Aric cocked his head. Even in his state of mind, he knew I was lying. But now wasn’t the time to tell him about our baby. His demeanor softened the more I stared. He linked our hands and led me back to bed. I wouldn’t release him. “Stay with me.”
Aric smiled and joined me in bed, covering us with the blanket. I closed my eyes, content in having him so close to me. Initially I thought I’d rest until my nausea faded. Instead I once more drifted to sleep.
Hard knuckles lightly stroked my cheek. I opened my eyes to find Aric spread out beside me.
“Hello, wolf,” I whispered.
He lowered his lids and rubbed my nose with his, then sat me up and presented the feast he’d prepared. He’d roasted all but one of the pheasants using the fire poker. With the remaining bird, he’d made me soup. He placed the pot between us and tore pieces of pheasant to feed to me. In turn, I fed him the mushrooms, chives, dandelions, and what remained of the cattails with a wooden spoon. The pheasant was the best I’d ever enjoyed and the soup, while bitter and minty, completely settled my stomach.
As physically healthy as Aric seemed, I was still worried. He seemed better in many ways, but in others, he remained more like his inner wolf.
Could this be permanent?
We ate everything; our empty stomachs made us ravenous. I escorted him to the sink and washed our hands and faces. He rubbed his wet beard against me, making me laugh. I was still giggling when he pulled me to him and led me outside.
Aric changed the moment we left the shadows of the house. He pulled a Lassie on me and proceeded to whine, gesturing me to follow. When I tried, he changed back to human and then back to wolf again.
“What’s that, girl? Timmy fell in the well?”
He bared his teeth playfully and took off running as soon as I changed. I chased him through the woods and tackled him. We wrestled and then he darted off, making me chase him once more. Our play continued until we returned to the waterfall with the small pool.
Aric changed back to human and skidded to a halt near the water. I didn’t stop. I tackled him one last time as a tigress. He grinned as I lay on top of him, and yet even as a human he managed to flip my almost four-hundred-pound self onto my back.
I resumed my human form. Aric moved aside, helping me to stand. I leaned into him, offering my mouth. Rather than kissing my lips as I so wanted, he licked my face. I laughed, so he did it again. When he wouldn’t stop, I grabbed him by the shoulders and pressed my lips against his. I kissed him softly at first then pushed my tongue slowly to meet his.
I spent several minutes teaching Aric how to kiss, loving every moment and relishing feeling so close to him. Aric’s lips were soft and greedy. They left mine to whisper words against my neck and shoulder. I didn’t understand their meaning, nor did I care, choosing to welcome the affection I for so long was denied.
He caressed my back. The more he moaned, the more I knew he wanted more. Once again, he placed me on my hands and knees. And once again, we reached a very loud and enjoyable end.
When we managed to catch our breaths, Aric helped me to my feet and led me to the pool for a drink. I waded into the frigid water. He stayed fixed by the edge. I didn’t understand why until I finished quenching my thirst.
Aric stared at his reflection, running his fingers over his face and chest in stunned silence. He examined his arms and hands. For the first time, he realized his body had healed. He grabbed my hands when I hurried to his side and swept them over his face and body, focusing on the areas where the scarring had been the most severe. He pointed at the water then back to himself, unsure whether to believe what he was seeing.
I wrapped my arms around him and held him close. “I don’t understand what happened, Aric. I’m just glad you’re safe. It’s all I’ve wanted.”
We stayed by the falls for the remainder of the day, savoring the deep intimacy we shared in being alone. As the dim sun moved westward we made our way back to the little cabin.
Aric changed into a wolf and charged when he caught the scent of a large elk. I covered my face, unable to watch and cringing when I heard the elk’s neck snap. Pocahontas I wasn’t. Aric beckoned me forward, chortling in his wolf body when he found me with my eyes clamped shut.
“Yes, this whole thing is just hilarious,” I quipped. And yeah, he laughed harder yet.
I changed, knowing I needed to eat and hoping to keep down the meal. We’d finished half of the large animal when Aric resumed his human form and howled. His wolf song serenaded like a tender lullaby. I followed his lead and returned to human. He gathered me close, his arms anchored around my waist and his fingers caressing the small of my back. I lifted my head, to find him staring past me.
I followed the direction of his gaze. A small pack of wolves approached warily. I smiled. That explained the wolf song: Aric had invited company for dinner. They varied in shades of black and brown with three small pups trotting among them. I wanted to stay and watch them, but Aric lifted me and carried me away. At first, I thought he meant for the pack to eat in peace, but when he placed me on our bed upon our return to the cabin, I realized he desired to make up for our time apart.
Sunlight cascaded into the small cabin. Another day had arrived. Aric caressed my belly, now plump from where our child grew. I covered his hand with mine and faced him as his lips grazed across my jawline to meet mine. He smiled. “Good morning, sweetness.”
I bolted upright. He gently urged me back down. “Shhh. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.”
“Are you…all right?” I asked.
He took me in. “I am, but only because of you.”
“You remember,” I whispered.
Aric rubbed the healing fang marks on my shoulder, his expression riddled with sadness and guilt. “I wasn’t completely in control at times, but yes, I remember everything.”
I flung my arms around his neck, crying. Aric held me and smoothed my hair, his voice tight. “You still love me…despite how I’ve treated you and how badly I’ve hurt you.”
I spoke through my sobs. “I never stopped, Aric.”
He clutched me tighter. “I don’t deserve you or your love.” He kissed me, deeply and passionately. I pulled away, suddenly terrified Anara would reach us. In his illness, no one could connect with Aric except for me. Now that he was well, I wasn’t so sure.
“It’s too dangerous for us to be together,” I told him. “For the time being, we need to stay apart.”