The sun had already set, and the moon was on the rise, but the last glow of daylight had yet to be fade completely from the sky. I stood out on the porch, enjoying the cool breeze that was licking away the sweat from my skin. I had drunk a couple of beers already, and Rhys’s house lacked any form of air conditioning. I leaned against the porch railing, pulling my hair up away from my neck and fanning myself with the other hand.
Today hadn’t gone entirely the way I had wanted, not that I’d had high expectations. Rhys was such a closed-off man. It was practically impossible to gauge what he thought unless he was mad or horny. I wanted to know more about him, and I didn’t think that was criminal but one might think so with his responses to me. I mean, it’s not like I wanted him to put a ring on my finger and call me wife. We had slept together a couple of times, knowing a bit about his interests seemed like a reasonable thing to me. Most people wanted to make sure the people they were sleeping with were, for the most part, mentally stable.
The fact that I knew next to nothing about him or his life, it was unsettling. I had been burned before – seriously burned, and I was still paying for my misguided trust. Though, unlike with Silas, I was sure I had a real connection with Rhys. That connection didn’t make much sense to me. I’d tried to think of a way to label it, but I had nothing other than soulmates, but that was absurd. From what I understood, mates were chosen like how humans chose their significant others, only with more permanent results. A human could break up or get divorced – werewolves once bound were stuck together, truly, until death did them part. Thankfully, Silas had been mated before we met, saving me from enduring that nightmare.
I shuddered at the thought, letting my hair fall from my hand. Somedays, well most days, I wished that I had never met Silas – that I had never learned about werewolves. I wanted to be ignorant like the rest of the humans. Some people spent their whole lives searching for the truth, but I’d found – now that I knew – ignorance could genuinely be bliss.
A sharp yip cut through the gentle chirping of crickets. I pushed away from the railing, curious. I hadn’t seen any signs that Rhys had a pet, but the sound was unmistakably a small animal. I slowly descended the steps of the porch and began walking in the direction of the obnoxious noise. I scanned the side of the house that faced the woods, but I didn’t see anything but flowerbeds overgrown with weeds and in serious need of attention. Obviously, Rhys had more important things to deal with than worry about the upkeep of his home – though a part of me wondered if it was just another way to keep people away, to make him appear more unapproachable.
The yipping grew more frantic until it sounded like banshee screeches. It was going to draw in larger predators; mountain lions or coyotes.
“Where are you?” I called to it, clicking my tongue off the roof of my mouth. I listened carefully. The sound of rustling leaves nearby caught my attention. I turned and noticed a patch of burnt orange among the deep green. I walked toward it, slowly, until I could make out the full form of a fox. Its leg caught in what looked like a snare. Its chest was heaving wildly, ears pinned back to its head.
“Oh, you poor thing.”
I knelt down in front of it, which only seemed to startle it all over again. It began to leap around, just tightening the cord that was wrapped around its leg. I gritted my teeth as I watched, it was going to hurt itself seriously. There was no way I was going to be able to grab it, not without risking it attacking me. I turned my gaze to the cord – I could probably cut it free.
I got up, determined. “I’ll be right back,” I told it, not that it understood.
I jogged back to the house and made my way into the kitchen, pulling open drawers until I found the one housing knives. I grabbed the one that looked the sharpest and headed back outside. It appeared somehow darker than a few moments ago. As I got closer to the tree line, I was less confident of my decision. The was only getting darker, and I wasn’t a fan of that. Plus, there was probably a reason that Rhys had locked the door behind him when he left, and I doubt it had anything to do with his fear of thieves. Still, I felt terrible at the thought of leaving the fox trapped until Rhys could take care of it. I pushed through my trepidation, walking with sturdy steps.
I squatted down and reached for the length of the cord. I looked to the fox who was staring at me, making threatening sounds in the back of its throat and barring its teeth. I needed to be careful, getting bit by a feral animal was not on my to-do list. I didn’t think Rhys would appreciate having to take me to the hospital.
“Don’t worry.” I pulled the cord taut, then placed the blade to it and began to saw. “I’m going to get you out of this.” I felt a strange kinship with the small creature as it watched me closely with suspicious eyes. It took a couple of minutes of work until the final thread broke. It still had the cord around its leg, but it was free. It looked at me for a moment longer, eyes glowing in the darkness before it scurried off into the woods.
I stood up, feeling hopeful as I turned away with every intention of heading back to the house. I didn’t want to be out in the open, exposed any longer than I needed to be. I froze as branches broke and shook on the fringe of my sight. I swallowed, hard. I needed to keep moving, but my body reacted on its own. It turned to look, my fingers gripping the handle of the knife tighter. I prayed that it was only the fox.
I stared into the darkness, and the darkness stared back, glowing pools of molten amber appearing in the shadows of the trees. Time slowed and the critters that had been singing moments before went silent. The blood rushing through my veins began to flow in reverse, turning ice cold. I should turn away. I should run. I should get back to the house. There were many things I should do at that moment, but I only stared—watching on as my nightmare stepped away from the shadows, becoming a more tangible monster.
The wolf’s salt and pepper coat glimmered almost like someone had thrown a blanket of starlight over it. The sight was deceptively beautiful, and for a moment I forgot to worry – forgot to be afraid. Then all at once, I surfaced from the void, sucking in a sharp breath. My mind working over every detail of the situation I was in, crunching through my chances of escape and survival. The wolf was about fifty feet from me, I was alone, and my gun was inside the house. The only hint of relief I felt was the assurance that this wasn’t Silas. He was bigger and his coloring different. I doubted it was Rhys or anyone from his pack, considering that’s why he had gone to town. The wolf lifted its nose higher into the air, ears flicking. Whoever this was, if it was anyone at all – they didn’t belong here, of that I was certain.
That was all the information I needed. I pushed up from the ground, turned on my heels and raced for the front door. I could hear it chasing after me, the rustling of loose rocks and dried leaves. I twisted and threw that knife at it, hoping to slow it down. I heard the yelp, and I knew I’d hit it. Which had been pure luck and had probably only made it angrier. I took the steps two at a time, launching myself at the front door – breathing heavy as I opened it and rushed inside.
At that moment I had one mission: getting my gun.
My room was exactly as I had left it, bag setting at the foot of the bed with some of my clothes laid out beside it. My hand shook as I fished out a few of bullets that were caught in the hood of a sweatshirt. I stretched out my other hand, balancing on one foot as I opened the top drawer of the dresser and pulled out my revolver. I did my best to steady my trembling fingers while I loaded the gun as quickly as the realization hit me; I’d left the door open like some kind of demented invitation.
I stumbled out of my room, gun in my hand. My heart was racing, and my lungs were burning as I tried to force myself to breathe calmly. The doorway seemed darker than usual, the silhouette of a tall man blocking out the moonlight and creating a strange halo effect. I took a step closer, letting my eyes adjust and take in the intruder. His height was impressive, and his body was lean. A set of amber eyes drew my attention, standing out like molten gold against his black skin. Blood was dripping from a deep cut on his right cheek. There was a knife dangling from between his fingers, Rhys’s blade.
“I guess I should be glad your aim isn’t better.” He dropped it, and it hit the floor with a tinny clank.
“I may be bad with a knife, but the same can’t be said for my gun.” I pointed it at his chest, arms steady and expression severe. I wasn’t going to play around.
“I’m here to speak with Rhys. I’m an old friend.” His voice was smooth and throaty.
“That may be true, but I don’t know you, and I’m pretty sure he isn’t expecting you. He would have told me.” It was all possible, but I couldn’t trust his words. I needed proof, and until I had it, I wasn’t taking my eyes or gun off of him.
He sniffed in my direction. “You’re a human.”
“So?” I narrowed my eyes. “I can still kill you.”
“That’s not what I meant—” He backpedaled, clearing his throat and diverting his gaze for a moment. “You and Rhys are—”
“Friends.” I snapped, bristling.
“Right.” He forced a smile. “I didn’t mean anything—”
“What do you want with Rhys?” I interrupted him again.
“To talk. That’s all...” he clarified.
We stared off for a moment. I didn’t believe that he’d come just to talk to Rhys, but I also didn’t get the feeling that he had any malicious intentions. He seemed rather composed and put together, despite the situation he was in. So, either he was a psychopath, or he was an honest man with nothing to hide. I didn’t trust myself enough to make that judgment call.
“Could I borrow a pair of pants?” the intruder said, breaking the tense silence.
I forced myself not to look down lower than his stomach. My cheeks rushed with heat as I realized he was utterly exposed. I shifted a couple of steps and grabbed a throw pillow from the couch, tossing it toward him.
He caught it effortlessly, meeting my gaze. “Seriously?”
“It’s not my fault you decided to stop by uninvited and unannounced. Don’t like it? There’s the door.” I would happily see him gone. I had no idea how much longer Rhys’s was going to be.
“You’re right. I am infringing on your hospitality. I’ll make do with this.” He placed the pillow in front of himself, smiling apologetically. I stared at him; gun still leveled at his heart. I wasn’t sure what to do now as an awkward silence fell upon us. “May I at least come in and sit down while we wait for Rhys? You can keep your gun on me the whole time.”
I pursed my lips, hesitating. “Fine. Just no funny business or I’ll shoot you. That’s a promise.”
“No funny business, I assure you.” He placed one hand to his heart, and the other held the pillow in place. “I’m Xavier, by the way.”
“Uh-huh.” I motioned for him to come in with a wave of my revolver. “Close the door behind you, Xavier. You’re letting the mosquitoes in.”
I hoped Rhys would get home soon.