The cave was lonely when Fiona woke. On the one hand it was a relief not to have to deal with the mercurial panther, on the other, he was a part of the place. His presence, awkward as it was, had been comforting. His scent had made the cave feel protected. In his absence, it felt like anything could happen.
She'd had breakfast, taken her antibiotic pill, and let the pup out of his cage. But the wolf didn't lessen the anxiety of being alone in the cave.
I'm used to being alone. Why should this be uncomfortable?
She knew the answer. Having a taste of what it was like to have a man around made her realize all she'd been missing in her hermit existence. But sleeping with him would have been the worst kind of mistake. He'd leave her and break her heart. She'd feel used. But what difference did it make? It wasn't as if she'd ever have a normal life with a man with a white picket fence. Shouldn't she have taken the opportunity while it was there? However brief the window?
And then there was the stupid part of her that thought maybe he'd connect with her in some way he couldn't connect with others. Something about her would be special, and he wouldn't leave. Maybe he just hadn't found the right woman. Maybe she could be it.
She let out an exasperated scream that echoed off the walls of the cave, sending the pup scurrying behind an overstuffed leather chair. He peered out around the side at her.
"Sorry, I'm just being crazy." And pathetic. Let's not forget the pathetic part.
Fiona stared at the spell book on the kitchen table. It was still open to the protection spell. She ran her fingers over the old, worn pages, tracing the flowing, cursive script. Her grandmother's. Her mom hadn't kept a spell book, and Fiona had followed in her footsteps.
Why was she keeping all these books and tools if she wasn't going to use them? Instead of learning everything she could to become more powerful and protect herself, she'd hidden, trying not to call attention to herself or her magic. If she didn't use magic, no one would sense it or come for her. No one would hurt her. If she wasn't on anybody's radar, she couldn't be seen as a threat or a pawn.
Even with this precaution, somehow trouble had found her. Just like the birds had said. She'd gone outside and something bad had happened. But could Z be the bad thing? She wished he was back in the cave. Arguing with him would be better than living in her scattered mind alone.
She sorted through the bags, gathering the various ingredients she'd need for the protection spell. Salt for the circle. Candles, crystals, herbs. Her finger skimmed down the page of the weathered book as if she were preparing to make her first pot roast. All she had to do was follow the recipe and everything would be fine.
She sat in the middle of the circle, her eyes closed, breathing in the incense and quieting the incessant chatter in her brain. The circle had been created, the candles lit, the protective crystals put in the right places. She began to intone the chant.
She quirked one eye open and looked around. Nothing seemed different. If it had worked, wouldn't she at least feel something? The last time she'd done wards on her house, she'd felt that. But this was a new spell of a different nature. Doing one protection spell wasn't the same as doing them all.
Had she raised any magic at all? Surely she had. And if she had, without successfully completing the spell, then did that mean she'd given her whereabouts away? With people after the pup, had she just brought them to Z's door? Would his wards hold and keep them away?
Tears slipped from her eyes, but before she could start the self-pity party, she noticed the cave was quiet. Too quiet. Where was the pup? She snuffed out the candles and stepped outside the circle, checking his cage and behind and underneath all the furniture. Then she checked the bathroom, particularly the shower, and underneath Z's bed. He'd left a couple of dresser drawers open, but there was no pup in there, either.
Her heart pounded in her chest as she raced to the entrance of the cave. Why hadn't she locked the pup up before doing the spell? Z was going to kill her.
Fiona reached the mouth of the cave and looked down. The pup had climbed down and was sniffing around some wild blackberry bushes.
She whistled for him. He looked up at her, his tongue hanging out. He yipped and started to run around, his tail wagging. He thought it was a game.
Just climb down there and get him. It's not far. Then you can come back inside. Nothing will happen. It's no farther than the mailbox. You can make it fifty-five steps. You've done it a million times before.
The self-talk wasn't working. Fiona's breath came harder and faster, and she was afraid she'd hyperventilate. She leaned against the cave wall, her breath coming in sharp pants. Just breathe. She closed her eyes, trying to force the sense of vertigo to go away, but closing her eyes only made her more dizzy.
God damn that panther! This shouldn't be her concern. She should be at her house watching her television and ordering her groceries for the week, not stranded in some crazy panther therian's cave babysitting a werewolf pup. This was all Z's fault.
"Puppy, come here. Don't make me come down there after you." Her voice sounded thin and thready.
Now would be a perfect time for an appropriate spell. If she'd been practicing her magic like a good witch, she could have had the ability to get the pup back without having to climb down. It was bad enough having to go outside where it wasn't safe, but to have to climb down the steep rock that the cave was settled in was too much to ask of anyone.
Fiona bit her lip, trying to screw up her courage to climb down into the big bad outside. Had the cave become her new home base already? If she'd been kidnapped and nothing horrible had happened, maybe she could go outside. She'd already broken her pattern, what could happen? The birds were wrong. Or just screwing with her.
The pup wandered out of her line of sight. The time for weighing the pros and cons was long past. She took another measured breath and grabbed for a sturdy branch and made her way down the steep path.
Z drummed his fingers on top of the sales counter in the cell phone store, growing impatient with the sales rep. He should have gotten a cheap prepaid flip phone with nothing fancy, like what he'd had before, but they'd talked him into having an intelligent phone. Was that what they were called? He hadn't really been listening to the guy.
It was a phone. How smart could it be? How smart did it need to be? And how many people did he ever have the need to call?
"This phone ends up acting as a tablet. You can buy digital books, shop on the web, watch videos. There's GPS which is super convenient if you travel. And of course you've got your social media apps all at the touch of a button." The associate demonstrated the phone, sliding his thumb across the touch screen, giddy when a website came up as if he didn't do this presentation five hundred times a day.
"Fine. Just ring it up."
The associate arched a brow. "Well, we have to finish setting your phone up, and you have to sign the contract."
Z held back a growl, but when the associate took a couple of steps back, he was sure his eyes must have gone gold for a second. A fantasy of shifting into panther form and causing chaos in the store made him smile. But fantasy or no, things like that had consequences in the real world. Vampires would come swarming in, throwing their weight around and memory-wiping everybody in the same zip code as the security breach. Magic users would be gunning for him, and who knew how many packs and tribes of therians would end up on his doorstep screeching about not letting the humans know. Everybody was out to ruin his fun.
"Would you like your phone to be a hotspot?"
"A what?" Could this pimply moron not shut up? Why did buying a new phone have to be this much drama? Z's eyes strayed to the name badge on the guy's vest. It read: Team Leader, Tim "Listen, Tim, maybe we should nix this and get the prepaid set up with one of the regular phones. I'm not sure I'm cut out for all this complication." Not to mention that a two year phone plan sounded like such a commitment. He'd never committed to anything except his living quarters for that long. And that was only because he liked his cave and had worked so hard to make it livable.
Tim looked aghast. "Oh no, you're going to want this phone. Trust me. It's like crack. You'll get addicted to all the games and the convenience. You can check your email from anywhere."
"I don't have email."
The associate was nonplussed. "Well, surely you use the Internet."
"Nope. Don't do that, either," Z said. "If I can't see you and smell you, I can't trust you."
Tim got an odd look on his face. Maybe it was the smell you part that crossed the line. It was always hard for Z to tell which thing was just one bit of commentary too far.
"So, then, we'll check no next to hotspot for now." There was a nervous tremor in the guy's voice, as if he were finally picking up on the fact that his customer might be dangerous.
Z nodded. "You might also want to check no next to the box that says 'Would you like your phone to turn into a jet pack,' because I can assure you I do not. I just want my phone to call people.'"
Tim's eyes darted back to the computer screen in front of him as he typed out a few things as quickly as possible. "Okay, well, I'll have you out of here in just a minute." He clicked a button on the computer and several papers spit out of the printer. "I just need you to sign here and here." Tim passed Z a pen and pointed to the parts of the contract he was supposed to sign. His credit had been building for the past 72 years, so at least that part had been no problem. Though he didn't look a day over thirty. Maybe he was set in his ways.
He signed the paper and listened as the associate droned on some more about features and benefits, not having listened when Z had told him he just wanted to call people.
"Here's your phone number," Tim said, passing a card to Z. "And your bill will come to that address right there."
"Wonderful. Can I go now?"
Tim nodded quickly and Z collected the truckload of paperwork, card with his number on it, and cell phone that had been charged for the first time in the store. When he got outside, he folded the papers and shoved them into his leather jacket.
He growled as he tried to repeat what Tim had shown him in the store to get his phone to agree to the most basic function for which it had been intended. Finally, he got to the proper screen to make a call. He grimaced at the cutesy sound the phone made as he touched the numbers on the screen to dial Fiona. It sounded like a handheld video game.
He felt bad about how he'd left things with her. Before he left town, he at least needed to know that she was okay and try to smooth things over.
The phone would have rang into voicemail if Z had ever bothered to set his voicemail up. He didn't like to be bothered. If he wasn't answering his phone, there was a reason, and leaving a message shouldn't be an option to violate that choice.
He called three more times, but each time it went to an automated voice that said, "I'm sorry, but this wireless customer has not set up a voice mailbox." He could hear the judgment coming from the robotic voice, as if he'd lapsed on his moral duty to let people get in touch with him.
Z hopped on his motorcycle and headed for the interstate, still not sure where he was going to search. The obstacles in the way of finding the pup's pack seemed insurmountable. He could hit some truck stops, look for other therians, ask around, but he wasn't sure how far it would get him.
He tried to ignore Fiona's silence. Maybe she was mad at him. Stranger shit had happened. It wasn't like women didn't routinely get pissed at him. She wasn't obligated to answer his calls. But with her particular phobias, even if mad, she wouldn't shut out the opportunity to have a point of contact, and she wouldn't know how to get into his voicemail even if he'd had the foresight to set it up.
He pulled into a gas station next to the interstate and dialed his old cell again but still no answer. "Dammit, Fiona! Answer the phone."
His instincts sent warning bells and strobe lights and buzzers. Something was wrong. She'd answer the phone. It was too late for her to still be sleeping. She wouldn't leave the cave. He growled. He couldn't start the search with this nagging feeling. Even if everything was okay, he had to go back and check on her. He wouldn't allow himself to think why he just had to do such a noble thing.
The further Fiona got from the cave, the more anxious she became, as if her lifeline were fraying away and she was adrift at sea, far from civilization. It was kind of true. Though she'd lived most of her life in the forest, she didn't know it well. Not as well as she should, anyway.
She might be going in circles by this point. Even if she found the pup, she was afraid they wouldn't make it back home. It was past lunchtime, and she was starting to get hungry. If she didn't find him soon and start making her way back to the cave, the sun would set, leaving them at the mercy of whatever came out in the forest at night. And besides that danger, she couldn't imagine it being easier to find her way back in the dark.
"Puppy! Here boy!" She let out a few short whistles.
A hawk stopped in the tree above her. You looking for a wolf pup?
"Yes! Have you seen him?" Of course, Fiona. Use your freaking gift. Talk to an animal. Duh.
He must be a therian if he could understand her as well as she could understand him. The hawk looked to the west. He's wandering in a clearing about a mile west of here.
"Thank you!" Fiona hoped he'd be around to help her find the cave, once she got to the pup.
She picked up her pace to get to the wolf before he wandered off again. When she reached the clearing, he was eating a rabbit. She made a gagging sound and his ears perked up.
"Puppy, I know this is what you eat, and I'm thrilled you're learning to hunt, but we have to get you home."
The wolf growled around the rabbit leg he was gnawing on, ignoring her. He wanted to hunt. It was his natural instinct. Keeping him cooped up in the cave, treating him like a domesticated dog breed, wasn't good for him. She wondered if Z had taken him hunting before he'd had to keep him inside.
How long would he be gone? How far would he search? These were details they hadn't ironed out because she'd been mad at him when he'd left. His list of crimes was enormous and growing by the minute:
Wanting to sleep with her.
Not wanting to sleep with her.
Abandoning her with the pup with no idea of when he'd be back.
Fiona sat on the ground nearby, but not so close the pup would feel his meal was threatened. Cute or not, there was no telling how he'd react if he thought she was competing for his food, especially out here in the middle of nature where the animal side of his instincts would be stronger.
"Was breakfast not enough for you?"
He watched her suspiciously, growling as he continued eviscerating the poor rabbit that had crossed his path. When he was finished, he chewed and played with the bones for a bit before stretching out and rolling in the grass. He closed his eyes, basking in the sunlight. It was nap time.
"We need to go home. It's going to be dark in a few hours and you've wandered pretty far." Why was she reasoning with a wolf pup? He couldn't communicate clear ideas to her, just images and basic needs. Right now he was communicating the desire to take a nap in the sun and his appreciation of the warmth and brightness. Though anyone could have puzzled that one out. It didn't take a magical animal communication ability.
Fiona sighed, unsure how she was supposed to convince him to come home with her or how she could make him do so if he couldn't be reasoned with. He was small but squirmy and solid muscle. If he didn't want to go, she wouldn't be able to make him.
A shadow fell over her, and she looked up to see a woman in jeans and a gray T-shirt. "Found him," she called out. "I knew I sensed some magic out this way. Weak magic, but still."
What a bitch, Fiona thought.
Another woman and three men stepped out from the forest from different sides, like they'd been canvassing the place. They circled and closed in on Fiona and the pup. The pup, sensing danger, opened his eyes and moved in front of her, growling at the interlopers.
"Oh, that's so cute!" the other woman said. "It's like he's defending her!"
"Shut up, Sonya. I don't know why we brought you. You're a liability," the woman in the gray T-shirt said.
"The boss's orders were to bring the whole coven, and that includes me," Sonya said.
"The boss can screw himself," Gray T-shirt said. "I don't know why we're doing a vampire's dirty work anyway."
"Girls! Would both of you kindly shut up so we can concentrate over here?" the largest of the men said. He looked like he might be the one in charge.
Fiona knew the women were witches. Even if her own powers had atrophied from lack of regular use and training, she at least could sense their power. The men were magic users as well. Fiona hadn't moved to stand because there was nowhere to go and she didn't want to make any sudden, threatening moves.
If she'd had any doubts before, she knew now that her protection spell had fizzled out, leaving nothing but a weak magic trail for others to find. The opposite of protection. This was why she'd been afraid to start learning more magic. Aside from house wards and a few basic healing spells, she'd avoided the craft to stay off the radar of those with bad intentions.
One of the men pointed at the pup and began to chant in Latin. A second man joined him in the chant, pointing at the wolf as well. The leader stood to the side, doing nothing. It seemed he was there in a supervisory capacity. A glowing bubble surrounded the pup and caused him to rise in the air. He whimpered and clawed at the bubble of magic, trying to free himself.
Fiona was torn between horror over the situation, fear for the pup and herself, and anger that she hadn't been a responsible witch. Her grandmother had always told her she was a steward of great powers and that she should take care to nurture and grow her gifts. Whisking the pup home in a magic bubble the second she'd seen him in the clearing would have kept them alive. Being able to do a protection spell would have kept them alive. There were a lot of things she could have bothered to learn along the way that would have kept them alive.
"What are we doing with the weak witch?" Gray T-shirt asked.
"He only wants the pup. She's useless. Kill her."
"W-wait!" Fiona said. If she couldn't ensure her survival with magic, she'd try to talk her way out of it. "I can understand him. I can talk to animals. You might need me."
The man sized her up. "Interesting and potent skill for a witch who probably can't pull a rabbit out of a hat."
"I bet she's lying," Gray T-shirt said.
"This is so exciting!" Sonya said, like it was reality TV and not somebody's actual life on the line.
Fiona's eyes widened as Z crept up behind the leader. He was naked, which let Fiona know he'd been in panther form, tracking her. She had no idea what had made him come back. Part of her was grateful, and another part was scared for him. And then a third part was thinking inappropriate thoughts for the situation. She needed to learn to look at a man naked without having a psychotic break.
He'd gone straight for the leader, intent on taking out the strongest link.
Before the man noticed him, Z's hands were on either side of his head, then a twist and a sharp crack. The magic user fell to the ground. Z shifted to panther form and moved to stand in front of Fiona, growling at the others.
Sonya screamed and ran off into the woods, leaving Gray T-shirt and the other two men. Gray T-shirt produced a ball of electricity in her hand, bouncing it in her palm like it was a softball she was about to pitch.
The two men who were chanting started to retreat, keeping the chant up as they went.
"Go after the pup!" Fiona shouted, unable to believe Z wasn't budging.
They won't kill him now, but they'll kill you. I'm not having that. Z growled in reply.
With the witch poised with the electricity ball, and already doubting Fiona's gift, Z was stuck shielding her while the other two got away with the pup.
"How heroic," Gray T-shirt said. "I can just kill you first, then the witch."
No she can't. Z said. She'll only wound me and then I'll pounce before she can conjure another one. She can't kill me with just one of those fancy firecrackers.
As he'd predicted, Gray T-shirt flung the ball of electricity. He caught it in the shoulder, whimpered, stumbled a bit, and then took a running leap at the remaining witch while she tried to regroup to produce another one. He landed on her chest, his heavy paws knocking the wind out of her, then he ripped out her throat in one swipe.
He turned to Fiona, blood dripping, and she jumped up and started backing away. He shifted and shouted at her. "Stop! You know I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not wounding anything that's just going to rise up stronger and come back for us. Haven't you ever watched a horror movie?"
Fiona shook her head. "They scare me. I live out in the middle of the woods trapped in my house. How is a horror movie a good idea?"
"Well, trust me on this one. It's kill or be killed here."
With the human side of him seeming to be back in control, she stopped her retreat and looked around the clearing. The airhead witch and the two men who had taken the pup were nowhere to be found. Z was sporting a pretty serious bruise and burn combination on his shoulder that looked like it hurt like hell.
He went through the pockets of both the woman and the man he'd killed. The woman's pockets were empty, but the man had a wallet.
"Nothing of interest in here," Z said. "Whoever they're working for, they aren't carrying his calling card around. I didn't expect them to, but it never hurts to check."
"You killed them," Fiona said, unnecessarily.
It was easier to take him twisting the guy's neck, but the witch... it seemed excessive and brutal.
"I don't negotiate with terrorists," Z said, without apology. "Wild animal, here, remember?"
"Yeah, but... you ripped her throat out."
"I'm sorry, is there an approved list of killing methods I was supposed to run by you before I saved your life? Did you not hear his order to kill you?"
"Thank you," Fiona mumbled.
Z only nodded.
She hadn't realized he'd been lurking that long, waiting for his moment, no doubt. He'd probably planned to kill all of them, given half a chance.
He took long strides to reach her. She tried not to react to him being so naked and hot and dangerous mere inches from her.
"I'd kiss you right now in some grand sweeping gesture, except I'm covered in blood and I'm guessing humans don't find that sexy."
Fiona rolled her eyes.