The afternoon sun traveled across the villa’s courtyard, shadows shortening as it reached its zenith. Jo yawned, exhausted despite the anxiety and excitement swirling in her chest. Everything she thought she knew about reality had been ripped apart and stitched back together in an unfamiliar pattern.
Her friends talked about ancient gods and goddesses with casual derision, like they were troublesome children prone to temper tantrums. She had seen Quinn shift from a man to a wolf and then back to a man with her own eyes, and yet there was still a tiny corner of her rational mind that rebelled. Curses were for gothic novels, werewolves for classic horror movies. If you had asked her yesterday she would have told you magic was not real, but even then she learned that yesterday was not really yesterday. Two weeks had passed since the night of the attack. She had been unconscious for fourteen days in the Beyond but, Quinn had explained, it was not yet noon the next day back on her earth.
The plans for the meeting with Zeus and the search for Jo’s attacker were finalized by the time the sun had marched half-way toward the western horizon. Jo was gazing out the window, watching the other women and men who lived in the villa go about their work, when three women on horseback rode into the courtyard. Their leader was a curvaceous older woman, the muscles in her bare arms strained against her gold armbands. She moved with purpose, sliding from her saddle and handing the reins off to a man who had come forward to meet them.
Jo marveled at the way her own senses were changing. She was able to distinguish the comforting scent of the horses from the leather of the saddles, and the sweetness of turned earth in the beds of plants surrounding the flagstones. The sound of the woman’s sandals slapping against the stone floor were as clear as Vera’s voice.
The wolf within was alert. We’re about to have a visitor, Jo thought.
The woman appeared in the doorway. Vera stood, welcoming her with a small bow and a smile.
“Sofia, come in and meet our newest citizen.”
Sofia dipped her head toward Jo in brief acknowledgment. “It’s good to see that you have done well in the care of healers,” she turned back to Vera, “We’ve come to escort you all to the Temple. Is there anything you require before we depart, my lady?”
Vera rolled her eyes. “That’s Sofia’s way of telling me we need to get moving or we’re going to be late.”
“Late for what?” Jo asked.
“A really dull dinner,” Sam teased.
Vera poked him in the side. “Rude,” she smiled at Jo, “It’s a welcome feast for our newest Sister.”
“That’s sweet,” Jo said and tried to suppress the old ache of loneliness. The people surrounding her had carved out a space in their lives for her. She wondered what it would be like to be part of something larger. Evander and Sam had described the Mound of Gaia like a family, each person committed to a greater purpose and to each other. Vera had told her about the Web that connected her to each member of the order, like a series of ley lines, but instead of joining physical locations, they began within Vera and radiated outward to each individual. Vera could reach out to any one of her sisters or brothers with her thoughts, share their sorrows and their joys. It sounded beautiful and impossible. Jo longed to be part of it. Her eyes pricked with heat and she stepped away from the group. Pull it together, Jo, she thought, swiping at the tears before they reached her cheeks.
Quinn pressed his chest to her back, hooking his chin over her shoulder and sliding his arms around her waist, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s going to take a minute to get used to you having radio-free access to my emotions.” She chuckled, but it was humorless. “Nothing. I’m being stupid.”
“Tell me anyway.”
She turned in Quinn’s arms and rested her forehead on his chest. She did not want to look in his eyes as she spoke. “It sounds nice, you know, being a part of this place. I’ve never really been a part of anything before. The dinner for that new Sister, it made me think, that’s all.”
“Jo,” Quinn lifted her chin and brushed the hair from her face, “You do realize that this feast is for you, right?”
“What? Me? No.” She searched Quinn’s face for a sign he was teasing and found none. “Are you serious?”
“It caused quite a stir when we showed up with you. Folks from the uninitiated world aren’t even supposed to know about the Beyond. Vera took a huge chance bringing you here, but it was that or let you die, and she loves you. We all do.”
“Really?” She let her tears fall unchecked.
“Yes, really. Not to mention you grew up in the uninitiated world. The younger acolytes think you’re something of a rock star.”
She laughed. “They need to get out more; I’m no one.”
“No to us, Jo. Not to me.”
The Temple of Gaia was a half day’s ride from the villa. They started among the pine forests, descending a well-trodden path that passed over tumbling hills with groves of oaks and chestnuts, and then finally to the meadows in the Valley of Gortyna. The valley floor was dotted with orchards and farms. Dull-eyed sheep watched them pass before returning to their grazing while pastured horses threw their heads and trotted beside the group like a royal escort.
The wolf slept, lulled by the safety of their numbers. Quinn, Sam, and Evander entertained Jo with stories of their childhood adventures. It made her smile to imagine them young, just three curious boys exploring every nook and crag of the remarkable land in which she now found herself.
The sky was fading from robin’s egg blue to pale gold when they rounded a copse of chestnuts and the Temple of Gaia came into view. Fruit trees and flowers encircled the temple like a living wreath. The structure itself was a circular temple ringed by twelve stone columns, each rising from the earth to support the soaring domed roof.
Their arrival at the Temple was a blur of introductions. Vera whisked Jo off to the baths as soon as they were able to break away without giving offense. The bathing chamber was stone and marble with a sunken pool at its center. Sconces lined the walls, each bearing a thick pillar candle that glowed with warmth in the dim light and glinted off the surface of the water. Lavender and bitter orange bath oils scented the humid air and the sound of water lapping at the pool’s edges echoed in vast space.
Jo had always been shy of her curves and the fullness of her breasts and balked when Vera began to peel offer her riding clothes, but the allure of heat on her aching legs was enough for her to overcome her modesty. Jo was a novice when it came to horses and her muscles were tight from the strain of a half-day’s ride. Vera was unashamed by her nudity and did her best to put Jo at ease. She talked about the Temple and the history of the Mound of Gaia while they bathed. Jo listened, tilting her head back, and watched the waves of light ripple on the ceiling.
“Thank you for saving my life,” Jo said, taking advantage of a lull in their conversation.
“You don’t need to thank me. You’re family, Jo. We take care of our own.”
“Quinn told me that you took a risk bringing me here. I wanted you to know that I’m grateful, for everything.”
“Well,” Vera paused, a frown tugging the corners of her mouth down. After a moment of thought, she shrugged, and picked up a bar of soap, working up a sweet-scented lather, “Quinn needs to learn when to shut his yap.”
“I just don’t want any of you to get in trouble on my account.”
Vera chuckled, “Please don’t worry about that. The worst I’m going to get is some side-eye from a couple of the elders, and even then, they know I wouldn’t have done it without a damn good reason.”
“But what if Zeus fixes me tomorrow? I mean, makes me normal again, you’re not going to whammy me with some amnesia spell and bring me home like nothing happened?” Jo tried to make her comment sound like an off-handed quip, but the fear that underscored her question was clear.
“Wow, you need to stop watching so much television,” Vera chided. “Here’s the thing. Before all this shit happened, we’d already been talking about finding a way to get you here.”
A Temple Sister entered the bathing chamber and Jo struggled to tame her curiosity. The young woman asked if Vera and Jo would need assistance dressing and Jo stifled a laugh when Vera clucked her tongue.
“Did Sofia send you?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“That woman herds me like a damn goat,” Vera muttered before speaking up, “Tell her we’ll be dressing in my bedchamber and what did I say about “my lady,” Cassandra?”
Cassandra smiled. It was a sweet, shy expression that betrayed her youth. “To not say it.”
“Right, now go on. We won’t need help dressing either. Tell that meddling crone that we’ll come down when we’re ready.”
Jo set aside her curiosity, plenty of time for questions later, she thought and followed Vera to her bedchamber. The room was simple, with a low sleeping pallet and a dressing table. Their feasting gowns were laid out for them. Vera’s was a long chiton of silk the color of fresh cream and light wool wrap. It had been dyed to match the garnets that were set among the golden laurel leaves in her crown. Jo’s dress was similar in style, dyed to match the blue of the Aegean Sea with a woolen wrap that was a shade paler than her dress and trimmed with panels embroidered with silver and gold thread.
“I can’t believe you have a crown,” Jo said, astonished.
“You have to wear one too. It’s not a big deal.”
Jo snorted. “Classy.” She held up a crown made of silver-filigree and shaped like entwined stalks of wheat. “You weren’t kidding.”
“Nope, now come sit down,” Vera waved her over to the dressing table and had her sit while she set the crown among Jo’s loose chestnut curls. “I’m pretty sure Quinn is going to faint when he sees you.”
“I don’t know about that,” Jo laughed, looking down at herself. The bond between them flared with excitement, Quinn’s anticipation ringing like a chorus of silver bells. “I’ve never felt like this about anyone before. It’s like we were made for each other. Is that what it was like for you with Sam and Evander?”
Vera smiled, “It was, and it wasn’t. Your bond with Quinn is rooted in the animal nature that you share.”
Jo’s brows furrowed. “Wait,” the ramifications of Vera’s words sunk in, “Does that mean that if Zeus lifts the curse and silences the wolf, that he also destroys the bond?”
“There is a chance of that, yes,” Vera reached out for her hand to try and soothe Jo’s distress, “The truth is we don’t know what is going happen, but I know that it won’t change the way Quinn feels, he was over the moon for you before any of this happened.”
Jo looked down at her own shaking hands and tried to control her breath. An emptiness yawned in her chest. The wolf within howled and snapped like it had been wounded.
“I’m sorry, little sister, I thought you knew that was a possibility. You’ve taken all of this in with such grace, I keep forgetting that it’s new to you.”
“I can’t…What if…What if I don’t want to go back to the way I was.”
Vera grimaced. “We’ll figure it out, I promise,” she enveloped Jo in a bone-crushing hug, “Can you wait here, I’m going to get Quinn and we’ll talk it out.”
Jo nodded, but as soon as she heard Vera’s steps soften and grow faint, she slipped out the door.
Quinn had been in the Feasting Hall, savoring a tankard of mead, and talking with Evander and Sam when he was assailed by Jo’s panic. The intensity of it whited out his vision and sent shocks of electricity skittering across the surface of his skin. Her fear burned in his lungs, leaving his gasping for breath like he had been pulled from the frigid waters of a lake. Her urge to run was so strong that he had shifted to his wolf-form without word or thought, and raced out of the hall to find Jo.
Quinn followed the clove and sweet almond of Jo’s unique scent and found her in the Temple orchards, sitting beneath an apple tree. She was hugging her bare arms for warmth and staring up at the star-speckled sky. The whisper of his paws tamping down the tender spring grass as he walked alerted her to his presence and she turned. The moon was near-full and it’s light sifted through the branches, casting dancing stripes of shadows over Jo’s face.
He trotted to her side and nudged at her cheek with his muzzle. She offered a sad smile, and patted the space by her hip. It was as if she had been expecting his company. Quinn shifted into his human-form and slipped off his own cloak, draping it over her shoulder. She pulled the soft wool close and leaned into his warmth.
“Why don’t your clothes get shredded every time you change?”
Quinn’s laughter was quick and sharp. “In all the millennia my kind has existed, no one has ever been able to answer that question. The most you ever get from one of the Temple elders when you ask is a shrug”
Jo was unable to hold back a smile.
“I’m fairly certain you’re not hiding out here because you’re worried about the state of my wardrobe,” he shuffled back until he was propped against the tree trunk, “What happened?”
Tears brightened Jo’s eyes. “Vera and I were talking about our bond. She doesn’t know what will happen to it if Zeus is able to lift the curse.”
Quinn sagged, scrubbing at his face with both hands. “Once you’re out of danger, whatever residual effects that are left we can deal with together.”
“What do you mean, residual effects?”
“The bond, the way we can sense each other’s emotions. If that doesn’t, I mean, if it’s still there afterwards, we can ask a healer if there’s a way to block it.”
“Is that what you want?” Quinn’s grief echoed through her, rousing the wolf, who recognized the threat of loss and howled, “Because I don’t want that. I’d rather stay cursed.”
Quinn sucked in a breath. “You can’t mean that.”
“I do. I mean it more than I’ve ever meant anything.”
“What about the pain? What Evander and Sam described, I wouldn’t want that for anyone, especially not you.”
“Then it’s a good thing it’s not your choice.” Both Jo and the wolf were aligned, fighting against the idea of losing their mate. “It’s my decision. I’m the one that has to live with the pain and I think that it’s worth it. I’ve lived through being torn apart once, if that’s the price I have to pay to keep our bond intact, then I’ll pay it.”
Quinn watched the branches of the apple tree shudder in the wind, berating himself for the hope Jo’s words gave him. “There’s a reason my kind were chosen to serve in the Mound of Gaia. Most of us can absorb emotions, we see magic in our animal-form, and we’re able to channel life-force. Birth defects are rare, but every once in a while a shapeshifter is born like I was, able to shift, but unable to feel others.”
“But, you can feel me?”
“I know, and that’s an experience I thought I would never have. You can’t imagine what having this for just one day has meant to me, but if it’s a choice between letting you live with the curse or learning to live without the bond? Jo, it’s simple. I want you to be safe. I love you. It’s crazy, and it’s too fast, but I do, and I think you love me too.”
Jo ran her hands through Quinn’s hair, along his jaw, down his neck. Anywhere she could reach, “I do. I love you.”
“Then promise me you’ll consider what I said when you see Zeus tomorrow. You deserve to live a life free of the Were-curse.”
“I will. I promise,” she said and crushed her mouth to Quinn’s. She climbed into his lap, her knees on either side of his waist. His hands slid up the backs of her thighs, lifting the dress so he could knead the globes of her ass. Sparks of arousal tripped up Jo’s spine, accompanied by the drum-beat of Quinn’s desire.
They rutted against each other, the coolness of the evening chased away by the heat of their skin. The wolf paced within Jo, hungry for her lover. Quinn’s hands glided over her body and she undulated against the hardness hidden beneath his tunic. The wetness of her sex soaked the cloth of his chiton. The raw linen created a delicious friction as it slipped against her clit, causing the walls of her sacred channel to tremor and pulse. She longed to feel Quinn’s heat inside her, to chase the fullness and completion that she had not known she craved until the wolf had awakened and recognized her mate.
Quinn brushed his thumbs over the hardened nubs of her breasts. He lost patience with the silk that separated them and tore the shoulder of her dress. He licked his way from one breast to the other. They rocked together, kindling the heat between them, allowing it to burn brighter and hotter with each passing moment.
Quinn trailed his hands over her body, delighting in her gasps when he breached her nether-lips and let his fingers glide through her slick. Jo was close, but she wanted more than just his hands, and pulled away, sitting back on her heels. She slid her hands up Quinn’s bare legs. The muscles of his thighs were like bands of iron beneath his skin. She pushed the hem of his chiton higher and his legs fell open revealing the length of his cock. It curved toward his stomach, blood heavy and shining at the tip, his balls hanging heavy beneath. Jo palmed them, testing their weight in her hand, her fingers pulsing with pressure. Quinn groaned, his hips twitching with the urge to thrust.
Jo clasped the base of his shaft and dipped her head, flicking her tongue along the tip and suckling the head. A sweet-bitterness exploded on her tongue.
Quinn jolted. “Please,” he begged.
“What do you need?” Jo teased. Despite the danger they still faced, the wolf was playful. She knew, in that moment, that whatever choice she made the following day, she would make it out of love and not out of fear and loss. There was no power that could be stronger than what swirled between them in this moment.
“You. I need you.”
“Then you’ll have me,” she said and lifted her body. Jo held his cock steady and sunk onto him, one agonizing centimeter at a time, relishing the way her body stretched around the girth of his prick.
Quinn's gaze locked with Jo’s. She stilled, listening to the symphony of his arousal. He pulled her close, panting against her breast-bone, his breath was warm against her skin. Jo tilted his head and kissed him, her tongue slipping into his mouth.
I will live how I choose, she thought, rocking on his shaft. Quinn caressed the pearl of her clit. She cried out, the wolf and her own spirit blending into one consciousness as the syrup-sweet tendrils of her climax began to radiate outward from her center. The world that existed beyond the confines of their skin fell away. Jo could not tear her eyes from Quinn’s. Fire raced through her when she felt his cock hardening within her and they came together. Their shouts were a chorus of pleasure that rose into the sky, careening past the stars, and into the blackness of space, on an unending journey to the place where time began.
Anne Stagg's 'Mound of Gaia' series is a Bellesa exclusive.