Alice didn’t remember falling asleep. Instead, she opened her eyes and saw the fireplace had gone cold and gray with ashes. Muscles stiff from hours on the floor, she pushed herself up with a wince before looking over to the wolf. Or, to where the wolf had been. Muddy, bloody blankets lay crumpled on the floor. Alice blinked and reached out, unable to believe it. When her fingers found only fabric and air, she stumbled to her feet and opened the nearest curtains, flooding the area with watery light and the reality that she was the only living thing in the room.
Muddy tracks led away from the blankets, and fresh confusion filled her mind while she took in their shape. Not a wolf’s paw pads. Not any type of animal’s at all. They were human footprints, from someone who was — she nudged her own shoe-clad foot beside the tracks to check — notably bigger than her.
Background noise slid into her sense. The faucet from the kitchen sink was running. Alice could hear the clang of the pipes beneath the floor and the splashing of water. She grabbed a piece of firewood, holding it like a club, and inched toward the kitchen, her steps beside the footprints.
A man stood at the sink, naked and calm as he washed his face. Streaks of dried mud covered most of his skin, and matted hair hung by his ears as water dripped down his dark beard. Alice recognized him even before sharp green eyes glanced over at her. The man in the camper van.
Her fingers twitched against the log while the man turned back to the sink, every line of his body suggesting a complete lack of shame. “So. Do the brothers ever catch the sun and the moon? You didn’t say.”
Alice sucked in a breath. The reference to the story she’d told the wolf and no one else, how footprints had walked away from the wolf’s place by the fire… Her gaze fell on the man’s chest, muddy as the rest of him. There was a patch of clean skin just below one collarbone, and a shiny pink scar shaped like a bullet hole.
She should deny it. Protest that she wasn’t crazy enough to believe the man who had helped her was also the wolf she had held vigil over. From the twist of his mouth, he certainly expected her to. But Alice only stared while he straightened up and turned toward her. His eyes weren’t as yellow as when he’d been a wolf, but they held the same feral gleam.
Something ran through Alice while she pointed the piece of wood at him, but it wasn’t fear. “If you want to kill me, let’s get it over with.”
“If I’d wanted to kill you, you’d have never woken up.” His hand brushed the water from his scruffy jaw with a soft rasp.
Impossible to tell from that hard face and dark voice whether he spoke a lie or a truth. All Alice could do was decide and trust that decision. She blinked and took in his features. Tall and long-limbed with lean muscle. Powerful instead of wiry. But his ribs showed like he starved more often than not. She noted how his fingers shook, and the pallor of his skin against his dark hair. He had survived but that didn’t make him well.
With a sigh, she let the hand with the log fall to her side. “A shower would be faster, you know. The left faucet is cold water and the right faucet is hot. There’s already soap and shampoo in there.”
His eyes gave away his thoughts even though his expression remained blank. Surprise and suspicion fighting with a temptation to accept.
“There are spare clothes in the attic, too. I’ll bring down any that’ll fit and then get you something to eat. Or do you want to leave and hunt out in that rain?” As if emphasizing her words, a gust thrashed the trees outside, pummeling the roof with water.
The wolf glanced out the window and then back at her. “You’re handling it better than most.”
“I don’t have normal fears. And I’m plenty crazy in other ways, too. Take as much time as you need.”
After Alice turned away and approached the fireplace to gather the dirtied blankets, she heard his quiet footsteps, and then the click of the bathroom door. Her heart thumped in her chest.
In the trunk in the attic, she found a white undershirt, dark briefs, a zip-up hoodie, and jeans with the denim whole but worn enough to have lost its stiffness. All looked clean and big enough to fit the wolf, and she tucked them under an arm while continuing to search. Socks, woolen and hand-knitted. Rain-resistant coat. And finally, pairs of work boots in different sizes, dusty from years of waiting unprotected in the attic. She knocked them against the floor to make sure nothing had built a nest in the toes.
The bread was baking in the oven and the stew reheating on the stove when Alice checked her phone to see if Magdalene had called. She hadn’t. Alice accepted it with a twist of her mouth and moved onto the local news for Perry and the surrounding areas. A soft sound escaped her at the headline of a badly burned body found beside a camper van that had been set ablaze sometime last evening. The identity of the victim remained unknown so early into the investigation.
Alice’s mind jumped to the bloody-nosed boy outside the store, and the sound of gunshots while she had explored the attic. Maybe the wolf hadn’t been shot by a hunter as she’d assumed. She waited for the shower to turn off before knocking at the door, clutching at the clothes until her knuckles turned white.
The wolf opened the door wet and clean, rubbing his skin dry with a towel.
This words flew from her mouth. “Who burned your van?”
He seemed unsurprised by the question. “You saw him at the store yesterday.”
“The one who teased you until you broke his nose?”
The wolf nodded. “Set it on fire with me inside and stood ready to shoot as soon as I escaped through one of the doors. He didn’t expect a wolf to squeeze through a window instead.”
“How’d you end up here?”
“Caught your scent and remembered how you’d handled the dog. Figured if I lived that long, I might get lucky enough to catch your pity.” Then the wolf dipped his head a little. In thanks, she realized.
She licked dry, nervous lips before asking her next question, the most important one. “You killed him.”
“Yes.” His steady gaze said more. You’ll have to accept it to accept me.
For Alice, it wasn’t even a conundrum. That was her great flaw, to accept all of a creature. Maybe madness was a better word for it, to take in a beast and a murderous one at that, and then to still set out a place for him at the kitchen table. To feel bewilderment tug at her insistently and yet fail to draw her away from a curiosity that burned in her like fire. Even while nerves cast her eyes down, she peered beneath her lashes at the dark trail of hair that led over an etched stomach to an uncut cock and large, heavy-looking balls that would be quite the handful. It had been a long time since she’d had a man naked before her, but she didn’t flush and she didn’t flinch.
Yes, it was madness, the same sort that had drawn her to Magdalene. The thrill of stepping into the dangerous unknown. And now, like then, she was too weak to resist the temptation. Alice’s gaze once more met the wolf’s.
“The two wolves will catch the sun and the moon during Ragnarok — the end of the world.” Then she held out the clothes.
His eyes glittered; she’d surprised him again. Or perhaps he found all humans surprising. His fingers brushed hers, taking the weight of the fabric away. “When’s that?”
“No one knows.”
“Don’t seem much like wolves to me. If you can’t catch what you’re chasing, you hunt something else.”
“Well, it’s a human story.” Then Alice had to look away, because they stood too close and she’d caught the smell of clean skin and a hint of musk that even soap and a hot shower couldn’t wash away. It was how all men smelled to her. Not pleasant or unpleasant, but unmistakable. Arousing.
She tried to collect her thoughts, all too aware of the wolf’s gaze intent on her face. “Anyway. I set out some boots by the fireplace. Hopefully you can find a pair that fits.”
The wolf nodded. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Alice.”
His voice turned her name into something more, and she had to breathe deep to keep her expression unflustered. “The food will be ready in a few minutes.”
He ate more neatly than she expected, spoon quiet against his bowl and not a drop spilled while he sopped up the stew with a piece of bread. Alice wanted to pepper him with questions, but the set of his shoulders suggested a lingering wariness, and though there were moments when the food seemed too good for him to concentrate on anything else, his gaze always darted back to where she sat, warming her hands with the cup of coffee she’d made for herself.
When his bowl was empty, she straightened up and saw the accompanying flicker in his eyes. “Want some more?”
Their fingers touched again as she took the bowl from him, sending a tingling through her skin.
While she ladled a second helping, the wolf spoke. “You’re no dyke.”
It startled a laugh out of her. “What makes you say that?”
“I smell the other woman on you. But I also smell how you react to me.” This time, his fingers brushed hers deliberately as she handed back the bowl. A challenge to deny what he’d said.
She deflected it with a smile. “You’re right. I’m bi.”
Then she sat across from him, slicing some bread for herself. “Before Magdalene, I went out with men. Boys, really, since I was just a girl. The last one was a sweet guy named Caleb. I looked him up a few years ago and found him married with two kids and on his way to becoming an assistant district attorney.”
“Don’t sound too beat up about it.”
“I would have been a bad wife for him.”
The wolf continued to eat, but his focus was split between the bowl before him and her face, and curiosity gleamed in his eyes.
Should she change the subject and talk about something dull and safe? Why trust him with feelings she’d kept locked away in her head for years? He was something that wasn’t supposed to exist, a literal monster emerged from the darkness of the woods. And like any monster, he killed. But after so many years spent with Magdalene, a savage mauling no longer scared her. It was refreshing, talking with someone honest about their nature.
When she spoke, the words were hesitant only because she’d never expected to say them out loud. “Whatever is between Magdalene and me turned to shit a long time ago, but I haven’t changed that much. I could never be a socialite always ready to show up at events. The publicity tours that Magdalene had once The Chrysalis took off only proved that. All that fake smiling and banter. I need something… not dangerous, exactly. Just something that runs deeper than what you say and wear. Oh, I can never put it into words. That’s why I always admired Magdalene’s gift for language.”
The furrow between the wolf’s eyebrows deepened while he studied her. Probably, she had confused him. She’d certainly confused herself.
“This cabin yours or hers?”
Alice relaxed at the change in subject. “Mine. It was bequeathed by my maternal grandmother. She died two years ago.”
He nodded, looking as if he’d expected that response.
“You knew her,” said Alice, sure of the answer as soon as she spoke the words.
“A little. Patched some of the chinking in the walls here, a while back.”
“I never met her. What was she like?”
“Curious about things.”
His grimace left her smiling. She could well imagine how curiosity must have come off like nails on a chalkboard to such a terse man. “Like me?”
“No. She wasn’t nice.”
Memories flashed through Alice’s mind. The careful avoidance of her grandmother’s name. Her likeness cut out of family photos. “That might be why I was never allowed to see her.”
“But you have other family? Father, mother...”
At that last word, Alice’s stomach tightened. “Sort of. I send my dad and stepmom a Christmas card every year. They don’t like Magdalene, so we had a polite falling out and agreed not to see each other until something changed. That was five years ago.”
“Then you’re alone.”
“I have Magdalene.”
“Who isn’t here.”
The words sent a flare of old panic through Alice. She set her half-eaten slice of bread aside, knowing she couldn’t stomach another bite without it coming back up. “She’s making a point. Once she’s ready, she’ll be back.”
The wolf had stopped eating. Maybe because his bowl was nearly empty again, maybe because of what she’d said.
“Not for a few days, though,” she added, in case he wondered at the likelihood of needing a quick escape route to avoid an ugly scene. “The lesson has to stick.”
Then, embarrassed by her open neediness to be heard, Alice took a sip of coffee and changed the subject. “I don’t know why I’m talking about myself. You’re the mysterious one.”
“Ask if you want.”
The offer was made without enthusiasm, but she leapt at the chance. “What will you do without your van?”
“Wasn’t really mine. I found it in the woods one day and started using it.”
“Oh. How did you know my grandmother?”
“Found her — this — in the woods, too.”
“But you didn’t use her. Or this.”
The wolf pushed aside his bowl and leaned forward, settling his elbows on the table. It brought their faces closer together, and again Alice had the feeling he scrutinized every visible inch of her. “No.”
Despite his brief, unhelpful answers, the wolf waited for more questions with an expectant air.
“Do you have anyone who can help you? A family or a… a pack?”
The wolf shook his head.
Desperate for a firm response, Alice said, “What’s your name?”
“Colton.” Now he looked amused at her exasperation. “Might as well get to the questions about what I am and how I can shift between forms.”
“Existential problems are beyond me; I leave that up to Magdalene. You’re a man who changes into a wolf and a wolf who changes into a man. That seems straightforward enough.”
When silence followed that, Alice got up and brought over the apple pie, plates, and a pint of vanilla ice cream. “Any room for dessert?”
Any doubt about whether Colton had a sweet tooth was answered by the look on his face. “Two slices and three scoops.”
He ate it all without a struggle and then leaned back in his chair, every line of his body suggesting satisfaction. Alice worked through hers more slowly, and by the time she finished, he was nearly asleep in the chair, stirring only when she rose from the table.
She glanced out the nearest window while taking their plates. Rain pounded against the trees and ground. “You better stay if you have nowhere else to go. At least until you’re recovered. I saw you favor that shoulder a few times just while eating.”
When he grimaced again, she knew it was the closest he’d come to agreeing.
There wasn’t a second bedroom; the couch by the fireplace would have to do. When she apologized for that, Colton only shrugged. “It’s inside.”
As if that was all he’d ever ask for. Perhaps it was.
She found extra blankets for him, clean ones, and built up a slow-burning fire. The day passed in the rhythm of feeding logs to the fire and washing laundry once she found another trunk in the attic, one filled with clothes that were a bit dustier but still in good shape. Colton slept there on the couch, hardly twitching even when the fire popped and crackled.
Occasionally, Alice’s glance over would turn into a long look while she wondered at the strangeness of what she’d brought into the cabin. It wasn’t enough to shake her mind from thoughts of Magdalene, but it helped later, once she crawled into bed for her nightly ritual of staring at the ceiling until sleep crept over her.
In the dark, the impossible joins the possible. Humans lose their strongest sense — sight — and return to ancient fears. Unprotected under a vast sky. Helpless on impassive rock. Blind to what might be waiting. A fire offers warmth and a small circle of light, but it also instills the itching dread of being seen for miles by whatever might lurk beyond those precious few feet of illumination.
Only beasts are comfortable at night.
Alice woke to a rumbling punctuated by cracking wood. Earthquake, was her first thought, and she jerked up in the pitch black. But the bed didn’t buck or shake while she fumbled out of it, and nothing fell until she knocked down the lamp in her attempt to find the switch. Then the noise strengthened into a roar and animal panic pushed her outside into the driving rain, barefoot in the mud from the base instinct of trying to see where the danger was to escape from it.
Everything was blackness and water. Alice swayed, panting shallowly while the rumbling continued. The puddles that lapped at her ankles frothed with hard, unrelenting drops, but the ground beneath her soles remained still and steady. Not an earthquake, then. Something else. Something that might be racing toward her, but from which direction?
Hands caught Alice from behind and she shrieked, voice thin against the roaring. An unshaven face scraped against her neck, Colton’s fingers pulling her sodden hair aside so he could shout near her ear and be heard over the hissing rain.
“It’s not headed this way. Get back in the cabin.”
“What is it?”
“How do you know we’ll be safe inside?” Alice resisted the pressure of his grip, imagining the cabin swept away with them caught and crushed between splintered wood.
“Because I know which area it is.” Another tug at her arms.
“In the dark?”
She flinched from his hands when a flurry of snapping noises echoed like gunshots. Trees were being knocked down. The roaring seemed endless. Panic drove her from his grip, drove her forward into the inky black. Then Colton grabbed her again, harder than before, and the already confusing dark spun as he flung her over his shoulder. The sound that came out of her was less a gasp than a grunt of shock while he carried her away, ignoring her even when she clawed at his back.
Inside the cabin, the world spun again while he set her upright. Alice lashed out through her dizziness, slapping him across the face.
He shook it off like the rain and turned on the nearest light, revealing them both to be soaking wet and splattered with mud. “Anything that pays attention to how the ground moves knew it was coming. The hill’s been weak for years and all the rain left it hardly more than slush. Whatever part of the slope that’s just collapsed will slide down in the valley, not off to the side where we are. There’s no danger.”
As if punctuating his words, the roar dwindled to a rumble. A few, final snapping noises cracked in the distance. Then there was only the drumming of rain.
“See?” Irritation laced the word.
Alice said nothing. Water dripped down her face. Her heart pounded until she thought her ribs might crack. Lines creased Colton’s forehead while he studied her. Then he glanced down at the mud covering him and left. Alice kept still, shaking, hardly aware of the sound of water running in the bathroom.
Only when her phone chirped from the bedroom did she come back into herself enough to walk toward the sound with the gait of a sleepwalker.
Texts from friends filled her screen.
R u all right? News says theres a landslide
Aren’t you and M up there by Perry? A mudslide took out the town.
Hey, text back ASAP. Mag says she’s fine but you’re off in a bumfuck cabin somewhere.
Alice continued to pant fast and shallow as she composed the same one-word response to each one.
But she wasn’t. Fear clawed at her, old yet devastating in its strength. The messages that appeared on her phone held no reassurance; if anything, it only reinforced to Alice that she was in the thick of something very bad, something that had left her alone. The realization throttled her voice as she searched for news, ignoring the water dripping from her hair and clothes.
Reporters showed no sign of sleepiness despite the midnight hour, voices fast and grim. In the dark and so soon, possibilities flew from their mouths instead of facts. There apparently had been a landslide. The river might have been dammed, causing a flurry of flood warnings for areas north of her. State Route 519 appeared be blocked, cutting off Perry from the rest of the outside world. And cutting off the cabin, as well. Feeling her knees wobble, Alice sank to the floor.
Colton stepped through the doorway, then, less muddy and a bit drier.
Alice looked up at him. “It’s cut us off from everywhere else.”
“How much food is left?”
“A lot.” She couldn’t stop shivering.
“And there’s still power and running water. Not much to worry over, then.”
Not true, not true. Alice saw how the patterns from her past were superimposed onto the present. It left her voice small but sure. “You’re leaving.”
“Didn’t say that.”
“But you are. Who would stay?”
Colton tilted his head a little. Then his gaze dropped to her muddied feet. “You should clean up. Get out of those wet clothes.”
The words were practical, full of good sense. Also impossible to follow. Her fingers fumbled with the first button of her pajama top but had to give up.
After a short silence, Colton reached for her hands, pulling her upright with him. They didn’t speak while he took her in the bathroom and washed the mud from her feet, or when he took off her sodden clothes and rubbed her dry with a towel. Alice was too lost in the past and terrified of the future to care how these intimate acts were fulfilled by a stranger, a beast. All she knew was that such tenderness was rare in her life, and if she slapped it away there would be nothing to guide her through the rest of the night except panic.
When Colton’s fingers combed through her hair to untangle the snarls, she rested her head against his shoulder, exhausted by the shaking fits. “I’m sorry I hit you.”
His laugh was a huff of breath. “You were scared, angry. I expected it.”
“It was still wrong of me.”
He remained quiet long enough that she wasn’t sure he’d respond at all. But then he said, “Someone abandoned you, once.”
It wasn’t a query but Alice still answered. “Yes. I was four years old and my mother was in the middle of a nervous breakdown. She drove us out to a deserted trail in the woods — not one like this, the trees were stumpy oaks and scrubby manzanita, and wild grass bristled everywhere — and she rolled the windows down a little and told me she’d be right back. I watched her walk away, not toward where we came from, but further in. And then she just disappeared between the trees.”
Colton held her, now, surprisingly gentle as his thumb brushed her cheek.
Her hands clutched at the towel wrapped around her as she continued. “Hikers found me two days later. I was dehydrated and hungry but otherwise okay. There was a massive search party held for my mother, but they never found her. She went off into the wilderness and was gone.”
“They asked me what had happened, if she had said anything else to me, if she had seemed different or if I’d heard something strange after she’d left. All I could tell them was what I knew. That she left and I waited but she never came back.”
The last word came out as a wail. Then Alice forced herself quiet. She had made it sound too simple, too emotionless. As if the past couldn’t come up and carry her away like a riptide pulling a bewildered swimmer out to sea.
Colton’s voice rumbled against her ear. “So that’s what you meant about not having normal fears.”
All out of words, Alice nodded.
When he eased her back into the bedroom, she could have paused at the dresser to find loose clothing to wear in place of pajamas. But her heart was too raw for her mind to hang onto habit and custom, and she only dropped the towel covering her skin while Colton pulled back the covers from the bed. After she got in and continued to shake against the sheets, he stripped down and slid in after her.
His head settled into the hollow of her shoulder and his arm slipped over her ribs. The warm weight of his body anchored Alice to the bed, and as their legs tangled together, she finally closed her eyes, tears leaking down her cheeks.
“Magdalene knows all this. She knows what it does to see someone leave me. To be left alone. Even after so many years, I still… and she knows.”
Long moments passed, broken only by Alice’s uneven breath.
Colton’s voice rumbled against her shoulder blades. Warmed the shell of her ear. “You’re not alone tonight.”
After a final shudder, she nodded, and her body slowly relaxed against his.
And she did.