Oberon’s ears perked as Cole approached their sleeping area, and he bristled, hunching his shoulders to block Hollis from his view. She’d fainted in his arms in the lake after making her vows to him, and he’d spent his time drying her as her body cooled. Unsure of how to dress her, he’d been rather stumped, and she was currently still nude from the waist up. He’d tossed aside her undergarments, for he knew she was rather picky on which she wore and when. It was a quirk he’d noticed as she dressed each morning and evening—some underwear meant for travel, others for sleep. He didn’t want to get it wrong, so he’d tugged on her long, grey sweatpants instead.
He’d then flung aside the contraption that held her breasts tight to her body, something she’d informed him was called a sports bra. He’d attempted to stretch it over her, but it felt so tight he worried she’d suffocate during the night. He’d been about to give her one of his shirts when Cole made his presence known.
“Sleep, we leave at dawn,” he growled, peeking over his shoulder at Cole’s feet.
“I…well, might I use that blanket?” he asked, nodding near the abandoned ritual site. Oberon nodded, pulling the sleeping bag up to Hollis’ chin to cover her breasts from his view. Now that the danger had passed, he wanted Cole to stay away from her.
“Is…is she alright? I heard her crying…” he said, voice lowering. Oberon’s lip curled back in a protective rage, muscles tensing, but he kept his eyes on Hollis.
“She is fine, scientist. Sleep, now,” he demanded again. Cole sighed, lowering himself, and Oberon turned his glare to his face.
“I will go with you two, but I need my own supplies. If we could go back into town, I could—”
“We cannot afford another trip. We are low on currency, or that is what Hollis has said,” Oberon explained. Cole laughed softly, shaking his head.
“I can afford whatever we need, from here on out.”
Oberon eyed him, suspicious, but could feel his earnest heart. He nodded once.
“Thank you,” Cole said, standing to retrieve the blanket. Grumbling to himself, Oberon tugged his massive shirt over Hollis’ head, pulling her arms through the sleeves, before wrapping them around her Teddy. He sank down into their bed, pulling her close and throwing his leg around hers as exhaustion swept over him, listening in as she began to dream.
Promise me, Hollis, promise me…
Hollis’ heart stammered, her dreams centering on her mother this time. She was thankful, for even if they were painful, they were endurable. She beamed, her and Willow dancing to her father’s old music player in their living room, their mom full of laughter as she taught them all the different moves her late husband had taught her.
Hollis reached for her mother’s hand as Willow spun her in a wide circle, the tips of their fingers just brushing, her mother’s icy. Hollis stopped, her heart falling, watching as Willow faded to grey, and then her mother, and the rest of her family, as though they were being pulled back from her, back through the veil that separated their worlds.
She was left, standing alone in their living room, the windows shattered, the roof missing strips of tin and letting patches of cold light seep in. Leaves scraped by on a breeze across the dusty wood floors. It was gone—it was all gone, the life that had once inhabited her home, her sanctuary. She was alone in a great void, torn between life and death and the choice that was hers alone. She’d promised her mother she’d live, but at what cost to her own soul?
Warm breath fanned across her neck, and her eyes slipped closed as fire began to course through her, hot and wild and untamed. His sturdy hands gripped her hips, his lips at her neck. She breathed him in, leaning back into his strong, possessive embrace. Smiling, she opened her gaze, staring out through her front door and into a snow covered landscape.
It was her mother’s voice, beckoning her. She lurched forward, but his grip on her remained, hard as stone, cementing her feet to the floor.
Her tone was more fervent now, and Hollis leapt forward, crying out with no sound as his fingers dug deeper into her.
You promised me, Hollis
His deep baritone coaxed those wavering memories from her mind, and she stiffened, torn in two by her impossible desires.
She felt his breath on her neck, this time hot, this time accompanied by his strong arms pulling her close as chilled, predawn air kissed her cheeks. She wrinkled her nose, eyes blinking awake to find the tops of trees and the smooth plane of dirt interrupted by brush. Her head whirled, heart sinking. Just another dawn. Just another day trekking through impossible wilderness to defeat a foe that wasn’t hers.
She curled in on herself, hugging Teddy tight to her chest as silent tears fell, as they had every morning for the past fifteen mornings. She blinked her eyes open, hearing a shift of another sleeping bag in front of her. Cole sighed, rolling and facing her, eyes slowly blinking open.
His brow furrowed as they held one another’s gaze. She knew what he was thinking—he pitied her, pitied all the horrible things she’d lived through recently, and she hated him for it. At least Oberon didn’t give her that look. Well, not that she knew of. She could hear the two, whispering like gossiping women each night, concerned about her severe shift in demeanor.
Depression, Cole had called it, as though she couldn’t hear. She’d experienced trauma, and she needed help.
She’d all but begged Oberon to help her, that night at the lake. She felt a fresh wave of tears, and she glared at Cole. He turned onto his back, giving her a bit of privacy to break down as she pleased.
All she’d wanted was for him to erase what had been forced onto her. It didn’t matter that it was only in her mind, for it had come with a terrible promise—Tiberius would find them, eventually, and he would succeed, would rip away her dignity and torture her for the rest of her life. She’d only wanted to feel Oberon, for him to mask the pain and give her pleasure, but he’d robbed her of that, and she hated him for it.
He shifted behind her, intertwining their legs as he sighed in his sleep. She curled deeper into his embrace, for as much as she hated him, she also yearned for him. The notion sickened her. She was a mess, and no one knew how to really help her.
She gazed at the distant mountains, the ones that had seemed so far away but were now so close. After crossing them, they’d be in the scablands, as Cole had called it—a massive stretch of desert interrupted by deep canyons. He’d warned them of the sparseness of such an area, where little water and vegetation could survive. Her heart broke all over again, for she’d miss the trees, the greenery, the streams and lakes. Every day dragged her further from home—from the only life she’d ever known, and her memories were being torn away with it.
Cole promised that once they were close to Seattle, the land would change—would be lush and rainy once more. She held onto his words, hoping he wouldn’t let her down. Hoping it would refresh her mind, would give her the serenity the thoughts of the homestead did.
Oberon shifted behind her, awakening, his hardness pressing into her back. She felt fire flood her veins, a blush rising in her cheeks when she remembered what he’d felt like, prodding against her tight resistance. She’d never wanted anything so badly before in her life, and she was ashamed now to admit that. Her thoughts were met with a deep chuckle, and he nuzzled her neck. He’d been nothing but attentive to her these past few weeks—gentle, caring, a bit more overprotective than usual. She could see his worry, plain as day. But part of her wanted him to suffer with her.
And until she sorted out her emotions, he would.
He rolled his hips, putting himself on top of her and pinning her face down onto the ground as he stretched. Her heart raced, for the contact they’d shared had been rather innocent since that night. She hadn’t realized how desperately she’d missed his incessant teasing. Still, she was angry with him, so she wriggled her hips and attempted to claw her way out from under his impressive weight.
“Get off…me…” she huffed, steel coating her tone. He chuckled again, pressing his hips harder against her. She gasped, all fight leaving her body. He bent his lips to her ear, her body shivering as they brushed her skin.
“I dreamt of you, tiny woman,” he whispered as her breath left her lungs, her heart clambering with juxtaposing emotions.
“You still hate me, I can feel it.”
“Quit doing that,” she hissed, annoyed at his abilities. He slid his hand up under her shirt, his scorching skin giving her goosebumps. He paused just below her breast, thumb stroking her tender flesh, before he cupped her, fingers gentle. She quivered, overcome with desire. But her mind soon flashed back to her moments in that circle, to those red eyes above her, his calloused hands tearing at her skin as he tore into her innocence.
Oberon growled as he felt her potent memory of that night. He withdrew his hand, the moment ruined. Hollis still only wanted him for one reason, and until she got past that, he refused to give in. He rolled off her, and she pushed herself up, not bothering to look his way as she grabbed her bag and stomped off to the stream.
Cole rolled, glancing at Oberon in worry, about to follow. He shook his head, frowning. The two men had become rather in tune with her sudden mood shifts, and had decided to never leave her alone. Oberon took the task of going with her when she needed to bathe, and Cole would watch her while Oberon set up camp each evening and checked their perimeter.
“Leave her be,” Oberon said, laying back and glaring at the tops of the trees. The woods were safe—no human had ventured this far between towns in nearly a decade. Cole sighed, laying back as well.
“What do I do, human?” Oberon asked, finally desperate enough to seek counsel from the man he hated. Cole was stunned into silence for a moment. They’d only shared conversations about Hollis or which route to take, never anything akin to advice.
“Have you tried asking her what she wants…or needs, rather?” Cole suggested, frowning. Oberon chuckled, the sound dark and biting.
“She wants me, but I refuse.”
“You?” Cole asked, his head whipping to stare across the dirt to Oberon. He rolled his honey hued eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“Ever since the ritual. She’s wanted to have relations with me,” he explained. Cole reddened, shocked.
“You…you mean you two haven’t, yet?” he asked, surprised. He figured whenever Hollis went to bathe that they would, well, indulge in one another. And though it always sent a potent pang of jealousy through him, it made sense to Cole. Oberon was the epitome of masculinity—and a god-like creature, to boot. Cole knew he stood no chance.
“No. I wanted to, and she refused me time after time. But after that night, after what he did to her…she wanted me to erase it, to cover it up. I won’t. It is wrong,” he said, voice lowering. Cole could hear the anguish in his tone. He knew what Tiberius had done, for Oberon had told him soon after, seeking some medicine to heal her mind. When Cole had said there was no such remedy, he’d been enraged.
“Perhaps…you should explain that, to her, if you haven’t already,” Cole said, quietly pleased that Oberon had such a strong conscience. Oberon sighed, itching his chest.
“You humans are so sensitive. What happened was not real,” he argued, and though he seemed annoyed, Cole could tell he was worried about her.
“I doubt the women of your time weren’t equally as sensitive to such trauma,” Cole said, defensive. Oberon shook his head.
“The women of my time would hardly look a man in the eye, let alone voice their opinions.”
“The women of this time are rather sacred, if you haven’t noticed already. Our race is failing, more each day,” Cole said. “Besides, even if the women of your time didn’t share their thoughts, what’s to say they didn’t have them?”
“It happened to almost every woman. It was a fact of life,” Oberon said, turning his gaze to meet Cole’s. He sighed, trying to decipher how best to explain this.
“She wasn’t raised in your time, and the expectations for her are vastly different. She was raised by women, protected. You know this. You can’t compare her to what you knew. It’s not fair,” he said. Oberon grit his teeth, considering his words. After a moment, he nodded.
“I’ll speak my reasonings to her,” he said, throwing aside his covers, standing and stalking to the stream. Cole growled, annoyed once more. The very being he’d helped create now had a monopoly on the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and he couldn’t get past his jealousy, no matter how hard he tried.
Oberon shoved aside branches, careful to be quiet. Hollis sat on a rock, knees tucked up to her chin, her nude body shimmering in the golden morning light. His mouth watered, and he was overcome with the desire to throw his one shred of morals to the wind and give her what they both wanted. She stood, wading into the stream, up to her hips, shivering. He chuckled, padding forward with bare feet along the springy forest floor.
He pulled off his shorts, bracing himself for the cold as he stepped into the water. Behind her he stalked, but she made no move, completely unaware. He reached out, one arm winding around her midsection, his free hand clamping over her mouth as she sucked in a breath to scream. He yanked her, flush with his toned body as she writhed, fear coursing through her. She still hadn’t figured out it was him.
He bent to her ear once more, deep voice almost drown out by the gurgle of the stream.
“Is this what you want, Hollis?” he growled, fingers roaming down the length of her stomach, pausing just under her belly button. She relaxed in his grasp, whimpering as she nodded.
“Until you want me for the sake of wanting me, I will not give in,” he seethed, grip tightening.
“I will not share your memories of such an important moment with another man, do you understand?” he growled. He felt her slacken in defeat, felt a sob claw its way up her throat. It took her a moment, but she relented, nodding.
“You are not his, you are mine, and I will not share any part of you, mind, body or soul, Hollis,” he swore. He held her to him as her knees gave out, spinning her around, crushing her to his body as she sobbed into his chest.
“I’m…sorry…” she gasped. He wound his fingers into her hair, pressing his lips to the top of her head.
“I’m not here to erase what happened. You are strong, and I’ve no doubt you can conquer this on your own,” he said, voice softening.
“I…I…just want my…my mom,” she hiccuped, breathing hitched and rapid as her true, deep feelings poured forth. He bit his cheek, her pain more potent and clear now that he’d been able to direct it.
“I know, Hollis,” he whispered. “But only you know what she would say to you, here and now.”
She gave a small laugh, nodding against his chest. He ran his hand along her spine, smiling a bit.
“When you’re ready to move past that night, I will be, too,” he promised, eyes slipping closed as the stream carried their memories away.