Alice had checked into the first bed and breakfast she found, fingers trembling as she paid for a night’s board. For several hours she did nothing in it except sleep, wake up to cry, and fall back asleep.
Finally, at five o’clock in the evening, she got up and showered. Shaved her legs and cut her nails. Braided and pinned her hair into a neat bun and plucked stray hairs from her eyebrows. Those soothing little rituals of self-care that couldn’t touch the massive fractures her life had become. She was lost, but she could at least look like she knew who she was. Still, before she put on her bra, she paused, fingers running over the faint suck marks still on her breasts.
A knock came at the door as she shrugged on her sweater.
“I’m Jake Danvers, the local sheriff. May I talk with you for a minute?”
Dear God, she went ahead and did it, thought Alice, and kept her voice flat against the rising numbness behind her ribs. “Just a minute.”
The sheriff was a tall man, burly enough that his paunch only gave him more formidability. His eyes gave away nothing of what he was about to say. He was cordial enough when she invited him into the room, but his gaze took in her appearance with the keenness of a hawk. Alice was glad she couldn’t feel anything, as otherwise she’d be sweating and trembling in fear.
He quickly got to the point. “We a found a body in the woods about two miles from a cabin listed with you as the owner. The driver’s license on the body belongs to a Magdalene Bishop. Do you know this person?”
Alice nodded. “We were staying at the cabin, but I left this morning after we got into an argument.”
“Mm-hm.” The sheriff didn’t sound surprised.
“What… what happened?”
“A man walking his dog found the body at the south bank of the river. There were stones found in pockets of the coat.”
When the sheriff said nothing else, Alice tried to form some words. “So you’re saying it was suicide?”
“No ma’am, there’s good evidence that Ms. Bishop did not take her own life.”
Alice stared at him, fear joining the bewilderment roiling in her stomach. Magdalene was creative enough to make a suicide look like murder.
“Did she have a dog?”
Alice could only shake her head. “No. Why…”
The sheriff’s face was lined with years, and those lines furrowed a little more. “It looks like an animal attacked her before she could jump into the river.”
The words felt like a punch, and Alice folded over in her seat as if they had been one. She felt the sheriff’s hand on her shoulder but whatever he said only buzzed at the edge of her consciousness. Further detail was unnecessary, anyway; she knew it had been Colton. He was alive and Magdalene was dead.
When she could breathe again, Alice straightened up and tried listening to the sheriff.
“We need someone to positively identify the body.”
Dizziness rushed through her again, but Alice knew it was the last thing she’d ever do for Magdalene. She held that thought like a flashlight in the dark while the sheriff took her in his car, lights off as they drove to the morgue, and again when she stood in the cold room that smelled like steel and rot and saw what was left of Magdalene. Colton had not been kind.
She threw up. Not there in the morgue, but later after giving the sheriff the phone number of Magdalene’s parents so he could notify the next of kin.
The air felt cold and crisp against her cheeks as Alice stepped outside, her hand still trembling against the plastic cup of water the sheriff had given her to wash out her mouth with. News of the strange death of a Pulitzer winner would already be lighting up Twitter, she knew. Reporters would come. She tried to examine how she felt about that and found, strangely, relief.
The thought rang through her mind like a tolling bell, clear and sweet and painful in its strength.
She stopped at a drive thru, the only thing still open at two in the morning, and ordered a large soda, hoping the twin hits of sugar and caffeine would keep her awake long enough to make the four-hour drive home.
A figure waited by the driveway out of the parking lot, shapeless and faceless in the battered winter coat it wore. But something about the way the figure stood so still convinced Alice to stop the car and unlock the doors. Her heart pounded as the figure slipped into the front passenger seat as casually as if it had been waiting for her all along. A gust of wind and rain entered the car with it, and then the slam of the door separated them from the rest of the world.
As Alice steered the car onto the road, the figure pushed back its hood. Her hands jerked on the wheel as Colton shook his head to shed the rain drops that had slipped past the protection of the coat. When she saw a deserted place to pull off to the side, she took it, turning off the engine and headlights to leave them in gloom broken only by the dim yellow flashing of a distant sign.
When Alice looked over, Colton met her gaze with a slight lift of his eyebrows and then glanced ahead.
“You’re leaving,” he said, his voice its usual dark monotone.
Her response was to tug his wrists free of his coat pockets, heart pounding in her throat as she felt two warm hands clasp her own. The violent, thrashing anguish eased from her heart as she kissed those rough fingers. “You’re alive. But she said…”
Then Alice shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. The pelt was destroyed. Magdalene threw it into the fire.”
“I saw it.”
She lifted her face from his hands only to feel his thumbs wipe away the fresh tears running down her cheeks. “Then you were at the cabin. And you were the one who killed her.”
He shrugged, touch tender despite his brusque tone. “Want an apology?”
The yellow flashes of light turned his eyes into something wilder than usual, if that was possible. His clothes were scruffy, ill-fitting on his long, lean frame, and his beard already appeared shaggier, rasping against her fingers as she brushed his chin. He didn’t move, but something in his gaze flickered when her thumb slid over his lips.
“She wanted to trap you.” His hot tongue flicked against her fingertips.
Alice felt her shoulders sag, and she leaned forward to rest her forehead against his, hand pushing at the worn plaid shirt beneath his coat until it found the hot skin of his chest. “Didn’t she? The pelt is gone.”
And so you will be, too. Those were the words Alice couldn’t bring herself to speak.
Colton shifted against her. “So you can’t live among wolves. I can live among men.”
Impossible to keep the hope out of her voice. “For how long?”
“Until we tire of each other.”
Alice took in a deep breath, remembering how Magdalene had sworn to hold her love like a second heart. Remembering what it had turned into. Then she looked into his eyes again, finding flashes of the nights they had run together, moonlight on fur and breath steaming. The firelit hours spent with him rising above her huge and powerful, kissing her like she was nothing he’d ever tasted before. He was offering her his company without asking for her freedom.
“I’d like that,” she said, and meant it. Then she leaned in to kiss him, unafraid even with the memories of what she’d seen in the morgue fresh in her mind.
To take a beast as a lover means to accept teeth along with tongue, and delight in both.
As Alice pulled out into the road, Colton’s hand settled on her thigh, both comfort and a promise of what was to come. Even though her eyes felt puffy and sore from tears, and doubtless would again, Alice found herself smiling. Her heart would be her own again.
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