The Catalyst (Chapter Three)

Fiona had lain awake on the couch for the past two hours. Though it was comfortable and doubled great as a bed, she'd slept fitfully and woken angry. Sure, Z didn't owe her anything, and she couldn't expect much civilized behavior from a panther therian that had kidnapped her, anyway. But it still stung and riled her that he'd stayed out all night. The least he could do was show a little basic respect. He'd enlisted her to be a nanny without offering her payment or the choice to refuse. The least he could do was not run off to scratch whatever itches he'd been scratching 'til dawn.

Did it take all night to go to the hardware store?

She wouldn't admit she was worried for him. Anger was easier. Though both emotions were inappropriate. She didn't know him. He was good-looking and was sane enough part of the time, but just because she'd been locked away in her house in the woods separated from people didn't mean she needed to start yearning for the first hot guy to break through her kitchen window.

Since Z hadn't returned with a way to fix the cage, at midnight, Fiona had dutifully locked the pup up. She felt guilty about it, but it was for his own safety. Since the latch on the door was broken, she'd shoved the couch against the cage. The pup was pretty strong for his size. Therians born in their fur often were.

She'd been tempted to sleep in the bedroom. If Z wasn't going to make use of the bed, someone should. But the realization that the pup might still be able to get out, with just the couch as a barrier to the outside, had her adding her own weight.

Even if he could move both the couch and her, at least she'd wake up during the attempt. Fiona glanced at her watch. Seven in the morning. The sun must already be up, and here she was still stranded alone with the pup. Z didn't even have a TV so she could keep up with her soaps.

At least the wolf was asleep. After about twenty minutes of whining and banging against the door with his small body, he'd given up and curled up in the far back corner.

Fiona jumped when Z entered the cave. The ranting and nagging she'd had planned like some surly fishwife died in her throat as he dropped the bag from the hardware store on the table. He looked wiped.

"Where were you?" She tried to make it sound as non-accusatory as possible.

He gave her an irritated look. "I had to stay out. I went to the coffee shop last night on my way to the hardware store and ran into a vampire, one of the ones who wants the pup. He must have been waiting for me to show up in town. I couldn't risk coming back here again until morning. I have wards on the cave, but there's no reason to let them know where we are if we don't have to. It's safer if our location stays secret."

Fiona turned all that over in her head, trying to determine if it was the truth. "Did he say what he wanted with the wolf?"

Z shook his head and peeled the T-shirt off, draping it over the chair. She wished he'd stop doing that. Did he have to show her all that sleek muscle at every opportunity? Was he teasing her? Tempting her? He kicked his shoes off and emptied his pockets.

"What's that?" A cream-colored rectangle of paper with a phone number and nothing else on it glared out from the pile of loose change on the table.

Z crumpled the card and tossed it in the fire. "It's nothing."

Sure it was nothing. It was some girl he'd been out with all night.

"You don't have to lie to me about where you go. Why should I care who you sleep with?" Fiona managed to get the words out without much emotion. The truth was that she was jealous of whoever he'd shared his bed with, but she had no claim on him. Aside from his one remark in her kitchen about getting down to business, he hadn't made any passes at her. It probably was just that he'd been keyed up the day before from the adrenaline and, as he said, being a wild animal.

Z stalked closer. She would never forget what he was – not with the sinewy, perfect way he moved. It looked like he'd practiced for hours in front of a mirror to move with that lethal, graceful precision, but she knew it was just his natural movement. If you paid attention to your surroundings, a therian – even in human form – had a tell. This was Z's.

His eyes raked over her, and she felt her flesh heat. Anytime he looked at her, X-rated images filled her mind. She needed to stop that.

"You don't care who I fuck? I don't believe that's true. You're jealous. You've kept yourself cloistered from the rest of the world your whole adult life, and now that you've spent five minutes near a man, you want to keep tabs on me and keep me locked away. Don't you? I'm sure you have a lot of time to make up for, a lot of needs that haven't been attended to?"

She shivered as his fingertips trailed over her cheek. His voice was low, deep, dark, rich like chocolate. Hypnotic. If she hadn't known what he was, she might have mistaken him for a vampire or incubus from the effect he was having on her. She backed away, working hard to reclaim her feigned nonchalance at his closeness, pretending a worldliness they both knew was far from the truth.

"I'm not stupid. You were out all night; you have a phone number on a card. Just don't lie, okay? It's not my business what you do."

"You're right. It isn't. And what I told you is the truth. The number belongs to the vampire."

Even if it wasn't her business, she still didn't believe him. Why would the vampire give him a phone number? Unless it had been a female vampire. Fiona had assumed a male. The idea that he might sleep with the enemy just for the hell of it repulsed her.

She would have argued the point further, but she'd forgotten how to think in complete sentences, since he kept refusing to wear a shirt. She could smell the wildness on him and wondered if he'd been hunting. She wished she'd developed her witchcraft more. Another witch might have known if he'd had a woman, or if the essence of blood and death still clung to him from a recent hunt.

Fiona turned away and went to the cage. "The pup needs to be let out. He's been in there all night."

Electricity shot up her arm as Z grabbed her wrist and spun her around. "Oh no, you're not getting away that easy. We were having a conversation I find interesting."

Fiona shook her head. "No, it was just a misunderstanding. I just … didn't want you to feel weird or awkward living your life as you usually do. I'm not going to judge you."

She froze as he pressed his face against her neck, breathing in her scent.

"With the pup around, I don't get much action. Do you know how crazy that will drive a man?"

She couldn't imagine him much crazier than he'd already proven to be, but she chose not to verbalize that thought.


"Fiona…" he mocked.

He held her cradled in his arms for several minutes, breathing in her scent, sniffing her like he might eat her. She stood stiff for a second, then tried to pull away. But he held on tighter.

She sighed and relented to his embrace, trying not to feel awkward… or aroused. But she knew he could smell it on her. Damned therians and their super senses.

"You don't know how much I wish you weren't a virgin right now."

"What?" She tried to pull away again, and this time his grip loosened, allowing her to put several feet between them. "What difference does that make?" Not that she'd sleep with him either way.

She felt like a child standing there with him sizing her up the way he was. Z moved back a few paces to lean against the counter.

"Don't be stupid, Fiona. You're not a quick fuck. You're complicated."

"Just because I have some anxiety issues doesn't mean – "

"You know that's not what I'm talking about. I can't sleep with you and forget you. And I sure as hell can't commit to you, so as hot as you are and as much as I just want to bury myself inside you, it can't happen. I'm leaving town tomorrow to search for the pup's family, so at least the temptation to do something stupid will be gone."

Fiona stood there a minute, her mouth hanging open, her flesh rising to an impossibly high temperature. She couldn't decide which emotion to settle on. Several were battling it out in her brain for dominance. First there was the anger at his general attitude toward women, then there was the sudden shyness and shock over his pronouncement of her supposed hotness and what he wanted to do with her, then there was the used feeling that he could somehow create without ever penetrating her body.

What if something happened to Z? She couldn't care for a pup. She had no access to her money from here. And what about her job? They'd run out of food and starve to death if she couldn't bring herself to go outside. But had he once thought about that? Whether it was her body or her babysitting and animal understanding skills, either way he was using her.

Tears slid down her cheeks.

"Please don't do that," Z said. "I'm trying to not be an asshole here."

Fiona laughed bitterly. "This is you holding back? Wow. Just wow." She turned and left the room, not wanting him to see any more tears.


Z stared after her, wondering what the hell had just happened. After a moment, he shrugged and took the new lock from the hardware store and tried it on the cage. He tested it with his own strength. It would hold. He unlocked it and swung the door back to let the pup out to play. The wolf raced around the cave at warp speed, his tongue lolling out.

After a couple of laps, he went back into the open cage to get a bit of water, then he looked around and started to whimper. Z followed as the wolf sniffed like a bloodhound until he got to the bathroom. He laid outside the door with his nose between his paws, occasionally rising up and scratching at the door.

Z's jaw clenched at hearing Fiona crying on the other side. This had been so stupid. He could have found someone else to watch the pup while he went searching for the family. This had been a dumb plan. Surely it didn't take her particular gift to figure out how to care for the thing. There was too much attraction with completely wrong circumstances.

Z knocked.

"Go away."

"Fiona, come on. This is my home, and I need to take a shower."

"Then I'm never coming out," she said petulantly from the other side.

Z rolled his eyes. He could break it down, but fitting a door into a cave like this was no small feat. He'd be damned if he was going to mess up so many hours of labor only to have to redo it. He'd built this place with his own hands. There was no way he was going to destroy it in a rage just because a witch was getting under his skin.

"Tell me what I did wrong. Do you think it would be right to take advantage of you?"

"I'm not a child!"

Z growled, almost shifting. He needed to hunt something. His nerves were already on edge. He'd come straight home when the sun had risen, and this was the thanks he got.

A few minutes passed when she said, "I want to go home."

"You said you'd help me. For God's sake, Fiona. I'll be out of your hair tomorrow morning. You won't have to deal with me. And when I find the pup's family, you can go home."

"What if something happens to you? I'll be trapped here. You won't let me have my books and tools. What about access to a computer so I can get to my money? What about my job? If I don't log in tomorrow, they might fire me. You've made me helpless while you run out to who knows where."

This was why he wasn't good with women, why he only had one-night stands. He didn't think things all the way through sometimes. Any woman who spent more than a single night with him would figure that out and run screaming in the other direction.

And who was he kidding? Fiona wasn't a bad witch. She didn't have a mean bone in her body. She wasn't going to hex him. So why had he acted like he had? As if she were some kind of magical terrorist. He'd known from the moment he'd met her that she wasn't a danger to him. He could smell the sweetness on her. And that was part of the problem.

"I'm sorry. I'll go to your house and get your stuff. Just make me a list of what you need."

She opened the door and poked her head out. His heart clenched at her tear-stained face. All in all, she was taking all the shit he'd put her through pretty well.

"You'd do that?"

Z nodded. "I should have let you have the stuff you needed to feel protected. It was wrong and selfish for me not to." He was just going to skim right past the chloroform and kidnapping bit.


"Now can I have a shower and breakfast first?"

She nodded, wiping her face with the back of her hand, a sudden embarrassment seeming to come over her. The alien notion that he should reach out and comfort her in some way popped into his mind. But he couldn't bring himself to touch her again. Still, her arm bumped him as she passed, and he felt the physical chemistry that crackled between them. Could she not feel that?

But she left him standing there. The pup followed behind her like a guard dog and growled back at him.

In the shower, Z scrubbed himself raw, the self-recriminations pounding through his head. He was right not to sleep with her. She was far too innocent. And he couldn't take care of her the way she needed. Not that he thought she was helpless. Despite her peculiar issues, she wasn't a weakling. She'd shown surprising courage and calm in the face of her circumstances. Z thought she was much stronger than she knew. It mystified him that she couldn't see that and leave the self-created prison her house had become.

No, he couldn't take care of her in the way any man would want to take care of the right woman. There was no right woman for Z. Any woman he met, he spoiled and screwed up for whoever her right man was, and all in the space of a single night. He always did have impressive talents.

After he finished beating himself up, he indulged in a morning wank. Generally, any random image of any random woman would do. Today it was Fiona in his head. He switched between lust and guilt, but lust won out. When he finished, he scrubbed some more and went for round two of self-recriminating mental talk.

He leaned his head against the tile. Women made him too broody. If she knew the things he thought and mentally whined about, it would kill her interest in a hot second. He wasn't cut out for a woman, and he wasn't cut out for kids. He should have left that pup where he found him. It would have been a hell of a lot simpler.

When he got out of the shower, he was surprised to find Fiona in the kitchen, making eggs. He'd bought eggs and bacon at the store the previous week thinking he might fry or scramble something up one morning. The bacon was frying in a second pan.

The pup wove in and out of her legs, but she was ignoring him. When she noticed Z's presence, she blushed and looked away. "The list of my stuff and where it can all be found is on the table." She pointed the spatula at the list, then went back to the eggs in front of her.

Z put the list in his pocket and looked around the kitchen. Something was different. Very different. "You organized my kitchen?"

"Um… I couldn't sleep last night. I organize when I can't sleep."

All the papers and junk that had been piled on the table were in neat stacks and trays – trays he'd bought for that purpose, but hadn't gotten around to using. He opened the cabinets to find all his coffee cups lined up in perfectly straight rows from largest to smallest. Quirky. Should he say thank you or be annoyed? Being annoyed wouldn't be appropriate given that she wasn't here of her own free will. He should be grateful she'd organized his stuff instead of broken or burned it.

"I made you some breakfast."

When he'd said he needed some breakfast first, he'd meant hunting. He needed to kill something in the worst possible way. But he couldn't stand to make her cry again, so he sat down and ate eggs and bacon in his newly organized kitchen.

Several minutes passed in blissful eating silence when she put down her fork. "This is a screwed up situation, but I know you need help with the pup, and I said I'd help. I think deep down, aside from the bad judgment in kidnapping me… I think you're a good man."

He couldn't help the groan that slipped out. What the hell did he need to do for this woman to see he wasn't a hero? Her perceptions were all about her sexual peak approaching without ever having had a horse in the barn. It wasn't reality.

He realized he'd made the sound when she went silent again. He felt the frost come off her: a subzero gust moving across the table, headed straight for him.

"Fine. I'm sorry you think I'm such an idiot," she said.

Z couldn't deal with this. He knew she wasn't doing it on purpose, but there were two ways to shut her the hell up, and killing her didn't sound like the fun option. He scraped his chair back and moved faster probably than she could process. He jerked her up out of her chair, and before she could protest, he planted one on her.

The kiss was slow and sensual, his lips caressing hers, devouring, tasting, exploring. His tongue slipped into her mouth even though he knew, given her phobic history, that this was new territory for her.

After a small eternity, he released her. "Now, please… shut up. I'll be back in an hour or so with your things."

She looked up at him, an odd cross between angry and dazed. But dazed won out as she sank back into her chair and picked up the fork to finish her eggs, a smile edging out her anger.


Fiona sat for a good thirty minutes after Z had left her, the pup yapping at her heels, trying to play, wanting some scraps.

"Oh yes, sorry puppy." She didn't glance down as she put her plate on the floor to let the pup eat the leftovers. She got up from her chair still dazed, a goofy grin painting her mouth. She started humming as she put the dishes and frying pans into the sudsy water to do the dishes like she was Cinderella or something.

She was never going to tell him that had been her first kiss. Granted, being told to please shut up afterward wasn't how it had played out in her fantasies. Still, it was… electric. Fiona touched her fingertips to her lips. If Z had known she'd never been kissed, he wouldn't have done it.

He was already freaked by her virgin status. She wished she'd never told him. If she could rewind time to when she'd acted like a prude about the nudity, she would have kept her feelings to herself. If she had, they might be doing more than kissing right now. Surely he felt the same visceral thing she did.

It sounded stupid to admit it, but he created a somewhat scary physical reaction in her. It was hard to stand near him – much easier to sit. He did something funky to her legs so they didn't want to hold her up right, which was a whole other level of embarrassing. She didn't want to act like a schoolgirl around him.

To her knowledge, no witches could rewind time. Of course, she'd always been rather lax with her studies. Being a witch had been another thing that was just too scary. Aside from her natural affinity with animal language, she hadn't done much to try to develop her power or her spell repertoire. She was woefully amateur, for all the spell books and supplies she had stashed away. She was little better than regular humans who didn't have powers but still said spells on occasion with varying but weak results. The only thing she excelled at were minor healing spells.

If ever there was a slogan for her it would be: Fiona Patrone: results may vary.

She always told herself she'd get to it. She'd learn her craft and develop her natural powers. Eventually it wouldn't be so scary. She'd be able to handle it. But that time hadn't yet come. Every time she went to the basement to peruse the books, the cold fingers of panic would squeeze her chest. What if she got in too deep? What if she learned to do things, but couldn't control those new powers and hurt herself? What if she crossed some irreversible line where she couldn't go back to the way she was?

Sure, it was all great in TV and movies where there weren't real consequences and all problems were neatly tied up, all danger averted in an hour's worth of programming. But real life was scarier… and real.

She wondered why Z had taken her. It couldn't be to care for the pup. It was hard to imagine how he couldn't tell the difference between hungry and tired or playful and anxious. Was it a guy thing or a panther thing that made him so clueless? Even without the extra information that filtered through her senses, she'd know what to do. Wouldn't she?

Fiona jumped as the pup nosed the plate across the floor, bumping it against the cabinets to get the last stubborn bits of food still clinging to the ceramic.

"I think you've just about done all the damage you can do there. It's all gone."

He looked up at her with sad, brown eyes, and she laughed. "Would you like me to scramble you your own egg?"

The way he beamed gave her the answer she sought. It was fascinating how much he seemed to grasp bits of human language. She'd heard therians learned faster than humans. He might still have to go through the trial and error of learning to speak when he shifted, but he had at least a basic concept of what she was saying.

She wondered if he had any of his own thoughts in human language yet. It must be so frustrating to be stuck with growing understanding, but no way to communicate your needs with anyone outside your race. A therian born in his fur was a rare phenomenon. His pack must be missing him.

After the pup had barreled through a couple of scrambled eggs of his own, he sprawled in front of the fireplace to play with a ball. Fiona finished the dishes, wiped down the table, and sat on the overstuffed, brown leather couch, fishing through her bag for a distraction to keep her from fantasizing about the panther.

Z hadn't given her any spell books, but at least he'd packed a couple of mystery novels for her. She'd already read both of them, but it was the thought that mattered. He'd also tossed a few bottles of nail polish into the bag. She didn't think she could get into a book right now, so she opted for a bottle of lavender polish.

She was halfway through painting her toes when Z came back with a large satchel filled with the items she'd asked for. Since he caught her in mid-paint, she was glad she'd thought to put paper towels down. She didn't imagine a guy like Z wanted to have to worry about nail polish getting on his furniture.

"So, uh, I got your stuff." He shifted his weight, looking more awkward than she'd ever seen him. Instead of being disarming, it unnerved her more. It was strange how someone so powerful and threatening could also appear awkward and endearing.

Fiona screwed the cap back on the polish and dropped it into the bag with her clothes. "Thanks."

They avoided each other's eyes, and the pup couldn't act as a buffer. That's what he was – a buffer to prevent anything beyond PG-13 from happening. He'd nodded off for a nap in front of the fireplace. Drool slipped from the side of his mouth, coating the red rubber ball he'd been playing with not long before.

Fiona looked back at Z. He'd been watching the pup as well but seemed to know when her focus shifted back to him. His predatory gaze swept from the pup to her, and he smiled, all signs of awkwardness gone.

She took a step back, her legs hitting the couch, then she scrambled to one side of it.

"What's got you so skittish?" But he knew. It wasn't a question. They both knew it. He was every ounce the predator right now. "I haven't had a chance to hunt," he continued, by way of explanation of the sudden animal possession.

"D-don't let me stop you. Go. Go hunt." Fiona pointed to the mouth of the cave so there would be no confusion to her meaning. She wanted him to go far from here. Or did she?

Bright white teeth flashed. "All the good hunting is in here." He cocked his head to the side. "Actually, the best hunting is in my room."

Her stomach fluttered in response to the caveman routine. And then she got mad, first at him, then at herself for responding to it. "Have you lost your mind?"

"I can smell you, Fiona. I know you want to and you know you want to. And I know I want to. Can't you just do something without analyzing all the ways it can go wrong?"

He didn't know her like he thought he did. He was judging based on her reaction to outside. But wasn't that enough? How much more did someone need to see to know she'd crossed into neurotic years ago?

Still. Just because both of their hormones were going crazy in such close proximity, it didn't mean they had to just act on their animal urges and to hell with the consequences. "What about the part where we're a bad match and you're not looking for anything?"

He shrugged, inching closer. "We still are, but I still want you, and you can't go on smelling like you smell, Fiona. It's not fair."

Fiona picked up the sleeping pup and planted herself on the sofa. The wolf opened his eyes for just a moment, looked around, then yawned and snuggled into her lap, falling back asleep. "See? He's comfortable. I can't move him. Maybe you should go hunt."

She wished more than anything that she could get over her fears and go outside. She needed air, breathing room. Either she needed to leave or he did.

He laughed and moved toward the opening of the cave. "Tonight, Fiona. It's happening tonight. I can't promise you a life, but you're inside my skin and I want to be inside yours. Even if it can't be forever, there's chemistry, so let's just have tonight."

"I – "

"I'll be gone in the morning before you wake up. There won't be any morning-after awkwardness. I promise. When I come back with his family, I'll take you home. Think about it."

She stared at his ass as he left, trying not to think about it.


Z stood outside the cave just after sunset, debating whether he should go inside. This was a bad idea, being alone with her. He should just leave her a note when she went to sleep and get the hell away from her. She was bad news. He'd known it from the moment he'd busted into her kitchen. When his instincts had gone on high alert upon first seeing her, it had been for a different reason than he'd originally thought.

Fiona equaled entanglement.

He'd spent the whole day out, away from the tempting witch. Hunting had taken the edge off after the first couple of hours. He'd killed and eaten several rabbits while in his shifted form. He'd seen a deer, but wasn't in the mood for something that large. Lucky for the deer. It wasn't hunger that drove Z so much as the killing urge.

Killing or fucking. Those were his instincts. He imagined Fiona wanted to make him more complex than that, attributing all sorts of arcane motivations to his behaviors. He could almost see her trying to take it all apart in her pretty little head, uncovering the mystery that is the male brain. But he wasn't all that complicated. At the end of the day, his needs were pretty basic. Something to kill and something to roll around with in bed. Preferably something that would quietly get up and leave when he was finished with her.

He'd spent the day in a schizophrenic state. Half the time he was convinced he had no true desire for Fiona Patrone. He was just antsy and worried and not getting laid for awhile. Sure, he loved 'em and left 'em, and his bedpost was so riddled with notches it looked like a termite infestation, but he picked the women who knew the score and could handle it. Not the ones who couldn't. Fiona couldn't. She wasn't that way. Her first time should be with someone who could at least give her a second date – or any pretense of a date at all.

Z had convinced himself his pseudo-desire for the witch was a killing urge being transmuted into a desire for sex somehow. The wires were just crossing. That was all. The other half of the day he spent thinking about how he'd hunted and it had taken the edge off, but her fair hair and freckles still floated through his brain undeterred.

Fair hair and freckles? He shook the image out of his head. That was not how Z operated. He didn't fantasize about hair and freckles. He fantasized about what normal men fantasized about. Legs draped over shoulders, pert asses raised in the air at just the right angle, cleavage, and a fine sheen of sweat. If he wanted her for her freckles, there was something seriously wrong with him.

And that wasn't the only problem.

Though he'd been an asshole in many respects about her phobias, he liked her vulnerability. It was something he wanted to protect. Having protective urges toward her was no good. He'd seen men go down that road. It was nothing but drama and heartache and a nagging woman with a boatload of obligation at the end of it. Fuck no. He would not be domesticated and led around on a leash like so many males before him. She could cry 'til the apocalypse, and it wouldn't change his stance on the matter.

He let out a short growl and stalked into the cave. He wasn't about to start thinking such soft feelings toward her. Playing the temporary role of Mr. Mom was enough. He needed to get his sensitive side out of his system before it undid him. Z wasn't about to drop one commitment for another. The goal was to be free again. If he got too attached to the witch, he'd just trade one prison cell for another.

He found her in the kitchen talking to the pup, her back to him.

"I'm not sure if wolves are supposed to eat tuna melts, but it's what I'm having, so I'll let you try some if you want."

The pup gave a yip and darted between her feet while she worked. It was a wonder she didn't trip over the wolf as she went back and forth from the pan to the counter where she assembled the sandwich.

Z's gaze shifted to the living area in front of the couch where he'd left her the bag with her books and tools. The bag had been emptied, and herbs and tools and crystals were lined in rows, the crystals in color and height order.

His gaze raked over the books. One book sat on top of the others, opened with a bookmark lying flat in the middle. Fiona still hadn't noticed him, so he slipped over to find out what she'd been looking at, and he saw red.

"Fiona!" He spun toward her, catching the jump and the way she cringed at his tone and the volume of it. Served the scheming witch right. "You cast a love spell on me?!"

Her nose wrinkled in a kind of adorable way. "W-what? No I didn't! Why on earth would I do that?"

Well, she didn't have to be offensive about it. Was he not love-spell-worthy? He was beneath the notice of a woman who was never around real, live men? He'd seen the way she looked at him.

Z picked up the book and slammed it down on the kitchen table, leaving it open on the page it had landed on. The pup ran behind the couch in the living area to hide.

"Then what the hell is this? And why do I feel all mushy about you? Why am I thinking about your fucking freckles instead of your…" he trailed off as a flush crept up her neck. She was much too innocent to be in his easy reach. She initiated his predatory response.

He liked to believe he was a decent guy, but he was barely holding onto that title. Why did I bring her here again? Some darker voice inside his head responded: You know why, and it has nothing to do with babysitting the pup. You knew that when you took her.

It soon became clear that the redness in her face, while at least part embarrassment was also part anger. Make that over seventy percent anger. She took the spatula she'd been using to turn the tuna melt in the pan. Z ducked, thinking she was aiming for him, but she pointed at the facing page in the magic book. "In the first place, I haven't cast any spells since I got here. In the second, what I was looking at was that."

His gaze shifted to the spell on the opposite page. A protection spell. That would be more logical than the woman who'd been running from his advances putting the love whammy on him. Like she'd need to. He was already ready to pounce on her like a rare steak. He felt like such a fool.

Her voice turned softer, though the accusation remained in her tone. "I thought it would be a good idea to look at the spells I might need if it came down to it. If you're going to be away, I might need to protect myself and the pup. I mean, I know there's a ward on the cave, but I worry he'll get out again."

"Fiona, I…" God, he was an ass.

She turned back to the stove and put her sandwich on a plate. She paused, every muscle held in tension as if she'd been frozen in place by some unseen force. Her head tilted to the side. "You feel mushy?" There was a catch in her voice when she said it, and a naked kind of hope he felt guilty for putting there.

Great. Could this evening get any more awkward or confusing? He'd be glad when the morning came and he was out searching for the pup's family.

He moved to stand behind her, wrapping his arms around her, his lips pressing against the side of her throat. She melted against him, then squirmed away. It might have been the kiss, but it was more likely the raging hard-on pressed into her.


She stilled as his breath puffed out over her neck.


He chuckled. Somehow she'd managed to make a hmmm sound breathy. She really was magic.

"Let's put the pup in his pen and go to my room."

She pulled more forcefully out of his arms this time, and Z let go. Fiona rounded on him. "Are you kidding me? You just spazzed out over the horrors of me putting a love spell on you, and now you want in my pants?"

"Well… yeah." He wasn't sure what was contradictory or hard to believe about any of that. Had she ever looked in the mirror?

"I know what kind of guy you are."

He arched a brow. "You do? Because you're just so worldly? You've had so much opportunity to experience life and the world, inside that little cottage of yours." As soon as he said it, he regretted it – even before he saw the light go out of her eyes and her expression crumple.

She recovered as her eyes appeared to flash with liquid green fire. If he didn't know she needed books and tools and prep time to cast a spell, he'd be scared right about now.

"I'm just another conquest for you," she said. "I didn't ask you to marry me or have some big epic love with me. I didn't ask for any of this, but it's pretty low for you to attack my phobias when yours are just as irrational. I get that you're a wild animal, and these are close living quarters. And it's hard to live your fabulous bachelor existence with a pup here intruding on your lifestyle. But you chose to take him and you chose to take me. So if you want to remain unfettered, stop picking up strays!" Fiona left her sandwich on the counter and stormed down the hall, slamming Z's bedroom door behind her.

That wasn't how he'd pictured her ending up in his room. He picked up the plate and followed, knocking softly when he got there.

"Go away! Go scratch your itches with some slut who doesn't care she's a sexual Kleenex. I'm not your blow-up doll."

He resisted the urge to break down the door. "Fiona, I'm sorry. I brought your sandwich. You went to all that trouble to make it. I don't want your dinner spoiled because of me."

"Too late."

Why did she have to be so stubborn about everything? He took a deep breath, trying to reign in his temper. "I'm going to leave your food out here by the door. But, if I were you, I'd get it quick before the pup does. I won't be back tonight. I'm just going to go stay someplace in town and get started on the search when the sun comes up. I should have gone today. You're right. I shouldn't bring others into my life if I'll resent it once they're here. Goodbye, Fiona."

He waited for a reply, but the only reply were the tears she probably thought he couldn't hear from the other side of the door. He moved out of sight and watched for another couple of minutes, long enough to see her hand slip out and take the sandwich into his room.


After he locked the pup up in the pen, he left his cell phone on the kitchen counter with a note attached that he'd be in touch to keep her updated, then he hightailed it out of there. He'd grab another phone before setting out in the morning. With Fiona in his room, he couldn't pack a bag, but he had his wallet on him, and he traveled light anyway. Anything he needed, he'd just have to buy on the way.

He had no idea how long he'd be gone or how far he'd have to travel to find the pup's family. It couldn't be too far, though the fear clawed in the back of his mind that he wouldn't find the family no matter how far afield of Golatha Falls he traveled. And what if the pup had been abandoned?

A sick thought entered his mind as he considered that perhaps a werewolf had gotten a human pregnant. It wasn't common, but it wasn't unheard of either. It would have to be a very strong wolf to have a human mother and still be born in his fur. Maybe the pup had been the product of a one-night stand, and she'd been out somewhere, had the baby, and freaked out. Maybe she'd just abandoned it.

If the father had been near her at all within a couple of weeks of conception, he would have sensed his offspring inside her, and wolves tended to be pretty possessive about that sort of thing. But if it had been a one-night stand and they never crossed paths again, he might not know about it. Could the girl have been a local, and the wolf just been passing through? Maybe he was a lone wolf without a pack or family and no interest in one. Z could identify with that.

Maybe Z's hunt was a wild goose chase. As cute as the pup was and as much as he liked the little fella, he couldn't imagine being saddled with the kid until he was old enough to leave. Plus, he could be stuck isolated with no pack, too. A wolf that hadn't been socialized with other wolves as a pup stood zero chance of being taken into a pack as an adult. If he couldn't find the family, maybe he should look for a pack to adopt him.

Z looked up and realized he'd been on auto-pilot the whole trip to the Java Junkie. He glanced over at the courthouse's big, brick clock tower. Almost nine o'clock. It was Monday, so the coffee shop was about to close.

The bell over the door went off as he stepped inside. Cherry was behind the counter, just where he knew she'd be. The place was deserted.

She looked up and gave him her sly, porn star smile. "I'm sorry, I just closed down the register. I was about to lock up. I could give you a coffee on the house, though, if you like. Just don't tell my boss."

"I'm not here for that." Z, you stupid son of a bitch. Don't do it. You can't afford to piss off the keeper of the coffee, and you know her. She likes you too much. She might not be on the same fuck and flee page you're on. But Z ignored the inner voice and flashed a dark smile, tossing in a wink to garnish the flirtation.

Cherry's eyes lit up and she returned a one thousand-watt smile of her own.

"Lock up and let's go. Yeah?"

It took her a couple of seconds to make her head move in a nod, then another few seconds and a throat clearing to manage a breathless yeah in return.

The barista tossed the washrag on the counter, ignoring the biscotti crumbs trailing down the length of it, and looped her arm in his, shutting off the lights and locking the door behind them.

Z continued to ignore the inner voice's ranting. If ever there was a time he needed to get laid, it was now. Fiona was right. He could do nothing but use her and toss her out. And she deserved better than that. No woman's first time should be with a playboy. It should mean something. The guy should be there the next day. There should at least be the hope of a relationship after, or at least some type of friends-with-benefits package. Z could offer none of the above.

He gave Cherry his helmet as she hopped on the back of the motorcycle. "Won't you need this?" she asked, as if she would refuse the gallant gesture.

"You need it more than me. I'm durable."

She laughed. It was the laugh that had amused him, maybe even turned him on a little, but now it set his teeth on edge. Still, he revved the engine and took them to the motel five blocks down the street.

Twenty minutes later they were in a room. It was clean and nice enough, but still appropriate for a single night with a glorified waitress. It wasn't where you took your girlfriend, which was good. He didn't want to send any inappropriate signals. Z peeled his shirt off and reclined on the bed. He couldn't seem to work up a chuckle or smirk at the way she practically fainted over his physique.

The female reaction to him had never gotten old. Until now. He stood and paced, feeling like he'd been locked up at the zoo with some stranger gawking and staring and admiring. If this was how he defined freedom, why did he feel so caged?

Cherry was in the process of unbuttoning her top, and the oppressive, trapped feeling came on stronger, making the room shrink to half its size. He wanted to crawl out of his skin. He wanted to shift and… he didn't know what. He just had to break free of whatever this was.

"Stop," he said, to try to calm the chaos in his mind.

"What? Is something wrong?" Cherry looked at him with a mixture of concern and apprehension.

"I can't do this."

Her eyes flashed. It was time for the anger portion of the evening. He was batting a thousand tonight. Maybe he could try to piss off a nun next.

"You know I've been sending you signals for months. You take me up on it, and now you're rejecting me? Is this some kind of game to you?"

Z suppressed a growl and pulled his shirt back on. "No. No game. I just can't do this. Whatever you think, it's not personal."

"Like hell it's not personal. You get your fucking coffee elsewhere from here on. If you come into the Java Junkie again, I'll tell my boss you've been starting trouble. Half of our patrons would back me. You give them the willies. There's something not right about you."

Z just shrugged. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry, Cherry. It would have just been tonight, anyway."

"It's worth shit, is what it's worth, you son of a bitch." Her hands were shaking, part in anger and part due to embarrassment, as she was probably wondering if there was something wrong with her and her desirability that had caused his inability to bring himself to sleep with her. She buttoned the last few buttons, sent him an evil glare that he wasn't sure didn't come with a curse attached, and slammed the door behind her.

He followed her outside, his shoes abandoned in the room. "Do you want a ride back? It's dark out."

"Screw you!" she shouted over her shoulder, disappearing down the street and into the night. As angry as she was, any thug would steer clear.

Z shut the door and flopped back on the bed to fall into a fitful sleep.