Wolf's Bane (Monstrous Hearts #2)

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Chapter Eighteen

Wolf-Alice’s jaws frothed with blood and spit as the smell of smoke from the fireplace stoked her frenzied attack, a choking reminder of all that Magdalene had taken. Every flicker from the flames deepened her snarls as she tore at the figure beneath her, this fallen idol of her heart who had once loomed so high above. Eyes as golden as honey flashed at her, but they held none of that knowingness, none of that mystery and lush promise that had once so entranced her. All they showed was fear.

“Alice!” Magdalene’s voice was a shred of its former velvet seduction. “Why are you doing this?”

No words could emerge from a mouth so savage, but her answer still passed between them, true and merciless as her bite. Because this is what I am. Something you can no longer control. Something that is no longer yours.

And once more she attacked, unstoppable in her rage. Blood splattered the floorboards as arms that were as substantial and vulnerable as living flesh on this one special night now flailed, stripped of all their grace.

“No! I need you.” The words were hoarse, broken things, as feeble as the fingernails clawing at Wolf-Alice’s muzzle to fend off her teeth.

She ignored the words like a sprung trap, ignored the hands like a ripped net, all too intent on reaching Magdalene’s throat. She wanted to crush the windpipe that had formed all those poisonous words. She wanted to destroy the voice that had promised love but instilled obedience, the voice that had mapped out the most vulnerable parts of her and then reshaped her like clay.

“I love you.”

Wolf-Alice paused, her muzzle still wrinkled into a growl. She stared at Magdalene with foaming jaws, daring her to say it again. Daring her to reach out and embrace with strangling arms while whispering tender, deceptive words. Magdalene’s appetites always ran to the fragile little things that reminded her of Indigo; could she pretend to cherish a girl now transformed into a beast, sweet face and red-tipped breasts now foaming jaws and coarse pelt?

When Magdalene flinched, Wolf-Alice’s growls renewed. She had never been Indigo, that precious girl locked inside Magdalene’s ribcage, forever frozen as an image of obsessive love. The girl who had never lived long enough to do wrong, to disappoint. The girl who had long been a silent grave. Hers was the perfection of bones cradled in a mourning shroud, the loveliness of possibilities that could never wither into bitter reality.

And Alice… Ah, she had been that bitter reality trying to shape itself into that perfection, determined yet doomed to fail. Even when her love for Magdalene had been at its most fervent, she had found herself unable to transform into a living Indigo.

Now there was no idea more horrifying. She no longer wished to be the adored muse, the cherished dream. She no longer wished to be so obsessed over that even her name would be taken away and replaced with something better crooned at a pet. She could become something free. Something that didn’t have to be perfect.

She wanted to live—and she would.

Wolf-Alice lunged in, throwing all her rage and strength into driving past Magdalene’s frantic hands. This time her jaws locked onto a throat, and when she bit down, vertebrae cracked between her teeth. Blood shot from Magdalene’s lips as she shrieked, then gushed from her ruined neck as she choked.

When Wolf-Alice let go, she looked at the woman who had once meant everything to her with a face stained red. Such a terrible beauty, bared teeth in a mask of blood, and Magdalene shrank from it.

“Who are you?” she whispered, each word drawing more blood from her gaping throat. “What happened to my sweet Alice?”

Wolf-Alice only snarled and bit at her again. And yet this time, her teeth snapped together as if passing through mere air. Then the desperate grip on her fur slipped away. Amber eyes darkened into cinders, and those sharp, clever lips that had once so entranced her now disintegrated into a faceless shadow. All that remained behind was the uncertain outline of a woman, the ragged darkness of something that had always needed others to define its own shape.

Wolf-Alice growled, suspecting some trick yet to be played, but instead the lingering shadow rushed for the fireplace, leaving trails of blood in its wake. With a wail that still sounded like Magdalene’s voice, it slipped into the flames and disappeared, causing the fire to hiss and crackle.

The flames flickered wildly, revealing glimpses of the shadowland that Magdalene had pulled Alice to before, that strange land where the moon hung too heavy in the sky and the trees stood in silence. She had given up. She was fleeing.

As Magdalene’s presence seeped away from the cabin, as invisible and yet palpable as shadows shrinking beneath the face of the rising sun, Wolf-Alice howled a savage promise that there would only be furious teeth for her, should she ever dare return.

And yet even as the flames settled, now revealing nothing except the bricks of the fireplace, she knew that Magdalene wouldn’t. Not now. Her tender morsel had turned into a frothing monster.

The fire brightened as the last echoes of Magdalene’s keening faded away. Wolf-Alice felt herself shake and shiver, felt herself collapse as all rage left her as thoroughly as Magdalene had. Instinct drove her body back to the shape it best knew, drove her convulsing even as her conscious dipped in and out, leaving her scrabbling against the floorboards first with claws, then with fingers. A final, agonized wrench left her slumped on hands and knees, blood still dripping from her mouth.

Magdalene was gone. Truly gone. She should have laughed in amazement, but instead her heart shivered, cold even while the rest of her felt inflamed from changing form. Tears ran down her cheeks and she couldn’t even say why. Unbidden, words from one of Magdalene’s letters filled her mind even as she panted for breath, the taste of blood overwhelming against her tongue.

There’s some part of you that will always love me, even just a little.

“No,” she whispered out loud, fingers curling against the floor. No, not love. Now she only grieved. Even with the threat of Magdalene’s presence finally—finally—settled, she still felt empty. Carved out. She had lived so long with Magdalene as her focus, first as an object of worship and then as a terror that refused to be locked away into mere memory, that to be rid of her was to be vacant. As if it took her complete absence to understand the sheer amount of damage left behind by her appetites.

Alice felt her next breath hitch as a sob, but she still raised her head toward the windows to watch the sky lighten. Samhain quickly approached its end and she was still there to see it. Damaged, yes, but alive. Free to take that emptiness and fill it full again.

As the firelight played over her shuddering body, a muffled noise came from the circle of candles, now snuffed out from melting into their own pools of wax. Alice looked over at Rob as he slowly pushed himself up, eyes bleary behind his glasses and drool crusted on his chin. She watched him take in the sight of her, hunched over like an animal and covered in blood. His face paled.

“Jesus Christ.” His wild glance found the opened cabin door and then the porch beyond. Darby slumped against the worn wooden boards there, as if she’d roused at some point during the night before slipping under again. Perhaps to get something in her car that would have helped Magdalene against Alice’s teeth. Perhaps merely confused under the influence of Rob’s hallucinogen.

Whatever the cause, her motionless form—untouched, still breathing—didn’t calm the panic in Rob’s face any. “What happened?”

“Magdalene came and left again,” said Alice, voice flat. Her body was exposed to him and covered in the proof of her violence, and yet she didn’t care at all.

“What?” He stumbled upright, swallowing hard as if he felt like throwing up. Outside, Darby continued to breathe slow and steady, but he made no attempt to rouse her, no attempt to even check on her.

Alice eyed him, taking in the sheen of sweat on his face and how his clothes had picked up dust from the floor. She had never seen him so disheveled. In the past, he had always snapped out of their psychonaut sessions effortlessly, as smooth and smug as an illusionist who had just pulled off a trick to his gape-mouthed audience. Now he seemed very… Diminished. Human.

“Why did you just stand by, Rob?” she found herself saying, gaze steady even as her limbs continued to tremble. She settled her weight onto one hip to ease the strain, not looking away as his uncomprehending gaze fell upon her. “You weren’t afraid of Magdalene. So why do nothing while she used up people and threw them away? Why let her do that with your own wife?”

“Are you serious?” He ran a shaking hand over his hair. “Who gives a shit about Magdalene? She’s dead. You’re covered in blood like you took a fucking bath in it. What the hell did you do?”

“What did you do, Rob? What did you get out of watching her play with people? Out of fucking me while I was half-conscious and too scared to say no to anything Magdalene told me to do? I know why she wanted it—to watch me and make sure I didn’t enjoy any part of being with a man. But what did you take away from it? The amusement of seeing little dolls break without having to clean up the shards?” A growl had entered her voice.

Something in her face sent him edging backwards, stepping on the nearest candles. “Forget it. I’m out of here. Darby can clean up her own fucking mess.”

Alice raised an eyebrow. “You’re just going to leave her with me? You know we hate each other. Who’s to say I won’t go after her next?”

When he only shook his head, she spat, “I can’t believe you used to intimidate me. Now I see exactly what you are.”

Something in his expression changed. “What are you talking about?”

“You’re pathetic. Just a grubby user who hides behind his camera so that he can claim everything he does is for the sake of art. You’re nothing to be afraid of.”

Her words froze his feet to the floor. “What’s that supposed to be? A threat?”

“It’s a plain fact,” she said, voice flat despite the disgust welling up in her.

But he began approaching her again, each footstep heavy, and the panic in his face quickly crystallized into something more dangerous. “Are you saying you’re going to open up about Magdalene? About me?”

In his eyes, Alice saw the potential consequences of his actions unfold. Oh, she could reveal so many damaging things about him now that she didn’t care. How he had given her hallucinogens and fucked her half-conscious, photographing the results. How she hadn’t been the only one. Even with her original blurry consent, the facts would be enough to ruin him in his precious art circles. Work would dry up; galleries would close their doors. He was good, but he wasn’t great enough to bare his sins and still rise above public outcry.

And yet these worries had never bitten at him because he’d always been so assured that she would never dare bring things to light and face her family’s disdain. No, she was merely quiet Alice, the trust fund baby who had gotten in over her head. Only now, when she might open her mouth and speak, did he finally regard her, that detached aura of his slipping away in favor of the base instinct of self-preservation. Rob never liked getting his hands dirty. But he liked being in trouble even less.

When he took another step closer, Alice bared her teeth at him and said, “As much as I hate her, Darby’s right about one thing. You don’t think about anyone except yourself.”

From the way his mouth hardened, she might as well have said nothing, and so she fell silent as he crouched before her, the bulk of his body blocking the rest of her view. He grabbed the back of her head, giving her hair a hard jerk as if warning her that he wasn’t fucking around, but she bit back a laugh instead of a yelp. As if he could give her a wound as painful and thorough as anything Magdalene had ever inflicted. As if he could make her scream with the same raggedness as when Colton had crumpled against the truck, bleeding.

She continued matching gazes with him as he said, “You’re not going to say a fucking word about anything involving me, understand? To anyone.”

“I’m not afraid of your threats. Not anymore.”

“Are you even listening?” He let go of her hair and shoved her up against the hearth, the rough bricks biting into the bare skin of her back.

“I am.” She shook, but not with the same fierceness that had twisted her flesh into a form that could bite and savage. Her disgust had gone, too, leaving her with only a bone-deep weariness. This man was nothing to her, not even an enemy.

His arm pressed against her throat, pinning her still as he leaned in. His eyes looked wild behind his glasses, but his voice remained slow, emphasizing each word with care. “I don’t know what happened tonight, but it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to say anything about it or any other night we spent together. Got it?”

“Or what?”

His slap cracked her full in the face, snapping her head to the side. The sheer shock of it left her speechless even before pain overwhelmed her senses.

Then Rob caught her chin and forced her to look at him. “Or I’ll fucking crush you.”

The words drew a noise from her, one that startled them both. It was a laugh. She swallowed the rest of it down and said, “You can’t. You’ve got nothing to hurt me with. Go on, punch me until my nose breaks or until I can’t see out of both eyes. It doesn’t matter. I’m still not scared of you.”

Rob stared at her for a moment before stepping back. Alice watched him walk over to the circle of melted wax, remaining still even when he picked up the knife. She didn’t care enough to even try wrestling the weapon away. What was he going to do, cut into the gaping emptiness that filled her? She’d still survive. Still endure. There was nothing to fear from him.

And so she only raised her chin, feeling the pull of drying blood on her skin as he approached again, the knife already pointed at her.

“If you’re awake, then the shit we took is out of your system. So, I know you can understand this, you crazy bitch.” He crouched before her once more, the blade now inches from her face.

When she drew in a breath to speak, the tip prodded against her throbbing cheek. “No, enough with the bullshit. You don’t have the upper hand here. Your hitman of a boyfriend is dead, remember?”

The words were a lash of agony against her heart, and she jerked as some of the raw hurt came back into her. When she remained silent, the blade moved to where her pulse beat hard and fast, just underneath her jaw.

Then the window shattered inward. A snarl filled the room, shivering Alice’s very bones with its familiarity, and she jerked toward it despite the knife still against her throat. Rob flinched, expression turning bewildered as a dark, lethal form landed behind him, silent among the glass scattered across the floor. Yellow eyes flashed at Alice an instant before the black wolf lunged, jaws locking onto Rob’s arm to drive the blade away from her neck. Bone cracked, and then Rob screamed, the knife falling from his hand as the black wolf pulled him down.

Another bite, and then a vicious jerk that sent bone splintering up through the skin of Rob’s arm, and then the black wolf let go and lunged in for his throat, choking off the man’s frantic screams. Alice found herself gulping for breath as the wolf’s teeth tore into vulnerable flesh, but she didn’t flinch and she didn’t look away. His attack wasn’t that patient, suffocating bite that Alice had seen him use on hares and deer but instead something furious, something mauling. Something that splattered blood over Rob’s twitching hands while more gushed to the floor and spread in a pool.

Despite the savagery, Alice found herself slowly reaching out, nothing like fear in her heart even as vertebrae cracked between teeth. Something that had died with her in the fire now throbbed painfully, something raw like hope but paralyzing like terror. He was right there in front of her, his ferocious jaws proof enough that he was still flesh and blood.

And yet… Magdalene had also felt very real. Had also bled and held the ability to make others bleed. What if this was just another temporary feat of Samhain? Had the fire reduced him to something more ghost than flesh, here before her only because of the strange power of this one night when the dead could roam free? What if the black wolf faded with the rest of the shadows once the sun rose, leaving her with nothing more than ash and memory?

Tears burned down her cheeks at the possibility, and she drew back again, suddenly afraid of her fingers slipping through him like air. And as the windows lightened with coming dawn, she found herself rising up, pressing back against the lingering warmth of the hearth as the final moments of Samhain slipped away.

Just as the sky glimmered with the sunrise, the black wolf circled away from Rob’s unmoving body. As soft light spilled into the room, gaining strength with each passing breath, the black wolf shook the blood from his fur and changed.

Alice made a sound that might have been a sob, might have been a whimper as Colton rose from the floor, his gaze never leaving her. Once more, her hands reached for him even as they trembled with fear. Would he disappear with the final traces of night? He had found her, but could he stay with her?

The blood on his face made his eyes appear even greener as he approached her. He looked feral, unstoppable. Alive.

“Please,” she whispered, remembering how their fingers had brushed just before the first bullet had struck him. “Are you really here?”

Then his hand caught hers, callused and warm and solid, and she felt her expression crumple into tears even before he pulled her close.

“Alice.” He buried his face against the side of her neck and breathed in deeply. Losing himself in her scent. Then his hands ran along the length of her body, caressing her as if she was the most precious thing alive.

“You were caught in the fire,” she managed, fingers digging into his shoulders. “You burned. And when you didn’t show up at the evacuation center the morning after, I started thinking that…”

He tested her skin with teeth still bloody, the heat of his body melting hers. “Told you before. Nothing can keep me in the grave.”

A hiccup of a laugh escaped between her shuddering breaths. “You found me.”

“Always.” Then he pulled back enough to look at her. His eyes still glittered viciously, but his thumb remained gentle as it ran along her lower lip, finding the drying blood there.

When his head tilted to the side, she answered his unspoken question. “I fought off Magdalene. I… I changed into a wolf and fought her off.”

He almost smiled at that. “You used your teeth.”

Then he cupped her chin, giving her that look that meant he was about to fuck her senseless, and when he leaned in, she raised her face to his.

But instead of a kiss, his hot tongue licked at the blood on her mouth. “You never lost your wildness, Alice. She never took it from you.”

Tears blurred in her eyes, then, and her grip on his shoulders tightened to draw him close. She needed to feel him against her, needed his sweat and teeth and semen marking her body after those agonizing hours of uncertainty the fire had left her.

His low growl told her that he understood, and now they kissed, his tongue savage, impatient, savoring her as she arched into him. When her hands fisted in his hair, he growled again against her mouth, hands running up the small of her back and teasing along her ribs. When he cupped her breasts, she felt the stickiness of blood on his fingers.

It drew a shiver out of her, but not one of repulsion, and in the next moment she tugged him even closer, boneless as he eased her down to the floor. The dying embers in the fireplace cast their final warmth over her skin as he pinned her to the ground, hard body stretching over hers. His eyes picked up the lingering light from the last little flames, glowing at her as if peering out from the gloom of the forest, and a sweet ache ran through her heart as she opened her legs to him.

The mere hint of his fingers tracing along her cunt sent her hips jerking, impatient for more. Normally, he would have laughed at her greed, but in that moment he only studied every inch of her face, the grim line of his mouth almost tender before he leaned in to lick away the blood trailing down her throat and breasts. His teeth were still sharp, teasing her tender flesh with their danger, but she only arched into them, panting as his hand stroked her again. By the time his thumb pushed in and found her inner folds, she was wet and ready. She clenched her thighs against his wrist, never wanting to let him go.

“I love you,” she breathed against his mouth, her nipples in sweet agony from his attention.

“Words,” he murmured, sounding amused, but the look in his eyes said something else entirely. Then he was kissing her again, swallowing her scream as his thumb rasped against her clit.

They thrashed on the floor like wild things, sticky with blood and slick with their own sweat. His thrusts were hard and relentless but she only laughed against his neck, her fingernails digging into his back in a silent plea. More, more. She would never get enough of him even as he filled her full with every thrust.

Her teeth once more felt dull and human, but as she panted in time with his rhythm, squeezing her thighs against him to make him shudder in need, she felt as wild, as free, as when she’d run through the forest as a wolf. And when he bit the side of her neck, right where the knife had threatened it, the raw heat of her climax sent her arching up in a howl.

He growled through his, thrusts still hard and furious, but after their panting had faded back into quiet breaths, his mouth turned tender again, telling her everything in his kiss that he wouldn’t put into words.

Later, as the sun glowed through the windows, he pulled her upright, settling her onto his lap. She dropped her head against his shoulder, still feeling slightly boneless, and murmured, “I wish you’d seen me as a wolf.”

“Who says I won’t?” He squeezed at her hips, the lazy smolder in his eyes suggesting he already thought of taking her again.

She blinked at him. “But Samhain is over.”

“Samhain’s got nothing to do with it. You found your wildness and your witch blood did the rest.” His hands now skimmed along her spine, running along her skin as if marveling at her very softness.

“But my grandmother couldn’t do that.”

“No wildness to her. Just a lot of hunger.” He ran a thumb over her flushed nipple and then gave it a gentle tweak, already sounding disinterested in the conversation.

His touch sent a sweet throb throughout her, but her curiosity was roused, and when her own fingers hesitantly ran over the hard muscles of his chest, finding no signs of his old scars even as his heart beat strong and steady against her touch, he growled softly, already sensing her impending questions.

She glanced up at him. “You can’t expect me to accept things without wanting to find out more about them.”

He sighed, nuzzling at her earlobe. “Ask whatever you want.”

“You did burn in the fire.”

“Yes. Then I came back.”

“But not as a ghost.” Her palm pressed against his heartbeat.

“No. I can’t die, Alice.” Then he kissed the curve of her jaw before pulling back enough to look at her again. “Takes time to recover from whatever fucked us up, whether it’s a bullet or a fire. Sometimes a day, sometimes more. I don’t know why.”

“Your scars disappeared.”

“Well, I was fucking ash.” Despite the terse words, his hands ran along her back in soothing patterns. “My body had to reknit itself from nose to tail.”

Such strangeness before her, and yet she didn’t flinch away. Instead, her thighs squeezed against him, reassuring him with her softness, her acceptance. When she fell silent, absorbing everything he’d told her, he studied her face. Then his expression changed, and his hand moved to tilt her chin until the morning light caught the side that had taken Rob’s strike.

“He wasn’t worth fighting,” said Alice, voice soft yet steady. “I didn’t care what he did.”

Colton growled, rage bubbling beneath his words. “He had a fucking knife against your throat.”

“But that wouldn’t have killed me. Witches only die from burning or drowning.”

“I said nothing else kills a witch. I didn’t say nothing else hurts her.”

Alice only shrugged. “As long as I can survive it, I don’t care. As screwed up as it sounds, I don’t mind another scar.”

Then Colton’s fingers coaxed her to look up at him. “You’re not getting any more of them. Not if I can help it.”

She met his gaze without shame or fear, her mouth relaxing into a smile as her hands slid down his shoulders to find the light dusting of hair on his chest. To feel the absence of scar tissue she had memorized. “I feel the same way about you.”

The light in his eyes changed, especially when she reached up to stroke away the tension from his jaw, but just as he leaned in, a cough on the porch interrupted them. Alice turned her head enough to see Darby twitch and then fall still again.

“She’s still alive,” murmured Alice, surprised at how calm she felt.

Colton followed her gaze. “I could smell she’d be out for awhile. Decided to leave her for your teeth.”

Alice drew in a deep breath, aware of the tang of iron still in her mouth. It gave weight to the sudden power she had to decide this girl’s fate. Had she lost her hatred? No. Had she lost her rage over what Darby had done to Colton? Never. And yet now that the true threat—Magdalene—had faded with the night, in the bright light of day Darby only looked pathetic. Someone so obsessed that she had lost herself. Someone as blind as Alice had once been.

And yet Alice felt her lips twitch toward a snarl, not a pitying smile. Although she knew full well how Magdalene had been a brilliant puppeteer to any girl unlucky enough to fall in love with her, Darby had still made life hell on earth for Alice. Threatening to humiliate her through that book, threatening to reveal sordid secrets to her family… And then shooting Colton. Leaving him to burn alive in a fire.

“Do we have to kill her?” she said, not looking away from the other girl.

Colton’s voice revealed no trace of his thoughts. “Doesn’t matter either way when it comes to staying safe. Dead, she’s one more body to hide. Alive, no one will believe her.”

If it had only been her own head that Darby had gone after, that would be one thing. But she hadn’t, and now Alice felt ready to bite again.

“She hurt you,” she said, voice low but steady. “I want her to regret that. I want her to realize exactly what she did. Magdalene’s gone and now she’s got nothing left but herself to live with. I want her to go through hell.”

Colton nodded, that feral gleam back in his eyes. Then the corner of his mouth twitched toward a smile. “Got any bleach?”

Alice blinked at him. “I thought forensic science could still find blood traces.”

“There are ways around that.” The look on his face implied that he was used to employing them, too.

“You’re still so mysterious,” she murmured, as he stood with ease and offered his hand to her.

As she rose, he pulled her into a lingering kiss. “Plenty of time to figure me out. But first, we finish what these fuckers started.”

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