“I’m a monster,” I whisper, hiccupping around a sob.
“I can assure you there are real monsters out there, January. You’re not one of them,” she goes on, kissing the top of my forehead. “Anything you do is simply to survive. That doesn’t make you a monster.”
As a child, it sounded like she was so certain, but in this moment, I hear the hesitance and tremor of fear in her voice. That was the day my father became an over-the-phone sort of dad. That was the day my mother threw herself into her work.
That was the day I realized there was something terrifying inside me, and if I panicked too much, it came out to defend me.
I just don’t know what it is, and neither did Mom. Now I wonder about this town with possible monsters, and look over at the name of a legendary monster hunter.
Vance fought a pack of possible werewolves—which could just be the crazy in my head talking—and he barely wrinkled his shirt. What happens when he finds out what I am? I can’t fight like that. Mom said, given my dark side, it was a terrible idea to ever be a threat, so I was never taught to fight.
The book is open to a page about this town—a potion that locks out the negative energy from the house. Picking it up, I jerk back, because the door blows open and Vance walks in, cursing as he gapes at me.
“How the fucking hell did you manage to get yourself back here without freezing to death?” he snaps.
“Gypsy warming potion,” I lie, blinking in surprise to find him here so suddenly.
He shakes off the snow, cursing a little more, and starts pulling off his wet clothes.
“Do you have any fucking idea how stupid that was?” he demands. “I’ve been searching everywhere because I thought there was no way you could make it this far on foot, you foolish little girl.”
It would have been stupid…if I could literally freeze to death.
“Is Emit Morrigan a werewolf?” I ask, catching him off guard with the abrupt shift in conversation.
He narrows his eyes at me as he shuts the door behind him and continues to strip out of his snow-drenched clothes.
Where’d Anna go?
She must be chasing Emit or Damien around.
“He’s not just a werewolf. He’s the alpha. All the packs in this region are under him, and several betas actually run the packs. You can’t go roaming around on his lands, since clearly you know more than you’ve let on.”
I’m not sure how it happens. One second I’m standing, and the next I’m dizzy and lifting off the ground. It all happens within a blink of my eyes, though I’m not sure exactly how long it took.
My mind is trying too hard to process everything, and it’s overwhelming.
“Or maybe you don’t know anything at all,” Vance says, drawing my attention over to him.
Swallowing thickly, I stand and back away.
Somehow, in those few seconds, he’s gotten down to his boxers, revealing a lot of firm, toned, tan skin. He snatches a blanket from my sofa and wraps it around his waist.
I scramble to adjust my own blanket over my hideous pajamas. He just quirks an eyebrow like he’s amused by all this.
“Do you kill monsters?” I ask with an unreasonable sense of calmness.
His eyes drop to the paper where I scratched out the letters of his name, toying with an impossible anagram.
When his gaze cuts back to mine, his smirk looks a little dark. “You mean, am I a Van Helsing?”
“A Van Helsing? As in there’s more?”
“Aye,” he says as he takes a seat near my fire, being far too casual about all of this. “There’s a lot I won’t tell you, Violet Portocale. But there’s a lot someone has to tell you before you get yourself killed. What I’m curious about is why your mother knowingly sent you to a town full of monsters without warning you first.”
Staving off the tears that try to fall, I don’t let my mind wander down dark paths. Why would my mother send me, a sure monster, to a town with a legendary monster hunter, who scared me even when I thought him to be a myth?
She wouldn’t do anything to harm me. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t. Never.
A wad of emotion gets caught in my throat as my tears waver on my lids, and he studies me like he’s trying to figure out why I want to cry.
“She’s going to hurt someone innocent one day, Marta. I’m sorry, but I don’t feel safe here anymore,” I remember hearing my father say.
“You’re a coward.”
“I never signed on for this! You said gypsy magic and occasional ghosts. Not monsters and…whatever she is. It’s not natural, Marta. You can’t expect me to handle this. I’m just human! I love my daughter, but whatever is inside her…it terrifies me.”
We never spoke of it, even to this day. Dad left because he got a new job, and that’s the only reason I’ve ever acknowledged to either of them.
I wanted to forget I’m a monster.
Now there’s a monster hunter in my living room who didn’t kill a single werewolf tonight, despite the fact they’re clearly monsters.
“Why did you spare them?” I decide to ask.
“His land, his mutts,” he says as if on autopilot. “Make no mistake, if they try that shit on my territory or in town, I will happily—and legally—rip them to shreds.”
I swallow harder. There are rules to being a monster?
“But despite what that stupid wolf thinks, I only bend rules—I don’t break them,” he goes on with a shrug. “I am the Van Helsing assigned to this area because of my history with the three other monster alphas who occupy the outskirts of town.”
“Three other monster alphas?” I ask, feeling dizzy again as I move closer to the fire and take a seat there.
He purses his lips as he takes a seat close to me, and I pretend to not be scared of a monster hunter, since only monsters should fear him.
“There’s no delicate way to explain your current situation, Violet Portocale. But you are, indeed, safe in this town, despite appearances,” he adds.
When he glances around, my eyes follow his.
“I don’t exactly feel safe,” the monster girl says to the monster hunter, who has no idea she’s a monster.
“You will once I explain,” he says as his eyes come back to mine.
The familiar sensation of my heartbeat pulsing in my ears returns, causing that edge of panic to seep back in when I fear what he’s about to ask.
“Everyone has a calming, coping mechanism. How can I keep you the calmest while I explain?” he asks.
Once again, as though dragged from my throat, my words tumble from my lips without permission. “My mother always gave me a pedicure when she delivered heavy, life-altering news.”
“And that helps?” he asks as my pulse grows louder.
“Yes,” I state on autopilot. “It’s calming and soothing.”
He sighs harshly, as the hold he has over me breaks, and I watch as he drops the blanket and moves through my house in just his boxers.
“That’s not a potion at all, is it?” I ask his back, swallowing thickly and remembering not to act afraid of the monster hunter, while he weirdly starts rifling through drawers.
I pretend to have nothing to hide, so I don’t get overly defensive about the prying nature of his rummaging around my private things without permission.
“It’s a gift of mine…extracting the truth,” he states absently. “Doesn’t always work, but the younger the subject, the more potent it seems to be,” he adds. “As I said, your age is the gravest weakness you suffer right now. I’m quite worried you’re going to have a mental breakdown at some point, because there’s an overwhelming amount of information to deliver.”
He disappears into my kitchen after palming something from the drawer. Shortly after that, I hear him in the downstairs bathroom toward the other side of the circling layout of my new home.
Where the hell is Anna? I need her for once so she can spy on what he’s currently doing, though half of what she reports could be utter nonsense.
Anna said there were vampires too…
“How are vampires and werewolves real?” I call out, hoping his voice will tell me where he’s moved onto, since I no longer hear him in the bathroom.
“I’m afraid the origins story will have to wait until another time,” he answers from upstairs, confusing the hell out of me.
When and how did he get upstairs without me seeing him?
He’s carrying a large, round tub of some sort, as he descends my staircase. I’m not even sure where he found that or what he’s doing, until he sits down in front of me and starts putting down all the things he’s been gathering.
Steam is rising from the tub, as he moves through the house again. I stare at the pumice stone, lotion, and various other things that definitely point to an upcoming pedicure.
Which just makes this night doubly confounding.
The monster hunter is going to give the monster a pedicure? You can’t make this shit up and have it sound logical. In fact, it sounds like a terrible lie Anna would tell.
When he returns with a bottle of nail polish and a chair, I stare at him like he’s lost his mind.
“Sit,” he commands as he points at the chair.
He walks over to the corner to grab two stools and returns to put the tub on one, and takes a seat for himself on the other, still wearing nothing but his boxers.
I just simply blink at him as I stand, blanket still wrapped around me, and take a seat in the chair.
“You’re seriously going to give me a pedicure right now?”
“I’m seriously hoping it keeps you calm during the life-altering news,” he says as he lifts one of my feet and peels off the wooly sock.
A breath hisses out of me when my foot is plunged into the overly warm water.
He shows my other foot the same attention, moving it a little more gently into the water that smells like lavender and something else.
“What’s in that?” I ask as my eyes grow a little heavy.
“It’s one of your recreational products,” he says with a smirk. “Just to ensure you’re truly and fully calm.”
My body relaxes more as the seconds tick by, and he gently massages one of my feet in the water, only adding to the soothing air around me.
“What are you—”
“You know I won’t hurt you, Violet. I hunt monsters, not harmless gypsy girls,” he says softly. “Just relax.”
Easy for him to say. He’s not aware of all the details.
“Your biggest clients are rich because they’ve lived for centuries in a world that made it easy to earn money after a while of figuring it all out,” Vance starts.
My head lulls to the side as my eyes work to stay fixed on him instead of closing, relishing the magic in his hands.
“Your mother was the first Portocale to actually live in Shadow Hills,” he continues.