don’t want you to puke on my shoes later.” And from the speed with which Phil sinks one ball after another, it’s quite likely that I’ll be the one taking the soon-to-be-drunk prince home today.
“I’ll take it easy in the afternoon when I sleep off my inebriation,” Sebastian replies with a snide grin and opens the top button of his white dress shirt. “As for now…” He lifts the wine bottle and calls to Maid Marianne, who waits tables here at the Shady Wonders during the week, “Darling, would you bring me another?”
The Highland beauty with the wild dark hair knows his habit as well as we do, so she doesn’t even bother pointing out that the one he’s holding is still half-full. Twenty seconds later, she places the new bottle in front of him, wipes her hands on her white apron, and then claps him softly on the shoulder, her face contorted in lines of sympathy. “Enjoy.”
I grab a fistful of Marianne’s green linen dress before she can scurry away and lift my pleading gaze to her freckled face. “Can you bring him a double cheeseburger, too?” I know that Sebastian never gets to eat any of the cake at his own wedding. And for a drinking bout such as the one currently on his mind, some solid underlay couldn’t hurt.
Sebastian throws me a look as if to say that I’m not his nanny, but drool practically seeps from the corner of his mouth at the prospect of some real food. From what we hear, Avalyn is on a mission lately to turn him into a vegetarian. Oh, she can try, but I doubt she’ll have any luck with it. Her only chance would be to blackmail him by refusing to… Yeah, well, let’s just say she won’t be lucky.
Phillip dunked five balls but missed his last shot, so we switch places. I empty the table of all colored balls except the black one, and when it’s his turn again, of course he runs them all into the pockets one by one. “Good game,” I compliment him and throw a glance at our pal, who’s getting sloshed quicker than is good for him. That’s going to be an interesting walk to his castle later.
Phil and I play a few more games, slowly drinking as we do. But when Sebastian dips forward, pillowing his head on one arm, the other one hanging listlessly at his side as he begins to snore, the fun is over. “Time to take his highness home and tuck him in,” Phillip jokes, putting his cue away. Thank Grimm, the black-haired prince doesn’t have to act his role all too often these days. The Sea Witch’s curse would be shit compared to the alcoholic cirrhosis he’d end up giving himself.
I place my cue back on the stand and toss the money for my drinks and the fries onto the bar, adding a tip for whichever of the Tweedles served me. Then I put on my jacket and join Phil by Sebastian. “Come on, Sleeping Beauty,” I say, hauling him up by slipping my bulk under his shoulder. Phillip takes his other arm, and together, we walk him outside. The moans coming from Sebastian prove that he’s still alive.
Phillip’s topless coach with the two gorgeous, white horses is parked in front of the pub. As we stop there, he hesitates a moment, patting Sebastian’s cheek rather roughly. “You okay, boy?”
“Uh-huh,” the raspy answer drifts from his hanging head.
Taking him home with the cabriolet would be way faster than dragging the semi-conscious prince down to his palace by the shore. But I can see why Phillip doesn’t want Sebastian to ride with him. Last time we did that, he threw up. No matter how often Phil’s servants cleaned the cushions, the stench remained, and it was pestilent. Ultimately, he had to get a new coach.
I’m preparing to support the boozehound’s whole weight so Phillip can get free, except a rather persistent pull toward the Wood of 1000 Dawns sets in right then and brings on a change of plans.
“Sorry, but Sebastian is your job today,” I apologize and wrap the drunken prince’s arm around Phillip’s shoulders.
Phil stares at me wide-eyed as he has a fully grown man hanging around his neck and holds him tight like a dead wife. “Why?”
“Date with Riley.” I smack him on the shoulder and grin halfheartedly.
Some stories are told more often than others. Phillip and Briar-Rose usually have to act theirs out once every few days. Avalyn and Sebastian often get a few weeks between their plays most of the time. Riley and I, on the other hand, front-run Fairyland’s most-wanted list. We hardly get a day off. But playing twice in twenty-four hours is rare, even for us.
Roguishly, I waggle my brows at Phil and his accessory. A rendezvous with Red Riding Hood is the better end of this deal—for so many reasons.
Sure, it means leaving my best friend to fight the battle with Sebastian alone when he actually won the game of pool, but he knows that none of us can resist the mystical call when someone in The Reality reads the words Once upon a time…
Phil rolls his eyes and then starts laughing. “Screw you, Jack. If you made this up to bail, I’m going to kick your ass down to Eldorado.”
Lifting my hands, I put a solemn expression on my face. “Not bailing, I swear.” He has seen me taking Sebastian home on many occasions. I’m not one to escape from a job when it’s about friends. But the story always comes first.
“I only believe you because I know you can’t fake that gleam in your eyes when it’s about Red Riding Hood. But you owe me, dude.”
That glimmer is not intentional. It comes from the wolf part of me. There’s this deep, annoying need inside me to just nibble Riley up. Heck, if she ever lets me.
“Next time, Sebastian is my duty again. Promise. You know”—I scratch my head—“you could make him throw up here and then bring him home in your runabout. By the way…” I point a finger at Sebastian’s face pillowed against Phillip’s chest. “He’s drooling on your shirt.”
Disgusted, Phil shifts him a little in his grip and considers my suggestion for a couple of seconds. In the end, he shakes his head. “Nah. A little walk and some fresh air will do him some good. See ya! And tell your girl I said hi.”
I nod. “Take care!”
We part in front of the pub and head in opposite directions. The pull is getting stronger, irresistible, and it carries with it the excitement of seeing Riley again. I know I’ll never get to have my way with her, not in our story setup, but the ties to our tale are sometimes seriously hard to cut out of my mind and system.
As I leave the village far behind and cross the borders of the Wood of 1000 Dawns, I sneer at a doe with her fawn in the underbrush and then give a deep, guttural growl to make them dart off in terror…just because I can.
It’s not far to the crossroads, our usual meeting place. As always, I’m the first to arrive. Hands in my jacket pockets, I lean against the signpost that points to Grimwich, Granny’s House, the Plush Toy Forest, and Glitter Hollow. The latter is the direction from which Riley will appear in a few minutes. Inhaling deeply and filtering the air through my nose, I can already smell her. Damn, I dig the mix of morning dew and wood strawberries.
With my hypersensitive hearing, thanks to the wolf part of me, I can hear her footsteps, too. Oddly, there’s no humming today.
A chuckle escapes me. Ooh, someone’s peeved. This is going to be interesting.
Angling one leg and planting the sole of my shoe against the post behind me, I lower my chin but keep an eye on the path in front of me. She’s close, I can sense her. A hot feeling enters my gut and makes the hair on my neck stand on end. It’s always the same at the beginning of our adventure.
Time to brace myself. The first sight usually triggers the impulse in me to change into the big, bad Wolf and just have a go at this girl. It’s immediately followed by a much deeper need to do other things with her. Sinful things. I’ve been trying to lure her off the righteous path and seduce her into a realm of no shame and regret for as long as I can remember.
But she never comes.
Pity. It would take a fool not to notice her innocent beauty; her tempting curves, which most of the time are hidden under her cloak. But I am no fool, and that shy look only she can master at every first smile I give her is my downfall.
Of course, this is all just part of the story.
Even if I have to admit that I thought about hooking up with Riley when we were first thrown into the same tale. She shot me down. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked her out on a date right after eating her grandma for the first time.
She never gave me a second chance, and I never asked for one either. There are other girls in town to scratch a certain itch. Gretel has been good company for a while, and she never stayed over when we were done—which I appreciated. As for Riley, I don’t need to put a ring on her finger or take her to my bed. Because there’s one thing she can never change. She’s my girl, and she will be forever.
Bush-wood rustles in the distance and puts me on alert.
Five…four…three… She’s just around the bend. A smile begins to tug at the corners of my mouth. Two…one… Here she comes.
As I near the giant oak before the last bend, a round of robins rises from the tree and circles the crown. Magic is in the air… It always is when the robins fly in circles. And the magic they’re announcing waits just around the corner. Jack.
The wolf part of him makes him a special character here in Fairyland. We have all kinds of magical creatures: mermaids, witches, fairies, and elves. Farther in the East, there’s a vampire who hides in a castle during the daytime, and several shapeshifters hang out in the surrounding forests, too. I might stand out from the crowd with my shiny, red cloak, but other than that, I’m nothing special. Not like him. I couldn’t turn into a freaking mouse if my life depended on it.
But Jack is really good at what he does. He can shift shapes back and forth as often he wants. The huge, autumn-colored wolf with snow and sand streaks marking his fur is quite a sight. Even though he’s not allowed to eat me in our story, I like to keep my distance from him. One can never know when a wild animal will suddenly snap and start seeing you as a fine knuckle of pork.
I clasp the basket for Granny a little tighter in front of my belly and bravely lift my chin as I take the last few steps that bring me in sight of the big, bad Wolf. Even though I know exactly what to expect, a tiny shiver of fear zips through my body as our gazes lock for the first time in this new rendition of our story.
Big? Yeah. Jack is a head taller than me.
Bad? Oh, yes! You don’t need to know him personally to perceive the danger he breaths out.
Wolf? Not yet. And still, my steps falter.
“Good afternoon, little Miss Red Riding Hood,” he purrs, tilting his head just slightly.
His dark eyes sparkle sinisterly in the beams of light sifting through the trees. The corners of his mouth lift. For the briefest second, I don’t know whether to smile back or run away. He always triggers this strange reaction in me, in spite of me having this tale down pat. It’s like a reflex I can’t turn off, not even after so many years. But it’s gone the moment I remember why I’m here. Second play today. And I’m still mad at him.
Three steps separate us. Normally, I’d stop by him so he can try to lure me to the dark parts of the forest. Not that he’s ever had any luck before. Today, I don’t care for our routine little chat. I want this tale over and done with. Fast. Harry Potter is waiting for me in my cozy hut.
Jaw set and lips pressed together, I pull up my hood and stalk past him, continuing on the path to Granny’s house. He can hang there and wait for the White Rabbit to have a chat with him for all I care.
Jack laughs out behind me. “Riley! Come back!”
Oh, dang it. I hate when he sounds like a poor puppy because he plays it so well. But he won’t stop me. Not this time. “You can bi—” A startled gasp escapes me. Suddenly, I’m whirled around, and the basket slips from my hand, tumbling to the mossy ground.
My back hits a tree trunk, and Jack presses his body flush to mine. I can feel his breath inside my hood as he snarls into my ear, “Say it, and I’ll do it.”
Goodness, telling a wolf to bite you is so not a smart idea. What was I thinking?
In memory of this morning’s encounter with his teeth, I rub the side of my butt, which he doesn’t miss. His gaze drops to my hip and then moves back up to my face. “Still hurting?” he murmurs through a salacious smirk and lets his hand slide down to my side.
What the freak? This is not how our play should run. Angry, I push at his chest. “Get off me and go find yourself a squirrel to play with. I don’t want to talk to you.”
He lets me move him, but not too far. Only a few inches back. At the same time, his right arm shoots out, and he braces his hand next to my head on the tree, blocking my escape. “You know it’s not working like this.” His other hand moves up to my face, and he softly strokes his knuckles across my cheek. Then he carefully brushes back my hood and dips his forehead to mine, capturing my eyes with his. “So, be a nice girl, and let’s have some fun.”
Chills rush through me as I draw in a breath. In all our time, Jack has never touched me like this. It feels…strange. Not uncomfortable. He’s never looked at me like this either, and oddly enough, it’s hard to look away. What in the world is up with him?
“Jack…” I whisper. And suddenly, I notice the sharp smell on his breath. My brows furrow, my voice immediately gaining strength again. “Are you drunk?”
He leans in to my ear, his dark stubble rubbing gently against my skin. “Just a little bit,” he murmurs quietly and nips my earlobe. The sharp sting coaxes a tiny squeak from me, which makes him chuckle. “So, will you come into the shadows with me now?”
Jack Wolf has never once come to work drunk.
I don’t know what he goes off and does after we finish our tale each time, but he takes his job seriously. He’s always at the meeting point when I arrive. He usually makes it easy for me to escape his ensnarement at the beginning. And he never hesitates to swallow Granny, even though I know how scared he is of the moment when the Huntsman comes to free her.
Sure, neither of us imagined we’d be meeting a second time here today, and what he does in his spare time is none of my business, but it’s weird to get a glimpse of his private life for once. I wonder what he had to drink. Does he prefer vodka? Whiskey? Beer? I don’t drink at all so I wouldn’t know the difference. It must have been more than one glass, though. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be behaving so strangely.
A very tempting thought crosses my mind. Since we’re already wandering off the lines of the tale, why not go a little further? What if we…say…slightly alter the plot?
Whatever answer Jack expected from me to continue our usual story—and what was certainly on my tongue a moment ago—is gone now. My stunned expression fades as determination rises within me. I close my half-parted mouth, my heart beating a reckless rhythm. Then I bite my lip and dare a deep look into Jack’s dark and dangerous eyes. “Okay…”
He blinks. Slowly. “What?”
My gaze doesn’t waver, and it probably takes on an excited and hopeful note as a small smile creeps across my face. “Okay… I’ll come into the shadows with you.”
Jack takes a step back and fixes me with narrowed eyes. “Are you crazy?”
His reaction hurts me after ten thousand first encounters where he always wanted to seduce me off the right path. A pout replaces my adventurous grin. “No. I’m just tired of playing this stupid tale over and over again. Aren’t you? Always going the same way, always facing a bloody end? And never getting kissed in all this time.”
Now his forehead creases even more. “You want to get kissed?”
“Well…yeah.” I cross my arms over my chest. “All my friends have love stories to play. They’re happy and totally romanced-up…ish. Sort of.” Resolutely, I lift my chin. “I want that, too.”
Jack’s usually determined face scrunches up further as he shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “And you want that with me?” His gaze sweeps past me into the trees and back. “Over there, in the shadows?”
“No, silly!” I roll my eyes. “Of course, not.”
“Of course, not,” he repeats my words on a growl as if I hurt his feelings beyond repair. Playing all these years has certainly turned him into a devilishly good actor.
“For your information,” I tell him solemnly with my head held high, “I want to catch myself a prince.”
And that cracks him up. “You want what?” he barks in laughter, tucking his hands into his jeans’ pockets.
I throw him a pissy glare and snarl, “Yeah, get a grip, puppy dog.” Should I have seen this fit coming? Probably. Still, it won’t hold me back. I’ve made up my mind, and we’re going to get through this, whether or not he finds the idea ridiculous.
I stride to the bush where my basket rolled earlier when he grabbed me and put the fallen bottle of wine back inside. Jack still stands in the middle of the path, staring at me as if I’d turned into a three-headed dragon. I walk past him, in the opposite direction of Granny’s house, expecting him to follow me. He doesn’t.
“Are you coming or not?” I snap over my shoulder.
A moment ticks by before he moves and catches up with me. His voice still holds a thread of doubt. “Where to?”
“For starters, to the dark parts of the woods. Where are they?”
“I don’t know.”
I stop and whirl around to him. “You don’t know?!” Outraged, I throw my hands with the basket in the air. “You’ve been trying to lure me there for ages. Where did you think we’d go if I finally said yes?”
“I knew you wouldn’t, so there wasn’t a need to think about it.” His eyes are dark again and drained of all amusement. His voice heats up, though, just like mine.
“You’re a wolf. Don’t you eternally roam this place, sniffing rabbit tracks and marking trees? You should know the forest like the back of your hand.”
“I live in an apartment above Geppetto’s workshop in the village,” he growls at me from the side. “I only come here to play with you.”
“Just great.” Chuffing, I stride on, picking the path to the Plush Toy Forest for now. At least there’s something that might help me find what I want.
Jack reads the sign pointing out the direction, and his temper eases to curiosity again. “You want to visit the three bears?”
“No. I don’t think they’ll be much help.” Pulling up my hood, I cast him a contemplative, sideways glance from under the red fabric and grin again because my idea is genius. “Cupid’s tree is there, too.”
Everyone knows about the specialty of that tree, but from the way Jack bites the inside of his cheek, he doesn’t seem to have any idea what we’ll do there. Good. He’d probably try to stop me if he knew.
At the sound of running water ahead, a queasy feeling grips me. Flowing backward from the sea to its well in the Marble Mountains, the Timeless Brook cuts a swath through the Wood of 1000 Dawns, separating all stories into sections of sorts. Our path continues over a little, wooden bridge. As we near it, hesitation creeps into Jack’s pace. I know what’s holding him back—I can feel the tug of our story, too. It wants us to turn back and continue what we’re meant to do. Even the basket in my hand starts trembling, pulling at my arm as if it wants to shout that Granny’s house is in the opposite direction.
I grip the handle tighter and stop in front of the bridge, daring a glance up at Jack’s face. He’s silently staring at the border between the bridge and land. “Are you afraid?” I whisper, not knowing if the question is really for him or myself. What will happen if we really cross that stream? No one has ever dared to break out of their tale before. At least none who ever came back to tell the story.
Jack’s eyes move to my side, but the rest of him remains motionless. There’s a hint of wariness in his gaze. “And you?”
I swallow. Hell, yes, I am. But if I don’t do this now, I’ll never get my happily ever after. So I draw in a deep breath, bravely holding his stare, and then straighten my back. “No.” And with that one little word, I take a step forward and walk onto the bridge.
It supports me, not breaking from shock and dumping me into the river with a splash. Phew. For a second there, I really wasn’t sure. But with my next step, the basket slips out of my hand, shooting off. “What the—” As I spin around, I find that it zoomed right into Jack’s arms. A low, whiny sound emerges from it.
“You made it cry,” Jack says, faking a scrunched, sympathetic face, cuddling the basket to his chest as if it was a baby wolf. “I’m sure it wants to fly off to your grandma’s house. It’s scared of running away.”
With a snort, I stride back to him and rip the thing out of his arms. “It’s only a basket! Don’t whack out here.” I pull off the doily and hold out a piece of the cake I put in there before I left home. “See? Just normal food and wine.” To prove my point, I take a bite. Next thing I know, the sky above the treetops rapidly darkens with clouds, and thunder rolls in from all sides.
Holy pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!
My gaze snaps from the upset sky to an even more upset Jack.
“You better put that cake back into the basket and bring it to your granny.”
I hesitate. “If I do that, we’ll have the same stupid conversations every freaking day from now until forever.” More determination enters my voice. “And I’ll never find romance.”
His insistent gaze pleads with me. “There are worse things.”
“Really? You don’t mind getting your belly cut open by the Huntsman each time at the end of our story?”
He waits a beat to answer, but his severe expression doesn’t falter. “I’m used to it. I can bear it.”
“Yeah? Because I can’t,” I snap at him. “I want more from my life.”
Jack holds out his hand. “Give it to me.”
“No.” I back a step away from him.
His eyes get so dark I think I can see the night sky in them as he yells, “Give me that damn cake, Riley!”
His demand is so compelling, he almost drags me toward him with invisible cords. But I cannot do that. We’ve gone too far to turn around now. This is my chance. Our chance. So with a determined glare, I stuff the entire piece of cake into my mouth, filling my cheeks until I can’t even chew the darn thing.
At the increasing rumbles of thunder, Jack drops to a squat in a wild panic and throws his arms over his head. Thankfully, no lightning shoots down on us. Hah! Is that all they have in store? The basket still in one hand, I spread my arms and lift my head to the sky. Crumbs of cake spew out of my mouth as I yell, “Now what? I’m not going back, so what will you do, huh?”
Almost choking on the dry clump in my mouth, I salivate it to mush until I can finally swallow. Boy, that thing went down hard. I pat my chest, coughing up a few remaining crumbs. When the coughing fit is over, so is the thunder. I only notice because Jack is kneeling in a beam of sunlight again instead of cloudy shadows. He dares a glance upward before he straightens back to his full, imposing height.
“See?” I say confidently and cast him a triumphant smile. “That wasn’t the end of the world.” Another bout of crumbs tickles my throat, so I reach into the basket and take out the wine. With my teeth, I pull out the cork and spit it over the bridge railing, into the water. But before the first drop of wine can touch my tongue, Jack rushes forward and yanks the bottle out of my hand.
“No, don’t!” he shouts, holding the liquor away from me. “You’ve never been drinking before, have you?”
“No…” My brows fall into a V because I don’t see his point. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want you to do”—he furiously waves his arms around him—“whatever we’re setting out to do here, drunk.” Then he rakes a desperate hand through his messy, multihued hair. I bet if he could, he’d turn tail and run off home now. But how would that look coming from the big, bad Wolf? Chickening out when a mere, weak girl is holding her ground? He looks first at me and then at the bottle. In the end, he takes a deep draught from it. I don’t know if he does it to calm himself or if he’s just trying to eliminate the stuff so I don’t get any. But when his gaze falls to the empty basket in my hand, he releases a helpless sigh.
A hint of surrender appears in his eyes as they find mine. Then he throws the bottle off the bridge and into the water. It bobs up and down as the stream carries it away.
For an infinite moment, we both just stand there on the wooden bridge and look at each other. Then we turn to the other shore where the Plush Toy Forest stretches out before us.
“You’ll get us in trouble,” Jack says, finally capitulating to my plan.
I offer him a bright smile. “And you’re scared of trouble since when?”
Mischief gleams in his eyes as the left side of his mouth tilts up, and he snorts. I knew he wouldn’t be able to resist a provocation like this. Filled with a wave of excitement, I toss the basket after the bottle, grab Jack’s hand, and pull him along with me into a whole new adventure.
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