The woods of Whit Hurch, England, 1821
The musket ball had passed through his shoulder. Blood seeped from the wound, warm and sticky against Jackson Wulf's skin. The peasants of Whit Hurch were superstitious lunatics, the lot of them. They chased him now, voices raised in anger, eyes filled with bloodlust to kill him. The village folk believed that he was some kind of beast-a man during the daylight hours, a wolf when the moon sat round and plump in the night sky.
Damn the idiots...they were right.
"There he is!"
A musket cracked. The ball splintered a tree not an inch from Jackson's face. His fair looks were the one gift he'd been given in his cursed life. "Not the face, you bloody bastards!" he shouted. "Anything but the face!"
Another ball whizzed past, down lower. Not that, either! Jackson thought, and took off again. A woman's high-pitched plea sounded behind him.
"Papa, do not kill him! I love him!"
Sweet Hollis, the barmaid at the tavern he'd frequented these past five nights. Her father owned the tavern and the few rooms upstairs, one of which Jackson had occupied this past week. The daughter had slipped Jackson a free tankard or two behind her father's back. She'd also let it be known that she wouldn't mind Jackson slipping her a little something in return. Jackson had been tempted, as women were one of his many weaknesses, but he'd stayed focused upon his quest.
Women were the crux of his troubles and always had been. A year prior when he'd traveled abroad, Jackson had foolishly given his heart to a young society miss. Lady Anne Baldwin had embodied all that a proper gentleman desired in a wife. Beauty, grace, kindness. He'd become smitten with her, and her ready friendship with a man most of society shunned. In the end, the young woman had never known that she had stolen his heart or that she'd brought his family curse down upon his head.
Centuries past, all Wulf males had been cursed by a witch. Cursed by a witch, and perhaps released from the same curse by a witch's death, Jackson was thinking. Rumors had led him to the village of Whit Hurch, where it was said a witch lived among the villagers. Through careful questions, Jackson had learned that the woman had disappeared some months ago but was thought to be hiding in the woods surrounding the village.
Jackson hadn't found her yet, but he had vowed that he would. His future and the future of his brothers might be tied to killing her. A riddle written within a poem left by the first cursed Wulf instructed that future Wulf males seek out their worst enemy, be brave and do not flee. If Jackson could find the witch he'd heard once lived in the village, killing her might end the curse for him and his brothers. That was if he managed to stay alive long enough.
Shots sounded behind him. Jackson ran until his brow was beaded with sweat. His shoulder stung and the loss of blood made him light-headed. Glancing up, he noted that the night was still a ways off. Normally, he would not wish the full moon upon himself, but now, in order to survive, he needed the wolf that would rise up inside of him.
It was such a transformation, witnessed by one of the village folk last eve when he thought he was alone in the woods, that had brought him to his current predicament. Jackson couldn't control it. Perhaps he might have learned to live with it if he could, but like his fondness for liquor and women, in the end he always surrendered to a force stronger than his will. No more, he had decided.
Jackson's oldest brother, Armond, had married. A marriage of convenience, or so Armond claimed, but Jackson knew better. If Armond wasn't fully in love with his young bride already, it was only a matter of time. Jackson had decided to save them all.
It was important to him to end the curse that robbed him and his brothers of a normal life. The curse that had robbed them of their parents and of their social standing among London society. Jackson had been given nothing of importance to do in his life...nothing but this, and he would succeed. He would find the witch and he would kill her if it meant breaking the curse. But the woods were vast, and even his superior tracking skills had yet to lead him to the woman he sought.
Exhausted, Jackson paused, leaning against the trunk of a tree to catch his breath. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his fine coat. The breeze picked up, and turning, he closed his eyes and allowed the cooler air to revive him. A scent suddenly drifted to him on the wind. It was a woman's scent. Even slightly befuddled from blood loss, Jackson knew the scent of a woman when he smelled it. His hearing was much more attuned to sound than that of a normal man. He listened.
He heard a soft moan, a slight feminine grunt, and then the sound of ragged breathing. Noises a woman might make while entertaining a lover. Was it the witch? Jackson had trouble believing so, for in his mind the woman he sought was old and ugly. With her scraggly hair and wart-ridden face, the only way such a woman could get a man into bed with her would be to cast a spell over him.
Still, her scent drew Jackson. The smell of woman, of sunshine, of earth and rain, and the subtle scent of honeysuckle and, oddly enough, blood. The sounds of heavy footfalls crushing through the brush, of voices raised in excitement for the hunt, drifted away from him, and all he heard was her. All he smelled was her. She filled him with her presence, lulled him with the soft sounds she made, and he went to her willingly, almost as if fate commanded it.
Weaving in and out of the trees, Jackson fought the pain of his injury, ignored the clotted feel of blood beneath his shirt, and pressed onward. The cottage he stumbled upon a while later was little more than a shack, overgrown with vines so that it was almost invisible against the thick forest wall.
He neither smelled a cooking fire nor saw the tattletale rise of smoke from the cottage's crumbling chimney. He heard no sounds of life, not even among the forest animals. Hackles rose on the back of his neck. The silence was eerie.
The woman was inside; he did sense that much. Jackson reached for the knife he kept strapped to his belt. It was not there. No knife, no weapon. Some killer he was. The village folk had surprised him. He'd barely been able to dress and escape his lodgings over the tavern when they had come for him.
If he must, he'd kill her with his bare hands, Jackson decided. If the woman was in fact the witch he sought and her death meant a normal life for him and his brothers, he could do it. His resolve strengthened, Jackson crept to the cottage door and eased it open.
The lighting inside was dim, but his eyesight was superior to that of a normal man. A woman tossed upon a straw mattress thrown down against the dirt floor. Her knees were bent and spread wide, her legs bare. The large mound of her belly moved beneath a soiled frock bunched around the top of her thighs. No lover did she tryst with, but with the burden of labor.
Jackson's gaze traveled up her swollen body, past the tangled mass of red curls hanging over her shoulders, to her face. Their eyes met, held, and it was as if neither could catch a breath.
"So, you've come for me at last," she whispered. "Kill me, but do not harm the babe. He is innocent."
Hackles rose on the back of Jackson's neck again. If she knew why he'd come, this was the woman he sought. The witch. His greatest enemy. But she did not look as he had pictured her in his mind. She was not old and stooped, with warts and facial hair. She was beautiful. Even covered in perspiration, her hair tangled, and her clothing worn and soiled, her beauty could not be disguised.
Her eyes were the deepest shade of green, like the forest that protected her. The tangled curls that hung past her shoulders were as fiery red as a summer sunset. Although her body was now swollen with child, her bones were small and delicate. Jackson could crush her easily.
"Not yet," she said, as if reading his thoughts. "Let me deliver my child. I beg of you, do not harm him. After you've killed me, take him to a village family. Do not tell them where you got him, only that he is alone and in need of someone to watch after him."
Her words unnerved Jackson. She seemed accepting of his duty. Resigned to her fate but not resigned to the fate of her child. And still, he had trouble believing this was the woman he sought.
"Are you a witch?"
Her gaze narrowed. "You know that I am," she said. "That is why you are here, is it not?"
Pain clouded her eyes before he could answer. She bit down hard on her full lower lip, bringing blood. Her belly bunched and moved and she lifted her hips and pushed but, as his eyes could plainly see, to no avail.
"He's stuck," she finally managed to say as she lay back against the straw, gasping for breath. "The babe needs to be turned. Let me see your hands."
Dazed, by either his own blood loss, her knowledge that he would come for her, or simply having to witness a woman with spread legs in a circumstance far different than he was accustomed to, Jackson lifted his hands for her inspection.
"They will do," she announced. "Your fingers are long and slender, your hands delicate despite your tall frame. You must put them inside of me. You must turn the babe so he will be able to make his journey."
Jackson's fingers had been inside of a woman before, to be certain, but never for the purpose she suggested. Her plea held on appeal to him whatsoever. He frowned down at her and shook his head. "I cannot," he assured her. "I know nothing of these matters."
When pain gripped her again, she grabbed a stick and stuck it between her teeth until the pain passed. "Then do nothing," she panted. "Stand and watch me die, and the child along with me. It will be easier than having to kill us later."
What she said was true enough. Jackson had never raised a violent hand to a woman in his life. That thought had teased him throughout his quest-destruction of the enemy he must face and conquer in order to break the curse. He'd known to emerge victorious he must kill her, but the killing, he'd never allowed himself to dwell upon that...to question whether he was capable. Had fate played into his hands? But if nature stole her life and he did not, would the curse still be broken?
It suddenly occurred to Jackson that if there was a child, there was a man. Jackson sniffed the air but caught no scent that anyone except the woman had inhabited the cottage.
"Where is the babe's father?" he asked.
Her eyes widened slightly. "You do not know? He did not send you?"
Confused, he shook his head. "No. I've come to kill you for my own reasons. Your foul deeds against my family, or at least the deeds of your kind."
Her labor took whatever response she might have made. Her back arched. Her belly lifted, rippling beneath her gown. A low moan escaped her parted lips. She pushed, pushed, he saw, with all her strength, which wasn't much, and again, nothing happened.
"Have you a weapon?" she panted.
Rather shamefaced, he answered, "No."
The woman frowned. Her pain-filled gaze ran the length of him. "Then it was with your hands you intended to kill me." She struggled up upon her elbows. "Do so now. If you won't put them inside of me, put them around my throat. End this suffering for me. Without your help, the babe and I are doomed anyway."
Mercy killing? To Jackson, it sounded so much better than outright murder. He should end her suffering. Seeing her pain brought him no pleasure, no sense of justice. It sickened him. But to kill her so that her suffering might end...he could live with that, couldn't he?
He swayed slightly with dizziness as he approached her straw mattress. Jackson kept his gaze averted from her lower half, exposed for his eyes, which might please him immensely under different circumstances. He knelt beside her. She stared up at him, pain evident in her eyes but not fear. God, she had more courage than he did.
"Do it," she urged, then tilted her head back, allowing him access to her slim throat. "I have long suspected that my differences would someday lead me to this end. I accept my fate."
The woman's passiveness angered him. Where were her instincts for survival? Where was her rage that she had been given a life different from everyone else's? Why did she offer him her throat when she should be fighting him to the bitter end? Perhaps she deserved to die. If she valued life so little, why not oblige her?
Her skin was soft, warm beneath his fingers when he wrapped them around her neck. The contact caused a spark, like the air fraught with tension before a storm. She felt it, as well, for her eyes, which she had closed against him, suddenly opened.
"You are different, too," she whispered. "You are not a man. But neither are you a beast. You are both."
There was no call to deny her claims, if Jackson was a little unnerved that she saw him for what he was. His face had served him well in the past-a disguise that hid his darker nature.
"I will be a man again," he assured her. "And nothing but a man when you die by my hand."
She moistened her lips, and he noticed how ripe and pink they were despite the abuse she'd put them through. "But what sort of man will you be?" Her unsettling eyes, slanted, almost feline, studied him. "The sort who can live with himself afterward?" She leaned forward and sniffed at him. "The liquor I smell on your breath tells me the answer to my own question. You will drown in it. In the end, it will make you even less of a man than you are now."
Jackson's grip tightened around her throat. Her words stung him. The truth to them, he supposed. He'd had a nip even this morning when he first rose. He'd told himself only to chase the chill from his bones. He told himself a lot of things since his lust for liquor, and for women, had taken over his life.
Beneath him, the woman gasped in pain. Her hands closed over his. She pressed his fingers against her throat. "Please," she whispered.
Women had begged for his mercy before, but always because they thrashed in pleasure, never in pain. Jackson tried to force his fingers to squeeze. They would not oblige. It was the babe, he told himself. The witch was right. The child she carried was innocent of the mother's sins. Jackson eased his hands away from her throat. Through tear-filled eyes, she stared up at him.
"Whatever you are, it is not as bad as what you become in this moment," she said. "Will you sit idly by then and watch us suffer for whatever sin you think I have committed against you?"
"No," he assured her. Jackson moved down between her legs. It was a place not usually unfamiliar to him but a circumstance nearly beyond his comprehension. "Tell me what to do."
Copyright © 2006 by Ronda Thompson