Author’s Note: In which are hero and heroine manage to lose their clothing.
“Look at this mess. Why do you insist on a plait when you need a proper cut?” She gave the ribbon a tug. Placing her hands on either side of his face, she gently turned his head, as if inspecting him. “It’s remarkable how little has changed in your face. Are you hurt?”
Dirt and an alarming amount of blood covered her face. He pushed back the fringe of hair at her brow. “You’re bleeding. What were you doing out alone? If you ever do something so reckless, I will lock you away in a tower until you’re old and gray.” His tongue could not work properly with all the blasted teeth in his mouth. He felt like he was trying to talk around pebbles. Speech would only return if he calmed down, and how could he be calm when his mate stood before him, bleeding.
She blinked. “That sounded upsetting. I assume you’re chiding me.”
He pulled her into a crushing embrace, burying his nose in her hair. Her heart thudded, slow and steady and it was everything.
“What am I going to do with you?” He loved her so much, but he would strangle her for being so reckless. She was the only thing keeping him anchored to the world, to his sense of self, to his sanity.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The easy, measured beats calmed him because they told him she was not afraid of him, even though he lost control. When he heard her scream, the beast took command over his body with startling efficiency. He had to protect their mate, protect Solenne. He would tear the throat out of anyone who hurt her. The beast roared approval. They were in agreement.
With each heartbeat, the beast calmed and receded. Alek felt himself slowly shift back, though the beast was not far below the surface. The curse had always felt like an entity taking possession of his body, an unwelcome invader to be fought and resisted. At the moment, it very much felt like a disapproving master ready to correct an incompetent apprentice.
Exhausted, he knew they should return to the house. Solenne needed her injuries cleaned and a doctor. She needed hot water, soap, clean clothes, food, and a soft bed. He wanted to provide those things, to carry her back to the house, but he could not seem to move.
She stirred in his arms. “I’m sorry. You’re quite nude.”
Alek looked down at his chest and his arms. The beast’s thick coat had receded. “Side effect of the curse.”
She snorted, then her entire body perked. “Oh, I understood that. Are you with me again, Alek?”
“I never left you.” He adjusted her in his lap to make the most of the moonlight to assess the damage. His fingers brushed her temple. Blood matted the hair. A distressed noise sounded in the back of his throat.
She dabbed the injury, wincing at the contact. Her fingers came away bloody. “Head wounds bleed. They look worse than they are.”
“I think I hit my head. I tripped on a rock. Twisted my ankle.”
He needed to take an inventory of every scrap and bruise. He needed to get her clean, warm, and safe, but first he needed to stop the bleeding.
Claws still out, he sliced off the tunic. Solenne protested, throwing an arm over her chest. “Stay still. Be quiet,” he ordered, tearing the garment in half. One half mopped at the drying blood.
“Hold this,” he said, pressing the fabric to her head. The other half he tore into strips. The fabric was soiled, but it would do for a bandage. He wished he had water, a clean shirt to offer, but all of that he abandoned with the horse when he heard her scream.
Carefully, he brushed his fingers over her exposed skin, searching for injuries. His touch remained clinical, and the beating of her heart kept him focused. Thump. A scuff on her chin. Thump. A split lip. Thump. An angry red burn on her abdomen. Her skin flinched at his touch and she sucked in a breath.
“Tickles,” she confessed.
He ignored his desire to touch her again and resumed his inspection, but her trouser got in the way. She wore too many garments. Grumbling, he undid the ties and tugged the fabric down.
A bruise had already bloomed on her lower abdomen.
She shifted. Sticky blood from an unseen wound smeared on his bare leg. Needing to know, he yanked on the trousers. Her hands knocked him away. “My boots,” she said.
He tugged on the laces, growling in frustration as she kicked her feet. “I twisted my ankle. It will swell if you take off my boots and I won’t be able to get them back on.”
“I’ll carry you.”
“No. Keep it in my boots until we can get ice on it.”
Frustrated, his claw sliced down the trouser leg, exposing the scraped knees and puncture wounds on her calves. The wounds bleed freely. As careful as he could with his disfigured hands, he tied the fabric strips around her calves.
“Is it bad?”
He grunted. She laughed, high pitched and a touch frantic.
He gathered her back into his arms.
Still alive. Still with him.
His thumb brushed her bruised lip. Leaning down, he gave into instinct, licked the edges clean. He had tasted hot, fresh blood from the hunt many times in his beast form. This was sweeter. Better than anything imaginable. He continued to clean her face, not understanding this need, until she batted her hands at him.
“Gross. Stop licking me. Do I look like a lady who enjoys being licked?”
Amusement rumbled through him. “You’ll enjoy it when I lick you.”
Her breath hitched. “Yes. All right,” she said.
“Yes.” She moved to straddle him and pushed him until his back rested against the stones.
A bright, jolting charge surged through him at contact with the stone. Solenne moved off his lap, but he held in place. “It tingles. That is all.”
She frowned, then gestured to a spot with a bloody handprint. “I thought so, too, when I touched it. Alek? We’re naked.”
“You kept your boots on.”
“And I am sitting on your lap.” She moved just so, brushing her chest against his. His cock stirred to life.
She leaned in, lips nearly touching his. Their breath mingled. She was in his blood.
“Ruin me,” she breathed.
Stars above, yes. His brain sizzled at her words and the rare need in her voice. Careful of bruises, his hands skated up her back. He gripped the back of her neck, fingers wrapping around the delicate flesh, and drew her head back. Moonlight glinted in her eyes. Normally gray, they almost looked violet.
He wanted her more than anything, more than he wanted to see another sunrise, more than he wanted to hear his father’s voice again, his mother’s embrace. More than he wanted to be free of his affliction.
But not more than he wanted her safe and prospering. He could not give her the future she deserved.
“Solenne, no,” he said, before repositioning them into a more modest arrangement.
She folded her arms over her chest. Not in modesty, he realized too late, but in irritation. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“No.” Far from it. Solenne was the brightest person he knew, in every respect: intellect, personality, and capacity for kindness.
“Then you do not think I know my mind?”
“How am I in the wrong for not letting you sully yourself with me when you’re bleeding and traumatized? The adrenaline is making you say such things.”
Her chin took that stubborn set he knew well. He imagined she’d march back to the house in the nude if her ankle could make the journey. Even if it couldn’t, she might make it with the power of spite.
“I thought—I thought that thing was going to kill me. I made a wish on the stones. Do you know what I wished?” She barely paused, growing more agitated with each word. Clearly she was not interested in his response. “Not that someone would rescue me. I wished Luis would stay away to survive, and I wished I had told you that I loved you!”
The words echoed off the stones and rang in his head, clearer than any bell.
“You love me?”
“Yes. Isn’t it obvious?” Her shoulders sagged. “Do you remember when we went swimming in the river? I didn’t want to go in the water and you pushed me? Then you immediately jumped in to save me. I was so angry with you but I knew I could rely on you. Then. That’s the moment I started loving you.”
“You were–” He tried to remember how he had felt when he was that age. It seemed impossibly young. “Eleven. And then you asked me to marry you.”
She lifted her hands in a helpless gesture. “I was overwhelmed with emotion and you did not say no.”
“You were eleven.” A child. He had been a child. From the moment he met Solenne, he knew she was his friend. His affection did not grow until much later. It astounded him she had been so sure of her heart even then.
“I never stopped. It’s you, Alek. It’s always been you.”
Thump. Thump. Thump went her heart, even and true.
She moved upward, bringing her lips to his. Contact sent a jolt through him, fixing him in place in this moment. He barely moved, allowing her to take what she wanted. The injury to the bottom lip opened and the taste of copper flooded his mouth.
She pulled away and smiled as she licked her lips. The split on her lips gave her a dangerous appearance. The beast inside him loved watching as she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, unapologetic.
His heart quickened.
“Do not feel obligated to return the sentiment,” she said, her tone nearly a purr. “I know how you feel. I’m your anchor. And if you’re worried about sullying me, you’re too late.”
There were several threads in that statement that merited a follow up, and he hated the idea of anyone—anyone—touching her, but her heart skipped the tiniest amount.
“Oh? You found someone in the village willing to brave your father’s wrath.”
She flushed. “At school. University. Papa sent Luis and me off to a boarding school in Founding after Mama, you know. Then I did two years at university before the money dried up. So you see, if you’re hesitant about ruining my honor, you need not bother. I ruined it long ago.”
“Educated and worldly,” he said, running an appreciating hand up her arm, “but a terrible liar.”
She glanced away. “Alek, I could have died and–”
“Hush. I hesitate not for a lack of desire but because you deserve better than a hasty fuck on the ground.”
“Under the moonlight with the man who saved me.” Her lips quirked up in a slight smile.
“Where did you hear about anchors?” Had Godwin divulged Alek’s family history?
She breathed out, almost a pout. She would not get what she believed she wanted, though she tempted him. Mightily.
“In a book written by an original colonist who’s husband had the same affliction as you.” She yawned, covering her mouth at the last moment. “It’s fascinating. I’m particularly interested in page 72.”
Another yawn interrupted her nod.
“Sleep. When it is light, you’ll explain this book.” He pulled her to him and she snuggled against him, her head against his shoulder.
Company arrived sooner than he liked.
“What did you do to her?” Luis stood over them, blocking the moonlight.
Alek cradled a sleeping Solenne to his chest. He curled around her to shield her nakedness with his body as best as possible. The fast he was likewise nude and more than a little shaggy created an alarming tableau.
“Are you trying to eat her?”
“Honestly, Luis,” Alek snapped. “Does it look like I’m feasting on her innards? She was attacked. I drove off the beast, but it’s near.”
Luis snapped to attention. “The beast that attacked the house?”
“No one I encountered near Fallkirk. It followed me here.”
“How badly injured is Solenne?” Luis crouched down, reaching out a hand. Alek snarled and Luis jerked back in surprise. “She’s bleeding. Let’s go to the house.”
“No.” Alek’s hold tightened on Solenne. “I can’t leave just yet.”
“Then carry her.”
“You misunderstand. I can not leave the circle. Not yet. It’s not safe. The beast is still out there.” He could not say why the stones were safer than heading towards the house, but he felt stronger there. Recharged. He wished he could better explain the compulsion, but they had to stay where they were until dawn broke.
“So you intend to keep my sister here, exposed to the elements while injured, passed out and wearing rags?”
“And whose fault is that,” Alek snapped, angered by Luis’s condescending tone. “Letting her wander alone at night. Where were you? When she screamed for help? Cried out in pain?”
Color drained from the young man’s face. “I told her I would join her if she waited, then we received word that the beast attacked down by the mill.”
“In the opposite direction.”
“Yes, blast it. Does it matter?” He ran a hand through his curls. “This is wrong. The timing. The moon. There are two more… beings with your affliction in my territory than I’m willing to tolerate, and I’ve spent hours chasing a rumor.”
“Two? Does that mean you tolerate me?” A grin spread on Alek’s face. Luis paled. Right, the teeth.
“Solenne has her heart set on you.” His tone implied that he tolerated Alek for his sister’s sake.
Alek sighed. “I know. I have tried to convince her otherwise.”
Luis snorted. “Again with the jokes. Come to the house. Four walls are better than this.” He gestured broadly to the stone circle.
“Because those four walls kept her safe last time?”
Alek held Luis’s gaze. The younger man did not blush or look away.
“I couldn’t track it,” Luis eventually said. “You’re standing right in front of me and I can’t sense you, either. It’s the stones.” He strode over to the closest stone, the one Solenne marked with her bloody handprint. His fingers brushed the surface. If he saw the mark his sister left, he said nothing. “They hum and it drowns out everything else. Why are your kind so drawn to them?”
“You know what I mean. Do not be difficult.”
Alek buried his nose in Solenne’s hair before he answered, breathing in the scent of sunlight and summer heat. “I do not know. That is the truth. I’ve never been able to track as you do. The stones, the nexus point itself, are loud. They all are, but tonight it feels loud, almost like a warning.”
“Like a dog growling?”
“Now look who’s making with the jokes.”
Luis ran a hand through his hair again. “I have a long night ahead of me. If you insist on remaining here, I’ll fetch a blanket.”
“That is unnecessary.” Possessiveness surged over him. He would provide Solenne with everything she needed.
“Is it? The nights get quite cool and Solenne does not have her own fur coat.”
Good thing the smug look on Luis’s face hidden by shadows.
“I’ll allow it. Go. Be quick about it,” Alek ground out.
“I presume you will require clothes?”
Yes. Those. Details, details.
“In my saddlebag. I left my horse in the trees at the bottom of the pasture. The horse will also need to be seen to.”
Luis gave a mocking salute before departing. “Be quick, he says, then gives me a dozen tasks.”
Though he muttered, Alek heard every word. Such disrespect from anyone else would have thrown him into a rage, but from Luis it sounded like home.
He nuzzled her hair again. Sunshine and summer.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
He counted the beats.
Alek counted Solenne’s heartbeats. The even measure of them as she slept kept him grounded in the present and not lost to chase down the fiend who hurt her. As the total reached four thousand, Luis returned with a hamper, a blanket bundled under one arm, and a saddlebag slung over his shoulder.
The young man approached the stone circle cautiously.
“I won’t bite,” Alek said.
Luis wrinkled his nose. “More jokes. You’re clutching my naked, bleeding sister and your wolfy brain won’t let her go, and you make jokes?”
“The bleeding stopped.”
“Oh, then by all means, resume with the comedy.” Luis tossed the saddle bag at Alek’s feet. “That horse is the calmest creature I’ve ever met. You’d think it’d be scared out of its poor mind from the fighting, but no. Found a patch of rye grass and couldn’t be bothered.”
“She’s Chamber’s horse.” Alek could not claim responsibility for the horse’s temperament.
He set the hamper down. “I brought what I could pilfer from the kitchen, mostly bread, cheese and cold ham. One thermos is water. The other is hot tea. I added in that powder she uses for fever and pain, but since that is bitter, I added sugar. Too much, probably. Make her drink it now because it’s vile when it’s cold. You’ve clean bandages in there because I’d really rather she not bleed out because you have to defend your territory.”
And his mate, the beast added.
“She stopped bleeding before you arrived,” Alek said.
“Oh, well, bully for you. I guess there’s no need for hygiene. We’ll catch a lovely infection and it’ll be grand.”
“I don’t remember you being a sarcastic little shit.”
“I was eight when you left, but I assure you I have always been thus. There’s a nightgown in there. Please dress her when you return to the house.” He took a breath, as if mentally crossing off another item on his list. “That’s it. Papa and I will find the beast. If you won’t go to the house–”
“Stay here. I know.”
He woke a reluctant Solenne, dressed her in the nightgown, and coaxed her to eat a bit of bread and drink the tea. When her eyes grew heavy with sleep, they resumed their position with her snuggled against him while he stayed on guard.
He counted heart beats until dawn.
Dawn crept over the horizon.
Solenne snuggled into the blanket, burying her nose against Alek’s chest and allowing herself to soak up his heat. Birdsong warbled and his hands brushed back her hair. Eventually it registered that his chest was free of the excessive fur he wore the previous night, thus he was stark naked.
Because of the whole shifting into a werewolf thing. Trousers optional.
She had nude men before, specifically her brother but that was her brother, and she had even seen Alek nude, albeit when they were children. Swimming in ponds and rivers was practically a requirement on a hot summer day. She simply had not seen a nude man recently who was related to her by blood.
The Young Lady’s Guide to Etiquette failed to anticipate the situation.
“You fake sleeping as poorly as you lie,” he said.
Solenne pulled the blanket tighter around herself, dimly aware that she wore a thin nightgown. Outside the cocoon of warmth, the air held an unexpected chill. Autumn would arrive before long. She stretched, her shoulders making a terrible noise, and her legs screaming in agony. Every part of her was sore. Exhaustion weighed on her and she felt as if she could sleep the day away.
“Where did this come from?” She gestured to the now filthy nightgown, keeping her eyes averted from Alek’s nudity.
“Luis delivered supplies. What are you looking at.” He twisted around, looking behind him.
“Protecting your dignity,” she said, eyes fixed on the sky.
“I’m wearing trousers. Like I said, Luis delivered supplies.” He leaned to one side to pick up a shirt, along with needle and thread.
She looked down at his bare chest and disappointing lack of nudity. “You’re mending your shirt? It’s barely light.”
“My eyes are better than the average human and there’s a tear on the sleeve. Appearances matter,” he said in a tone reminiscent of Godwin. “Have some water. You drank all the tea.”
Her stomach rumbled at the sight of the hamper. “Did I dream about bread?”
One brow quirked with an unvoiced sarcastic comment as he handed her a chunk of yellow cheese and a thick slice of bread.
They were the greatest morsels she’d ever tasted. “More.” She held out a hand.
“No more. How is the ankle? Can you stand?”
She flexed her injured foot, finding it swollen and stiff. “Better not.”
Before she could suggest a solution, Alek scooped her up, blanket and all.
“Otherwise, how do you feel?” he asked.
“Exhausted. Grubby. Hungry. Sore. Chewed on.”
His arms tightened around her as he picked his way down the hill. “You were not bitten.”
“Oh.” She felt a bit disappointed. “I told you about page 72, yes?”
Disappointment morphed into embarrassment. She repeatedly mentioned page 72 and yet there was she, dressed in her nightclothes and frustratingly unspoiled. Seduction was more difficult than novels had led her to believe, but she honestly did not know what she could have done differently. She confessed her feelings. After Alek stripped her of her clothing, she felt sure that love making was inevitable. At least she kissed him. He seemed to enjoy that.
Well, he did not recoil.
Oh, no. What if he hated it? What if he did not like for a woman to be so forward? What if he expected Solenne to be a shy, delicate flower? If he expected that, then he barely knew her. She had changed. The years apart had changed them both, without doubt, but not that drastically.
“I will say it back,” he said, interrupting her thoughts.
“But you will say it?” She couldn’t even look at him.
He adjusted her in his arms. “Yes. You can not escape me.”
She tucked her face against his shoulder to hide her smile. “How long ago did it happen? The bite?”
“Seven years, I think. I was in the West Lands, chasing bounties.”
“That’s dangerous to do on your own,” she said. “Colonel Chambers’s unit was deployed to the West Lands before his injury. If professional soldiers are not secure, what were you doing there alone? Of all the reckless things to do, Aleksandar Hardwick–” Anger seeped into her voice.
“I must beg forgiveness for being young and foolish,” he said in a tone that implied his complete disinterest in forgiveness.
“Tell me how it happened,” she demanded. Seven years ago she was at university, attending classes when she must but spending every moment in the library. While she had been reading, safely tucked away in the library, Alek was mauled and forever changed.
The brute chuckled.
“I apologize if my concern for your well being is misplaced. There is no need to mock me. Set me down. I’ll walk.”
“You can’t walk and I’m not laughing at you, Solenne. Of all the topics I expected to discuss this morning, I did not expect to be chastised for that. You will not enjoy hearing the details.”
Whatever he had to say, it could not be worse than the fight she witnessed last night. “Were you hopelessly outnumbered? Ambushed? Captured in a trap? Oh! You partnered with a treasure hunter who wanted to explore a ruined settlement and they betrayed you?”
“Did you read that in a book?”
“No,” she lied.
He chuckled again because she was a terrible liar and he could always tell. “It’s not exciting. A sudden snow storm caught me unprepared, and I sought shelter in a beast’s den. That was that.”
“That was that,” she repeated. “Luis spent all night hunting the beast that attacked me.”
The house neared. She patted his chest to make him halt. “Wait. Before we go inside. I need you to know that I do not care about your condition.”
“You’d be a damn fool not to care.”
“I don’t understand how you are the way you are. Every day I discover that I understood very little.” So much had been kept from her either intentionally or from plain neglect. “But I’m your anchor, however it happened.”
“I never intended–”
“Will you please stop interrupting me? I’m trying to tell you I love you and I don’t care how I get to have you, I’m not letting you go.”
He fell silent. She held her breath.
He didn’t have to say it back. Honestly.
“I did not intend to make another declaration, but I felt compelled to state my case as plainly as possible. You are exceedingly stubborn.”
“You won’t let me go?”
“No. You’re mine and I will marry you, then I’ll bind you legally and with whatever this,”—don’t say witchcraft, don’t say witchcraft—“mystical, definitely not magical, connection is.” She grimaced, because that was worse than witchcraft.
“Your father won’t like it.”
“I fail to find myself caring.”
“Are you at least going to ask me to marry you? Or shall I just accept your decree about our engagement?”
“I already asked you.”
His brow furrowed as he remembered the details of their engagement. “You were eleven.”
“You have yet to decline my proposal. I consider us quite engaged.” She beamed her most charming smile up at him.
“I think you’re spoiled and too used to getting your way.” His grumble at echoes from an earlier, angrier conversation. Now his tone sounded light, almost teasing.
Good. She enjoyed him like this.
“Let’s get you cleaned and seen by a doctor. Then I’ll give you an answer,” he finally said.
“Alek! I waited all night. You promised we’d talk in the morning.”
“We talked. This is us conversing. Mostly you prattled, and I listened.”
“You honestly plan to make me wait?” She knew his answer. Had always known on some level. The thread between them hummed, warm and golden.
“You waited years. An hour or two is nothing in comparison.”
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
Aagh! This chapter is a giant tease. Now how long should I make you wait for the next chapter?
Coming December 26th!
Hunted by Moonlight has a new name and a new cover!
The final version will be available in all the major stores on December 26, 2020.
Additional scenes will be included, notably the wedding night and what happened on page 72!