Had she seen the twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth? He’d opened his eyes before she closed the door, determined not to waste a second of this opportunity. Used some of his stored up energy to bring forward his wolf. Naima stood near to the window, her expression a little anxious. Now she’d dismissed Carine, she didn’t seem to know what to do next. Women were strange creatures.
“How are you feeling, Finn?”
“Pain. But I’m healing. Come here.”
“I’ve brought pain-killers.”
“I don’t mind the pain, it let’s me know I’m alive. Come nearer.”
She flew across the room, the momentary awkwardness evaporating in a heartbeat. The touch of her hand immediately aroused him to a painful hardness that made him want to throw her down and seek instant relief. Instinct told him to slow down and enjoy the sweet torture of denial. Sex had always been about the destination, with no thought to the journey. So much to learn. Her hands cradled his face, fingers splayed over his cheeks. Warm lips pressed to his with infinite care.
This was what had been missing from the equation, for all those years, all those women. Tenderness. His wolf preened under her touch, while he craved it as he now craved life. To live, and have this every day. The thought made him slide a hand behind her head and pull her closer, anxious to hold on to this precious gift. The act of mating was more complicated than he’d ever imagined. “Unchain me,” he whispered. “You know I’d never hurt you.”
A rustle of clothing, a click and the chain fell away. Soft fingers massaged his bruised wrist. What did she see when she looked at him. How did he look after all this time in the wilderness? Her fingers trailed over his forearm, his biceps. Touched the bandages covering his chest. “Take me outside,” he said. “Just for a little while. I want the sun on me. Want to feel free. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Yes, I understand.”
She seemed reluctant to break away from him so he let her help him to sit, legs dangling from the bed. To stand, even though he could do it for himself. His nakedness hardly bothered him. He’d long since given up caring that people stared at his body, wondering where he kept his wolf. For an agonising moment, her fingers skimmed the length of him.
“We’ll cause enough of a scandal if anyone finds you unchained. If I’m caught out with a naked man my father will probably have me locked up.” The cool sheet settled around his shoulders. “We can’t stay long.”
He heard laughter mingled with the more serious message to be cautious. To stay here, he needed to earn their trust, but already the prospect of being outside made him shiver with anticipation, his wolf strain to be free. The feeling increased as she steered him to the door and through the lobby area. He held himself in check while she unlocked the outer door, all of his senses acutely alert and on edge. Rough boards beneath his bare feet, the tremor running over her skin, her erratic breath, he was listening and feeling with his wolf, which was becoming increasingly difficult to control.
“Finn, kiss me before we go out. Tell me you won’t run away.”
“I’ll try not to.” It was a poor attempt at humour since he meant it. Already, he strained for the first touch of the morning air on his face, every muscle twitching to find out whether his healing body could run, and keep on running until he was over the mountain and completely free.
Naima dismissed the brief touching of their lips with a whispered, “No, like this.” She pressed her open mouth urgently to his in a kiss that asked questions he didn’t have answers to. “I couldn’t bear it if you left now,” she said, “And you’re not well enough. Finn…”
“If I wanted to go, would you let me?” The kiss had rekindled his desire, mingled this time with a thread of panic that she might turn out to be like all the others and merely want him for her own needs. He had little understanding of wanting without wanting to possess and, through the now-open door, the world rushed towards him, assailing his senses, with an exciting jumble of scents and sounds. The light reduced his vision to a blurred mix of colours and shapes. He kept his wolf at bay, for now, needing all of his strength to get himself through the door.
Naima hadn’t answered his question. He wanted to be her mate, not her prisoner. He would never again be anyone’s prisoner. “How far do you think I’d get, in this state?” He waited, hovering on the threshold, letting the gusty breeze lift his hair and cool his face. Her hand cupped his elbow, steering him down the wooden steps.
“If you could see your face,” she answered, “you wouldn’t have asked that question. You look like a man anxious to start a long journey, and relishing every step. You’re a free man, Finn. I’d never stop you from leaving, if you wanted that.”
The sadness in her voice distracted him enough to feel remorse for scaring her. Added to the sounds of nature and man going about his business was the sound of her anxious, jittery heartbeat, her panting breath. Her fingers, possessive on his arm tightened imperceptibly with every step he took. “When I go,” he said. “I want you with me.”
“If you go. I’ll come. We need to go around the back, where we won’t be seen from the road. Tread carefully, the path is stony.”
He let her be his eyes, concentrating on his other senses as they made their way around the hut. The stab of small stones under his feet gave way to springy turf, damp with morning dew. The earth, ripe with promise as it threw off the last vestiges of winter. In spirit form he’d glimpsed the snow-line, high above them, ragged as the warming spring air drove it back to the high peaks. Beneath the surface, his wolf quivered and inhaled the scents of grass and plants trampled underfoot, the lingering smell of smoke from a distant fire. It listened to the confusion of voices down in the valley, always on the alert for the one who had escaped its retribution. The one who would surely be coming after him.
“I dreamed of freedom, for so long. It’s good to be alive.”
He sat when urged, and raised his face to the heavens, content to simply be. Touched Naima’s hair, feeling the smooth braided strands, let his hand slide down to her breast. Naima settled, her body fitting to his.
If you stay. All of his fears were tangled up in one little word, if. So many futures lay ahead of him; he only needed to make his choice. Happiness, here in this world, a world he’d only seen from the inside of a cage, or everlasting bliss in the next? What if the legends were true and he wasn’t free at all, only an instrument for the Goddess to use at will? Who would she choose to sacrifice, him, or Carine?
“I remember mountains, dwellings. The air is heavy with salt.”
“The Great Ocean. It forms the Western boundary of the Settlement. Below us is the township and above us are the forests and high mountains.” Naima’s lips touched his shoulder. “Don’t tire yourself,” she whispered and urged him back until he lay flat, the sky above him. Naima’s hair tickled his face, her mouth sought his. He tasted urgency in the kiss, a growing boldness when she pinned him down by his wrists and tentatively explored his mouth with her tongue. He tried to respond in kind, but the fresh air and sense of space intoxicated him faster than the strongest wine. He pushed her off as gently as his trembling body would allow.
“Do you trust me?” he said torn between a desire to continue what she’d started, and wanting to test the limits of his new world.
“I’m sorry.” She moved away, out of his space. Her tone, contrite, a little embarrassed. “I…”
“Naima.” He reached out, a little bereft now she’d gone. “Can you understand that right now, I need the energy for other things? The world, it’s calling me and I want to see it for myself. Do you trust that I’ll come back?”
“You can’t go. Someone will see you.”
“No, they won’t. Say you trust me.”
“I do… Be careful.”
He caught the catch of regret in her voice at having allowed this outing. To him her emotions were an open book. She didn’t have the benefit of being able to feel every breath, the subtle nuances of attitude the shifts in their aura that allowed him to read people without the benefit of sight. Using up some of his preciously-stored energy on another heated kiss was an investment in their future. One he already believed might be possible. She seemed grateful for the reassurance.
“I’m going to change,” he said, fascinated by the vibration of his voice on her skin. “Don’t be frightened.”
“Into a wolf?”
She went from calm to terrified so fast that he had to hold on to her to stop her bolting. Not a surprising reaction. He steadied her and held on until she’d calmed down, laughing nervously.
“I want to see it,” she said and nodded him to continue. “Show me.”
From the ridge, a lone plaintive howl echoed around the mountain. The sound died away and Finn’s wolf exploded to the surface, the sharp stab of canines bursting through tender gums, the pain a kind of ecstasy. Too-long cooped up, it exulted in its new-found freedom, pushing back the man before he could offer Naima more reassurance. Its glowing amber eyes connected with hers, ears cocked for the call of the wild. It turned and bounded away, each long joyful stride devouring the slope until it became lost in the exhilaration of the moment. It was the Lupine, beloved of the Goddess and it was free.
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