It was night on the path. The ground was cold, unrelenting as iron. I’ll walk with you, he had said, but she had said no, she liked the deep twilight and Jamie would be waiting at the gate. The smell of October, massive and untamed, had acted on her like a drug. She had wanted a little quiet time to think about what had happened in the studio, and to wrap the wildness of the night around her.
There was a stone in the small of her back. The air in her lungs hung above her, forced out in her fall, and she watched it melt away, wondering where all the sound had gone. She couldn’t hear Jamie’s whimpers, or the harsh panting of the monster, or her own heart. She was aware only of the cold stone pressing against her skin because her blouse, fastened playfully with an assortment of safety pins where its pearl buttons had been, was torn and rucked up over her ribs. Above her, the night was blotted out as the monster fell to its knees astride her and thrust its hateful face toward hers.
“Pretty, pretty,” it growled, running its tongue along the line of her jaw. From the crushed ferns at the side of the path, Jamie voiced a low, mournful howl. The monster’s head swiveled toward where the boy lay. “Quiet, pup, or I’ll twist your head off. There will be a new master here before the moon goes down.” It looked back at Celeste. “And a master needs an obedient mate. You know all about pleasing others, don’t you, pretty?”
“Let me go,” she whispered.
“Never,” it said.
“Lou will come. He’ll kill you.”
Dex Ridgeley threw back his head in laughter that turned to a full-throated bay of triumph. “Let him come. That’s why I have you, pretty, to bait the trap.” He slid his hand beneath her blouse, shearing through the fabric with the claw on his thumb. “Don’t expect the old murderer to save you, though. His days of blood are long over.”
Ridgeley, sighed the forest. Dex scrambled to his feet, dragging her up with him. “Show yourself, old loup,” he shouted. He squeezed the bones in Celeste’s hand until they creaked, and she wailed in pain. Jamie wailed with her, struggling against the silver bonds that held him. Dex shuffled near enough to kick the boy into silence, his eyes on the shadows.
“You dare to pluck a rose from my garden?” Dussault stepped from the trees. He was naked, heat steaming from him. His eyes blazed like firelight.
“Give me the pack. It’s time. I’m stronger than you, and I’ve had a bellyful of being alone.” Dex buried his nose in Celeste’s hair, his eyes never leaving Dussault’s. “She smells good enough to eat. Good enough to mate. Maybe I’ll try a bit of both, eh?”
Dussault growled and circled toward where Jamie lay. “Leave him,” Dex snapped, and the older man froze. “Give me the pack, and you can go. See how you like living alone. Deny me, and I’ll kill her.” The sharp thumbnail nicked the skin beneath her jaw, and Celeste felt a hot trickle slide down her throat to nestle along her collarbone.
“Are you a coward, to hide behind a woman?” Dussault’s voice was a sneer. “If you are the stronger of us, come and take what you beg for like a dog.”
The insult found its mark. With a roar, Dex flung Celeste aside. He tore his clothes from him as though they were made of paper, and sprang toward Dussault. To Celeste, it seemed he leapt from his own body into that of the wolf that suddenly shivered on the air, but the Dex she knew was gone and she was forced to accept his transformation. Dussault seemed to crouch into the great beast that met its opponent with flashing fangs. It snatched the Dex-wolf from the air by its throat and slammed it to the ground. Celeste hid her face until the snarls turned to the crunch of bone. She looked then, fearing the worst, but the enormous wolf-like beast still stood, its muzzle scarlet and dripping.
“Lou!” she cried. The beast glanced at her, then nosed its fallen foe. It placed one paw on the dead wolf, pointed its nose to the moon, and howled. More wild voices answered it, distant but growing nearer. The beast shook its fur, and Dussault knelt in the fallen leaves in its place.
“So, you’ve seen it all, my star,” he said. “The beauty and the brutality. Blood and bliss. I wonder what you will decide.” He rose and went to Jamie. The boy lay caught between forms, held by the icy bite of the silver cuffs. Dussault swatted them aside like cobwebs and held Jamie as he returned, trembling, to his man shape. “It burns, I know. It will pass. Go and drink.”
Jamie rose on shaky legs and staggered to the dead wolf. Kneeling, he dipped his hand in the cooling blood and drank it from his cupped palm. Dussault stood before Celeste, his head bowed. “The blood will heal him. Is there disgust in your eyes?”
“No. I’m glad Jamie will be all right. I’m glad you came for us.” She crossed her arms over her bare breasts. “I’m so cold.”
Dussault looked at her and smiled. “You may have a warm fur if you wish it.”
Celeste shuddered, and tears started to her eyes. “Oh, I do. I wish it more than anything.”
Three wolves ran through the forest, long legs eating the ground, leaving the lodge far behind, running to meet friends and family. Running freely under the moon. Smelling the wild world. Hearing the life rushing through their veins.
On an easel, beside a cold hearth, leaned a painting. A beautiful she wolf, luminescent in her white fur, reclined at her ease on the crumpled blue silk of a ball gown. Her eyes said that she belonged only to herself.