The wolf howled.
Juliet opened her eyes and stared into the dark. The foreboding cry came again, and she threw back the covers and rose from the bed. The door to Jeff’s room was not where it should be, but she found it easily enough and opened it. Hesitant, she called his name. He did not answer. She stepped into the inky blackness of his bedroom. Deaf and blind, she shivered. “Answer me, damn you, I’m afraid.”
Silence roared back.
A primordial howl splintered the air, and she fell back, inadvertently forcing the door behind her shut.
From the depths of the room, she sensed movement.
“Jeff?” she whispered, reaching out with her hand and touching nothing.
“Did you not hear the howl?” she said. “The wolf? It sounds as if it’s in the house.”
“I know,” he said, his voice hoarse. His silhouette, black against black, stepped close, trapping her inside his arms. At his touch, warmth heated her skin. “Don’t worry,” he growled softly. Her heart beat faster. Fear vied with desire.
He turned her and pushed. She fell onto the bed, and he settled over her, pinning her beneath him from the hips down. His hands grasped the neck of her nightgown and ripped it open. The loud beating of her labored heart drowned the sound of his heavy breathing, and in an instant, chilling fear usurped desire and gave way to terror. She reached out to ward him off as he moved to mount her.
Hair. Lots of hair.
He met her protest with a snarl, and she whimpered, trying to break free, but he held her tight. He nuzzled the area just below her ear. She arched back and away from him, his teeth nipped her exposed neck, and she cried out in horror....
Juliet sat up with a start, the cry dying on her lips. Trembling, she drew her knees beneath her chin and hugged herself, then laid her cheek against a blanket-covered kneecap and closed her eyes.
Outside, she heard a muted bang, followed by a soft howl. Familiar, yet disconcerting. Ill at ease, she opened her eyes. Only the wind rounding the corner of the house. She often listened to it as a child, lying in the nursery. A long lost friend that tonight invaded her dreams and fed the nightmare. Even now, knowing what it was, she found the low moan haunting.
Juliet held her head up and looked beyond the window to the waxing moon, almost full, hanging against a glittering blanket of dark blue velvet. She kept her curtains open despite nightfall, loving nights like these when the moon was brightest and the bare branches of the trees made the shadows in her room dance. It was late fall, winter waited, and the very best of such nights.
Again the distant bang distracted her, and she rose from the bed, the light from the moon highlighting the pale skin of her hands. Her white nightgown glowed. From outside, anyone looking up would surely think her a ghost. At the window she looked down the hill toward the woods. The trees shook in the wind, which rose and fell in violent gusts. Above the treetops, the silvery disk of moon looked down, lighting the field that fell away in front of her. Shadows played along the ground, but she could make out nothing certain. Surreal, peaceful. A scene from another dream.
Juliet pinched herself to make sure she was awake and not about to enter another dimension of terror. A shudder moved over her.
Outside, she heard the bang again. The barn door, caught in the wind. It would beat itself to splinters before daylight. She lit the coal oil lamp by her table and closed the curtains. The muted golden glow of the lamp replaced the silver gleam of moonlight and the room brightened. Once she would have crawled into bed with her mother. That had not been the case for a long time. But then, she hadn’t experienced nightmares for years.
She looked at the closed door between her room and Jeff’s. There was no lock on it. He told her there never would be. She wanted to be with another human being right now, and despite the specter of her dream, the human she wanted was Jeff. Still, she was reluctant to wake him, and she certainly didn’t want to pass through the door she’d used in the dream. Pulling on her slippers and a dressing gown, she opened the door leading into the hall. Down from her, she saw his door was open, and her heart began to beat a little faster. Inside, she found, as she suspected, his bed empty.
The childish fears evoked by her nightmare evaporated, and Juliet tightened her hands into fists. Either he’d gone out to latch that barn door, or he’d left it to pound in the wind after saddling the big gelding and leaving. And just where would he sneak off to in the middle of the night!
She whirled from his room and rushed down the stairs, the route clearly marked by rays of moonlight shining through the entry windows. Twice she called his name to no avail.
Clearing the last step, she turned down the wide foyer leading to the rear of the house, her footsteps a whisper against the oak flooring. At the back door, she peeked out the window. The persistent banging was louder now, but except for the wind shaking half-naked trees, there was no movement outside. If he’d gone out to close that barn door, he’d have done it by now. With a mild expletive, she went into the dining room and lit a hurricane lamp, and by the door to the breezeway that led to the cookhouse, she pulled a tin lantern from a peg and lit it. She dropped the matchbox into the pocket of her dressing gown.
He could sense her fear, smell it, and taste it like the animal people believed him to be, the animal he was. The animal he became when the need overtook him—his unyielding obsession to possess another, a woman. He didn’t simply take her; he forced her, despite the fact that his victims had known many men. Taking whores was a practical matter, not a moral one. They were sinners, and by the nature of their lives, few sympathized if they met a brutal death. He needed them more than any other man could. So he indulged himself, the power of life and death headier than the actual rape.
He liked to kill around the time of the full moon, his passion heated by the look on his victims’ faces when he raised the knife. Oh God, that terrified, helpless realization in the whore’s eyes that she was going to die was as stimulating as the warmth that lay between her legs. The look was there now, on her pretty face. He squirmed with a grin, pushing the head of his penis against the folds of her womanhood, preparing to take her again.
Momentarily, he looked away, beyond the trees, to the columns of White Oak Glen shimmering in the moonlight. The wind quieted, and he heard Juliet call for her husband. Calmly, he returned his attention to his victim and entered her again, the fourth time in the past hour. There was not a better man than him. The whore had no idea how honored she was. He kissed away the tears on the woman’s cheeks even as his fantasies turned to the beautiful and decisive Juliet, the wolf’s true mate.
Juliet stopped and listened for Jeff’s responding call. When he didn’t answer, she mostly ran the distance to the barn, the cold wind buffeting her in intermittent spurts, sometimes pounding her to the point where she had to stop and brace herself against it. It blew out the lantern, but she didn’t need its feeble light, the moon’s beams making objects as discernable as day at first light.
The door flopped against the barn with a loud clatter, but she ignored it and rushed inside, relieved to be out of the wind, if not the frigid cold. The scents of fresh hay and manure assailed her, and her feet sank in the soft earth. She’d ruin her slippers if she wasn’t careful.
To her left, she heard a horse and the stomps of the mules in a stall farther down. The animals were nervous with the wind and the incessant banging. Her arrival did nothing to put them at ease. The rear door of the barn was closed, making the interior of the building dark and uninviting. She pulled the box of matches from the pocket of her dressing gown and relit the lantern. Turning, she surveyed the barn, then walked down the stalls. The cow and Old Son, the large draft horse, were there as were Jeff’s two “handsome” mules. Why he kept them in the barn at night, she did not know, but she presumed he feared the wolf getting to them. Why then would he go off and leave his barn door...?
A loud snort sent her jumping back. Heart thumping, she held the lantern high. Big brown eyes, bright and moist in the lantern light watched her, then Deacon neighed and tossed his large head over the rail of the last stall, the same one she and Jeff made love in almost a month before.
Deacon snorted again, and she held up a hand to touch his soft muzzle. She was aware of his equine scent, the clash of his warm breath with the freezing air, and the fact that he was, simply put, there. Inexplicably, the cold of the clear December night seeped into her bones, and with a violent shudder, Juliet dropped her free hand and wrapped that arm around her scantily-clad body. Bewildered, she looked around the barn. Why, she didn’t know. For sure, Jeff wasn’t sleeping out here.
Thighs weak and knees knocking, she again called his name. Her voice reverberated through the large structure. The door banged again, and Deacon shied with a nervous whinny. Closer to the entrance, Old Son bolted back, banging his hindquarters against the wall of the barn. Inside her skull, Juliet’s head pounded in rhythm with her runaway heart.
In the mottled moonlight, he rested and contemplated his victim’s face, trying to imagine Juliet unmoving beneath him, her skirt bunched around her waist, her naked thighs spread to accommodate him.
The glint of moonlight on the blade must have caught the whore’s eye, because her gaze moved to the knife suspended above her head. She screamed into the night, a blood-curdling screech that sent blood surging into his penis, leaving him granite hard.
There was nothing, nothing like this sweet ecstasy sweeping over him. He needed it as other men needed food and water, air to breathe. And he let her scream, over and over, each cry sending waves of pleasure through him like the successive thrusts of an ordinary man’s cock into a woman’s vagina. He laughed gloriously at her screams. She struggled, but he held her. Then he kissed her open mouth, silencing her.
He moved his head away and plunged the blade into her throat. This one made a funny little sound as air escaped the opening, then she gurgled. For a moment, she lived, and he smiled at her, calling her a bitch and a whore. Then he rose on his knees and slammed his penis into her again and again and again until his mind exploded with the power of his divine glory. Sitting back, he ripped open the tear in her throat, covering his hands with blood. On impulse he brought his fingers to his lips. Tentatively he tasted the viscous substance. Pleased, he licked his fingers clean. This trick he’d not tried before, and he liked it.
Exhaustion swept over him and with a pounding heart and throbbing head, he fell on all fours, his half-naked body looming over the dead woman. Not exhausted. Sated. For a moment he caressed his limp penis, then, sitting back on his knees, he pulled his trousers over his buttocks and tucked his now passive manhood inside.
Through the brambles, he stared at the vision of White Oak Glen, his victim forgotten, his thoughts on Juliet Seaton...Dawson. He stuck the knife in his boot, and he rose.
Terror soared on the wind, and Juliet spun around to face the secured double door at the rear of the barn. The scream came from the other side of that door, from the not too distant woods beyond the house. It continued over and over until Juliet wrapped her arms over her head and pressed her biceps against her ears to shut the cries of terror out. The small lantern swung from her fingertips above her head.
The screaming stopped, and Juliet waited. The horses and mules were restless, milling nervously. The cold discomfort of the night seeped under her skin and into her blood, chilling her to the marrow. Another victim was dead; she knew it without having to see a body. She dropped her arms and turned to look at Deacon.
A horrific howl cleaved the night. Juliet’s heart slammed violently against her chest at the same moment Deacon shied. His sudden movement shattered what was left of her concentration as well as her equilibrium. She turned, then stumbled in an awkward struggle to get to the gaping barn door. That thing was here, just beyond the unprotected opening. Old Son reared, and Juliet bolted with him. Again, the door banged against the exterior wall, and stretching her arm outside, she reached....
Air lodged painfully in her gullet. In reflex, her outstretched arm jerked back and her hand grasped her throat. From her other hand, the lantern slid over numb fingers to land soundlessly in soft muck. Behind her the animals whinnied in terror. Only half aware of their screams and pounding hooves, Juliet offered no comfort, her mind centered on the large lupine, its dark, glinting eyes fixed ominously on her. The beast’s distance from her was less than an arm’s reach, and the thing effectively blocked her exit. Riveted by each stealthy step, Juliet watched her nightmare move closer, the coarse hair along the ridge of its back rising on end with its approach. It bent its head, lowering its shoulders, and sniffed her feet. Holding her breath, Juliet closed her eyes tight and prayed.
The hem of her nightdress tickled her calves as the wolf moved methodically around her, smelling her, as if recording or recalling her scent. A primordial whine issued from her throat, exhausting the last of her air. Succumbing to a basic need for oxygen, Juliet breathed in. Frigid air bit her nostrils. The sweet elixir of life was sharp with the scent of pine and pierced by the fetid stench of urine-soaked hay and manure, both suddenly overwhelmed by the fresh essence of summer rain, inconsistent with the clear, frigid night.
As the beast circled her, its ribcage touched the hand she held close by her side. Had it been a dog, she could have petted it.
Full circle. She could no longer feel the feathery touch of her nightgown against her legs and with a horrific shudder, Juliet opened her eyes. It was there, watching her, waiting it seemed for her to respond. Closing her eyes, she said, “Go away.”
Jeff called her name, desperation in his voice and in the pounding of his feet against the ground. Her eyes flew open, and Juliet jerked her head in one direction, then the other. Jeff rounded the corner of the barn almost colliding with her.
His body shook so hard he couldn’t have steadied the rifle to fire it if he’d needed to. He’d never once been like this in wartime. But in battle, all he’d had to lose was his life, not Juliet. He lowered the rifle. She was so still and pale in the moonlight. Wide-eyed, she stared at him, and for a moment he thought she was in shock.
She rolled her mouth so that her lips disappeared. Her eyes glistened. She said nothing, and he knew it was because she couldn’t.
He stood the rifle against the barn wall, then put a hand on each of her shoulders. Gently he shook her. “Why did you scream?”
With a blink and a shake of her head, she stepped to him, circling his waist with her arms.
Her warmth scorched him. She was without the stiff corsets and stays, or whatever the hell women called them, and much too scantily clad to be out on a night like this. Not that he was much better. He had recklessly pulled on his own clothing not long ago.
“The wolf,” she said against his chest. “Didn’t you see it?”
Ah, she was coherent. Terrified, but coherent.
He laid his head on hers, holding her, trying, paradoxically, to give back to her the heat she passed to him. “No. Where was it?”
She pushed away and looked down at her feet. Confused, he nevertheless, followed her gaze. Then he raised the lantern, which sat by her, and studied the ground where she stood. A chill moved through him that had nothing to do with the cold night. He dropped to one knee, and guiding her out of the way, he held the light high. The thing had walked completely around her.
“It came this close to you.” It wasn’t a question, for the tracks had already provided him the answer, but Juliet nodded anyway. He rose, drawing her to him. This time she was not as pliant. Returning to her old self it appeared.
“What are you doing out here in the dark? You heard the damn thing howl. You knew it was about.”
She shook her head in protest. “I heard only the wind.”
“The wind? I hear the wind howling around the house constantly. Juliet, this was a blood-curdling howl, less than an hour ago. It brought me out of bed in a full sweat.”
She stared at him. “I was sleeping.” She closed her eyes tight. “I did hear it, but I believed it was part of my dream.”
He placed an arm around her shoulders and bent to pick her up.
“No, I’ll walk. I’m all right now with you here, and you need to carry the rifle. We must shut this door, too. The animals are frightened.”
The animals were, in fact, calm. The wolf was gone.
There were no tracks leading away from her.
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