Wolf's Bane (Monstrous Hearts #2)

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Chapter Two

The day began as usual—a sunrise cold and grey, with wind shaking the sides of the little house and making the surrounding pines sigh. Alice stirred first, shifting against the warm pressure of Colton’s body. Daylight revealed as much dried mud on her as there was on him, and where the sheets weren’t dirtied, they were shredded. A beast in her bed, and she knew just how to rouse him.

She nuzzled down the hard lines of his body, quickly finding his morning erection. It was sticky from the dried remnants of last night’s rutting and overwhelmingly musky. The first lap of her tongue against the head drew a growl from him but nothing else. His heavy sack was just as filthy, and she mouthed at it without hesitation, lips curling around him in a wicked grin when she felt him wake up. By the time his hand found her hair, she was licking the wrinkled skin there smooth, feeling his balls twitch against her eager mouth.

This was different than the primal domination of last night. This was lazy, tender, his fingers tracing over the curves of her body as if to memorize them. He knew how to be wicked, himself, occasionally tweaking one of her nipples to make her gasp against him. Every time his balls flexed, her mouth followed, sucking at first one shape and then the other.

When a growl slipped into his breathing, she shifted enough to rub her cheek against his straining cock. “No ticks there, anyway.”

Even as his fingers tightened in her hair, keeping her in place, his gaze remained relaxed, even amused. “If you think you’re done now...”

She smiled against his cock, feeling it twitch in response. “Not at all. But your shift starts in half an hour, and you haven’t even showered.”

He lathered her hair with shampoo while she sucked him clean, tongue lovingly polishing every inch of his shaft. Even while his hips thrust against her face, he was careful not to let soap suds trail into her eyes. It was absurd. It was playful, something that still surprised her about him.

Afterward, while he dressed for work, she pulled on a robe to cook something he could eat one-handed while driving. This wasn’t the first time they’d done this, and she had perfected making a fried egg sandwich in under ten minutes. Smoked gouda to keep the bacon in place, tomato and lettuce to cut the richness, and mustard on the toasted bread to brighten it all. She had just finished wrapping the sandwich in parchment paper to keep it from dripping when he came out of the bedroom, shrugging on his coat.

She met him at the front door, licking a trace of melted cheese from one thumb.

“Make one for yourself?” he said. He already sounded distant, all attention on checking his pockets for his keys.

“You already gave me breakfast.”

His focus snapped back to her, and she bit back a laugh at the thunderclap of surprise on his face. Her lewdness always startled him—the hunter met with something that enjoyed being hunted. Then his eyes took on a hunger that stirred a sweet ache between her hips, and she didn’t resist when he pulled her in for a long, hard kiss. When they broke off, she was panting and he had to rearrange himself through his jeans.

“Minx,” he said, sounding unaffected.

She just smiled, handing over the sandwich. “Be safe. And come back to me.”

Alone, she started the coffee pot and set about stripping the bed. Colton was hard on sheets, and she noted ripped areas that would need to be mended once the mud had been washed off. The heady aroma of brewing coffee drew her back to the kitchen, where she slipped a leftover fried egg onto the last slice of bread and ate it in bites while cleaning the pan and counter. She’d have to make another loaf. There was also black fur threatening to invade the kitchen; in some ways, living with a man who changed into a wolf invited a mixture of the mundane and the bizarre. He left hair everywhere.

Such tedious tasks, and yet she enjoyed living like this, with the domestic lull of the day balancing the wild abandon of night. Wolf’s wife, indeed.

She had cleaned half the hardwood floors when a knock came at the door. Alice glanced up, toes flexing against the wood as it sounded again, hard and impatient. Odd, that. A mile of forest separated the house from the highway. If someone had come here, it was to see her.

Mop still in hand, she approached the door and peered through the spyhole. Her breath froze in her throat when she saw who waited on the other side. Darby Reeves. One of Magdalene’s author friends.

Panic shuddered through Alice, bringing with it an urge to slam the deadbolt in place and slink away. Her past was something that needed to stay buried, not be upturned into fresh earth. And yet, her hand hesitated against the lock. Was hiding truly the better answer? Darby had come over for a reason. Would it be more dangerous to hear what it was or to remain ignorant?

To live with a wild beast is to take on both its boldness and its wariness. To understand when one is the hunter or the hunted. Better to flash threatening teeth, or to slip away to safety? Both have their uses. Yes, through beasts, one soon learns the wisdom of survival.

When Darby knocked a third time, Alice acted, heart pounding in her throat as she opened the door. “Hello, Darby. It’s been awhile.”

Lips red as a warning twisted into a sneer. “Eight months, to be exact. It would’ve been only six if you’d gone to Magdalene’s funeral. But you didn’t.”

Harsh words, angry words. The type meant to club at a conscience. Alice was surprised that she didn’t flinch. Her voice even remained steady as she said, “We broke up earlier that day. I was mourning over her before everyone else, if you want to be exact about it.”

That crimson mouth straightened out again, and the rest of Darby’s face creased in sudden wariness. She hadn’t expected that answer. She hadn’t expected a fight.

Alice was painfully aware of how meek and colorless she must have appeared to Magdalene’s friends, and wondered what other differences Darby might now see in her. Whatever they were, they left Darby tongue-tied and scuffing her combat boots against the doormat. Obviously, she wished for Alice to ask why she’d come.

But Alice had learned a few tricks from Colton, and the effectiveness of silence was one of them. She waited, patience itself while Darby squirmed against the unfriendly weather. The other girl had dressed for urban traveling, wearing an artfully ripped-up jacket, a mesh shirt, and thin pleather leggings, none of which offered protection against the gloomy chill of looming trees. When wind howled against the house, her shoulders flinched.

Finally, Darby scoffed and gave in. “Are we going to stare at each other, or are you going to let me in?”

“I haven’t decided. It’s pretty galling that you showed up here after everything you’ve said about me.”

“Shouldn’t have Googled yourself if you didn’t want to know about it.”

Alice’s fingers flexed against the door as she considered slamming it in the other girl’s face. The media frenzy over Magdalene’s death had meant Magdalene had been everywhere and unavoidable—as had Darby, who had been the most interviewed about her. Dear Darby, one of the last people to see Magdalene Bishop in her final weeks, and so someone who had taken on the roles of immaculate witness and anguished cryptographer for the late author’s last, mysterious actions.

And my, how she had taken to her duties, spinning narratives for journalists that twisted facts into something as fictional as one of her steampunk novels. Alice still shook with rage if she allowed herself to think about it. Despite all she had gone through, she was now labeled as the selfish lover who had used Magdalene, the rich bitch who had drifted into artistic circles without having the talent to reach them on her own. A parasite feeding off someone else’s genius. It was Darby herself who had referred to her as a heartworm. As if Magdalene had even had a heart at the end. Perhaps she’d been born without one; Alice still couldn’t decide on that.

“Why are you here?” said Alice, already tired of facing the other girl and the memories stirred up by her presence.

“Can we talk inside? It’s fucking cold out here.”

Even now, Alice was unwilling to ply petty cruelty toward another, and after a final, grudging moment, she opened the door wider and stepped aside. “Do you want coffee?”

Darby appraised everything in sight while Alice led her into the kitchen, her gaze sharp and bright in the way of writers absorbing every detail as potential story fodder. Silence simmered between them, broken only by the clink of ceramic against the countertop as Alice took down a second mug and poured steaming coffee into it. She didn’t bother asking how Darby liked it, remembering well enough to get out the milk.

As she added a few glugs to the mug, she said, “How’s Rob?”

“Fine. You think the death of his childhood friend would have fucked him up, but he doesn’t care.” Then Darby settled into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. “Do you care what happened to her?”

It was a question Alice had long wrestled with. Every time she thought back to the sight of Magdalene’s mutilated body, horror shuddered through her. It had been a vicious death and she wasn’t enough of a coward to pretend otherwise. Still, she sometimes wondered what she herself might have looked like if Magdalene’s savagings had been teeth on flesh instead of words in minds.

Did that excuse Colton’s actions? Or her own lack of guilt? She didn’t know. All she felt sure about was that not one ounce of glee filled her over what had happened. When weariness ebbed like waves pulling back from the shore, what remained sparkling on the foam-flecked sand of her thoughts was a relief so bright as to be painful. The finality of something ending, of something being gone for good.

“When I think about it, all I can feel is tiredness,” she said, finally. “I was tired when I left her, and I was tired when I found out she’d died. She was brilliant at writing. She seemed otherworldly at times. And she was very hard to live with.”

“Sounds selfish to me. She dies and all you can think about is yourself.”

Something in the words drew Alice’s attention, and for the first time, she truly looked at the other girl. Darby’s skin, always pale, now looked bloodless, and the dark circles beneath her eyes were as ugly and purple as bruises. The shape of her mouth, always so smug, now crooked toward bitterness. She looked unwell, as though nights were sleepless and days were bleak. She looked like she lived with grief.

Unsure of what to say, Alice brought over the steaming mugs in silence.

Darby took hers with a nod, still looking around. “Really going for the homespun wifey thing, huh? Checkered curtains, watercolor paintings...”

“They’re made from coffee.” If she was going to be sneered at, it might as well have been over the right things.

Darby caught onto the implication. “You did them?”

Alice watched her gaze travel over the framed pieces again, taking in the landscapes and still lifes of flowers and fruit with renewed interest.

“Who’s the guy?” said Darby, pointing at the one nearest to them. It was Alice’s favorite painting of Colton, where she’d gotten his eyes just right.

“Someone I know.” Alice kept her voice light, but her reluctant manners hardened into pure hostility at the possibility that Darby would now prod at and insult Colton. It was time to get to the point. “Why are you here, Darby?”

Darby wrinkled her nose at the cup of coffee and pushed it aside. “I’m writing a biography on Magdalene. I want to show the world what it lost.”

A book. Of course. “Why you?”

Why not me? Now that she’s dead, it can only be a secondhand narrative, anyway. And... I know what she went through with her art. I know what it’s like, aching to write while the words stick in your heart until it suffocates. I can’t think of anything worse than to have your life end like that—a blank fucking page. People pity her; she deserves more.”

And with that, the traces of grief on Darby’s face made complete sense. “You love her.”

Darby raised her chin. “Sure, and I’m not ashamed of it.”

Well, and how was that shocking? Magdalene had woven people’s thoughts and feelings into paeans of praise for her with as much skill and care as she had put into her literary efforts. In that past dark winter, when she had gone off with Darby and Rob and had left Alice to wait alone in the cabin, how hard would it have been to coax Darby’s heart to beat to the rhythm of hers?

A new feeling wormed its way into Alice: reluctant sympathy. “You think she loved you.”

“She did love me.” Darby’s tone dared her to challenge that. When Alice didn’t, she added, “Her story needs to be told, and that’s why I’m doing this. I’m willing to be her defender in death since no one was in life.”

Alice sipped at her coffee to quell the laugh that wanted to come out. What kind of bullshit had Magdalene told her in their time spent together? When Alice felt sure her mouth wouldn’t twist into a bitter smile, she said, “And how do I figure into this? Do you want an interview?”

“No, I don’t need one.”

Something about that pricked at the edges of Alice’s mind. The first breath of danger, so faint that it could be doubted.

Before she could respond, Darby sighed. “Fuck it, I’ll just put it out there. You own the cabin where she spent the final months of her life. You own the property next to the area of the river where she planned to drown herself. Where she was... Found.”

Alice watched the muscles in her throat spasm, as if the words hurt too much to say. Suicide could be seen as darkly romantic. An animal attack, though, horrified with its ugliness. It reminded one that a body wasn’t a vessel for a tortured soul but instead simple meat that could be torn apart and eaten.

“The area where she was found mauled to death,” said Alice, quietly. The words gave her no pleasure but no pain, either.

Darby winced. “Yeah. So I want to visit it—the cabin. Spend a few nights inside to see what it’s like. I need your permission to stay there.”

“No.” The word flashed out of Alice’s mouth. The cabin was as ugly to her as a scar and just as tender. The idea of anyone walking around in it left her feeling sick. Trying to sound calmer, she repeated, “No, I won’t give my permission.”

Darby didn’t look deterred. She didn’t even look surprised. Rather, she smiled, a slow one that said, I knew you’d say that. “I think you will.”

Then Darby reached into her messenger bag and pulled out a thick sheaf of paper. With one glance, Alice knew it was a printed manuscript, and once more that sense of danger crept over her. When Darby slapped it on the table between them, she couldn’t keep from flinching.

“Go ahead and take it. It’s your copy to read. I marked places you’ll find really interesting.”

Alice kept her expression neutral while flipping to the first red arrow label that marked whatever it was that Darby wished her to see. She scanned over a few sentences, breath sticking in her lungs at the mention of her mother’s name. When she looked up dumbly, Darby was already pulling a red folder from her bag and handing it over. It was stuffed so full that paper stuck out from the edges.

“Just so you can’t say I’m making shit up.”

The folder contained newspaper articles, ones that looked printed out from archives. Headlines dug at old, half-remembered memories like a terrier at a rat hole.

Woman missing in Eldorado National Forest.

Ten years later, Ruth Corrigan remains unfound...

Numbly, Alice thumbed through more pages and found what looked like medical reports. The name on them was Franny Harford—Alice’s grandmother. Darby had probed deep into her family’s past.

“How did you get these?” The words slipped out of her, too shocked to sound anything but weak.

“Why does that matter? I have them, and I used them.”

Alice’s stomach twisted, then, and she shoved it all away from her.

Darby pushed it back. “Keep them. They’re yours. I also made digital copies in case you try to break into my house and steal the originals.”

“Do you really think I’m that crazy?”

“After what I found out about your family? Sure. Magdalene mentioned you were pretty fucked up, but I didn’t realize how bad until I looked into things. Your grandmother used to stick pins in herself, did you know that? And she’d put leeches on your mom as a kid. Your mom wasn’t much better; she liked to burn herself with cigarettes. Did you know she was hospitalized three times?”

“And it’s all in the book for everyone to see,” said Alice, clutching at her mug to keep her fingers from trembling.

“Sure. People wouldn’t understand where you came from, otherwise. Right now, you’re just a trust fund baby. After this comes out, people are going to really see you.”

She didn’t have to look up to know that Darby’s expression had changed. Triumph radiated off her, and Alice hated how helpless she felt in response. Even Magdalene had avoided writing Alice’s past into a book, at least until the very end of their relationship. And when Alice had found out, she had finally snapped, forgetting fear and familiarity and instead seeking out Colton in that wild, uncaring forest, the wolf pelt giving her anger teeth and claws.

Yet she didn’t feel fierce, now. She felt panicked, and bewildered, and ready to cry rather than bite.

Darby’s voice slid around her heart like a garrote, cutting in with each fresh word. “This is just me scraping the surface. You think you were treated unfairly in the media when Magdalene died? This will fuck up your life for good.”

“You’re blackmailing me into giving you permission to visit the cabin, is that it?” God, she had even slipped back into asking for confirmation, as if her words alone couldn’t possibly be right without another to correct or approve them.

She looked up in time to catch Darby’s smile. “If you give me access to the cabin, I’ll let you have the final say on anything about you that goes into the book. We’ll do up a contract and everything. If you refuse, I’ll reveal every dirty secret you have and make you look like the biggest bitch alive, besides.”

Alice’s gaze dropped back to her coffee.

Darby gave her a breath of silence before saying, “Well?”

Alice didn’t want to answer. She wanted to claw Darby’s face off. Tremors of rage and panic rolled through her. To have her sordid family history mutilated and restitched for a reader’s hungry eyes... Or to lash her willpower to another’s, something she’d sworn never to do again.

“I hope you’re not thinking that I won’t go through with it. Or that I don’t know anything really embarrassing. Free example: I found out you became a bedwetter for a few years after your mom disappeared. Is that why you’re obsessed with cleaning everything in sight like you’re a ’50s housewife? This manuscript is only a first draft; I could imply that in the rewrites.”

The final word had barely left Darby’s mouth when Alice threw the mug of scalding coffee at the wall beside the other girl’s head. Ceramic shattered in bright, brittle violence. Darby’s eyes widened—but not in fear. Glee filled her face as dark trails ran down the white tile.

“That’s definitely going in. Your mom liked breaking things, too.”

“Get out.” Alice was still too close to unthinking reactions to keep the growl from her voice.

The other girl stood from her chair casually, as if she’d been the one to decide it was time to leave. “I’ll let you have a few days to think things over. It’ll give me more time to look up your loverboy.”

Darby then glanced at the painting in a wordless threat of how she had already figured out that much about Colton.

Alice should have said nothing. The last thing Darby needed was more information, no matter what type. But a smile crept over her face before she could stop it, the hot, feral one that sprang into life whenever she tasted blood on him. And when she spoke, her voice held as much malice as Darby’s. “He won’t be afraid of you.”

For the first time, Darby’s confidence faltered. Something—doubt, perhaps?—flashed in her eyes, and her fingers briefly tightened against the strap of her bag. But she recovered all too quickly. “Even if he isn’t, you are.”

There was no way to respond to that without lying, and so Alice fell silent while seeing the other girl to the door. She watched from the porch as Darby got in her car and then rolled down the window. “I know you’ll run to Daddy and his lawyers. That’s okay; I already talked to mine. Sorry, Alice, but you can’t mop up your past like it never happened.”

It took everything Alice had to keep her chin held high as the car started up and eased away on the roughly-cut road. Once the taillights disappeared among the dark trunks of the trees, though, she started shivering and couldn’t stop. For the longest time afterward, she sat there on the steps while her fingers ached with the faint memory of claws.

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