“Do as I say, for once in your wretched life.”
A nice long one with a werewolf BBQ and daddy issues.
Sleep remained elusive, despite exhaustion. Solenne lay in bed, watching dust motes drift through the air. Her mind felt too full to concentrate on reading one of the numerous books stacked next to her bed. She kept replaying Alek’s words and actions. Her fingers drifted to her lips, swollen and tender.
At some point, she must have drifted off to sleep because she woke in a sweat. Her entire body ached. Fumbling at her bedside, she knocked over the glass of water. The room was too bright.
Pain rippled through her stomach. Stumbling on one good foot to the half bath attached to her room, she knelt on the tiled floor. The cool porcelain tiles soothed her heated skin.
This wasn’t right.
Flames already consumed the barn when Alek arrived. Rather than forming a bucket brigade to save the structure, people idly sat by, watching the blaze.
“They’re just letting it burn?” Luis asked.
Godwin sat on the ground next to a full water bucket, soot covering his face. “They trapped the beast inside. Chambers made the call. Fire will kill it, even if silver won’t.”
“Are you sure it’s the same one that attacked the house?” Alek asked.
Godwin leveled a stare at him with his one good. “What else would it be?”
“But did you see it?” Alek turned to Luis. “Did you see it? Can you identify it?”
“What else could it be,” Luis said, repeating his father’s words. Meaning that no one caught a good look at the beast.
“Does no one think it unlikely that a beast old enough to ignore silver could be so easily trapped?” Alek asked, because he found the situation extremely unlikely.
“Easy?” Godwin lumber to his feet, leaning heavily on his staff. Only then did Alek see the scorch marks on the back of his shirt. “Nothing about this night has been easy. Luis, Chambers and I chased down the beast and finally cornered it while you were, what? Chasing a rumor in Fallkirk? We needed you here.” The staff thumped against the ground and his eye sparkled in the morning light.
Alek nearly bit his tongue. Godwin knew exactly how to rile him, always had, and seemed to derive joy from it. He remembered all that had transpired last night and that morning with Solenne, and he swallowed back the urge to lash out. He needed to be on Godwin’s good side, at least for a few days, until he solidified plans with Solenne.
Discussing the trivial details of their spending their lives together had paled compared to the pure joy of celebrating that decision. He now faced several uncertainties. Did Solenne wish to remain in Boxon with her family? Even with the beast eliminated, the Marechals needed another hunter. Or should they seek their fortune elsewhere? Fallkirk needed a hunter. He presumed plenty of other smaller towns and villages on the fringe of the West Lands needed hunters. Finding a post would be as simple as deciding where to settle, in theory. Did he even want to go back to hunting? Could he do anything else?
He always had his ancestral home. The house needed care, but it was solid and the land was viable. The tenant farmers did well enough. Raising any kind of animal or crop seemed preposterous to him, but he could easily image Solenne in a garden. The Marechals kept sheep and a few beehives, so Solenne had more of an idea how to earn a living from the earth than he did.
Perhaps Solenne wanted more than to keep his household and teach him how to raise sheep? Did she wish to return to university? He had some money. Not enough for tuition, but he’d figure it out if need be.
Fuck. There were too many questions and Godwin kept staring at him, like he could smell his daughter on Alek.
“Unless you were successful in luring the Fallkirk beast here?” Godwin asked.
Alek shook his head. “I do not believe so. It double backed on me and I lost the trail.”
“Papa, the beast attacked Solenne. Alek saved her,” Luis said.
“She what? And you didn’t tell me?” Godwin spun to face his son, and Alek enjoyed the brief respite from Godwin’s ire.
“We were busy.” Luis waved a hand towards the conflagration.
“Well?” Godwin looked from Luis to Alek. “Report.” Alek ran down what the doctor had instructed. “Good luck keeping her in bed,” Godwin eventually said.
Alek grinned, unable to help himself. He had a few ideas on the matter.
He filled and hauled buckets of water when the fire threatened to spread when the wind shifted. They dosed nearby buildings to keep the fire contained. By the time the sun reached the zenith of the day, the barn was a smouldering ruin. If the beast still lived, it was badly injured.
“Dismember the corpse and salt the earth,” Alek said, before dunking his head under a water pump. The scent of smoke filled his nostrils and clouded everything else. All he detected was char, burnt grass, and an acrid chemical stench of whatever Chambers stored in the barn. No longer used for livestock, it served as storage for any number of highly flammable items.
Convenient how Chambers’s sacrifice cost him very little. Such a loss would devastate any other farmer at the loss, even a gentleman farmer.
The wind shifted as a storm rolled in from the west, clearing the smoke. The dark clouds bisected the sky, one side summery blue and the other an ominous gray. Badly needed a bath and a meal, he wanted to return to the Marechal home before the downpour arrived. Beyond exhausted, he had pushed his body to its limits since last night. Even the beast required rest.
A fair hair woman approached him.
“Aleksandar, may I speak with you?” She drew him to the side. “I’m sure you do not remember me.”
“I remember you, Miss Wodehouse.” When they were younger, Solenne and Charlotte burst into giggles whenever Alek entered the room. Since his return, he witnessed the same charming chatting and giggling like conspirators.
“Oh, excellent.” A warm smile spread across Charlotte’s face. “I need to beg for your help.”
“If I can.” Honestly, he did not understand how he could assist Charlotte. He was tired, covered in soot, and had burns on his hands and back. He wanted to return to Solenne as quickly as possible.
“I’m afraid this is rather delicate—” She glanced behind, as if to make sure their conversation would not be overheard.
“Miss Wodehouse, please,” he snapped. Then gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “Do not be concerned about my delicate sensibilities. I assure you, I have none.”
“Yes, I see. Well, I have a piece of news and I know Solenne says she had no attachment to Lionel—Colonel Chambers, I mean—but I’m uncertain.”
Displeasure rumbled low in his throat. Solenne had no attachment to that man. None!
Charlotte paled, as if alarmed. “Yes, but what I want to know is would it would upset her if Lionel and I were engaged?”
Such a tiresome way to ask a simple question. Alek rolled his shoulders. “Are you engaged?”
“Yes, as it happens, we are. Lionel proposed last night, and I accepted.” A smile bloomed across her face. “Do you think it will crush Solenne?”
“No. She is already claimed.”
“To you? Did you propose? Was it terribly romantic?” Charlotte clasped her hands and sighed. “Oh, this is wonderful. We’ll have a double wedding, just like in the novels she reads.” She frowned slightly. “Without all the stabbing, treachery, and doom, of course.”
“I’ll do my best,” he replied, unsure what type of books his mate read.
“There’s so much to plan and so many details to consider. A double wedding will cut down on expenses, I presume. I positively have a mountain of work to organize.” Her eyes sparkled, as if she could think of nothing better. “This is wonderful!”
Charlotte launched herself at Alek, throwing her arms around him in complete disregard to propriety and cleanliness.
“What’s this now?” a gruff voiced from behind them. Alek turned to find Godwin glaring at them. Correction. Him. The glare was specifically for Alek’s benefit.
Charlotte pulled away, beaming with excitement. “Mr. Marechal, it’s the best news! Solenne and Aleksandar are engaged!”
“Solenne!” Heavy footsteps thundered up the stairs, waking Solenne from her fitful half sleep. The air felt charged, as if a storm was about to break. “Explain yourself!”
She sat upright, head spinning. Food wouldn’t be amiss, and perhaps a cool bath, though going downstairs to the bathing room seemed like an impossible journey. Hot and sticky from the fever, she’d stay that way.
“Tell me it is not true!”
“Please, do not yell, Papa. I’m feeling rather poorly,” she said, rubbing her forehead. Her entire body ached, like a werewolf had mauled her. Well, it stood to reason.
“Air this room out. It smells.” She heard the rattle of the window being raised. Cool air flooded in on a strong breeze. “What are you doing in the toilet?” Godwin stood in the door, blocking the dim sunlight.
“Not vomiting, though my stomach is trying its hardest.” Solenne set her hand on the closed toilet lid and pulled herself to her feet. She needed another dose of willow bark.
“Don’t be vulgar.” Godwin offered his arm as she hobbled her way to the bed. She sighed with relief as she sat down. He seemed to have finally noticed the bandage on her ankle and her leg. “How bad is it?”
“Nothing rest won’t cure.”
He pressed the back of his hand to her forehead and frowned. “You’ve a fever. Tell me what you need? That tea with the peppermint and ginger?”
She waved him off, her entire arm aching from the effort, as if she wore lead weights. “Where’s Alek?” If anyone was going to play nursemaid, she wanted it to be Alek.
“So it is true. You’ve agreed to marry that… that..”
“That what, Papa?” She wanted him to speak those ugly, vile names. “The man I loved since I don’t even know? The man who was my dearest childhood friend? The man who saved me from being mauled last night? The man who came to help us? That?”
“He’s a monster, Solenne. You can’t deny it. The evidence is obvious.”
In retrospect, perhaps, but she had not been looking for symptoms. Alek captured her attention in so many other ways.
“I won’t let you throw yourself away on this wastrel. You need to do your duty to this family.”
“Yes, your duty. I’ve indulged you, so some of this is my fault.” Godwin paced the room. “I let you carry on this… this flirtation with Alek. I had hoped it was a passing fancy. You’ve always been so responsible. Luis is the fanciful one. I never expected my practical, sensible Solenne to entertain a man with such low prospects.”
The words out of her father’s mouth might as well have been in another language. He indulged her? Godwin had done nothing but make demand after demand on Solenne, always framing it as her duty to the family and letting her guilt make the difficult choices.
“I’ll send him away. Immediately. He told that Wodehouse girl, but I can say she misheard in the confusion of the fire. Everyone knows that Charlotte is a silly thing, and Alek has not endeared himself with the neighbors. No one will believe it.”
“Enough!” Her voice boomed in the air and the wind stirred, whipping her hair in her face and rustling pages of the open book on the bed. “I gave up university for Luis’ education. I run this household because you won’t. I’ve been digging our finances out of the mess you made and I even agreed to be the one to marry for money so that Luis could follow his heart,” she said, nearly shouting. “What have you sacrificed?”
His face went red with anger. “No child should speak to their father with such disrespect.”
“I’m not a child,” she replied, her voice cold and even.
The sky out the window darkened, and the wind picked up speed. Soon rain would pelt the glass.
“He’s dangerous. His entire line is tainted. Your mother knew. She told me to send him away, but I owed a debt to Maksim. He’s the reason she’s gone. He cost me my Amalie,” Godwin said.
Green curtains framing the open window snapped in the breeze.
“Mama was reckless.”
“Do not speak ill of your mother.”
“No. I’m tired of pretending that she was flawless and perfect in every way. I love Mama very much, but you know she was reckless. The accident was only remarkable in that she succeeded in killing herself.” Amalie had minor accidents in her workshop regularly. No one thought anything of the flickering lights or the smell of smoke.
Godwin clenched his hand, then drove it into the wall. Solenne jumped.
“He was there! He was there, and he did nothing to help her. I should have slit that mongrel’s throat when I found him and cleansed the earth of one more beast.”
Lightning flickered across the sky, followed by the rumble of thunder. The hair on the back of her neck and arms stood on end. She had never heard her father speak with such hatred in his voice.
“He was dangerous then, and he’s dangerous now. Don’t you see? He broke your wrist.”
Solenne unconsciously rubbed the fracture wrist. She and Alek had been sparring. He was taller and stronger than her and didn’t mean to hurt her. “It was an accident,” she said.
“No. I saw his eyes. The beast peered out that day. He slipped and lost control. That’s why I sent him away.”
“Then why did you allow him to come back if he’s so dangerous?”
A shrewd looked passed over her father’s face. “I’ll admit, it is useful having access to someone with his abilities. Vile, but useful. His grandfather, who had the same affliction, was an unparalleled hunter.”
“His grandfather had the same affliction?”
“He didn’t tell you? My, my. What other secrets has dear Aleksandar been keeping from you?”
Thunder clapped, louder.
“Do not twist this around. You knew what he was when he entered the house. Did you know I was his anchor?” She did not pause for him to answer. “You suspected. What did you think would happen?”
“That you would behave with dignity and decorum,” Godwin snapped. “I couldn’t expect Alek to restrain him, but I expected my daughter to know her place. It’s not too late. I can persuade chambers to take you back, even in your soiled state.”
Lightning flashed and thunder boomed, deafening loud. Icy rain came in sideways through the window.
She hated her father at that moment. Godwin had been selfish in the years since Mama passed. She excused it as part of his grief. She had never thought him to be so calculating and mean spirited, and all the more fool her.
“Marry me off and keep Alek on a leash like a dog. What a deplorable scheme,” she said.
“Do as I say, for once in your wretched life. Chambers—”
“Will never take me back because he ended it. Him!” she shouted, voice nearly drowned out by the rain. “Close the damn window before the carpets are ruined. That’s another thing we can’t afford.”
“I am your father. Do not speak to me in that manner,” he snapped, but still closed the window.
She rubbed the bridge of her nose, exhausted. Her father’s argument was nonsensical and boiled down to demanding her to obey out of filial loyalty. She found herself hard pressed for such feelings. “If you wanted to marry me off, why keep me here in Boxon? Why have I not been sent to Founding for the season?” Charlotte had gone often enough and always invited her.
“Dresses and parties? With what money? I needed you here.”
The dissonance of his demands infuriated her. Marry well, but never leave his side.
He wanted obedience, pure and simple. He controlled every aspect of her life, and Solenne understood that she would never be free of him as long as she lived under his roof.
“The harder you try to control me and Luis, the more we’ll fight. Eventually you will lose us.”
“Luis does as he is told.”
“You hardly know him at all,” she retorted. Her brother had grown while he was away at school, and not just in stature. He had a questioning mind and a stubborn streak to rival her own.
Godwin crossed his arms over his chest. Most likely he intended it to be a stern gesture, but it read as defensive, protecting his belly. “I will not allow this union. You will not be allowed to stay.”
“Alek is not without his own property.”
“Then we’ll seek a charter in another town. There is always a need for hunters. If you force me to choose between my family or Alek, I will always choose Alek,” she said, speaking with conviction.
He huffed. “Then we are at an impasse.”
“So it seems.” There was nothing else to say on the matter. She wished she really was a witch and could hex him, just a little. Instead, she fluffed the pillows on the bed with more force than necessary.
A throat cleared. Alek stood in the doorway, carrying a tray and teapot. His hair was wet and his face ruddy, as if he took a hasty bath. From his expression, he heard every word.
“Sir,” he said. “We won’t stay where we’re not welcomed. As soon as Solenne’s ankle can bear it, we’ll leave.”
“That won’t be necessary. You are… useful.” Godwin frowned, as if the words were bitter in his mouth. “I can put you to use on collecting bounties, if nothing else.” He left, slamming the door in his wake.
Rain against the window filled the silence. Alek set the tray down at the bedside table, the dishes clattering.
“Always pragmatic,” Alek said, his voice almost sounding complimentary.
“I don’t know how you can be kind to him. He said the most vile things about you.”
“All true.” He poured a cup of tea and stirred in a spoon of honey. She caught the bitter aroma of willow bark.
She accepted the cup, relishing the heat seeping into her aching fingers. “And your grandfather? Is that true? He was like you?”
“So Godwin claims.” Alek poured himself a cup. “If he was alive when I was a child, I don’t remember him.”
“And your affliction? It’s inherited?”
“I do not know. My father did not have this curse.”
“Affliction,” she said. “No one talks about my fiance in such a manner.”
With a brow quirked up in amusement, he blew across the cup before taking a sip. He grimaced at the bitter taste.
Curiosity spiked in Solenne. “Does it taste different to you? Foul?”
“It tastes like chewing on a tree,” he answered.
“Ah, nothing unusual there. It’s vile but useful.” Funny had Godwin had said those same words about Alek. “Add honey,” she said.
“Does it bother that any children we may have would be like me?” he asked.
She lifted a shoulder, tempted to share Luis’s witch theory. Perhaps the witch and the wolf cancelled each other out. “It could be a recessive trait. Exposure via a bite activates it.” She blew on her own cup of tea before sipping. “I hope they’ll be smart enough to avoid the bitey end of a werewolf.”
Alek sliced an apple, feeding her slices. Mechanically, she ate. The bitterness of the tea masked the sweet crispness of the apple, or perhaps that was the effect of the fever. Rain continued to drum against the windows. Wind rattled against the house. Eventually she yawned and her eyes grew heavy. Sleep had been so fitful and elusive, yet now she wanted nothing more than to curl up on the bed and listen to the rain.
“Sleep,” he said, pulling her down. She rested her head on his chest, the golden thread between them humming with contentment.
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cumming
Don’t look at me like that. Things will work out.