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Chapter Eleven

Her body was trying to turn itself inside outthrough her bellybutton.

Maizie snuggled tighter into a ball on the couch, tugging the blanket under her chin. The cottage was full of shadows, the sun nearly set. The temperature on the hummingbird thermometer suctioned to the window read eighty-two degrees, but Maizie was shivering so hard her teeth chattered.

This was worse than the time shed caught the flu and had to be hospitalized for a day and a half while the worst of it passed. Theyd been afraid she might die. What did that say about her chances now?

Another shard of pain tore through her abdomen, like a chainsaw slicing her from navel to neck. She screamed, but the sound was hoarse, the last half hour had ruined her voice. She shouldve called Gray. But what could he have done except watch? Shed already thrown up until there was nothing left inside her. No one needed to see that.

Her body convulsed, every muscle pulled tight then stretched apart. The blanket flew across the living room, falling behind the chair in the corner. Dear God, she was freezing, even as sweat dripped from her chin and nose. She couldnt stop shivering and when another wave of pain raked through her body she found herself writhing on the floor.

Her hair was sopping wet, long strands clinging to her face, stuck to her neck and dripping little puddles on the floor. She pushed up, locked her elbows then rested there for a second trying to find a moments peace. Her body wouldnt have it.

Ohmygod, ohmygod. Somethings happening. She collapsed.

If it was possible to survive every bone in her body being broken simultaneously and rearranged, muscles ripping from tendons, organs shifting, cartilage growing, stretching her skin-if it was possible to survive her own autopsy-Maizie now knew what it would feel like.

Her mouth opened on a voiceless wail as she watched her fingers shrink, the bones in her arm pulling back, reshaping. She could feel each thick hair poke through her skin like fat needles forcing their way through the smaller follicles.

She screamed again when the cartilage of her nose crumbled and reshaped, stretching her flesh, her jaw thrusting out, teeth sharpening, ripping her gums as they grew. But the sound wasnt her own, or at least none shed ever heard herself make before. It was a crazed, high-pitched screech that hollowed toward the end.

Her spine arched one way then the other, bones breaking along her back, reshaping, pushing beneath the sensitive flesh above her ass.

No. Pleasea tail. Tears stained her face, but she couldnt feel the moisture through the fur. Her legs transformed just as her arms had, the pain just as excruciating.

And thenfinally it stopped.

Maizie lay motionless on the floor next to the living room couch. Her eyes closed, she panted, trying hard to catch her breath. The pain had lasted a lifetime. It took several minutes to trust it wasnt coming back.

She licked her lips, except she didnt have any. Teeth, long and sharp, scraped along her tongue. She licked again and nearly touched the top of her nose. The fur was rough against her tongue, salty from sweat and tears.

She opened her eyes, almost crossed them trying to see the long muzzle where her nose had been. Something scurried along the foundation of the house. She listened and felt her ears turn. She shook her head at the strange sensation and got to her feet, shaky at first, the center of balance so different from two feet to four. Her shorts were crumpled around her back feet, and what was left of her T-shirt still hung around her neck.

She tried her best to paw the torn fabric and managed to catch her claw in the collar and rip it the rest of the way. She made a mental note to be naked next time this happened. The thought stopped her for a second. She knew thered be a next time.

Free, she shook herself. Yuck. It was too weird. Her thick heavy fur slid her skin back and forth on her neck. A shudder traveled from her shoulders over her back and down her tail.

The tail. Shed almost forgotten. Maizie twisted, trying to see her ass, but when she turned, her backside followed. She circled again, catching only a glimpse of reddish fur and maybe a hint of strawberry blonde at the tip. She couldnt be sure. If she could just get a better look.

Shoot, how do you work a tail? She tried wagging it as she circled around but that took more coordination than shed mastered at the moment. She kept trying to see though, circling and straining, straining and circling, but she couldnt quite catch her Oh God, Im chasing my tail.

She stopped, thankful no one had seen her. Im an intelligent humanish-being. I can figure this out. Now, if I want to see myself I-

Something was in the flowers right outside the sunroom. Maizie lifted her head and sniffed. Deer. And its upwind. I could catch it if I

No. Wait. She was thinking of something else a minute ago. What was it?

Her butt smacked against the couch and then again. But she hadnt moved her butt. She curled her neck around toward her rump and saw a flash of strawberry blonde fur swing out at the tip of her tail. Im wagging my tail. Cool. How?

The instant she thought about it though, her tail stopped. Shoot. Shed only gotten a quick look. She wanted to see more. Thats it! Shed been trying to think of a way to see herself without running around in circles. A mirror.

Sheesh, what was the matter with her? Why couldnt she keep a straight thought in her head? Maizie turned and headed for the stairs, amazed how quick and easy she moved now that she had four feet to climb with instead of two.

There were so many scents, so many sounds, even everyday things captivated her curiosity. It was all she could do not to sniff in the wastebasket when she went into the bathroom.

She nudged the door with her nose so she could see herself in the full-length mirror behind it. But when the reflection showed a tall, rusty-brown wolf, she panicked. The hairs down her back to her haunches bristled, a snarl vibrated her jowls, bared her teeth. The rust-colored wolf snarled right back, mimicking her low crouch, baring its teeth.

She could fight or run. This was her den. She wasnt running anywhere.

Maizie leapt at the wolf and the wolf leapt at her. They collided hard, a spider-web crack shattering where their heads met. Maizie stumbled back, shook her head and saw the rust-brown wolf do the same. She snorted, and so did her reflection.

Ugh. What was she thinking? No. The problem was she wasnt thinking. She was acting on instinct, wolf instinct. It was more powerful than anything shed felt as a human and surprisingly hard to ignore. Shed have to keep that in mind as best she could.

Maizie took a better look at herself. She made a big wolf, probably normal for werewolves, but scary big for a natural wolf. Her fur had a darker cast than her normal hair except for the strawberry blonde on the tips of her ears and tail, which she could now see if she bent around at the right angle.

Her eyes were the same green theyd always been, but the shape was different, more almond-like, longer. Maybe thats why her vision seemed clearer.

Holy cow, it was hot. Her mouth lolled open as she watched, her tongue flopping out to the side. She panted, stopped herself, and then did it anyway. It cooled her and it was better than drinking out of the toilet which was another horrifying urge pounding through her brain. She had to get out of the cottage before she did something completely gross.

Maizie nudged the door open with her nose and jogged down the stairs. Her heart beat faster at just the thought of open air, free space to run, a forest to explore. She wound through the living room into the sunroom then out the back door. The screen door smacked closed against the wood frame behind her, giving her a start, but she kept moving.

The sun was below the horizon, its soft glow fading fast. Beyond the threshold to the forest, it was as good as full night, and Maizie could see perfectly. No wonder she hadnt been able to escape Grays family last night. Shed been running blind while theyd toyed with her. Jerks.

She pushed the thought away, allowing the night to steal her focus. The forest was alive before her, not just teeming with a billion heartbeats but with colors and scents and sounds. So many things were endlessly fascinating, the army of ants marching in streaming lines carrying bark and leaves and bug carcasses.

The pungent odor of a skunk thatd passed by hours ago took her one way before the trail of a groundhog and her young turned her around.

An owl called to its mate overhead and a bat swooped so low she tried to jump and catch it. A crop of purple wood violets scented the air in one spot and a patch of bunchberries had her stomach growling in another. She could actually taste sweet tree sap on her muzzle and the bitter flavor of fox spray by accident.

Somewhere deep in the forest, a buck scraped his antlers on a tree and three does in season stirred, waiting for his arrival. Maizies heart raced, her muscles jittery, anxious for the hunt. If she chased them theyd run. She probably couldnt catch them, but it didnt matter. Theyd run.

The thought entered her mind and her body obeyed. She sliced through the forest with a speed and grace that defied reason, defied gravity. She knew things, where the log she couldnt see lay across her path up ahead, how low the thorny limbs of a branch dangled in the darkness, which stones to hit across the stream that wouldnt topple her into the water.

She knew when to veer to the left, duck to the right or change direction to save time in the long run. The forest spoke to her, told her its secrets, welcomed her into its fold. Nature, the forest, the plants and animals, they were parts of the whole and so was she.

The deer were beyond a thicket five hundred yards away, grazing on the sparse grass of the forest floor. They hadnt smelled her approaching downwind or heard her running with stealth, keeping to the soft earth and plants. She slowed, scented the wind, pinpointing their exact location without ever seeing them.

Yes. They were there, a yearling and two older does. Two were late in their cycle, the third was primed for mating. All this came to Maizie on the air, but there was something else, something familiar but out of place.

Cranberry apple walnut tart. Shed brought three for Granny yesterday. The scent was unique, but diluted by distance. Granny must have the screen in her window and the tarts nearby. Maizie wanted to see Gran and so she turned from the deer to go to her. That simple. That uncomplicated. Her wolf instinct made decisions easy but something in the back of her mind niggled that easy wasnt the same as best.

It was too difficult to think about now. Maizie was lost in the fast rush of sensation, floating through the forest, her leg muscles pumping like the pistons of a finely tuned engine. One with the forest, she weaved and jumped, turned to the left, veered to the right, moving seamlessly through the dark woods. It was like nothing shed ever known and she never wanted it to end. But when she broke through the line of the forest into the backyard of Green Acres Nursing Home, everything changed.

Head low, she loped along the shadows, weaving her way to the edge of the building. The glass doors along the back wall of the home were all closed, but the corner lights inside cast a soft honey glow and lit the recreation room enough Maizie could see the group of people gathered around a TV. She crept out from the corner, the light inside and the dark of night making her virtually invisible.

Maizie looked for a familiar face, worried her wolf brain wouldnt know her grandmother when she saw her. She glanced at the elderly men sleeping in twin recliners and paused only a minute to study the features of the woman between them knitting. There was a woman in the far rocking chair reading beneath one of the corner lamps and another sitting on a love seat hand in hand with a tender-looking elderly man. These two were the only ones of the group who seemed to be watching the exuberant TV evangelist. But Maizie didnt recognize them. She didnt recognize any of them.

Granny, where are you? Maizies brain was fuzzy, filled with intoxicating scents and sounds, with the instincts of her wolf-half. There was just too much, too many distractions. But she knew what Granny looked like, didnt she? Yes. She remembered her, the way she made Maizie feel, what she meant to her. None of these people were Granny.

Maizie turned and jogged along the building, avoiding the cast of light spilling from the windows. She followed the edge around corners, into the alcoves and out again. She finally made it to the back of the building where four windows were spaced evenly along the facade. The first overlooked the backyard, but the forest edged close to the last three. Grannys suite.

The light from Grannys room cast a wash of light into the forest, illuminating a matching rectangle of foliage. Maizie circled out to the edge of the light, careful not to be seen.

Grannys lace curtains were drawn, but the heavy toile drapes were pulled back to the sides, exposing the room to anyone who cared to see.

Granny. Maizie knew her instantly. The old woman sat in her hospital-style bed, the top section angled up so she could watch TV. A remote control in one hand, she held a fork in the other, poised over a cranberry apple walnut tart waiting on a rolling tray table over the bed. Her feet wiggled a happy rhythm under the blanket, her mouth curled in a half smile, still working on her last bite.

She was happy and Maizies muscles relaxed, releasing a tension she hadnt noticed before. Granny was safe and cared for in case this transformation didnt reverse itself. Maizie shuddered at the thought.

She wasnt stuck like this, was she? The old stories always had some poor hapless sap whod gotten himself bitten returning to his human form. Reclaiming his life was a struggle, but he always tried, always wallowed in denial.

Of course most often he didnt succeed and wound up transforming at the worst possible moment. The villagers would storm and the hapless sap would mindlessly attack some innocent child, giving good reason for his brutal death.

Maizie shuddered again and made a mental note to stop watching so many horror flicks. Shed be fine. This couldnt possibly be a permanent state and villagers hardly ever stormed these days.

Granny took another dainty bite of tart, her smile broadening as the pastry passed her lips. She leaned her head back, dancing her fork in the air like a conductor. Maizie never realized how long and lovely Grannys hair was. Like a blanket of fine white snow, it lay in a shimmering sheet down her back to her bum. White curls pooled around her hips, tiny wisps tickling her cheeks.

Gawd, she meant the world to Maizie. Why hadnt she got one last hug, one last feathery kiss? She wanted to hear Grannys voice, to feel her soft hand smoothing over her cheek, telling her life was more than loss and heartache. She wanted to go to her now.

Maizie took a step, her front paws and head bathed in the light from Grannys room. She stopped, instinct warring with human want. She couldnt. The fear was too great. Her wolf-half wasnt ready to trust humans, even the ones she loved.

She backed up, stealing into the shadows again. Another time. If she stayed this way, Maizie would keep trying to overcome the scream of her wolf instincts. But for now, even if the worst happened-furry wolf parts forever, rampaging villagers, whatever-Maizie knew Granny was safe.

A knock sounded at Grannys door and riveted Maizies attention.

Come in, Granny said, the words more sung than stated.

The door opened and a dark-haired man poked his head through the crack. Hey, Mom. Were mwap sleeping?

Riddly? Grannys hand dropped to the bed, fork, remote and MTV forgotten. Nono. Im mwap. Is that mwap, Riddly?

Maizies wolf brain struggled with the words. Daddy? Maizie edged forward, light touching her toes and muzzle. The man smiled, stepped in and closed the door behind him.

Hows my mwap girl? Handsome, sophisticated in his tailored business suit, the man was familiar, but Maizie wasnt sure why. He was thickly built, like a tall wrestler, with broad shoulders, a squared jaw and a prominent Romanic nose. He was graying at the temples, the dull color all the more noticeable against the sheer blackness of his neatly trimmed hair.

He kept his right hand hidden behind him as he came across the room to Granny. When he reached her bedside, he leaned in and kissed her forehead then offered the bouquet of white roses he was hiding.

Maizie snorted. They were beautiful, but they werent Grannys favorite. Violets. Granny would do anything for a handful of violets. Maizies thoughts were proven by Grannys placating expression.

Oh, mwap mwap, dear. Theyre mwap. Could you mwap them in mwap mwap me? Theres a mwap in the mwap mwap. Granny shook her fork toward the bathroom door.

Sure, Mom.

That man was not Riddly Hood. Maizies father never wouldve brought his mother the wrong flowers. A strange vibration hummed in her chest, a low growl filled her ears. It took a second to realize the growl was coming from inside her, anger manifesting in her new wolf form. She liked it.

The moment the strange imposter left the room, Granny fumbled at her chest. She found her locket and worked hard to open it. A wide sentimental grin filled her face, a sadness pinching the corner of her eyes as she gazed at the pictures inside.

I, ah, brought mwap papers we mwap about, the man said from the bathroom.

Granny hurried to close the locket, fisting it in her hand before he strolled back into the room, vase overflowing with roses. He paused for a moment, his gaze studying her face then dropping to her hands at her chest. His expression darkened, his smile suddenly more stiff, forced.

Whatya mwap there, Mom?

Mwap nothing, mwap. But the phony Riddlys attention was riveted. He set the vase on Grannys nightstand and reached for her hands.

The growl vibrating through Maizie grew louder. She took another bold step into the light.

Granny giggled. Let him open her hands. Just mwap mwap locket. The pictures so old. You hardly look like yourself. And look at little Maizie. Barely five years old.

The man studied the pictures, his thick black brows wrinkled tight over his dark eyes. But then he smiled, closed the locket and placed it gently on her chest. That picture mwap mwap ages ago. I looked mwap a different person mwap then.

Granny nodded, her smile bright. Still handsome mwap mwap, though.

Thanks, Mom. The man slipped a hand into the breast pocket of his suit and pulled out a thin stack of papers folded long-ways. He set them on the tray next to Grannys tart then placed a thick fancy pen beside them.

Mwap I miss mwap top twenty mwap? He nodded toward the TV.

Mwap on sixteen. Sit, sit, mwap a little mwap mwap with mwap old mwap, Granny said.

Old. He scoffed. Youll mwap mwap us all. He pulled the storage bench from around the end of her bed then dragged one of the high-backed chairs closer. He dropped into it with a casualness that belied his sophisticated attire and propped his expensive leather-shoed feet on the bench.

What were the papers he talked about, the ones sitting conspicuously on Grannys tray? And who the hell was he anyway? There was something familiar about him, but her wolf brain wouldnt make the connection. It didnt matter. Everything inside Maizie told her she needed to get him away from Granny. Even her wolf-half agreed.

She backed into the shadows again, jogging toward the end of the building. Maybe she could find a door propped open or slip in behind someone else. She had to get to Granny, protect her, despite her instinctive fear of humans.

She edged along the building, skirting the pockets of light as best she could. She turned a final corner where the forest and grass ended. Her toes edged against the wide expanse of blacktop. Before her, the parking lot of Green Acres Nursing Home stretched between her and the front door.

The forest encircled Green Acres on three sides, leaving the front facade and the parking lot exposed. The lot was lit like daylight by three enormous lights placed just right to keep shadows at bay. Beyond the parking lot, directly across from the nursing home, cars whizzed by on a busy two-lane road, and on the other side of that, the night evaporated in the glow of human encroachment. A restaurant, a grocery store, a gas station and more-the edge of civilization on one side, acres and acres of forest behind her. Maizie wanted to turn back so badly her muscles ached from the restraint.

Granny. She needed her and Maizie took a tentative step. The black ground was warm on her pads, still holding the heat from a sunny day. She moved farther, her gaze fixed on the glass entrance. Inside she could see the front desk and a familiar face seated behind it. What was her name?

It didnt matter. She wouldnt recognize Maizie like this anyway. Maizie kept moving slow and steady. She stayed low to the ground, crouched, trying to be smaller, less noticeable. It was pointless, she knew, she was utterly exposed.

A car door slammed and Maizie froze, heart pounding. Her gaze darted over the parking lot, five cars. Her ears twitched, she sniffed. Nothing. Muscles tensed, wanting to run, but she didnt move.

Maizie?

She knew that voice, deep and rich, soothing like

Its mwapGray. Mwap it easy, mwap mwap?

Gray? Maizie followed the voice with her eyes. She found him standing next to a long black car parked by the forest on the other side. She watched him, his hands low, out from his body as though he meant to seem less threatening. Her instincts werent buying it.

She sniffed again and picked up only a hint of his scent when the wind shifted around, bouncing off the building. Mmmmshe knew that smell, earth and plants, the forest, but there was more. A hint of sweetness, human cologne. Maizies wolf-half balked at the odor, edging backward.

No. Wait. He stopped moving. I mwap help. Let mwap mwap with you.

Maizie knew the words, but couldnt wrap her wolf brain around their meaning. He was human. She didnt trust humans. She moved another step back.

Jeezus, you mwap mwap beautiful animal. I know mwap, scared and youre mwap mwap mwap half of mwap mwap saying, but mwap mwap be mwap mwap running mwap alone.

Maizie took another step back. Why was she even out in the open like this? Where was she going? She couldnt remember. It didnt matter. She had to get away. She had to run, her instincts demanded it and they were too hard to ignore.

She turned, but something about the human stopped her. She looked back and saw his face contorting, changing shape. He stripped out of his shirt, popping buttons, throwing the remains to the ground. He moved to his pants, working his buckle and zipper even as he toed off his shoes. He was naked in seconds, his body shrinking, skin rolling as though his bones moved and reshaped beneath the flesh.

Thick silvery fur sprouted over his shoulders, rippled down his chest to his belly, hiding his penis and balls in an instant. He fell forward, his arms and legs changing to paws before they touched the ground. Just like that he was a wolf.

He snorted with a hard shake of his head, pausing as though he needed a moment to recoup. Then his pale blue wolf eyes focused on her and he sauntered forward. Maizies muscles twitched, the urge to run screaming loud in her head.

Yes, he was a wolf, but he was a male wolf. The apprehension remained, only the reasons for it had changed. This wasnt her territory and she knew with a shift of the wind it was his. Shed detected his scent all over the forest. This place belonged to him and his pack. She was an outsider. If she were male, shed likely already be dead. As a female there were choices-for him, not her.

He could attack, deciding he had enough females in his pack and dominating another wasnt worth the trouble. Or he could take her now, possess her, claim her as his own. Either way, Maizie would have little to say in the matter. He was at least six inches taller at the shoulder and a solid fifty pounds heavier. His decision would be absolute.

A warm shudder tickled under her fur down her back. Even in wolf form the thought of him taking her was an erotic temptation. But until she knew his intentions, complete passivity could be fatal.

Maizie lowered her shoulders, her ears pinned back against her head. She growled, bared her teeth. Gray stopped his slow approach, his pale eyes fixed on her, judging her intentions just as she judged his.

He was too far away, his body language ambivalent. Shed have to allow him closer to be sure, close enough to strike. She couldnt take that chance. Her wolf-half wouldnt allow it.

Maizie spun, springing off her powerful back legs, pumping her front legs to propel her forward, away from the male aggressor. She didnt know where she was going. It didnt matter as long as she got away.

Her nails clawed at the blacktop, slipping when they couldnt dig in. Grays nails clattered behind her, giving chase without hesitation. She glanced back, saw his body eating the distance between them, his pale blue eyes alight with fury. Hed overtake her in seconds.

Panic clogged her throat, hammered through her heart, pumped her legs harder, faster. She shifted her attention forward, ready to throw herself into the run.

Lights. Blinding. Two brilliant orbs barreling toward her. Thunder rumbled behind them, vibrating through her brain. Maizie gasped, a sharp high-pitched yip. She tried to stop, throwing her weight backward, her paws scrambling to slow her momentum.

Grays heavy body collided with her, unable to shift speed and direction any better than she. The impact knocked the air from her lungs, both of them tumbling off the blacktop onto soft grass. Maizie found her center and stopped her roll just in time to pull her nose out of the way of the minivan rolling up the driveway.

Twisting hard, throwing her head and neck, Maizie got her feet under her. Adrenaline surged through her body, giving her a dizzying high while she puzzled what to do next. Where was the male? Nothing mattered more.

A low growl turned her around, the sound so visceral it vibrated through her flesh and bone, stuttering the beat of her heart. She peered into the forest, trying hard to pinpoint the sound. Full dark made for a night blacker than pitch, even for her enhanced wolf eyesight. Straining, she managed to catch a subtle shift of movement behind a cluster of trees and focused her gaze as the soft glow of pale blue eyes broke the curtain of black.

Grays silvery fur caught the light. The chase was on.


| Little Red and the Wolf | Chapter Twelve