Wolf's Bane (Monstrous Hearts #2)

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Chapter Twelve

Ah, see how the girl appears so silent and sure while walking through the woods? See how the black wolf lopes nearby—sometimes bounding ahead and sometimes circling back to her side, night-dew on his fur and nose keen. The stars have gone. The sky grows grey with coming dawn. It’s time to return home.

The wolf’s path steadies, gains purpose. The girl’s feet remain light, finding purchase against the tangled ferns and fallen, moss-covered branches that would have left her hesitant in the near past. The air between the massive tree trunks is still dark, still untouched by the weak light, but her steps falter only when the wolf growls in warning. His ears prick toward the violent shaking of branches ahead of them, toward a shape emerging from the gloom of the forest.

The girl sees the spread of antlers and hears the snort of breath. She recognizes the hulking form, and ducks behind the nearest tree even with the black wolf’s teeth between her and it. It’s a buck, aggressive from being in rut and ready to attack anything that isn’t the doe it seeks. The girl knows enough to understand the danger of a creature driven mad by its instincts—stay still and the buck will slash and gore. Run and it will chase and trample. Even now, faced with the black wolf’s slavering jaws, the buck lowers its antlers and shakes them in threat.

But the wolf only sneezes a laugh before beginning his hunt, dodging those sharp points of bone and snapping at the side of the buck to lure it in the opposite direction of the girl. A rake of teeth drives the deer’s frustration into fury, and hooves just miss the wolf’s ribs. The wolf circles away only to lunge back in, biting the meat of a back leg and letting go when the buck twists to slash at those painful teeth.

It’s a test to see which is more nimble, more deadly: wicked antlers or savage jaws. Hooves rip up the ground from the force of each charge. Teeth snatch at convulsing muscle and release it just as quickly. The buck soon spins in a circle with every bite, desperate to gore the shadow that always slips just out of reach.

The girl holds her breath each time the deer slashes, fear mixing with a dark thrill as its antlers cut through only air. If the wolf is hurt, she’ll be left defenseless against the enraged buck, and yet that fact isn’t what leaves her heart racing. There’s something pure in this brutality, and an ugly honesty can be found in these two beasts fighting each other. Life spills to the ground as blood, shows itself in muscle trembling with power and growing exhaustion. To watch them is to remember that her own heart is simple, struggling flesh.

Finally, the buck stumbles from one too many bites to its back legs. As quick as a thought, the wolf lunges for that thick throat, using all his weight to throw the deer off-balance. Even the girl can smell blood and the reek of fear in the air. The buck falls in a heap of heaving muscle and flailing hooves. It rises just as quickly, eyes wild while trying to shake free.

The wolf lets go and circles out of reach, paws light on the ground as he searches for another chance at a bite. But the buck turns and flees, sides heaving for breath as it bounds out of sight. The wolf doesn’t follow, and his tongue lolls in laughter instead of weariness as the forest falls quiet once more.

When the girl steps out from the cover of the tree, he lopes over, yellow eyes flashing. Blood stains his muzzle, but she crouches without fear and runs hands over his thick fur while he pants. He takes her fussing with some grace, letting her see for herself that he’s uninjured before changing form.

She looks up at the man standing before her, the sunlight now strong enough to burnish his hair and skin until they appear gold. Her heart lurches strangely, but she smiles at him and means it.

Yes, see how the girl remains at ease, her hands already stripping her clothes away while he watches and licks the blood from his mouth. Perhaps it is only the light of the rising sun that gives her eyes such a feral look. Perhaps not…

Even after changing back into human form, sweat ran down Colton’s skin. The buck was gone, chased off, but his gaze remained wild and unsated. Alice had already pulled off her coat and shirt, never looking away from his face. They were close to the house but the air between them felt thick with lust and impatience, felt impossible to push aside. Just as her fingers drifted toward her bra, he caught her by the nape of her neck. From his hardening cock, it was obvious what he wanted.

Her grin grew wicked as she leaned in, nuzzling a path along the etched muscles of his lower stomach. She found a vein where the blood beat hard and fast from the hunt and kissed along it until his cock strained for a different kind of hunt. When he caught a fistful of her hair, the noise that came out of her was close to a growl, itself. They hadn’t been this rough since the accident, and her mouth was all eagerness as she took him in.

She sucked and lathered every inch, humming as musk and sweat filled her senses. Every muscle against her seethed with need, and she coaxed him even further with her sweetness, driving his frenzy as the tang of salt grew in her mouth. Each growl from him left her sucking harder while she clung to him, her fingers digging furrows into the mud on his skin. She knew him well enough to understand the change in his breathing, to understand that he was close… So close…

The sound of twigs and gravel popping beneath wheels barely pierced her awareness. The slam of a car door, though, sent her jerking away even as his grip against her hair tightened. He snarled as she twisted enough to look, cheeks flushing even before she caught sight of the intruder.

A line of firs and their undergrowth shielded them from being seen by whoever had parked in the driveway of their home, but Alice still caught glimpses of pink hair through the gaps between branches.

“Shit,” she whispered, still frozen against Colton. “It’s Darby.”

His only response was to bury fingers deeper into her hair, and his cock remained hard and impatient against her face even when Darby pounded on the front door. When Alice risked glancing away from the other girl, she found Colton’s gaze hot upon her, as intent as if nothing else existed for him in that moment.

“Alice!” Darby’s voice sounded as harsh as a crow’s call, catching her attention once more. “Answer the fucking door. I know what you’ve been doing.”

When Alice shuddered, Colton shifted enough to stroke himself against the curve of her jaw, the lewdness coaxing her to look back at him. His hair was still wet with sweat, and blood spattered his chin and chest from harrying the buck. His teeth flashed as he said, “Fuck her.”

She licked her lips, tasting his musk on them, and saw his eyes darken in response. Even as Darby shrieked her name again, Alice felt an answering savageness rise within her. She rubbed her cheek against his cock and felt it jerk as she smiled into it. “No. Fuck me.

Another growl rumbled in his chest as he thrust himself back into her mouth. Darby’s frustrated voice turned into nothing more than a mosquito’s whine as Alice gave him her softness and heat, panting in time with the rhythm of his hips. Then her tongue flicked against the underside of his cock, and his grip tightened against her hair as he reached release. She moaned around his thickness as heat and salt shot into her mouth, muffling her voice.

Even as she sucked him clean, tongue now slow and soothing, Darby’s words echoed from somewhere on the porch. “My house got broken into, you bitch. Rob says he interrupted the two guys who did it, and that it was some kind of protest against his work. He’s fucking lying and I know it. I know everything.”

As soon as Alice pulled away, panting quietly, Colton was on her, pinning her to the ground. The hunger in his eyes hadn’t dimmed any, and she gasped as he rubbed himself against the denim between her legs, realizing he’d take her as soon as he was ready.

“What if she hears?” she whispered.

His hand paused at the band of her bra, and he looked faintly amused even as Darby beat on the door, again.

“‘Fuck me,’” he quoted at her, and she felt herself arch at the sound of those words in that deep, dark voice.

“I know, and I meant it, but I can’t keep quiet if we’re going this far.”

“I’ll worry about that.” In the brightening light, his eyes looked anything but concerned.

Even as his skin pressed against hers, sticky with blood and dirt, Darby’s voice turned ragged. “Your car’s still here, so I know you’re home. Don’t think you can just hide. Face me, you fucking coward.”

Alice felt her pulse racing in her throat, felt the fear of discovery joined by something hungry and ferocious as she looked at the blood running down Colton’s jaw. What was she? Something that would always cower at someone else’s anger? Something that would always cower out of the fear of being seen? Truly seen? Her heart pounded so hard that she thought her ribs might crack.

“Right after I tell you about the photos, someone breaks in and suddenly everything is destroyed or missing. Big fucking coincidence, right?” The creak of wooden boards beneath footsteps turned into the crunch of gravel, as if Darby now searched the area.

Then Colton’s hand cupped the curve of her cheek, surprisingly tender despite the tension in the rest of his body.

“Trust me,” he said, the words a low rasp as his thumb ran over her mouth.

One breath escaped her. Another. Darby’s footsteps sounded out somewhere near the house, each snapped twig beneath her shoes as sudden and angry as her voice while she kept calling Alice’s name. And yet Alice’s focus remained on Colton as the frantic beat of her heart morphed into something that bristled instead of quaked. His eyes were still green, still human, but he had never appeared more wild to her.

She licked the thumb still against her mouth, and then sucked at it, her gaze still locked with his. It was the only response he needed, and his hand caught her bra and ripped it off in one quick jerk. It was the same savagery as when he’d grabbed the buck’s throat, but she reveled in it, arching as his hot mouth found her nearest breast. The act left her head pressing into the bed of fir needles and moss, but she still heard words cutting through the air, as furious and thwarted as bullets shot in the dark.

“You fooled me, you know. I thought you were just a trust fund baby who got tired of things and went back to your old life. This quiet, meek little mouse.”

Just then, Colton’s teeth nipped, drawing a muffled yelp from her before he straightened up to rip at her jeans. The zipper gave under his intensity; so did the fabric, and she arched her hips to help him pull the shreds off her legs even as heat began to pulse through her. Her hands scrabbled for something to hold onto as she realized he would be unrelenting, ravenous. Delicious.

“It’s all a lie, isn’t it? A mask you wear to fool others. You got someone to steal the photos and trash my place. Probably the guy you live with—I can’t find out anything about him. It’s like he doesn’t even exist. Who the fuck is he, huh?”

Her panties felt tight against her swollen flesh, and she hummed despite herself as he pulled them down, exposing her to the wild air. Her legs clenched around him as the bulk of his weight settled against her.

She was still gasping, but he breathed as lightly as when he’d fought the buck, and the light in his eyes remained much the same. A hunter’s hunger and yet she arched her neck for him without fear, her panting turning shallow with lust at the first rasp of teeth against her skin. The finger-shaped bruises had finally faded enough that she felt only the intoxicating threat of his attention.

“But I figured it out. Even though you didn’t want me to, I fucking figured everything out. And that’s why I’m here.”

Her heart jumped. At Darby’s words? At that dangerous mouth tasting a path along her skin? She didn’t know and didn’t even care as the head of his cock nudged against the swollen, sensitive flesh that protected her clit, leaving her fingers digging into his hair. Some part of her remained aware of the absurdity of this, of how they goaded the chance of being discovered as the wild, thrashing things that they were.

And yet nothing like fear slid through her as Colton raised his head to hers, licking at her mouth as she panted. If this girl wanted to snap at their heels and chase away their peace, let her dare the forest and its primordial heartbeat. Let her shout at the dark. Let her try to threaten the shadows into cringing before her.

And if she did, she wouldn’t find Alice abashed and covering her exposed skin.

Alice tightened her legs around Colton, her fingers now digging at his shoulders as he shifted against her enough to rub the head of his cock along the slippery seam of her cunt. His eyes grew hungrier as they took in the change in her expression, at how she no longer ducked her head as if still nervous of being seen, identified, pilloried.

The lack of response only seemed to infuriate Darby further, and the other girl stalked back to the house, back to the nearest window, peering in at the unlit room while her voice cracked and shook. “Don’t think you can fucking ignore me. I found more photos, different ones. The post-mortems of Magdalene. And you know what I did? I took them to a forensic odontologist, one who specializes in animal bites.”

Alice jerked as he pushed in, biting at her lip at the delicious burn of him stretching her open, filling her inch by inch. Despite the chill in the air, she felt her skin grow damp at the backs of her knees and in the hollow of her throat, felt the dirt on him muddy her stomach and ribs. Her fingers clawed at his back in a silent demand for more.

Then Darby kicked at the front door. “He said that it was a wolf that attacked Magdalene. That mauled her to death.”

Teeth on her neck. Alice shivered, arching into them as hands dug into the softness of her thighs. He was sweating, too, drops falling onto her collarbones and chest as his hips moved in a hard, unrelenting rhythm.

“But it wasn’t just a normal wolf, was it? It was so much more than just a starving animal. So much more than a grotesque tragedy, and you knew it all along.”

The words nearly pulled Alice away, nearly turned her back into something small and frail, but then Colton growled, shifting enough for his mouth to find the heavy flesh of one breast. She was writhing even before the hot press of his tongue tasted at her nipple.

“Magdalene was practicing at shooting ranges in the last weeks before she died. She was trying to protect herself because she was scared. What were you doing, huh? Where were you?”

Alice bit into the flesh of her wrist as she tried to keep quiet, shuddering heat building within her with every movement of his mouth, with every thrust of his cock. Then he shifted against her, pinning her hand back down even while teasing her nipples into sweet points of agony. She writhed against him, panting, flexing her thighs against him to goad him on. Almost there…

Then Darby’s voice turned jagged, vicious, desperate. “I know where. Sneaking behind her back to fuck that mystery man of yours. Plotting with him. You’re murderers.”

Teeth caught her nipple and bit, and she was lost to blinding heat even as a hand covered her mouth, reducing her howl to a muffled whine as she thrashed. Her fingernails bit into his skin so hard she thought he’d flinch. Instead, a laugh rumbled against her chest, and even as she jerked from the aftershocks, the hand against her mouth shifted until it was only a thumb tracing over her lips, leaving her free to pant and tremble.

“How?” For the first time, Darby sounded broken instead of outraged. “How could you look at the body, identify it, and then go home and keep fucking him? What kind of heartless monster are you?”

Alice panted against Colton for a few breaths before twisting enough to look toward the house, drawn by the true grief in the other girl’s voice. The trees remained thick, protective, but she thought she caught flashes of Darby’s pink head bobbing, thought she caught sight of artfully-weathered combat boots testing the groundcover. The other girl was thinking about entering the forest.

Even as Alice’s breath caught in her throat, Colton growled, the weight of his body keeping her from writhing in panic. “Let the bitch find us.”

“I know what you are,” said Darby, her voice now cracking. “I don’t care if it’s impossible or if no one believes me. She’s explained everything in dreams. Showed me what really happened to her. She was mauled to death by a wolf. By you.”

The footsteps had stopped. Alice caught sight of uncertain boots shifting against the first of the creeping ferns that bordered the edges of the woods. “You’re not slipping away from this. Wherever you hide, I’ll find you and make you face what you did. I fucking promise.”

At that, Colton raised his head from the pulse on her throat, finally looking in Darby’s direction. Even as the other girl’s feet retreated, toes pointed in the direction of the driveway, Alice found herself grabbing at his shoulders to keep him close. The hunting look was back in his eyes, and there was nothing playful about it. The buck had been a bit of fun; this would be a kill.

“No,” she whispered, drawing his attention back to her even as the car door slammed.

His eyes looked yellow as they studied her face. “She threatened you. I’m not letting that go.”

She ran a hand up the side of his neck, finding the stickiness of drying blood. “Neither am I, but if she believes everything she said, then that means she came here with something to protect herself. Or that would reveal us. A gun, a hidden camera…”

He gave her words nothing more than a growl, but stayed against her, watching while the car started up and then drove away. She wrapped her legs around his tense body, trying to distract him. He was still inside her, still straining with a load, and once the car drove out of hearing, his focus returned to her face.

“She’s a puppet,” she whispered. “Just like how I was.”

“She’s nothing like you.” The gleam in his eyes still looked murderous, but she felt only the soft heat of his tongue as they kissed, his hips working against her again. His release was quieter than hers, a snarl against her neck while he pinned her still with his weight.

Afterward, she panted while he lazily licked at the suck marks on her throat and breasts. The rest of his body felt just as relaxed, and the look on his face suggested nothing more than satisfaction filled his thoughts. It was as if he’d shaken off Darby’s words and threats as easily as he shook rain from his fur.

For Alice, though, her trembling turned into true shivers, not all of them from the sweat cooling against her skin. Colton noticed, and pulled her up with him. No words were needed while he shook the fir needles out of his hair and she gathered the scraps of her clothes, using some to brush the leaves and dirt off her skin. Only her coat had survived his hunger, and she quickly pulled it on against the cold.

Her phone was in one of the pockets, and it rang even as they walked back to the house. Colton glared at the noise, and Alice knew he thought the same as her—that it was surely a call from Darby. Yet when she pulled her phone free to check, she saw Fiona’s name flashing across the screen.

“It’s not her. It’s my aunt.” A member of the family calling this early? That was very unusual. She had to answer it.

“Ally, darling.” Fiona’s voice rang out, larger than life and utterly delighted. “I didn’t call too early, did I?”

“No, I’ve been up.” By that point, she and Colton had reached the outside water faucet that they always used to wash off the worst of the forest muck. She waved at him to go first and added, “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, I’m fine, but Tom has been looking terrible. He doesn’t like your handyman at all.” Fiona sounded decidedly wicked about that fact. “How long have you been hiding him from us?”

Alice made a noncommittal noise, her gaze drifting over to Colton as he brushed water from his face. Drops continued to trickle over the hard muscles in his chest and stomach, and she quickly looked away to concentrate on her aunt’s response.

“Well, it doesn’t matter. Denise says he’s very nice, and I’m sure your father is exaggerating about things as usual.”

“What’s he saying?” asked Alice, her muddied toes flexing against the gravel in a sudden spike of nerves. When she saw that Colton watched her, she managed a smile and another wave to signal that she was fine, and then started cleaning the mud from her calves.

“Mostly how he can’t do anything about you ruining your life if you won’t accept any help. And he’s always called me the emotional one. I keep telling him it’s good that you’re expanding your horizons now with a salt-of-the-earth type. Experiment early and settle down later.”

Alice’s gaze slid over to Colton again, catching his silhouette through the nearest window as he prowled around inside the house, part of their routine after returning from a walk or a drive. He’d never explained why and she’d never asked, both of them all too aware that he searched for any hint of Magdalene’s presence, any hint of that ghostly pettiness that had left Alice so paranoid and panicked.

The thought of Samhain sweeping her up and carrying her away from him felt like a sharp stab to the heart, and she found herself having to sit on the porch steps to stay composed. “He’s not a phase,” she said, quietly.

“Young hearts always think they know what they want,” her aunt said, airily. “Anyway sweetheart, I’m not calling to argue, so let’s move on. And don’t say no to this idea of ours as soon as you hear it, all right?”

The first threads of apprehension wrapped around her. “All right.”

“Your stepmother and I have been talking. We all know your father is stubborn as a mule. He’ll never make the first move to resolve things even though he’s absolutely miserable right now. I have a small party coming up on the 29th of this month, and we think it would be a fantastic idea if you came to it. At this point, we’re both sure that things will have to be smoothed out in person.”

The thought of facing her father again, of meeting his silence, left her stiff with tension. “But it might just antagonize him even more. You know how he doesn’t like family business being brought into the public eye.”

“Which also means he won’t storm out in front of so many witnesses, or snub any attempt at conversation you’ll make.”

Alice’s teeth rasped against her lower lip at the thought of making him angry again, but she had to admit that her aunt and stepmother had a decent point about having to force him to set aside his silence. Perhaps cold politeness would warm into honest conversation if he had no choice but to talk with her.

But did she want to do this? If these final, precious days before Samhain proved to be her last, did she want to spend one of them on family that expected her to have a whole life waiting ahead, a whole life that they must mold to be sure it fit neatly with theirs?

“It’s not a Halloween party or anything, is it?” she said, a little proud of herself for feeling out the situation rather than immediately giving in.

“No, no. A friend has started a new catering business and I’m throwing a party to showcase her talents. It won’t be very big, only fifty people or so. It begins at seven and there will be dinner, dessert, and coffee for afterward. I’ll email you the official invitation, too.”

“I see.” Alice’s fingers picked at the hem of her coat.

When she said nothing else, her aunt added, “I’ll extend the invitation to Colton, too, if that’s what it takes to get you to agree.”

“I appreciate that, but I still need to think about it.”

From her aunt’s short pause, Alice knew that her sudden resistance was confusing. Fiona’s voice sounded uncharacteristically as she said, “All right, but don’t wait too long; it’s the day after tomorrow.”

Alice, painfully aware of how quickly the days slid by, only murmured something agreeable. When the call ended soon after, she shoved her phone back into a pocket as if it being out of sight could always sweep away the snarl of emotions coaxed into life by her aunt’s words.

She stood up calmly enough, but shook a little while turning toward the front door. Just then, Colton appeared, still in his skin and undressed.. Her attempt at a smile faded when she took in the grim tilt to his mouth. “What’s wrong? Did you find something?”

“Fingerprints on the window. Made from the inside.”

Her trembling swelled into visible shivering and he noticed, pressing close against her while they went inside. The living room windows were clean—she always cleaned them to keep a clear view of the forest outside, which she liked looking at—and their pristine condition made the handprints all the clearer.

Careful marks, narrow in the palm and with graceful, long fingers. They looked like they had been made in ash, and Alice immediately understood the significance.

“The letters I burned. She’s saying she knows about that.” And that she wouldn’t let it slip by unpunished.

A growl slipped into Colton’s words as he said,“And the one that came here earlier—it’s no coincidence.”

She nodded, desperation itching at her. “And it’s only going to get worse, isn’t it? Darby will just keep harrying us all the way into Samhain, and then Magdalene will take over and do things for herself. And there’s nowhere we can go to keep it from happening.”

Strange, how she shook out of anger as much as fear. She thought of Colton’s teeth ripping into the buck, of the power she’d felt, herself, when she’d had jaws that could crack bone and a predator’s body that could run for miles without tiring. Fur lost, fangs lost. How was she supposed to fight back, now? The utter unfairness of being so weak and fragile when she needed to be strong and vicious left her struggling not to scream.

Then Colton’s hand cupped her chin. Calming her down. Holding her steady. “We already knew this. And you won’t be left alone.”

She nodded, trying to remain calm even as her heart beat like a drum. “I know. All we can do is wait it out and try not to slip up.”

They were honest words, which was perhaps why they held little reassurance, but cuts made by honesty left wounds that bled clean and healed properly, and she gave him a wan smile before turning her head enough to kiss at his palm. Then she tried to grasp at something normal, something that had the pleasant dullness of a routine. “We should finish cleaning up.”

He smiled a little. “Got a bath ready while I checked things over.”

That surprised her. The bathtub was something they’d never played with, for all that it was one of those old porcelain specimens deep enough and big enough for two. Before, they’d always been too impatient, too frantic for each other to enjoy the indulgence of soaking together. “Why not a shower?”

“Always ready with a question.” His thumb ran over her mouth before he added, “Haven’t gone at you that hard since the accident. You’ll be sore.”

She felt her smile come alive, and her fingers stopped trembling enough for her to easily undo the buttons of her coat. “It was worth it.”

The words kindled a smolder in his eyes, and it stayed there as they headed for the bathroom.

To Alice, sharing a bathtub had always sounded like a romantic idea that would turn awkward once it was tried, and she was surprised at how easy and comfortable it felt to slip in against him, her back settling against the muscles of his chest and stomach. She pulled her hair to the side before fully sinking back against his body, humming at the sensation of hot water after nearly two weeks of lukewarm showers dictated by the doctor’s orders.

The tub was deep enough that only her breasts and throat breached the water, and she twisted until she could grin against his jaw, already imagining what he’d do in response to such temptation.

“We’ll get to that,” he said, the rasp in his voice amused as his hand slid down her arched neck, teasingly stopping just past her collarbones. Then he splashed water over her exposed breasts, and she hummed again at the warmth, anticipation melting into something softer. Her foot absently rubbed against his leg as stray drops from the faucet emphasized the quiet. It felt like the final calm night before a storm blew in with all its wrath and destruction.

“People are finding us,” she said, voice soft. “No more hiding.”

His hands traced along her body, easy and soothing. “Scared?”

She didn’t know the answer to that. She had lived with fear for so long that to be scared was to breathe. It sat in her stomach alongside food and measured time better than a clock. It set the structure of her day and harried her heart in the deep of night.

To ever shake free of it had once seemed laughable, for it had simply morphed into different shapes over the years. The soft, malleable haze of getting into trouble as a child hardened into a pitted hunk of panic over being abandoned in one way or another. The wrong decision made, the wrong words said.

And yet when she thought of what rushed through her each time her thoughts glanced off the closeness of Samhain, each time her skin prickled with the memory of Magdalene’s fingers squeezing away her chance at life...

“It’s not the fear that I’m used to,” she said, the truth of it all leaving her voice breathless. “It’s not what used to make me that makes me want to cringe back from things. What I felt there in the forest… Or whenever I see Darby’s manuscript and start thinking about ripping her head off… I’m scared because I want to fight back.”

Colton’s muscles flexed against her back as he laughed, a short huff that stirred the hair near her ear. “That’s no bad thing. Everyone has teeth, Alice. You’re just learning how to use yours.”

She thought about it while his hands continued to slide along her body, squeezing at her flesh as if he’d never stop marveling at its softness.

“You’re not thinking about the woman,” he said, after a while.

“Darby? No. I’ve been expecting something like that ever since we realized Magdalene is visiting her in dreams. Magdalene is too good with words… And Darby never got a taste of her at her worst. She’s just an extension of Magdalene and Samhain at this point, and I’m not thinking about those, either. I’ve been worrying about them for weeks. Darby didn’t bring any new threat to us, not really.”

Then Alice shifted, growing tense as the truth slowly rose to the surface. When teeth lightly nipped at her ear, she sighed. “I’m thinking about my mother and the way she’d scream at my father. Even though he wants to run my life, I don’t want to do that to him. If that’s what fighting means…”

There was a soft growl from Colton before he said, “There’s yelling and there’s fighting. Your mother just hid. Franny Harford wouldn’t have still been alive by the time I met her if your mother had warned her off with a few bites.”

“What do you mean?” said Alice, blinking. “Warned her off from what? We never had any contact with her.”

There was a long pause from him, long enough that she craned her neck to look up at him. He appeared reluctant, even evasive, but when their eyes met, he gave in. “Your grandmother was starving by the time I met her. Too weak to hunt for herself. Too weak to even be sly, anymore, and she let some things slip. Your mother used to be the lure for victims.”

Alice sucked in a breath, freezing against him. “Is that what drove her insane?”

“Don’t know. Could’ve been that, could’ve been hiding among humans without relief, and could’ve been Franny always calling after her. Most witches don’t like being alone. She would’ve tried calling her daughter home.” His gaze was as steady as ever, but his hands rubbed along her hips soothingly.

Alice shuddered, pieces clicking together as she picked out the implications behind his terse words. “So my father was probably…”

“An intended meal.”

Three simple little words, and yet they drew another shiver from her while casting light on the shadowy memories of a voice cracking in fear even as it yelled, of fingers trembling against the cigarette pinched between them. “But my mother saved him, instead, and left the woods to live in the suburbs as his wife. As a normal woman. But it didn’t work. She hid, so she never got away.”

Then a bitter laugh escaped her. “Sounds like what I learned with Magdalene. Like mother, like daughter.”

His growl rumbled against her shoulder blades, soft and brief. “You won’t end up like her.”

“Not if I fight.” Then she sighed, turning her cheek enough to nuzzle at him. His jaw rasped against the curve of her cheek. She had shaved him yesterday morning but already felt the rasp of a growing beard against her face. He was always so wild, so resilient, and she bathed in that as much as the hot water.

“I want to see my father,” she said, after a while. “I want to try talking to him one last time before Samhain. Just in case.”

His arms tightened against her—he never liked it when she implied Samhain might tear them apart—but his voice remained a steady rumble. “This have something to do with the phone call?”

Her fingers continued to rasp against his jaw while she explained her aunt’s proposal. He listened without comment and she finished with, “I’m not going to give in or return to how they want me to be. I just want to see if he’ll talk. Even if I survive Samhain intact, I still don’t want my next visit to him being at his headstone.”

Colton caught her hand in silence, stroking the palm with his thumb. When it grew obvious he wasn’t going to reply with words, she looked him right in the eyes, a question on the tip of her tongue. It was one she had asked before, often enough that she already felt sure of the answer. Often enough that he read it in her face before the first syllable left her tongue.

His hand traced the curve of her throat as he said, “I’m going with you.”

Even as her body relaxed against his, her voice jolted in surprise. “But you’ve always said no before.”

“I didn’t feel like it, before. Now I do.”

Then he lightly pinched at her nipples, drawing a gasp of a laugh out of her.

She caught his hands with hers, not wanting a haze of lust to overwhelm her thoughts just yet. Even as he gave her another teasing squeeze, she managed, “I’m serious. If you don’t want to…”

“Do you want me there?”

“Well, yes. Of course. But it’s going to be a dinner party with people who like talking about nothing. And they’ll all be curious about you.”

“It’s all right.” He already sounded disinterested, instead eyeing the lines of her body.

“But…”

Then one of his hands pulled free of hers, sliding down past her stomach and between her legs. The rest of her words fell away as she jerked, catching his wrist as he found her.

“Relax,” he murmured. “You never have to worry with me. If I don’t want to do something, then I don’t fucking volunteer.”

Relax. It was something that should have been impossible for her, and yet she found her limbs falling limp in the steaming water, found her body melting against his as he kept teasing her, drawing her out until the water slapped against the rim of the bathtub from her writhing. Sweat prickled along the areas of her skin that weren’t underwater as she shook through her release.

When she fell limp against him again, he lightly stroked between her legs as she panted.

After a while, she managed to say, “We’ll have to get you a suit.”

“Got one.”

She laughed against his neck. “From the same secret place where you kept those sleek clothes you wore to my parents’ house?”

He nipped at her ear. “It’s no mystery. I store things here and there in case I need them.”

“Is it like that old phrase? A wolf in sheep’s clothing?”

“Something like that,” he said, sounding amused. “I’ll tell you more about it. Maybe during the party to give you something to look forward to.”

He fell silent again while she sat up and dried her hands on the nearby bath towel. His own hand remained a comfortable weight between her legs while she reached for her phone, still in the pocket of the coat lying crumpled on the floor.

As she dialed her aunt’s number, he murmured, “They’ll try to coax you back. Put a leash on you. Humans don’t like wild things.”

In the few moments left before the phone began ringing, her free hand crept back to his. “I’m not wild.”

Then she twisted enough to smile at him. “Not yet.”

The gleam in his eyes flared into a full smolder, and his fingers squeezed hers just as her aunt answered, her tone already delighted and sure.

“Fiona? We’re both happy to go.”

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