“Do you know why your mother left you?” Cruel words, but Magdalene’s voice sounded gentle, even sad.
They sat facing each other, Magdalene serene among the creeping ferns and Alice shivering, bare feet tucked beneath her and shoulders hunched under the thin sleep shirt. Thick moss gleamed green between them. Firs loomed all around. The sky looked jet-black—not a single star in sight to suggest with its wheeling path where they were or how long they’d been there.
The question stung at Alice’s thoughts, but instead of answering, she glanced out at the dark water of a stream that burbled mere feet away. Fresh shivers ran through her at the lack of frogs croaking on its muddy banks, at the lack of rustling in nearby undergrowth where water rats or raccoons would have surely foraged. And the trees—they didn’t shift in the wind that tugged at her hair like cold fingers. Their shadow-black trunks absorbed none of the light from the moon that hung overlarge in the sky. No, this certainly wasn’t the throbbing, heedless nature that she knew.
“Where are we?” she said, aware of Magdalene’s unwavering attention.
“In a place where we can talk in peace.” There was a silkiness to the words that suggested no firmer explanation would be given. “I’ve answered your question. Are you going to answer mine?”
Without looking in her direction, Alice quietly said, “My mother left me because she was crazy.”
“She was, but that’s no reason to do what she did. Many people are crazy and yet never abandon their children. The bond between a mother and child is supposed to be the most sacred.”
Reluctantly, Alice’s gaze returned to the other woman. “Why, then?”
In the strange stillness surrounding them, Magdalene’s eyes were the only thing that seemed real, vivid, alive. “It’s because she didn’t love you enough to stay.”
Alice felt her mouth tremble. “How can you say that?”
“What, the truth?” Magdalene leaned closer, her expression still gentle. “Where’s the wolf?”
She didn’t want to answer, but when Magdalene raised an eyebrow, her voice came out as an ashamed whisper. “I… I chased him away.”
“No, he left. He found you to be too much trouble.” Then Magdalene reached out and caught Alice’s chin, fingers soft as they stroked her chilled skin. “Remember, I study people for a living, absorbing their actions to uncover the truth behind all their lies and posturing. I find their hearts. I see what they try to hide.”
Alice didn’t trust herself to speak, not when tears threatened to spill down her cheeks even as her jaw remained caught in the other woman’s grip. But she didn’t pull away, either, and her gaze now met those inscrutable eyes in full, asking the question that refused to come to her tongue.
Magdalene saw it, and answered. “People look at you and like you, Alice, but that’s all. They leave because all of them realize you’re not worth fighting for.”
Alice broke, face crumpling into tears and body sinking like a puppet cut of its strings. Cries wrenched from her throat, echoing raggedly through the trees.
Then Magdalene’s arms folded around her, still painfully familiar, and that velvet voice whispered in her ear, “All of them except me.”
Alice gave her something that was half-hiccup, half-growl, and tried to shove her away. Magdalene held on. “Have I ever abandoned you?”
“No.” Her lungs hurt with each word. “You just fed off me.”
Magdalene laughed, the quiet, reluctant one that was the closest she ever came to revealing a vulnerable point of her being. The sound of it made Alice fall still and unresisting even when Magdalene wiped the wet tracks from her cheeks. “I did. I couldn’t help it. You were always so pure. So sweet. And I always took it for granted that I could turn to you when I felt too miserable with myself.”
“Your second heart,” said Alice, her voice still thick with tears. She felt as cold as ash, nothing more than the remnants of something long burned away.
Magdalene nodded, eyes glittering gold despite the surrounding darkness. “Why do you think I haven’t left?”
Another laugh, and now Magdalene brushed hair back from her face. “Who cares about that fucking animal? Did he ever even say he loved you?”
“He doesn’t like words,” murmured Alice, but uncertainty hitched in her voice.
“No, what he likes is comfort. A full belly. A warm, dry place to sleep at night. And now that you’re having trouble providing that for him…”
Oh, it stung, seeing the pieces laid out so neatly before her, but Alice still tried to refute Magdalene’s points, still tried to rattle her calmness. “I love him.”
“Of course you do, sweet Alice. You’re really too good for the world.” Magdalene caressed her face again. “You’ll never be recognized, you know. So many people will pass you by without understanding your worth. I’m the only one who can truly see you and love you for it.”
Alice opened her mouth, groping for a response that could deny what sounded more and more like a terrible truth. But then Magdalene’s lips caught her own, soft and coaxing and clever.
“Leave it all and join me,” she breathed, soft fingertips tracing the pulse in Alice’s throat before slipping further down. As she eased the sleeves of Alice’s shirt from her shoulders, she added, “What do you have to look forward to? What’s the point of squirming blind through the world and always being disappointed? Always finding yourself left behind?”
The chill in the air hardened Alice’s nipples immediately, and she shuddered when the heat of Magdalene’s mouth followed. It had always stunned her, receiving such sweetness when she knew full well the venom that could hide behind those crimson lips. She shuddered again, back arching. The crust of salt from still-drying tears itched at her cheeks, but already she felt flushed and even dizzy.
The world slipped and slid as clever hands eased off the shirt in full. Then they flexed against her shoulders, pushing her down until the skin of her back prickled against damp leaves and earth. She felt her hair spill out around her and heard the lapping of water, but Magdalene’s kisses coaxed her full attention, each one honey-sweet and numbing.
It was almost enough to lull her, to let that final spark of doubt burn out so that velvet darkness could rush into its place, unhampered. But then she felt a hand slide over to the sensitive skin between her breasts, palm pressing right where her heart beat hard and fast, and the lips against her smiled.
Alice shuddered at the sensation, and the ghosts of old words flashed into her mind like lightning piercing the suffocating murk of a storm.
My second heart…
“No!” Her hand shoved away the one on her chest, skin burning as if the very touch had been poisonous. Then she twisted from that treacherous mouth, fumbling for her shirt.
Magdalene seemed stunned, even letting Alice push her away enough to sit back up.
“I’m no longer that stupid little girl,” hissed Alice, covering her chest with the fabric. “You took five years of my life, but you’re not taking the rest.”
At that, Magdalene managed a scoff, but her eyes were still wide with shock. “What life do you have left?”
Something rose up within her, something desperate and savage. “I don’t know. But it’s still mine.”
Magdalene had already found her smile, the amused one that suggested she always knew better. “You’ll see differently once you cross the veil. You’re already nearly there.”
Then the other woman was on her, her wiry strength flattening Alice against the ground. Alice snarled, scratching at whatever she could reach even as a hand slid up to her throat and tightened. Before Alice realized pain was pain, her head was being pushed backwards. Her whole body was, her and Magdalene both slithering downward through moss and mud while they fought. Water caught the tips of Alice’s hair, and her movements turned panicked. They were at the stream, and still sliding.
Sedge and reedgrass lashed at Alice’s cheeks, and then air plunged into water. She flailed, neck feeling like it was about to snap in Magdalene’s grip as currents rushed to fill her mouth and nose. The other woman now straddled her, pinning her down, pinning her still beneath the surface of the stream. Alice’s heart raced as she ripped at the arms holding her under, bubbles of air already escaping from her mouth.
A scream choked in her throat as her lungs started burning. The murky water stung at her eyes as her hands scratched with fresh desperation. She couldn’t die like this. Lost to the world with only Magdalene as a guide to whatever waited beyond? Hell itself would be kinder.
But Magdalene’s fingers felt like bands of iron, unflinching and inescapable. Alice kept fighting, but as her lungs tightened to knots, her strength dwindled from attacking Magdalene to begging her. Please… Please.
Just as the blackness around her began to spin, Magdalene’s grip flinched. Then it was gone.
By that point, Alice didn’t know up from down but she flailed, anyway, fighting until suffocating water broke into lapping waves and sweet, chilled air. As she gasped and clawed at nothing, screams reached her. Not her own—her lungs spasmed in her chest, leaving her helpless at anything but coughing and scrabbling against the mud at the stream’s edge. With the last of her energy, she grabbed handfuls of wild grass and pulled herself onto the bank. Even as the shrieking reached a new pitch, she raked at the wet mass of her hair with a shaking hand, clearing her vision enough to see…
The black wolf’s fur bristled as he ripped at Magdalene, teeth savage against the arms covering her face and throat. Moonlight shone on the streaming blood and torn flesh. Screams echoed throughout the trees. The wolf moved like a shadow, quick and silent in his hunt, intent on the slightest opening. Nothing would satisfy him except a killing bite.
When Magdalene tried to roll away, he caught her nearest elbow and jerked at it in the quick, vicious way Alice had seen him use to disembowel prey. Bone snapped, and Magdalene’s voice turned ragged as her arm went limp, revealing her face.
The wolf let go to lunge for her throat, but she was already gone, vanished like smoke. Alice, still struggling to see through watery eyes, thought she caught a ripple of darkness among the stark trees as Magdalene’s final scream rang through the air. Within a heartbeat, it eeled away into the larger gloom, disappearing like a shark’s fin sinking back into the water.
Then it was only her and the black wolf. He loped over to her, tongue lolling and eyes glowing like fire.
Teeth chattering, Alice forced herself up, both hands reaching for him even though she well knew he could—might—tear into her just as viciously. A cold nose sniffed at her throbbing throat; bloodstained jaws nuzzled at her sodden hair. Alice’s breath dipped into a sob as she buried her face into thick, coarse fur. “Colton.”
He twined around her restlessly, panting as his ears twitched this way and that to catch any hints of lingering danger. With every cough that wracked her body, though, he pressed close to let her cling against him. Blood covered his fur, filling her senses and slicking her skin, and she started shaking as the enormity of it all hit her.
“R-real,” she managed, despite how her lungs still choked on air. “She’s real.”
He growled briefly, nosing at her as if to urge her up. It was a clear enough message; they needed to leave wherever they were and reach true safety. Alice rose on shaking legs, one hand buried in the thick fur between his shoulders as he led her through billowing mist that shined strangely. Her hair still clung to her face and neck, proving there had been water at one point, and fallen fir needles stuck to the swathes of mud on her chest and belly from where she’d crawled up the bank, but their surroundings had shifted into a vague landscape of grey, and the ground felt as insubstantial as the air.
Lights glimmered in the distance and Colton guided her toward them, silent and sure. Alice didn’t know how long they walked before the cloying fog receded, taking its glow with it. Stars glittered in the sky once more, and an owl screeched as they crossed swells of grass that smelled damp with dew. The rhododendrons looming on either side were the last clue she needed to recognize where they were—on the slope of earth that separated a manmade pond from the cul-de-sac that held her parents’ house.
She nearly stopped to look behind her, wondering if glimpses of that strange forest yet remained, but Colton pressed close to hurry her steps. And with good reason; they were now in full view of houses. Alice could imagine what a sight she would be for anyone who happened to be awake and glancing out a window. Naked and covered in mud, one trusting hand buried in the thick pelt of a rangy wolf that looked ready to attack anything that drew too close… They must have appeared as though they were figures slipping in from another world. A hysterical laugh bubbled in her throat over how true that was.
All the windows were dark as they pushed through the neatly-clipped shrubbery that bordered her parents’ backyard. Alice ignored the stinging of branches jabbing at her legs, all her focus instead on the small patio that led into the guest room. The sliding glass doors had been left open, and the room appeared as unlit as the rest of the house. She might just make it inside without being caught.
Metal railing fenced in the patio, thin yet sturdy. She didn’t see how she would get back over it; her legs trembled as hard as the rest of her body, and her lungs still hitched whenever she breathed in too deeply.
But as soon as she paused, the wolf beneath her fingers flickered like a shadow, and hot skin replaced fur. Hands caught her by the waist, easily lifting her up and over the railing. Then Colton jumped it, himself, the movement smooth and deadly like the hunter he was. Moonlight picked out the blood trailing down his jaw and chest, but his eyes remained in shadow, unreadable.
Alice reached for him, anyway, needing to touch him again, needing to feel that he was real. Rough hands pulled her close to tense muscle, the mud on her skin smearing with the blood on his. His touch felt nothing like Magdalene’s. It was thrilling instead of numbing, demanding instead of enticing. It reminded her of blood beating through veins and the tender danger of teeth just pressed against skin.
As he pushed tendrils of hair from her face, she whispered, “You found me.”
Then he was kissing her, and iron filled her mouth. Yet she didn’t flinch from the taste, nor from those savage teeth as his arms tightened around her. Now she welcomed the dizziness of being breathless and delighted in the possessiveness of fingers running over her in the same way that hers ran over him. Yes, let them devour each other, simple and clean in their hunger. Let the sweetness of tongue meet with the honesty of fang.
Then one of his hands slid up the curve of her neck, intent on grabbing a fistful of hair. But the rasp of calluses against battered flesh made her wince, made her flinch. He noticed, and broke off to examine her. She panted through a sudden spike of nerves, waiting for his reaction, and when he growled, she knew it must have looked as bad as it felt. His touch turned feather-light while tracing the nearest marks, but his eyes had gone as hot as molten metal.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, and meant it.
He just growled again, leaning in until his mouth replaced his fingers. Heat rushed through her as his tongue began soothing the throbbing skin, there, tender and unhurried. As he nuzzled along her neck, finding each mark and easing away its pain, she fell boneless in his arms. Words slipped out of her, unburdened by fear. “I’m sorry for everything.”
“Fuck apologies.” He licked at the tender part of her throat where Magdalene’s nails had scraped the skin.
“No, I should have told you,” she insisted. “I should have explained why I thought I was going crazy. I didn’t realize it was real. That she wants me dead.”
Then she shivered, realizing just how close she had come to being found floating in the pond, lifeless and caught in the cattails. Poor Alice Corrigan, driven by the same tendencies as her mother. At least this time the body had been found…
She didn’t realize she had gone stiff with tension until Colton kissed the point of her neck where her pulse beat hard and fast. “The fear’s hitting you.”
A new type of it, yes, one more numbing than the sharp anguish she had felt in the past weeks. The raw awareness that all her hiding still hadn’t kept the past at bay. “A little. I never thought she could come back.”
The moon had crossed enough of the sky for its light to shine in the room, and Colton’s eyes gleamed at her as he said, “You’re safe, now. The bitch is gone for the night, and if she comes back, I’ll snap her neck instead of her arm.”
It coaxed a laugh out of her, but she quickly fell serious, again. There were a million questions left to ask. What was Magdalene, now—a ghost? Something more? And what was that strange forest? How much did Colton know? How much of this related to Darby, for that matter, who had grown obsessive over Magdalene? Two worlds now slipped around Alice, and the one of ghosts and dead forests was too furtive to even begin to explain in the mundane light of day. What would her parents think, should they find her now? They already worried she was mad; where would that lead to, now that she knew better?
So many questions, but all that filled her mind as the fear receded was a need to touch the body warm and sure against hers, to bask in the solid presence of at least one other creature who would never question her own strangeness. She dropped her head against his as another shiver broke over her.
He noticed that, as well. “You need to get dry. Warm up.”
“We both do,” she said, rasping fingers against the blood that had dried thick and sticky on the scruff of his jaw.
In the shower, he tasted every part of her body while the water sluiced over them both. Her skin was a mass of bruises and scrapes from the car accident and Magdalene’s attack, but his mouth made her feel like the sweetest thing alive even as his expression changed now that she was clean and exposed, her near-death experiences mapped out in front of him in ugly red and purple.
He grew more insistent in the bedroom, as restless against her as when he’d been a wolf. His hands ran along her arms while she locked the door, no longer caring if her parents grew upset at being kept out, and his gaze kept jumping to the large bruise on her sternum, the exact place where Magdalene had placed her palm.
When she turned to him to ask if he was willing to risk being found with her, a hard kiss caught her question and swallowed it unsaid. She hummed as he pinned her to the bed, hot skin and hard muscle managing to avoid the worst of her bruises even while agitated energy seethed in his every movement.
His voice was as rough as his mouth as it rumbled against her neck. “Thinking she could fucking take you. Her smell’s still everywhere on your skin.”
If she didn’t know him better, she might have taken the words as ones of disgust or suspicion. A questioning of how much of her had wished to leave with Magdalene after all. But she did know him, this wolf. He had nearly lost her. Had nearly seen her die. He needed to feel that she was real as surely as she did with him.
Even beasts of the night seek reassurance. A howl in the dark is a howl wishing it will be answered.
But what were words to such a creature? Meaningless huffs of breath. Carriers of confusion and lies. No, she had hurt them both by hiding, and now she would reveal herself in full. She would give herself over as soft, willing flesh and let the predator taste how sweet she really found it, sating his hunger.
Ignoring the flare of bruises, she wrapped her legs around him and watched his eyes dilate in response. His cock was already hardening against her thigh when she murmured, “Then replace her scent with yours.”
“I can’t go easy while I fucking smell her on you. Understand?” A warning from him, a last chance to back away from his hunger even while desperation gleamed in his eyes.
She felt like laughing. Was she supposed to feel fear or mistrust, now? Let him savage her. She would treasure every hint of his teeth.
“Perfectly,” she whispered against his mouth. Then she licked at it.
In a mere heartbeat, she found herself with her head over the edge of the bed, a hand cradling the back of her skull. She knew what was coming, and grinned in anticipation as the head of his cock nudged at her mouth. She took him eagerly, tongue sliding against the thick length while he pushed in, hand tender against her chin even as he growled.
His first thrust was hard and deep, slapping his heavy sack against her face, and her laughter hummed around him. Yes, this what she wanted, always—this was what she had been so afraid of losing. The filth and abandon of keeping company with a monster. A hunter’s devotion, always intent on her as something to catch and savor.
Salt and musk filled her senses as she sucked, each flick of her tongue drawing shudders from him. He braced himself against the bedpost with one hand, still grinding his hips against her face while his other hand slid over her feverish skin, squeezing at vulnerable flesh. He was rough where there weren’t bruises, merciless at drawing out her need, and soon she was panting against him quick and soft, clenching her thighs together.
Then she felt his weight shift even while his hips continued thrusting, felt the hardness of his body press against her own shaking one. He sucked at the tender skin of her lower belly, teasing a path ever closer to her already aching cunt. Then he nipped at one fattened fold, and feel of his teeth left her hips arching.
The rumble from him sounded amused as he pinned her still and spread her legs. As air rushed against her exposed cunt, she moaned against him, already close. He took her even further, rasping his chin against the sensitive flesh as his tongue tasted every part of her it could find. Teeth finding that exquisite point between tenderness and agony, breath teasing in its very softness… He had a predator’s patience, savoring every moment it took for her to lose all sense and howl as if she were a beast, herself.
Her first climax left her shrieking against his cock, but he didn’t stop, stoking her into another when he sucked instead of licked. Her hips writhed, trying to lessen the delicious torment of that wicked mouth, but he only held them still and kept going. Her third time was body-wracking, bone-melting, and after that she fell limp, dazed as hot aftershocks shivered through her.
Dimly, she felt his thrusts turn sharp and fast, and grew aware enough to suck at his cock as it bucked deep in her mouth. Colton’s teeth bit into her thigh, growl rising into a snarl as hot seed flooded her full. She sighed around him, managing to suck him clean before falling completely limp.
A few heartbeats passed as they panted and shook against each other, and then Colton pulled out. In another moment he stretched over her again, this time face-to-face, and pulled her into a lingering kiss. As the taste of her excitement mingled with the musk of his, he shifted just enough to catch one of her thighs and push it up. The head of his cock nudged at her swollen folds, drawing a gasp out of her.
“Already?” she breathed, fingers digging into his shoulders.
He licked at a bead of sweat trailing down the hollow of her throat, still hungry, still intent on devouring her alive. “It’s been days. They’re still full.”
“I can tell.” Despite her exhaustion, she slid a hand down to cup his balls, finding them heavy and swollen. “Is that from being a wolf?”
“Questions, always questions.” He swallowed her laugh with an impatient kiss.
In response, she hooked her legs around him, the only invitation he needed to thrust all the way in. He was too intent to pace himself like usual, the frenzy of his hips jolting her entire body. Drops of sweat fell on her skin as his eyes stared into hers, their green dark, ravenous. When his teeth caught the damp skin of her shoulder, she shook in bliss even without the waves of a climax to pull her along. Oh, yes, she bore fresh marks, now, love bites that would later be soothed by a devoted tongue into light bruises. In the morning, all would look the same, but these ones would remain precious. A chase ended so that in the morning a new one might begin.
In the final hours of early morning, she slept deeply, mind quiet and dreamless. A hand tracing the curve of her cheek woke her, and she opened her eyes to find Colton sitting beside her, comfortable in his skin and watching her intently. “It’s nearly dawn. Your parents will be up sooner or later.”
She glanced at the sheets around her, taking in their less than pristine condition. “They can find me in the laundry room. If I don’t wash these, then I’ll have to try explaining things they’d never believe. Sleepwalking to the pond. Magdalene. You.”
“I’ll explain myself.”
She blinked, her fuzzy thoughts trying to grasp what he was implying, when he made it clear. “What time do they get up?”
“Around seven.” Then she pushed herself upright, catching the hand still against her cheek. “You don’t have to do this.”
He looked amused. “It’s time I stop living in the shadows.”
She hesitated, still trying to understand. “You mean, with my parents?”
He seemed to consider his next words, but they came out steady and sure. “With you, too. We’ve both hidden from each other, Alice.”
His thumb traced along her palm as she thought about it all. There were fights ahead with her parents, anyway, after the car accident. And if nothing else, the handprints around her neck proved how keeping quiet, docile, and obedient hadn’t helped at all. Perhaps it was time to learn how to do more than endure.
When she looked back up at him, her smile was nervous yet true. “I’ll make a big breakfast. That might smooth things over a little.”
“Don’t have to.”
She felt her smile warm into the one that always left him pulling down her clothes and bending her over. “I know your appetite.”
He tilted his head, a lazy smolder appearing in his eyes while his hand slid between her legs quick and smooth, thumb pressing in on a clit still swollen from his attention. “And I know yours.”
Then his hand pulled away and he kissed her instead. “I’ll see you in a bit. Don’t worry about the bitch sneaking in; I wouldn’t leave if she still lingered on this side.”
As he drew away, she couldn’t resist saying, “How do you know that? What are you, you infuriating man?”
He gave her a final sly glance. “I’ll tell you.”
“After your parents find out I exist.”