The little white house that she had been raised in for nearly her whole life loomed before her. When Lara intimated she knew Cora’s parents, she questioned whether it was wise to go home. Even now, she wandered the perimeter of the only home she could really remember looking for any sign that Lara might have followed...looking for any sign of Anton’s banged-up work truck.
Cora remained in the shelter of the shadows before finally taking a deep breath and allowing herself to step from the woods that surrounded her home. If she were going to find any answers, she knew that she needed to use the time she had wisely. In her heart, she knew that Darcy would be an ally. Anton was a different story.
Anton’s pickup truck was nowhere to be seen, giving her a little relief knowing she would not have to face him at the moment. Given everything that Lara had shared with her, she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to run away to never have to face him or let her lioness have at him. Even just the thought of him had her beast coiling her energy tightly in her chest.
Making her way slowly to the front door, she kept her movements measured and steady as she kept her ears perked for anything that might be approaching. The wooden steps gave slightly beneath her meager weight as she carefully made her way up each one of them, but they made no sound. Pushing through the door, Cora felt a stab of pain in her side flare up at the modest effort.
The superficial wounds had nearly healed themselves in the short space of time it took for her to make it home. However, the internal wounds of cracked and broken ribs hidden by her bruised side still ached, and the gash on her leg still seeped small rivulets of blood with each step. Had it not been for the urgency to leave the crash site, she would have allowed her body the time it needed to fully heal.
The blinds in the living room were half-drawn, giving it a slightly gloomy feel that matched her own mood. The sound of soft humming floated to her ears as her mother banged around in the kitchen down the hall. Cora hesitated after stepping across the threshold, leaning back against the door jamb for support.
“Mom,” she whispered into the empty room.
The room felt like a tomb...a memory of her life before Brock, she supposed. A memory now filled with so many questions.
Cora knew it would not matter that she whispered. With their heightened hearing, she knew that her mother would be able to hear her without issue.
“Cora?” Her mother’s voice came from the kitchen. “Is that you?”
The door to the kitchen in the old house swung open on creaking hinges before she heard it swing closed once more. Her mother’s footsteps echoed in the small hallway that would lead her mother to the living room where Cora now stood.
Before she rounded the corner, she was asking, “Is everything okay? We heard that-”
Once she came around the corner, her eyes widened and her mouth gaped open. Her eyes moved down Cora’s slight frame as it took in the condition of her clothes and the visible skin beneath them. Darcy didn’t miss anything, taking in all the rips in her clothes, the dingy gray fabric tinted red and pink in various places from the wounds she sustained, and even letting her eyes linger on the gash on her thigh.
A soft gasp fell from her lips before she moved her eyes back to Cora’s face. “Cora,” she whispered, her eyes searching Cora’s face with overt concern. The concern nearly had Cora crumbling to her knees.
“Mom, I need to talk to you. We need to talk,” she emphasized as she shifted her weight away from the door jamb.
Her grip tightened on both the elastic waist of the jogging pants and her bruised side as she moved further into the house. Now that she had made it to her destination, the pain of her exertion started to prickle her senses and demand that she be made aware of its presence. Pain pinched at her face with each step, causing her mother to snap out of her initial shock of Cora’s state.
Darcy moved quickly to Cora’s side, wrapping a strong arm around her to help steady her. “Cora, what happened?” Her mother’s eyes and forehead creased as her worry settled deeper. She grimaced when Cora hissed at the extra pressure on her side. “You need the pride doctor.”
When she started to move her towards the couch, Cora halted her. “Mom, wait...please.” She didn’t want to sit, she didn’t want a doctor...she just wanted answers. Her mother’s steps paused, but she kept her eyes trained on Cora’s waist as if there was something she was pondering. “Mom, who am I?”
The arm that was secured around Cora stiffened, and she stifled a moan. Darcy hesitated before trying to respond, letting her eyes drift towards the floor before she spoke.
“Cora, I don’t know,” she finally admitted softly, bringing her gaze up to meet Cora’s. “You were so little when you came to us, and they told us that you were a witness to a crime. They said they changed your name to protect you, but they never told us who you really were.” Darcy shifted a little, making Cora’s breath hitch at the sudden movement. “Oh, I am sorry! Did I hurt you?” Cora could almost hear her internally chastising herself for hurting her.
The disappointment Cora felt was almost as bad as the pain in her side and thigh. “You don’t know anything else...about my past?” Though she tried to hold on to some hope, her tone suggested otherwise.
With her free hand, Darcy tucked a strand of Cora’s hair behind her ear. “No, baby. I’m afraid I don’t.” Her sad eyes flicked over Cora’s face. “I wish I knew. Believe me, I do. I hate seeing that look on your face.” She let one hand briefly touch Cora’s cheek before moving it back to help support her weight. Darcy moved slowly, but purposefully. “Come on, let’s get you out of these clothes and get those wounds looked at.” She shuffled Cora gently down the hallway, their journey to the couch long forgotten.
Cora’s face was nearly white as she continued to move past the pain. The entire hike to her mother’s house had been a struggle each step of the way, but then she had hope of getting something out of her mother. Now, she had nothing to distract her mind from being all too aware of the injuries her body had sustained.
Her mind needed a distraction. She was afraid that if she let it wallow in the burning aches of her body, she would pass out from the overwhelming sensation of it. It was then that she remembered what else Lara had shared with her.
“Did you kill a woman?” Again, she hissed when her mother’s arm tightened around her. Cora hadn’t meant to blurt it out so bluntly, but there was no taking back her words now. When Darcy did not answer but continued to shuffle her towards the bathroom, she tried again. “There was this woman. She said that you brought a date to a party, and that one of the women on the wait staff...well, she stole your-”
“No, Cora, I did not kill anyone,” Darcy interrupted. She sighed heavily beside Cora as they reached the bathroom door. Her arms loosened their death grip on Cora, and she could breathe easier. Darcy gripped Cora’s hand in hers as she tried to help her through the doorway of the bathroom, her attention all on the task at hand. Once she had Cora perched on the toilet seat, she spoke once more. “I did not shoot anyone, Cora, but it certainly sounds like someone has been filling your head full of half-truths.” Darcy gave her a small, wry smile before she turned away.
Cora did not miss the fact that Darcy mentioned the shooting. “So, you know what I am talking about?”
Darcy gave a brief nod as she turned to the linen closet. She grabbed washcloths and towels before turning to twist the hot water tap open. As she let the temperature of the water warm up, she responded. “Many years ago, about a month before you came into our lives, I was accused of both murdering a woman and breaking the law protecting mates.” She stuck her hand in the water to feel the temperature before taking the rubber plug and stuffing it in the drain. Once done, she moved her gaze to meet Cora’s. “But, it wasn’t me.” The way she said it only cemented what Cora already believed: her mother was innocent. “It’s crazy, I know, but I always thought it was that haughty lion shifter whose party we went to...what was her name?” After a moment, she shook her head and sighed before saying resignedly, “It will come to me.” She dipped the cloth into the sink full of warm water and lathered it with soap. Kneeling down with her soapy damp cloth, she lifted up one of the tattered pant legs and started to gently wipe at some of the wounds and dried blood. “That woman acted as if I had committed treason by merely attending her party. When my date found his mate at that party, that woman mocked and ridiculed me to the point where I excused myself to the bathroom just so I could compose myself.” She scoffed to herself as she delicately brushed the terry cloth against Cora’s skin, and Cora thought how incongruous the two actions were to one another. “I swear I could smell her all around the bathroom just after the shooting, but no one believed me.”
Cora remained silent. Even when her mother brushed over a tender wound with the cloth, she remained stoic. Darcy placed the cloth on the side of the sink as she untied the laces on Cora’s oversized shoes. She probably could have just slipped them off, but her mother was going out of her way to prevent herself from causing any more pain.
As she slipped them from her feet, Darcy whispered into the mostly silent confines of the bathroom, “There was something wrong with that woman. Something was mentally off with her, like she was crazed.” Placing the shoes aside, she grabbed the cloth again. “I was never so glad to leave that pride, and that woman, behind.”
She brought her eyes up to Cora’s wide eyes. Her senses sharpen as her lioness rose just beneath her skin, a warning blaring in her veins. The creaking of the wooden slates in the old house alerted them both that their sanctuary had been intruded upon. The scent was unmistakable. “Mom,” Cora whispered, “she called me Arwen.”
Darcy froze, her eyes wide. “No,” she whispered. “You can’t be!”
The sounds coming from the hallway no longer sounded like they were trying to be stealthy. Now, they started to thunder towards us. “Shit!” Her mother spun around and reached for the door to slam it closed...but it was too late.
Clawed fingers snaked around the edge of the door, preventing it from closing. Opening it wider, the blonde woman with the pale blue eyes had a cross between a snarl and a smile on her lips. The look of satisfaction that crossed her features as her eyes fell on Cora was soon replaced by a haughty look she cast Darcy’s way. “Glad to see you remember me, Darcy. Such fond memories!” She laughed but it sounded hollow. “Where are my manners?” Tsking herself, she stuck her hand out towards Darcy. “Might as well formally introduce myself...again. Seeing as how you forgot the first time,” she muttered.
Darcy let her eyes fall briefly to the outstretched hand being offered before returning her glare to Lara’s face. Her jaw twitched and Cora could feel the anger brimming in her mother. Moving away from the hand, she stood up. “I think I am good,” she remarked, forcing her voice to be low and calm.
Lara whipped a hand across her chest quicker than their eyes could follow. The backside smacked against Darcy’s face with such force that it forced her to stumble backward. Her foot caught on the shower rug, catching her off balance as she tumbled precariously to the ground once more. Cora reached for her but her fingers slipped over the fabric of her shirt moments before her head crashed against the side of the porcelain bathtub.
The thud echoed in the room as Lara snarled at the fallen form. “Oh no, I insist.” Cora slipped from her perch on the toilet seat to try to scoop her mother close to her. Lara sneered at the display as she finished her thought, “What kind of sister-in-law would I be if I didn’t, right Anton?”
It was then that Anton moved into view and stood close behind Lara. His eyes moved from Darcy’s unresponsive form to Cora’s. The low growl that emanated from his throat indicated his displeasure at Lara’s actions, but he did not look like he was about to step in.
With her mother knocked unconscious and Anton unwilling to come between Lara and her prey, Cora would be on her own against this beast of a woman.