Wolf's Bane (Monstrous Hearts #2)

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Chapter Eleven

The doctor had prescribed two weeks’ rest for a full recovery, and Alice dutifully followed those orders, well aware that Samhain drew ever closer and carried with it whatever Magdalene planned next. In the first few days at home, her body demanded rest to the point where she hardly bothered to get out of bed, the chilly autumn hours sliding by while she curled up with Colton in a tangle of limbs.

His patience surprised her, that ravenous appetite for her flesh tempered into a hot mouth that only tasted at her bruised skin, coaxing sweet releases from her battered body whenever her tension over Magdalene’s menace became too much to bear. Whenever she dozed, he would read, his free hand tracing along her body as the rustle of pages followed her into calm, dreamless sleep. Awake, she talked about whatever slipped into mind.

Ah, but it sounded so simple, didn’t it? To murmur into the ear of a lover content to let her go on about anything and for however long she wished, as long as it meant he didn’t have to talk back. To admit both deepest vulnerability and silliest pettiness to a beast indifferent to huffs of breath.

What monstrous thing could she pull from her thoughts that would be worse than the very monster beside her? What secret would he bother to use against her when he had his teeth to savage? His was the danger of jaws in the dark and bloodthirst beneath the moon. The day he decided to hurt her would be the day she died from a torn-out throat. Her mind would remain untouched.

Such a simple thing, yes, to speak without care, and yet the freedom still stunned her. To let the syllables fall from her mouth like stones cast into deep water, rough and heavy and forgotten as soon as they sank out of sight. To shine a light on the wretched, clammy-skinned things curled in their hiding places, exposing them in full. And the beast beside her still listened without concern, that hunter’s passion never ebbing from a wrong word said or a wrong opinion given.

“It’s like she trained me,” she said one morning, while thick clouds drizzled rain outside the bedroom windows. She was naked, belly-down on the crumpled sheets and chin resting on her crossed arms, eyes closed against the delicious afterburn of teeth marks on her shoulder. The bruising on her neck was still too violent to take his intensity.

Colton lounged beside her, the dry flick of paper meeting paper telling her that he was reading. His free hand followed the curve of her spine as she considered the truth to her words. “It was never obvious. All of her was unusual, beautifully so. It would have felt strange if she had been normal about anything. What you saw of her—she didn’t used to be so openly horrible like that. In fact, she was really good at making people feel special. She just didn’t care by the end, and knew I was too deep into things to pull away.”

Colton’s hand squeezed at her nearest hip, then, soothing away the knot of tension there and coaxing out more words. “Rob told me it was a pattern with her. That she did it to girls who reminded her of Indigo. I always wondered if Indigo was different. Those letters that Magdalene wrote to her… They seemed vulnerable in a way she never was with anyone else. But that night by the river, she told me Indigo hadn’t waited for her. That she’d gone on.”

“Who’d want an eternity with that fucking woman?”

The bluntness startled a laugh out of Alice, and she arched into the rough palm that ran over the dimples in the small of her back. “That’s true. I wanted it, once, but now I can’t think of anything worse.”

Then she fell serious, opening her eyes as the handful of days left until Samhain bore down on her thoughts. The look on Magdalene’s face there at the river’s edge, so wild with fury and desperation… If Colton was right about her disappearing to lick her own wounds, what would happen once she recovered enough to attack again?

Before fear could do more than prickle at her, Alice heard the pages of Colton’s book flutter shut, the only hint that his attention had shifted before she found herself rolled onto her back and held there as he stretched over her. His hair was still damp with sweat from the round of fucking, but his gaze had lost its laziness, now alert as he studied her face. Alice instinctively wrapped both legs around him, but her voice fell breathless with worry, not lust. “Only eleven days left until Samhain. She’ll have the whole night to try to take me back with her.”

“Won’t happen.” The rough edge in his voice turned soothing as he settled his weight against her, the pressure easy, calming.

Still, her body shivered against his as another laugh left her, this one short and bitter. “Once upon a time, her attention felt like being blessed by a higher being. The idea of being needed by her—forever—didn’t scare me like it should have. I was that deluded. And she was that good with words.”

Her cheeks burned over admitting such stupidity, especially when she could feel the bruises pulling at the flesh of her neck with every word.

Then Colton cupped her face, coaxing her to look at him. “Hard to understand what forever means until you get a taste of it. What was yours?”

It was so rare to hear a question from him that at first she only blinked, mind blank for a few breaths. Then the answer came to her. “The first time she slept with someone else. We’d gone to a party thrown by… I can’t remember. Either her agent or her editor. Magdalene was drunk, and she found a fan of The Chrysalis and went home with her before we’d even hit the second hour of being there. I had to stand there and pretend nothing had happened. That it was normal. And then the next morning, when she came back to our apartment, I looked at her face and knew it really would become normal. She’d crossed a line, and I hadn’t left, and so she’d keep crossing it. We both knew it.”

Then Alice swallowed hard, realizing her voice had started to tremble. Not from grief, no—from sheer fury. At Magdalene, at herself, at the sad, twisted thing that had become their relationship. The rage seemed to sink down to her bones as she looked up at Colton, again, their noses brushing. “I can’t go back to that. I can’t go back to her.”

“You won’t,” he said, his voice savage and sure.

Then he kissed her, slow and intent, as if he liked the taste of her rage as much as everything else about her. In contrast, her mouth was desperate against his, her limbs tight and twining while every inch of her body declared the words that she still couldn’t say. I want to live.

As his attention shifted, the rasp of his beard teasing a path down the hollow of her throat, she arched, already feeling his cock grow heavy and hard against her. But she was still angry at herself, and at his first thrust, her fingernails ripped at her thighs instead of the sheets. He growled at that, a brusque warning reverberating from his chest to hers, rumbling against the sensitive skin just over her heart. But she didn’t stop, long-repressed feelings now seething to the surface as if her earlier words had smashed the cage that had kept them still and quiet. Her nails bit into her flesh again, and within another breath she found her arms pinned above her head.

She met Colton’s glare without flinching, met his lingering growl with a snarl in her own voice. “I was so stupid. How could I have fallen for her? Stayed with her? There were so many times I could have left or made a different choice. I could have avoided all of this.”

“Anyone can say that about themselves. I could’ve gone down a different path and died like any other man.” Colton’s hands remained unyielding against her arms, but he leaned in until their mouths brushed. “We are what we are, Alice. You’re vulnerable, caring. The wrong person noticed. That’s all.”

She released a shaky breath, feeling her fingers relax from where they had curled into her palms. “And what are you?”

Something softer than anger glittered in those feral eyes as he began to move against her again, hips grinding against hers in a slow, hard rhythm. “Uncontrollable. Hungry. A hunter who made the wrong people realize they were easy game.”

The words left her clenching against him, and he gave her that short, quiet growl that was the closest he ever came to catching his breath. His next words came out rougher. “You’re supposed to be scared by that.”

She shook her head, breathless by that point, arching to change the angle of his cock driving into her until it hit even deeper with every thrust. “I like that about you.”

“I can tell.”

His hands still had her arms pinned to the bed, but she relaxed against the pressure, the coiled spring of her heart easing as she matched his rhythm. She was always so hot, so sudden with her need. Writhing against him out of desperation. More, more… He was never too much, not for her. And he—he savored her, thrusting hard and slow to feel her body jolt against his, nuzzling his nose against hers so that her mouth panted against his. Her release was wracking, white-hot, and her voice sounded close to a howl as it filled the room.

Later, as he licked the salt of drying sweat from her throat and breasts, she tightened her legs around him to keep him close.

“Thank you,” she mumbled, still caught up in the afterglow. “That grounded me, again.”

A rumble of a laugh against her. “Not like I got nothing out of it, myself.”

With her hands free again, she managed to lift one enough to stroke at his thick, dark hair, the other remaining limp by her head. Thoughts slipped back into her mind, calmer now. One breath, two, and then an idea rose from her haze, sharp and dangerous with its very newness. “I still have the letters she wrote me. They’re in that moving box, now, but I kept them out of sight even before she died. At first they hurt too much to look at, and then later I never wanted to find out if they still held power over me.”

“And now?” He tasted at the hollow of her throat, right where her pulse beat slow and steady despite the decision forming in her mind.

“I want to see them.”

She pulled on his flannel shirt against the chill before dragging the cardboard box from its space in the closet. Colton remained easy in his skin, focused on lighting a fire to chase away the cold and shadows in the room. She settled on the floor, sitting close to the hearth so that he could watch if he cared to, and began sorting all that remained of her time spent with Magdalene. She moved cautiously, carefully, as if she handled poisoned gold or bloodstained diamonds. Precious things that had turned ghastly, preening things that had gone foul.

The notebooks and half-drafts were put into manila envelopes and then into the small safe where she kept all important papers; death often magnified an author’s genius, and she didn’t doubt that within a few years, people would come sniffing in hopes of releasing anything new that could be attached to Magdalene’s name. The letters Magdalene had written to Indigo also went into the safe, sharing an envelope with the photo of the girl, herself.

Then Alice picked up the letters written to her, rubbing the edges with fingertips damp from nerves. Colton remained silent, gaze intent on her face as she shuffled them like cards, keeping them neatly folded up. Keeping the words written on them hidden from view. She didn’t want to read them; she just wanted to find out how they felt in her hands. If she felt like the same girl, again, while holding them.

But they only felt like paper, and the faint smells of tobacco and ink no longer fascinated her with their hints of a life unknown to her. In fact, they only made her nose itch with the need to sneeze, and she dropped them into her lap in relief. No, these letters had lost all their power to bewitch. She knew that life of tormented words punctuated by cigarettes and wine, knew it and hated it.

Now she only wondered if she was bold enough to be rid of these last physical mementos of that life—permanently.

You might regret it, whispered the part of her mind that always doubted, always worried, always fretted. You might wish to look back on them years later, when they would no longer hurt to read.

But the rest of her suspected the ache would never completely fade, that it wasn’t the type of wound that would ever heal pain-free. The words would haunt her just like their owner, and so would the love she’d once held, so laughably adoring and fervent.

Slowly, she rifled through the letters, opening them up to find one in particular. Words flashed before her eyes, syllables woven in the gorgeous rhythm of a wordsmith that knew her skill. Weathered paper and faded ink couldn’t dim their glittering nature, and Alice soon found the paragraph she’d sought out.

I think there’s some part of you that will always love me, even just a little. It’s the key to eternity, being held in someone’s heart long after vanishing from their daily life.

Alice looked up to where Colton sat at the edge of the hearth, watching her. A few feet of space separated them, and she leaned over the box to offer the letter. As he took it, face expressionless, she said, “That turning point I told you about, earlier, where she left with someone else… She wrote me this letter when she came back the next morning. Slipped it under my coffee cup.”

He read through it quickly, teeth flashing in a silent snarl before he handed it back. “It’s not even a fucking apology.”

“Well, she wasn’t good at those.” Alice’s thumb ran over one corner of the letter a final time, and then she folded it and set it with the rest.

“I want to burn these,” she said, and was proud that she sounded so certain.

He added a few small branches to the fire, dry, knobby ones that burned bright and hot while she gathered the letters in order. She still knew every crease and crinkle in each one, still knew at a glance how to order them from first to last. With Colton bare-skinned and her wearing nothing more than an oversized shirt, it felt both too casual and strangely ritualistic to be in such physical states for what she was about to do. The wolf at ease and the witch girl not quite able to strip herself down to raw, vulnerable flesh.

Nerves fluttered through her while she knelt across from him, the letters crinkling in her grip while the flames cast up sparks and smoke. “You once said I seemed to be under some kind of spell from her. I don’t think breaking it is as easy as burning some letters. But I think it could help. Is that my witch blood speaking, or just a silly hope?”

He gave her that shrug he used toward anything inexplicably human, body relaxed even while her fingers tightened against the paper. “It’s your idea to do it. That’s all that matters.”

She smiled a little, understanding what he didn’t say. Her idea, when she was so used to following the ones thought up by others. “You’ve never decided things for me.”

He just gave her that sly look before feeding the fire another small log. It popped against the hunger of the flames.

When the heat from the fire reached her face, she finally pulled the first letter free from the rest. The paper was thick, almost velvety, and still the color of cream. Magdalene had never spared any expense on writing materials. She ran fingertips over it, remembering how hot her cheeks had felt the very first time she’d read the letter, hair twisted into a messy bun and dog hair covering the scrubs she still wore from her shift as a volunteer at the vet clinic.

Hello, sweet Alice…

Her gaze skipped a few lines, finding the sentence that had filled her with something so sweet and radiant that she had felt sure she glowed.

I see something in you that died in me. It gives me hope.

She didn’t read any further. Before she could think, her fingers crumpled up the letter, the thick paper folding into edges that bit at her palm. Before she could hesitate, her hand swung toward the fire in a throwing motion clumsy with rage and desperation. The balled-up letter rolled into the heart of the flames.

A dark thrill rose within her as the paper withered and blackened, a shock as strong as when she’d been forced to watch the same thing happen to the wolf pelt. The sight of this, however, brought a small smile to her face. She really hadn’t thought she had it in her to destroy anything. Not her.

The next letter went into the fire as a crumpled ball, too. By the third, that thrill pulsing in time with her heart had bristled into something savage, and she ripped the paper in half before flinging both pieces at the flames. Another letter, and then another, the words leaping out at her in the instant before the fire devoured them whole.

When the final letter crackled in the fireplace, she looked at Colton, breathing as heavily as if she’d spent those past minutes running. “Those would have been worth a lot of money, considering how everyone is building her reputation. Especially in a few more years. But I don’t care. I just wanted to…”

When her voice trailed off, Colton raised his eyebrows. “To get a bite in.”

“Yes.” The word came out as half a laugh. “Especially since I can’t burn everything away.”

Then she looked back at the flames, watching the fire dim in an exhalation of sparks. When Colton moved in and pulled her close, she melted into him, feeling his chin rasp against the top of her head. “Even after Samhain comes and goes, she’ll keep trying. She’ll never leave.”

And now she, the witch girl, would have to fight and keep fighting. Suddenly, she better understood a little of the horror that immortality could bring. Of what made Colton sound so tired whenever he alluded to it. How many times had he woken up, the same pattern of fight or flight stretching out before him while years blurred into a meaningless flicker of seasons? How did one make peace with an eternal struggle?

Ah, but beasts know how to endure. If they can walk despite a wound, they walk. If they must run, they run, and don’t hesitate at the pain.

Even as her calm attitude threatened to slip, his arms tightened around her. “If the bitch keeps coming back, then we keep chasing her off.”

The words reassured her in their very simplicity, a granite bedrock to build on, and she nodded, falling quiet while they both watched the blackened remains of the letters flake into ash at the heart of the fire. No, some burned paper wasn’t much, but it was still something and she felt lighter for it.

“What else did she do that morning?” said Colton, suddenly. When she blinked up at him, startled by his rare curiosity, he added, “To make it up to you.”

“Well, nothing. I stayed.”

“Make breakfast?”

“Magdalene never cooked.”

“Brew the coffee to go with that bullshit letter?”

Alice shook her head. “She was already in the shower when I got up. Why?”

“Just curious. You get hungry in one way or another when you come back from a tough blow. Figures the bitch never saw that.”

Alice couldn’t help smiling. “Is that a hint?”

He nipped at her ear, words turning sly. “Maybe. Feel like some food?”

“I do,” she said, surprised at the truth to the words. She had eaten regular meals since the accident, yes, but with the mechanical awareness that her body needed it to survive. Now she felt more… Awake. Ready to find the pleasure in food, again.

Even as she tried to think of what to cook—breakfast in the past few days had simply been toast with jam or butter, and they’d finished the last of the bread yesterday—Colton said, “It won’t look pretty like yours, but I know how to make oatmeal.”

“You can cook?” she said, twisting around to look at him in full.

“A little. Sometimes, there’s no forest or field to hunt in while I’m living like a man.”

It was too much to resist, glimpsing this new side of him, and she nodded eagerly, drawing his version of a laugh from him.

In the kitchen, he ignored measuring cups and ripped open bags with his teeth. The coffee pot burbled away while a lump of butter melted in the pot. Oats went in by the handful, the flakes sizzling as soon as they hit the hot butter. Colton eyed the results before shaking in spices and giving everything a cautious sniff.

To Alice, who carefully weighed and measured ingredients and immediately returned them to their places in the kitchen, it was a fascinating chaos. And yet the smells already filling the small kitchen left her mouth watering. “You have hidden talents.”

When she inched closer over the stove, feeling more ravenous by the second, he said, “I just do what smells good. And I know what to eat to heal faster.”

That sobered her somewhat, and she had to reach out and touch him, to feel the solid warmth of his arm flexing against her touch as he splashed in milk straight from the carton.

At that, he glanced over, shaking his head. “I’m fine, Alice. I always turn out fine.”

With the oatmeal now simmering away, he moved over to her, hands bracing against the counter behind her as he leaned in until their noses brushed. She found herself thinking back to the time when he’d been the wounded one, nothing more to her than a wolf dying from a gunshot.

“You laughed when I asked if Magdalene could hurt you,” she said, softly. “But that bullet did.”

“Misery’s different from dying. It’s difficult, getting a bullet out. Slows me down.”

When she bit her lip, he licked at her mouth, coaxing her teeth to release the tender flesh. “I’m no beaten-down dog. Don’t feel sorry for me just because there’s roughness to my past. I figured out ways to keep going.”

And that was the crux of things, wasn’t it? To keep living despite it all. She thought of the uselessness of her nails biting into her own skin, earlier. Of Magdalene’s refusal to move past Indigo and Darby’s refusal to move past Magdalene. Samhain lurked ahead, yes, but right now it was a bright morning and there were things to enjoy in it.

When she nodded and licked him back, he teased her, his hips pinning her against the counter while he reached behind to pour them coffee.

She knew how to tease back. “What makes you decide whether to live as a man or a wolf?”

His hand squeezed her thigh before reaching above her head to grab bowls. “They’re just different ways to find shelter. And things change. I had to hide in the woods when people still knew what I was. Then they started putting different names to me, started thinking I was just a spirit, instead.”

He paused to rip open a bag of frozen fruit and shake some into the bottoms of the bowls. Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries immediately began thawing as he poured the oatmeal onto them. Alice sipped at her coffee, trying for patience, and then gave in when he remained silent, dropping spoonfuls of peanut butter on top before finishing it all off with a handful of mixed nuts. “You can’t stop there. What did they call you?”

“Different things. Churchyard beasts, sometimes. Or hairy ghosts. Gravewolves. Black devils.” Then he handed her one of the bowls. “They’d leave food at the edge of the woods, sometimes. Offerings for safety, or in thanks if I decided not to rip open their bellies whenever they crossed my part of the woods. Mostly little cakes or iced buns.”

“Sweet things,” she said, satisfaction rippling through her. She’d wondered for a while how a wolf in the forest had developed a taste for pastries and confections.

Then her gaze dropped to the bowl in her hands. The rich smell of peanut butter and pecans mingled with the warmth of cinnamon and toasted oats. Her mouth watered even before she took her first spoonful.

Colton watched, head cocked to one side. When she hummed and took another bite, he said, “Even little things make you happy.”

“There’s nothing little about this. It’s fantastic.”

He didn’t acknowledge compliments like a human, simply shrugging them off.

They ate in comfortable silence. She savored every bite, unable to remember the last time someone had cooked for her once she’d left for college, and insisted on helping him clean up, still licking traces of peanut butter from her teeth while tucking things back in the cabinets.

It was while they lounged on the couch, their second cups of coffee in hand, that she asked, “What makes you leave the woods?”

Her voice had fallen slightly shy, slightly cautious. He always bore her questions even though he rarely answered them in detail, but this was something she had wondered over for some time. Surely, she couldn’t be the only sympathetic person he’d ever met. And from his carnal appetites, she flat-out knew she couldn’t have been the only woman.

He studied her, and something in her expression drew a straight answer from him. “It’s not enough, being a wolf. I can live as one for years, decades even, but I’ll still remember what it’s like to be a man. Who I was. Not much, but enough.”

Then he glanced over at their faint reflections in the nearest window, sounding slightly surprised. “Even now, things sometimes come to me. Like remembering how I used to be clean-shaven.”

His knuckles rasped against his beard as if he tried to remember what his face even looked like.

Alice hesitated, sensing the deep roots behind those simple words. “And now you’re not.”

He looked at her, faint amusement slipping into his eyes. “No. Now I twitch whenever you cut my hair.”

His hand rubbed at his jaw a final time before falling away. “It is what it is.”

Alice was naturally curious, but she also knew when to let something drop rather than press forward, and only nodded. When she dropped her head against his shoulder, she felt the muscles there relax. Whatever had happened, it was something he didn’t want to talk about it.

In a few more days, her bruises started turning yellow and she grew stronger, able to clean around the house. Colton cooked a few more times, but she didn’t miss his look of relief when she felt well enough for them to shop for groceries that could be turned into a few meals.

She began taking walks in the woods, Colton loping alongside in his fur. Something about the height of the trees and the endless gloom of thick woodland stretching before her excited her, made her blood pulse hard and fast. Perhaps it was simply a faint memory of her time spent wearing the wolf pelt; perhaps it was only the excitement of seeing Colton bound between trees, at ease with himself despite what she now knew lurked in his past. The ache of following along on two human feet was a small yet persistent one, but she kept it locked away as best as she could and enjoyed what was still left to her.

Sometimes, Alice’s stepmother called, and Alice would make agreeable sounds in response to the reassurances that her father wouldn’t hold out forever. In truth, she hardly listened, because it was old pain, dull pain, and in between Denise’s words was the sensation of Colton lazily playing with her, taking her tension and transforming it into a different, sweeter type. Eventually, Denise would hang up, and they would be left to themselves, again, stretching those precious final days of safety to their fullest.

Could one call it a honeymoon of a sort? Their wedding being one of blood and hauntings, of near-drowning and savage teeth. Their vows made in flesh and torn sheets, in the raw reveal of her thoughts and the lack of his concern when she kissed scar tissue on his skin.

Yes, a honeymoon, one where the sunlit days rimmed them in gold while they shared bites of succulent roasts and apple-filled pastries, and star-strewn nights draped them in shadow while she lay his head on her lap to pull leaves burrs from his hair, the taste of blood heavy on her tongue from licking it off him.

He did remain silent over one thing—that detail from his past about being clean-shaven and how it now seemed to needle at him. Alice often caught him glancing at mirrors he had previously ignored, always with his hand scratching at his scruff. Since he never said anything, she didn’t, either, but it wasn’t difficult to see that it bothered him, that he couldn’t remember something as simple as how he’d once looked.

And one afternoon, while she was baking a batch of pumpkin turnovers, it got the better of him. He disappeared into the bathroom while she whisked together the cinnamon glaze, and a little while later, just as she sprinkled sparkling sugar as a final touch, pleased with how crisp and airy the puff pastry had turned out, the sound of metal clattering against the porcelain of the sink rang out.

“Fuck!” Colton’s snarl echoed.

Alice dropped the sugar bottle and ran for him, wincing over what had probably happened. The bathroom door was already ajar, and she pushed it open to find him growling at his reflection in the mirror above the sink. A trickle of red ran from the single patch of shaved skin on his throat. The rest of his scruff was hidden behind a lather of soap.

Without looking at her, he said, “I don’t remember everything about that ritual. Just when they slit my throat. It’s fucking stuck with me.”

Then he raised one hand enough to show how it still trembled, and growled again. It was a fearsome sound, a dangerous sound, but Alice drew close without fear, pressing a towel against the cut as he fell quiet, again. She couldn’t imagine what it must have taken him to even bring the edge to his skin.

What good is pity to a nightmare creature? Sing their praises in whispered tales of terror, honor their ferocity with gifts of appeasement, worship their strangeness by weaving their existence into the mundane fabric of the world—give shadows teeth and claws, lust and hunger. Pity is not for those who are feared.

Even as Alice ran comforting fingers through his hair, she considered the razor lying in the sink, and then the spots of blood dotting the porcelain. “Do you want me to do it?”

When that drew a searing glance in her direction, she added, “I won’t cut you. I shave a lot more of me, and every day at that.”

The muscles in his back remained bunched with tension, but his voice sounded calmer. “You don’t grow it on your face.”

“No, but I’ve felt your face over every inch of my body and I know exactly what I’d be working with.”

Despite the surly twitch of his shoulders, he didn’t stop her when she turned on the water, testing it until it ran warm from the faucet. “Here. Wash off the shaving cream. We need to soften the hair, first.”

While he did that, she brought over the pre-shaving oil she used on herself. He gave it a dubious sniff and then let her rub it on, still scowling.

She began talking, aware of how sometimes the very lull of her voice eased him into a calmer state. “You have rough hair, which means you’ll scrape yourself a lot when trying a close shave. This oil will prevent that. Let it sit for a minute, if you can; the smell shouldn’t be too bad.”

His response was another shrug, but he had already come back into himself enough to sit on the edge of the bathtub, leaving it easier for her to reach his face.

“You’re not the first man I’ve shaved,” she said, cleaning the razor. “The salon I worked at offered that, too. I won’t hurt you.”

“I know.” But the words were terse, and a frown line was still etched deep between his eyebrows.

She studied him while lathering his face with shaving cream, her fingers careful yet confident. He never trusted words. What were little huffs of breath to a creature like him? Teeth used or restrained, now… Yes, he understood that. And the softness of a body against his own, or the sweetness of a tongue. If she wanted to put him at ease, words weren’t the way to go about it at all.

He had tensed up again, realizing it was time for the razor, but the look on his face changed as she settled into his lap, and his hands instinctively caught her by the waist to keep her balanced.

She had dressed in one of his shirts for the day, and only the shirt, leaving her bare cunt pressed against the rough denim of his jeans. His eyes dilated when she shifted to take the razor from the edge of the sink, slyly using the movement to rub against him. Then he swore under his breath, and she felt one of his hands leave her waist as he readjusted himself. When she licked her lips, not entirely exaggerating her excitement at his virility, he growled. “You’re playing with me now?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll concentrate,” she murmured. “I’m just hoping to make things a little less tense. Raise your chin and trust me.”

Beneath the lather of shaving cream, his mouth went grim again, but he did as she asked, revealing the strong lines of his neck. Her hand remained steady and light as she made the first stroke, satisfied that the razor’s edge slid smoothly without a hint of snagging.

He remained still as she continued, following the light touch of her fingers to angle his head this way or that. The fingers digging into her hips relaxed little by little as she fell into a rhythm, interspersing the strokes of the razor with occasional brushes of her guiding hand through his hair or along his shoulder. When she checked his sideburns to make sure they were even, she risked squeezing her thighs against him and felt his grip on her tighten. The line between his eyes had disappeared, smoothed out by a new type of frustration, and she bit her lip to keep from laughing.

Her strokes were careful yet efficient, and she finished quickly. After setting aside the razor and wiping his face clean with a towel, she looked him over. This time her legs clenched against him unconsciously. “Jesus, Colton. You look good.”

Without the scruff, the strong line of his jaw was undeniable. He still looked rugged, and his eyes still held the gleam of something feral, but now the sharpness and hunger in his face were revealed in full.

He remained silent, intent on her, and when she started to slide off to let him get up and take a look at her handiwork, he only held on tighter. “You’re done with that part of me.”

The tone to the words made her shiver. Without thinking, she stroked at his freshly-revealed face, still marveling at it.

The glint in his eyes changed, and then he was kissing her. He had lost none of his roughness, devouring her with every slide of his tongue and every nip of his teeth. She gasped at the new sensations of skin on skin, of hard bone magnified. The prickle of hair had been replaced by smooth power and she was desperate for more, already grinding against his jeans as a silent form of begging.

He ripped open her shirt with a single jerk of his hands. Buttons popped and clinked on the tiles, and she had a moment to feel the cool rush of air on her exposed breasts before his hot mouth found her. She arched her back, panting even before he found one nipple and caught it between his teeth. It was both too much and not enough, and she writhed, digging her nails into his shoulders. At that, his hand slid up the length of her back, snarling into her hair and pulling her head back. It left her gasping, left her chest thrust out and vulnerable to his hunger, and he acted on it, sucking and nipping and biting. Working her into a frenzy until she begged his name and dampened his jeans with her slick, grinding cunt.

He could snap her neck if he wanted. He could make his bites maul instead of tease. But even as his growl rumbled against her skin, she only urged him on. She had met with sadism before and couldn’t find an ounce of it in his appetite. And she was as hungry as he…

Then his other hand slipped from her waist to her swollen cunt and rough fingers pushed against her tender flesh, finding her clit and rubbing at it roughly, drawing out her panting into moaning. Then his fingers pinched, and she howled, thrashing against him in quick, overwhelming release. The aftershocks hit just as hard, and she would have slid to the floor in a boneless heap if he hadn’t continued to hold onto to her.

He seemed content to just rub his cock against her cleft while she shook and panted, the hand at her neck now stroking along her skin, calming her down. She pulled herself together enough to shoot him a puzzled glance, surprised that he wasn’t balls-deep in her.

He understood it. Without his beard, his smile was more obvious. “Not nearly finished with you, yet. Just letting you catch your breath. Teasing me while I can’t fucking move.” But the words sounded wry, and the look in his eyes had a lazy smolder.

“If we’re going to do this a lot, it might as well be fun.” She stroked along the side of his jaw and then twisted enough to give him a clear view of the mirror. “Have you seen yourself?”

He remained quiet, but his grip against her tightened as he stared at his reflection in near-bewilderment. Then his knuckles ran against his newly-smooth chin. “I’d forgotten. It’d been so long that I’d forgotten what I looked like beneath all the hair.”

Then his gaze flickered back to her, the green of his eyes gone dark with surprise. When the struggle for words entered them, she shook her head and nuzzled at his face, repeating his words back at him. “It’s not like I got nothing out of it, myself.”

It drew a huff of a laugh from him, but he still looked at her in a way that left her breathless, and when they kissed, his tongue slid against hers like she was nothing he’d ever tasted before.

No, she couldn’t change his past or have it weigh on him less heavily, not anymore than he could with hers. But she could show that she’d seen this side of him and still loved him, and she would continue to show that with each day left to them, no matter how many or how few that proved to be.

And for the first time since Magdalene had tried to choke the life out of her, Alice felt ready to do more than survive. She felt ready to fight.

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