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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
by Zoe Winters
Book 2: Save My Soul
Book 3: The CatalystPreternaturals Shorts:Cat Fight (short story)
Dark Mercy (novella)It started with one lost, shivering pup; it may end in a war…Panthers don’t do responsibility. They don’t do long-term relationships. They definitely don’t raise kids. But when Z discovers a young wolf in the forest, he takes him in, unaware of the powerful beings hunting the pup.Fiona is a witch who can’t leave her house; the birds have told her something bad will happen. The mailbox is as far as she’ll go, but even that may provide more danger than she’s bargained for. When a wolf pup stumbles into her garden, her safe, wrapped-up world heads for a free fall.But along with danger, the pup brings a chance at love—a chance an agoraphobic witch and a bachelor panther shifter aren’t likely to find on their own.AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Catalyst is an ensemble book that also features Jane and Cole (from Blood Lust) and Cain (from Blood Lust and Save My Soul)
All he’s asking for is her soul.After buying the antebellum home she’s fantasized about since childhood, Anna Worthington discovers Luc, a dangerously seductive incubus who has been trapped in the house by a fifty-year-old curse. To rid herself of her problem house guest she’ll call on a priest, gypsies, ghost hunters, and the coven of witches from lust bunny hell. All she has to do is resist him long enough to break the spell so they can go their separate ways. If she doesn’t, she could die. And that would be the best case scenario.
HEAT: 3 out of 5 flames.
Here’s The Set-Up:
It’s all about the blood…
Comprised of three novellas, Blood Lust gives readers a snapshot look at the world of the Preternaturals Series. (Future installments of the series will be novels.)
As a cat therian (shifter), Greta’s blood is already sought after to enhance spells and potions, but due to a quirk of her birth, her blood is potent enough to kill for. When her tribe plans to sacrifice her, Greta must ally herself with Dayne, the dangerous local sorcerer, and the only person strong enough to protect her.
For a vampire, Anthony isn’t a picky eater, but he’s drawn to Charlee’s blood more than any other. Like a fine wine saved for a special occasion, he’s denied himself this pleasure. But one night, high from the potent magical blood of another, he claims his prize and loses control. Ashamed of almost killing the one woman who means anything to him, he wipes her memory of the event. When Charlee awakens with complete amnesia, Anthony is the only one who can clean up the mess he’s made.
Because of the vampiric blood that has run through her veins since birth, Jane has been a target for vampires who resent a human being “kindred.” She’s forced to disguise herself as a vampire groupie to appease them and safeguard her life. When she’s abruptly given to Cole, the leader of the werewolf pack, to satisfy a gambling debt, she discovers the blood running through her veins has a far greater impact on her destiny than she ever imagined.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt of THE CATALYST:
Just have to make it to the mailbox. Everything will be okay. Fiona Patrone stared out the window at the lonely box at the end of the driveway. Her house was surrounded by trees in a heavily wooded area of Golatha Falls—so far out it was amazing the mailman delivered. And yet it felt so open and unknown out there. It was safer inside.
There probably isn’t any mail. Just check it tomorrow. Nothing important. Not worth going out. The thoughts tunneled through her mind like vicious moles. If she didn’t venture out, she’d be even more a prisoner of her own mind and fears. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone past the mailbox. If she got to the point where she couldn’t even get that far…
The birds outside screeched then, chattering warnings, screaming the same awful things they screamed at her every day. If you go out there, something bad will happen. She believed them. Birds had no reason to lie. They were excellent seers, so much so, that for centuries people had read bird entrails, not realizing you needed a live bird to get any knowledge of value.
They could at least give her a little detail, some clue as to what she should fear, but the threat remained the same—vague and foreboding as ever.
Fiona had been able to understand the language of animals before she could understand that of humans—a rare and special gift for a witch to inherit. She’d gotten it from her grandmother. Though she’d always seen it as a curse. If not for those damned birds, she’d be outside living her life. Maybe she would have found love, a job, something.
Well, she had a job on the Internet. Her money was direct-deposited. She ordered her clothes online and had her groceries delivered. Thanks to the web, agoraphobia had never been so easy. At least from a logistics standpoint.
She took a slow, measured breath, her hand poised over the doorknob. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. Fiona mentally repeated it like a subliminal message she prayed would take hold. The doorknob clicked in her hand. She moved through what felt like invisible molasses as she forced herself out the door and into the throng of screeching, angry birds.
The wind had a new crispness. Almost Halloween. As a witch, shouldn’t she be in her element right about now? But the idea of ghosts and goblins and veils thinning served to make the whole ordeal seem more dangerous.
Fifty-five steps. She counted them every day because counting them was the only way she could make herself get there. It wasn’t far. She could run back into her house if the birds were right.
The mailbox held nothing of interest: an electric bill that could have waited until tomorrow. On her way back, step twenty-four, she became aware of the eerie silence. The birds had stopped their squawking, and a stillness blanketed the yard. She would have run straight for the front door except for the plaintive cry coming from the yard.
Ignore it. It’s not your concern, she told herself. Thirty-five. But the noise happened again. So sad, scared. She’d want someone to help her if she were in distress. She tucked the electric bill into the waistband of her jeans and struggled through the wild growth of the front yard. She hadn’t worked on the garden in five years, and it showed.
When she reached the side of the house, she found a wolf pup with wide, brown eyes, crying. He was old enough that he should have started learning the language of his kind, but he hadn’t. There were no words to pick up and decipher. She could still get emotions and basic information, especially if those emotions were strong. In some circles, this made Fiona dangerous; in others, it would make her a pawn of those who might want to capitalize on such information.
The pup was lost, hungry, scared.
She didn’t sense a mother wolf nearby. Had he been abandoned? Her mind screamed at her to leave him there. But he was so hungry and pathetic. She couldn’t stop herself from scooping him up and taking him in the house.
She sat him on the kitchen counter, and he stared curiously at her, turning his little wolf head to the side. He was reddish-brown and white, the cutest thing she’d seen in forever. At least he seemed old enough to be weaned.
She cut some meat from a leftover roast and put it on the counter. The pup’s tail wagged as he gobbled up the food. She placed a bowl of water down, and he took care of that, too.
He stared at her from the top of the counter as if to say What next? Oh wow, yeah. She hadn’t thought through that part. If he was just lost, his mother would be coming soon. If he was all alone, she couldn’t have a wolf in her house. Even understanding what he needed, it was just insane. And probably illegal.
He positioned himself on the edge of the counter, shifting his weight from paw to paw, negotiating the drop to the ground. His full concentration was on the jump. When he made it to the linoleum, he looked up at her, all pleased with himself, and she melted. So cute.
“Well, maybe you can stay for a little while until I figure out what to do with you.” Those words had barely tumbled past her lips when the window over the breakfast nook shattered, and a large ball of black fur leaped into her kitchen.
It must be the mother. But no. As her confusion cleared, she saw it was a large, angry black panther.
Fiona edged back, afraid he’d pounce if she made any sudden moves. What she wouldn’t give right now to have a few handy incantations at the ready. For spells, she needed all the proper tools: sage stick, herbs, candles, salt, etc. She could incant a little if she was very focused, but now, with her heart pounding so fast, wasn’t one of those times. Her own name was a blank—forget coming up with a snappy protection chant.
She grabbed at stray pots and pans and emptied a whole drawer of utensils as she threw everything she had at him. He batted the objects away, prowling closer, his growl low and menacing. Within seconds, he had her backed into a corner, claws out, swiping at her.
She screamed and grabbed her bleeding arm. Her side burned as well. All at once, her brain snapped into sharp focus. She was going to die in a matter of seconds if she didn’t figure something out right now.
He’d stopped clawing at her for a minute and was growling, something about her taking the pup, wanting to hurt him, people after him. Oh, wait. Wait! She felt the magic crackle around the panther. Therian! That meant there was a person in there. Somewhere.
She called on every reserve of courage she had to form words. “I wasn’t trying to hurt him. He was lost and hungry. I brought him in to feed him. That’s all. I’m not whoever you think I am.”
The panther stared at her hard and growled again.
“Yes, I understand you.”
How is that possible? He growled.
“Rare gift. I meant the pup no harm. I swear.” She held her hands out defensively, hoping he believed her. An animal attack wasn’t how she wanted to go out. Blood dripped in a steady flow down her arm; her shirt was torn near her ribcage where more blood was pooling. Oh God. That swipe alone could have killed her.
Breathe, Fiona. He’s calm now. Everything will be fine. Thank God he was a therian and could understand her as well as she understood him.
She still couldn’t figure out what a panther’s concern with a wolf pup was. But really, all she wanted was to get the both of them out of her house and call a window repairman. She was trying to forget the bleeding part. She vowed she’d listen to the birds next time.
So you can understand him? The panther’s gaze shifted to the pup who gingerly stepped around the broken glass, sniffing things.
“Well, he doesn’t have language like you have yet, but I know what he needs. My gift runs a little deeper than just speech.”
He shifted—right in the middle of her kitchen. Her eyes didn’t know where to go. Tanned, muscular legs. And… oh dear, skip that, skip that! But her brain had already processed parts of a man she’d never seen outside of television or the Internet, due to her phobia. There weren’t a lot of opportunities to hook up with men when you never left your house.
Farther up, were very nice abs and pecs—and those arms. Oh boy. She swiped the back of the hand that wasn’t bleeding across her face, afraid she might be drooling. She wanted to lick him, but under the circumstances that seemed a little weird. Her arm and side burned like fiery hell, but damn, he was pretty. So sleek and lithe, just like what he shifted into.
When her gaze made it up to his face, a boyish smirk graced his lips. There was a twinkle in his brown eyes. His dark hair was longish, but somehow still masculine. Oh yes, there wasn’t an unmanly bone in his body.
“So,” he drawled, moving closer by mere centimeters, “should we just get it on now?”
Her mouth dropped open. He couldn’t have just said that.
A strange look crossed his face. “Sorry. Wild animal here. A little amped up. That was inappropriate.” He extended a hand, attempting to move past the new awkwardness. “Let me look at you.”
The pain in her arm and side flared fully to life as she processed everything that had just happened in her kitchen. When she didn’t respond to his request, he pulled her to him and lifted her shirt to inspect her side.
He frowned. “Not as bad as it could have been. Nothing major harmed.”
She was about to get angry and indignant about his flippant attitude, but then his eyes met hers, warm and honest.
“I’m very sorry about your injuries. I was afraid for the pup and sensed the magic on you. I thought you were one of the ones who tried to take him. I’m all he’s got.”
The pup, as if sensing he was being talked about, clomped through the debris to sit between them, his little wolf gaze going back and forth.
Fiona looked back at the man standing in front of her, so sincere and intense… and attractive, and then the waterworks started.
“Oh, no, don’t cry,” he said, almost in a panic.
It wasn’t pain that had brought forth the tears; it was the fact that this was what it took to get near a hot guy for her: a near-death experience, and him breaking into her kitchen: the idea that he was going to take the pup and go on his merry way, and she’d have the memory of him emblazoned on her brain, but that would be all. Her close brush with maleness. Inches from her, but no dice.
It wasn’t that she wanted to take him up on his carnal offer. He was a stranger. And, as he said, a wild animal. And she wished he’d cover himself with something, because judging from outward signs, he was all raring and ready to go. Like most therians, he was unaffected by his own nudity or arousal. It was something she wished humans shared in common with them, so she wouldn’t feel so freaked out by his nearness… or so much longing for something she wasn’t going to ever have since she couldn’t make it past her own mailbox.
His smooth, deep voice interrupted her mental hysteria. “Do you have bandages?”
“Bathroom, down the hall,” she croaked, feeling stupid for going all blubbery on him. Thank God he couldn’t read her mind and know why she’d been crying. That would have been too mortifying for words. Better for him to think she was a big wimp who couldn’t take surface abrasions than to know the truth.
Z ambled down the hallway, trying to remember how to act like a person. He wasn’t good with people. He lived alone and hunted alone. It was how he liked it. Women were a complication he tried to stay away from, except when he had a quick roll in the hay—or cave, with another of his kind who was equally allergic to relationships. Occasionally, he had sexual liaisons with human women or other therian breeds, but on principle he tried to avoid those who wouldn’t understand his solitary nature.
A confirmed bachelor, he had everything he wanted, exactly how he wanted it. Total freedom. That is, until he’d stumbled on the pup. Panthers didn’t raise babies—their own or anybody else’s—which was obvious from the mess he was making of it.
The little wolf had been sitting in the forest in the middle of Z’s hunting ground, staring at a spot in the dirt where there had been a struggle. There was evidence a body of some sort had been dragged off, probably the mother.
Z had immediately known the pup was a werewolf, but there wasn’t a pack in Golatha Falls, so how the little guy could have gotten there, he didn’t know.
He should have just walked away, but he couldn’t. After a lot of frustration, he’d managed to get the pup to drink human formula until he could start eating meat, but now instead of getting easier to raise him, it was getting harder. Every day Z was more aware of how difficult it would be for the pup when he shifted to his human form and couldn’t speak the language of his own kind. When did the ones born in their fur first shift? Age five? Six?
The bathroom the woman had pointed out was the most organized he’d ever encountered. Her perfectly folded towels were arranged by color. Her medicine cabinet looked like a pharmacy—preparation for every potential contingency. Her first aid supply left something to be desired, though. He didn’t imagine she had a lot of accidents as cautious as she was. He could patch her up okay with what she had. At least until she could see a doctor or something. She might need some stitches.
He felt a twinge of guilt at that. She’d been at least five kinds of terrified when he’d busted in the house. Z shut his eyes against the image of her pressed against the wall, her lower lip trembling. In truth, it was her smell that had startled him out of the mindless clawing. She smelled so good. He’d looked up and seen those golden curls cascading down her back, those light green eyes, and the dusting of freckles on her nose.
He’d switched from violence to growls, not expecting her to understand a word of it. But she had. Now the wheels in his head were turning. If he ever wanted his bachelor cave back, he needed her. Though he felt guilty about her injuries—and her window—he had no intention of negotiating with the woman. Z operated on the law of the jungle, and she’d stumbled into his jungle. Sort of.
The pup was cute, but the kid cramped his style. He was losing sleep, not getting laid. It was making him grumpy and unhinged. He wasn’t cut out for this parenting gig, and he was willing to do anything to fix the situation, up to and including felony.
Basket of first aid supplies in tow, Z sauntered back into the kitchen to find the woman sitting at the table, cradling her arm, so quiet he feared she’d fallen into some kind of fugue state.
“So I’ve decided you’re coming with me,” he said without preamble.
He chuckled when she averted her gaze from his nakedness. She should be glad he was a gentleman—more or less—because she sure was a sweet little thing. It had been a few weeks since he’d scratched that particular itch. Having the pup around all the time made prowling for women low on the priority list. He wondered for a moment if he could convince this one to have some down and dirty, no-strings-attached sex. Maybe after he found the pup’s family. Before that would be too much complication with them in such close quarters—since she was coming with him.
Z cocked his head toward the pup who sat on the table with his nose pressed into the crook of her elbow. This was perfect. The pup even liked her. It was like a nanny had fallen out of the sky. A multilingual nanny. Praise the gods.
“You understand what he needs. I need you to help me care for him. And I need you to stay with him at my place while I find his family. It’s more secure there. We’ll take you to a doctor first about your injuries.”
He knew she probably had a life of some sort. Maybe a job. Probably a boyfriend. But he didn’t care. He was desperate to get this kid out of his hair. The only way it was happening was if he got some help, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask another panther. They’d laugh at him for his foolishness in taking the pup in the first place.
She sat frozen for a moment as if she were processing all of that. When she spoke, her voice came out calm and even. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I don’t know you. And I don’t need a doctor. I just need my magic books and tools. I can heal myself.”
Z had been surprised when she hadn’t started shouting spells at him and throwing balls of energy. Some witches were kind of intense. Different magic users had different skills and gifts, and he was thankful that didn’t seem to be part of her repertoire. Aside from the skill she had that he needed, she seemed to need a lot of prep work for magic, which was good. It kept the balance of power in his favor, exactly where he preferred it to be at all times.
He pulled her to him, setting to work bandaging her arm. “I’m Zane Trent, but you can call me Z.”
“I need my books. I can heal this if you’ll just let me get my books,” she said, ignoring his introduction. Poor girl probably wasn’t yet prepared to see him as anything beyond the crazy naked man in her kitchen.
He snorted. “Sure, I’m that stupid. I get you your books, and you hex me into a sealed magic jar or turn me into a frog. No can do. Besides, don’t self-healing spells take a lot of energy out of a witch?”
“I need you with full energy to help take care of this pup.”
“Only moderately. This kid is driving me crazy. I need help.”
Her expression softened. “Still. I-I can’t go out there.”
Her gaze went to the door.
“You went out there to bring the pup in.”
“I know but… I try not to go outside.”
Z moved on to her torso, which was just grazed, not as bad as the arm. He was beginning to think he had a nut job on his hands. “Why?”
Her voice lowered to a whisper as if she didn’t want to be overheard. “The birds told me something bad would happen.”
Fucking great. All he needed was a mentally unstable nanny he couldn’t bring himself to leave the kid with. What good was that going to do him?
“I’m not crazy,” she said, as if reading his mind.
She’d probably just read his facial expression. Unless she could read minds. Could she read minds? Hey, I think you’re real pretty. If you weren’t so pretty I’d eat you for dinner, he thought at her. But she didn’t react; she was still on about her birds. At least his mind was safe from her.
“They did warn me,” she said, “I heard them just like I heard you when you were in your other form. And just like I understood what the wolf needed.”
She had him there.
“Come on, it’s only a few miles from here,” he said. Despite his intention not to negotiate with her, he found himself negotiating. If he could get her to come to his cave of her own free will it would be so much simpler. Maybe her weird outside phobia was minor, just a blip on an otherwise sane human being.
“Miles? Miles! No. Oh no. Miles are too far. Way too far. That’s just impossible for me. I’m sorry.”
He’d known it was too much to hope for.
“Nothing will get you out there. I’ll protect you,” he said, standing and offering a hand like he was about to sweep her up on his white stallion and go riding off into the sunset. Was he about to do that?
She held her bandaged arm up and raised a brow. It was still dripping blood. “That makes me feel safe.”
He tried again, willing himself to be patient and not shift and chase her out of the house. He was betting her fear of him would dwarf her fear of the nebulous outside if push came to shove. “What’s your name?”
She looked away. “I wish you’d put some clothing on.”
“No problem, ma’am. Let me just step outside where I keep my traveling walk-in closet.” Ordinarily her shyness would entertain him, but right now it was annoying. “Stop acting like a virgin.”
The attractive flush that came to her cheeks confirmed the suspicion that had been building in the back of his mind, the suspicion he’d hoped he’d been wrong about. “A girl as pretty as you? You had no opportunities? No interest?”
Her hands were in her lap, and she’d gone to staring at them, he guessed because clothing wasn’t about to magically appear on him.
“I don’t ever leave my house. So, no. You’re the first adult male I’ve ever…”
“Seen naked?” He’d softened his voice because now he just felt like an ass. He’d destroyed her kitchen, injured her, and now this. He disappeared back down the hallway to the bathroom and returned, wrapped in a towel for her comfort more than his. “Better?” he asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
He sighed. “If you won’t come with me, I need you to watch the pup for a while. Can you do that?”
She nodded, and he shifted back into his panther form and jumped out the window. By nightfall she’d be in his cave with him where it was safer. She just didn’t know it yet. Sometimes these things took finesse.
Fiona swept the glass into a pile and put a tarp over the window. Stan, the window guy, wouldn’t be able to get there to fix it until the next day. It made her wish she’d had that security system put in last year or had another magic user come in and put up wards for her.
She’d let the wards lapse because they required going outside and all around the house. It took too much time out there. It made her too anxious. And when she was anxious, she couldn’t do magic worth a damn, anyway.
Now she was left unprotected with the pup.
The panther had only been gone half an hour, but the sun was starting to set. She almost wished she’d had the courage to go with him, with the window being how it was. Maybe she could work up the nerve to ask him to stay with her overnight, assuming she could convince him she wasn’t propositioning him. He seemed the type who knew how good-looking he was.
The bandages were still seeping blood. He was right about the stitches, if she didn’t do a healing spell. She got up to get her supplies. The wolf jumped on the pile of glass shards making them crunch on the floor. A piece flew up and landed on her foot.
“Oh, no puppy, don’t do that. You’ll cut your paw, and I’ll have to do two healing spells. I’m not sure I have that much energy in me.”
He twisted his head to the side like he was trying to parse her language; his tongue lolled out in a grin. She wanted to squeeze him. He was so adorable.
Fiona was startled by a knock on the door. “W-who is it?”
“It’s me. Z.”
He was back already? She opened the door to see him in jeans, hiking boots, and a black T-shirt that slid over his muscles like fabric sin. At least it was clothing.
“Fiona Patrone. I believe you left your electric bill in the front yard.” He passed the white rectangle to her and she ripped it from his hand. It must have fallen out of her waistband when she was picking up the pup to bring him inside.
Great. He knew her name now. Not that it mattered. He knew where she lived. It wasn’t like knowledge of her name was a bigger security risk at this point.
To make herself stop staring at him, she turned to scoop up the wolf pup. “He’s been very…” The words died there as a foul-smelling cloth pressed against her mouth and nose. She struggled for several seconds, but he was too strong for her. She tried not to breathe in, to little avail. Besides her pounding heartbeat, the last thing she heard was his whispered apology.
Fiona opened her eyes to find a strange, older gentleman sitting beside her. As consciousness resumed and the fog cleared, she felt the pain. “Ow, ow, OW!”
“Careful, you’ll rip the stitches. I’m not quite done.”
She jerked her arm away, and he released the needle and thread. It dangled from her arm as she tried to orient herself to her surroundings.
“Where am I?”
Another form moved into her peripheral vision, the voice low and deep. “My place.” Z.
She spun swiftly, and regretted it, feeling woozy. He was there so fast she didn’t see him move, his hand under her elbow, steadying her.
“Careful.” His warm breath was in her ear when he spoke. His nearness did weird things to her. His voice, his hand on her elbow, it was just too much.
She pulled away and he backed off, his hands in the air as if he were the good guy and she was just some hysterical woman in the midst of her monthly. Well, we’ll see about that. “You drugged me! I can’t believe you drugged me!”
“It was necessary. I said I needed your help.” He was still wearing pants, at least, but his shirt was nowhere to be found.
She tried to forget his pecs and focus on her anger. “That’s your rationalization for kidnapping me? Let’s find out what the authorities have to say.” She turned to the older gentleman who had been stitching up her arm. “This man has brought me here against my will. You have to call the police. It’s your civic duty.”
The older gentleman held out his hand. “Please, Miss. Just one more stitch and I’ll have you all patched up. Would you like some drugs to dull the pain?”
She goggled at him. No she didn’t want drugs. That was the last thing she needed. “Didn’t you hear me?”
“I heard you.” He guided her to sit back on the couch, took her arm, and finished the stitching while she tried not to scream. No way was she going to let the asshole who brought her here see her cry over stitches. A few moments later the older man patted her arm. “There, now. You’ll be good as new before you know it.”
She could have handled it just fine on her own with her books and tools and with much less pokey-needle pain. She didn’t need someone to come along and stitch her up. The man handed a bottle of pills to Z.
“Make sure she takes these. One in the morning and one at night to avoid infection. Humans aren’t like us. You’ve got to be careful with them.”
“I’m a witch! I don’t need any of that. I’ve got magic.” She looked around, but none of her books were there—just a small bag she recognized that looked like it had clothes in it. “Where are my books and tools?”
“Again,” Z said, “I won’t have you doing magic while you’re with me. I’m not stupid.”
She felt like she couldn’t breathe. No books or tools. She wasn’t at her house, but outside. Miles away. Was the room getting hotter?
Z snapped a finger in front of her face before she could make a dramatic scene. The panic attack had been edging in on her senses.
“Hey. None of that. We’re not doing that here. Do you read me?”
His flippant attitude about her emotional state pissed her off enough that the anxiety eased. Nothing like anger to ward off an encroaching panic attack. She looked around. At least the cave looked secure. It was small, closed in. Cozy. Safe. Safer than her house right now, she reasoned. She just had to think of this as the new, safe home base.
Easier said than done.
The doctor continued, unfazed. “And this one…” he passed a second bottle to Z. “These are for pain if she needs them.”
“I’m not taking any of that,” Fiona said, still ruffled that the doctor who wasn’t human was siding with her abductor. Only therians had this honor-among-thieves code to this extreme. No human doctor would go along with kidnapping.
Z’s eyes narrowed at her, then he turned back to the doctor. “She’ll take them. Thanks, doc.”
“No problem. You have my number.”
When he was gone, Fiona dropped back into the chair. She was trapped. Maybe not literally. She wasn’t sure if she was locked in or not. But the fear of going outside was enough to confine her to this new prison.
It was only now that the situation was starting to dawn on her in the way it would have dawned on someone who didn’t have her particular phobias much earlier. A dangerous panther therian had kidnapped her. He’d said he needed her help with the pup, but he’d also said he just needed her to watch the wolf for a while, during which time he’d gone to get the tools he needed to take her without a fight. His word was worthless.
“Hey. Stop all that thinking,” Z said, snapping his fingers in front of her face again. “I really did just bring you here to help me with the pup. I have no evil plan.”
“How can I trust that?”
He held up three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
Fiona wrinkled her nose, not trusting that for a minute.
“Look. If I’d wanted to hurt you, I could have done it a thousand times already.”
She held up her arm again to make the point that he had, in fact, already done physical damage.
“You know what I mean. You think I couldn’t have killed you in a couple of swipes if I’d wanted? And if I’d wanted to do other things… that would have been simple enough, too. I’m not a bad guy.”
She didn’t like the way his eyes roved over her body, sizing her up when he said other things. Or maybe she did like it. She’d never had a man look at her like she was an appetizer before. Again, that was probably because she wasn’t around men, being in her house all the time.
“Whatever. You know I’m stuck here now, right? If you ever want to get rid of me, you’ll have to chloroform me to get me back home. Because I still can’t go out there.” She knew it was ludicrous, how crazy it sounded, that she’d rather stay in the cave with some unhinged panther guy she didn’t know she could trust, than to be faced with a few miles trip back to her own home. Of course it was illogical. Phobias weren’t logical. But logic didn’t change how she felt.
“I assumed as much. And if that’s all right with you, I’ll do that as soon as I’ve found the pup’s family. Whatever you need to make it easier. I also took care of your window. I’ve got a guy working on it right now. When you get back home everything should be secure. Just like before.”
Before you came crashing into my life, you mean?
There was still that part of her that was sad about the prospect of going back to her house by herself. Because as screwed up as this whole situation was, when and where was she going to meet another guy? Even if she could go out and mingle like normal people, the odds of meeting another one this hot were slim.
Therians tended to have the animal magnetism going, but they didn’t often mingle with magic users socially—not since that website with the therian blood started up. There had always been suspicion between the magic users and the therians. Neither could ever trust the motivations of the other, and now, they didn’t need to.
How many decades would pass before another eligible man just showed up at her house and busted through her window? Men weren’t like pizza delivery. Sadly. It was the one thing she couldn’t order off the Internet.
Even if she met a guy, how was she going to date him? The kind of man who would only be interested in coming over to her place and not going anywhere, wasn’t the kind of man she wanted. She didn’t want to be somebody’s late night booty call. Besides, it was beyond embarrassing that she’d made it to twenty-seven without losing her virginity. She wouldn’t know what to do. They’d assume something was wrong with her, or that she was freaky religious.
Still, she wasn’t going to throw herself at the panther, especially since he looked like the kind of guy who had enough experience to write a sex manual. She didn’t want to be his poker-with-the-guys story about the clueless chick who didn’t know her way around a man’s body.
“All right, then,” Z said. “Are you hungry? I’m afraid the extent of my kitchen skills are cardboard box plus microwave. But I’ve got a stash of everything in the deep freezer.”
“Don’t panthers hunt?”
“I do. But I’ve got a high metabolism. Hunting is great, but I like to think my whole life doesn’t revolve around it.” He waved the frozen food box in her direction. “I’ve got mac and cheese, here. You interested?”
Why not? “Sure. Mac and cheese sounds fine.”
Fiona couldn’t stop looking at his tanned upper body as he opened boxes and peeled the clear plastic cover off the food. She was a great cook, but she wasn’t about to insist he run to the store for her so she could make something proper. She bet he’d never had homemade macaroni and cheese before.
She shook herself out of the thoughts of making him a home-cooked meal. That was not the appropriate response when someone kidnapped you to turn you into an indentured werewolf nanny. Fiona wasn’t sure there was an appropriate response to that circumstance, or that anyone else had ever had it happen to them before.
A few minutes later he passed the first macaroni entree to her, along with a fork, then he tossed his in the microwave and pressed a couple of buttons.
“Milk, cola, water?”
“Water is fine,” she said, standing beside the counter. She didn’t bother sitting because the kitchen table was covered in papers and random crap he’d left piled on it. He was definitely a single male. Or he was if what she’d seen of them on TV shows was in any way accurate.
He put an antibiotic pill in her hand and she tossed it back, not bothering to argue.
“How do you have electricity and indoor plumbing here?”
“How do you have it in your house?”
She rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean. This is a cave.”
“It’s a home just like any other. It can be wired up… a little more difficult with all the stone, but not impossible. It just took some creative thinking.”
He tossed her a plastic bottle and leaned against the fridge, his arms crossed over his chest. “For someone who has just been kidnapped, you seem calm.”
“I told you. I have a problem with outside. I’m inside now. This is the new safe place. It’s fine.” This was all babbling self-talk and bluster, because there was no reality in which it was fine.
He arched a brow and laughed. “I could be crazy, evil, or just garden-variety lecherous, and you’ve decided I’m safe now?”
Fiona grew annoyed with the mocking. “No,” she said in between bites, “I didn’t say you were safe. I said this physical location is. You, I’m still not sure about, but you haven’t done anything scary since you took me, so I’m waiting it out. Right now the forest is scarier than you are.”
The microwave dinged, and he shook his head. “You are a piece of work. I didn’t know crazy came in such a cute package. It’s a shame.”
She felt her face heat at the quasi-compliment, and also felt a tiny bit safer knowing crazy wasn’t on his list of turn-ons. That increased her safety level, right?
“Here, let’s sit and eat like normal people.” Z swept the papers off the table and onto the floor while Fiona gawked, her mind going to soap operas she’d seen where men cleared desks of papers in order to take a lover. The daydream was interrupted as the pup, sensing a game, ran up and started rolling around and chewing on the papers.
Normal people? An agoraphobic witch and a panther guy taking care of a baby werewolf. Yeah. That was normal. Z dropped into a chair with his macaroni and a glass of milk. Fiona shrugged and sat across from him. This couldn’t get any weirder, and she had to admit, it was better than being alone all the time. She hadn’t had a real in-person conversation in longer than she wanted to admit. Crazy or not, company was company. Television playing in the background as her only sense of companionship had become less convincing as the years passed.
Part of her hoped it took a long time to find the pup’s family so she wouldn’t have to go back to being alone. Or maybe they’d never find the family. Her gaze lingered on his bicep. If he wasn’t mentally ill or evil, she wouldn’t mind waking up to that every day. Even if they weren’t a couple and didn’t share a bed. Just sharing space might be enough. She didn’t want to think about how pathetic that sounded in her head.
Her eyes went back to the shirtless panther chowing down on mac and cheese. Fiona swallowed around the lump in her throat. She might be a virgin, but her brain had just moved into the pornographic zone. Hormones that had long been ignored screeched at her, jumping up and down for attention. Unconsciously, she pushed her hair behind her ears and might have batted her eyelashes when he looked up at her.
“So,” she said, trying to find something to talk about that would keep her body language from begging him to mount her, “you said someone’s after the pup?”
He’d finished the rest of his milk with one gulp. “Yeah. I’m not sure who they are. I smelled magic, so I know some of them were magic users. One was a vampire, which is odd because I haven’t seen a vampire in these parts in twenty years or more. But it seemed like they knew something about the pup to want him so much.
“I don’t know how I outran them, pure adrenaline is my guess. But I bunked down with a friend, and the next day I had wards put on the cave. Now I can’t take the pup outside to play, but as you can see, he’s been known to wander off if my attention strays. I put him in a cage at night or when I have to shower or something, but he figured out the latch. That’s how he ended up at your place.”
Fiona looked horrified. “You keep him locked in a cage?”
“Not all the time. And it’s big. It’s like a play pen that you put a baby in. He’s got toys and food and stuff. I’m not a monster.” Z pointed over to the corner where the cage sat. “I’m going to have to figure out a better way to lock it so we don’t have a repeat of today.”
Fiona got up and went to the living area to take a better look at the cage, then turned back to Z. “You should also maybe do something about the sharp edges.”
He smiled, a brilliant, milk-commercial smile. “See? I knew you were going to be beneficial.”
Her lips curved downward at his justification for kidnapping, but she was intrigued by the fact that Z was playing the role of surrogate father. If he’d take a child not of his species in and care for it, he couldn’t be too bad a guy. Could he?
“I need to go back out, though. Into town. I’m sure they’ll have something at the hardware store I can use to secure him. Can you watch him while I’m gone?” He pulled the black T-shirt over his head.
“Are you going to drug me again when you get back?”
Z rolled his eyes. “Don’t be goofy. I know you aren’t going anywhere.” He gestured toward the door. “That’s the big bad outside out there. I don’t need a lock to keep you in.”
Fiona shot him a glare. What he said was true, but it still pissed her off that he was so smug about it. There were legitimate things to fear out there, especially with her gift. Inside was safer. The panther could think she was crazy all he wanted, but he didn’t have to live her life or avoid the dangers that she did. And since he could defend himself without spell books and fifteen minutes of prep time, he had no right to judge her.
“So, now that you’re here, will you help me?” he asked.
Despite his semi-evil behavior, his warm brown eyes sort of made her brain go all fuzzy. He could ask her for almost anything, and it would be hard to say no—especially given that she was already here, and it was easier just to stay at this point.
He smiled and patted her arm. “Okay. I’ll be back in a bit. Is there anything you need from town?”
Fiona shook her head, not being able to think of anything at the moment. She watched him slip through the opening in the cave and out into the big bad outside.
She followed his path as he disappeared from view. He’d obviously done work on the stone, as the opening wasn’t a natural one. From the main den, there was a narrow hallway that opened to the outside. The opening was covered by some large, natural plant life that grew in the hard earth next to it. Climbing down looked treacherous, but it was no more than a couple of stories to the ground. She imagined someone walking by would never guess there was a cave in the rock. Well, except for the fireplace, but Fiona guessed the chimney had been made to blend as well.
She watched Z maneuver himself down to the ground and shuddered to think how he’d gotten her up there while she was unconscious. Perhaps he’d had help from the doctor. Once he reached the ground, he pushed back a large stone to reveal another hewn-out piece of rock large enough to house his motorcycle. He replaced the stone and pushed the bike through the trees.
The pup’s cold, wet nose pressed under her elbow. He looked in the direction Z had gone, his tail flapping fifty times a second.
“Oh, no you don’t. You get out the door, and I can’t chase you.” Saying it out loud sounded and felt ridiculous, and once again she was reminded of what a silly and debilitating phobia she had. Would she leave the pup to get hurt or be taken because she couldn’t face going out into the forest? She hoped she never had to find out.
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