Wolf's Bane (Monstrous Hearts #2)

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Chapter One

Alice kept a pleasant expression on her face while mingling with the other guests at her father’s anniversary party. It was uncanny, the feeling of having stepped back into early girlhood. Then, she had liked pretending that she’d hardened into a doll, with porcelain cheeks that could never sag free of a smile and luminous eyes that engaged at a glance. That her fragile aura instinctively sensed by others was an effect of nature, of having ceramic bones fired into brittle elegance and a mouth silent from being mere paint.

Now, an adult in present day, she knew her body was solid meat, with a beating heart and a heavy brain. Tender flesh showed more than impassive clay. She had more scars now, too, and felt vulnerable at exposing herself to so many familiar gazes. How differently did she appear to them? How strained her smile? How haunted her eyes?

They all appeared the same, moving in currents of crisp suits and elegant dresses. Gold glittered against throats or around wrists. Champagne sparkled in crystal glasses. Conversations murmured, constant and polite, with an occasional peal of laughter rising above the live pianist.

Many of the faces lit with vague recognition as she offered greetings in passing. Why, it was Alice, Tom’s daughter come back into the fold after five years away. What had pulled her to the city? Something to do with trying to make a career in the arts, wasn’t it?

Alice avoided the questions in their eyes by continuing her aimless circuit through the rooms. In-depth conversations... No, those hadn’t yet returned to her. She no longer knew how to act like the well-schooled teenager she’d been when these people had last seen her, majoring in veterinary science and so sure of her life ahead. In truth, she had felt as dead-eyed and posed as a piece of taxidermy, but that very state had allowed her to hide all feelings. Now, she was like an exposed nerve, raw and vulnerable and alive, and trying to fit into her old role felt painful.

Needing something to do, she sipped at her champagne, half-expecting to instead taste the sparkling cider she’d always been given as a girl. Sweetness bubbled over her tongue; warmth sank into her throat. The sound of her father’s voice drew her attention, and she looked over to find him relaxed and happy, his arm around her stepmother’s waist. Denise, always in her element around people, chattered excitedly with a woman in a navy chiffon dress. Both of their neatly-coiffed heads gleamed with jeweled hair pins.

Something clutched at Alice’s heart. Wistfulness, perhaps? A sense of feeling so far removed from these people—her very own family—that she might as well have viewed them through a telescope.

Just then, her father’s gaze found her. After a dip of his head to excuse himself from the conversation, he approached Alice. Her fingers tightened around the stem of her glass.

“Hi, Dad.” Her smile felt no different from when she faced a stranger.

His, however, had cooled. “Alice. I haven’t seen you speaking with many people.”

She hesitated, wondering whether to push at things, and then admitted, “I’m not sure what to say. Everyone thinks I moved to the city to be an artist.”

“That’s what I told them and they don’t need to know more.”

Hard-earned knowledge, that, back from when the disappearance of Alice’s mother had shattered their lives. People pried through their show of concern and then whispered details among themselves, vying to see who had the juiciest bit to share. Had that smile turned spiteful when her name had been spoken aloud? Did he look like an innocent man? A grieving one? So many unanswered questions... After all, a woman doesn’t simply vanish.

Accounts morphed into rumors, and rumors into convictions. The sheer hell Tom Corrigan had gone through in those first years was likely why he had hardened into someone so fiercely dull in his hobbies and so painfully conscious of attention and demeanor. He guarded against embarrassment and discredit to his family with iron rigidity. A knight who couldn’t bend in his armor.

Even now, Alice looked at her glass rather than try matching gazes with him. In some ways, she felt very sorry for her father. In others, she was terrified of that hardness, especially since she had spent the past five years crossing his personal crusade by living with Magdalene.

Magdalene.

Thinking of her still sent Alice’s heart into a frenzy. At times, she still woke up believing she was back in their apartment in the city, and that the morning was about to begin with the smell of used cigarettes, stale coffee, and the discovery of a notebook rubbed soft with anxious fingers. Not one word in its pristine pages.

But oh, those early days... Compared to the careful, sterile existence she had known, Magdalene had burned as brightly as a star. She had stood up to Alice’s father, laughing in his face at his cold reserve and sheen of manners. She had been strange, different, alive, and the chance to bask in her light—to learn how to live as she did—had been too alluring to resist. And so Alice, sweet little fool, had stepped into the camouflaged cage and locked the door behind her. Even now, watching her father break his mask long enough to rub at his eyes, she still understood how that had caught her so completely.

“We’ve talked about this,” he said, looking at her, again. “You’re fully welcome back now that your relationship has...ended, but there are things to take into account. If you want our support, you need to start up school again and get your life back on track. I’ll even find a therapist for you if you need to talk more about what happened. But as far as I’m concerned, that was then, and this is now. The past is just that—the past. Tonight, we’re all here to celebrate. Right?”

Alice nodded, voice quiet. “Right.”

Something softened in his expression. “It’s the only way through things, Alice. You’ll understand, one day.”

Before she could think up a dutiful response, Aunt Fiona exclaimed from half a room away and came gliding toward them. “If it isn’t our Ally!”

Her mouth snapped into a smile, as did her father’s, and he drifted away to check on the rest of his guests just as Fiona threw out both hands to clasp Alice’s own free one.

“Look at you! You’ve fully grown into yourself. Will you really be twenty-five in another month? I feel so old.”

“You’re not old at all,” said Alice, feeling her smile grow warm. Fiona had always been the most cordial member of the family, sparkling in conversation and blithe about anything that demanded depth. The rainbow of their family’s plain prism.

She now waved away Alice’s compliment, but it hadn’t been a kind lie. Her aunt appeared unchanged, with the same gold bangles marching up her wrists and the same taste in olive-colored clothing that matched her eyes. That green gaze scrutinized Alice while Fiona pulled her to a nearby couch.

Potted plants surrounded them with wide, waxy leaves, offering the illusion of privacy, and Fiona started in as soon as they sat on the overstuffed, white cushions. “You’re living close to your father again, aren’t you? He said you moved in about a month ago.”

Alice nodded. “A house in Calico Creek.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s a small town about forty-five minutes from here. Up in the foothills.”

“You’re right in the forest? My God, it sounds horrible. I remember trying a cabin in the Sierras as a summer vacation. As soon as we drove up, we saw a bear rooting in the woodshed. It only got worse from there.” Then Fiona shot the nearest waiter a significant glance. He responded obediently, offering his tray of champagne.

Alice kept her half-empty glass, already feeling flushed in the cheeks from the warm, stuffy air. She found herself wondering if Colton had caught something, yet, ripping open its pelt to get at the tender meat beneath. They never had problems with pests; no raccoon or bobcat wished to linger near a wolf’s home.

After a sip, Fiona pivoted into a new topic. “What have you been doing since coming back here? Tom’s mentioned how he wants you to find a more suitable career than the fine arts. I think it’s horrible that he’ll cut off his money unless you go back to school, but my brother always has been stiff-necked about that.”

“It’s only fair. It’s his money, not mine.”

Fiona regarded her. “You’re always so agreeable about things. You have been since you were a child. I specifically remember how, on your fifth birthday, the bakery accidentally made a mistake with the cake. It was chocolate beneath the frosting when everyone knew yellow was your favorite. But you just sat there, looking at your slice. No sign of tears or an oncoming tantrum. All you did was pick up your fork and start eating it. I almost checked you for angel wings right then and there.”

Alice remembered that, and the reason behind it, too. Even while she took a sip of champagne, the memory slid into her mind, and the delicate scent of apricot and honey from her drink was lost to the spitting of hot butter. Her mother had decided to cook breakfast for her and had made scrambled eggs. Alice had refused to eat them; not only had it been one in the afternoon and time for lunch instead of breakfast, but the eggs had looked wrong, all runny and glistening instead of dry and bumpy like when her father made them. There had even been bits of eggshell poking up from the curds.

The smell of cigarette smoke drifted through the open windows, and that encouraged more of the memory, drawing Alice into the haze that had swirled around her mother, who had blown smoke from her nostrils like an angry bull snorting out a breath before grabbing the plate and flinging it to the floor. The crack of shattering ceramic had scared Alice, and she’d started crying. So had her mother, in between screaming about ungratefulness. Then she’d run out of the room, leaving behind yellow streaks of egg and plate shards jagged as teeth. Alice had learned well from it, and afterwards had always carefully eaten whatever was set before her. To refuse something made people mad or sad. To say what she thought caused problems. It was much easier to just follow along, and smile, and pretend everything was fine.

A laugh cut through her distracted anxiety, one that froze her expression. It sounded again, and now her hand broke into a sweat around her glass. She knew it, that laugh. Once upon a time, it had stirred the hair by her ear in the sweet, dark hours of night, and she had craved it as she had craved nothing else. A soft chuckle, reluctant and all the more likable for it. Throaty instead of shrill. Entrancing.

It was Magdalene’s laugh.

Alice’s gaze darted among the nearby clusters of people. It wasn’t possible. Magdalene was dead and she had seen the corpse, herself. She must have misheard. It must have come from a stranger. A weird coincidence brought on by her night-long dwelling of the past and those—

Her thoughts faded at the sight of a woman standing a few yards away with her back to her. A sharp-angled body dressed in sleek black, hair that was the same cut and color... Head tilted at that slight angle that Magdalene had always used when she listened to someone but not very closely...

Panic prickled behind Alice’s ribs, as cutting as a childhood fear, and she suddenly needed to see this woman’s face in the way of needing to look beneath the bed to be sure nothing hid there. Once she did, embarrassment would burn through her for even questioning whether the stranger could have been Magdalene. Yet right at that moment, no amount of rational thought could have convinced her look away and feel safe. It was so uncanny...

The sound of a spoon clinking against glass startled her. Fiona made a pleased noise and straightened in her seat. “Time to hear Tom make an awful toast while surrounded by family. You better hurry up and join them.”

“I think I’ll just...” Alice craned her neck, trying to find that woman, who had seemingly disappeared into thin air.

But her aunt caught her by the arm and drew her up from the couch. Not wishing to rip herself free like a sulky toddler, Alice let herself be led along to where people had gathered on the deck. Lanterns strung through the air glittered on her father and stepmother as they stood in the center. Fleur, Alice’s twelve-year-old stepsister, was there, too, reading on her phone until Denise noticed and murmured something to her. A baleful glance was the girl’s only resistance before putting it away and looking up with a fixed smile.

Fiona had stopped at the crowd’s edge, leaving Alice to walk alone to her father’s other side. When he smiled at her, she responded with one of her own but still couldn’t meet his gaze. And when his arm settled around her shoulders, she remained stiff, looking out at the guests. She didn’t know what they saw in return.

They stood there, all of them, smiling under the lights as if the very shadows couldn’t reach them. But Alice wished for one of those shadows at that moment, the one with sharp fangs and a lolling tongue. The one who slipped into her bed as silently as a hunter and tasted at every part of her body as if nothing else would ever sate him again. She pressed her tongue against her own blunt, pitiful teeth and remembered how she had once run at his side, moonlight to his night.

It was just after midnight when Alice returned home. Already, she breathed a little easier to be in land that was wild but for pockets of civilization left over from a gold mining craze. Pumas prowled abandoned tunnels. Streams smoothed away signs of placer mining. Sugar pines towered above abandoned shacks half-eaten by scrubby undergrowth. Timeworn outcroppings of limestone had lost their scars from being bitten into by pickaxe and shovel. Nature slowly reclaimed itself.

The chilly air of an autumn night brought prickles to Alice’s skin as she stepped out of her car, but she relished in it. A few kicks of her feet and her high heels were cast aside. Her sore toes wriggled at their new freedom even while she ripped her hair free of its bun, suddenly impatient with herself. She left her clutch in the car and her keys beneath the fronds of a potted fern. The forest waited, and so did another, and she went to them both.

She walked carefully against the fallen pine needles and loose earth, breath already quickening in excitement. He would find her before she found him; he always did. An owl screeched somewhere in the distance. The trees sighed. The waxing moon hardly penetrated the thickness of the woods, and some of that innate human fear of being alone in the dark touched her. Alice stopped by a fallen tree, the bulk of its massive trunk an instinctive comfort.

It was as far as she got before hands grabbed her from behind. The shock of it drove her to gasp, but already she recognized the possessive way those rough fingers moved along her body, and she giggled even before a tongue licked the curve of her ear.

“Colton,” she breathed, twisting around to look.

She could never grow used to him, and even now reached out in wonder. Dirt scraped beneath her fingers; blood coated his jaw. He reeked of fur and sweat and musk. There was nothing of the refined about him, nothing in common with the cufflinks and cologne of the men at the party.

She had a heartbeat to feel his arm snake around her, one large hand sliding past the small of her back to grab at the heavy flesh of her ass, and then his fingers were pressing up between the cleft of her cheeks. She jerked at the pressure, hips instinctively arching in response, and grabbed at his shoulders just before he lifted her up. The hard muscles of his chest and stomach rubbed against the thin silk of her dress as their noses brushed.

The weak moonlight wasn’t enough to pick out his features, but when she locked her legs around him and breathed his name again, she caught the way his eyes glowed in response.

Then he was... No, not kissing. That was too tame a term for it. His mouth devoured hers, hungry and hard and impatient. The tang of iron spread over her tongue. He had hunted. She nuzzled forward to take in more of his savagery, savoring those sharp teeth and that sweet tongue. How could pink champagne compare to this?

He teased the breath away from her until she had to break off, panting against his mouth. “What was it?”

“Hare.” His voice was dark and as rough as the rest of him.

Then he kissed her again, briefly. “You had caramel.”

“Yes.”

He was fully erect, now, heavy against her lower stomach, and she wriggled impatiently, desperate to feel him in her. He nipped along the sensitive skin on her neck, stoking her need with every passing second. Her fingernails were now scratching at his shoulders while she rocked her hips again, knowing he would feel how wet she already was. Hoping it would be enough to draw out his frenzy.

He moved with that predator’s quickness, pinning her face-down against the fallen trunk, leaving her to pant helplessly while rough bark scraped at the front of her dress. The sensation of his hands pushing the fabric up past her hips left her hissing his name, and he rumbled in reply while drawing her panties down. Cold air rushed against her aching cunt a moment before a hot tongue licked her slick seam, and her voice rose.

She gasped out breaths there in the dark, the inability to touch him turning her eagerness into something agonizing. He knew it and teased, straightening up to rub his erect cock against her spread thighs, letting her feel its weight against the cleft of her cheeks. When she whined wordlessly, the head nudged at her swollen folds, just enough to tantalize. Then his hand slowly ran up her spine, as if marveling at the softness of her bared skin. She arched into his touch, her own hands digging into the moss on the trunk, and at that, his fingers tangled in her hair and he thrust in all way, drawing her voice into a yowl. Caught in his grip, her next breath came out as a laugh, and she met every rock of his hips with one of her own.

Hot muscle stretched against her exposed body; dirt and sweat scraped against her own clean, perfumed skin, leaving it muddied. A hand slid around her throat, pressing against the tender flesh just enough to hint at a threat. Like catching sight of eyes glowing in the dark. He always tested her, trying to see what she liked and what she flinched from. She only hummed, wanting her pleasure to vibrate against his fingers. She loved his teeth as much as his tongue, and when she hummed again, his touch turned feather-light, tracing the pulse pounding against her skin.

He had enough will to drop his hand to the fallen trunk and brace himself as the rhythm of his breath changed. His hips now jolted hers, spearing her with each thrust until she was reduced to shuddering gasps. His mouth found the side of her neck, and then she was caught by his teeth, caught by his weight while his cock bucked deep inside her. He growled through his climax, teeth digging in, one hand tight against the flesh of her hip. A few breaths, and he shifted against her, fingers sliding over her hip and pushing into her slick folds. A few rasps of those calluses against her clit and she was lost in her own release, panting while he licked the marks of his teeth from her skin.

Her dress was ruined. There were leaves in her hair and the bangles on her wrist had slipped off, lost among wood beetles and ferns. She wasn’t even sure what had happened to her panties.

She had never felt more alive.

Later, Alice settled herself in bed with the feral creature that was her lover, curling against him as he dozed. Her fingers were now gentle as they stroked his thick, dark hair, finding burrs that had been overlooked in her earlier desperation. When she began plucking them free, he gave her a sleepy growl.

“I should start checking you for ticks, too. October is when they really come out.”

“Didn’t get any. I’d know it.”

“I’m still looking you over tomorrow morning.”

That drew another rumble from him, but she could tell his warning growls from ones that were all bluff, and knew he’d enjoy the extra attention even if he’d never admit it.

Wolf’s wife. The words rang through her head in a sneering voice, a familiar voice. Magdalene had once spat those syllables at her like poison, the beautiful pelt clutched in her hands as she threatened it with the nearby fire. Alice still remembered how the fur had bristled at the tips from the heat. The memory often burrowed into nightmares until she woke up shaking, her jaws locked shut even as her dream-self’s screaming rang through her head. Dreams were supposed to offer the impossible, and yet she never managed to save the pelt from being flung into the flames.

The feeling of a hand sliding up her spine startled Alice. Her fingers stiffened against the hair beneath them, and she realized Colton’s eyes were open. Watching her.

“You miss running with me at nights.” Then his thumb stroked over her cheek and came away wet with tears.

It shamed her still, that painful day when she had watched the pelt blacken in the fire, unable to save it. She nuzzled close until she couldn’t see his face before she answered. “She took it from me. I agreed to everything else in some way, but not that. It was the first time I ever fought against her, and I couldn’t do anything.”

Then she waited, unsure if he would respond. They had never spoken about the loss of the pelt, or what had happened afterward. Colton knew Magdalene had burned it while making Alice watch. Alice knew the savage teeth that had mauled Magdalene to death had been his. Why discuss it? He always preferred actions to words, and she hadn’t wanted to think about it at all.

Yet, it wasn’t guilt that had driven her to silence during these past months, but a desperation to move forward. To forget how she had loved Magdalene so very much, burning herself in that bright, caustic flame, always complicit in giving up more and more of herself in the hopes that it would be enough. And then—too much given away, too much burned to ash, and what remained was a weedy sort of devotion. A weariness with rotting roots.

How could she ever explain how that—not Magdalene’s grisly death, and not the fact that she slept in the murderer’s bed every night—was what filled her with shame?

Colton’s voice rumbled against her. “So the pelt is gone. It was a stolen thing, a witch’s empty dream. You brought it to life, Alice, not the other way around. There’s wildness in you. Even the woman couldn’t stamp it out.”

She laughed, a whisper of breath against his neck. “I’ve never heard you say Magdalene’s name, not even once.”

“You always know who I mean. And you know what I mean, now.” His hand slid along her back again, soothing the tension in the muscles there. “You lick blood from my teeth and giggle like it’s chocolate. Even if you can’t run as a wolf, it’s still there in you.”

They were simple words, soothing in their very bluntness. Her grief didn’t leave, but its edges dulled enough for her to relax, his heartbeat strong and steady against her ear.

Later, just as she drifted toward sleep, Magdalene’s laugh rang at the edge of her hearing. Alice jerked as if she’d been slapped, too muzzy-headed to even properly respond, but then Colton’s arm tightened around her, and the heat of his body settled more firmly against hers. She fell limp again, losing herself in him. The last thing she was aware of was the lingering tang of iron on her tongue.

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