Garden of Knight by Dana Rodgers

It was like someone had picked her up and dropped her on another planet. This planet smelled like cookies and came with a house so big she could get lost.  She dodged Grandma Emily’s favorite chair, a big fancy one with flowers on it, and passed the curio that held Great Aunt Margaret’s spoon collection. Floor to ceiling bookshelves flanked a stone fireplace so big she could stand inside it if she’d wanted to, and she was almost the tallest six year old in her class. She decided Grandma Emily might not like that and moved on, her attention drawn by the gold framed portrait of her mother above it. In the painting Mama looked younger, her black hair longer and dark eyes shining with mischief. She looked like a movie star with her red dress and olive skin. Daddy had called her his gypsy queen. She was as beautiful as a queen, Gemma thought, wishing she looked more like her. She had Mama’s eyes, but Daddy’s blond hair and pale skin. Mama always said Gran didn’t care about them, but why did she have so many pictures of Mama if she didn’t love her?

Still lost in her thoughts, Gemma wandered outside into a huge garden full of trees, flowers and statues. The air was chilly, not as stuffy as in the house. Red, yellow and orange leaves decorated the trees as if they were preparing for a party. It would be Halloween soon. Was Gran too old to celebrate Halloween? Stretching out her hand, Gemma plucked a leaf from a nearby bush. She traced the veins softly but the leaf crumbled at her touch. Just like her parents had in the accident. She swallowed hard as the familiar ache filled her chest. She let everyone think that she didn’t remember, but she did. Every time she closed her eyes she was back in the car. She could hear Daddy’s deep resonating laugh, see Mama’s dark hair blowing in the wind, and then the deer sprang from the woods and into the road a split second before Mama screamed.

Being sad won’t bring them back.

Gemma whipped around. “Gran?” But it was a man’s voice. “Who said that?” Her head swiveled in every direction, but the only one here was a statue of a man with sad eyes wearing strange clothes. He knelt on one knee, holding a giant sword, like a knight. She felt weird, reaching out and touching his cold hand, like someone was watching her. Rather than being creepy, it was kind of nice not being sad all alone.

* * * * *

 

Hours later, Gemma snuggled deeper into the red and beige striped cushion of the window seat overlooking the garden.  The dream had come again and she couldn’t stop thinking about the crash. Drawing her knees into her chest, she pressed her forehead against the rain-streaked glass. It didn’t seem real that she’d never see her parents again. Her lower lip trembled and her throat tightened, but no more tears would fall.

Movement drew her attention below. Grandma Emily and Great Aunt Margaret entered the garden through the gate that led to the forest. What were they doing out in the woods in the rain? She watched them cross the garden and heard the back door close downstairs.

A few moments later Gemma heard the clink of china and the murmur of voices in the kitchen. Curious, she slid to her feet and tiptoed downstairs so she could hear what they were saying.

“What are we going to do with her, Emily?”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s enough to worry about right now without the added responsibility of a child,” Aunt Margaret said. “She can’t stay here.”

“I know the risks Margaret, but she’s my grandchild and a member of this family.”

Gemma clutched her stomach. Were they really going to send her away? Where would she go? Who would tuck her in at night? Read her stories? Sing her songs?

“We could send her away to school. Saint Agnes would be perfect, don’t you think?”

“For heaven’s sake Margaret, she’s only six. The poor child’s lost enough without losing what’s left of her family too,” Grandma Emily said.

“I know.” Margaret sniffed. “But I still say he’s involved. It was no accident that brought her here.”

“This is her home and that’s the end of it,” Grandma Emily snapped. “You know I can’t do anything about the other unless I have evidence to bring before the council. I know it’s dangerous and eventually she’ll have to know, but until that day comes it’s our job to keep her safe.”

Aunt Margaret sighed. “I just hope she accepts her heritage with more grace than her mother did.”

“When she turns eighteen and it’s time for her to know, we’ll just have to handle it with more care.”

“God help us.”

What did they mean, it was dangerous here? Who was he? And why would they think the car crash wasn’t an accident? Of course it was an accident. She was there. She’d seen the whole thing.

Afraid of getting caught, Gemma hurried back to her room. Just as she climbed onto the giant poster bed, big enough for six of her, a wolf howled in the distance, its voice rising above the pitter-patter of rain. She burrowed under the covers as other wolves joined in. Their cries were so sad; maybe they missed mama and daddy too.

Gemma rubbed her hand across the hummingbird embroidered on the quilt. It hovered over a red rose, just like the ones in the garden. She liked it there. It made her feel safe.  When the wolves stopped singing their sad song, she closed her eyes and let thoughts of the garden soothe her to sleep.

* * * * *

A delicious smell lured her down the stairs and into the kitchen where Grandma Emily was putting blueberry muffins on a plate. Today she wore dark pants and a long sleeved shirt with tiny purple flowers on it and her salt and pepper hair was pulled back in a headband.

“Did you sleep well?” Gran asked, buttering a muffin and sitting it on Gemma’s plate.

Gemma shrugged. The bed was too soft and everything was different than home, but she didn’t want Gran to know she’d had trouble sleeping. If she was a bother, they might send her away.

“I’m going to work in the garden today. Would you like to come along? We can pack a picnic lunch if you’ll help me make the sandwiches.”

Gemma nodded. “I used to help Mama in our garden at home.”

“Your mama loved working in the garden when she was a little girl. She said she liked being surrounded by the trees and flowers and wild things.”

Gemma swallowed hard. “Wild things?”

Gran’s mouth tightened for a moment, but then she chuckled and waved her hand. “You know, the bees and birds and frogs. Your mama used to dress up like a pretty princess with a crown and everything, and then she would go running around that garden catching frogs and lizards, putting them in her pink dress up purse. I never knew what she was going to come home with next.” Gran shook her head, her eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiled. “One time she came home with a dead snake. Can you believe it? A snake.”

Gemma shook her head and screwed up her face in disgust. “What’d she do with it?”

“She dug a hole at the edge of the forest and made us attend the funeral.”

Gemma giggled around a bite of muffin. “A funeral? For a snake?”

“Oh yes, and it was very proper. She said prayers and read from the Bible and everything.”

“You’re teasing me!”

“I’m not. Your mama was such a kind person, even when she was a little girl.” Gran stared off  with a sad smile, like she was seeing something Gemma couldn’t see. Then Gran blinked hard and cleared her throat. “And I think you’re a lot like her. Now finish your breakfast and help me pack this picnic, young lady. There’s work to be done.”

“Yes m’am.”

“Stay out of the woods and don’t go wandering off by yourself,” Gran said beeping Gemma’s nose with her index finger. “I wouldn’t want any wild things to get you.”

After breakfast, Gemma pulled on her favorite red jacket and followed Gran into the garden.  While Gran pruned the flowers, Gemma explored the shed and the fish pond. No matter which direction she went, she always ended up at the statue of the man with the sword.

She hadn’t seen any men here since the funeral so it was odd to have heard a man in the garden yesterday. Did they have ghosts here? Maybe Daddy had come back to see her. She made her way to the statue man where she’d heard the voice yesterday. “Hello?” She called, glancing around her. “Is anyone there?”

Nothing happened. After several minutes she decided that she must have imagined it and giggled, thinking how Mama would have laughed if she knew how silly Gemma was being.

 

* * * * *

 

Gemma pounded down the stairs and out the back door, her blonde braids bouncing with each step.

“Where are you going with that blanket and hat?” Grandma Emily called after her. “It’s almost time to leave.”

“Just a minute Gran!” Gemma shouted over her shoulder and flew down the path. She passed Gran’s herb garden, the stone bench by the fish pond, and the prickly climbing roses by the fence to her favorite spot, a clearing by her statue. She liked reading to him, even though he couldn’t hear her. She liked to imagine that he could. That he was a prince, like the ones in her stories.

But for a gallant prince, his eyes were so sad, and his mouth looked all tight like Gran’s had when Mama died. Gran still looked like that sometimes, when she didn’t know Gemma was watching. She didn’t want Gran to get sad again so she made sure she only cried when she was alone. Gemma didn’t know what Mama and Gran had been fighting over, but she was sure Gran had never stopped loving Mama.

Sometimes Gran kept her so busy she’d forget, and then the pain would come back, taking away her breath. The statue man made her feel like she wasn’t alone, that he understood her sadness. And since he couldn’t speak, she could tell him anything, even how much she missed her parents.

“Good morning. I hope you had a good night’s sleep,” she said when she reached the statue. “I did, mostly… I had a bad dream. I was in the forest and something was chasing me. It was big. I ran as fast as I could. Then you were there, but you were a real man, with a real sword and I wasn’t scared anymore.”

She pulled the knit hat down over his ears and wrapped the blanket around his shoulders, tying it at his throat. “I can’t read to you today because I’m going back to school, but I didn’t want you to be cold. Gran says it’s supposed to snow. Maybe we could read Sleeping Beauty when I get home? It’s one of my favorites. I love how the knight charges in and kills the evil lady and saves the princess.”

She kissed his cheek and sprinted back down the path to where her grandmother and aunt stood open mouthed in the kitchen window.

* * * * *

 

“It’s odd I tell you,” Margaret grumbled, looking out the kitchen window into the garden. “She sits in the garden for hours reading to that statue. A statue, Emily. Doesn’t the child have any real friends?”

“You know there aren’t many kids around here,” Emily said defensively. “That’s why our family built out here to begin with, no people who might get curious.” Gemma had been an odd child since her arrival, talking and singing to that statue in the garden, but Emily had told herself it was just a child’s silly fantasies, creating a make believe friend because she was lonely. “She says it makes her feel closer to her mama being out there taking care of the plants.”

“I know it’s been hard since the accident, but it’s been weeks now. It just isn’t healthy for a child to talk to statues.”

“Now that she’s enrolled in primary school, I’m certain she’ll make friends.” Maybe Margaret was right and they should have sent Gemma away to school as soon as she arrived, but Emily missed her daughter and didn’t want to miss out on her granddaughter too. And no matter where she was, there was always the question of Gemma’s safety.

“I still say we should have sent her to Saint Agnes. It would be perfect for a girl her age, and then she wouldn’t be poking around, libel to stumble onto–”

“I’ve told you before Margaret, I will not send her away. Sister or not, I’ll give you up, you old wolf, before I give up my grandchild. Now if you know what’s good for you, you’ll drop it.”

“I just don’t want to see the same thing happen to Gemma that happened with her mother,” Margaret said. “Turning her back on her own people nearly broke all of our hearts. And we both know her death was no accident.”

* * * * *

 

Like any other summer afternoon, ten-year-old Gemma knelt on the old quilt and tended the roses she’d carefully planted along the base of her statue man. Their fragrance wafted around her, intensified by the heat of the afternoon. It was the scent of comfort and home.

Run!

Without question, Gemma jumped to her feet and sprinted toward the house. From the corner of her eye she saw a huge shape, and caught a brief glimpse of dark fur running through the trees along the wrought iron fence.

She rushed inside and slammed the door, locking it behind her. Panting, she raised the edge of the curtain and peered outside. Where was it? What was it?

“What the devil is going on?” Aunt Margaret asked from the table, making Gemma jump and whirl.

“There’s a wild thing out there… I saw it running along the fence… I ran as fast as I could,” she said, panting.

Both women jumped to their feet. “Where?” they asked in unison.

“Over there, by the woods.” Gemma pointed.

Grandma Emily unlocked the door. “Stay here.”

“No! You can’t go out there,” Gemma cried. “The wild thing will get you.”

“Don’t worry, child. There’s nothing in these woods that will want to mess with a grandma protecting her cub. Just stay here and let me have a look around. I’ll be careful.”

Gemma watched from the window while Grandma Emily and Aunt Margaret walked along the outside of the fence, stopping ever so often to examine the ground or putting their faces to the air like they smelled something. Unable to control her curiosity any longer, Gemma went out.

Both women wore identical frowns. “Now that he knows she’s here, it’s only a matter of time. What are we going to do?” Aunt Margaret said as Gemma rounded the fence.

She couldn’t believe her ears when Grandma Emily said, “We’ll have to send her away. It’s the only way–”

“No! Please don’t make me leave,” Gemma pleaded, her eyes filling with tears. “I promise I’ll be good.”

Grandma Emily hugged Gemma.“Sweetheart, we don’t want to send you away. We love you. But we want you to be safe. This was a bad wild thing. A scary one.”

Gemma nodded but continued clinging to Gran. She smelled woodsy and familiar, like her mother had. Like home. She didn’t want to go away and lose everyone she loved again. Aunt Margaret put her hand at Gemma’s waist and nudged her back toward the house. “Let’s talk inside.”

An hour later, Gemma was still in shock.

“Don’t worry sweetheart. At Saint Agnes’s you’ll make lots of friends and have great adventures,” Grandma Emily said.

Gemma stared at the plate of untouched oatmeal raisin cookies in the center of the table and sniffed.

“And we’ll come visit you,” Aunt Margaret promised. “I know it’s scary going away but you’re going to love boarding school, and we’ll see you every holiday.”

 

* * * * *

 

The train rocked gently as Gemma flipped through a stack of photos from their last visit, pausing at a shot of her, Gran and Aunt Margaret. Gran and Margaret looked almost the same as they always had; the same dark eyes, olive skin and stubborn chins, but Gran’s hair was grayer, and they each carried a few more wrinkles. Studying the photo carefully Gemma saw strained lines around Gran’s mouth. She’d been so preoccupied  she hadn’t noticed before.

Gran and Aunt Margaret had kept their word and visited her every month. They’d planned special vacations for her holidays and breaks from school, and been there for all of the important moments of her life. But Gemma had let her resentment of being sent away build into frustration, anger and then open rebellion. By the time she was seventeen she’d refused to go home at all, even for the annual family reunion. She remembered Gran begging her to come and stressing the importance of knowing her family, but Gemma hadn’t listened. She hadn’t even bothered to return Gran and Aunt Margaret’s recent barrage of phone calls.

It had been more than three years since she’d seen them in person, and now she’d give anything for just one chance to go back, to say she was sorry. She wiped a stray tear from her cheek and stuffed the photos back in her bag.

According to the authorities, they had been attacked by some kind of animal. She was still trying to digest the news of their deaths when the taxi pulled onto the long drive. There had been reports of wild dogs and strange disappearances in those woods since she was a child. Why would two seventy plus year old women be out there to begin with? It didn’t make sense.

She paid the taxi driver and stepped inside. The emptiness of the house was a hollow echo of Gemma’s own soul. It was like losing her parent’s all over again.  She dropped her luggage at the door and wove her way around a floral print wing chair, past the beige camel back sofa, touching the lush fabrics as she went. The house was exactly as she remembered it, yet completely different. It was too quiet, and the constant aroma of something baking was gone. The grief was stifling, so she found her way outside, longing for the comfort of her garden. She opened the back door and stumbled to a stop. It was a jungle of weeds. Gran had loved this garden too, why would she abandon it?

Gemma strolled the overgrown paths, searching for answers. Her statue was the biggest shock. The red heirloom roses she’d planted so many years ago trailed up his legs, entwined his broad torso and muscular arms, and wound around the broad sword he rested on, making it look as if he were bleeding.

Moving in a haze of guilt and grief, she pried open the shed door, brushing away dust and cobwebs, and stepped inside.  Gran’s gardening tools sat on the lowest shelf, where she’d always kept them. Gemma gathered the basket and then returned to her statue.

“I’m sorry, I had no idea Gran wouldn’t be able to keep up with the garden after I’d gone,” Gemma murmured, carefully trimming the vines to free her statue. The stone was carved in minute detail; the strong masculine lines worthy of any Greek god. He knelt on one knee, his right hand held a giant sword. He was even more handsome than she remembered. She brushed her fingertips along his cheek and studied the intricacies of his face. The thick brows, strong jaw, and piercing, sorrowful eyes that had entranced her the first day she’d seen him. Somehow he’d always seemed to understand her, or at least it had felt that way when she was a child. God, what did that say about her? That the only man on the planet she connected with was a statue?

She’d dated on and off but had never met a man who really appealed to her. Perhaps it was her own fault; maybe her expectations were too high. She’d always dreamed of her perfect man as heroic, like the knights in the fairytales she’d read as a child. “He’d be handsome like you,” she said trailing her fingers down the statue’s arm. “Kind. Considerate. Honorable and understanding. And faithful. That’s an important one.”

A film reel of inadequate men and sadly lacking relationships played on a continuous loop through her head as she pruned the roses and bagged the clippings. She didn’t want to settle. She wanted to find someone who’d love her as much as her father had loved her mother. She still remembered the way her father had looked at her mother, like she was the most beautiful thing in the world. “Ouch!”  Blood dripped from a thorn prick on her index finger. Wrapping it in a rag from the basket, she looked up at her knightly statue, remembering her fairy tale dreams where he’d been her hero, rescuing her night after night from some unseen terror. “They don’t make men like you anymore. I wish you were real.”

She tossed the bag of clippings in the bin before heading inside to face the emptiness. Her statue may not be real, but he’d given her the strength to endure what was coming.

* * * * *

 

The somber graveside service had been a trial, as Gemma knew it would be. It was nice to have everyone’s support, but it was a relief to see the last of family and friends leave so she could grieve and pick up the pieces of her shattered life.

The loneliness of the house was overwhelming so Gemma threw herself into work. Weeding, pruning, planting…Her days were spent bringing the garden back to life. The labor was rewarding, giving her a sense of purpose and soothing her as it had in her youth.

She slept little, ate even less, and it showed. But every time she closed her eyes she was swept into turbulent dreams, some of them frightening, others sensual. Her midnight lover remained a mystery, but with each dream she came closer to seeing his face. She often woke breathless, in a pool of sweat, sure that if she reached into the darkness he would be there beside her.

To avoid the torture, she often spent her nights prowling the house in search of answers. It had been ten days, and so far no one had been able to offer any clue as to what had happened, only cryptic remarks from distant relatives who seemed fixated on her being alone for her birthday. At a time like this, Gemma didn’t want to celebrate anything and couldn’t understand everyone’s concern that she not be alone.

She felt like she was missing something important. The garden abandoned. Gran and Aunt Margaret killed by an animal. Something wasn’t right about it, but Gemma couldn’t fit the pieces together. She was contemplating the contents of the refrigerator early one morning when an image from her most recent dream came rushing back. An enormous black wolf, watching from the shadows.

Wild dogs in the woods.

Gran and Aunt Margaret killed by some kind of animal.

A large furry animal chasing her as a child before she’d been sent away.

What if it wasn’t a pack of wild dogs, but a pack of wolves that had been seen in the woods over the years? The wild thing. Had it been a wolf Gran and Aunt Margaret were so afraid of? And if so, wolves normally avoided humans, why would one attack?

Maybe Gran had written something down that might give her a clue. Gemma went to Gran’s room in search of her journal. She opened the cedar chest where Gran kept her private things. Her wedding gown was there, along with a box of photos, several of Mama. There was a picture of her standing next to someone, but his face had been cut out. An old boyfriend? Underneath an antique quilt, Gemma found a thick, leather book. This must be it. She took it to the kitchen and flipped it open. She stared at the ancient text that lay open on the table, and remembered bits of conversation overheard as a child came crashing back–secrets whispered, guarded looks, Grandma Emily and Aunt Margaret coming in from late night walks in the woods.

She ran into the bathroom and stared at the pale face in the mirror. “This can’t be real.” It had to be Gran’s attempt at writing a novel. According to the book, she was descended from a long line of werewolves who, after reaching full maturity at the age of twenty, would transform with the full moon.

Gemma blanched. She’d turned twenty, three days ago. Now it made sense, the peculiar comments about the full moon coming and not being alone for her birthday. Did they think she already knew? Gran and Aunt Margaret’s phone calls and numerous messages pleading with her to come home suddenly had a darker meaning.

She rushed back to the kitchen and rifled through drawers looking for a calendar. “Oh God,” she said, the words barely audible. She fell back against the counter and slid to the floor. The full moon was tonight.

They’d lied to her. Mama and Daddy, Gran, Aunt Margaret. Everyone she loved. Her whole life had been a lie. Gemma paced back and forth. What was she going to do? If everything the book said was true, she was out of time. She was going to turn into a giant wolf with the full moon tonight. “I’ll be a monster.”

She flopped down on the couch, pulled her knees up to her chest, and chewed a fingernail trying to think. She’d been at this for hours. Pacing. Sitting. Pacing again. What if she locked herself in the cellar? Then she wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone. Would she? The book said werewolves were incredibly strong. Could she break down the cellar door? If she couldn’t get out, it might be weeks before someone found her.

Could this be some big practical joke? No. The text was too elaborate and the history incredibly detailed. All that combined with the tidbits she remembered and her family’s concern over her coming birthday… this was no prank.

Finally, frustrated and terrified, Gemma climbed the stairs, too tired to even think. She hadn’t eaten, yet somehow her clothes felt too tight. She stripped unceremoniously, leaving a trail of garments to the bed. She didn’t bother climbing beneath the covers, her skin felt sunburned, hot and itchy. What was happening to her? Was this it? Was she changing? She’d been exhausted for days between the funeral arrangements, well-wishers and the constant dreams that never let her rest. She needed sleep so she could think clearly.

A low mist clung to the ground as she ran through the forest. She could hear the heavy footfalls of pursuit, but she couldn’t see what she was running from. Her lungs burned when she swung open the iron gate and found herself in the garden, bathed in sunlight. Her statue was there, but he was no longer stone. He watched her with intense brown eyes that reminded her of melted chocolate, and she didn’t feel afraid anymore. He was tall, over six feet, with broad shoulders and trim hips. Thick hair, the color of black coffee, curled gently around his ears and at the nape of his neck, as if it had been too long between trimmings. Over the years she had memorized every lean feature, but the reality of seeing him in the flesh was like a blow. She reached up and cupped his cheek. “You’re real. How is this possible?”

His fingers combed through her hair, then roamed down her back, pressing her closer. “You saved me,” he said, touching his lips to hers. She sighed and he took full advantage of her parted lips, deepening the kiss into something bold and demanding. The hot, familiar taste of him made her blood surge. Instinctively her body molded against his. His hands roamed and explored, molding her breasts, cupping her bottom. Gemma moaned her pleasure when he pressed her more firmly against him.

The scene shifted again and she found herself naked beneath him. Her nails dug into his shoulders as he slid inside her. Her nipples puckered like ripe berries as they brushed against the hard planes of his chest. Each kiss, each caress, the delicious weight of his body drove her closer and closer to the edge until lights exploded behind her eyelids and she plummeted over the precipice taking him with her.

Gemma returned to reality in gradual increments. The scent of roses hung in the air. Opening her eyes, she sat up slowly and found she was in her room, alone, and it was dark. The dream had been so real she could still taste him. Her skin tingled and throbbed from her climax. She gave a disgusted sigh and punched her pillow. Had she gone stark, raving mad? How else had she conjured her statue man into her dreams?

It wasn’t the first time she’d dreamed of him, but the other times were blurred. This felt real, more like a memory than a dream. She knew it was crazy, but she had to make sure that her statue was still stone.

She pulled on her red silk robe and hurried into the garden. Her kneeling warrior was still there, still carved in stone, as she’d known he would be. Trapped, just as she was. But her body would turn on her, make her into an animal. As if she’d summoned it, the puffy silver fringed clouds parted and the full moon’s light spilled over her. She felt hot inside. Her skin, itched and burned, uncomfortably tight. Was this it? Panic crept over her tightening body, closing like a hand around her throat.  She sank to the ground in front of the statue. “I’m a monster,” she whispered. “I deserve to die, so no one else has to.”

Run!

The command jolted her, shooting a string of memories through her head. The same warning that had saved her as a child. Gran and Aunt Margaret dead. The wolf that haunted her dreams. She tried to rise, but a sudden burst of pain exploded through her, doubling her over at the waist. She clenched her teeth as fire shot through her veins, searing her. Unable to hold it back any longer, her piercing cry became a howl of agony as muscles knotted and then stretched. Bones lengthened and joints popped, shifting. Braced on hands and knees, helpless in the throws of transformation– face elongating, nails lengthening– Gemma didn’t see the huge black wolf spring into the clearing, stalking forward, fangs bared, intent on her destruction. Or hear the low rumble fill the night when her statue began to vibrate.

* * * * *

 

Tiny cracks lengthened into fissures that spider-webbed over his body. The stone vibrated more viciously, shaking the ground like an earthquake. The sword began to lift and the stone shattered outward with violent force, knocking Gemma and the black wolf to the ground.

The big male came to his feet shaking off the force of the blow, and Sorin leaped from his dais, landing lightly on the balls of his feet, his sword at the ready.  The wolf growled low in his throat, the hair along his spine bristling against this new threat. They circled, each waiting for the right moment to strike. The black wolf attacked, and Sorin rolled and swung. The arch of the sword bit deep into the wolf’s shoulder and blood splattered the ground.

The big male was more nimble than Sorin expected, jerking away from the next blow. He knew what would happen to Gemma if he failed, he couldn’t let that happen. Sorin attacked with ferocity, slashing and hacking. His blade gleamed in the moonlight as he drove back the rogue wolf. The animal’s eyes glowed with hate. The next time the wolf lunged, Sorin was ready, ducking low, then driving his sword upward, deep into the animal’s chest. A sick gurgle was the only sound as the wolf’s momentum carried him to the ground where he lay motionless.

Sorin turned and found the white wolf, Gemma, cowering against the wrought iron fence. The panic reflected in those dark eyes seared his soul. It had been hard, watching  her grieve and suffer, unable to offer her comfort. There had been a time, back before the gypsy’s curse, when all werewolves had been his sworn enemy. But things were different now. He would do anything for Gemma.

He had listened to her and watched over her for years, always eavesdropping, hoping to pick up any tidbit of information about her. She’d grown into a kind and caring woman. He’d always known she’d be stunning, but nothing could have prepared him for the beauty she’d become.

Since her return, his dreams had been both torment and bliss. Dreams where he was human, holding her, touching her, kissing every lush female curve. Running his fingers through the silky mass of her honey blond hair. Now he wanted more. He wanted her to be his. To build a life with her.

“It’s okay Gemma.” She whimpered but didn’t move when he edged closer. “I won’t hurt you,” he soothed, and then lay down his bloody sword with deliberate slowness. “Can you change back?”

She whined.

“It’s okay. I know what it’s like to be trapped.”

The white wolf looked at him with intelligent eyes and cocked her head as if asking a question.

“Centuries ago I was cursed. I murdered a girl because she was a werewolf. She was a gypsy, a favorite of her clan. I was cursed to remain as cold and unyielding as stone until the day I felt true love and compassion for another human being. You have broken the curse by teaching me how to love unconditionally. You’ve freed me.”

Gemma crept closer. He reached out, but before he could stroke the soft fur with his hand she dropped to the ground, writhing. Her body thrashed, fighting from within. With a tearing sound, the fur on her back split open along her spine, sloughing off as bones and joints popped and shifted, transforming her back into the woman he loved.

When the flailing stopped, he crouched over her limp body and brushed the hair from her face. “Are you okay?”

“I’m a monster,” she whispered, turning her face away. “You should kill me now before I hurt someone.”

“I once thought as you do, that being a shape shifter made someone evil.” Sorin cupped her chin and gently forced her to look at him. Tears clung to her lashes. “But I was wrong. You are not a monster. You will transform, but it doesn’t change who you are. I know more about your kind that you do. I’ve watched your ancestors shift for generations and have witnessed their deeds. There is both good and bad in everyone. The transformation only changes your appearance, it doesn’t make you evil.”

“But I’m a werewolf.”

“And a good person.” Wrapping his arms around her, he carried her into the house. He sat down with her cradled in his lap, covering her with a blanket from the sofa.

“I love you, Gemma. I want to be with you forever, to  take care of you and keep you safe.”

Reaching up, she cupped the side of his face. “I’ve wanted you to be real for so long. Is this a dream?”

He pressed his lips to hers, then whispered in her ear. “If it is, then I never want to wake up.”

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