“Once upon a time,” Ray began, stopping when his audience of one scrunched up her nose in reaction. “Sorry kid,” he said with a grin, “but that’s how all the stories start. Now, you gonna let me tell it?” Satisfied with the nod he got in response, Ray started again.
“Once upon a time, in a kingdom amazingly like this one, there lived a princess. She had golden hair and eyes bluer than the sky, and usually, she was pretty happy with her life. Hey, she was a princess, what’s not to like, right?” he asked with a wink.
“Anyhow, like I said, she was pretty happy, except for one thing. She really wanted to play in the woods. And nobody would ever let her, on account of her being a princess and all. She tried and tried to tell her parents it would be okay, but they always said no. But you know what?”
The little girl shook her head and Ray leaned in to whisper, “She wasn’t the type to take no for an answer. Great quality in a queen, but in a little princess, not so much. Plus, she was kind of sneaky. Remind you of anybody?” He reached down and tickled his charge’s side until she was squirming and giggling.
Once she’d caught her breath, Ray continued. “So one day, one very nice early summer day in fact, she snuck out of the castle and off into the woods. And it was every bit as wonderful a place as she’d imagined, wild and full of life. She fell in love with it, and wanted to see everything. But there was a problem. Do you know what it was?”
The girl shook her head again, mouthing the word ‘no’. “The problem,” Ray told her, “was that she since she’d never been out alone before, she didn’t know how to keep from getting lost. And pretty soon lost was exactly what she was.”
The girl’s mouth turned down in a frown. “I know,” Ray commiserated. “It wasn’t a good time for the princess once she realized she had no idea where she was, or how to get home. She was so scared and upset she sat down right where she was and started crying.”
He tucked a finger under the girl’s chin, looking her right in the eye. “But you know what happened then?” he asked, voice gentle. “Along came a wolf.”
The girl’s bright green eyes widened, and Ray gave her an encouraging smile. “No, not a big, bad wolf. This was just a pup, not much older than the princess. But still, it was a wolf, not a dog, so she knew to be careful. She started to get up slowly, wiping her eyes and looking around for a stick or something to defend herself with. And do you know what happened then?”
Ray paused a moment for effect. “The wolf ran right up and licked her on the face! Just like this!” he said, ducking down to give her a sloppy kiss on the cheek. She laughed and pushed a grinning Ray away.
“That’s just what she did – she pushed that wolf cub away, and scolded him for being rude and forward. I bet anyone walking by then would have laughed their as-” he caught himself, “would have thought it was real funny, seeing a little girl tell off a wild wolf.”
That got him a wide smile; Ray gave her another wink as he went on.
“And you know what?” He waited until she shook her head. “It worked. The wolf calmed right down, and sat by the princess’s feet, head on his little paws, just listening to her talk. He even understood every word she said.”
She gave a little gasp at that, and Ray leaned in again and lowered his voice. “This wasn’t a regular wolf, mind you. This was a Wolf with a capital W, a Shifter. But she didn’t know that, and he wasn’t supposed to show humans what he really was. So he just listened, and finally she told him she was lost and alone.”
Sadness crossed the girl’s features, and Ray reached over to ruffle her hair gently as he went on.
“Don’t you worry now, because when the princess said she just wanted to get back to the palace, the Wolf jumped right up and tugged at her skirt. Now being a smart girl, the princess realized immediately that the pup wanted to help her. So she followed, and pretty soon, the palace was in sight. The princess was so happy that she knelt down right then and there and hugged the Wolf tight, and even kissed his cheek.”
He ducked his head. “The pup might have licked her cheek, and he may even have been sorry he’d taken her back. She was the nicest person he’d ever seen, and if you want to know the truth, he liked people. Even though he kind of wasn’t supposed to.”
Ray sighed. “But he knew she wasn’t meant for the forest, so he butted her legs to get her moving again, and soon enough they were at the edge of the wood. She tried to get him to come with her, but he just sat there, and she realized that he wasn’t meant for the palace. Still, she liked him, and thought maybe he liked her too, so she ran back to him and whispered that she’d try to come back and visit again, if that was all right. And that she’d dress better for playing in the woods, and try not to get lost.”
He paused, and the girl put a hand on his arm, asking, “What happened then, Uncle Ray?”
He shook his head and stood, smoothing down the covers where he’d been sitting. “That is a story for another night,” he told her, smiling softly.
He could see her wanting to protest, but she sank back into the bed and let Ray tuck her in. “More tomorrow?” she asked, giving him better puppy dog eyes than anyone in his Pack had ever done.
“More tomorrow,” he promised, and gave her a gentle kiss on the forehead.
“Good night, Uncle Ray,” she said around a yawn.
“Good night to you, your highness,” he whispered, smiling fondly at the girl who reminded him more of her mother every day.