Outside the warehouse, Jane glanced at Charlee. "Are you ready for this?" She could tell her friend was still weirded out about her dying then coming back as a demon. And given the tense situation ahead of them, there hadn't been much small talk about it on the trip over.

Charlee nodded.

"Alrighty then." Jane busted through the door, dragging her pregnant friend along with her, doing a perfect impersonation of a crazy gunman with a hostage. Only, instead of a gun, she had a stake poised at Charlee's throat.

Anthony or somebody in his camp had called in reinforcements while she'd been gone, so the odds were stacked on the vampire side now from sheer numbers alone. Anna and Tam continued to chant, but they looked like they were getting tired.

The sorcerers on Anthony's team were throwing energy balls trying to put a dent in Tam and Anna's protection shield and waiting for the moment when the two witches on the demon and therian side collapsed so they could start cursing demons. The demons were throwing fireballs, occasionally lighting a vampire on fire. The magic users on Anthony's side were too busy with offense to shield against it.

She scanned the ground to find several wolves down. How bad, she didn't know. Cole was injured, but he was fighting through it. And he'd survive anything now, so at least she didn't have to worry about him. Z was still kicking asses and taking names with the vampires. He'd taken a bullet in the shoulder, but was now devouring a vampire whole and healing nicely.

Anthony had a few scratches and had likely fed on somebody to heal. One of his magic users no doubt. He'd moved behind his troops for safety.

Jane whistled loud and long, then shouted, "Everybody STOP!"

The fighting ceased for a moment as all eyes went to Jane and the bounty she'd caught. Anthony went pale.

"Send your people away, Anthony, or your mate is a memory."

"You wouldn't. Charlee is your friend."

Jane shrugged, assuming a disaffected look. "Meh. She never calls. Never writes. I didn't even know she was having a baby. Congratulations, by the way. May you have more luck keeping yours safe. Nah, I class Charlee as a casual acquaintance tops. No skin off my nose if she dies." She'd had years of practice, so channeling her inner disaffected goth was child's play.

"I don't believe you."

Without blinking, Jane jabbed the stake against Charlee's throat, being careful not to hit the main artery - just enough to draw blood and a frightened whimper. Anthony's nostrils flared as the scent of his mate's blood hit the air.

"She means it," Charlee said, sounding panicked.

Jane smelled the salt of her friend's tears. Either Charlee was a good actress in her own right, or she believed the act. Jane squeezed her shoulder as covertly as possible, hoping to give reassurance. Her friend's pulse slowed from the gesture.

"Okay," Anthony said. "Okay. Everybody go home," he said to his people. "No one is to touch any of them." His attention went back to Jane. "I assume you have the witch and the pup?"

"Yup. They're safe in the demon dimension." Jane turned to her group, which she'd somehow defaulted as the leader of for the moment. "Take the wounded and get back to Cain's dimension." She was going to hold Charlee at stake point until they were safe - especially the wounded.

The demons began to gather up the injured wolves. Z picked up Lucy, and Cole picked up the younger alpha. Both looked dead. Cole and Jane exchanged a glance, and she knew they were thinking the same thing. At least they went together. At least they weren't separated.

As they were filing out, Cain turned back to Anthony. "There will be no retribution on the pack, Fiona, or the panther. If you go after any of them, there will be a war, and I will win. This ends now."

"Don't be so sure," Anthony said, trying to maintain his sense of control, though most of his vampires had already dispersed to their resting places. "I can find more magic users to even the odds. Dayne owes me a favor for saving his werecat. And I bet I have more vampires than you have demons."

Tam spoke up then, though she looked like she was about to drop. "We'll have our own army of witches. So bring it."

Cain stopped, his mouth hanging open. But before Tam could look his way, he'd covered it and gone back to the stone cold mask of disinterest he normally wore. Interesting, Jane thought.

"Call a truce now," Jane said. "You will leave us alone. You will not seek out the hive. We are off limits in your world domination scheme. I can still kill her. Don't think I won't." She gripped the stake tighter.

The panic hadn't left Anthony's face. "Truce. But the story will be that I banished the Cary Town wolf pack, so don't show your faces in my town again. Whatever you're doing to hide yourselves, you'd better keep doing it or leave."

Jane looked over at Cole, a question in her eyes.

Cole nodded.

When the wounded had been taken out the back door, Jane shoved Charlee away from her and Anthony blurred to his mate's side. He glared at Jane as he placed his hand over her pregnant belly. Then he held her close, his hands stroking her hair. His lips moved to her forehead in a tender kiss and they clung to each other like the last two people on earth among apocalyptic debris.

No matter what Jane thought of Anthony, she couldn't doubt his love for Charlee. Whatever he felt he had to do, there was no mistaking the look in his eyes when he'd thought he could lose her.

The last thing Jane saw before she left the warehouse was her friend's eyes on her, no doubt wondering if they'd ever speak again. There was no reassurance Jane could offer with Anthony watching so closely, so she just turned and walked out the door.

Cain had been silent since they'd returned to the demon dimension. Had Tam really pledged to align herself with him if he needed the magical protection in a fight? So what if she had? Witches couldn't be trusted. They were too dangerous.

It was the second time that night he'd had an odd feeling with regards to her. If he had no self-preservation instinct, he'd corner her somewhere, feed, and get her out of his system. He might kill her; he might not. At the rate he was going, it would be better to kill her than to develop some fixation that would end with him sealed up in another glass jar waiting who-knew-how-long for somebody to set him free. Screw that.

He looked away from her, but where his gaze landed next wasn't much better. Jane and Cole, holding their pup, looking happy to be together. It'll never be you, buddy. Cain wasn't about to sleep with a therian and produce a freak child who might try to usurp him. Though outside the Cole and Jane exception, a true mating couldn't happen between a demon and therian - only a demon and human. But a human couldn't understand him. And no way in hell would any human give the leader of the sex demons her soul in a voluntary exchange.

He'd missed his opportunity about seven thousand years ago, if not more. Now it was pointless trying to relate to them. Love was weakness anyway. It would only hurt, and Cain was too much of a hedonist for that. He watched Jane and Cole for another minute.

Cole winced as the pup's back paw hit him in the stomach. The injury he'd taken in the warehouse would have killed him, if not for the bond he had with Jane. Both of them were getting weepy and emotional about being together, holding each other close.

"I love you," Cole said.

"I love you, too," Jane replied. "I'll need to feed soon."

Cole got an evil gleam in his eyes. "I think I've decided I like this demon thing. There are perks all around."

Next to them was Luc and Anna. She was completely drained, and he embraced her, using their bond to charge her back up like a battery. Yet another happy couple with a happy ending.

Cain turned away, unable to take any more sugary sweetness. His demons tended to the wounded. All of the werewolves had taken damage. As had the panther. Two of the wolves had died. The youngest ones. He didn't know why Cole had let them volunteer, especially the girl.

They'd been a couple, too. And as perverse as it was, in a way they'd gotten their own happy ending. Though heaven would likely bore the shit out of them, they could choose to return together and start over in new lives. Young love. Cain shook his head.

The rest of the pack gathered around the two fallen wolves, whispering and planning the funeral rite. Cole and Jane put the pup down and joined them, trying to contain their happiness over being together again in light of the pack's loss.

Cain looked away, feeling as if he were intruding on their privacy and mourning.

Fiona patched what was left of the bullet wound in the panther's shoulder.

"Stop fussing over it, it's fine. I fed, and I'm almost healed."

Cain cocked his head to the side. Z had been so adamant about coming after her. If Anthony's guy hadn't shot the panther and gotten him to back down, the vampire king would be dead. Cain had never seen such a single-minded fighter. But faced with the girl he obviously cared for, he was being cold and indifferent. Reminded Cain of himself.

He approached the couple. "Daria will take you two back to your dimension when you're ready to go."

The panther nodded. Cain made his way through the werewolves and demons, bumping into Tam on his escape from the group. He stared at her a moment. She didn't say anything. He didn't say anything back. He just turned and went to his tent alone, trying to get the carnal images of her out of his head.

Fiona hadn't expected Z to proclaim his undying love or anything. As he'd said before, he wasn't that guy. She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but she'd expected something. He'd come for her. Didn't that mean something? Or was she naive for thinking it did?

So she'd been kidnapped and he'd been part of the group sent in to rescue her. Did that obligate him to start dating her? Propose marriage? Ask for panther babies? She needed to stop watching romantic comedies and get a grip on reality.

After Daria dropped them off in the Golatha Falls forest, the tension between them grew higher. There weren't any distractions left. No patching up his wounds, no demon buffer, no wolf pup buffer. Just the two of them in the forest with nothing but the crickets and hooting owls to keep them company.

Z had left his motorcycle near the portal opening. It was a miracle it was still there. He wordlessly handed the helmet to Fiona and got on. She was glad to have the helmet, and the noise of the motorcycle so he couldn't see or hear her crying.

Yes, damnit. She wanted him. She wanted to live with him in his cave and wake up with him every morning. Why couldn't he want the same thing? It wasn't a stupid thing to want. It was normal. She just wanted to be normal for a change.

But she could leave the cottage now. After being kidnapped and carted across the country by car and plane and spending time with therians and vampires and dodging magic from other magic users, a bit of bravery had edged its way in. She hadn't kicked asses, but she'd survived. Knowing she could survive something like that changed everything. It was a start, anyway.

So she'd leave the house and find a guy. She'd date like a regular person. Maybe she'd learn more magic. A whole world waited for her.

As the motorcycle zipped through the woods, zigging and zagging around trees, Fiona took deep breaths to stop the tears. She wasn't going to have him seeing her cry again. He came to get her. He cared. Maybe that made them friends. That was okay, wasn't it?

Not really, but she had to make herself believe it so she could be composed by the time they got back to her place.

The motorcycle stopped in front of her door fifteen minutes later. "Well, I guess this is you," Z said.

She wanted to punch him in his wounded shoulder. It wouldn't hurt much since he was mostly healed, but it would make her feel a hell of a lot better. Well, I guess this is you? Was he merely her taxi?

"Yeah. Thanks for coming after me."

"No problem. It was the right thing to do."

Fiona wished she knew more magic. She'd zap him off his motorcycle and into the dirt. Then she'd kick him in the head. It was the right thing to do? Be more clinical, Z. Not like we slept together or anything. Not like we shared a moment or ten.

He walked her to her door, and they stood awkward for a few minutes until he wished her a good night, said he'd call her, and disappeared into the forest on his bike.

Sure he'd call her. That was manspeak for "If I'm lucky I'll never bump into you again for another uncomfortable moment like this."

Fiona went inside and slammed the door behind her. She tried not to think about how empty the house was, how everything was just over. She would leave first thing in the morning and go into town. She would go to a coffee shop or a diner or something and make a friend or acquaintance. She'd mingle with the living, 3-D people. It would be fine.

She logged into her email client to find about ten emails from work, all wondering why she hadn't logged in and that something serious better have happened. She zipped off an email lying about a terrible bout of the flu. No way would they buy the real story.

An hour later, when her job was once again secure, she settled in on the couch for a movie. A knock startled her out of the romantic ending. She put her popcorn on the coffee table and warily went to the door. She wasn't going to just fling it open this time. She was going to be smart.

"Who is it?"

"It's Z."

Hope and anger warred inside her. She opened the door, trying and failing to force a mask of indifference on her face.

He held out a purple shirt. "You left your shirt at my place."

She took the clothing and turned to lay it on the table in the entryway. A hand came over her mouth, a strong smell, and darkness.

Fiona felt fuzzy when she opened her eyes. It took a few moments for her vision to clear. She was in the cave with Z. Of course she was. Her books and most of her things were stacked neatly in the living area. How long had she been out?

"Are you kidding me?!" she shouted.

Z prowled around her in his panther way. He barely seemed human.

"You are staying here in this cave with me," he said like it was some edict from on high. "It's far too dangerous in that death trap you call a cottage. You've been kidnapped from that place three times now, for God's sake!"

"Two of them were you!"

"Yeah, well... still. You see how easy it can be done. You're a sitting duck there."

Fiona crossed her arms over her chest, glaring.

He knelt next to her, taking her hands in his. "Come on, Fiona. Don't be like that. I'm a wild animal. I'm not good with the words part. I didn't know how to ask you. I don't know how to do relationships."

That much was obvious. "So, then, you're asking me to live with you? Not ordering me and keeping me prisoner?"

The look on his face said he was thinking it over. Kidnapping was good enough for cave men. At least he hadn't hit her over the head with a club and dragged her there. Chloroform was moderately more civilized, but this had better be the last time.

He sighed. "Yes. I'm asking. Fiona, will you move in with me?"

She looked around again, not sure she wanted to let him off the hook so easy. "Well, all my stuff is here. It would be inconvenient to move it back. And I like this cave."

"So yes?" He looked too hopeful for her to stay mad.

"I thought you said you weren't that guy."

"When I found out you'd been kidnapped, I just wanted to snap necks. I don't know if I'm that guy or not, but I can try to be. I know I can't stand you not being here or worrying about you all the time. And I don't like my bed empty in the morning." He stood and pulled her up with him. This was about as close to a declaration of undying love as was possible for him. Knowing that made the speech endearing.

When his lips met hers, it seared her from the inside. Her arms threaded around his neck, and he deepened the kiss. When her brain started working again, she pulled away. "Okay," she sighed against his mouth. "I'll stay. But I need this place wired up for Internet. I need to be online for work."

"Done."

Then he dragged her back to his room to practice being boyfriend material.

Click to the next page for an excerpt of Life Cycle (book 4)




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