Caleb was burning up. His skin felt hot to the touch, no matter what she gave him or what she tried to do. Louisa knelt beside the wooden tub and trailed her fingers across his forehead again, rivulets streaking down his skin in twisting paths that echoed the torment in the lines of his body. His eyes were closed, and his head tilted back against the edge, but he didn’t look comfortable. He’d curled as much as possible, knees out of the water since he certainly couldn’t stretch them out, not as tall as he stood. She watched his throat work as he swallowed. His lips stuck together when he parted them, tongue sweeping out to collect the few drops that had collected at the corner of his mouth. A sigh escaped him, and his brow furrowed again. It wouldn’t be enough to quench the need building inside him. Only one thing would satisfy that pull.
It was her job to help him hold it off as long as she could. She’d promised. No matter her fears, she would do everything in her power to keep her word. She dipped her hand in the water beside him, careful not to jar him, then lifted it again, water dripping from her fingertips, and trailed them across his lips too. She knew better. She had no business being this close. She knew her touch would rouse him, as surely as she knew he wasn’t really asleep.
A fever had been raging through him on and off for nearly a week. He’d come to her when it started, confused and unshaven, not sure what was happening. Heightened senses, urges he didn’t understand, had already driven him half mad. He’d prowled his front porch while he explained the attack. He’d been chasing off coyotes, or so he thought. Keeping them away from his livestock, his means of livelihood. The beast had come from nowhere, a blurred shape within the shadows, a blazing glow of eyes in the second before it leapt. He’d wrestled the thing and realized fast that he wasn’t fighting a coyote. Not even someone’s lost and wandering dog. No, the animal had power -- too much of it -- and a terrifying awareness in its eyes.
A wolf, he decided. A wolf where it didn’t belong. The shotgun had been jarred out of his hands when he fell from his horse or he’d have shot it, he told her. He’d have made sure it was dead before it could hurt anyone. Instead, to save himself a fatal injury, he’d wedged his arm in its mouth when it lunged for the bite. Like being touched with a brand, he reported, pain and heat went all through him. Like being at the wrong end of a lightning strike.
And then, as quickly as it struck, the wolf let go. Lingered for a moment while Caleb bled then turned and loped off, disappearing into the shadows.
He’d come to her. He’d asked her -- no, he’d begged
her -- to be his guardian. To watch over him and make sure that, whatever happened, no one else got hurt. Somehow he knew he’d be a danger. He could feel himself becoming a threat. He didn’t trust anyone else. He’d put his life in her hands.
Caleb murmured, his lips moving under her fingers. His tongue slipped out again, a brief touch against her skin, and he lifted a hand, catching her wrist to hold it there when she began to pull away. “Taste good,” he murmured, pressing her hand against his cheek. He turned his head and traced the pulse in her wrist with the tip of his nose. “Smell good, too.”
He hadn’t yet opened his eyes. Louisa knew they’d be changed when he did. They would be amber, not their usual deep brown. The moon was full tonight. That explained why his fever had come back again, roaring higher and hotter than ever. He’d started turning, despite the fact that the sun still shone. It was happening faster than she’d seen before, but she’d never been in this situation exactly. Stories and secondhand tales only taught her so much, and no two men were alike.
“Caleb, don’t,” she murmured, twisting her wrist so he would let go. She pulled back just before his lips grazed her skin again. She shouldn’t have left so little space between them. It was dangerous for too many reasons. She was his caretaker, his protector for the moment. “It’s the fever talking,” she repeated, as much for herself as for him. She’d reminded him that he wasn’t himself every day. Five days ago, it was enough to stop him. It wouldn’t be today. “Making you act different.”
Now he opened his eyes and stared at her, the corner of his mouth lifting in a dangerous way. It made her heart skip a beat, her breath catch, and a shiver begin deep inside her. It wasn’t fear. She wished she could tell herself to be afraid.
His eyelashes looked especially dark in comparison to the way amber color seemed to blaze. “Making me want things,” he countered. His voice had an edge of grit. It came out deeper and rougher, almost as though he wanted to growl.
Despite herself, she wished he would. The hairs on the back of her neck rose, and she felt her skin prickle. She could see the gooseflesh on her arms and knew that he could hear the way her heart sped and smell the curiosity and excitement she fought so hard to ignore. He’d notice the way her breath grew short, see the color flood her cheeks…
“I can smell you,” he rumbled, shifting in the tub. He twisted his hips as best he could in such a cramped space. He turned and reached for her again. “I know you want me as bad as I want you.”
She stood and backed away. Too late, far too late for distance, but it was all she had to offer in the moment. “It’s the fever,” she said again. “You stay in that tub, Caleb. Let the water cool you down.” She put as much force behind the words as she could muster. With the wolf-bitten, she had to be forceful. She knew that, knew better. She couldn’t give in to her feelings. As the beast took over, the man ceased to understand. He lost control, and neither one of them could afford that price.
So she moved. She forced herself to turn away and leave the room, leave him alone with his thoughts and his wants. She gave herself room to deal with her own. It wasn’t just the changes in him that had her wanting to touch and stroke and soothe him. They played a part, certainly. If the werewolf had no charm, no appeal, in any of his forms, there would be no more of them. Women would flee them, not step into their arms. There would be no stories of children born with the curse, the product of a union between a changed man and his human mate.
It wasn’t simply the caretaker’s role she’d been taught to assume. She tended to men all the time without the urge to stand too close or touch their hair or hands or chest for more than examination. She didn’t, God help her, usually have to fight the need to lean in to kiss a man when she looked into his eyes.
She’d made her choice. Lucas Trumble was a good man. Reliable, respectable, responsible. He made her laugh. He made her smile, even when she thought she wasn’t in the mood. He knew how to ease her with the simplest touch. He expected little and gave her everything. No question that he pleased her when he took her to bed, but he was more than that. The sort of man she wanted around just for his presence, as much for his company as for the sex. A man she could keep for a lifetime and never want for more.
Shouldn’t want for more. Shouldn’t
, she scolded herself again and kept moving. She went to the kitchen. She’d left the kettle warming on the stove so she could give Caleb more of the herb concoction she’d mixed up. No way would he simply take a spoonful of the stuff the way he had when he’d first arrived. Then, he’d been eager to cooperate and willing to try anything she suggested to keep himself under control. He’d begun to argue with her over the last few days. He complained of the taste and the grit on his tongue so she dissolved it in water. It wasn’t enough. It wouldn’t be enough, diluted that way, but it hardly mattered now. Short of hitting him over the head with her cast-iron skillet, little she did would stop what had to happen.
Nothing could. Caleb had to make the change. She’d known a few changed men, in Boston and then Kentucky who’d tried to hold it off, denying what they’d become. It only made the rages worse. It nearly drove them mad. Those men had been strangers, and she could barely watch them try to tear themselves apart. They clawed at their skin and howled as though they were being tortured. It still turned her stomach to think on it.
Caleb was a friend.
Just a friend. Luke’s friend, more precisely. The sheriff had introduced them when she first came into town. She’d needed to hire a wagon to take her belongings out to her new home. Caleb just happened to have one and Luke just happened to have the time to lend a hand. The well-bred girl still lurking inside Louisa protested. That voice echoed the numerous lectures and warnings that good women didn’t wander off with handsome strangers and certainly not two of them at once. The woman she’d become, who’d seen more than her fair share of the impossible, knew that sometimes polite rules did more harm than good and accepted their help with a warm smile and a nod.
They’d all become friends that day. Luke charmed her with his crooked smile and his genuine respect. Caleb made her laugh with his jokes and quick wit. She’d met up with all sorts of people as she worked her way across the country. Many of them avoided her. Some challenged her outright. Bad enough to be a woman on her own, but Louisa had a reputation that followed wherever she went. Rumors labeled her a witch, which wasn’t quite true. She couldn’t work magic. She didn’t cast spells or call down lightning. She had absolutely never turned anyone into a frog. She knew how to find plants that sped healing. She had a gentle touch and knew that sometimes pain could be soothed by the caress of a warm hand. She didn’t dance with the devil, and she knew nothing about human sacrifice. If she could do any of those terrifyingly powerful things, she’d certainly have found a way to defend herself from the lies and accusations that had chased her from more than one town.
The aura of danger that she’d been told surrounded her didn’t seem to affect these men -- her men -- in the slightest. They’d stayed a long while after her trunks were unloaded. They talked as if they’d known each other for years.
Louisa confessed. It made sense then that Caleb had come to her when he knew something was wrong with him. He could trust her to understand his panic and rely on her not to spread his troubles around town. She would defend him with her last breath if it came to that. If someone asked, she’d stick with his story, blame an old ranch dog and send the gossip seeker away. Until he’d made his first change, she’d say nothing at all. She hadn’t even gone to Lucas with the news. Oh, he’d hear, she knew. Someone would mention seeing them together and he wouldn’t be able to stay away. Later, when Caleb had recovered, when the heat of the moon had faded as it thinned, she’d explain everything and Lucas would close ranks with him. She hoped. She prayed. They needed him.
She shook herself. This wasn’t the time to get lost in what-ifs and maybes. She needed to pay attention to the man in her care. The change could come on slow or fast. It varied by the man. Sometimes she could predict and prepare in advance, but Caleb had been fighting it since he’d stumbled onto her porch. He had an incredible strength of will. If anyone could hold it off until the last possible moment, he would.
Louisa stirred a spoonful of the thick syrup she’d made into a cup of hot water, then added another, just to be safe. This mixture would keep him slowed down a bit. It would take the edge off the pain of bones realigning when the change began, though she couldn’t take it completely away. She didn’t think she should mute every bit anyway, no matter how much she might want to make things easier for him. A changed man might need some sense of his body so as not to do himself greater harm. She didn’t dare give Caleb more than this.
“You’re awful quiet,” she called out as she set the spoon aside. Maybe he’d drifted to sleep again without her there to rile his senses. That would be for the best. He’d need his strength tonight.
But he wasn’t sleeping. When she turned to carry the mug to him, she found him standing just behind her. He loomed over her, expression warmed by a lecherous grin that had widened by the time she dragged her gaze back to his. He was dangerous, she thought as her pulse leapt. She felt as though her heart had risen to her throat and now pounded in the hollow, plainly visible for Caleb to see. He certainly looked his fill, molten gaze tracing every inch of her. It lingered on her breasts, on her hips, and lifted again. Now she saw a glint of tooth, and he licked his lips.
She shook herself again. Ignore it, ignore him, business as usual
. Easier to think than to practice and then some. He’d climbed out of the tub too silently and stood before her in all his glory. She took in the broad shoulders, work-hardened muscles, and the water puddle beneath his feet. His chest and stomach were a fantasy of sculpted muscle, curves and hollows her fingers itched to explore. He didn’t breathe quickly, but every inhale and exhale was slow, deliberate, as if he’d scented something irresistible and wanted more. Dark hair drew her eye down from his navel, joining the thatch of coarse darkness at the base of his jutting erection. He kept his hands at his sides, though they flexed and curled. When she met his gaze again, he chuckled and asked, “Seen enough?”
Her heart missed another beat. Heat warmed her cheeks. She focused on the center of his chest and cleared her throat. “Drink this,” she offered. “It’ll help --”
“I’m not drinking anything.” He lashed out too quickly for her to stumble back or out of reach. He caught her around the waist with one arm and took the cup with the other hand. He let it fall, splattering both their ankles with hot liquid. “And I know just the thing that’ll make me feel better.”
He covered her mouth with his, the kiss hard and hungry. He thrust his tongue past her lips when she parted them to protest. She meant to protest, anyway. The whimper that escaped her, though, sounded needy even to her own ears. The way she arched toward him certainly wouldn’t convince him that she wanted him to stop. Half a second after the kiss began, she wasn’t sure that she ever wanted it to end. The heat of his mouth on hers felt so good…
He wrapped his other arm around her, his hand fisted in the skirts that covered her backside as he hauled her hips forward against his. His cock strained between them, just as eager as the man himself. He forced her backward, one step after the next, until he’d pressed her against a wall and trapped her with the weight of his body.
Louisa tore her mouth from his. She had no choice; she needed to breathe. She gripped his shoulders, but couldn’t make herself push him away. When he nudged her chin up with his nose and closed his mouth against her pulse, she gasped out loud. “Caleb, we can’t. You don’t want this. You’re not thinking clearly.”
He made a low sound and lifted his head. His gaze blazed with lust, the emotion reflected in the slow, calculating grin he gave her. “Not sure I’ve ever thought more clearly than I am right now. I want you,” he told her, as if she could have missed that fact between the desperate kisses and the slow but enticing rolls of his hips into hers. He had both hands on her skirts now, lifting them slowly. “I want to be in you so deep neither one of us can breathe, Lou. I want to hear you shout out my name. You want to shout for me, don’t you? I bet you’re a hellcat just waiting for the right kind of touch.”
He kissed her again as he inched her skirt higher. The air in her home shouldn’t have been cool enough to make her shiver and yet her whole body shuddered. Not with a chill but with a rush of pure desire. Tell him no
, she told herself. Make him stop. He’ll listen. He’s not so far gone
I don’t want him to stop
, her rebellious self answered. She wound her arms around his neck and made another soft, hungry sound. Maybe he was right. Maybe this would cure him. If he got this urge worked out of his system, maybe it’d be enough to let him manage through the night. She could keep him occupied if need be. He was young, and she hadn’t yet gotten so old that sex wrung her completely out. Then again, she’d never dared share a bed with a man under the moon’s influence. The potential for danger should have frightened her away.
It made her want him even more. “Caleb, I’m with Lucas,” she started. “You know that. You’ve seen us together.”
He grunted and let go a fistful of skirts so skim his hand up her side until he cupped her breast. Her nipples were hard despite her protests. She was sure he could feel it against his palm. “Seen the way you look at me, too,” he answered. “Maybe Luke’s not enough for you. Maybe he don’t do it right. Don’t know. Don’t care.” He lowered his head for another kiss.
She pressed her hand against his mouth. “All right.” It came out breathy. She’d already given in. “Caleb, look at me.” She slid her hand under his chin, forcing him to meet her gaze. The heat in his eyes should have melted her in an instant. It would if she hesitated longer. “If you’re sure this is what you want. If it’s you
and not the beast.”
His grin widened and grew even more wicked. “I am