Copyright © 2020 by Zoe Ray. All rights reserved.
If Audrey didn’t feel obligated to spend the holidays with her family, she wasn’t sure if she’d show up for their annual Christmas celebration. Christmas was her favorite time of the year, but even though she loved her family dearly, they had a way of making the holiday not so merry from time to time. The fireplace was lit. The smell of cinnamon filled the air. Everyone bustled around her parents spacious home while Christmas music played in the background. The house was perfectly decorated in red, green, and gold and the giant tree was a thing of beauty.
Every other day of the year Audrey was happily single, but the holidays did remind her that she was single. All her siblings and cousins were married with families, and Audrey was always the only single one at the festivities. Every year on December twenty-third, her mother hosted the family for the holiday, and every year on December twenty-third, Aubrey felt like the only single woman in the world.
Still, the joy she felt made her smile as she handed Christmas gifts to her nieces and nephews. It warmed her heart to hear them say, “thank you Auntie Audrey.”
Once the kids were occupied opening their presents, she and her siblings and parents exchanged gifts. She kissed her grandpa on the cheek as she sat next to him on the couch and handed him his gift, an antique compass she’d found. It reminded her of him.
“Thank you, Sweet Pea,” her grandpa said. “I love it. Where did you find this?”
“That’s my secret, Papa.”
“Give Papa a hug,” he said.
Audrey embraced her grandpa with all her might. He still had quite a grip for a man his age. They had a special relationship. She was closer to him than anyone else in the family. Audrey paused when she saw her sister and her husband embrace out of the corner of her eye.
Her grandpa noticed her lingering gaze and tapped her shoulder. “Sweet Pea, what’s happening?”
“What does Papa always tell you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You are special, Sweet Pea, you’re unique, and whoever you’re meant to be with is also special. They have to prepare for you, and when they’re ready, you’ll be the happiest woman alive.”
Audrey hoped that whoever she ended up with was as strong, as kind, and as handsome as her grandpa with his bright smile, cinnamon brown skin, and his salt and pepper hair.
“Audrey,” her mother shouted, running to her side. “Open your gift.”
Audrey sighed as she loosened her grip on her grandpa. “Thanks, mom,” Audrey was reluctant to look inside the red and white gift bag decorated with candy canes and glitter. Her mother seemed a little too excited for Audrey’s liking. Audrey sat the bag on the table next to her.
“No, honey, open it now. I found the perfect gift for you.”
“Perfect?” Audrey asked.
Audrey’s least favorite cousin, Michelle, caught wind of Audrey’s conversation with her mother, and couldn’t wait to get involved. “Trust me, it’s perfect. I ran into Aunt Maxine when she was shopping, and I helped her pick it out. You’re going to love it.”
That made Audrey even more skeptical. Michelle was always looking for ways to take shots at Audrey. She’d been that way since they were little, so Audrey had a feeling that whatever this gift was, it wouldn’t be good.
“I’ll just open it when I get home,” Audrey said.
“No, do it now,” Michelle pleaded as if she cared.
“I’d rather not,” Audrey said.
“Come on baby, just open it,” her mother said.
Audrey shook her head. Why was saying no never enough?
Michelle hurried to Audrey and grabbed the bag. Audrey reached for it, but Michelle snatched it away and began tugging at the tissue paper. At that point, everyone in the room turned their attention to the spectacle.
“See, look.” Michelle pulled a black and silver box out of the bag, and waved it proudly so everyone could see.
Audrey squinted through her glasses as the box came into focus.
“It’s a flat iron,” her mother said with excitement. “It’s supposed to be the best. It has titanium plates and it gets really hot, so it’ll straighten that hair right out.”
Audrey looked at her mother, then at Michelle in disbelief. “When was the last time you saw me with straight hair?” she asked.
“Exactly,” Michelle said with a smug smirk that only Audrey could detect. “This one will definitely work all those kinks out. Now your hair can look pretty.”
“Excuse me,” Audrey said.
“You know. It’s about time you did something to that hair of yours,” Michelle said.
“I like my hair the way it is.” Audrey defended her dark curly coils with blonde highlights.
“This is for when you’re ready to try something different,” her mother, Maxine said. “You’re getting older and you need to get married and have babies. You need to focus on attracting a man, and your hair is your crowning glory.”
“I like my crowning glory the way it is, Mother. It took years to grow my hair this long, and any man who can’t appreciate my natural hair the way it was created can kick rocks.”
“That’s why it’ll look so good when it’s straight. Imagine how long and silky it can be. You’ll have men lining up to be with you.”
Michelle chimed in. “Aunt Maxine is right. When was the last time you even had a boyfriend or a date? Aren’t you tired of being alone?”
Audrey looked around and noticed the entire family watching.
“My Sweet Pea is beautiful the way she is,” her grandpa jumped in, giving her hand a supportive squeeze.
“Thank you, Papa.” Audrey turned her attention to her cousin. “My personal life is none of your business. Do not start with me.”
Michell was always judging people and everyone knew she was nothing more than a lonely, miserable housewife who’s husband was always on the road. There were many rumors as to where he actually was when he was away from home.
“I’ve got a man. You should take notes.”
“Where is your man?” Audrey asked. “It's Christmas. Shouldn’t he be by your side?”
“He’s working. You’d know what it was like if you could actually get a man.”
“Honey, men are visual creatures. I think it’ll be nice if you try to wear it straight and see what happens. You used to be so pretty when your hair was done.” Maxine tried to stop the conversation from turning ugly.
“That’s all I’m saying,” Michelle said.
“My hair is done. This is a style. This takes time and effort, and I love it. I shouldn’t have to defend my hair.” Audrey had finally gotten her hair trained and her curls to act right. Thanks to her new conditioner and styling cream she could run her fingers through her hair without using too much product, and her coils had definition. It was a major accomplishment for her, but she was the only woman in the family who wore her natural curls, and no one else understood the journey.
“You’re the only one who loves it,” Michelle said.
“That’s fine with me,” Audrey said.
“Don’t say we didn’t try to help you when you look around and you’re old, dried up, and all alone,” Michelle said.
“You know what it’s like to be all alone, don’t you?” Audrey asked.
“Audrey, don’t be rude,” her mother said.
“You’re reprimanding me?” Audrey asked her mother. “She’s the one being rude.”
“Honey, I think you’re just being sensitive. We’re only trying to help.”
“I don’t need help. I’m happy and healthy. I have a career I love, I do what I want, and I don’t have to answer to anyone.”
“Yet none of those things will keep you warm at night,” Michelle said.
“Don’t worry about me. I do just fine.”
“Doesn’t everyone think Audrey would look beautiful with straight hair?” Michelle asked the room.
Audrey looked around in disbelief as family members nodded and seemed to agree with her cousin and mother.
“This is ridiculous,” Audrey stood.
“Don’t listen to them, Sweet Pea, your hair is beautiful and so are you.”
Audrey managed to muster up a half smile.
“It’s true. They’re just jealous because you’re actually happy with yourself,” he whispered to Audrey.
“I love you, Papa. I need to breathe,” Audrey stood and walked outside. Christmas was right around the corner, and she didn’t want to argue with her family. She rested her head in her hand on the porch rail. It would be nice to have a man around during the holidays.
A gust of wind caressed her cheek. The air was cold and crisp. Audrey closed her eyes and imagined a hand, brown skin, long, with strong, hard-working fingers gently touching her face before a pair of perfect lips touched her full, soft lips. She longed for the warmth of a strong, handsome, man peeling her clothes off, piece by piece, his hands exploring her body and his kisses moving to her neck. A slight moan escaped her lips.
“Audrey, it’s cold out here.” Her mother’s voice jolted her back into the real world.
“It feels good.” Audrey cleared her throat as she stood.
“You’re not even wearing a coat. Come inside.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Maxine stood next to her daughter. “Honey, you know I only want the best for you. I just don’t want you to go through this life alone.”
“Do you really think straightening my hair will fix that?”
“I think it’ll show off your pretty face.”
“I’m more than a pretty face, and I can’t believe we’re having a conversation about hair in this day and age. I’m looking for someone who wants more than that. I want someone kind, strong, passionate, masculine, sensitive, thoughtful, dominant, smart—”
“Girl,” her mother interrupted her, “no wonder you’re still single. That’s unrealistic. No one man is all those things. It would take at least three men to give you what you want.”
“Excuse me for having standards.”
“Those are not standards. That’s a fantasy.”
“Mom, I’ll be fine.”
“I know you will. You’re smart and beautiful.”
“You think I’m beautiful.”
“Of course I do, Sweetie.”
“Even with my hair like this.”
Her mom put her hands in her thick mane and sighed. “Even with your hair like this.”
“Thank you.” Audrey shared a hug with Maxine knowing she meant well, she was just set in her ways.
“But Mama would like to see you straighten your hair just once. We don’t know how much longer I’m going be around.”
Audrey laughed. “That’s so unfair. You’re going to be around for a long time.”
Maxine joined in on the laughter. “If my mama asked me to do something, I’d do it out of respect.”
“Why don’t I go inside and ask grandma how respectful you are of her wishes?”
“Don’t you dare,” her mother said.
They shared a laugh and a hug.
“I love you, Audrey.”
“I love you too mom.”
“Don’t be so hard on Michelle. You know she’s going through a lot that she doesn’t talk about.”
“Well, she needs to quit pretending that her life is perfect and leave me alone.”
“She’s harmless,” Maxine said.
“She’s evil, and I don’t know why you all don’t see it.”
“Come on, let’s get inside where it’s warm.”
Audrey followed her mother back into the house. She stayed around for about thirty more minutes, and excused herself, giving hugs to her family members before her exit.
“Why are you leaving so soon, Sweet Pea?” her grandpa asked.
“I want to get some things done before it gets dark outside.”
“You know I don’t like you going out into those woods. You be careful.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be careful.” She kissed her grandpa on the cheek before heading out the front door.
Taking inventory of her outfit, Audrey figured she could do what she needed to do in her black leggings, knee length boots and black sweater-dress that hugged her ample curves and accentuated her hips and breasts.
She got into her car and drove to the wooded area. Audrey liked to make her own haircare products using plants and berries. She found that juices from ripe regal berries helped moisturize her hair and eliminate frizz. Once she added them to her homemade hair cream, it made a huge difference in her hair. It started with a few people noticing and requesting the products she used. Pretty soon she was selling at trade shows and public events. She’d even opened an online store, and sold to beauty salons in her area. Before she knew, it she’d developed a successful small business and quit her job. Women were going crazy for Regal Hair Care.
Three months ago, she’d gone into the woods near her home. Searching for plants had become a hobby for her, and this forest seemed to have quite a selection. The plants there were beautiful and bright, and the regal berries were huge. One day, she came across a patch of flowers. These were exotic and unlike anything she’d ever seen. So far she’d seen pink and blue with white accents along the edges. They bloomed beautifully, and like other plants she found in the forest, they were flawless. They withstood the winter weather, and Audrey was amazed. She was drawn to the flower like a moth to a flame. She didn’t want to pick them, but they smelled so good she had to get a closer whiff.
She took some of the flowers home and extracted oil from them. It occurred to her that scent would be divine in her hair so she made a conditioner using the flower. It smelled divine, but what she wasn’t prepared for was the effect it had. Her hair became soft and manageable and had a shine she’d never seen before. Audrey became obsessed with the flower, but she couldn’t find it anywhere. She had no idea what it was even called. Where did it come from? After countless hours searching the internet, she gave up and decided she would just get them from the forest.
Having no reference for the flower, she decided to call it Alaria and that’s what she named her new line. She thought it was a pretty and exotic name. She returned to the forest to pick Alaria every chance she got, making sure to leave some seeds behind, hoping more alaria would grow so she could continue to use it in her haircare line. Alria became her secret ingredient.
Audrey hadn’t had any trouble in the forest so she assumed it was relatively safe. She had no idea that this trip was about to be different than any of the others she’d made.
Her plan was to venture a little farther to find more alaria, but not too far. With her basket in hand she tread farther than she ever had down a familiar path. She needed to hurry. The sun would be setting soon.
There it was about fifty feet ahead of her. Audrey picked up speed at the sight of the beautiful flower bed ahead. There was more of the flower than she’d ever seen. Excitement caused chills to course through her body.
A loud voice caused Audrey to freeze. Afraid to turn around, she stood still, contemplating running. Her eyes closed, and she held her breath.
“What are you doing out here?” The sound of this mans deep voice sent chills down her spine.
She could only imagine what he looked like. Before she knew it, she could feel his breath behind her. She took off, hoping to get away, but the man grabbed her arm and turned her around.
Darius had become quite smitten with Audrey, for months he watched as she trekked the forest picking flowers and berries. He was enamored with her beauty and her curvy body. He especially loved her full head of hair. As much as it pleased him to watch her and listen to her humming and talking to herself, he needed to put a stop to it. She’d began coming more and more often, and he couldn’t risk her being discovered.
“Let me go,” Audrey struggled to break free of the man’s grip, but froze when she looked into his eyes and swore she saw fireworks in his green eyes. Her stomach fluttered as she looked at his lips, his chest covered by a fitted, white long John shirt, his light brown skin and brown hair. He was the tallest man she’d ever seen with the most beautifully sculpted body she’d ever seen, and though his touch made her knees weak, she needed to get away from him.
Darius was taken aback as well. He’d watched Audrey, knowing she was his, but he’d never been so close to her. Her body touching his drove all of his senses wild. Her scent complemented the scent of his most beloved flowers and the wolf within stirred.
He and the wolf had known for quite some time that she was bound to him. That, along with the scent of Audrey’s arousal, made it nearly impossible to fight the urge to take her right then and there.
They stood longer than either of them had intended, staring, imagining the things they could do to one another, both breathless, both speechless.
Audrey bit her bottom lip and without thinking, Darius gripped her arm tighter. Audrey stomped on Darius’s foot and shoved his arm. Darius was so tickled, his laughter caused him to let go of Audrey’s arm. Audrey was about to flee, but was distracted by his laugh. It was hearty like a giant, and he practically was a giant compared to Audrey.
“What’s so funny?” She asked dumbfounded.
Darius caught himself and returned to his usual hardened expression. “This is no laughing matter.”
Audrey jumped. His deep voice seemed to penetrate her skin and vibrated throughout her body. Fear returned to her eyes and she once again attempted to flee.
Darius grabbed her before she could get away. He could feel her heartbeat race. “You’ve been coming here, stealing,” he said.
“What?” Audrey shouted. “I’ve never stolen anything in my life. How dare you?”
“You’re a thief, and if I see you here again, I’ll have you arrested.”
Audrey was confused, and the thought of being arrested scared her more than the jerk who was holding her arm. “Arrested for what?”
“Trespassing, for one.”
“I’m not trespassing. This is public property.”
“Who told you that?” Darius asked.
“No one. It’s the woods. You can’t own the woods.”
“You have a lot to learn. You can’t just make assumptions, and you can’t steal from me without consequence.”
“Steal. I don’t steal.”
“I’ve watched you, picking my plants for months. I hoped you’d stop coming here, but you keep coming back, taking what’s mine. I won’t tolerate it any longer. You’re not welcome here.”
“You’ve been watching me?” Audrey asked.
“The point is, you need to leave here and never return.” Darius used his most intimidating voice, causing Audrey to jump.
“How do I know what you say is true?”
“This is my land. That is my house.” Darius pointed to the distance, just beyond the flowers Audrey was headed for.
A massive cabin stood in the distance. Audrey had so many questions. “Why have you been watching me? Why didn’t you say anything before now? Do you live here alone?”
“It’s time for you to go,” Darius said.
“What is your name?” Audrey asked.
“That’s none of your concern, Audrey.”
With every word, Audrey became more confused and she didn’t want to admit she was intrigued. “How do you know my name?”
“You ask too many questions. Get off my property. Stop stealing from me, or you’ll be sorry. Do I make myself clear?”
Audrey stood with her mouth open. Nothing was clear.
“GET OUT!” Darius shouted, shaking her to the core. Audrey jumped. Her glasses fell, and she drooped her basket as she took off running. She didn’t look back until she reached her car, out of breath.
Darius stood in the same spot until Audrey drove off. He wasn’t in his right mind and feared that he’d inadvertently revealed too many details. He could only hope that he’d done enough to keep Audrey away for good.
His mind was troubled as he picked up her glasses and basket from the ground.