An hour after Darby’s visit, Alice’s trembling had dwindled into a dull headache that throbbed behind her eyes. Probably, she should have been looking into lawyers to see if Darby’s threat had a solid foundation. Probably, she should have thumbed through that damned manuscript to see what else had been put in there.
Instead, she shoved the armful of papers into the back of a closet, piling them onto a few packing boxes and covering them up with muck boots. Then, she cleaned. The mop slapped against the floor. The bristles of the scrub brush tore at the sink. Even the soft dust cloth hissed as it wiped over surfaces. A fury of domesticity against the sudden intrusion of the unknown.
Throughout it all, Darby’s words filled her head, uncovering memories in the way of a sledgehammer cracking apart cement to reveal worms writhing in the forgotten earth beneath. Alice remembered broken plates and the ragged note in her mother’s voice whenever she yelled. How her body would tense just before she exploded. The strange things she would fixate on… Like the wristwatch Alice’s father had always worn.
It hadn’t been anything special, but from the dulled leather of the band and the muted gleam of the metal hands, anyone could tell it was old, loved, and depended upon. Alice remembered how, one day, her father had come out of the bedroom with a puzzled frown, and when he’d picked her up and kissed her goodbye, his wrist had been bare. Later, Alice had been strapped in her booster seat and dabbing chubby, careful fingers into blue and yellow paint, pleased with how she could make streaks of green appear on the paper like magic, when her mother appeared and casually set the wristwatch on the nearby kitchen counter.
There was a hammer in her other hand, and as she raised it, aiming the heavy, rusted iron of the head at the watch, she had growled, “Always ticking. Tick, tick, ticking. Even at night, it never stops.”
Then she’d swung the hammer down, and a great crack had echoed throughout the room, startling Alice enough to send her hands jerking along the paper and leaving sharp, shocked strokes of blue.
Alice didn’t remember how her father had reacted once he had found out what had happened, or her mother’s explanation for it, if there had even been one. What remained burned in her mind were those beautiful, little gears left crushed and still, and the cracked face that had popped free. Her father’s watch, something he wore every day. Now just a broken, useless thing.
Alice realized her eyesight had blurred over from the memory. Even so, she continued scrubbing at the sink, the bristles of the brush vicious in a way she never allowed herself to be.
A pearl of fear lived deep within, polished throughout the years as her uncertain child’s heart had hardened into a weary adult’s: that she would be a source of misery to whatever loved ones she had. Contrary to what Darby claimed, she had tried so hard for Magdalene even once her adoration faded into something tired and weedy. Her own complaints—smothered. Her angry words—choked back. All that self-binding rooted in the fear that if she ever opened her mouth to scream at her lover, her mother’s voice would come out.
Something ran through her maternal line. The gentle phrase for it was a history of mental illness, but Alice had learned a little more after inheriting her grandmother’s cabin. Wolf pelts that came alive, Colton’s dark hints about what he had seen while working odd jobs for Franny Harford... Witchhood ran through the women of Alice’s family, and she didn’t know what that meant. Madness, certainly, from what she remembered of her mother. But how did it begin? From birth? Did it creep up with the years as the heart toughened with experiences, failures, love found and love lost? What sparked that slow spiral down, and had it already happened in Alice’s head?
The previous night flashed through her thoughts like lightning. How she’d heard Magdalene’s laugh. How she’d even believed for a split second that she’d seen her. What had that been? Painful memories resurfacing, or the first hints of her mind turning as treacherous as her mother’s?
Beasts have instincts to guide their senses. A sound like a predator’s footstep will send them flying. A scent on the wind will pull them into patient stalking. They are unburdened by thoughts too self-aware, by brains too painfully absorbed with their own existence. They may jump at shadows, but never will they question whether those shadows are a real threat or a false scare. In the quick, brutal life of a wild thing, doubt holds no sway.
Eventually, a familiar noise broke through Alice’s frantic cleaning. A truck’s engine rumbled to a stop in the driveway. She blinked, a cramped hand frozen against where it had been scrubbing at the streaks of soot on the hearth. Colton was already back? A glance out the window revealed a sky dark with dusk. Hours had somehow slipped past.
The scrape of a key in the lock roused her further, and suddenly she realized how it would all appear. A house that breathed chilly air. Laundry left to mold in the washer. A forgotten batch of bread dough in a kitchen that had nothing else except dregs of coffee.
She tried scrambling up off hands and knees, but her muscles had gone stiff and sore from all the work put to them, and she only managed to push herself upright before Colton stepped inside.
She couldn’t see him, yet, not while he was still in the short hallway leading from the front door, but she already caught an abruptness to his voice.
Words streamed out of her mouth as she snatched at some kindling to light it. “I’m sorry! I lost track of time. I was cleaning and I just…”
The match shook in her tired hand, refusing to catch, and she was still crouched on the hearth when he appeared, now silent.
Shame kept her head down and drove her voice high. “I can have soup ready in half an hour. And I’ll make biscuits. Biscuits cook quickly. I—”
Hands caught hers. Stilled them. The warm, calloused fingers against her own drew her a little away from the panic, enough so that she could look up at him. He was studying her knuckles, scraped and reddened from bumping brick and wood.
As his thumb lightly brushed her raw skin, he said, “You always clean like this when you’re upset. On the date your mother disappeared, you scrubbed the walls from floor to fucking ceiling.”
That had been back in the city, in the sleek apartment that had been a place of limbo for her and Colton while they’d searched for something in forestland. He’d caught her straining on a ladder, frustrated that the double-paned window in the ceiling had trapped a layer of dust that couldn’t be reached from either side.
Alice sighed, unresisting when he coaxed the kindling from her grip. “I didn’t realize I was that predictable.”
“Something happened. Your fear is in every room.”
After a hesitation, she nodded.
“Tell me while I build a fire.”
“But what about dinner? You probably haven’t eaten since the sandwich this morning.”
His eyes gleamed with amusement. “Alice. I’ve gone two weeks without food. Skipping a meal won’t kill me. Unless you’re hungry?”
She wasn’t, but did want wine and said so. Her hands clutched at the glass while Colton lit the kindling in quick, efficient movements. His silences had depth, complexity. They could be tasted in the air as easily as she could taste the sweet white on her tongue.
This one was borne of patience, but after a large gulp that drained half her glass, the words came out of her in a rush. “One of Magdalene’s friends came by.”
He looked over. There was no trace of surprise on his face.
“You smelled her in here, didn’t you?” Her fingers fidgeted with the stem of her glass before she added, “She and her husband were the ones Magdalene stayed with. You know, during those two weeks when we had the cabin to ourselves. I don’t know if you ever actually saw her.”
“Sure, outside the grocery store. Pink hair. Laughed like a horse.”
She blinked, startled. “I thought you were busy shopping.”
“The store has windows.”
“And you just happened to notice me.”
“I notice everything about you, Alice.” The rasp in his voice never went away, but sometimes it grew tender. Like a hot tongue against a bruise.
It brought a smile to her face, but she didn’t relax until he settled next to her. As flames crackled over the logs, she dropped her head against the hollow of his throat, her free hand working at the buttons of his flannel shirt until she could stroke at the hair dusting the hard muscles of his chest. He smelled like cut wood and sweat from his shift at the sawmill, and she loved it.
In return, he pushed up her sweater, baring her back and the sore muscles there. As his fingers eased away the last knots of tension, he said, “What did she want?”
“She’s writing a biography on Magdalene.” A lingering shiver ran through her, and then she gave in and let all her fears unspool. “It’ll include her final weeks, so Darby wants to see the cabin. Stay in it. She’s looked up things about me that she can put into the book just to make sure I agree to it.”
“What happened with your mother.” It wasn’t a question.
“And things about my grandmother, too.” Then Alice smiled a little and looked up at him. “But she didn’t find out that she was a witch.”
He didn’t smile back. “Fucking blackmail. No wonder you panicked.”
“I didn’t give her an answer. I don’t need to. There’s nothing she can do that hasn’t already happened to me.”
They were words that she thought would be reassuring, but Colton’s eyes held that peculiar flatness that appeared whenever he calculated at something.
A little alarmed, Alice said, “Are you thinking of killing her?”
He studied her. “Do you want me to?”
Ah, there was his feral nature, for all that he lounged on the couch like a human man tired from a day of hard labor. Green irises shifted yellow in the firelight, free of any guilt or conflict from the thought of tearing into another throat. Ending a human life held no weight, not to him. It was simply a hunt, and he had been through many of those. Alice knew how well he could sleep while covered in blood.
And yet, it wasn’t fear that kept her from answering right away. Some part of her resisted bone-deep to the idea of turning him into her personal monster to be sent out whenever she was too cowardly to face problems. It would be an act of arrogance on her part, trying to put those dangerous teeth under her will. It would be...using him, in a way.
“That’s not why I’m with you,” she said, quietly, looking him full in the face. “The fact that you’ll kill for me. Besides, I don’t want Darby dead. I just want to be left alone.”
His head tilted, and she had the feeling her answer had surprised him. Then the color of his eyes darkened back to their green, and he smiled a little. “Just the sex is good enough, hm?”
“There’s nothing ‘just’ about it.” She relaxed against him, again, back to stroking along his hot skin, and his rumble of a laugh vibrated against her fingers.
For a while, she fell silent, sipping at the sweet wine and letting the warmth of his body lull her. She felt herself grow heavy, unguarded, and stopped looking at the shadowed corners of the room. As the light from the fire danced over them both, words slipped out of her. “You once said you knew my grandmother was a witch.”
He nuzzled at her temple, a silent way of confirming her words.
“Well, how does someone turn into one? Is it like the old superstitions, where a witch gets her power from the Devil and has a mark on her body from where he licked her during their pact?”
“That’s just human fear.” Colton sounded amused. “A witch is as natural as a wolf.”
“Then how do you tell one from a human?”
“A witch can survive anything except water or fire. Whatever else they can or can’t do is on them.”
Her thoughts felt pleasantly fuzzy from the wine and the heat of his body, enough so that his cryptic response was lost on her. “I don’t understand.”
There was a grumble from him over having to use more words, but he still elaborated. “Spells, rituals, all those things—they’re just tools. They’re not part of a witch’s nature. A witch is empty unless she feeds off the land around her. Or people.”
“Or animals,” said Alice, thinking of the wolf pelt.
When the answer was obvious, Colton never said it. In his silence, she spoke up again. “So witches are evil.”
Wine made her tenacious. “You just said that they suck things away from others.”
“You kill to stay alive. It’s the same as hunting. I catch rabbits cute enough to be stuffed toys. Does that make me evil?”
His point wasn’t lost on Alice, but her ever-burning curiosity in him flared into life. “No. But what about you? What are you, Colton?”
“Something of a wolf, something of a man.”
When she groaned, she felt him smile against her cheek, and was sure he’d change the topic.
He did. “Witches need to ground themselves in something. Find a balance between taking and giving. Otherwise...”
“They’ll go insane?” said Alice, slowly, the fear rising in her again.
She was looking down at her glass, but his hand caught her chin and tilted it until her gaze rose to his face. “Is this it, then? The root of your fear?”
Despite the wine, her mouth had gone dry. “Yes. How would I know if I’m a witch or not? You once said I wasn’t, but that was before I used the pelt.”
When he didn’t immediately answer, she tensed again. He felt it and smoothed a hand along her back before saying, “You’re not like most. You seemed starving, not empty, and you wanted to help me instead of feed. But then you made the pelt come alive, and that left me unsure. You might be a witch. You might not be. Shouldn’t matter, either way.”
Alice shook her head, wishing she could feel as calm about it. “I don’t want to end up like my mother. Or my grandmother. If it was being a witch that drove them both mad… At least my mother just disappeared. My grandmother started making little figurines out of snail shells and rat bones. We think she was eating them and then using the remains. My mother would send a check every month, and my father continued that after she disappeared, but not a single one was ever cashed. She had money for food but she ate vermin, instead.”
She took another swallow of wine, mulling over the strangeness of a woman she’d never known, and then added, “And all those clothes in the cabin. They were in different sizes and styles. That’s something you’d see in a serial killer’s house. I remember it was even searched by the police, once, after being tied to an unsolved disappearance. They never found anything. No bodies. No bones, even.”
“Probably ground into meal and used for the rose bushes in the back.”
When Alice looked at him, Colton steadily met her startled gaze. “She fed on people, Alice.”
She sucked in a breath, head spinning like she’d had several glasses of wine instead of just one. “And my mother? Would she have been like that, too?”
His arm tightened around her as if to keep her steady. “Never met her. Couldn’t say for sure. If she was, she would’ve stopped to be with your father.”
“But it didn’t work. She got away and still went mad in the end. And now there’s only me.” It was almost as if she could see the generations of her maternal line nestled together like growth rings hidden in one massive trunk, the rotten roots slowly poisoning the rest of the tree.
Colton’s thumb traced the curve of her cheek, drawing her back. “You won’t end up like them. You’re different.”
“What if I’m not? What if I just spiral down and disappear into the woods, too?”
“You won’t, Alice.”
She looked at him, this strange, bewildering creature. “Why?”
He studied her, reflected firelight dancing in his eyes. “Really want to know?”
His nose brushed against hers. “Because whenever you start fighting against yourself, I’ll fuck you back into your senses.”
It was so unexpected that she laughed, a hard, startled one that sent wine spilling from the glass. It soaked through her sweatshirt, but she only laughed again and set the glass aside while his teeth nipped at her ear. The panic that had prickled throughout her now evaporated in a flash of heat, and her voice came out a bit breathless. “Not the sweetest promise, but I’ll take it.”
The hand against her bare skin slid down again, tracing the sensitive dimples in her lower back as his gaze took on a lazy smolder. “You’re the sweet one, not me.”
Her response was to pull off her sweater. She wasn’t wearing a bra beneath it, and the spilled wine soaking through had already hardened her nipples. He growled softly at the sight, and again while her fingers slid over his fly, playing with the metal teeth and then tracing the bulge in the denim, there. When the fabric grew strained, she unzipped it and reached in.
He let her pull his hardening cock free, but when she bent to lap at the head, he moved with that feral quickness, and she found herself sprawled on her back and pinned on the couch while he loomed over her.
“No. How I like.”
She hummed at his roughness, lifting her hips so he could tug off the rest of her clothes. He ignored the movement, instead licking the wine from her breasts. The contrast between the chilled wine and his hot mouth was enough to make her gasp, and when his teeth tugged at a nipple, her breaths quickened into panting. He teased, the near-pain of bites stoked by his tongue into sweet agony.
Her fingers dug into whatever part of him she could reach; the hard strength of his shoulders, the muscles in his arms, the hair that bristled up the back of his head. Each time her nails bit into his skin, he gave her a pleased rumble in return, and even in her haze, she marveled at how he enjoyed her desperation.
The heavy flesh of her breasts felt inflamed when he finally moved down, the ghostly sensation of his teeth lingering with each breath even as he tasted at the sensitive skin along her ribs and stomach. She already felt herself brimming on the edge of release, the warmth of the wine mingling with a heavy need that left her twitching her hips again. But when her hands left him to pinch at her aching nipples, he stopped and pinned her wrists above her head with one large hand.
Their noses brushed again as she groaned. “I’m so close.”
“I could draw you out, more.” The heavy insistence of his cock prodded at her through the denim of her jeans.
“No, I need it now.” Then she nuzzled at his mouth, but he pulled back just enough to prevent a kiss.
At his sly expression, she groaned again, falling limp even while her limbs shook with lust. “You love this, don’t you?”
“Don’t you?” He sounded amused, but his hand flexed against her wrists, and she had the feeling that sometimes he still wasn’t certain of her, that her lack of fear stupefied him, this predator who lived by tracking terror.
Her mouth curled into a smile. “Completely.”
Then she arched her back, a movement that left her nipples brushing against him, daring him to ignore such sweet targets. It drew a growl from him, and then he was kissing her, hand sliding down from hers to rip at her jeans. Her laugh was swallowed by his mouth, and then she truly was lost in him.
Later, he untangled himself to add wood to the fire. The warm light flickered over the sheen of sweat on his skin. It was only after sex that he ever seemed to truly relax, as if the natural law of kill or be killed slipped away into the shadows for a time and took his wariness with it. As Alice watched him coax the flames back into life, something much deeper than lust squeezed at her thoughts.
She and Colton had never pledged devotion to each other. Even an “I love you” had remained unsaid. What they had was something feral and slicked in blood. Something that beat like a heart and seared like molten rock moving deep beneath rigid crusts of earth. What did a promise have to do with such wildness? He had once said that he would stay until they grew tired of each other, and she, just freed of Magdalene’s forever, hadn’t wished for anything more binding. And yet, the idea of losing him now…
Anguish cut through her so sharply that it must have reached her scent, for Colton looked over with alert eyes. When he approached, she pushed herself up to nuzzle at the dark hair that ran over his lower stomach, very glad he didn’t like words. She couldn’t begin to explain the tumult in her heart… But she could still show how deeply she felt for him.
He caught the back of her head, perhaps to stop her and ask what was wrong, but now she was the insistent one, kissing along the vein that ran from his hip to his cock. He was sticky from their drying fluids, and she took him into her mouth to suck him clean. Salt and musk filled her senses as she revered him with every slide of her tongue. Feral, unashamed, pride straining in every thick inch… Sometimes she wondered whether her reverence of his savage abandon all came from the deep ache to have those teeth leave scars behind once he decided to slip off to the forest and return to living as wolf he truly was.
She had so many already, ugly keloids marking where the tender flesh of her heart had been cut into, cut away, and left misshapen as scar tissue grew lumpy and hard in the spaces left behind. Even the oldest ones still made her flinch. But what would it be like to have some that were precious, instead?
When she broke off with a final lap at the head of his cock, he was already hard again, heavy against her while she planted kisses down its length, knowing he could feel how she smiled whenever a growl slipped into his breaths.
His fat sack was just as filthy, and at the first touch of her tongue, his fingers twisted in her hair. When he swore under his breath, she hummed in response, gently mouthing at one ball, then the other through their thick, wrinkled skin. As she continued to suck and kiss, worshipping him with every movement of her mouth, his free hand started rubbing his cock. Primal excitement left her flushed and panting against him, clinging to his hips while urging him on with every press of her lips. The hand in her hair tightened even as the rhythm of his breathing changed. She knew he was there, and followed his balls with her mouth as they drew up tight.
His growls rumbled into her bone deep, and then wet heat striped her neck and shoulder. It wasn’t shock that made her laugh, but delight. Yes, let them be filthy beasts in the dark of night. Let them dwell in the joy of the unashamed. Nothing he did was too grotesque for her, and nothing she did was too broken for him.
She was already sucking again when his next shot of seed caught in her hair. The hand at her head tugged her back, then, forcing her to arch her back to keep her balance. The movement exposed her breasts to his final load, and the next breath that came out of her was a satisfied hum.
It was answered by his own quiet laugh, and now his fingers slid to the nape of her neck, coaxing her to look up at him. Marked as she was, she met his gaze without shame and saw him marvel at her reaction. As if she were the entrancing, mysterious creature of the two, not him.
His panting had already eased away, and his voice sounded as steady as always when he spoke. “If you ever lose yourself, I’ll bring you back. Understand? No matter what.”