13. Truths

13. Truths

A Chapter by Lynaelee

"Clara?!" A voice startles me after about half a mile. I turn around and stumble over a log as I look at the shirtless, sweaty, and muscular man in front of me.

"Buck?! Did you follow me?" I accuse angrily as I stand up and stomp my foot. I need to do the journey alone and having a nosy new neighbor won't help. Especially since I was trying to clear my head of him specifically. He shakes his head and points to the pile of logs behind him and his axe. "Sorry," I mumble as I sit down and hold my throbbing ankle. I would just have to wait until he went back to logging before I pressed on. I didn't need him to follow me; I needed to get away from him so I could think without distractions or interruptions. "What are you doing up here then?" I ask politely, even though I'm irritated. 

"I was getting the last of the logs I need to finish my home, but that's not important. Are you okay?" He asks. I nod and wipe a tear that has started to fall for no reason. "Clara, can I see your ankle please? I may be a blacksmith, but I know how to care for injuries."

"It's fine. I can still put weight on it. I was just surprised. I startle easy. My brother used to love sneaking up and scaring me. I never got over it, even after he died. So now, when I least expect it, like up here, I become more jumpy. Sorry. I honestly wasn't expecting to see anyone for a while," I admit.

"Okay. Fair enough. I'm sorry for startling you and I'm sorry the loss of your brother. Losing someone you love never gets easier. Your turn. You're not collecting firewood or berries; I saw several ripe bushes down the path and the berries taste good. So what are you doing up here alone, kitten? What possible reason could you have to be up here right now?" He murmurs as he sits beside me. I look at him and my mouth drops open again, but I find no words. I want to tell him everything. However, I can't tell him that I'm looking for something magical in these supposedly bewitched hills; a sacred place I read about that lets someone truly look within. "I'll make you a deal. If I collect enough firewood for your bakery, will you please go back to town right now? It's not safe up here for you, Clara."

"But it's safe for you?" I counter angrily as I stand up again, deciding waiting is no longer an option and I wasn't going to let him stop me.
"I didn't say that. However, you have a basket of goodies to defend yourself with if needed. I have something sharp that I could use. Sit down, kitten. Please. Before you hurt yourself again."
"No!" I shout as I clench my fists. "I don't need your firewood. I'm not going back to town. I need to go that way. That's all I can tell you. Excuse me. I have somewhere to be."

"Clara, no. You need to tell me why you're up here alone right now or I'll throw you over my shoulder instead of those logs and take you back down the mountain," Buck warns. I roll my eyes and continue on my journey. He sighs, runs up behind me, wraps his arms around my waist, and pulls me back. "Sorry, kitten. You don't get a choice in the matter. Now sit!" While I'm protesting, he makes me sit on a log, kneels in front of me, and holds my hands on my lap. Then without looking at me, in a soft voice that sends shivers down my spine, he speaks harshly, "give me one good reason you are out here alone if you have been hearing dangerous cats in the area."
"I'd rather not." Buck raises his head in anger. I can't hear him panting, but I can see the body reacting like he is. "I can't tell you," I finally whisper.
"Try me. Because I'm not leaving you out here." I shove him angrily and try to stand up again. He pins me down and looks at my knees again, holding on tightly to my hands. Even though I can tell he has pressure on them, he's not hurting me, but that doesn't stop me from trying to wiggle free. "Clara," he growls.

"Yes, you are leaving me here. You don't have a say in what I do. I am going up that mountain. If you bring me back down, I'll only attempt to do it in the dark," I warn. "You just moved to town; I've been coming up here since the first day I settled in. You can't just put people where it's convenient for you! I am not your play thing. Let me go and get out of my way." His eyes shoot up and meet mine again. I'm instantly afraid of this man in front of me as he glowers at me.

"Are you always this stubborn? Fine. Then go up the mountain, just know I'm coming with you. It'd be easier to help you find your way home if I don't have to search the whole mountainside when you don't come back. You're stuck with me, kitten. Now tell me why you're out here," he orders firmly. When I don't move, he adds, "and remember, I have a short temper." I hold his gaze, but he doesn't look away or blink. "Tell me." I shrug my shoulders in annoyed defeat as I pull my hands away from him.

"Fine. Would you believe me if I said I fear I'm cursed and swear I have seen you before in my dreams? Only I didn't call you Buck in my dreams, but the name seems off, unfitting. I need to find the sacred ground that will let me open my mind and see within. All I know is it's in that direction. I need to do this. Please don't kill me for being a witch," I beg as I let my eyes fill up with water. Mentally, I add, "I need to find that spot because my heart stops when you leave; it's not right. I need answers. I have to go up that mountain. I know my answers are up there." He wipes my tears and smiles as his face completely loses its fierce and rugged look.

"You aren't cursed, Clara. Nor are you a witch. But magic has touched your life. I can prove it," he whispers.

"How?" I reply.

"Well, let's start with if I leave, your heart will stop," he ventures with a smirk. I gasp and put my hands over my mouth. "Don't worry. I'm not a mind reader, but it's nice to know. On that note though, I can tell you that your answers are closer than you think. Do you trust me?" I nod; I don't know why I should, but I do. "Close your eyes, kitten," he orders. I do as I'm told and hear him move around in front of me. I open my eyes again when I feel my cheek get caressed by something soft. I gasp in shock as I look at the massive lion in front of me. Although my heart quickens, I don't feel afraid as I gaze into his eyes.

"It wasn't a dream!" I exclaim as I wrap my arms around him. I feel him shift and return the embrace. He chuckles softly as he rubs between my shoulder blades.

"It wasn't a dream, kitten. I can take you to a place where your memory will seem clearer if you want me to," he confirms.


"Because I know exactly where my memory started to feel foggy too. There's a reason you felt like you knew me. There's a reason I brought you buckwheat and raspberries. We have met and somebody tried to make us forget. There is a powerful enchantment around your mind. I can help you break it," he explains as he pulls back. I look at him with wide eyes, but keep my hands on his shoulders. He holds onto my hips and offers me a small smile. "I don't have the power to take away the enchantment itself. However, I do know exactly where I can take you so that it fades away completely. Everything will come back to you, kitten. Once you remember, you won't forget again. I have to warn you though that it is gruesome and it might be more beneficial for you to forget. You just can't have me killed because I possess some form of magic."

"Buck, I wouldn't do that to you. First impression from today was that I thought you were a pretty decent guy; well maybe more than just decent. The fact that You can shapeshift doesn't change my mind. I can keep a secret and I envy stories of old where you hear of magic happening all the time. I had a very vivid magical dream and it terrified me. That and I had the dream more than once. You just proved to me that I wasn't dreaming. I lived it, didn't I?" I inquire.
"We did, kitten. Yes, I live with it everyday, but I believe part of your mind recalls us meeting. We spent half a week together and you trusted me with little to no doubt before you knew I was a man as well," he explains. I gasp and he grins.
"I met you in your animal form?!"
"You did. After you were kinda convinced I wouldn't eat you, you followed me and talked to me like you would with anyone. Although, I suspect you don't generally just spill random facts like you did with me. It kept you sane to talk to me and since I couldn't prompt you to talk about something, you said whatever came to your mind and just said random snippets about yourself. Granted they were small truths, but they were truths. You had no reason to lie or act like someone else. You were afraid, sure. But you were honest and trying to keep a level head instead of just letting the fear win. You could have done nothing but scream, but you didn't. In your bakery, you kept eye contact fairly well, but your body language told me that you don't normally do that. I want you to talk to me plainly, kitten. Like you did last year. Like you're talking to your pet cat. There is no one else around; it's just you and me. There is nothing you can say that will scare me away. I won't accuse you of witchcraft or foresight or anything like that. Anything you say will stay between me and you. So tell me about your dream," he orders softly. 
"I thought I was chased by a shapeshifter. Then I thought that I was helped by that creature. I couldn't tell what type if creature it was or why I needed help, but your eyes! I knew them. I know them. I never would have thought the creature was a mountain lion. It must be why I felt like I knew you. I did dream about you," I whisper. He nods slightly.

"That's all that you think you dreamed?" I nod. "That's about it, kitten. If that works for you, we can leav-."

"No! It does not work," I shout as I slap his shoulders and push him slightly. He reaches up and grabs both of my hands. He holds them tightly against his chest and holds my gaze. I start to cry, unable to hold my tears back. He catches the first tear as I continue in a softer tone, "I want all of the memories back! There are too many gaps. No matter how bad, I need to know. Please. I couldn't tell anyone. I was going mad. I don't care how gruesome it is. I don't want the town to think I'm a witch because of what may slip out of my mouth. Especially if I don't know why I said it. I don't want to die and might if I don't know the truth. Plus, if we met before, you have memories that I don't. You can use that against me. You have used that against me with the gifts you brought me; you said there was a reason for the raspberries and buckwheat. I need to know the truth. Please. It's been eating away at me. I'm scared of dying alone, and this could be the reason I might." He nods and pulls me in for another embrace. I hold onto him as I start to tremble.

"You won't die from these memories or lack of them; there is no reason to be afraid of that. You can trust me, Clara. I won't leave you alone. If nothing else comes back to you, I want you to know that you have me in your corner. As you put it last year 'probably the only friend you have.' You doubt yourself too much. Let's see what we can do about your memories. Just trust me and get on my back. I'll need you to carry my clothes though. I shred them if I'm wearing them when I shift," he replies as he leans back and meets my eye. I blink in a dazed confusion, but nod and blush as I feel every part of his bare naked body in front of me. He laughs at my discomfort and strokes my jaw before drying my still wet cheeks. "Don't worry about it. Your eyes haven't wandered and you are not using your hands to feel around. You're keeping your arms around my shoulders and are terrified, so I don't mind; it keeps you from falling or something. It also keeps you from running off and doing something reckless. Just breathe. I'm not ashamed to be naked in front of you, Clara; being naked comes with the territory of shapeshifting." I nod as he reaches beside me, plucks several leafy plants, and hands them to me, pulling both my hands to my lap. I wrap my fingers around the leaves and hold his gaze as he wraps his hands around mine. "Chew on one of these and hold on, kitten," he orders before shifting before my eyes. I hesitantly reach my hand out; I'm shaking badly, but I feel alive more than I do afraid. He licks my hand before rubbing his head up my arm until he's by my shoulder. I pant as I lean into him and wrap my arms around him.

"You're so soft!" He nuzzles the back of my head and I giggle. "Will I hurt you?" He lowers his head and lets out a low growl as he shakes his whole body. I scratch behind his shoulder blade and ears simultaneously. He nuzzles my cheek and pushes me to a standing position. "Okay. Let's go. Just let me pick up your clothes." He pulls back and I collect the pants by his feet. I fold them up and put them in my basket, next to my shawl. I look around the area for his shirt and shoes but don't see them anywhere. I then put the leaves he gave me in my basket as well. He looks at me and doesn't move until I stick one in my mouth. "Mint. Great. Am I going to get sick?" He bobs his head and crouches down in front of me. "Fine," I sigh. "Just don't drop me. I'm terrified to even attempt to ride a horse," I whisper as I climb on. He stretches his back and I fall forward into him. He gently tugs on my sleeves, so I wrap my arms around his neck. I take a deep breath and he takes off. When we are in the middle of what looks like the remains of a dump site, I slide off, toss my basket aside, and dry heave, spitting the mint out. He nuzzles my back and as I settle into a sitting position, close my eyes, and try to ride out the wave of dizziness and nausea. When it has mostly passed, I look at Buck with tears in my eyes. He sits behind me and makes me rest against his chest as one paw drapes over my shoulder. I lean into him and rub his leg. He nuzzles my head as the tears fall. I nod. Then I gasp and pinch my pants with a scowl. Buck purrs beside me as his paw covers my hand on my pants. I pull away from him, look up, and meet his gaze. "I'm okay or I will be. I don't know. I just needed a minute or two. You did nothing wrong, Buck. I realized something that I haven't thought about in a long time. These pants came from the dress I wore last year. Only I knew the stitching wasn't mine; it was tighter and went the opposite way of how I normally sew. That was one of my first clues to things had changed." He nuzzles my cheek. I rub his chin as he pulls back. Then I point over his shoulder. He follows my finger and looks in that direction before looking back at me. Three tears fall and I wipe them away quickly. "However, wearing a dress I didn't sew needed to happen because mine was destroyed, partly by your claws and my clumsiness but mostly by hellhounds there. This was Kern's camp. Three men were completely shredded and devoured in front of me over there by the hellhounds. It's also where I was thrown into the hole they came out of," I state as a sob forces it's way out. Buck growls, but I don't stop talking as I point towards the steep embankment in the distance. "Then I was escorted to my own tent in that direction. That's where I met you in your human form the first time; although I didn't know it was you. That was a terrible week. My dress was ruined, I threw up more times in that short time than ever before, and I was almost killed. No matter what, I wouldn't have been able to salvage that dress at all. I owe Talon some bread; she withheld her end of our deal. She could have come to collect any time, but it's probably better that I remember first. You guys saved my life," I whisper as I close my eyes, rest my hands on my knees, and lower my head onto them.

"You remember, Clara?!" Buck states behind me as I hear him rummaging through my basket. I nod but don't look up or back. "This is where I started to get all of my memories back. I figured if I took you back to the cave, you would be on the opposite side of the line Laurence made," he remarks as he sits behind me and braces me. I lean into him weakly and look at him. He rubs my cheek and smiles. "I'm glad you got your memories back. Laurence shouldn't have enchanted your mind at all." 

"He wanted me to forget?!" I exclaim as I lean forward and lean in my knees again, feeling lightheaded.

"All of us. Sit up, kitten," Buck orders. I nod and lean into him again. "Atta girl. Deep even breaths. Curling up won't help you. Yes, Laurence wanted you to forget, but not just you. He enchanted my mind too. And Talon's and Mabel's. But in that cave, I never forgot anything or had things go fuzzy for me. They didn't forget you either because once they came to this spot, everything stayed with them. They didn't want to go home and we had to try to figure out how to get to you too. Clara, we feel like you're one of us and we all missed you. Talon is still connected to your mind. Laurence couldn't magically break that connection, especially since he never considered breaking a connection that went both ways. Usually, Talon will eavesdrop on the minds around her, but she never talks directly to them. Once they communicate both ways, it's like it becomes a strong braid and isn't disconnected until she says it is. With those that she eavesdrops on, the connection is dropped as soon as she walks away. With you, it is different. The connection was never broken and it's a strong connection. She can hear you, but can't talk to you; none of us can. After seeing you in person, and you not knowing who I was, I didn't need to hear your thoughts any more. It would have upset me and made me depressed somehow. So when I left, Talon broke our connection. Angry that you had no idea who we were any more, I attacked the trees to work on my temper. I completely let my guard down. I was finishing a little break when I noticed you were on the path. It surprised me that you had gotten so close and I didn't hear you. I'm usually so good about knowing what or who is around me; it's a personal thing in case I ever want to shift or something. You looked just as surprised to see me. After listening around to see if you came alone -which of course you did because you are a stubborn and foolish girl- I begged Talon to open your mind up again to me. I could tell you were hiding something and I needed to know. I spoke to you mentally then too, but you still can't hear. All I thought was that I really needed you to remember us. I am hopeful that your mind will open up again, but something happened and we don't know why you can't hear. Until we figure that out, you'll just hear yourself," he explains as he rubs my arm.

"I stopped hearing voices inside my head during the blood moon. I don't know when exactly. I just couldn't hear you. I couldn't hear anyone," I recall.

"We noticed that too. We played it off to the injuries you received. You were pretty loopy. You thought I died. I wasn't even scratched, kitten, but I'm glad I was on your mind. It was a morbid sense, but I was the last thing that you thought about before you blacked out. Here's what really happened that night: I promised to keep him away from you and that I would be beside you afterwards. Fighting didn't matter to me; you did. I ended up taking off the demon lord's arm and leading some hellhounds away from you while Mabel took the knife out of your shoulder. Then what's-his-face took advantage of my missing presence. I don't know exactly what he did, but even if I wasn't connected to your mind, I could have still heard your screams miles away."
"Kern made my blood boil or something. He enjoyed hurting me," I weep. Buck wraps his arms around my waist and let's me cry into his neck for several minutes.
"He did enjoy hurting you, kitten, but at the same time, he could have inflicted much more pain. Kern was desperate and inflicted minimal damage to get your blood. He wanted you to feel everything, remember? I think that played a big part in saving your life," Buck murmurs.
"So he prolonged my death to save my life? That doesn't make any sense," I counter around another sob.
"No, it doesn't. Did he mention making your death quick or painless while you were in his camp?" Buck inquires. I think about it for moment and nod. "I see. I think if that was the case, he would have enchanted you to sleep, killed you instantly with a single blow, or something else along those lines. Instead, he threw the knife laced with his power so it stuck. After he pinned you to the back of that cage, he easily could have killed you with another throw of a knife, but he didn't. You bled out, but it didn't kill you. Nor did he slice you again or burn you or have his dogs claw at you. It could have been so much worse. I can't imagine how it would have gone if he could have gotten into that cage," he whispers, stroking my hair. "Laurence may have had some downfalls, but he knew his enchantments. You were safest in that blasted cage, no matter what. I do apologize for caging you, but after what happened that night, I'm glad that's where you were. You sneaking off only to get insight about them coming up from the ground saved your life as well, Clara. I know without the cage, you would have been lost to us for good. I told you that you were worth protecting. You are worth finding again. I'm just glad Laurence isn't messing with our memories any more."

"I think my village killed him," I whisper in horror as I recall what he looked like in his animal form. Buck moves around and lifts my chin so he can look in my eyes. His brow is furrowed so I explain. "About two or three months after, well all this, a bear was in the meadow behind my house, acting weird. My neighbors heard the growling and charged him. A knife to the head did him in. The butcher was excited and immediately began cutting him up. I got really sick seeing all that blood, so I didn't participate in the town's festivities; they had roasted bear. I came up to the lake for a week until the village was free from the stench of blood." I put my hand over my mouth as I felt my stomach lurch again. Buck moves over to my basket, sits down in front of me again, and offers me another mint leaf. I take it but don't put it in my mouth. "Thank you. I'll be okay" He nods.

"You're welcome. If what you are saying is true, he never finished his spells! Don't feel bad. He was vindictive and controlling. He wanted you erased from our lives forever. If he died before fully completing his enchantment, then it explains why we never forgot you or why your memory is so fuzzy. It-"

"-doesn't explain why it took you a year to come back," I snap as I sit back, lower my head to my knees, and cry. "I told you, you were my friend; I don't make those easily. I felt like I had lost part of who I am."

"You didn't lose me, kitten. I'm right here and I'm not going anywhere. It took me a year to come back because his barrier was strong. He must have worked on that instead of the mind first. He must have known that I didn't want to stay away; I couldn't. I tried for six months non-stop to come back. The closest I could get to you was the cave up that hill. Then, every day after that, I could get a little bit closer. Two months ago, I made it to the other side of the lake. I saw you then and you kept looking around like you were bring watched, but I couldn't get closer or even call out to you. Once you left, I could scream and snarl all I wanted. It was then I decided that I would move to your town once I could get past the barrier. So that became my plan. After all, my town thinks I'm dead and I can't think of a better place to start over than near you," he murmurs as he pulls me in for a hug. My hand brushes his pants and I pull both hands to my chest to keep from touching him.

"No more Mr. Slobbs. That's a shame. Good thing Mr. Danvenshire is around. No! Am I in danger again? Is that why you're back? I really am cursed," I cry out, muffled by his shoulder. I close my eyes and sob openly.

"Clara, the only thing I cannot protect has nothing to do with the forces surrounding you, but rather with the force you emit. You're not in trouble. Danger is not lurking around the bend for you. In fact, you don't need any protection right now. Truth is, the only thing in danger right now is my heart," he whispers as he pulls back, looks at me, and rubs my cheek dry from all tears. I meet his eye and blink rapidly, taking in his words. 

"Why?" I breathe. He leans in and presses his lips softly against mine. "Mr. Danvenshire!" I exclaim as I pull back and raise both hands to my mouth, dropping the mint leaf I was holding.

"Sorry, Clara, but I won't apologize for kissing you. I've wanted to do that for a while. Last time that I wanted to do that, you were unconscious so I refrained. Before that, it was the wrong time and you were afraid. It may still be the wrong time, but I don't care. I won't hold back any more, Clara. My heart is in danger because you have the power to crush it or keep it whole. You snuck up on me and I fell in love with you and your spirited ways. I can't stay away any more; I won't. You obviously can't stay away either. Cougar bites. Leo. Pants. Your mind is infatuated with me and you've been trying to keep my memory alive somehow. Just like I asked you to," he murmurs tenderly.

"No! You never said that. I never heard it," I counter, dropping my hands to my side and trying to recall every conversation that we had.
"But I did. Just before I brought you down the path all the way. You were unconscious, but I said it. I begged you to remember me and find me. You did so the only way you could. It seems I surround your every thought. Just like you do with me," he retorts.
"Whatever. I do know for a fact that you said you didn't like Lee - and that's the shortened version of the name I called you in my dreams. Leo is a form of that, not Buck," I reply cheekily. He grins and nods.

"But it stuck in your mind. You had to get a kitten. You came up here for answers instead of staying at the lake or in town. You stumbled upon the area I was logging, looking very lost I might add. You tried to continue up the path when your heart screamed for me; Talon just informed me she didn't open up the connection between us again. She said she wasn't listening then and muted my mind completely to reaching out to her. She thought I would yell at her. I am not pleasant company when I'm angry apparently," he explains.
"So how did you know what was on my mind then?! And the just staying between me and you, was that a lie? Don't get me wrong, the little I remember of Talon and Mabel is great and I would love to get to know them. But if she wasn't part of the conversation then, how did you know that I was thinking my heart stops when you leave?"
"Talon wasn't there at all. Mabel could sense I shifted and was no longer angry. When shifted back into my human form, Talon checked in again. You opened my mind down the hill somehow. Or maybe I willed it to happen. I dont know. However, I do know that I wouldn't have let you just walk away, even if your heart or mind didn't reach out to me. You are still reckless and determined; I admire that about you," he remarks sincerely. I blush and look down. He rubs my jaw and lifts my chin. "Do you want that conversation to stay between us? Because technically, we're still having it."
"No it's fine. Afterall, they were there too. It's as much their story and secret as it is ours," I state as I look around again. "Is the the scared ground I read about?"
"Possibly. I haven't read the literature that you're talking about, so I don't know for sure. But it worked. Your mind is free from the barrier. Did you have a true plan or were you just going to wander around aimlessly in hopes of finding your memory? I can tell you for a fact, you wouldn't have stumbled upon this place in a day. Maybe two days if you really tried, but it is well hidden. I can find it because I've been here multiple times and it still reeks of sulfur. This is where they came in and out the most. Clara, you wouldn't have found this place without my help," he replies. I shake my head as I shiver and lean into him, holding my hands by chest.

"I don't know. I just knew I had to come up here. Can I build a fire?" I plead as he wraps his arms around my shoulders. 

"In a minute, kitten. You made me snicker mentally when you repeated the bit about riding horses or about how soft my fur is. So I will tell you that I know you like to be warm and often leave your fire going so you can get straight to work, but hate asking for help to get firewood. Before we find a place to camp, I still need some of my own answers. I heard what you thought about that woman's third marriage earlier, which is why I had to come see you in person even though my house isn't quite done. Are you really that opposed to marriage? Because I need to know now before anything else happens. Would I be wasting my time? If you are opposed to marriage then tell me now. I will respect your wishes."

"I was opposed to it this morning. However, a tall stranger with honey eyes came into my shop and changed my thought process completely. My mind has been opened to new prospects; I feel whole again with you. The kiss was a surprise, but I liked it. It was soft, warm, and uh welcome. I just didn't think I would ever. Well. I feel complete with you," I reply sincerely as he stands up, pulling me with him.

"Good, because I'm not letting you go again, kitten. And since you liked it, I'm going to do it again," he remarks then presses his lips on mine one more time. A warm feeling springs up from my stomach, crawls up my chest, and leaves me feeling flushed. He pulls back and rubs my cheek, but I want more. He chuckles softly. "In a minute, love. Your chattering teeth might bite my lip off. We can sleep in the cave tonight. I can keep you warm. So unless you need the light, a fire won't be necessary. You over packed for this journey. Which means that you brought plenty of food to sustain us and we won't have to scavenge for food later. Then once we get back to town, I'll marry you on the spot if you'll have me."

"Truly, Buck?"

"Truly, Clara," he whispers as he plays with the braid on the top of my head, unwinding it from it's headband halo.

"What about the other wer-"

"We wouldn't miss your wedding for anything," a voice pops into my head. I jump and lean into Buck. He chuckles and looks at me tenderly.

"You can finally hear again, kitten," he praises. "You fixed whatever was wrong." 
"But I didn't do anything!"
"Relax. Talon was just saying hello. She didn't mean to make you jump. You should know this, kitten. Both Talon and Mabel are in the cave at the top of the mountain where you woke up in the cage. They are eager to see you again. If you don't want to venture out any more though, that cave up the hill will provide shelter from the storm that is rolling in. I can also just hold you right here if you prefer." I look up at the darkening sky and shiver again. He tightens his arms around me and pulls me in closer. 

"I want to see them but I like being alone with you too," I whisper into his jaw. He pushes me back slightly and kisses my nose.

"One day soon you'll be my wife and we can be alone as often as you want. I already told you that I'm not letting you slip through my fingers again. I want you. I need you," he murmurs tenderly.
"And if I were to cause you to lose your temper?"
"Then I will lose it away from you. I don't want to see you get hurt and I will never intentionally be the reason behind your pain. I told you something last year about life. Remember?"
"Uh. Oh! You said all life was precious, including mine," I reply as he traces his nose up my jaw. I shiver and he tightens his arms around me more. If he did it any more, and he would cut off my air supply, but I love it as I feel the heat radiate off his body.
"Especially your life, Clara. I know it is hard to believe but you surround my every thought and I desperately need you. Protecting you was one thing, but loving you will be everything. I would love to spend every moment alone with you, but I won't force you to do anything ever again," he promises as he pulls back and gazes upon me.

"And being your wife, does that include carrying your children?"

"If you want them, kitten," he confirms with a smile. I squirm uncomfortably as I hold his amused gaze.

"And if they're actual kittens?" He throws his head back and laughs. "What?! It's a serious inquiry." He kisses my nose before capturing my mouth. I sigh contently as he pulls back.

"I may be a shapeshifter, but I don't think that will be a problem. After Laurence lost his wife, he well, he became an animal with the women in the towns he visited - if you catch my meaning. The visits were rare and few between, but he had his favorite women. One of the women was in my town and my aunt to be specific. He brought me home once I mastered the shifting. Then he made of habit of sleeping with my aunt on several occasions. I have an eight year old cousin and a four year old cousin thanks to him. At least I believe it's because of him. Neither one of my cousins have ever shifted and my aunt has never slept with another man. She wouldn't get away with an affair in that town. For starters nobody came to their house alone and she never went anywhere without me or my uncle in tow. However, Laurence had an excuse to see her: checking up on my well being. Now I also know that my uncle was castrated by her; nobody knows about that but me. So nobody in town thought twice about her pregnancies because my uncle is still in the picture. They practically raised me after my mother was put into the asylum shortly after I came home without my father. Before you ask, I don't miss them, kitten. I was just a burden to them. Once she had her own son, my aunt all but banished me. My uncle died in his sleep three years ago, but I wouldn't be surprised if she killed him. I don't consider them family."

"That's good to know. I think. Wait! You said Laurence could never guess your name. If he slept with your aunt, wouldn't he know?"

"He never knew. His intention was to take care of his urges. No talking was required. In fact, he preferred to do the deed and leave. He may have had a deal with my aunt, but she is my mom's sister, married to a Mr. Franklin. My dad didn't like his last name either. Mom and Dad married in private; there was no big party and Mom never told anyone her new last name. My extended family called me Lee. Mom got the family Bible and wrote Lee David Davenshire with my birthday. It wasn't very hard to put Buck in front. There is no proof of Kelly ever exisiting. I have the family book. We can make our own family tree," he murmurs. I grin and duck my head down. He tugs on my chin until I meet his gaze again. 

"That means, legally I'm going to marry Bucklee?" I whisper. He nods and leans in for a kiss. I close my eyes as he deepens it.

"We never have to mention the Lee part to anyone. I'm Buck."

"My Buck," I reply as I snuggle into his chest for extra warmth. 

"That's right, kitten. I am all your's. No. Only your's."

"Good. So do you have any family you care about left then?" 

"You," he replies, kissing my forehead. "And I consider the other two shapeshifters my family."

"What about your mother?"

"She died in the asylum before my second cousin was born. It's okay, kitten. She only wanted me to be happy and with you, I will be." I grin as he strokes my cheek. "It's getting cooler. You need to make up your mind. Talon and Mabel will understand if you choose not to see them right now. Mabel isn't linked in, but Talon can hear both of us right now. Clara, all you have to do is think what you want. I'll be happy with either choice because I'll still be with you," he replies as I snuggle into him, nervously flexing my fingers between our bodies.  
"I don't want to keep them waiting," I finally whisper into his chest.

"Go to that cave," Talon orders in my head. "The storm is going to get worse. She can't keep warm like us. All you keep thinking about is warmth, fire, and how carelessly you thought this trip through. Mabel and I will meet you there to say hello once again. Get warm, Clara." 
"It's not fun when you have someone inside your head, but it is helpful. She's right though, kitten. You didn't think this through or pay attention to the weather or the fact that it gets colder up here,"  Buck whispers. 
"No. All I was thinking about was your eyes," I retort with a grin as he guides me towards the embankment, collecting my basket along the way. I reach in and pull out my shawl. He wraps it around me and grabs my arm as he starts to climb. I stumble and start to slide down.

"Want me to carry you?" He asks sincerely. I shake my head and try again, holding onto his hand.

"How do you do this without slipping?" I inquire as I nearly slip again, noting we are just barely out of sight of the camp.

"Part cat," he replies as he hoists me up. "Step where I do." I nod and try to follow directions. "You are still infuriating, kitten," he remarks with a smile as he stops me from falling down the mountain after another misplaced step. I pant heavily as he pulls me up beside him again. He holds onto my hips and stands below me slightly, hardly panting.

"Sorry," I mumble and look back down the mountain as I breathe heavily. Then I look up at the sky. "Guess you better carry me. I think the rain is going to come before I make it up myself. Chances are, I'll hurt myself if I continue."

"Finally! You speak with reason. We still have just about half of the distance to cover," he states as he throws me over his shoulder and takes off up the mountain again at a quicker pace. "I'll get a fire going, kitten. You can't see in the dark like me and you seem tense. I'll hold onto you tonight like this, not as a cat. So without my constant purring to calm you down or my extra body heat beside you for warmth, you need the flames."
"Wait! You were planning to sleep beside me as an animal?! Doesn't that defeat the purpose of holding me?"
"Oh, Clara," Buck chuckles. "Man or beast I'll be next to you to you tonight. I was planning on sleeping next to you in that form once we were done talking. I should have prepped you better. Sorry, kitten. I didn't mean to jump to conclusions; I thought you might be more comfortable that way. I am warmer and easier to sleep on as a giant cat - according to Mabel. She says my chest is too hard."

"Well it is exceptionally toned," I whisper around a blush.

"It is. The muscle structure is different when I'm a cat and the fur is easier to sleep on. However, as a man, I can hold you tighter and will be less likely to crush you. Which is exactly what you need tonight; someone who holds you tight and close while letting you know how much you are desired. That and the fire will bring you some comfort. Stay here," he orders as he puts me inside the cave. Just then, the rain starts falling and I look over the valley as lightening lights up the night. I yelp as thunder rumbles the ground and I look down with wide eyes. At the back of the cave, Buck has the fire glowing and comes back to my side. He wraps me in his arms as I continue to look at the ground below us in fear. "You're safe, Clara. Nothing is coming to get you." I nod and slowly look up until I'm meeting his eye again.
"Where is your shirt?" I whisper, unable to think of anything else to say. He chuckles and kisses my forehead.

"Down the mountain; we didn't grab it before we came up. Talon will bring me a spare. You're safe. Even from me. I won't try anything more than this while you are still Miss Hatten," he promises. I nod and look around the cave. I pull away from his arms and move towards a piece of parchment tucked in one of the crevices of the cave. "Pull it out, Clara. You should see it." I obey and sit down. My hand flies to my mouth and I begin to weep as I study the picture of two women.

"Mama!" I look back at Buck after I have calmed down. "I don't have a single picture of her or my brother. How do you have it?"

"One of the men in the camp drew it," he whispers. I think about it for a minute as I dry my eyes.

"Miguel! He said he was my father! He would know Mama too. What happened to him?"

"He died in the fight that night after you passed out. Clara, he did everything he could to give you a fighting chance, starting with the fire in camp. You were his reason to fight back and he was one of the main reasons you didn't die. As arrogant and confident as I am, I'm glad we had him on our side; I don't think I would have been able to save you by myself. He truly saved you that day," Buck explains, studying me closely. I nod and look back at the picture.

"He told me his wife was his whole world. It makes sense that he would do anything for her, for me. I didn't realize how much we looked alike. He didn't either to start off with; he told me that it had been a while since he felt the soft curves of a woman. Mama was only 17 when she had us. She died before her 30th birthday. Aside from the dark circles under her eyes, this is exactly how I remember her. He's got a phenomenal memory and good attention to detail. I miss her so much. Can I have this please, Buck?"

"Who else would it mean something to?" He murmurs causing me to look up at him. He smiles as he crouches down in front of me and rubs my cheek. "Yes, it meant something to me, but it means so much more to you. I found this after I carried you back down the mountain; I stopped there. I told you the truth, I have never been to your town. I ran back up here in a hurry. I discovered that outside of this cave, your face became blurred in my memory within two days. I spent a lot of time studying that picture and going over all that I knew. I didn't want to forget you, Clara."

"I'm not worth rememb-" he cuts me off with a kiss, taking away all my fight. He pushes me down to the ground and lays on top of me, kissing me more passionately and leaving me breathless. He kisses my nose then between my eyes. 

"Clara, if you weren't worth remembering, I wouldn't have made an effort to move to your town. I cannot stay away and I cannot lose you. Do you understand, kitten?" Buck asks, gazing into my eyes. I nod, look at my portrait again, and roll it up. Buck kisses up my jaw as he takes it out of my hand and tucks it into my basket. He leans back, braces on his forearm, and brushes my hair off my face. "Nothing is more important to me than you are. Please understand that, kitten."
"I understand, Buck," I whisper. He smiles largely and moves to kiss me again. I stop him with a hand to his chest. "Do you understand that you do things to me that I don't know how it works or why? Like leave me breathless and wanting more all at the same time. Then you make me feel brand new. I never felt like I would be so lucky." He chuckles softly and raises his eyebrow.
"I leave you breathless, do I? Good. There's more I want to make feel. Now I have a personal question for you. Forgive me, kitten, but I need to know. When I found you that night, your clothes had taken on a new and improper look for a lady. You said that Miguel hadn't felt the soft curves of a woman. So that makes me wonder, did any one of those men in that camp defile you?"
"Kern pressed his lips upon me, sliced my clothes, and felt me up. He said I was basically eye candy for his men. I was told that I was their prisoner but I was to be treated like royalty. So his men weren't allowed to touch me but he was head honcho; rules don't apply to him. The exception was when I put away for the night. If I left the tent, they could do whatever they wanted to me and so could creatures of the night. Lines were definitely crossed but I wasn't defiled. Why does it matter?"
"Because you're now my girl and I want to know everything. If they touched you in some way that upsets you, I don't want to repeat it. I guess that explains why you were so afraid of me when I found you inside that tent. I'll always be right here for you, kitten. I want to treat you right," he insists. I kiss his cheek and lean into his arm. He kisses my forehead and rubs my neck as he strokes my jaw.
"You're very sweet. Thank you," I murmur.
"I could spend all night in this position, but I need you to sit up with me, kitten. This is not appropriate for our company to walk in on," he whispers as he pulls me upright and kisses me softly. I look at him with a question brewing. He grins and kisses me again, holding onto me tightly and making me forget everything. 
"You make me-" I start.

"Uncle Buck, catch me! I'm sliding down the hill now!" A childish voice exclaims in my head. I jump with a start and he chuckles, kisses my cheek, and stands up, moving towards the cave entrance.

"No more mind talk. At least until Clara isn't so jumpy," he orders out loud. "She's not used to it. We have to ease her into it. We have time on our side now."

"Thank you," I mumble as I move closer to the fire for the warmth and he ducks outside the cave.
"Gotcha, little one! Don't make a habit of that. Your mom would have my head on a platter if I didn't catch you. Alright! Alright! Go," Buck orders with a chuckle. 

"Clara!" Mabel exclaims as she runs in and embraces me from behind. I pat her arms as they tighten around my neck. My back is all wet now,  but I don't mind as the little girl seems to be attached to me. "I've missed you so much. You're never going to believe what we've been doing. We needed you. Buck has missed you greatly and I missed being able to make a true friend," she trills.

"Clothes first, Mabel. You too. You're making the poor girl experience something close to a meltdown. That's not acceptable. No talking until you're dressed," Talon orders. Buck laughs merrily.

"Sorry, Mama. I was just excited. I forget that I'm naked sometimes," the little girl replies. I blush and continue to look at the fire. "Told you, she gave you her heart." I turn around with wide eyes, Mabel grins at me as she sits beside me and adjusts her dress, and fully clothed Buck and Talon lean against the wall as they lower themselves to the ground.

"Me?! I did what?"

"Her theory has been that when Buck took you from the camp, you gave up your heart to him. That or it happened when you woke up in the cave with him," Talon explains. Her olive skin and dark hair complement her deep, dark eyes but she looks weathered and worn. She looks motherly and beautiful to me. I look down and study my own unsightly appearance. "Clara, I don't intervene on personal thoughts often, but you too are beautiful. Comparing yourself to others will only give you an unhealthy outlook. The only person you need to aim to please is yourself and your husband; no one else matters. This is just some advice for you. We can discuss it further if you desire," Talon remarks straight into my head. My eyes shoot up and meet hers; I feel she can look beyond my soul. 
"Thank you, but no thanks. Please explain Mabel's theory more. I'm not sure I understand," I think as I scoot away from the fire and towards the wall. Mabel looks at my basket eagerly. "If it's okay with your mom, I don't mind if you help yourself to a treat or two," I insist. Talon nods and Mabel digs in. I meet Talon's eye and she smiles warmly at me. 
"My daughter has been infatuated with the idea of love and is convinced she witnessed first hand what it looks like up on this mountain last year. An exchange of hearts is a new concept for me too," Talon explains mentally. Mabel wraps herself under my arm as she snacks on some of my blunder dogs and beaver tails. Buck snickers softly and I look down at the child, trying to recall what exactly happened that night. My brow furrows and I purse my lips.

"Giving my heart away would be impossible because I need it to live. Kern also marked it so he could find me. He found me and taunted me in person. Not someone else! If I gave my heart away, he wouldn't have found me. If Buck had it, he would have been approached first. But giving it to Buck would have been a logical choice; he's done nothing but protect me," I counter out loud. Buck smirks.

"If that was the case and Kern had tracked me down first, I would have killed him on the spot. Her theory makes sense, but I thought like you did; it's illogical. However, when the time came for him to truly start the ceremony, your heart was gone; he couldn't find it at all. I think you surrendered all control when you said that you needed me," he replies. My eyes widen again. "Mentally. It was so loud; louder than anything I have ever heard. Laurence has full on mentally yelled at me, yet that one little plea was the loudest voice ever. You said that, just after you fell through the mountain."

"No. When you said you needed him, it was muffled. Like your mind could barely whisper. However, that is when the strand connecting you two started to grow and expand," Talon replies. Buck and I look at her. "It was the first time I ever had a voice become significantly quieter in my head. Even if people whisper, in the mind you can still hear it clearly; like how we're talking now. The second time was when Buck spoke directly to you. I could tell that connection lit up, but I didn't hear anything. Right before Mabel took the knife out. The third time was in that camp, but he briefly explained that one already; only that was directly to me. I ignored it because I assumed he was cussing me out for something. Clara, the connection between you and Buck is the strongest and brightest I've ever witnessed. It's brighter than the noonday sun, or brighter than ten thousand candles in a room all lit up, surrounded by mirrors. I can see the connections and how thick they are. Laurence had a thin connection with everyone. Buck and I share a deep connection, but he has a better -you know a deeper and stronger- bond with my daughter. Before I met you the strongest bond was naturally between Mabel and myself. After I connected everyone, the strand connecting you and Buck grew until it was like a thick rope. Even now, it is thicker than the individual bonds we share put together, but that's still considered small compared to what it was last year. Could you tell he was talking to you when Mabel joined you in the cage?" I look down at the child snuggled in my arms who was now licking her fingers clean then back at Buck while shaking my head slowly  
"I'm sorry. I didn't hear anything then," I whisper.

"I just told you I would be beside you soon. I wouldn't have left your side in the cage if I knew what was going to happen. If I was in there I might have been able to prevent you from being thrown about. I would have pinned you against the bars and held on tight; a concussion could have been avoided. However, it didn't. But you lived and that was the ultimate goal. As soon as Kern was taken care of I planned on being beside you; nothing else mattered. I just had to take care of you. You were hurt and I didn't protect you. I'm sorry, Clara," he remarks. I grin and blush.
"Please don't apologize, Buck. You had no better way of predicting what would happen than I would. You did your best and I lived. So thank you. I wouldn't be here if you weren't there. I know you had something with the fact my shoulder doesn't have a giant scar. You stopped me from bleeding out. Again thank you," I reply.
"You're welcome, kitten. I would have done anything for you. All you needed to do was trust me."
"I know, Buck. I do. Er. Did. Er. Um. Yeah," I state around another blush. He chuckles softly and winks at me. 

"Told you. You gave up your heart," Mabel giggles. She sits up and kisses my cheek. "He felt the blood leaving your body when the demon lord drank it; nobody told him. You felt like your heart stopped when he walked away and like something was calling you up here. Then you cross paths with him again. It's so simple! You have his heart and are drawn to him and he has your heart," she explains. "Betcha Laurence didn't see that coming when he enchanted your heart to protect it from Kern." My heart stops as I think over her words.

"So it's not real? I was right. Who was I to think that love could happen for me? What man would ever truly want me unless he was bewitched? Of course it is all because of my wild imagination and deep desire to not be alone," I think bitterly. Talon's head shoots up and she looks at me. I lower my head and blink back more tears.

"Voice it or I will. That is one thought that shouldn't be kept silent. I am attached to all of you individually, but nobody can communicate telepathically right now. I will make an exception and you'll have to hear everything that we all think of you. Speak up," she warns verbally. I shake my head. "Buck, field this one. Clara feels like this is all because of a spell and you would never truly feel that way about her if you weren't enchanted." Buck moves over and pulls me to his chest before laying us down. I wrap my fingers around his shirt and let the tears fall silently into his chest.

"Clara, I was entranced by your scent when I came across it. Then I saw you for the first time when you met my eye in the tree on that path. You looked back and spat 'I'd rather take my chances with the mountain lion than you.' That took exceptional courage. Then after I scared you completely, you still chose to follow me. You wrapped around my paw, snuggled into me, and said I was a better option than the buckwheat hulls. It was then I knew I was lost," he whispers tenderly in my ear. I let out a small sob as I recall it all vividly. He strokes my cheek and he holds onto me tighter. "So you see, I wasn't put under a spell to fall in love with you. There is no way we were enchanted."

"But I never knew I fell for you," I dispute. Buck rolls to his side, props himself up slightly, and looks into my eyes as he dries my cheeks.

"Right here, Clara. In this spot. You became vulnerable and trusted me completely. You held onto me and told me everything. That takes courage, faith, and love," he murmurs, running his hand down my neck and stopping at my collarbone, resting his hand on my chest. The action sends shivers down my spine. He leans in and whispers softly in my ear, "this burn gave you the courage you needed. You revealed yourself to me, even though it could have been considered immoral. You have a very lovely chest, by the way. However, you are more to me than a sexual object. You apologized for being weepy and clingy and made me do something I never do. I became vulnerable too and shifted despite the risks. All I wanted to do was take away your fears and pain while I kept you safe in my arms forever. That's when you let your pillow return your hug. Pulling away was the hardest thing I have ever done." I nod and wrap my arms around his neck. He embraces me tightly before kissing my temple and sitting back so he could look at me. "You are more beautiful to me now in this moment when you feel like nothing than you ever were. I love that you need my affirmations. I choose you, kitten. You are very attractive to me; I've always thought that. Right now, all I see is the purest form of beauty and it's exquisite. A close second is when you needed a pillow and had to settle for me," he murmurs.
"You wouldn't let me pull away," I argue and he lowers himself down again. I adjust my head on his arm as his other arm snakes over my waist and pulls me closer to him. Our noses rub against each other and I rest my hands on his chest as our legs start to tangle up.
"Can you blame me, kitten? You were an emotional wreck. Was it really that bad for me to just hold you then? Are you going to try and convince me that you didn't hope for something, even a tiny bit?" He asks as I roll to my back, hearing snickering behind me. I blush as I catch Mabel snickering behind her hands. I decide to ignore the child and watch the light from the fire dance on the walls instead.

"I don't know. Last year was so long ago. I can't tell you exactly what I was thinking then. Oh! You never answered my question," I murmur as Mabel tucks herself under my arm again. Buck chuckles and pulls on my chin until I look at him.
"Licking is not kissing. Licking you was for comfort and healing. Kissing is for something more. I would never consider doing something strictly sensual with you in animal form. Providing warmth is not necessarily sensual, but practical; so that doesn't count. I loved holding you. I should have kissed you then. I'll make up for it now," he whispers before kissing me softly. He deepens the kiss and makes my heart beat out of my chest. I shake my head and pull away with a grin.
"Wrong question."

"Which one didn't I answer then, kitten?" He asks playfully.

"Why didn't you send one of the others to make me go up the mountain quicker? Talon could have at least explained it," I reply, looking at Talon. She smiles broadly at me.

"When you first heard my voice, you thought you were going insane," she explains.

"And you already thought you were mental; talking to a lion like he understood you," Buck adds in a teasing tone. I snicker softly and play with Mabel's hair. She yawns and closes her eyes. "I wasn't planning on revealing any magic. Mabel would have been locked in the cage with you, given you a brief explanation, and that would have been that. You wouldn't have followed a bear with the way you reacted to me and he took too long. Talon may be able to turn into a large bird, but she can't carry anything much heavier than Mabel was last year. So she couldn't have dragged you up here. She could hear you, but the line to talk back to you was closed still; we didn't realize that she had to make eye contact for the talking line to be opened. I kept leaving so that I could talk to them and figure out the best path for you to go up. I tried to find a way that you could go up yourself if you so chose to do so." I nod.
"Thank you for that. I think," I mumble.
"You're welcome, Clara. Something about your personality told me you would have demanded to walk. Even if I was being a little pushy," Buck teases. 
"No. I just didn't like your speed. And I was exhausted. No. I've never felt that tired in my life. You wore me out!"
"I did nothing, kitten. You did it yourself," Buck chuckles. Talon laughs softly.
"You messed with him too. I've never heard his mind so scrambled," she remarks. I giggle. 
"I was perfectly sane," Buck argues.
"Oh yes! Perfectly. 'We need to go up this path, but that will work only if she'll let me carry her. That won't happen; she'll just throw up again. Let's see. This path. No. Too steep. Gah! If only I could communicate with her. No. She'll just throw herself down the stream and I'll really be in trouble. Doesn't she realize how much danger she's in? We need to keep moving. But she's hungry and tired and hurt. Now, where do I make her sleep? She obviously won't make it up the mountain by nightfall. AHHH!' Listening to you argue with yourself was entertaining," Talon chuckles, causing everyone else to laugh softly. I look up at Buck and grin.
"So it was all about me? That's new," I whisper. He presses his lips against my forehead and nods. 
"I told you that you are worth it, kitten. I meant it," he praises. I blush and look down. "Yes. It was all about you. I needed to keep you safe. If you were who they wanted, they would do stop at nothing, as you noticed." I nod and look back at Talon.
"I'm not getting in between you two?"
"No, Clara. Buck is great, but my heart belongs to another, as does his. I may never find my Ricardo again, but I have never stopped loving him. Buck is like a brother to me and we would only end up hurting each other. He has done so much for us these past ten years and protected Mabel when I didn't think it was necessary. I confided in him like a brother and listened like a sister. To see him as anything else would be wrong. He's a great friend with a short temper. He flies off the handle like a brother would when a man approaches myself or my daughter. He is built to defend, not love. With you, it seems like the two go hand in hand. Plus, like I said, the connection is strongest between the two of you. It has grown immensely just since he told you when, why, or how he fell for you," Talon confesses. I nod again and yawn, snuggling closer to Buck. He curls his legs up, making it so no gap was between our bodies anywhere. I grin as his lips go up my jaw. He plants several small kisses before nibbling on my ear. I gasp in shock and delight, unsure if I want him to stop or continue. Talon chuckles softly and Buck stops teasing my ear. He rests his head by my ear, making his breath tickle my cheek and send shivers down my spine. 
"Do you see now, kitten? You and I belong together. Feeling whole, having the mental link between us grow, and you needing to be in my arms confirms that. I need you beside me too. My heart aches when I'm away from you. I long to be with you. Shapeshifting is thrilling, but that's nothing compared to how you make me feel," Buck murmurs.
"But you barely know me," I pant as he continues to mess with my mind and emotions, simply by touching me with his nose or lips.
"I think he knows you pretty well," Talon counters. I look at her, waiting for her to explain as Buck begins to kiss and suck lightly on my neck. My eyes close and I cry out softly. "Buck, stop! You have proven your point. Clearly, you are crazy about her and can make her wild about you. Behave," Talon chides. Buck chuckles and kisses my forehead as I open my eyes again. "Buck may be going off of instincts, but you two are deeply connected. He seems to know exactly what you like and desire, but he never asked. You can't fit a feather between you two right now. All he knows is how much he cares about you and how willing he would be to prove it to you. All you know is that the feeling of safety and warmth is with him and that no other man could ever compete. Clara, you make him feel more alive than being a werebeast ever did." I look down and blush as his hand tightens on my waist. He kisses my temple before pulling back some. Then his fingers trace up my jaw and around my ear.
"Would you consider the sensation I just gave you similar to the delight of the first sip of coffee after spending all day in the snow? Don't tell me you avoid the snow; you skated on the lake this past year. Admit it," Buck demands softly.  
"Yes to both," I murmur as he continues with the motions. 
"I figured as much. You are covered in goosebumps, kitten. Now imagine that sensation times like a hundred more but you feel it inside and out. That's what you do to me. Now when I shapeshift, compare that to the joy of seeing your kite fly. It isn't long before a kite floating in the summer breeze loses its appeal. There's only so many tricks you can do before the wind dies or you crash into a tree. Being a werebeast is like that; it's fun for a little while but then it loses it's excitement. That is not the case with you. I love being a massive cat, but you excite me more, Clara. I'll be the man that never lets you forget that," he murmurs. 
"I promise, kitten. A man is only as good as his word."
"But as a werebeast, his promise means more," Talon interjects. I give her a quizzical look, not understanding her outburst. She smiles warmly. "We don't think you would ever do something to endanger us, Clara. Nor am I implying that you would ever do something like this. A broken promise as a man means losing the trust of those around him. A broken promise as a werebeast means the secret of magic becomes a bartering chip. The bigger the promise, the worse it could be. A broken promise as a werebeast means surrendering his life." My eyes widen and I try to turn to look at Buck. He stops me with a kiss to my cheek.
"Shhh, kitten. You have my word as a man that you will know what love is. You have my word as a shapeshifting being with sharp claws and teeth that you will always be protected and cared for. You have my faith and trust as I choose to believe that you will never turn on us," he murmurs tenderly. I nod and gulp as something dawns on me. The thought makes me feel nauseated, but I speak up anyways, swallowing the stomach acid that climbs up my throat. 

"Sharp teeth and claws. Which I assume means it can tear through soft flesh like mine easily. So are you contagious werebeasts?" Everyone chuckles except Mabel, who now snores. I look up at Buck in concern. "Did I word it wrong? You said you were one for 13, er um 14 years now."

"You're right, but I can't change people. My dad and I were out hunting when an exceptionally brave -or stupid, depending on how you look at it- lion crossed our path. My dad pushed me away and faced the cat. I ran, but I heard my dad scream. So I stopped and looked back. The cat met my eye over his lifeless body and I ran again. It wasn't long before he pinned me to the ground, scratching my back. That's where I met Laurence. 'In order to save you life, you have to change' I remember hearing before I blacked out. When I woke up again, I was on four paws and angry. Ironically, he changed me into the very animal that nearly killed me. I cursed the old man out and called him every name in the book. It was only when I calmed down did I shift back. I still have the scars, Clara. I can show you if you'd like?" Buck inquires.
"Um. I think you showed me last year. However, through the tears and my closed eyes, I wasn't thinking straight and therefore didn't see much. You don't have to show me now. One day," I promise. He chuckles and rubs my arm that is draped across my stomach. "So the scratches gave you the power to shapeshift? Does that mean if you were to scratch me, I would turn too? Because I don't want to. Don't get me wrong! I think you are all magnificent, but I'm already shunned enough. Having any form of magic, even if I hid it well, would be an automatic death sentence for me."
"No, Clara. You won't turn and I would do everything I could to make sure your death never happens. I got distracted while answering you. Laurence gave me the power to shapeshift, not the scratches that left scars on my body," Buck explains, studying me intently. I nod and hold his gaze.
"And now that he's dead, will you lose your magic?" I whisper in a shaky voice.
"No. Laurence had the power to transform and protect. Once he cast a spell, it couldn't just be undone. He turned a rock into a tree when he first showed me his power. Years later, he tried to turn it back to the original rock, but couldn't. The spell that allows us to switch freely between forms is the closest he ever got to reversing a such a powerful spell. Before you argue that he could have just transformed you, he would have had to do something stationary like a tree or rock, thus ending your life. If he turned you into an animal too, the demon lord could have easily found you and killed you still. Protection spells go around certain objects, like your heart or the bars of the cage, and can be removed easily. The cage he may have been able to transform back into logs, but only after changing them into something else first. No matter how hard he tried, reverting things back to their original form was never achieved. I read his mind; he tried to reverse the process when the demon lord was burning the bars," Talon remarks. Buck grins.
"So you see, there's nothing that will take our magic away. We're werebeasts. He couldn't take that away. It's who we are," he murmurs.
"Okay. I understand. I think. Do the scars make you regret it happening or make you wish you could get fresh start?"
"Not at all, Clara. That was my fresh start. My scars remind me of what I don't want to become or ever seen as: a wild and ruthless killer. I've been afraid that a scratch or a bite would change someone else, but I discovered in the past three months, that's not the case. More brave souls are coming up the mountain. You may have noticed your market owner has some nasty scars on his arm now. He startled me. I found a cave that looped around by the stream. A small opening was between my lair and the entrance. Well the shop keeper was being stupid. He reached into small opening into my personal cave I was hiding in until I could move closer. I have quite the collection of clothes and things to pass the time in there. I don't know what he was looking for, but it's also where I've kept your dress; it still smelt like you and I didn't want to lose anything that reminded me of you. He almost grabbed it. So I saved your dress and slashed his hand, making sure be wouldn't come back. I held back a good laugh when I met him in person, but he won't be up here any time soon," Buck explains. I nod. The grocer did have a horrible experience up here and said the berries weren't worth it.
"He is rather dense. Berries can't be found in a cave. I don't mind that he doesn't come up here to harvest my berries. It just means I have more selections to choose from and I know my berries are better," I remark.

"There's that too. Well because I feared changing someone and condemning them to this fate, I had to watch him closely from my invisible barrier. He made it down the mountain, then I climbed a tree and kept watching and looking for a week straight before I tried to move closer again. He never shifted or came back up. That being said, I will never scratch you or bite you when I'm in animal form; I'm always paying attention to those. As a boy, I got into several fights after my changing. There was one fight I was losing. I ended up scratching his face and drawing blood. Horrified, I finished the fight and came straight home to clip my nails. I didn't realize my fingernails could be as sharp as claws. I keep them short in fear of hurting someone else. I won't hurt you, Clara," he promises as he gently scratches up my arm, then my neck, and finally my face. "See?" I nod.
"So what happened to your fighting partner?"
"He had some nice battle scars for a little while, but nothing permanent. That boy and I never had another fight. Although he always liked to prove he was better than me. After graduation, he ended up marrying my best friend's sister. At the time, I hated him because I liked her too. However, she was also one of the women dead set on castration if a male was found to have magic or if he didn't meet her needs. I told you about my uncle and that was not a fate I was willing to endure. I blew all the women off because they were so petty and whined all the time. Sure. Many tried, but I turned them all down. I said it was because of my profession and I just didn't have the time to court them. Truth is, not one of them really turned my head or invaded my thoughts. Waiting, I found you. You are a thousand times better than she ever was, at least ten -if not a hundred- times more beautiful and with a bigger heart, and overall you are much more interesting. I know you feel undesirable or ugly, but you really aren't. Those other men who scorned you, didn't know what a true gem you really are. Believe me, you are the most beautiful lady I have ever laid my eyes upon and I am getting quite the prize for a bride," Buck remarks. I nod.
"So you think it's a condemnation to be a werebeast?" I inquire as I yawn again. 
"I did, kitten," Buck remarks as he kisses my forehead again. I close my eyes as I savor it. He kisses my eyes and strokes my jaw. I shiver as I meet his gaze again. He smiles tenderly. "But if I wasn't a shapeshifting werebeast, you definitely would be dead; all of us probably would."
"Fair enough. What about you and Mabel?" I ask sleepily as look over at Talon. Buck tucks my hair behind my ear and continually strokes my jaw and neck softly. 

"Mabel has been a beaver for most of her life. She'll be 10 next month; we were turned when she was seven months old. My husband and I were looking to find a new place to call home and had to cross a river. A beaver dam made a nice little bridge for us to use to cross over. My foot got stuck as the dam toppled over, pinning me. Ricardo was washed away down stream, but I held onto Mabel as I tried to keep us both above water. Around noon the next day, a bird of prey started tugging at my hair and I lost Mabel down stream too. A bear came up to me and scared the bird away, breathed on me, and I was free. But not just free from the dam, I was flying. A mountain lion came up the path holding a swadled baby and I dived at him. Buck's mind screamed  'whoa! I'm not stealing or hurting your kid. Stop!' And he shifted before I hit him and held up my baby. I didn't understand then that I could hear his mind; I was just worried about Mabel. She was changed into something that could survive in the water before I was transformed into a bird. She had the hardest time shifting back and forth because she was so young. We didn't live among people for like five years because of that. I went back to the village we left in hopes of finding my husband again; it wasn't meant to be. Now Mabel has nibbled on more than one person and I have scratched people in our animal forms, but they don't change," she explains. I nod and look up at Buck as he moves his hand back to my waist.
"We saw Mabel first. We could hear her crying as she floated downstream. Laurence changed her into something that could survive the current if she went under. I told you last year, its just the way it is why we are different animals. However, Laurence had a plan with Mabel for sure; the rest of us, I don't know the real reasons. He loves irony, I guess. I chased the baby while Laurence went upstream to find any other survivors, because we knew a baby wouldn't be alone. I found her blanket after I fished her out of the stream. I swaddled her and she kept shifting back and forth. She was scared and hurt. I licked her head until she went back to sleep. It was then I discovered that I could help heal every open wound," Buck whispers.

"I'm sorry this happened to you. Nobody should feel condemned to anything," I murmur, thinking about the condemnation my green eyes had brought me.
"Clara Hatten!" Talon speaks harshly. I look up and meet her eye. "Three times now! I told you, I don't like intruding on personal thoughts. Are you feeling guilty?" I shrug my shoulders and look down. "Buck already told you, and he speaks the truth. You're eyes are not a curse. I find them to be truly beautiful, and I'm not attracted to you. Not in the romantic sense at least. I would love to be your friend and learn to love you in that manner."
"That would be nice," I murmur genuinely. "I just don't think anyone should have anything forced upon them. Not one of you were given a choice." 

"Don't be guilty or feel bad about it; we have all come to terms with our abilities and actually like them now. Like I said in a roundabout way, it was a blessing in disguise. If it didn't happen, you wouldn't have been protected last year. You were worth finding, protecting, and you are definitely worth loving," he whispers as he presses his lips against my forehead again. I grin. "I have a question for you, kitten. Miguel said your mother and brother died, but didn't say how. Did they suffer? Did you, being left all alone?" I sigh and look at the shadows the fire casts on the ceiling.

"Yes. And yes. It was the Spanish flu. Mama lasted three days before the fever claimed her; Bastian lasted a total of six days. I was right there beside them as they breathed their last, but I never got sick. I kept expecting to, but it never happened. Nobody could understand why I never got it too; myself included. I tried to keep Mama's bakery going. I failed. I barely made enough to start anew. The yeast has a better time rising up here in the north and my business is always busy. I had to leave everything. I never felt like I belonged. I was scorned and ridiculed. Most of all, I was alone. Bastian always made sure that I had friends, but without him nobody cared about me," I whisper as I wipe away a tear. I clear my throat and speak clearly. "Miguel said that Mama was really sick. So he traded his freedom for her health. Even growing up I never got sick. Buck, is that debt or curse still on me?" I ask in surprise, bolting upright. I look down at Mabel in guilt as her head falls to my lap. Buck pulls me back to his arms and kisses my neck. I scowl and pull away. "I asked you a question. That doesn't mean kiss me."

"It's not a curse to never be sick," Talon rebukes softly. I look over at her. "Don't feel guilty for living, Clara. Make an effort to be the good in someone else's life always, in honor of your mother and brother. And in honor of your father's sacrifice."

"Okay," I whisper as I snuggle into Buck again. "Will you leave me? There are so many eligible young, pretty girls that-" he stops me with another kiss. It's slow, deep, passionate, and leaves me breathless and wanting more. He kisses me softly one more time before pulling back. I open my eyes and stare at him. 

"There are a lot of eligible girls that are not you, kitten. I'm not going anywhere and there is no way you'll ever be alone again. I was trying to get your mind off of thinking everything you say or do is a curse. I told you once, and I'll tell you again, you are not cursed, Clara. Not in any way, shape, or form. I find you to be smart, resourceful, kind, and yes, you are even beautiful. It's late; we should all get some sleep. You can ask more questions later. Then you need to get back to town and plan out our wedding," he murmurs before kissing my forehead. "Mainly just who will marry us, where, and when."
"Easy. Minister. Church. When you choose," I reply. Buck grins. "I just need to buy some new material for a dress."

"I've already got a dress in the process of being made for you. We have always been hopeful you two would meet again and the the knot. Mabel and I can move in by the end of the month at the latest," Talon remarks as I yawn again. 

"And they can have my house. I'll build a small forge to work in behind your home," Buck whispers.

"Our home. You said you wouldn't leave me," I counter, meeting his eye in fear and concern. 

"Our home, kitten. Our home," he confirms as he presses his lips against mine softly. "You have nothing else to worry about. Get some sleep, kitten. I'll hold you tonight and soon every night after. I've got you and I'm never losing you again." I smile and close my eyes, finally feeling whole as I hold onto the hand on my stomach.

© 2017 Lynaelee

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Added on August 10, 2017
Last Updated on October 10, 2017



Sometimes I feel like I need an outlet to express myself. I have never been good with verbal communication, but I have always found an out in writing. I hurt. I bleed. I make mistakes. I cry. Yes,.. more..

If only If only

A Book by Lynaelee

1. *Prologue* 1. *Prologue*

A Chapter by Lynaelee