In the brief time Alice had been away, the house had fallen into disorder. As soon as she stepped through the doorway, mail crinkled beneath her feet like dead leaves—advertisements spilling their inner pages, catalogs sliding against each other, envelopes ripped open and gutted. When she stooped to pick it all up, Colton shook his head and kicked enough to the side to clear a space to walk through. He did the same for the clothes scattered on the floor in a path to the bedroom. They looked like the ones he usually wore to work, as if he had let them fall forgotten while stripping down.
“Things got away from me,” he admitted, sounding perplexed more than apologetic as they stepped into the bedroom. Muddy pawprints marked the hardwood floor and black fur dusted whatever furniture he had brushed up against.
Alice shook her head, smiling as she sat on the bed. “So, that’s your weak spot. Cleaning up after yourself.”
Her voice turned it into innuendo even before she reached out and traced the fly of his slacks as he lingered nearby, eyeing every corner of the room as if making sure nothing had changed while they’d been gone. He gave her that hot look that always ignited an ache between her legs, but only caught her hand and squeezed it before pulling away.
He continued to prowl throughout the rooms while she dropped the hospital paperwork onto the nightstand. She also put her purse there and then rummaged through it to find her phone. Her fingers reached the white pharmacy bag Denise had given her on the way out, first, and she pulled it out to check the contents. Nothing there beyond the pain medication prescribed if she started hurting too much, and she set it aside without interest even though she had began to hurt, much more than the night before.
The turtleneck felt uncomfortable against her neck, scratching at the swollen skin until she tugged at it for relief. Each movement, even a single breath, angered her bruises and strained her muscles, and the simple act of taking off her shoes and socks knocked her bones about. Every inch of her body felt rattled and sluggish, as if it had only now absorbed the impact of being thrown through the air and back to the ground with the same force that had crumpled her car around her like tin foil.
Dimly, she remembered the doctor explaining the phenomenon—something about pain receptors remaining dulled for a while after that first shock of the accident. It likely didn’t help that she had almost drowned the other night, or that she still felt drained from the conversation with her parents.
Finally, she found her phone and plugged it into the charger before checking to see what she’d missed in the past day. She wasn’t surprised to find a few missed calls from Darby and ignored her texts outright, but did pause at the handful of emails from Rob. She opened the latest one and started reading.
I called the medium to make sure everything’s cancelled. Don’t believe whatever Darby says. It’s cancelled. Here’s her number if you want to call for yourself.
She scanned over the number but decided to read the next-newest email to see if it revealed more.
Darby’s lying. There aren’t any other photos. The ones she sent you through the mail are all she has. Don’t send your fucking boyfriend over here again because he already took the ones she’s talking about.
I’m still trying to find out who’s doing the seance. Just give me a day or two. Halloween isn’t for a few weeks, so there’s a lot of time to cancel it. Don’t fucking send him over.
The first email from him made everything all the more clear, including his very un-Rob-like helpfulness.
After yesterday’s visitor, I changed my mind about things. Christ, where did you find him, the fucking mafia? I had to tell Darby there was a robbery while we were both out.
I went through her files and found out what she’s planning: a seance for Magdalene on Halloween night. Supposed to take place at your cabin. She found a few mediums, so I have to call them all to find out which one she picked to do it. Give me a few days, all right? Shouldn’t be that hard to cancel it.
At any other time, Rob’s panic might have been laughable, but Alice was too struck by what she had learned to pay it any attention.
“A seance,” she muttered, thoughts flashing together over that single word. Then she remembered the number 31 circled and pinned by the address of the cabin on Darby’s corkboard. The date of Halloween, yes, but also of something older, stranger, deeper: Samhain, one of the pagan roots of that night of jack o’lanterns and candy.
Alice, a fan of mythology and legends from childhood, knew a little about that ancient holiday. It had been a seasonal festival marking the end of fruitful crops and the beginning of winter starvation—and the play of life and death didn’t stop there. It had also been seen as a day when the dead could slip in among the living. A day when the boundaries between life and death thinned to nothing.
Suddenly, Darby’s desperate drive to get into the cabin made perfect sense, and Alice found herself laughing despite the pain it caused her ribs. “A seance to guide Magdalene back on the night she can fully be back.”
Her shoulders were still shaking when the bed shifted with new weight. As Colton settled beside her, tilting his head at her phone, she looked up at him, still filled with a strange glee. “That’s the perfect ending for her book—her getting to see Magdalene again, if only for a night. And the cabin would be just the place for the seance. Like she said, it’s where Magdalene spent her final days. No one but you knows exactly where in the woods she died, so the cabin is the next best thing. And that’s why she’s pushing so hard now, because it all revolves around Samhain.”
Then she tapped back to Rob’s most recent email, skimming through it again. “And Rob said he didn’t know anything.”
“He lies a lot. Told me the truth only to save the rest of his ribs.”
“You beat him up?” She was honest enough to admit to feeling a brutal satisfaction over the idea. “Before or after you saw the photos?”
“Before. After I saw the photos, I knew that I’d go back and kill him. Later, though, when it won’t come back to you. When he’s spent some time squirming over it.” Colton’s voice sounded as steady as ever, but something flickered in his eyes, there and gone again before she could understand it.
He had shrugged off his jacket somewhere else in the house, and now that crisp dress shirt looked a little disheveled—sleeves rolled up and the first buttons of his collar undone, exposing hard muscle dusted with hair. The veneer of civility worn down. The wild animal, restless and ready to escape.
He seemed to be waiting for a response, eyes intent on her face and tension growing in his shoulders with every passing moment of silence. In truth, she didn’t know what to say. Arguing for Rob’s life—no, she couldn’t bring herself to do that, not while remembering how she had finally broken down crying during one of those sessions, and he had only continued taking photos, angling himself to better capture her face. Had any of those ended up among the ones Colton had seen? From the look on his face, it was likely.
And yet...killing him? Would that help at all? Would it be sweet to her, his blood spilling from a ruined throat? She needed more time to think about it, and reached up to trace the side of Colton’s jaw, hoping to distract him from a straight answer. “You’ve got a definite bloodthirsty streak.”
There was a growl from him before he said, “He hurt you.”
That was true, and she didn’t see a reason to deny it. “But he’s not the big problem. Even Darby isn’t. It’s Magdalene. She’s somehow driving Darby to do this, isn’t she?”
“The slug of a husband admitted as much. The bitch is haunting her like she did with you. Saying things in dreams, appearing in flashes. But she’s human; can’t be pulled away like you.”
“Pulled away,” repeated Alice, and watched fresh tension fill him. “I don’t understand. Do you mean last night? Or is it something to do with the seance?”
Her gaze dropped to her phone as she considered going through Darby’s texts in search of more clues, but then Colton caught the back of her head, careful but firm while easing her into looking up at him, again. The line of his mouth had gone grim. “You’re a witch. Boundaries mean nothing to you. You were right there on the edge of the shadow world, Alice. Fucking walked there from a dream. You can live among humans and be seen as one of them, but you’re not. No human can slip over to that world and join the spirits and other creatures, there. Not while alive. And if she’d fucking drowned you…you would’ve been trapped.”
“I would have died,” she said, voice flat. Something rippled through her; she supposed it was shock from how close she had come to losing herself. When she shivered, skin prickling from the memory of cold water filling her lungs, his face nuzzled against hers, so wolf-like that she had to smile.
Their lips brushed as she murmured, “But you found me.”
His soft growl turned into a kiss, and she sank into the slide of his tongue against hers and the tenderness of his fingers as they stroked the back of her head before catching a fistful of her hair. She still felt tension simmering in the muscles pressed against her, but unlike the night before, there was no fury in his attention and no desperation in hers.
The various aches throughout her body flared as he pulled her onto his lap, and then evaporated just as quickly when she straddled him, pressing close as his cock twitched against his pants. When his mouth moved down past her jaw, she sighed, feeling drugged as he pulled down her turtleneck to taste at her throat. The sweetness of his tongue against her throbbing skin left her dazed as she asked, “How does it look?”
“Big fucking bruises everywhere. Does it hurt to talk?”
“A little. But I have a lot of questions to ask.”
He sighed before kissing at the tender hollow beneath her ear. “Of course you do. I’m listening.”
“You made her bleed even though she’s dead.”
They both understood the significance of the words. They were a tentative query into what he was, a feeling out of how easy or how hard this subject would be for him.
He kissed her again before pulling away, eyes more yellow than green. “Yes. I can hunt anything I want.”
She bit her lip, worried about this next answer. “If you can hurt her, can she hurt you?”
Even as fear spiked through her, he laughed in a humorless huff of breath. “Not badly enough for it to matter.”
The trace of bitterness in the words left her studying him. “Colton?”
She expected him to fall grim, again. Or to grow frustrated, or wary. Instead, he suddenly looked very, very tired. “Nothing can kill me. I already went into the grave and came back out of it.”
As cryptic as the words were, a chill stole through her. “What are you saying?”
There was a rare hesitation from him. Then the strong bone and hard muscle against her seemed to slump, as if the great weight they’d carried for an eternity finally proved too much to bear. “You always ask what I am. I don’t know enough to answer. I only know what I was—an outlaw who got caught and punished.”
Such an old-fashioned word, outlaw; one that most people would have laughed at. And yet it rang through Alice’s mind, calling at memories like church bells tolling for the prayers of the faithful. All those beloved mythology books she had read as child, thumbing through pages of woodcut-style illustrations, delicate and terrible in what their lines depicted, now flickered back to her in half-remembered sentences. One word rose above the rest, and she shivered again while sounding it out.
“Vargr,” she said, slowly. “It means ‘outlaw,’ or ‘miscreant.’ Or ‘wolf.’”
His eyes gleamed at her, and when he spoke, the words held the finality of a death sentence. “Thou art murderous like a wolf. Thou art hunted like a wolf. Now thou art become a wolf.”
“Oh, Colton,” she breathed, reaching up to trace that bleak mouth, but he caught her hand, fingers tense.
“Not a wolf. Not a man. Something of both. That was the point of the punishment, to wander without end, always between worlds.”
Once more, images from those books flickered through her mind. Black-furred beasts haunting the lonely countryside, shadow creatures at the edges of graveyards. Her other hand slipped over his chest, finding a strong and steady heartbeat there even as she said, “You’re not a ghost.”
“No. But you could well call me a demon. Some have.”
She laced their fingers together, thoughts still reeling. A punishment...no wonder his ribs had shown as if he’d grown used to starving. No wonder he had always held such savagery toward humans, such suspicion. “When did this happen to you?”
“A long time ago.”
Somehow, the words held more weight than an exact number, looming in the way of spotting a tree so gnarled and notched with experience that one knew it had endured centuries of existence.
He waited for her to ask exactly what had happened—how he had ended up in that grave and who had covered him up with dirt, knowing he’d shake it off and rise again. She could see the expectation in his face, eyes skittish like a wild thing, muscles tense beneath her soft touch. After so many years of slipping here and there, it was as if he didn’t know how to react to being seen, separate from the shadows.
In silence, her hand eased along his chest, pushing aside the collar of his shirt to find the familiar scar beneath his collar bone. There were more, she knew, having found all sorts from the many sessions of worshipping his body with her own. Some hadn’t even come from human weapons; one on his left side looked like a gash from an antler. And there was a raking of claws on the hard muscles of his stomach, as if something had once tried to disembowel him.
A life of constant fight or flight, mapped out on his skin.
He tensed further at her quiet touch, the very gentleness seeming to give him only more misgivings. How strange, that he faced danger with slavering jaws but flinched at a caress. What did he have to fear, this immortal wolf? His teeth cracked bone and bled out bodies. He was a shadow in the dark, cruel like the rest of nature. He ran feral through the woods and starved when the hares were too fast and the deer too nimble. He knew how to endure like any other beast.
And yet… he wasn’t fully wolf. He calculated like a man, and had a man’s cold dominance.
He felt loneliness like a man.
As her thumb ran over that bullet scar, the one that had brought him to her those few months before, his voice rumbled against her. “No more questions?”
She shook her head at the terse words, not trusting herself to speak. Tears burned in her eyes, and she wondered how he could remain so detached and steady about what he had just revealed.
When she kept quiet, he caught her chin and tilted it up. The flatness in his expression disappeared, and then his thumb brushed over her cheek. “Alice, it’s all right. I’m the last fucking thing that should be cried over.”
“Don’t say that,” she managed. “That’s not true at all.”
Hearing that seemed to baffle him, for he fell silent while wiping the tears from her other cheek. When she caught his hand and turned her face into it, willing him to sense just how much she meant what she’d said, the surprise slipped into his voice.
“You’re still not scared of me.”
“Of course not. I’ve always known you weren’t human.” Had known it and loved it.
“It’s scared off more than a few,” he muttered. “People like monsters until they see what our teeth do. And you didn’t want me to kill, again. Then the human visited, reminding you of her, and guilt never left your scent.”
There was so much left unsaid, so much brimming behind those colorless words. Alice straightened up enough to look him full in the face, realization glimmering through her thoughts. “I felt guilty because I started lying to you. Did you think it was over something else?”
When he only grimaced and glanced away, she grew sure. “You thought I felt guilty over being with you because you murdered Magdalene.”
More than that—that she’d regretted what had happened to Magdalene. He had thought she’d pulled away from him out of fear. The girl returning to the safe path that led out of the woods, cringing from the gloom of the shadows after too much time spent in it. Cringing from everything he was.
Despite the tears clogging up the back of her throat, her voice came out steady. “I’m not afraid of you or what you did. When I think about what life would be like if she were still here…I can’t imagine it without shuddering. I’m relieved, Colton, even knowing you could do the same thing to me if you ever felt like it.”
Now his eyes were intent on her, his entire body unmoving. The hunter exposed. The terror in the shadows frozen over the possibility of being accepted for exactly what he was—a nightmare creature that needed tenderness like every other living thing.
Quickly and without leaving his lap, she pulled off her turtleneck to bare her battered body in full, daring him to dismiss her experiences of savage attention. She tossed the shirt aside like the useless guise it was and then leaned in close, running hands up the back of his head. Daring him to flinch from the tenderness.
Even as his eyes grew dark, she breathed her next words against his mouth. “I’ve always known you were a monster. And I’ve never been scared of you.”
He kissed her, then, rough and insistent as if she could disappear from his grasp at any moment and that he would do anything to keep her there with him.
Her fingers tightened in his hair as she pressed close, hungry for his heat and eager to show how she reveled in him no matter how many bruises covered her body. His tongue flicked at the roof of her mouth while he snapped the clasp of her bra and eased the straps over her shoulders. Every touch sparked a rush of heat, and she shifted impatiently, wanting those rough fingers to find her breasts.
He broke off to let her breathe, eyes gleaming in amusement as she arched despite the strain in her back, all but begging for his attention. Instead, he teased, licking at the bruise over her heart and easing away the stinging of sweat on damaged skin. “Easy. The pain’s growing in your scent.”
She just sank back on the bed, trying to pull him down with her.
He shook his head, eyeing the welts and bruises. “You can’t take my weight.”
Even though her body shook and strained to do what normally took no effort at all, she felt too desperate to agree. “It’ll be fine. I read somewhere that orgasms release chemicals in the brain that act like natural pain relievers.”
Then she yanked at the zipper of her jeans, trying to pull them off.
His hand caught both of hers, stilling them, and when she looked up, she found his mouth twitching into his version of a smile. “I admit to being something so horrible that death was too good for me, and now you want to fuck.”
Her hands flexed against his as she smiled back. “You’re a man who changes into a wolf and a wolf that changes into a man. That seems straightforward enough to me.”
Would he remember how she’d said that to him before, one rainy day not so long ago? When her life had still been hopeless, loveless, dead but for a spark of curiosity toward this terse creature and the hunger she saw in his eyes?
Those eyes now looked very green as he growled, giving her jeans a quick jerk that ripped open the fly. His gaze grew insatiable as he pulled down the denim and took in the state of her panties. The modest pink cotton was soaked through and clinging to her plump folds, and she was already gasping even before his fingers slid down and squeezed the swollen flesh.
Her hips arched, sending flares of pain throughout her spine, but in the next moment, he soothed them down, palm flat and easy against the soft skin of her lower stomach until she fell limp.
“Easy,” he said once more, hand sliding under the thin fabric of her panties. “We’ll go slow.”
When the rasp of his callouses found her, she jerked again, clawing at the blankets beneath her. She was always desperate when caught up in arousal, begging with every twitch of her hips for more, panting and throbbing for release at the merest brush of fingers. Her lust was a shooting star, brief and glorious and white-hot. Easy? She didn’t know what that meant.
He showed her, every movement of his fingers pacing her, slowing when she began to gasp, moving away to stroke her hip or thigh when she began to shudder. She was used to sharp teeth, to the roughness of a stubbled chin rasping at her throat, against her back, on the sensitive skin of her thighs. She was used to coiled tension simmering against her body, every muscle tense with power and pinning her still for an insistent cock. This was completely different and yet just as delicious, his expression relaxed while she clenched her thighs against him, moaning with every flick of his hand. All sense of time faded, and all thought, as well. It was only them together, him drawing her to the edge but never letting her fall over it.
Finally, when her thighs were slick with her fluids, his thumb pressed in. As soon as it found her clit, she was lost in a climax, hips rocking to his slow rhythm. Even after her release had dwindled to hot aftershocks and the prickle of sweat, her legs continued to weakly rub against his arm. The blankets were bunched wrinkles in her grip.
Dimly, she grew aware of his hand sliding over her lower stomach and continuing up, leaving a wet trail in its wake. When his fingers reached her panting mouth, she sucked at them without hesitation, limbs still limp.
“You really love it, don’t you?” he murmured.
She just hummed, sliding her tongue against his callouses.
Before the haze of lust cleared enough for her to attempt words, he pulled back and stood. Even in her dazed state she sensed him tugging her jeans and panties all the away off, lightly stroking the backs of her knees to send fresh shivers throughout her. Then came the sound of him unzipping his fly, and her next breath was a hiss of excitement as he eased her legs apart.
The delicious pressure of his cock pushing in gave her a rush of energy, and she reached out, wanting to touch more of him. His thrusts were slow but deep as he caught her hips, keeping her still whenever she tried to writhe. When one of his hands slid back to her clit, she jerked and caught his wrist, fingernails digging in.
He let her clutch at him, his breath occasionally dipping into a growl while his thumb continued to grind against her, driving her ever closer to another climax. A change in pressure left her nails scraping hard enough to draw blood, and she winced, expecting him to shake her off. He did, but only to catch her nearest hand in his, lacing their fingers together. That hint of tenderness—even as it felt like he was splitting her apart with every thrust—left her panting his name through a fresh wave of heat.
He looked down at her, a sheen of sweat on his muscles and hunger in his eyes as he shifted, bringing their hips together at a new angle. In the privacy of their home, she could howl without being heard, and did, voice rising above his snarl as his final thrusts grew rough and quick.
By the time he was through his release, her skin was as slick with sweat as his, but the sting of damp scrapes and bruises faded to nothing when he stretched over and caught her mouth with his, his tongue now slow as if he savored every hint of her. Somehow, she found enough energy to kiss him back, licking at his teeth to remind him how she loved his monstrousness as much as the rest of him.
From his rumble of a laugh, he understood.