Dark as the night and fleet of foot, the wolf raced under a hunter’s moon. He ran for the love of it, and he ran alone, through the grand tower of trees, the purple shadows of the forest, the magic of the night.
The wind from across the sea spewed across the pines, sent them singing songs of the ancients and spilling their scent into the air. Small creatures with eyes that gleamed hid and watched the sleek black shape bullet through the lacy layer of mist that shimmered down the beaten path.
He knew they were there, could smell them, hear the rapid beat of their blood. But he hunted nothing that night but the night itself.
He had no pack, no mate but solitude.
A restlessness lived in him that not even speed and freedom could quell. In his quest for peace, he haunted the forest, stalked the cliffs, circled the clearings, but nothing soothed or satisfied.
As the path rose more steeply and the trees began to thin, he slowed to a trot, scenting the air. There was … something in the air, something that had lured him out to the cliffs high above the restless Pacific. With powerful strides he climbed the rocks, his golden eyes scanning, seeking.
There, at the topmost point, where the waves crashed like cannon fire and the moon swam white and full, he raised his head and called. To sea, to sky, to night.
The howl echoed, spread, filled the night with both demand and question. With power as natural as breath.
And the whispers that flickered back told him only that a change was coming. Endings, beginnings. Destiny.
His fate was waiting for him.
Again the rogue black wolf with gold eyes threw back his head and called. There was more, and he would have it. Now the earth shook, and the water swirled. Far over the sea a single spear of lightning broke the blackness with a blinding white flash. In its afterglow for an instant—a heartbeat only—was the answer.
And the magic trembled on the air, danced over the sea with a sound that might have been laughter. Tiny sparks of light skimmed over the surface, bobbing, twirling to spin into the star-strewn sky in a gilt cloud. The wolf watched, and he listened. Even when he turned back to the forest and its shadows, the answer trailed after him.
As the restlessness in him grew, beat with his heart, he shot down the path, powerful strides tearing the fog to ribbons. Now his blood heated with the speed, and veering left, he broke through the trees toward the soft glow of lights. There the cabin stood sturdy, its windows shining with welcome. The whispers of the night fell quiet.
As he bounded up the steps, white smoke swirled, blue light shimmered. And wolf became man.
When Rowan Murray got her first look at the cabin, she was filled with a sense of both relief and fear. Relief that she’d finally come to the end of the long drive from San Francisco to this sheltered spot on the coast of Oregon. And fear for the exact same reason.
She was here. She had done it.
The practical thing, of course, was to get out of the four-wheel drive, unlock the front door and give herself a tour of the place she intended to make home for the next three months. Unpack what belongings she’d brought with her. Make herself some tea. Take a hot shower.
Yes, those were all practical, reasonable things to do, she told herself. And she sat exactly where she was, in the driver’s seat of the two-week-old Range Rover, her long, slender fingers gripping white-knuckled on the wheel.
She was alone. Completely, absolutely alone.
It was what she wanted, what she needed. What she’d pushed herself to accomplish for months so that when the offer of the cabin had come, she’d snatched it as if it were a tree limb and she’d been sinking in quicksand.
Now that she had it, she couldn’t even get out of the car.
“You’re such a fool, Rowan.” She whispered it, leaning back, closing her eyes for just a moment. “Such a coward.”
She sat, gathering her energies, a small, slenderly built woman with creamy skin that had lost its sheen of rose. Her hair was straight as rain and the color of polished oak. Now she wore it pulled back, out of the way, in a thick braid that was coming loose. Her nose was long and sharp, her mouth just slightly overwide for the triangle of her face. Her eyes, tired now from hours of driving, were a deep, dark blue, long lidded and tilted at the corners.
Elf’s eyes, her father often said. And thinking of that, she felt tears welling up in them.
She’d disappointed him, and her mother. The guilt of that weighed like a stone on her heart. She hadn’t been able to explain, not clearly enough, not well enough, why she hadn’t been capable of continuing on the path they’d so carefully cleared for her. Every step she’d taken on it had been a strain, as if every step had taken her farther and farther away from where she needed to be.
What she needed to be.
So in the end she’d run. Oh, not in actuality. She was much too reasonable to have run away like a thief in the night. She’d made specific plans, followed concrete steps, but under it all she’d been fleeing from home, from career, from family. From the love that was smothering her as surely as if its hands had been clamped over her nose and mouth.
Here, she’d promised herself, she’d be able to breathe, to think, to decide. And maybe, just maybe, to understand what it was that kept her from being what everyone seemed to want her to be.
If in the end she discovered she was wrong and everyone else was right, she was prepared to deal with it. But she would take these three months for herself.
She opened her eyes again, let herself look. And as she did, her muscles slowly relaxed. It was so beautiful, she realized. The grand majesty of trees shooting up into the sky and whistling in the wind, the two-story cabin tucked into a private glen, the silver flash of sun off the busy little stream that snaked to the west.
The cabin itself gleamed dark gold in the sunlight. Its wood was smooth, its windows sparkled. The little covered porch looked perfect for sitting on lazy mornings or quiet evenings. From where she sat, she thought she could see the brave spears of spring bulbs testing the air.
They’d find it chilly yet, she mused. Belinda had warned her to buy flannel, and to expect spring to come late to this little corner of the world.
Well, she knew how to build a fire, she told herself, glancing at the stone chimney. One of her favorite spots in her parents’ house had been in the big sprawling living room, beside the hearth, with a fire crackling against the damp chill of the city.
She’d build one as soon as she was settled, she promised herself. To welcome herself to her new home.
Steadier, she opened the door, stepped out. Her heavy boots snapped a thick twig with a sound like a bullet. She pressed a hand to her heart, laughing a little. New boots for the city girl, she thought. Jingling the keys just to make noise, she walked to the cabin, up the two steps to the porch. She slipped the key she’d labeled front door into the lock and, taking a slow breath, pushed the door open.
And fell in love.
“Oh, would you look at this!” A smile lit her face as she stepped inside, circled. “Belinda, God bless you.”
The walls were the color of warmly toasted bread, framed in dark wood, accented with the magical paintings her friend was renowned for. The hearth was stone, scrubbed clean and laid with kindling and logs in welcome. Colorful rugs were scattered over the polished wood floor. The furnishings had simple, clean lines, with deep cushions that picked up those wonderful tones of emerald, sapphire and ruby.
To complete the fairy-tale aspect, there were statues of dragons, wizards, bowls filled with stones or dried flowers, and sparkling geodes. Charmed, Rowan dashed up the stairs and hugged
herself as she toured the two large rooms there.
One, full of light from a ring of windows, was obviously her friend’s studio when she used the cabin. Canvases, paints and brushes were neatly stored, an easel stood empty, a smock hung, paint-splattered, on a brass hook.
Even here there were pretty touches—fat white candles in silver holders, glass stars, a globe of smoky crystal.
The bedroom thrilled her with its huge canopy bed draped in white linen, the little fireplace to warm the room, the carved rosewood armoire.
It felt … peaceful, Rowan realized. Settled, content, welcoming. Yes, she could breathe here. She could think here. For some inexplicable reason, she felt she could belong here.
Anxious now to begin settling in, she hurried downstairs, out the door she’d left open to her SUV. She’d grabbed the first box from the cargo area, when the skin on the back of her neck prickled. Suddenly her heart thundered in her chest, and her palms sprang with dampness.
She turned quickly, managed only one strangled gasp.
The wolf was pure black, with eyes like gold coins. And it stood at the edge of the trees, still as a statue carved from onyx. Watching her. She could do no more than stare while her pulse beat like fury. Why wasn’t she screaming? she asked herself. Why wasn’t she running?
Why was she more surprised than afraid?
Had she dreamed of him? Couldn’t she just catch the edge of some misty dream where he’d run through the mist toward her? Is that why he seemed so familiar, almost … expected?
But that was ridiculous. She’d never seen a wolf outside of a zoo in her life. Surely she’d never seen one who stared so patiently at her. Into her.
“Hello.” She heard herself speak with a kind of dull shock, and followed it with a nervous laugh. Then she blinked, and he was gone.
For a moment, she swayed, like a woman coming out of a trance. When she shook herself clear, she stared at the edge of the trees, searching for some movement, some shadow, some sign.
But there was only silence.
“Imagining things again,” she muttered, shifting the box, turning away. “If there was anything there, it was a dog. Just a dog.”
Wolves were nocturnal, weren’t they? They didn’t approach people in broad daylight, just stand and stare, then vanish.
She’d look it up to be sure, but it had been a dog. She was positive now. Belinda hadn’t mentioned anything about neighbors or other cabins. And how odd, Rowan thought now, that she hadn’t even asked about it.
Well, there was a neighbor somewhere, and he had a big, beautiful black dog. She imagined they could all keep out of each other’s way.
* * *
The wolf watched from the shadows of the trees. Who was the woman? he wondered. Why was the woman? She moved quickly, a little nervously, tossing glances over her shoulder as she carried things from the car to the cabin.
He’d scented her from half a mile away. Her fears, her excitement, her longings had all come to him. And had brought him to her.
His eyes narrowed with annoyance. His teeth bared in challenge. He’d be damned if he’d take her. Damned if he’d let her change what he was or what he wanted.
Sleek and silent, he turned away and vanished into the thick trees.
* * *
Rowan built a fire, delighted when the logs crackled and caught. She unpacked systematically. There wasn’t much, really. Clothes, supplies. Most of the boxes she’d hauled in were filled with books. Books she couldn’t live without, books she’d promised herself she’d make time to read. Books to study, books for pleasure. She’d grown up with a love of reading, of exploring worlds through words. And because of that great love, she often questioned her own dissatisfaction with teaching.
It should have been the right goal, just as her parents always insisted. She embraced learning and had always learned well and quickly. She’d studied, taken her major and then her master’s in education. At twenty-seven, she’d already taught full-time for nearly six years.
She was good at it, she thought now as she sipped tea while standing in front of the blazing fire. She could recognize the strengths and weaknesses of her students, home in on their interests and on how to challenge them.
Yet she dragged her feet on getting her doctorate. She woke each morning vaguely discontented and came home each evening unsatisfied.
Because her heart had never been in it.
When she’d tried to explain that to the people who loved her, they’d been baffled. Her students loved and respected her, the administration at her school valued her. Why wasn’t she pursuing her degree, marrying Alan, completing her nice, tidy life as she should?
Why, indeed? she thought. Because the only answer she had for them, and for herself, was in her heart.
And brooding wasn’t thinking, she reminded herself. She’d go for a walk, get a sense of where she was. She wanted to see the cliffs Belinda had told her of.
She locked the door out of habit, then drew in a deep gulp of air that tasted of pine and sea. In her mind she could see the quick sketch Belinda had drawn her of the cabin, the forest, the cliffs. Ignoring her nerves, she stepped onto the path and headed due west.
She’d never lived outside of the city. Growing up in San Francisco hadn’t prepared her for the vastness of the Oregon forest, its smells, its sounds. Even so, her nerves began to fade into wonder.
It was like a book, a gorgeously rich story full of color and texture. The giant Douglas firs towered over her, their bushy branches letting the sun splatter into a shifting, luminous, gilded green light nearly the color of the moss that grew so thick and soft on the ground. The trees chilled the air with their shade, scented it with their fragrance.
The forest floor was soft with shed needles and ripe with the tang of sap.
At their bases, ferns grew thick and green, some thin and sharp as swords, others lacy as fans. Like fairies, she thought in a moment’s fancy, who danced only at night.
The stream bubbled along, skimming over rocks worn round and smooth, tumbling down a little rise with a sudden rush of white water that looked impossibly pure and cold. She followed the wind of it, relaxed with its music.
There was a bend up ahead, she thought idly, and around the corner there would be a stump of an old tree on the left that looked like an old man’s worn face. Foxglove grew there, and in the summer it would grow tall and pale purple. It was a good place to sit, that stump, and watch the forest come to life around you.
She stopped when she came to it, staring blankly at the gnarled bark that did indeed look like an old man’s face. How had she known this would be here? she wondered, rubbing the heel of her hand on her suddenly speeding heart. It wasn’t on Belinda’s sketch, so how had she known?
“Because she mentioned it. She told me about it, that’s all. It’s just the sort of fanciful thing she’d tell me, and that I’d forget about.”
But Rowan didn’t sit, didn’t wait for the forest to come to life. It already felt alive. Enchanted, she thought, and managed to smile. The enchanted woods every girl dreams of, where the fairies dance and the prince waits to rescue her from the jealous hag or the evil wizard.
There was nothing to fear here. The woods were hers as long as she wanted. There was no one to shake their heads indulgently if her mind wandered toward fairy tales and the foolish. Her dreams were her own as well.
If she had a dream, or a story to tell a young girl, Rowan decided, it would be about the enchanted forest … and the prince who wandered it, searching through the green light and greener shadow for his one true love. He was under a spell, she thought, and trapped in the sleek, handsome form of a black wolf. Until the maiden came and freed him with her courage, her wit, and with her love.
She sighed once, wishing she had a talent for the details of telling stories. She wasn’t bad at themes, she mused, but she could never figure out how to turn a theme into an engaging tale.
So she read instead, and admired those who could.
> She heard the sea, like an echo of memory, and turned unerringly onto the left fork of the path. What began as a whisper became a roar, and she started to hurry, was nearly running by the time she burst out of the trees and saw the cliffs.
Her boots clattered as she climbed up the rocks. The wind kicked and tore loose what was left of her braid so that her hair flew wild and free. Her laughter rang out, full of delight as she came breathlessly to the top of the rise.
It was, without a doubt, the most magnificent sight she’d ever seen. Miles of blue ocean, hemmed with fuming white waves that threw themselves in fury against the rocks below. The afternoon sun showered over it, sprinkling jewels onto that undulating mat of blue.
She could see boats in the distance, riding the waves, and a small forested island rising out of the sea like a bunched fist.
Gleaming black mussels clung to the rocks below her, and as she looked closer, she saw the thorny brown sticks of a bird’s nest tucked into a crevice. On impulse she got down, bellied out and was rewarded by a glimpse of eggs.
Pillowing her chin on her hands, she watched the water until the boats sailed away, until the sea was empty and the shadows grew long.
She pushed up, sat back on her heels and lifted her face to the sky. “And that is the first time in too long that I’ve done nothing at all for an afternoon.” She let out a long, contented breath. “It was glorious.”
She rose, stretched her arms high, turned. And nearly stumbled over the edge of the cliff.
She would have fallen if he hadn’t moved quickly, so quickly she had no sense of his moving at all. But his hands closed firmly over her arms and pulled her to safe ground.
“Steady,” he said, and it was more an order than a suggestion.
He might have been the prince of any woman’s imaginings. Or the dark angel of her most secret dreams. His hair was black as a moonless night and flew around a face lightly gilded by the sun. A face of strong, sharp bones, of firm, unsmiling mouth, of haunting male beauty.
He was tall. She had only a sense of height as her head reeled. For he had the eyes of the wolf she’d thought she’d seen—tawny and gold, unblinking and intense—under arched brows as black as his hair. They stared directly into hers, making the blood rush hot through her veins. She felt the strength of his hands, as he’d yet to release her, thought she saw both impatience and curiosity flicker over that gorgeous face.
But she might have been wrong because he continued to stare, and say nothing.
“I was— You startled me. I didn’t hear you. You were just there.” She nearly winced as she heard herself babble.
Which was his own fault, he supposed. He could have made her aware of him gradually. But something about the way she’d been lying on the rocks, gazing out at nothing with a half smile on her face had muddled his mind.
“You didn’t hear because you were daydreaming.” He arched one sweeping black eyebrow. “And talking to yourself.”
“Oh. It’s a bad habit of mine—talking to myself. Nervous habit.”
“Why are you nervous?”
“I’m not—I wasn’t.” God, she’d tremble in a moment if he didn’t let her go. It had been a long, long time since she’d been this close to a man other than Alan. And much too long since she’d felt any kind of response to one. She’d never experienced a reaction this strong, this violent or this disorienting, and put it down to nearly tumbling over a cliff.
“You weren’t.” He skimmed his hands down to her wrists, felt the jittery bump of her pulse. “Now you are.”
“You startled me, as I said.” It was an effort, but she glanced over her shoulder and down. “And it’s a long drop.”
“It is that.” He tugged her away another two steps. “Better?”
“Yes, well … I’m Rowan Murray. I’m using Belinda Malone’s cabin for a while.” She would have offered a hand to shake, but it would have been impossible, as he was still cuffing her wrists.
“Donovan. Liam Donovan.” He said it quietly, while his thumbs stroked over her pulse beat and somehow steadied it.
“But you’re not from around here.”
“I mean, your accent. It’s beautifully Irish.”
When his lips curved and his eyes smiled she very nearly sighed like a teenager faced with a rock star. “I’m from Mayo, but I’ve had this place as mine for nearly a year now. My cabin’s less than a half mile from Belinda’s.”
“You know her, then?”
“Aye, well enough. We’re in the way of being relations, distant ones.” His smile was gone now. Her eyes were as blue as the wild bellflowers that grew in sunny patches of the forest in high summer. And in them he found no guile at all. “She didn’t tell me to expect a neighbor.”