He left her alone for most of the day, fixing the wobbly leg on the kitchen table and then a broken hinge on the mudroom door. For her part, Alice answered phone calls and texts from concerned friends. When one call proved to be Magdalene’s London agent, concerned that he hadn’t gotten a response from Magdalene’s phone, Alice reassured him through her guilt. Afterward, she checked Facebook and Twitter to see if Magdalene had posted. Nothing, but Darby’s Fetlife account bore fruit. Photos dated from the night before, done so artfully that Alice knew Rob must have been the one behind the camera. She hadn’t known Darby liked bondage. She hadn’t known Magdalene did, either.
“Should shake off any guilt of yours.” Colton’s voice rumbled in her ear.
Alice stifled a yelp of shock. She hadn’t heard him come up behind her. “Do you always spy over people’s shoulders?”
“You looked hurt.”
“These are just more needling on her part. It’s not even worth thinking about.” She shut off her phone and let it fall on the bed before turning to him.
He studied her curiously, and despite the fact that his body was a man’s, there was nothing human about him at that moment. “But you’ll go back to her.”
Alice knew she had to be honest, even if it meant him leaving. “Yes.”
His head tilted. “She’s put some sort of spell on you. Not in the way of a witch, but still a spell.”
Her smile was small and bitter. “I suppose that’s as good as any other explanation. A spell woven over the years.”
Later, as night cloaked the cabin, Colton approached again while Alice stared at the glowing coals in the fireplace. Without looking, she leaned back into him, taking in the strength of the muscles she felt against her, the surety of his weight. “You’re completely recovered from being shot, aren’t you?”
His chin rasped against her temple. “Yes.”
Her mouth felt dry. “So there’s no reason to stay.”
“Wouldn’t say that.” Then his hand slid between her legs, palm pressing in until the normal friction of her jeans turned into something delicious. Alice’s shoulders relaxed, and then she turned to him.
He was gentler with her clothes this time, deliberate instead of frenzied as he undressed her just enough to leave her breasts falling out of her shirt and her underwear pulled to the side. But his touch was still rough, and Alice loved it until fingers slid down the slippery seam of her cunt and pushed in. Pain, then, and not the exciting kind. “Wait. I’m too sore for that.”
A gaze hot with hunger studied her, but Alice couldn’t tell what Colton thought as his fingers flexed and withdrew.
Surprise, relief, and disappointment mingled together as she watched him step back. But then he pulled off his flannel, and next his undershirt. When he spoke, his voice sounded flat and even. “Take off your clothes.”
Alice hesitated. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes.” He continued stripping down. “Take them off.”
When she didn’t move, he looked up, eyebrows rising above those intent green eyes. “Scared now?”
At that, she lifted her chin and reached for her shirt.
The floor felt cold against her bare back as he pinned her down. Unease rippled through her lower belly, snuffing out her earlier eagerness, and she scanned his face, searching for signs of what he had in mind. “It’s been five years since I’ve been with a man, and Magdalene’s never had much power in her hips. I really am sore, Colton. It needs a day off.”
He nodded, the heaviness of his cock and balls rubbing up her lower belly. “I’ll leave you alone there.”
She took in how the last light from the fireplace flickered over the features of his face. Her thumb ran over that grim slash of a mouth, and when he spoke, she felt the flick of his tongue. “Keep doing that and I’ll make sure the rest of you ends up just as sore.”
She traced his lower lip again before burying fingers into the hair at the back of his neck. “Please do.”
Then his mouth was on hers. If his hand hadn’t slid behind her head, she would have cracked her skull against the floor from the force. He continued to rub his body against hers, the rhythm matching the slide of his tongue. Aching heat spread through her, and the noise she made while clutching at his head sounded close to a growl itself. Then he broke off with a growl, the rasp of his beard moving down to her breasts.
He kept his word, nearly mauling the soft, heavy flesh with teeth before soothing with tongue. Alice’s breath rose into high gasps as he teased her nipples into delicious points of agony.
Suddenly he pulled back enough to look at her, eyes nearly black with hunger. “Hold them together.”
At first, she couldn’t understand through her haze of lust, only aware of the slickness of spit and his erection against her thigh. When she realized what he meant, surprise jolted through her. So did heat. “You are a beast, aren’t you?”
He smiled and gave her a rumbling growl that had her hands flying to cup her breasts. Despite how the skin there burned from the scrape of his teeth, she pushed them together without mercy, watching the heat grow in his gaze over her obvious eagerness.
Colton positioned himself slowly, teasing her as she squirmed against the weight of his sack dragging up over her stomach… over her ribs… then he stretched out, hands settling somewhere beyond her head, never looking away from her face. Alice felt herself begin to pant as his cock pushed between her breasts, his whole body thrusting forward at the move. Then he pulled back, their noses nearly brushing for a moment before another thrust jolted them both.
She sank into the lewdness of the act like someone sore and tired sinking into a hot bath. Her fingers instinctively tightened and relaxed against her own flesh, her moans mingling with Colton’s growling as they fell into a rhythm.
The room fell dark as the fire smoldered to nothing. Sight gone, everything Alice felt and heard turned heightened, nearly unbearable. The slide of his cock mixed with the scrape of his hair. How his breath caught whenever she squeezed her breasts tighter around him. As the tension in his body increased, she lifted her head, aware of what was about to happen. His next thrust was hard, deep, leaving her close enough to flick her tongue against his head. He groaned at that, and she felt warmth splatter her neck and chin.
When his full weight collapsed against her, his breath hot against her neck, Alice shifted only to better feel the stickiness of semen and sweat between them. Satisfaction left every one of her limbs so heavy that she could hardly bury her hand in his thick hair. Soon, she knew, they would both move to the bed, but for now she relaxed and let herself drift in the moment, the rhythm of her breath matching his.
Beasts understand change as well as humans. They know the sway of seasons as well as any farmer, the movements of the stars as well as any astrologer. They even evoke change themselves; the beaver with its dam and the woodpecker in its hole. But many bring about change subtly, slowly. Hooves create game trails one step at a time.
For Alice, the days flowed together. The news reports repeated screaming headlines of slow progress, and Alice soon stopped paying attention other than a morning check to see if the alternate road had been cleared for traffic. The rain remained incessant, keeping her and Colton inside the cabin for long lengths of time. Even so, she never grew bored or irritated with his presence. When there weren’t things to fix in the cabin, there were the mundane little chores that kept the wheel of daily life spinning.
And they fucked. Once her cunt grew used to the pounding of a real cock used roughly, she never grew tired and neither did he. When he came in from chopping wood, disheveled and sweating, she would pounce on him, nuzzling at the fly of his jeans while undoing his belt. And sometimes while she folded laundry, he would slip up from behind, startling her with the hot touch of his hand sliding beneath her shirt and snapping her bra open.
Quieter moments were had, too. One day while playing with a spilled drop of coffee, Alice remembered the still lifes she’d used to paint with nothing more than an old brush, whatever paper lay around, and a freshly-brewed pot. It was something she had started in high school, nothing more than an enjoyable hobby. Then she had met Magdalene and Magdalene’s artist friends, and had found herself intimidated among people who had broken into New York with their artwork, people who changed the definition of art itself.
The first thing she painted was the coffee cup holding the very liquid she used. After that, it was the pots hanging by the kitchen cabinets. Then the scrubby cypress that could be seen through the window.
Then she painted Colton. Slyly at first, taking advantage of his stillness while he read or drank his own cup of coffee. The third time she used him as her subject, he dozed in the rays of rare sunlight, the glow burnishing the tips of his dark hair into near gold. She worked quietly while he slept. Or so she thought until, unmoving, he said, “Am I hard to paint?”
She could crouch on all fours and wiggle her ass at him without an ounce of shyness, but now, caught out, she flushed. “A little. I can never get your eyes right.”
He gave her one of his rare smiles. “I’m never looking at you when you paint me.”
And that was how he ended up sitting for her as if she were a true artist. At first she chewed on her lip, nervous under his attention. But he was good at sitting still and changing the intensity of his eyes depending upon how she wished to portray him, and her brush strokes grew more confident with every painting. For his part, he seemed to find it amusing, being the object of her full, undivided attention. Each time afterward, Alice would study the results and wonder if she painted him partly in an unconscious attempt to memorize every inch of his face.
In the evenings, when the day was done and before the night grew thick enough to draw them both to bed, he liked to read, pulling down various classics and dog-eared paperbacks from the shelves. More often than not, Alice would slip up to wherever he lounged and reach for the fly of his pants. Sometimes she spent up to an hour all but worshipping him with her mouth while he read, one of his hands stroking her hair.
But once, Alice caught Colton with a copy of the The Chrysalis. He was stretched out along the length of the couch, barefoot and in nothing more than an undershirt and work pants. The somber colors of the cover looked like a warning in his hand, and Alice’s stomach twisted as she approached.
His glance turned into an appraisal. “You don’t want me to read this.”
“It’s all right. I’m just… curious.”
A flick of his fingers urged her closer. After straddling him, she asked, “What do you think?”
“Not finished, yet.” When Alice made a face at him, one corner of his mouth lifted in a smile and he settled his free hand on her hip. “What about you?”
“I think it’s too smart for me. Magdalene likes to be clever. When she is, I can’t always understand what she’s saying. All I understand about The Chrysalis is that she’s put herself into the story.”
Colton shifted position to get a better look at Alice’s face. As they settled together, his hand brushed her cheek. “Does she put you in these stories, too?”
“When we first started dating, I told her never to use my family troubles as inspiration. The idea makes me sick; I don’t want those memories taken apart and sewn back together into entertainment. Whether she took me seriously or not didn’t matter in the end. In those early years she let me read everything she wrote, and these days she can’t write at all. Even if she did start again, it wouldn’t be with me.”
Colton raised his eyebrows. “You’re very sure of that.”
Alice rested her head against his chest, rubbing her cheek against the hair that bristled above the neck of his undershirt. As his heartbeat reverberated strong and steady, she closed her eyes and summoned the words for something not many people knew.
“Magdalene had a girlfriend back in high school. This was in a small, conservative town somewhere in Idaho, so it had to be kept secret. The other girl’s name was Liberty, but Magdalene called her Indigo because she had deep blue eyes. I saw a photo of her once. Wild red hair with daisies woven in, freckles all over her face. And those eyes. She looked like a woodland fairy. It was no wonder Magdalene obsessed over her.”
Alice wasn’t the type to be fascinated by tragedy, and the next words came out in a flat tone, without an ounce of a storyteller’s lilt. “While they saw each other in secret, Indigo pretended to date some clean-cut boy with a bright future. He took her to prom but she never came back that night. The boy was drunk, and on the way home the car rolled over and ended up in a ditch. Neither of them made it.”
When Colton remained quiet, Alice looked up. “It devastated Magdalene. She’s never really gotten over it.”
“She’s with you, isn’t she?”
“Well, Indigo’s dead.” Then Alice jerked her chin at the book. “Every sentence in that novel, every word, is about Indigo or the boy that took her away, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Her earlier work, too.”
Then Alice took a deep breath. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Maybe. Haven’t met one yet.”
“Magdalene used to say that Indigo came to her. In dreams, sometimes. Or things would be moved around in her room. Handprint smudges on the inside of windows. I always thought Magdalene was only trying to see what I was gullible enough to believe, but now that I’ve met you, I wonder.”
Then her gaze fell to the novel. “Magdalene hasn’t seen her since The Chrysalis won the Pulitzer. I’ve told her maybe it’s a sign that there’s nothing left to say about Indigo, but she didn’t like that. She feels she’s lost Indigo twice. Once in real life and once as a muse.”
Colton closed the book, studying Alice. “And that makes up for her being a complete cunt?”
Alice winced but didn’t try to deny the observation. “I think it explains some things.”
“Everyone’s got problems.”
“She can’t deal with hers.” Then Alice nuzzled his throat, tired of the conversation. From his huff of a laugh, he knew she was trying to distract him. But he still put the book aside and caught her by the back of her neck, drawing her in.
He picked it up again later, but Alice remained curled against him, serene without clothes and skin sticky with dried sweat and semen. Before opening the covers to find his place, Colton stroked her hair and said, “You’re not too stupid for her. Just got too used to her bullshit to be glamored.”
Twelve days after the landslide, Alice saw the news she’d been dreading: the Redfern Pass road had been cleared of snow and was now open to traffic in and out of Perry and the surroundings areas. An hour after lunch, she received a text from Magdalene.
Coming back tomorrow.
Colton knew even before she spoke, straightening up from where he’d finished reinforcing a rotten step on the porch. She didn’t realize she was crying until he brushed the tears from her face. “It’s unavoidable, Alice.”
“I know. And I won’t leave her, so… this is it.”
“You’ll need time to get the cabin back in order. I’ll leave after cleaning up here.” His voice remained casual, but it was so easy for Alice to catch the minute changes in his expression.
“Do you want to take anything with you?” She saw the answer in his eyes and had to look away, well aware she’d break down bawling otherwise.
“No,” he said, finally. “A wolf in a forest doesn’t carry anything with it.”
The afternoon sun slanted low and cold when Colton stood at the first of the trees into the wood and stripped down to his skin while Alice collected his clothes. He told her it didn’t matter, but she insisted, holding them as reverently as an altar cloth. The suddenness of it all still stunned her, and as soon as she picked up his boots they fell from her hand again. She clutched at him in a hug instead, burying her face in his shoulder. Maybe one last intimate moment, yet, a final chance to feel him against her, inside her.
But the hand at her neck pulled her away, not closer. “Better stop there or I won’t stop at all. And with the way I’m feeling, I’ll leave bruises.”
Bruises that would be seen by someone else. Alice closed her eyes, bitter at her cowardice. The plea for him to stay, or better, for them to both go, waited there on her tongue. Died there, too.
“Pull’s still too strong, hm?” Colton’s voice was unexpectedly gentle.
It gave Alice the strength to look up. “For now. Maybe I’ll leave, too, one day.”
He nodded. “Have you worn it?”
His gaze flickered to the attic window and returned to her face.
“Oh, the pelt. No.”
He tipped his head to the side, nothing more than an acknowledgment of her answer. “Never worked for the witch, you know. She didn’t have the hunger.”
The cold prickled at Alice’s exposed skin, and she hugged herself, aware of how little time was left. “Will I see you around?”
“In fur, maybe. No reason to stay a man.”
She lunged forward, then, desperate for one last kiss, and tried to memorize everything she felt in that moment. Then Colton stepped back among the trees, steady and unshivering despite the cold air.
The change came like a flicker of shadow. One moment a man stood before her, and then there was only a wolf shaking its fur smooth. Yellow eyes flashed at Alice and paws paused against the earth. But when she did nothing more than stare, the wolf turned and trotted away, moving into a lope as it passed the first of the firs and entered the gloom of the woods. Alice let out a shaky breath, brushing at her cheeks for tears that weren’t there.
The cabin felt empty even as Magdalene’s presence loomed once more, taking residence in the corners of rooms like spiders spinning their traps. Sick in the stomach, Alice lit a fire and slowly fed it every painting of Colton. Then she cleaned everything in sight, everything he might have touched. She couldn’t afford letting him linger anywhere except in her memories.
But later, when the moon rose high and full, doubt filled her chest until it grew hard to breathe. Alice retrieved the pelt from the attic and sat with it cradled in her arms. For some minutes, she stared at the holes where the eyes had been and wondered how mad she was.
Mad enough to try, as it turned out. She took off her clothes, already feeling ridiculous, and wrapped the pelt around her like a blanket, fixing the head over her own until she peered out through the eyeholes. The musk of fur and animal filled her nose as she walked outside, stopping a few steps from the cabin. The stars wheeled overhead while she waited for something to happen. Nothing did, except for her skin growing colder with every gust of wind.
Embarrassed, her shoulders hunched inside the pelt and she hurried back inside. Off came the skin and on went her clothes. Even though no one had seen her, Alice’s cheeks burned at her silliness as she folded the pelt and put it away — but not back in the attic. In her suitcase, tucked away in the closet where it would stay safe.