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.