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.
Once Z cleared the trees, he put on speed. He wanted to get Fiona out of his mind, and there was nothing like the wind in his hair from a fast ride to clear his head. If he were being really honest, and he'd need to get pretty drunk to get that honest, he'd admit that kidnapping her was twenty-five percent about needing help with the pup. The other seventy-five percent was his raging hormones and the desperation to mount something.
But why had he brought her to his home, knowing she might be there for awhile? He was not a domesticated breed. Panthers didn't settle down. They liked their privacy, their tucked-away caves. They weren't a breed that mated for life or cared for young. The females of his kind often raised young alone without the assistance of a male.
Their jaded nature made it easier to walk away after a quick coupling. But Fiona, she was different. She was dangerous. She was a true innocent, and though Z told himself he wasn't going to sleep with her, he feared if he did, he wouldn't be able to get rid of her after the fact. He might not be able to get rid of her anyway, given her peculiar phobia. And a virgin? Out of the question. He wasn't gallant enough to keep her, and he wasn't brute enough to use her innocence and throw her away. Or at least he didn't want to think he was.
When he reached town, he parked his bike next to the Java Junkie and went inside to feed his caffeine addiction. The hardware store would be open for another hour still, and the longer he could stay away from the tantalizing scent and sweet presence of the witch in his cave, the better.
His darker side kicked to the surface, tempting him to stay out all night just to get rid of any charming notions she might have in her head about him. He'd seen the way the witch looked at him. If he started their association off by behaving like a jackass, he might have some success in pushing her away before he did something stupid. Because kidnapping her hadn't been enough to get the glazed admiration out of her eyes. He sighed and went into the coffee shop.
"Hey doll, double shot of espresso," he said when he reached the counter. He shoved a three-dimensional paper jack-o-lantern out of the way and grabbed a handful of candy corn out of the dish.
The busty blonde smiled at him and winked. "Hey, Z."
Her name was Cherry, but Z was almost certain that wasn't her real name. He imagined with that name and those tits that her job at the Java Junkie making fancy coffee beverages was a brief hiatus from a more lucrative position at a strip joint in Atlanta.
He knew she had a thing for him, and he'd been tempted more than once. But she was human, and explaining why he lived in a cave like a mountain man wasn't on his agenda for the evening. Not that he could take a woman to the cave right now with Fiona there. Either way, it would only make his visits to the coffee shop awkward after the inevitable end of their fling. And he needed his double espresso. In small towns, you couldn't afford to piss off the keepers of the coffee beans.
He nodded, acknowledging the flirtation, but not inviting more. He was perplexed by how lack of attention attracted women more than overt and cloying interest. He sat at the counter while she bustled about making his drink. A moment later she put the espresso in front of him along with a slice of pumpkin pie with a thick layer of whipped cream. She leaned close, her scantily covered breast pressing against his arm for the smallest moment. It was meant to appear accidental, but Z knew better.
"We make the pies fresh daily, and we're about to close up. We'd have to throw it away, anyway," she said. "Don't tell my boss."
As always when he was in town, a few folks turned away, others whispered and stared. They knew there was something other about him; they just couldn't figure out what it was. Women like the one who'd served his drink and pastry were drawn to it like magnets. Others had better self-preservation instincts. Never in a million years would they suspect that what sent their spider senses tingling was the fact that he wasn't human.
He tuned in his sensitive hearing to one of the conversations nearby. A couple of tables over, two women were talking, not having noticed his presence yet.
"I heard Mayor Walsh wanted to find someone willing to rebuild that house on Cranberry Lane. They still have the original plans in a vault. It was on the registry of historical homes," one of them said.
"Elizabeth, you know, it's funny, but I don't think I recall what the house looked like. I know I must have driven by it a hundred times at least," the other replied.
Elizabeth twisted her auburn hair up and put a clip in it. "That's strange. You know you're right. It burned down, but I can't recall if it was arson or an accident. It was only a few months ago. I should be able to remember."
"Didn't Anna Worthington live there for a bit? I'd heard she did, but maybe I'm wrong. I mean, I haven't seen her in years since she ran off with that..."
Z let their conversation trail off. Boring, like so much of the idle chitchat in this town. But then his senses picked up on something much less boring from the opposite direction. He stiffened, the hairs on the back of his neck rising at the new presence.
Z didn't turn, instead waiting for the vamp to come to him, as he knew he would. What else would a bloodsucker be doing in Golatha Falls? The night-walking breed preferred cities with nightlife. Soccer moms just weren't their flavor of choice. Any vampire in this town had a purpose in being here, and Z didn't like that the vamp's purpose might have to do with the pup.
As expected, the vampire sat on the barstool next to him. He looked like a bodyguard. Before whatever ominous message he'd come to deliver got said, Cherry sidled up to the bar, using her flirtatious routine on the vampire. It wounded Z's male pride a bit, but his larger concern was the look in the vamp's eyes as he sized up the voluptuous snack in front of him.
"What can I get you to drink?" she asked. Her voice was laced with innuendo, as if some small corner of her mind knew the truth about the being she was now faced with.
"You," the vampire said.
Z groaned at the cheesy line. Vamps were all about production value. Cherry was caught off guard, more used to the even less suave pick-up lines of the average small-town male. She made the mistake of making eye contact.
"Good girl," he said. "Now give me your wrist."
"Are you kidding me?" Z hissed. "Here? Now? Someone will see you."
The vampire didn't take his eyes off Cherry, holding her in his thrall as she offered her wrist. "There aren't many witnesses here. It shouldn't be a hard clean-up job. But I'm sure you'll help block the view for me while I feed."
The panther suppressed a growl. "And I'll do this because I'm such a good Samaritan?"
"No, because the one thing we have in common, besides that pup you've got hidden away, is a desire for maintaining secrecy from the humans."
That cleared up any doubt about the vamp's knowledge of the pup. Z shifted his body to block the view, not believing he was going along with this. But he knew the bloodsucker wouldn't drain her, and if a scene could be avoided, that might be for the best.
The stranger brought the woman's wrist to his lips, his fangs descending into her flesh. Although Z hated vampires and lived here primarily because the fanged crowd didn't, he found himself fascinated by the display. The fascination was short lived. Within moments, Cherry was crying.
Z lowered his voice. "All right, you asshole. You've got two seconds to let her go."
The vampire raised his mouth from the woman's arm, blood trickling from the corner of his lips. The expression on his face was mild. "I'm not hurting her."
"Like hell you're not." It was just Z's luck to run into one of the more sadistic vamps that preferred feeding from pain.
"Her tears aren't what you assume. It's release. Absolution. I found her guiltiest secret, and I forgave her." He licked the drops of blood that ran down her arm and healed the puncture marks. He turned to the barista; his eyes flicked to her name tag. "Cherry, you will never speak of this."
She nodded, looking drugged and hypnotized, then her vision cleared and she stared at him for a long time before going back to work.
When she was out of earshot, Z turned to the vampire. He didn't buy the blood drinker's forgiveness story for a second. "And what was her guilty secret?"
"That's privileged information. I am bound to never share the sins that are confessed to me."
"What are you? A priest?"
"Once upon a time, yes."
Z wasn't sure whether the vampire was joking or lying. The idea that he might be telling the truth wasn't on his radar. "Didn't you get the memo? God no longer wants you, so you can stop doing his work."
A bemused smirk played across the vampire's lips. "You think I haven't heard that one before? It's not about God. It's about what I need and what those I feed from need. It's a symbiotic relationship that more should respect. They give me a bit of the life flowing through them, and I give them the one thing they most need to find happiness."
Z shook his head and dug into the pie that had sat untouched on his plate. He couldn't believe he still had the appetite for it after what he'd just witnessed and allowed. But sometimes being the gallant hero just got more people killed.
"Now," the vampire said, turning toward him, "let's talk about the pup."
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," Z said between bites. This particular vampire hadn't been with the raiding party that had tried to take the pup the last time. Confessing to nothing seemed the wisest course.
The vampire chuckled. "Play stupid if you like. I need that pup. He will not be harmed, but it's important. We will get him one way or the other. Your cooperation will save everyone trouble, and might buy you your life. Think about it." He slid a business card with a number on it across the counter. "I'll be in touch."
"This your number?" Z asked.
"Doesn't have a name on it." Not that Z planned to call for a friendly chat. He just found the whole exchange strange.
"You may call me Father."
Z laughed. "It's sad how vampires can never let go of the past." His voice lowered. "You get near that pup and you'll get a chance to go learn firsthand how much God doesn't want you."
"I love being the courier. Think of all the male posturing and the lovely snack I would have missed had I stayed at home. Be wise, Z. The pup isn't yours. His fate doesn't concern you."
Though he hadn't ordered anything off the official menu, the vampire placed a couple of bucks on the counter and receded into the night.
The adrenaline and blood pumped beneath the surface of Z's skin. He'd been primed for a fight, and the vampire had played it civilized. No fighting, only moderate threats. He waited a few minutes before getting up to leave.
"I'm out, Cherry," he said.
"Later, Z." She seemed distracted still, but not in any distress. Her features held none of the tension he'd come to take for granted since he'd met her. That bloodsucking fiend had absolved her.
He shook his head and made his way down the street to the hardware store. His eyes cut from side to side, searching for evidence of the vampire. He didn't sense or see anything, but he decided to stay away from the cave until morning. There was no chance he'd be followed in daylight.