Taïga is up early after spending the night tossing and turning, haunted by dreams of Derek holding her against him, kissing her… Mrs. Darnell towering over them, beckoning for Derek, laughing at her, calling her a stupid kid… She’s decided to take Freebird out for a ride to clear her thoughts. They’ll be home before anybody notices the horse is gone, so nobody will know…
She doesn’t expect to find Derek asleep in the hay though, with Freebird roaming freely in the stable. She stops on the threshold and takes in the scene.
Wow. He’s out cold. She frowns. Mrs. Darnell didn’t go easy on him last night…
Not that I care! She kneels beside him and sniffs the empty bottle. Hah! He’s drunk! I hope he feels real sick when he wakes up! She studies his face and her eyes move over his muscular chest and his six pack… But he doesn’t move… What did they say in school about drinking too much? Maybe he’s in a coma or something!
‘Hey. Derek… Are you OK?’
But Derek doesn’t budge, he just mumbles ‘Go away…’ and resumes snoring softly.
God, if I could strangle him in his sleep… But he’ll probably just wake up and… and… Taïga snorts and stands up. I’ll better get moving before he decides to emerge from whatever condition he’s in…
Taïga gets Freebird back into his box, and saddles him.
‘I’ll just take you for a quick jog around the farm…’ She strains to tighten the saddle-girth. Nobody will come here before tonight as I’m on stable duty anyway… ‘Not that we will stay out too long, we better get back before everyone wakes up…’ She pats the horse on the neck and is leading him out when Derek suddenly grabs her by her shoulders, startling her to let go of the reins.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’
‘Take your hands off me, you… drunken jerk!’ Derek takes his hands off her as if he burnt himself. Taïga turns around to face him. ‘How could you? With Mrs. Darnell of all people!’ Tears are threatening and angrily she rubs her eyes. He mustn’t see me cry…
‘Honey is a … a seductive, very attractive woman.’ Derek tries to justify himself. ‘And…’ I can’t tell her I had to let off some steam… Staring into her wide hurt eyes he adds without thinking. ‘And I’m a sucker for blondes.’
Taïga just stares at him. ‘Gosh!’ He passes a hand in his out-of-bed hair. ‘Just forget it. You don’t understand, you’re still a kid!’
‘I’ve already told you to stop calling me that!’
‘Then stop acting like one and grow up!’
‘I’m more grown up than you would think!’ Taïga blurts out without thinking.
Derek stares at her. ‘Has that Fairview moron touched you?’
‘It’s not your business.’
Derek steps closer. ‘Answer me.’ His voice is a low menacing growl. ‘ Has he touched you?’
Taïga stares back, opening her mouth to say something but bites her tongue.
Derek snorts. ‘I don’t know why I bother… You’re 15 after all, it’s not a crime. But I didn’t think you were that kind of girl… to lose it on a backseat…’
She tries to slap him but he bends backwards just out of reach. ‘You’ve tried that once already,’ he drawls. ‘It’s getting annoying.’
Taïga jumps into the saddle before hungover Derek has a chance to try to stop her.
‘Go to hell, Derek Vargas. Or back to Mrs. Darnell! Or Elspeth! Whoever! I don’t want to see you ever again!’
She kicks her heels into the sides of Freebird who literally flies out of the barn, and sets off through the falling snow towards the forest…
‘Taïga! WAIT!’ Derek stops on the threshold of the barn and covers his eyes. Gosh the light hurts… My head! I’ll never drink again… He squints after the vanishing horse and shudders. She’ll soon cool down…
Nobody notices Freebird’s missing, as it was Taïga’s turn to do stable duty. But in the afternoon Johnny goes to check on the horses and almost gets overrun by Freebird returning without his rider.
He calms the sweating horse. Chuck has heard the whinnying and comes running too.
‘What the heck is going on? Who took him out for a ride?’
Chuck rounds up the teens and immediately notices that Taïga is missing. After bawling them out for not telling him she took off for a ride, he calls the Sheeriff while Johnny goes back out to add blankets and a first aid kit to the truck.
Derek has slept through the whole day and is still feeling queasy. He tries to gather his thoughts but his head aches so much it feels like it’s going to explode as soon as he moves. Everybody’s talking at the same time and Chase starts to cry. Why did she do such a reckless thing? Setting off into a snow storm! Derek tries to sort out his thoughts. I smelled the storm coming… So why didn’t I stop her? He doesn’t tell anybody about their argument this morning…
But he knows full well who’s to blame… It’s my fault… I made her leave…
The Sheriff has called back and Chuck and Johnny are getting ready to join the police forces in the search of Taïga. ‘The storm is getting fiercer, I don’t want you out there getting lost too!’
‘Yeah.’ Johnny adds gruffily. ‘Somebody should stay here if she comes back by her own.’
‘Chase and Elspeth can stay, but let us help you!’ Teddy insists, joined by VJ and Thomas.
‘Me too! I can stay!’ Everybody turns and stares at Jupiter, who shrugs. Derek doesn’t listen. She doesn’t know the countryside around here… and the storm is covering her tracks. If I don’t leave soon I won’t be able to pick up a scent…
I’m out of here… The discussion is heated so nobody notices when Derek silently leaves the room.
He stops by Taïga’s room, pulling out her drawers and burying his face in her favorite grey sweater to pick up a scent before running off into the thickening snow, his body shifting into a wolf without a break in his stride, his footprints quickly erased by an onslaught of fresh white snow.
The snow and wind has effectively covered the tracks, but the wolf’s nose is finely tuned.
Tracking Taïga brings him towards the cemetery and the river. The full moon is tearing at his insides, forcing him against his will to change into an unimaginable terror, a wild beast ready to wreak death and destruction along his path.
It takes Derek a superhuman effort to shift back to a wolf, and approach the huge dead tree looming over a small hump in the deep snow.
The wolf sniffs around and starts to dig. It doesn’t take long before Taïga’s frozen face is uncovered.
The wolf smells her face, making sure she’s still breathing.
It tries to roll and push her away from the huge malevolent tree, but it’s as if she was stuck to the ground.
Whimpering, the huge wolf lies down as close as it can to Taïga’s limp body, trying to give her of its own warmth, waiting…
The wolf doesn’t have to wait for long…
… and soon a bloodcurdling howl can be heard for miles around…
The smell of blood is unbearable… The werewolf has to fight his instincts with all his willpower not to rip Taïga’s head off and feed on her.
Instead he sinks to his knees, watching the frozen girl.
Tentatively he touches her cold cheek and growls. He sniffs her hair, letting his nostrils fill with her familiar scent, awakening memories in a part of him that seemed to be lost. He grabs her shoulder with infinite precaution, making sure his claws doesn’t tear into her flesh. But Taïga’s lifeless body seems to weigh a ton, and the werewolf has to use all his supernatural force to be able to fight mother earth who tries to suck her back. Whimpering he rocks forward and backward, hugging her. It feels like he was made for this moment, made to save her, to keep her body warm…
Taïga stirs and opens her eyes. She stares at the werewolf, opening her mouth to scream but no sound comes out.
‘Don’t… don’t hurt me…’ she whispers before her eyes rolls backwards and she loses consciousness again.
The few seconds Taïga regained consciousness, made the earth definitely lose its grip on her. The werewolf drags her out of the old ash tree’s reach and hoists his precious burden on his powerful shoulders.
He runs the whole way back to the ranch, avoiding the search patrols and the dogs…
Teddy opens the door on a lifeless Taïga. He falls on his knees, checking her respiration. When he looks up, he can see a wolf standing a few yards away, watching them intently with yellow eyes gleaming in the dark. Teddy turns around and calls for help.
‘It’s Taïga! Come and help me! And call the doctor!’ When he looks again the wolf is gone…
A couple of hours later, the doctor has finally left. Taïga has escaped frostbites and got away with a concussion and bruises. But the hypothermia has brought along a high fever. Derek takes up position beside her bed, watching over her, giving her water when she wakes up and toweling her feverish front. He tucks her in, covering her in blankets, then taking them off again as she sweats too much. Taïga tosses and turns, whispering his name over and over again while fighting the demons of her nightmares.
‘Nonono… Don’t let it take me!’ Taïga wriggles and shakes her head. ‘Please… Derek? Where are you?’
Derek sits down again at her side and Taïga, feeling his reassuring presence calms down and falls to sleep again. After a while he installs himself a little more comfortably, resting against the headboard with his legs on the bed. His eyelids grow heavier and heavier. If I just lie down a little…
When Johnny and Teddy come to check on Taïga, they find Derek soundly asleep, holding Taïga close. Silently they leave.
‘Derek! Help me! The monster is back! It’s coming for me! DEREK!’ Taïga is having yet another nightmare.
‘Hush, baby… It’s just a dream…’
Taïga stares at him with unseeing eyes. ‘Derek? Is that you?’
‘Hush, I’m here now. Nothing bad can happen to you…’
He lies down beside her again and she cuddles up to him.
‘Promise you won’t leave me…’ She murmurs.
‘Promise.’ He murmurs back, kissing her hair. ‘I’ll never leave you.’
The fever is gone, thank God. He draws up the blanket, but Taïga kicks it off again.
When Taïga wakes up, she doesn’t know where she is at first.
‘Granny?’ Seeing Derek sleeping in the armchair by her bed makes her sit up straight, a little too fast. ‘Ouch! My head!’
Hearing the commotion, Chase and Jupiter hurries over to fill her in.
‘You’ve been running a fever for two days now, and he’s never left your side.’
‘What? Two days? Have I been out two days?’
‘Yes. It was so exciting.’ Jupiter muses. ‘Cops everywhere with dogs and everything. And Teddy found you on the doorstep! It’s a mystery how you…’
Derek stirs and Chase takes Jupiter by the neck and admonishing steers him out of the room.
‘Hey… Take it easy…’ Derek is by her side in an instant, helping a dizzy Taïga to stand up.
‘I’m OK. I can…’
Taïga’s legs give way under her and she would have fallen if Derek had not been there to catch her. For an instant she’s clinging to him, and he can’t help himself but pulls her closer.
Suddenly it all comes back.
‘Let go of me!’ Violently she withdraws and staggers backwards, heavily sitting on the bed. ‘I can’t believe your guts!’
Derek sits down in the armchair again, waiting for her to finish. ‘What happened?’ he asks calmly.
She stares at him. ‘What happened? You know darn well what happened! And it’s all your fault! Sleeping with Mrs. Darnell when you’re about to become… to be…’ She can’t bring herself to say “a father”.
‘I’m sorry if I upset you.’ Derek rolls his eyes. ‘You are just a kid after all.’
‘What? A kid? Of course I am. Compared to Mrs. Darnell we’re all kids. Or should I say “cubs”.’
Derek stares at her for a second. Taïga lifts her chin and stares back. Without a word, he rises from the armchair and walks out of the room, pausing on the threshold with his hand on the door handle as if he wanted to add something. Instead he sighs contemptuously, shakes his head and leaves.
He closes the door silently after him, and Taïga breaks down…
Part II – End of Chapter 09