COAL

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Rabbit

Brinley

Without another word, Coal shifted back into his beast and walked away. My heart hurt as I watched him leave, once again turning his back on me, once again rejecting me. I sat on the forest floor, unable to move, my mind replaying every moment with him.

My Wolf tugged at the back of my mind. She was hungry. We needed to hunt. She had gotten much better with her hunting skills and had even caught a couple of foxes, but it had been a few days since we’d eaten.

My chattering teeth woke me from my stupor. It was foolish of me to stay in my skin in this climate. Winter was upon us and snow would fall soon. I let the change happen, fur covering skin.

We hunted for several hours, but it just wasn’t our night, and once again I trudged back to our ledge on the mountain, too exhausted to continue.

I shifted into my skin, braving the cold night air, and pulled myself up the side of the cliff. I needed the comfort of my bear. My hands felt empty after having twined my fingers in the soft texture of Coal’s wolf.

The freezing temperature quickly numbed my hands and feet, making it dangerous for me to scale the rock face. On the way down, my foot slipped, causing a gash in my heel. I couldn’t hold back my whimper. Tears slid down my cheeks. I blinked them away so that I could see.

When I was safely down, I shifted back into the warm fur of my Wolf and hugged the stuffed animal tight between my paws. My tiny bear was hardly a consolation prize compared to the magnificent beast I wanted to hold, but it was all that I had.

As I laid my head down, my attention was riveted to a dark shadow, hidden, across the field, amongst the trees. My heart raced. Whatever it was, was downwind and too far away for me to smell. I blinked and then it was gone. Had I just imagined it? I shook my head to clear my mind. Clearly my loneliness was causing me to see things that weren’t there. I closed my eyes, and let sleep take me.

...........

In the morning, I yawned and stretched, resisting opening my eyes. Until the most delicious smell hit my sensitive nose—rabbit! My head snapped around, and my jaw fell open to find five dead rabbits not more than three feet away from me.

What in the hell?

As soon as I thought the question, I knew the answer—Coal’s Wolf. He’d seen me naked earlier. It must not have missed his attention how thin I was; how my bones stuck out. A part of me cringed with embarrassment, but another part of me filled with warmth, seeing his desire to take care of me. It was well ingrained in the wolf psyche, for the male to care for and feed his female. Relief surged through me. We’d gone too long without eating. If we continued, it would get dangerous.

My wolf needed no invitation and quickly tossed the first rabbit in the air, catching it in the back of her powerful jaws, crunching meat and bones, licking her lips when she tasted the marrow. The next four rabbits went just a quickly. A snap in the air, and then she was crunching to her heart’s content.

When finished, she pranced around, pleased with her mate’s attention and provisions. A familiar pain went through me, knowing my mate didn’t feel the same way. Coal had no intention of ever caring for me. He’d spelled that out quite clearly.

I studied the landscape, searching for any sign of him. All was quiet. He was long gone. Confident that he wasn’t in sight, I shifted into my skin, crawled up the rock and deposited my bear safely back in place.

On my way back down, it occurred to me that he would have seen me sleeping with the bear. Another flush of embarrassment crept up my neck. But maybe he hadn’t. My head had covered the bear. He might not have seen it…

Yeah, I knew it was wishful thinking.

I was shocked he’d been able to get that close without me hearing him, but my exhaustion and lack of food made me almost comatose.

As I made my way down from the ledge, I couldn’t miss his scent markings. He’d created a perimeter around us, letting other wolves know he’d claimed the area in which we slept, and thus us as well. My Wolf searched out each one and peed, combining her scent with his.

When she was finally satisfied, we hurried to Lena’s and then into town. I’d been surprised to find I only had two houses to clean and a handful of supplies to pick up that day. Finishing the first house quickly, I gathered the supplies and headed to the remaining home on my list, belonging to Darcie Wyndemere.

I smiled when I approached her front door. She’d been so kind to me before. The first home hadn’t taken me very long, so I was curious what tasks she needed me to complete today, that required so much time.

As soon as the chimes of the bell rang, Darcie opened the door and welcomed me inside with a warm greeting, “Brinley, please come in.”

I stepped into the entryway and followed her as she walked up a set of stairs, to the bedrooms on the second floor. I hadn’t cleaned this floor the last time I was here and was amazed when I stepped into the first bedroom. It was large and beautifully decorated with soft corals, with a pop of aqua. An elegant chandelier hung from the tall ceiling.

I looked around. The space was already immaculate. What could she need me to do in here? Darcie sat at the edge of the bed and patted the spot next to her, for me to join. I hesitantly sat down and looked at her. Her eyes danced mischievously. “I’ve paid for five hours of your valuable time.”

Oh, I hadn’t known that, but the schedule made more sense now. Still, what could she possibly need me to do for five hours?

She continued, “And the same as last time, I was told that you would be available for any task I wanted. Am I going to have any resistance from you, once I tell you your duties?”

My mouth gaped that she would ever expect insolence from me. “No! Ma’...I mean, Darcie. I am more than happy to do whatever you require of me.”

“Excellent,” she purred. “As such, your schedule will be as follows: For the first thirty minutes, you will take a hot bath, immediately followed by a large lunch of my choosing, so please make your way into the library when you’re finished. Once you’re done eating, you will return to this room, where you will take a three-hour nap. At such point, you will indulge in another meal before going home.”

My mouth hung open. I couldn’t have heard her correctly. Maybe I hadn’t woke up. Maybe this was a dream. But she looked a very real standing in front of me, expectantly. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Words completely escaped me.

She giggled at my expression.

I finally stuttered, “But—”

She cut me off, her mouth twisting into a stern frown. “I’m sorry, but did you not just say you were at my disposal, for whatever I wanted?”

“Yes,” I breathed.

“Very good,” she tsk’d. “Now come this way, so I may show you how to draw the bath and what shampoo and soap to use.”

I stood and followed her silently, still not entirely understanding what was happening. When we reached the bathtub, I made myself focus. I studied it carefully, trying to figure out how it worked.

Thankfully, she explained in detail, showing me what each bottle of liquid accomplished.

After she left, I settled my body down into the hot water. A loud sigh of satisfaction rumbled across my lips. Heaven, pure and simple, heaven. My sore muscles released and unknotted until I was just a blissful, muscle-less jellyfish with a goofy grin on my face.

I washed and conditioned my hair before moving on to clean the rest of my body. I looked at the clock to find my allotted thirty minutes was almost over. Not wanting to be late, I jumped out of the tub, dried off and got dressed.

I bounded down the stairs, my belly growling as the scent of something delicious came closer. Turning the corner into the library, Darcie was relaxed, reading a book. She set the book down and looked up at me, giving me a wave to come forward. “Time to eat.”

I didn’t bother fighting her. I didn’t want to. All of the items on the tray looked delicious, even though I didn’t know what half of them were.

She stared at me with an amused expression while I gobbled down the food. When I was so stuffed I couldn’t eat anymore, I murmured shyly, “Thank you for the food.”

She smiled and then nodded pointedly toward the stairs. My lips curled into a genuine grin. It felt so strange…

…I wasn’t used to smiling.

I stood to my feet and dutifully walked back up the stairs to the lovely bedroom. Pulling the blanket back, I slipped into the amazing bed. The softness and comfort shocked to me. Knowing I could rest peacefully—I was safe—my eyes drooped and sleep claimed me almost immediately.

Promptly three hours later, an alarm clock muttered a soft whirring sound, alerting me out of my slumber. Again, I jumped up, feeling more refreshed than I’d ever been and headed back down the steps, toward more delicious tasting treats.

As I finished eating, it occurred to me that I had eaten three times that day. I had never eaten three times in one day. Ever. Usually, it was only once, or none.

Slurping down the last of my orange juice, I sat back with my hands propped on my bulging belly. Darcie smirked, “Alright, I think your chores are completed for today. How are you getting back home?”

I stared at her in confusion. “Walking.”

“Walking?” her eyebrows shot up. “You cannot possibly walk ten miles back to your pack in this weather and those clothes.” She nodded to my thin garments.

“Oh, well...I sometimes shift first and just carry the clothes in my mouth,” I explained, trying to smooth over the details, so she would let it go.

Of course, she didn’t let it go.

“No, absolutely not,” she replied with her mouth set in a determined frown.

“No?” I breathed, unsure what her alternate plan was.

“It is a hassle for you to carry your clothing for that distance. When you return to town for your work responsibilities, you are to come by here first and change into clothing. At the end of your day, come back and change out.”

“Oh, okay,” I mumbled, quickly agreeing. I’d learned Darcie didn’t take no for an answer, so there was no reason to fight her on the matter. Additionally, she was right. It was a hassle to carry my clothing for such a long trek, especially shoes.

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