(Mermaid Note: If you haven’t already, please read Garden of Knight (Part One) first.)
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 red striped tote.
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 into the two story marble foyer. She dropped her luggage by the stairs and wove her way around Gran’s favorite floral print wing chair in the parlor, past the beige camel back sofa, trailing her fingers over 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 emptiness of the house was a hollow echo of Gemma’s own soul. It was like losing her parent’s all over again. 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. The garden was a jungle of weeds. Gran had loved it 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, glistening with 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 some important detail. 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 spun back into focus. An enormous black wolf, watching from the shadows. It’s eyes glowing. His muzzle pulled back in a snarl.
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. 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, when she was certain she wasn’t going to vomit, 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.
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 her extended family 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.
Gemma rushed back to the kitchen and rifled through drawers, pulling out 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 sham. Gemma paced back and forth. What was she going to do? If everything the book said was true, she was out of time. In a few short hours she was going to turn into a giant wolf. “Oh God.”
Gemma 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. 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 birthday… this was no prank. So what was she going to do? She could lock 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? But if she couldn’t get out it might be weeks before someone found her.
Finally, frustrated, terrified, back to square one, and too tired to even think, Gemma climbed the stairs. 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 and her heart beat with the rhythm of a ferocious woodpecker trying to break free of her ribcage 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 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. He watched her with intense brown eyes that reminded her of melted chocolate, and she didn’t feel afraid anymore. Over the years she had memorized every lean feature, but the reality of seeing him in the flesh was like a blow. With a tentative hand she cupped his cheek. “You’re real,” she whispered.
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 knew 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.”
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 tremble.
* * *
Tiny cracks lengthened into fissures that spider-webbed over his body. The stone vibrated 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, dodging and thrusting. 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?”
“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 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 than 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.” Lifting her with ease, he carried her into the house. He sat down, with her cradled in his lap, and covered 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.”
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.”