Howard stood in front of Marina’s apartment door, holding two take out bags from the pizzeria down the street from the museum where she worked. He hoped that the familiar food would make this ordeal more comfortable for her. The staff at the restaurant knew exactly what she liked so there was no guessing involved with her order.
He had never been so nervous, not even when Theresa confronted him for the last time. Nor the first time he changed with his father when he was seventeen. How could facing Marina be so terrifying?
The trip from Pompeii to Rome yielded nothing for him in the way of how to word the truth to her. Standing there now, he had no plan. But she was expecting him, waiting for him. He could hear her pacing inside, her socked feet shuffling on the hardwood floors. She was mumbling to herself too. Could it be possible that she was just as anxious as he was?
He took a deep breath and tapped a knuckle on the door. A few scurried footsteps later and more mumbling, Marina opened the door. He drew in a tight breath at the sight of her.
Just a few weeks ago, he thought that he would never see her again. She was still as beautiful as ever, even with her hair a little tousled. Standing there in her dress slacks and blouse, he figured that she must have gotten home from work a little while ago.
“Hi,” he said. The greeting came out lower than he expected, trying to compensate for his rattled nerves.
“Hello.” Her voice was a little high pitched and obviously shaky. Standing closer now, Howard could hear her racing heart. It was almost pounding against his eardrums.
He gave her a strained smile and held up the take out bags. Her deep chocolate brown eyes darted between his face and the bags before she took them.
“Thank you,” she said before walking a few steps away to set the bags down on the coffee table.
Howard stepped inside and shut the door behind him. “It’s from that pizzeria. I got that pasta dish you like.”
Marina didn’t respond as she made her way to the kitchen.
Howard chewed on his bottom lip. This wasn’t like her. He could tell that she was nervous, but she wasn’t talking much. She always talked too much when she was nervous. Perhaps this was a new level of anxiety that he hadn’t seen before.
Fear. Yep, that was it. Taking a deep breath in, he could smell it like a noxious gas. What was she afraid of? Him or what he had to say?
She came back with two glasses of water and handed one to him. Their fingers grazed as he took it from her and they locked eyes.
He never thought he’d be back in Rome, here with Marina in her apartment so cluttered with history books. He never thought he would be breathing in her perfume, drinking in the subtle peace that her presence gave him. Yet, here he was, about to ruin his life.
“Marina, I think you need to sit down.”
She blinked. “Is this about what I found earlier today?”
She let out a stiff breath. “Good, because I’m really curious what you have to say about it.”
There was humor in her tone, but no smile danced across her lips as it had before. As she turned and walked to the sofa, Howard wished with every fiber of his being that he didn’t have to tell her this. If he could save her the trouble, come up with some story, a lie to cover up the truth, he would have. But there was nothing he could think of and whatever he said, she probably wouldn’t believe him anyway.
She sat down heavily on the sofa and took a sip of her water as Howard steeled himself for the conversation he had wanted to avoid all his life.
He sat down across from her on the coffee table. It creaked a bit under his weight, but otherwise stood firm.
Looking into her eyes again, he was at a loss for words. Buying himself a little bit of time, he took the glass from her hand and set both down onto the table top next to him. She might have been liable to drop it and make a mess.
The silence in the apartment was suffocating as he sat there staring, still searching for the right words. All he wanted to do was kiss her and not destroy the relationship they had in its infancy.
“Howard, you’re scaring me.”
“I don’t mean to. Please, believe me that I don’t mean to.”
“Then just tell me. It must be something logical… Maybe it’s just someone that has Decimus’s name. But you made it sound like something else.”
“It is something else. And that guy you read about in the historian accounts is Decimus.”
“But it’s not possible,” she said with a shake of her head, tendrils of black hair tumbling around her cheeks.
Howard nodded and laced his fingers together, squeezing until his knuckles cracked. “It is possible.”
“People don’t live for over two hundred years.”
“Last time I checked, they didn’t.”
Howard’s lips formed a thin line. He knew the best way to get this out was just to say it plainly, without hesitation. Ripping it off like duct tape off of a hairy leg, expect this was more painful and had longer lasting effects.
He opened his mouth to utter the words, but they wouldn’t come. His tongue wouldn’t form the sentence he needed.
Glancing down onto the coffee table, he saw a pen and small notepad, the same one she kept in her pocket at all times. He snatched it up and with shaking hands, wrote down what she needed to know. Just four words, that was all. Maybe that would help coax the rest out of him.
Howard tore the sheet off the pad and handed it to Marina.
She took it and he watched as her eyes skimmed over the words. Her full, silky lips parted and he listened as her heartbeat thumped louder.
“Decimus is a werewolf,” she read aloud, her voice no more than a whisper but it was the loudest thing Howard had ever heard.
Then came the short, breathy laugh and shake of her head. “That can’t be true. Werewolves don’t exist.”
Howard reached out and took her hands in his, the piece of paper crinkling between her palms. “It’s the only way he would have been able to survive Pompeii and then show up in Ancona two hundred years later.”
Marina looked up, a mix of confusion and suspicion in her expression. She must have thought he was crazy and regretting the kiss they shared that night in the museum. He never would until the day he died, even if she rejected him right now.
“But how are you so sure werewolves exist at all?”
Howard leveled his gaze upon her, hoping that somehow if he just gave her time, she would make the connection. After a few moments of intense silence, he saw the glimmer of understanding in her eyes.
“Decimus was your ancestor… If he was a werewolf, then you would… you would be too?”
Howard gravely nodded, not peeling his stare from her for a second.
Would she slap him? Scream? Spit in his face? Run for the phone and call the cops? Faint?
Marina shook her head, the look of pure shock written on her face. “I don’t believe you.”
“You think I’m crazy, right?” he managed to ask, even though his throat was parched. The glass of water by his thigh would have been refreshing, but he couldn’t let go of her hands. Not yet.
Marina looked away, her eyelids fluttering in bewilderment. He could feel her hands trembling, as they grew cold and sweating in his grasp. “I don’t know what to think.”
Howard knew she wasn’t fully convinced. She was a logical person, rational minded and grounded in the facts that she could read about in books. Werewolves only existed in fairy tales and fiction novels. They didn’t walk among men. But she probably felt that way about vampires too. But that was a conversation for another time.
“What if I could prove it?” he asked, trying to be as tender as possible. It was too late to turn back now. He couldn’t take the words out of her mind and put them back in his mouth like he wanted to do so badly. They started this journey and they would finish it. She would know one way or another.
Marina turned back to him, eyebrows raised and eyes wide. “How would you prove it?”
There were many ways he could prove it. He could take a butcher knife and stab himself in the leg and let her watch it heal itself. He could pick up the sofa with one hand with her still sitting on it. He could strip down and change into a wolf right in front of her if he chose to.
But instead, he closed his eyes. A coolness, like running spring water, washed over his eyes and when he opened them, his irises were no longer the emerald green that she was accustomed to seeing. Instead, they were a bright, almost glowing shade of gold with a thick dark rim around the outside. They were the eyes of the wolf spirit that shared his body.
Countless times he had made these eyes come forward in the bathroom mirror at home, facing his inner demons. And he’d seen the golden eyes of his father, brother, and other pack members back home in Wyoming. These eyes were a part of his life, as natural as breathing to him.
But she had never seen these eyes looking at her before. At least, not coming from a human. No human had ever seen his golden eyes before. Marina was his first, and hopefully his last.
The few seconds that it took for her to react stretched on like a lifetime. He watched as her entire face twisted in horror at the sight of him.
She tried to wrench her hands away, but he reflexively gripped tighter. And then she screamed.
It rang in his ears, so shrill and fraught with the fear that she bottled up so well before. He would never forget that scream as long as he lived.
Howard jumped up and covered her mouth with his rough hand to stifle her, being careful not to block her nose so she could breathe. The other hand held her firmly behind the head so she couldn’t pull away. Her fingers clawed at the skin on the back of his hand, but he refused to let go even when she drew blood with her nails.
He felt his own facial muscle bunch up, trying to control his raging emotions. He couldn’t stand this. He wanted to run away and hide under a rock for the next millennium. But he had to make her understand first.
“Marina, calm down. Listen to me. I’m not going to hurt you, ok?” The pleading in his voice wasn’t enough to abate her cries as she struggled against him. “We’re not evil. We don’t kill people. Please, calm down and listen to me.”
But it was too late. He watched her eyes roll into the back of her head. Her whole body went limp as she fainted.
Howard caught her in his arms and held her in a tight hug. He was violently shaking and he began to wonder if he would pass out too. But he took a few deep breaths and eased his pulse back to normal. Anymore adrenaline pumping through his veins and he wouldn’t be able to contain the beast inside.
The gold faded back to green.
Everything he was afraid of had now come to pass. She was terrified of him. He told her the truth, told his deepest, darkest secret to her and she rejected him.
Squeezing his eyes shut, a tear slid down his cheek, the first in nearly a century. This was a horrible idea. He shouldn’t have come here tonight. He could have gone straight to Ancona and bypassed this whole fiasco.
Howard scooped her up and cradled her close. Looking into her face now, he wouldn’t have even suspected that just moments before she was screaming. She looked peaceful in her unconscious state.
But he wouldn’t be there when she awoke.
He carried her into the bedroom and set her down onto the mattress, hoping that maybe she would think this was all a bad nightmare. They didn’t even get to eat the takeout he brought.
Howard sniffled and rubbed away the unwanted tear from his face. As he did, he glanced down to her night table and saw the pile of romance novels. Shirtless men holding half naked damsels stared back at him.
If the mere guilt of making her faint wasn’t enough, he was even more torn up now. Marina probably pictured Howard as her knight and shining armor, the hero that would sweep her off her feet. But he wasn’t the hero. He was the monster. At least, that’s how she would see him now.
Taking one last look at her lovely face, Howard turned and walked out of the apartment. If any of her neighbors heard the scream, the police would be at her door in no time.
Licinia sauntered through the busy market with her mother-in-law, Recepta. Their arms were hooked together with their free hands toting shopping baskets. Licinia’s mind was on anything else besides Recepta’s constant gossiping. She didn’t care about what Statilla did the other day with the young man who could have posed as her son. Nor did she care about the latest scandal with Urbana.
The old woman’s voice droned on and on as they made their way from the vegetable stands to the fruit stands down the strip. Recepta had nothing better to do with her voice than to tell meaningless stories about everyone they knew and worship her god every other day with the other Christians in Ancona.
The new religion made its way from Judea long ago and recruited followers like flies to honey. Licinia did not share in her beliefs, but humored Recepta by giving an attentive audience.
While fishing out a few more coins to purchase tomatoes, Licinia caught a glimpse of someone she hadn’t seen before.
Looking up, she froze. He was weaving his way through the crowd with a sack thrown over his broad, muscular shoulders. His hair was swept back and came down to graze his collarbone, black as the moonless night with the exception of a touch of silver around his temples.
His intense hazel eyes were set forward in a determined gaze. A dark beard lightly sprinkled with bits of silver that matched his temples encircled a pair of enticing lips and a bold chin.
But despite the obvious indicators of old age in his hair, the man’s physique was nowhere near that of an elderly man’s. A tunic and pair of baggy trousers could not hide his chiseled muscles underneath. And his skin was not wrinkled in the least. Only tan and weathered by the forces of nature.
Licinia craned her neck, watching him walk towards a fishmonger’s booth closer to the harbor.
The adventurous spirit within her yearned to follow. She turned to Recepta who was in the middle of a story about some wedding that would take place in a month’s time.
“Recepta, would you mind if I went to get some fish? I know you abhor the stench, so I want to spare you the trip.”
The old woman looked up with her dark eyes and nodded. “I suppose that would be fine. Come back quickly.”
Licinia grinned and skipped away down the market strip, her long, slightly curly, dark brown hair bouncing over her shoulders and back. She skillfully slid her way past men with loaded cases of produce and women with wailing babes in their arms.
Soon, she caught sight of him speaking with Publius, the fish merchant. She eased her way closer and slyly hid between two poultry stands to eavesdrop. Her feminine lips curled into an impish grin as her glistening brown eyes watched the men debate over the selling price of the fish.
“I can only offer this much, Decimus. The economy isn’t doing so well with all the trouble brewing in Rome.”
“But that’s nearly half of what you usually give,” the handsome stranger spoke. “Can’t you make an exception?”
“I’m sorry, but this is all I have. I hate to tell you, but take it or leave it.”
Licinia knew Publius as a shrewd businessman. He’d been selling fish for many years in Ancona and the way he behaved in this moment was starkly out of character. He seemed almost intimidated by the man he called Decimus. The burly fish merchant, whose voice was normally harsh and aggressive towards customers, spoke shyly and unobtrusively to his client.
In Publius’s defense, Decimus certainly was a formidable man. He was a tall man and built like a seasoned soldier. But he had the patience of a mother with the fish merchant. Instead of growing outrageously furious like Licinia suspected he would, he only sighed and handed over his bag of, what she now identified as, his fish to sell. She was surprised she hadn’t smelled them earlier when he passed by.
“Fine, Publius. You give me what you can.” His voice was husky, deep, vibrating in her bones. It was thrilling to hear him speak.
Publius let out the breath he had been holding and nodded. “Thank you for understanding.”
The merchant dropped a few coins into Decimus’s outstretched pouch and collected his purchase.
Licinia watched Decimus turn and walk away, synching the moneybag shut. When she realized he was coming closer, she decided to act. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out from her hiding spot and walked in the opposite direction he was going.
Like a sly fox, she sidestepped as close as she could into his path without completely blocking him. When his eyes lifted from his pouch, he hadn’t even seen her basket was right in his way.
They collided, basket knocked from her hand and spilled out all over the ground. She let out a mock cry of surprise and dropped to her knees to begin scooping up her groceries.
And just as planned, he stopped. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said as he squatted down with her.
Licinia cautioned a glance to him and their eyes met. She smiled in spite of herself. His warm, honey colored eyes were stunning against his tanned skin. “It’s alright. I wasn’t paying attention to where I was walking.”
He cautioned a smirk and began to help her dust off the fruits and vegetables before placing them back in the basket. “I wasn’t either.”
Licinia lifted her recovered basket into her arms and they stood together, shoppers swerving their way around. She noticed they were all giving him a wider berth than with her.
She offered out her hand to the man. “Thank you for your help. My name is Licinia.”
She needed no introduction from him, but craved the sound of his voice just once more. Perhaps if their conversation continued, she could get the chance to ask him over for the evening meal.
But she noticed something change in his demeanor. He seemed confused, almost hesitant as he looked down at her hand. Was he not accustomed to handshakes from women? His gaze darted between her face and her hand, eyebrows wrinkling together in borderline disgust.
She started to recoil her hand when a peculiar thing occurred. He turned to look up the street, spotted something and was gone in an instant, disappearing into the crowd.
Licinia made a sound of disbelief and made to rush after him, but it was as if he vanished in the mass of shoppers and merchant booths.
“Licinia?” she heard her name called. The voice was unmistakable. She heard it every waking hour of the day.
She turned to see her mother-in-law approach, wisps of gray hair falling around her flushed cheeks from the tightly crafted braid that Licinia helped to prepare each morning.
“Licinia, what were you doing?” she asked in a panic.
Licinia narrowed her eyes at her mother in law. “I was going to get fish. Do you not remember me saying that just a few moments ago?”
The old woman gave her a grave look. “Yes, I remember you saying that. I meant, what were you doing with that man?”
In vain, Licinia scanned the crowd one more time to look for Decimus. “He knocked my basket while we passed each other and was helping me pick everything up.”
Recepta shook her head. “No, no. Never talk to that man.”
She grabbed Licinia by the elbow and began to drag her away from the fish merchant booth. “What? Why? I don’t understand. He was helping me. What am I supposed to do next time? Leave the basket where it was and keep going?”
Recepta gave a firm nod. “Yes, that’s exactly what you do. Just keep walking.”
Licinia groaned and allowed herself to be guided back down merchants’ row. She dropped the subject for now, but continually checked over the heads of the other shoppers for her mysterious fisherman. As always, Licinia had no intention of heeding Recepta’s warning. And just like every time before, she would do just the opposite when the opportunity presented itself.