Author: Zoe Winters
Genre: Paranormal Romance
Release Date: June 6, 2012
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It started with one lost pup; it may end in a war…
Panthers don’t do responsibility. They don’t do long-term relationships. They definitely don’t raise kids. But when Z discovers a young wolf in the forest, he takes him in, unaware of the powerful beings hunting the pup.Fiona is a witch who can’t leave her house; the birds have told her something bad will happen. The mailbox is as far as she’ll go, but even that may provide more danger than she’s bargained for. When a wolf pup stumbles into her garden, her safe, wrapped-up world heads for a free fall.But along with danger, the pup brings a chance at love—a chance an agoraphobic witch and a bachelor panther shifter aren’t likely to find on their own.
Just have to make it to the mailbox. Everything will be okay. Fiona Patrone stared out the window at the lonely box at the end of the driveway. Her house was surrounded by trees in a heavily wooded area of Golatha Falls—so far out it was amazing the mailman delivered. And yet it felt so open and unknown out there. It was safer inside.
There probably isn’t any mail. Just check it tomorrow. Nothing important. Not worth going out. The thoughts tunneled through her mind like vicious moles. If she didn’t venture out, she’d be even more a prisoner of her own mind and fears. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone past the mailbox. If she got to the point where she couldn’t even get that far…
The birds outside screeched then, chattering warnings, screaming the same awful things they screamed at her every day. If you go out there, something bad will happen. She believed them. Birds had no reason to lie. They were excellent seers, so much so, that for centuries people had read bird entrails, not realizing that you needed a live bird to get any knowledge of value.
Something bad. They could at least give her a little detail, some clue as to what she should fear, but the threat remained the same—vague and foreboding as ever.
Fiona had been able to understand the language of animals before she could understand that of humans—a rare and special gift for a witch to inherit. Though she’d always seen it as a curse. If not for those damned birds, she’d be outside living her life. Maybe she would have found love, a job, something.
Well, she had a job—on the Internet. Her money was direct-deposited. She ordered her clothes online and had her groceries delivered. Thanks to the web, agoraphobia had never been so easy. At least from a logistics standpoint.
She took in a slow, measured breath, her hand poised over the doorknob. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this. Fiona mentally repeated it like a subliminal message she prayed would take hold. The doorknob clicked in her hand. She moved through what felt like invisible molasses as she forced herself out the door and into the throng of screeching, angry birds.
The wind had a new crispness. Almost Halloween. As a witch, shouldn’t she be in her element right about now? But the idea of ghosts and goblins and veils thinning served to make the whole ordeal seem more dangerous.
Fifty-five steps. She counted them every day because counting them was the only way she could make herself get there. It wasn’t far. She could run back into her house if the birds were right.
The mailbox held nothing of interest: an electric bill that could have waited until tomorrow. On her way back, step twenty-four, she became aware of the eerie silence. The birds had stopped their squawking, and a stillness blanketed the yard. She would have run straight for the front door except for the plaintive cry coming from somewhere nearby.
Ignore it. It’s not your concern, she told herself. Thirty-five. But the noise happened again. So sad, scared. Her heart softened at the sound. She’d want someone to help her if she were in distress. Fiona tucked the electric bill into the waistband of her jeans and struggled through the wild growth of the front yard. She hadn’t worked on the garden in five years, and it showed.
When she reached the side of the house, she found a wolf pup with wide, brown eyes, crying. He was old enough that he should have started learning the language of his kind, but he hadn’t. There were no words she could pick up and decipher. She could still get emotions and basic information, especially if those emotions were strong. In some circles, this made Fiona dangerous; in others, it would make her a pawn of those who might want to capitalize on such information.
The pup was lost, hungry, scared.
She didn’t sense a mother wolf nearby. Had he been abandoned? Her mind screamed at her to leave him there. But he was so hungry and pathetic. She couldn’t stop herself from scooping him up and taking him inside.
She sat him on the kitchen counter, and he stared curiously at her, turning his little wolf head to the side. He was reddish-brown and white, the cutest thing she’d seen in forever. At least he seemed old enough to be weaned.
She’d made a roast the previous night and wasn’t sure how that would fly with the little guy, but it was what she had. She cut some meat up and put it on the counter. The pup’s tail wagged as he gobbled up the food. She placed a bowl of water down, and he took care of that, too.
He stared at her from the top of the counter as if to say What next? Oh wow, yeah. She hadn’t thought through that part. If he was just lost, his mother would be coming soon. If he was all alone, she couldn’t have a wolf in her house. Even understanding what he needed, it was just insane. And probably illegal.
He positioned himself on the edge of the counter, shifting his weight from paw to paw, negotiating the drop to the ground. His full concentration was on the jump. When he made it to the linoleum floor, he looked up at her, all pleased with himself, and she melted. So cute.
“Well, maybe you can stay for a little while. Until I figure out what to do with you.” Those words had barely tumbled past her lips when the window over the breakfast nook shattered, and a large ball of black fur leaped into her kitchen.
It must be the mother. But no. As her confusion cleared, she could see it was a large, angry black panther.
Fiona edged back, afraid he’d pounce if she made any sudden moves. What she wouldn’t give right now to have a few handy incantations at the ready. For spells, she needed all the proper tools: sage stick, herbs, candles, salt, etc. She could incant a little if she was very focused, but now, with her heart pounding so fast, wasn’t one of those times. Her own name was a blank—forget coming up with a snappy protection chant.
She grabbed at stray pots and pans and emptied a whole drawer of utensils as she threw everything she had at him. But he batted the objects away, prowling closer, his growl low and menacing. Within seconds, he had her backed into a corner, claws out, swiping at her.
She screamed and grabbed her arm, which was starting to bleed. Her side burned as well. All at once, her brain snapped into sharp focus. She was going to die in a matter of seconds if she didn’t figure something out right now.
He’d stopped clawing at her for a minute and was growling, something about her taking the pup, wanting to hurt him, people after him. Oh, wait. Wait! She could feel the magic crackling around the panther. Therian! That meant there was a person in there. Somewhere.
She called on every reserve of courage she had to form words. “I wasn’t trying to hurt him. He was lost and hungry. I brought him in to feed him. That’s all. I’m not whoever you think I am.”
The panther stared at her hard and growled again.
“Yes, I understand you.”
How is that possible? He growled.
“Rare gift. I meant the pup no harm. I swear.” She held her hands out defensively, hoping he believed her. An insane panther therian in her house wasn’t how she wanted to go out. Blood dripped in a steady flow down her arm; her shirt was torn near her ribcage where more blood was pooling. Oh God. That swipe alone could have killed her.
Breathe, Fiona. He’s calm now. Everything will be fine. Thank God he was a therian and could understand her as well as she understood him.
She still couldn’t figure out what a panther’s concern with a wolf pup was. But really, all she wanted was to get the both of them out of her house and call a window repairman. She was trying to forget the bleeding part. She vowed she’d listen to the birds next time.
So you can understand him? The panther’s gaze shifted to the pup who gingerly stepped around the broken glass, sniffing things.
“Well, he doesn’t have language like you have yet, but I know what he needs. My gift runs a little deeper than just speech.” Not to toot her horn or anything.
He shifted—–right in the middle of her kitchen. Her eyes didn’t know where to go. Tanned, muscular legs. And… oh dear, skip that, skip that! But her brain had already processed parts of a man she’d never seen outside of television or the Internet, due to her phobia. There weren’t a lot of opportunities to hook up with men when you never left your house.
Farther up, there were very nice abs and pecs—–and those arms. Oh boy. She swiped the back of the hand that wasn’t bleeding across her face, afraid she might be drooling. She wanted to lick him, but under the circumstances that seemed a little weird. Her arm and side burned like fiery hell, but damn, he was pretty. So sleek and lithe, just like what he shifted into.
When her gaze made it up to his face, a boyish smirk graced his lips. There was a twinkle in his brown eyes. His dark hair was longish, but somehow still masculine. Oh yes, there wasn’t an unmanly bone in his body.
“So,” he drawled, moving closer by mere centimeters, “should we just get it on now?”
Her mouth dropped open. He couldn’t have just said that.
A strange look crossed his face. “Sorry. Wild animal here. A little amped up. That was inappropriate.” He extended a hand, attempting to move past the new awkwardness. “Let me look at you.”
The pain in her arm and side flared fully to life as she processed everything that had just happened in her kitchen. When she didn’t respond to his request, he pulled her toward him and lifted her shirt to inspect her side.
He frowned. “Not as bad as it could have been. Nothing major harmed.”
She was about to get angry and indignant about his flippant attitude toward what he’d just done, but then his eyes met hers, warm and honest.
“I’m very sorry about your injuries. I was afraid for the pup and sensed the magic on you. I thought you were one of the ones who tried to take him. I’m all he’s got.” The pup, as if sensing he was being talked about, clomped through the kitchen debris to sit between them, his little wolf gaze going back and forth.
Fiona looked back at the man standing in front of her, so sincere and intense… and attractive, and then the waterworks started.
“Oh, no, don’t cry,” he said, almost in a panic over the concept of female tears.
It wasn’t pain that had brought forth the tears; it was the fact that this was what it took to get near a hot guy for her: a near-death experience, and him breaking into her kitchen: the idea that he was going to take the pup and go on his merry way, and she’d have the memory of him emblazoned on her brain, but that would be all. Her close brush with maleness. Inches from her, but no dice.
It wasn’t that she wanted to take him up on his carnal offer. He was a stranger. And, as he said, a wild animal. And she wished he’d cover himself with something, because judging from outward signs, he was all raring and ready to go. Like most therians, he was unaffected by his own nudity or arousal. Something she wished humans shared in common with them, so she wouldn’t feel so freaked out by his nearness… or so much longing for something she wasn’t going to ever have since she couldn’t make it past her own mailbox.
His smooth, deep voice interrupted her mental hysteria. “Do you have bandages?”
“Bathroom, down the hall,” she said absently, feeling stupid for going all blubbery on him. Thank God he couldn’t read her mind and know why she’d been crying. That would have been too mortifying for words. Better for him to think she was just a big wimp who couldn’t take surface abrasions than to know the truth.
About the Author:
Zoe Winters writes quirky and sometimes dark paranormal romance (and dark fantasy). Her favorite colors are rainbow and clear. For updates on new releases and opportunities for contests/giveaways sign up for the newsletter by sending a blank email to: firstname.lastname@example.org (As a thank you, you’ll receive a free copy of the debut novella in the Preternaturals series: Kept.)
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