Z couldn't get his heart to calm down. From the second he'd seen Fiona surrounded by those magic users, he'd known true terror.
He'd had the wolf for months, but it was a temporary inconvenience. Having him around was half annoyance and half entertainment. It didn't stir any longings in Z for young of his own. That was a Chinese finger trap he didn't want to stick his fingers into.
Fiona, on the other hand... she had an absurd level of sweetness he shouldn't be so damned attracted to. He'd only damage her. She'd end up hexing him for it. And he'd deserve it when she did.
She triggered a bizarre combination of predatory and protective instincts. Half of him wanted to lock her away in a convent with bars on the doors and magic spells everywhere, the other half wanted to throw her down on the shag rug in front of the fireplace in his cave and have his wicked way with her.
He had a tight hold on her hand as he led her through the forest, finding his way back to the cave by scent. She'd stayed quiet since they'd started back, not complaining of the distance, though she couldn't be used to this much tramping through the woods. He admired a woman who didn't bitch and moan about hiking.
But it wasn't the peaceful kind of silence that happened while observing the natural world in awe. Tension sparked off her like bolts of agitated current from a live wire.
Z's silence was for a different reason. He knew there might still be a witch out here somewhere. Ditzy or not, she was still a witch who was aligned with the enemy.
"We have to find the pup," Fiona said.
Here it was.
"Where do you propose I look? A couple of magic users magicked him away. I have no way of finding them. I don't even know who they are."
"Can't you follow their trail?"
"You think they wouldn't mask it? You think they're so stupid and underprepared knowing he's with someone like me who can track? These people are organized. They've been after him for months!" He should blame Fiona for letting the pup out of the cave, but the biggest emotion Z felt with regards to the lack of a small wolf was relief. The situation was out of his hands now, and he was free.
He pushed down the guilt before it could grow. He should have left the pup in the middle of the woods that day to fend for himself, but he'd been bored, and the pup had been entertaining.
"Don't yell at me," Fiona said, tears in her voice.
"I'm not yelling. I'm just saying. Unless you have some magic way to find him, we can't find him."
Her silence was all he needed.
Z sighed. "It's over. He's gone. I don't know where his pack is. I don't know how to find them. I don't know who these people are that took him." And he'd stupidly tossed the card with the phone number on it in the fire. He could have called that priest vampire. Not that the guy would have given him any information, anyway. And if Fiona couldn't use a spell to locate the pup, a business card wouldn't help her find the vampire, either.
"We'll try to figure something out tomorrow," he said. Part of him just wanted to forget about the pup. It wasn't his problem now. Shit happened. But saying that out loud to Fiona would guarantee she'd hate him forever, and he couldn't have that - not with the weird thing she'd done to his heart. He wasn't sure what would happen if she hated him, and he wasn't worried about magic. No, this was all standard human emotion stuff. He made a face like he'd eaten something sour, thankful he was walking in front of the witch so she couldn't see it.
"But anything could happen," she said. She'd given up the fight against her tears.
He could feel her guilt over letting the pup get away from her.
"It's not your fault, okay? I just need rest. I don't have a plan. I just... Tomorrow. We'll figure something out tomorrow." Maybe a meteor would fall on the cave... or an apocalypse would happen... or she'd hit her head and get amnesia. Any of those outcomes would work.
"Do you promise?" The catch in her voice made his skin feel too tight, like he wanted to crawl out of it.
"Yes." Anything to get you to stop crying.
Another half hour passed before they arrived at the cave. Fiona had managed to stop the tears and was back to silence. Z gave her a boost at the cave entrance.
She looked back. "Seriously? You're not going to check inside to make sure it's safe, first?"
Z growled. "How many times do I have to explain the wild animal thing to you? I can smell the whole cave. Nobody has been here but us. Now get your cute butt in there."
Even in the growing darkness, and despite losing the pup, he could see the blush creeping over her face, but she scurried up the side of the rock and into the cave. Z followed.
"I-I could do some magic - a healing spell, I mean - on your shoulder."
Z glanced down. The injury was minor by his standards, though probably not by hers. "It's fine. It'll be healed up by the time I go to bed. There's no sense in you wasting your magic on me." He stalked closer and she took an unconscious step back.
"It wouldn't be a waste - "
"Shhh." He offered his hand. "I need a shower and so do you, after being out all day in the heat."
Her eyes widened comically. "I b-beg your pardon?"
There he went with the one-step-too-far thing. He couldn't be sure if she was offended that he'd implied she didn't smell great - hey neither did he, it wasn't a judgment - or that he'd just suggested they shower together to fix the situation. He figured he'd skip over the lesser issue and make his case for the latter.
"Oh, come on. We had a big adrenaline-filled moment in the clearing back there. I know you felt it, too. If I hadn't had blood all over me, I would have taken you right there. You know we're going to do this. You've drooled over me every opportunity you've gotten in the short time we've been in each other's company - "
"I have not!" Her arms crossed over her chest in a defensive posture, as if he was the last sentient being she'd sleep with even if her species faced extinction. But he wasn't buying it. Underneath the smell of sweat and fear for the pup and the woods was the smell that made him brave, because he knew just how much she wanted him.
And he was still naked, having left his clothing miles and miles away when he'd first shifted to track her faster. It was obvious he wanted her. So what were they waiting for? She needed a distraction from the pup crisis, and he needed to be inside her.
"No point denying what I can smell. My nose doesn't lie, darlin'." He smirked as her skin flushed a darker red.
He knew she wanted to take him up on his offer, could see the internal struggle like subtitles going across her face. But she was too conflicted to make a move toward him.
"Fiona, look. You want to. I want to. I know your first time should be with some guy you've been mooning over for months, who has bought you flowers and candy and pretends to like the same movies you like. There should be candles and fancy sheets. But I'm not a romantic candlelight sex kind of guy. I'm a fuck-in-the-shower kind of guy."
"N-no thank you."
He knew he was getting to her.
Z threw up his hands in surrender. "All right. But I can't be in this close proximity to you much longer like this. Fair warning. I'm running out of gentlemanly scruples. And it's not safe to take you back home now. You know where I am if you change your mind."
Fiona collapsed on the couch as soon as he was down the hallway. She was surprised her legs had held her up this long, especially after he'd propositioned her. Everything about Z was inappropriate and non-romantic and just plain... like some uncivilized caveman.
But he was right.
She wanted him in the worst way. She'd had this background ache for him almost from the moment he'd shifted for the first time in her kitchen. Although she needed someone to be gentle with her the first time, every fantasy that starred Z was rough and exciting. Everything about him was too overpowering. She'd be lying if she said she didn't want to be swept up in it because being around him made her forget all her stupid fears - maybe because he replaced those fears with new, more immediate fears, but still. Why question what worked?
She'd ventured outside the cave to protect the pup. She couldn't have done that without Z coming into her life. Of course, she'd almost gotten killed in the process... and they'd lost the wolf...
Her mind flashed to muscled tan flesh stalking the leader of the witches. Z was a killer. He may or may not kill human beings regularly, but he didn't have a guilt complex about it. He showed no signs of having any moral trouble with what he'd done out there. No remorse. Wild animal was right. He did whatever he had to do.
Why was she so attracted to that? Because no matter what the birds said, Z is big enough and bad enough to protect what's his. He won't hesitate.
Where had that come from? As if being his were an option. She could tell he didn't care one way or the other about the pup. Even after having him for so long. He was relieved to be rid of the responsibility. What was she going to say to him: "So, Z... since you kidnapped me for babysitting help and since you just got free of adult responsibility again, maybe I could interest you in being my personal bodyguard."
Who was she kidding? He'd minced no words explaining his notched-bedpost philosophy of life. He wasn't boyfriend material. He wasn't true love material. He wasn't anything but a quick road to heartbreak. On the other hand, shouldn't she have more than one sexual partner in life? Was that what was normal now?
Maybe she could be more brave after this. Couldn't he just be her first without attaching expectations to it? He didn't have to be the one. He didn't have to be noble and wonderful or father material or husband material. All he had to be was an experience. She wasn't a teenager. She could handle this.
The sound of the shower startled her out of the mental cheerleading. Fiona was off the couch before she realized she'd moved. She wouldn't let herself think about what she was doing. This might be her one opportunity before she ended up back in her cottage watching men on TV. Was that what she wanted? To sit around her house alone, regretting how close she'd come to primal maleness and having a normal life experience, only to let it slip away?
This was a normal thing. And it was just down the hall. Well... a couple of steps away behind a door. The door creaked open when she turned the knob, and Fiona winced at the sound. She couldn't walk away without him knowing she'd been there.
Z's head popped out from around the shower curtain. His eyes glowed golden, and his nostrils flared.
She stood mere inches from him. "I thought you said I smelled bad." From the look in his eyes and the way he was sniffing the air, the opposite was the case.
"I said we both needed a shower. Besides, the other smell is overpowering the smell from the woods. Ditch the clothes and get in here."
Definitely not a romantic. What the hell am I doing? Was she going to let some cave-dwelling cretin bark non-romantic orders at her? Shouldn't he at least make some minor effort? Like she mattered in some miniscule way? For the moment she forgot about the fact that when it was between the pup and her, he'd chosen her. He'd risked his life for hers. That was the classic romance hero, swooping in all righteous to save the day. It was every movie she'd ever watched. But that moment had passed. Now they were left with this one. And somehow she doubted this was what happened later behind closed doors in those stories.
"This was a mistake." Fiona turned to leave.
"Oh no you don't. That was the last flip-flop you pulled on me." With one arm he reached out and pulled her into the shower with him, fully clothed.
Z backed her against the shower wall opposite from where the water sprayed down, his searing kisses stealing the protests from her mouth. Fiona gripped his shoulders - the only solid thing to hold onto in there. The rest was slippery, wet tile.
He wrapped one arm around her, pulling her flush against him, and propped the other against the wall over her head.
"Fiona... you're playing with fire with me."
"Hey, you pulled me in here!" Her clothes were sticking to her. Jeans and wet T-shirt. She wasn't prepared to be so close to him in such good lighting with no clothes on, but soaked clothes clinging to her every curve wasn't comfortable, either.
Z pulled the shirt over her head, wrung it out and tossed it out on the floor. Then his fingers hooked into the front of her pants. Fiona's stomach clenched in excitement and fear at his fingers being so close to such an intimate place. No man's hand had been that close before. She sucked in a breath and looked away.
The energy around him shifted, and then his hand was stroking her face and the side of her neck. She couldn't help arching toward him.
"Hey," he said, his voice going gentle, "we both need a shower. That's all we have to do here."
She chanced a glance at his eyes. "Okay." Sure, they'd pretend this was about hygiene and being conservationists. Two people. One shower. It was good for the environment. Now to collect her ecology merit badge.
He went back to the jeans, fumbling with the two buttons at the top, then with help from her and a lot of frustrated cursing, he peeled them off. She crossed her arms over her chest.
"You've got nothing to hide from me," he said, taking her hands in his.
She tried not to think of his long list of conquests. As if he could read her mind - and how big of a mystery could her thoughts be under the circumstances - he said, "Believe me. They don't hold a candle to you."
It was a line, but she couldn't help falling for it, because right now she needed to hear it and believe in it. If she was going to keep doing this normal thing that grown women who aren't afraid to leave their houses do, if she was going to have this one moment where she pretended she was one of those normal women, one who didn't have powers she was afraid of and phobias about being outside, then she needed to hear the line and be the stupid girl who believed it. Because that was normal, too.
The cave was small and closed in and protected. Z could protect her. She could exist in this tiny, safe world with him. The trouble was, would he want her here tomorrow after he'd scratched his itch? Z's cave had become the new safe base, but there were no guarantees she'd be allowed to stay. How was she going to function if she had to leave?
His hands moved to her back to unclasp her bra, then it joined the rest of her clothes.
"Give me some sign you're in this with me," he said.
Fiona felt her face heat, and it wasn't from the steam of the shower. She pushed her panties down over her hips and stepped out of them, then she tossed them out onto the floor with the rest of her clothing.
He nodded his approval. To his credit he didn't stand there and gawk too long, nor did he do anything else to make her uncomfortable. Instead, he grabbed the bar soap. It was a masculine-scented deodorant soap that smelled like him.
He worked up a lather, and then his soapy hands were on her. Fiona couldn't help the moan that escaped her lips. He wasn't touching her anywhere intimate yet. It was her shoulders, and her arms, but there could be no separation of safe zones and unsafe zones when naked in a shower with him. All those lines and boundaries dissolved away, leaving two aroused adults with nothing stopping them but scruples. What were those again?
She couldn't pretend this was just an exercise in hygiene. She wasn't that innocent. It was an exercise in foreplay. He led her down his path of seduction, and she followed without even a weak whimper of protest.
He turned her around and placed her hands on the tile, one on either side of her face. She leaned forward, her forearms resting against the shower wall as he soaped up her back. Z's hands wrapped around her waist, moving over her belly.
This is really happening. Of course it's happening, you head case. Naked in a shower with a werepanther. Did you think he'd stand in his corner and you'd stand in yours?
Fiona tried to shut off the inane mental commentary.
Z's voice rumbled over her. "Relax. Don't think so much."
"How do you know I'm thinking?"
"Because your jaw is set like you're being tortured in an inquisition, and every muscle in your body is so tense I'm surprised you haven't strained something." He was quiet for a moment. "Maybe we shouldn't do this."
Fiona spun to face him, almost losing her balance in the process. She grabbed his arm for support. "Now who's flip-flopping? If you think you're getting me all naked and vulnerable in a shower, then rejecting me, you are out of your mind." She hooked one hand around the back of his neck, and without thinking, pulled him to her, her mouth crashing against his.
She was tired of playing the lamb to his wolf. He growled as his hands roamed over her ass. Or maybe she wasn't tired of it. But she was tired of pretending it was awful.
Z shut off the water and abruptly got out.
Fiona stood dazed, trying to figure out what had just happened. But the next minute a towel was wrapped around her, and he carried her to the bedroom. He tossed her on the bed and shut the door like he thought they'd be interrupted otherwise.
"Tell me now if we're doing this or not. This is your last chance to back out. I mean, no pressure, but I keep telling you the wild animal thing. Past a certain point I don't have the ability to stop. I need you to understand that. You know what I am."
There were drops of water coming off his hair and rolling down his body. She licked her lips. Yes, she knew what he was. Over six feet of raw, primal male power. Tight muscles that had pressed against her in the shower, strong hands that had killed a man to protect her - but had been nothing but gentle when they touched her, a kiss that lived up to his caveman reputation and then some. She was never getting a better opportunity than this.
Fiona laid back against the pillows like some fainting damsel. "I understand. Do what you have to do."
His eyes narrowed. "Are you being smart?"
Z joined her on the bed. She was surprised when he spooned with her. She hadn't thought of him as the cuddling type, and right after his big warning, she hadn't expected another tender gesture.
"Before we do anything, you're going to relax. If you're not relaxed, I'm not doing this. It'll hurt you too much, and I'm not an ogre. So we're going to work on that, yeah?"
"Okay. Although... you did chloroform me," she pointed out helpfully.
Z smacked her ass. Before she could get indignant about it, he rubbed over the mark she was sure he'd made. She settled against him, letting go as he kneaded the tension from her body. Then a sound started, and she felt a vibration against her back.
"Are you purring?"
"I'm a big cat. It's a thing. Be quiet and let me take care of you."
Fiona had to work to stifle the giggle bubbling out. His hand moved between her legs, turning the giggle into a moan.
"That's the sound I prefer," he whispered in her ear.
When he talked to her that way, she came undone. She wasn't sure if she was supposed to be offended or scared. She knew if she stopped thinking for two seconds, nothing in the world would matter but the way he played her body.
Every part of Z screamed this was a bad idea. She was too innocent. But he pushed the voice down. He wanted what he wanted, and if the way she shuddered in his arms was any indication, she did, too.
Her hips began to rock as he eased two fingers inside her. So lovely and wet and... tight. He pressed harder and she let out a cry. He could smell her tears.
Z didn't move, just waited, trailing kisses down the side of her neck. He'd had sex with a virgin twice before Fiona. The first time he'd been clueless, popping her cherry with the first thrust, traumatizing the poor girl. The second time, he'd tried the fingering approach.
He'd found the pain was almost as much psychological and fearing it as it was the actual event, so he'd learned to treat it like a Band-Aid and rip it off while nobody was looking.
"Shhh, relax. That's all the hurting part."
"Really?" It didn't seem as if she believed him.
He withdrew his fingers to let her see the blood in the dim light. "That's my sneak attack method."
She giggled, finally relaxing. Z rolled them so she could straddle him. When he looked up at her, Fiona's face didn't have any of the earlier anxieties. It was serene and free of worry lines.
He wanted her in this position for his own selfish reasons. He wanted her breasts hanging free in easy reach of his hands. He wanted to feel her writhing on top of him. Nothing was hotter to him than a woman riding him, seeking her own pleasure. And after the bit of pain, he wanted to be sure she had that.
Z guided her, and she let out a gasp to match his answering groan as she sank down on him. He couldn't imagine what it felt like for her, but he was in heaven.
Her cheeks flushed, the pink almost swallowing her freckles. Her lips parted as her breath deepened. Then his gaze made the mistake of moving to her eyes. He avoided too much eye contact during sex; it was too intimate, but he couldn't avoid it with her. Something inside wouldn't let him abandon her right now. As she rode him, he felt something that had nothing to do with his anatomy. He felt connected. And it scared the shit out of him.
As soon as Fiona fell asleep, Z bolted for the kitchen. He was on his second pot of coffee.
He tried not to think about how he'd been with her. Sweet. Soft. Caring. No. This was bad news. It was just because she was a virgin. That had to be it. He wasn't a monster. What was he going to do, toss her down on the ground and do her doggie style her first time? Clamp a hand over her mouth while she screamed past the pain? He'd had to be more gentle with her. Her first time shouldn't be a bad memory, even if he couldn't offer a commitment afterward.
But he wasn't convincing himself. He didn't like to sleep with virgins because they were too much trouble, but he'd done it before and he hadn't felt warm and fuzzy and protective. They'd wanted him to be their first. He'd agreed. It was as simple as that. Nothing about Fiona was simple.
Z looked up guiltily, worried she might be able to sense too much of what was going on inside him. Did her gift only work when he was in animal form? How much information could she get with no direct dialogue? He wasn't sure.
She leaned against the refrigerator, her hair mussed up, wearing one of his T-shirts. The look on her face was... she looked so vulnerable. Had he put that look on her face? If anybody else had put that look there, he would have kicked their ass.
"Do you want some coffee?" he asked. He hadn't bothered to put clothes on when he'd come into the kitchen, and now that they were at an awkward moment, she was trying to avoid looking at any particular part of him, especially the part he couldn't be bothered to cover up.
She shook her head. "It'll keep me up. I'm not a big coffee drinker."
"You're up already."
"I rolled over and you weren't there."
An instinctive look must have crossed his face, the kind that signaled his willingness to fight to the death to protect his bachelorhood, because she flinched in response.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't mean... I'm going to try to go back to sleep, I guess." She turned away, the tension evident in her body. And after he'd done all that work to relax her.
"Do you want to just sit with me, then?" Z didn't know how to do this. He didn't know how to talk to a woman he'd just slept with. Up until now he'd orchestrated his sexual interactions so he wouldn't have to carry on a conversation after the initial seduction, and definitely not after the main event.
When he'd chosen human women, he'd become the master of sneaking out of strange beds in the middle of the night. He'd been stealthy to begin with, but he'd tweaked the skill to such a level that he'd never once been caught by a groggy woman with fairy-tale-princess dreams. Until now.
This time, he'd chosen to sleep with a human woman in his own cave - a woman he couldn't just dump, who might not be able to leave without a panic attack. Fuck. Z stared at the steam coming off his coffee cup.
Fiona pulled out the chair he'd indicated and sat. "Now that you've had me, are you going to toss me out?"
He looked up as if he'd been caught with his hand in a cookie jar. "What? No. What kind of monster do you think I am?" Subtle, Z. "You think I'd abandon you?" Keep lying to her. She knows.
"Why not? You were ready to abandon the pup."
He didn't know what the hell he was going to do with her. The more time they spent alone together, and the more attached he became, the more danger he was in of losing his freedom. But actually tossing her out hadn't crossed his mind. It was more the terror of where this might go. If he'd thought just getting rid of her was an option, he wouldn't have a reason to be afraid.
"Nobody abandoned the pup. The pup was taken. Tell me how to find him. Do you have a plan? Do you have a map? Maybe you put some kind of tracking chip on him?" He knew he was goading her.
She looked at her hands as she clasped and unclasped them on the table. "You know I don't know how to find him anymore than you do." Then she started crying. "All this is my fault."
Oh no. Not that again. Z had never met a woman who cried so damn much, and it wasn't some female problem. He'd know if it was that. He knew the exact times to steer clear of a woman to keep away unwanted offspring and to avoid hormone meltdown.
"All what is your fault? Let's try to narrow this down to a single topic."
Fiona shot him a glare. "I'm the one who let my guard down. I should have kept him in his cage while I worked the protection spell. I'm the one who screwed up the spell and left a magic trail that could be found. I'm the one who hesitated about going out after him when I could have kept him from going too far. Should I go on, because I'm sure the list is longer?"
"You sound insane. Did you choose to be involved in any of this in the first place? I lost the pup the first time, landing him on your doorstep and involving you to begin with. I kidnapped you and brought you back here. I left you alone with him. I knew your fears when I left you here. It's not your fault. All right? Please, please stop crying."
He got up and paced the floor, watching her agitation grow. She wiped her face with the back of her hand and settled down. Kidnapping her to help him understand the pup had seemed smart at the time. But who was he going to kidnap to help him figure Fiona out?
"Come here." He was struck by the notion that he was uncomfortable with how close they were in the small space of his cave. But he was equally uncomfortable by how far away they were, and the fact that he wasn't touching her.
She looked unsure, but got out of the chair and crossed the kitchen to meet him. He pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her. After a second of shock at the unexpected gesture, she laid her head on his shoulder and he stroked her hair.
Well weren't they just domestic? If his panther buddies could see him now. They'd never stop laughing.
Z kissed the top of her head. "Everything is going to be okay. We just need some sleep. In the morning when we're fresh, we'll figure something out. But no matter what happens, it's not your fault. The pup wasn't your responsibility. I don't blame you for any of this, and you shouldn't blame yourself."
She nodded against his shoulder, and some of the tension started to drift out of her. He led her back to the bedroom and pulled back the covers for her to get in. He joined her and tried not to think too much about why he pulled her flush against him to spoon with her until she fell asleep, or why he wrapped one arm around her waist and left it there.