The Cat’s Meow
by Stacey Kennedy
Copyright © 2013 by Stacey Kennedy. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
The putrefied stench of death rushed through Nexi Jones’s nostrils as she scooted along the floor, cowering from the snarling wolf. Dark red stains saturated the beige carpet and crimson horror splattered the floral wallpaper in her living room.
A terrible combination of grief and fear rattled her, when suddenly, the air around the wolf shimmered. A frigid blast washed through her as if the trauma of seeing her slain parents and her own imminent death had leeched all of her warmth.
The wolf’s fur rippled as if by a harsh wind, yet no windows were open in her house. His features contorted and his gray fur shifted to a cocoa color. Then, in the wolf’s place stood a man, peering down at her with black eyes and shoulder-length dark hair.
Her mind had to have betrayed her—wolves didn’t change into denim-clad men in the blink of an eye. Hadn’t she seen a special on the Discovery Channel about the effects of trauma on the human imagination? Maybe the wolf-man was a weird manifestation of the horror of seeing her parents murdered in the kitchen.
Managing to get on her feet, she scrambled toward the front door. She took two steps before the man grabbed her at the nape and shoved her face-first to the floor. “Don’t fight.” His voice dipped low, resonating with danger. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“What the hell are you?” she gasped.
His grip on her neck loosened. “Do you promise not to run?”
“Yes.” Her hands fisted. “I promise.”
The man shifted off her back and when he turned her over, she kneed him between the legs as hard as she could. He dropped to the side with a loud groan. She pushed off the floor and begged her legs to be quick.
“Help!” she screamed.
His footsteps thundered behind her. “You’re leaving me with no other choice.”
A splitting pain in the back of her skull stole her need to flee, sending her crashing to the floor. Through the pain threatening to smother her, deep yells, muted but obviously angry, trickled through and kept her conscious.
In her line of vision, she discovered paws.
Confused, she raised her pounding head off the carpet. The man had turned into a wolf again and he snarled, but not at her. He trained his predatory stare onto the two men charging into her living room. Men who happened to look like medieval warriors. Both were bare-chested, swords strapped to their backs, and clad in only dark leather kilts and black boots that stopped mid-calf.
One of them positioned himself in front of her and shielded her from the wolf, holding a hefty sword in his hand. He looked down at her, his piercing, light-green eyes blazing. “Don’t move. You’ll be safe.”
The other warrior circled the wolf, exuding controlled power. “Shift now. Answer for this savagery.” The wolf growled, curling his lip to display sharp teeth, and the warrior stepped forward for a clear attack. Then loud howls erupted in the foyer of her house.
Four more wolves charged into her living room, and Nexi leapt to her feet. Her only plan: getting the hell out of this nightmare and away from these freakish creatures. The entrance to the kitchen was behind her and with her fear washing away all thought, she made a beeline for the doorway.
The warrior who had stayed by her yelled, “No, Nexi! Stop!”
She had a split second to wonder how he knew her name and why these men were helping her before scary roars followed by thundering paws against the carpet sounded at her back. Just as she reached the kitchen’s doorway and spotted her adoptive father’s legs, sharp teeth bit painfully into her calf, sending her tumbling.
“Big mistake, wolf.” The green-eyed warrior sliced his blade through the wolf’s neck, spraying blood in the air.
Nexi scrambled back and bumped into the couch. “Holy fuck.”
In front of her, she spotted a brown wolf with a black stripe running along his head and over his snout. He took a quick look around, even his wolfish eyes portrayed alarm, then he ran from the room.
She turned to her left. The other warrior was battling a tan wolf as another gray wolf was prepping to pounce. In an instant, he jumped onto the warrior’s back, and they crashed into her coffee table, breaking it into pieces.
She looked from fight to fight and her mind struggled to catch up. The warriors fought with a speed and strength she had never seen before. No way could this be real. Her parents weren’t dead, wolves weren’t shifting into men, and there weren’t medieval-looking warriors in her living room. Doing the only thing she could, she shut her eyes and prayed that she’d survive.
Not a minute later, a warm hand touched under her knees and a strong arm wrapped around her back. “Are you all right?”
Nexi dared to open her eyes. “Are you out of your goddamned mind?” she snapped, overwhelmed by panic. “I’m anything but all right.”
With a gentle touch, the green-eyed warrior helped her to sit up, and she hissed as her wounds complained. When she took in the state of her living room, nothing made any sense. Before she shut her eyes there were wolves and blood. Now the house was empty except for her, the warriors, and her broken coffee table. “What? The wolves? Gone?”
The warrior tightened his arms around her. “We need to get you out of here.”
“Like hell.” She pushed away from him, her eyesight blurred. “You are…I don’t know what you are, but—” Yes, the men had helped her, but… “That wolf turned into a man…then into a wolf…”
The other warrior, who stood a few feet away, slid his sword into his scabbard. “Take a deep breath. You’re safe now.”
“Safe.” Fighting through the near-crippling pain, she forced herself to stand on wobbly legs. “You’re…you are…?”
“Guardians.” His soft hazel eyes appeared oddly familiar and reflected a gentle nature. It should’ve comforted her. It didn’t. Her blood ran cold. Then the warrior added, “All you need to understand is that I’ve come for you.”
He approached with slow steps, so unlike the warrior she’d witnessed moments ago. “I’m afraid there’s no easy way to tell you this.” He stopped a foot away. “I’m Drake—your birth father.”
“You’re…what?” The world somersaulted around her. “I have…oh, God…I gotta sit down…”
Drake yelled, “Grab her, Kyden. She’s going to faint.”
I’ve found you, fur ball.
Nexi peered from behind the large oak tree and spotted the small log cabin nestled in the thick forest. The porch light cast a warm glow into the night. Fog settled over the lush grass, and the night was dark, eerie.
Stepping away from her hiding place behind the tree, she strode forward and gripped the dagger tightly in her hand. Keeping the silver blade pointed outward, she climbed the cabin’s porch steps, taking each one slowly to avoid detection.
Once she arrived at the front door, she wrapped her hand around the door handle. Rich hunger for revenge burned in her veins and made her intent on one thing: to slaughter the werewolf who escaped the night of her parents’ murder. Not caring what awaited her, she stormed inside, dagger pointed, ready to kill.
The simple cabin had two large brown couches near a wood-burning stove, a kitchenette behind the living room, and a quilt-covered bed resting in the back. And that was it; there were no other rooms to investigate. No secret hiding places she could see.
No damned werewolf.
She cursed, shut the front door behind her, then trotted down the steps to return to her hiding spot. On her way across the yard, she glanced at the space to the right of the tree, which looked much like a heat wave, indicating that the portal to the Otherworld remained.
In some places around the world—or the Earthworld, as supernaturals had called it—there were permanent portals to the supernatural realm. This portal had only appeared because Nexi had travelled to this cabin from the Otherworld. Once she passed through the portal again, the gateway would vanish.
Magic had its perks. Quick travel was one of them.
Nexi shook her head at how normal all this magical stuff seemed now. Just over a month ago she’d never believed in anything that went bump in the night. Now she knew all those things existed, and in fact, she was one of them.
To her horror, she had learned that her birth mother, Tillie, had been murdered by a power-hungry vampire, Lazarus. All those years ago, her birth father, Drake, had protectively decided to block Nexi’s supernatural abilities. He had planned for her to live and die as a mortal. Now with her return to the Otherworld and the removal of the block on her true identity, there was no going back.
She was no longer plain, human, Nexi Jones.
She was Nexi Jones, part guardian, part witch.
Looking away from the portal and to her hiding spot until the werewolf returned, she hurried her steps. She wasn’t ready to return to the Otherworld yet. Not until she had the werewolf’s head as her wall ornament would she dare go home.
Just as she neared the tree, a woodsy scent that had nothing to do with the forest mixed with the citrusy aroma of aftershave. A blink of an eye later, the dagger she held was now at her throat, a hard body closed in on her back.
“You smelled lovely when you arrived.” The low voice by her ear held a faint English accent. “But I never imagined you’d be so pretty.”
The blade pressed into her skin, not drawing blood, but implying that if the werewolf chose, she’d be destined for the grave. “I’m…”
“Going to explain yourself.” He lowered the dagger, took hold of her arm, and jerked her forward.
In a few short strides, the werewolf tossed her through the threshold of the cabin, and slammed the door behind them. He sauntered to the couch, sat down, and regarded her. “Now then, darlin’.” His olive skin was stunningly flawless, and his chocolate-colored hair was spiked tall. “Why would a pretty lass like yourself plan to attack me?”
“Don’t move.” That charm wouldn’t fool her. “Stay right where you are.”
“My mouth is the only thing moving.” His slanted amber eyes raked over her. “Would you like me to stop talking?”
“No.” She hesitated then added, “Only your mouth can move. Nothing else. Tell me what you know.”
He gave her a long look. “I’d be glad to tell you anything you’d like, love.”
His kind face and soft voice wouldn’t trick her. He was a werewolf. She was certain, which was another oddity.
After the block on her supernatural abilities had been lifted, she could identify a supernatural creature as if knowing the difference between a brunette and a redhead. “Tell me why you killed my family.”
“That’s an interesting accusation.” He cocked his head, studying her with a frown. “But I think the more important question is who are you?”
She lifted her chin. “The lass who’s going to cut off your furry wolf balls.”
The Guardians’ House, located on the north side of the Otherworld’s castle, was quiet tonight. Kyden strode through the wide hallway, passing the large arched windows on his right and the thick mahogany doors on his left leading to the residences of his fellow guardians.
Nearly at the bend in the hallway, a scuffle sounded at his back, followed by a loud squeak. He took a quick look behind him, discovering the Earth Witch, Haven, approaching from the Witches’ House. Behind her, his good friend and guardian, Finn, followed at a brisk walk.
“Thank goodness I found you, Kyden.” Haven gasped as she reached him. Her brown curls bounced off her shoulders, her big blue eyes were wide, and her cheeks were flushed pink. “I’ve messed up. Big time.”
When Finn joined them, he leaned against the stone wall and pursed his lips at Haven. As the thinnest guardian in the Otherworld, Finn could be underestimated. Kyden always thought that was Finn’s advantage. Enemies took him to be weak and by the time they realized they were wrong, they were dead.
Turning to Haven, Kyden noticed how she worried her bottom lip. While she was a sweet witch who had a huge heart, and she was Finn’s potential mate, her naiveté brought trouble often. “What have you done now?”
“You see…” She shifted on her feet, looking everywhere but at him. “I was with Nexi earlier tonight. We were talking about her parents’ murders and…I might have mentioned that Briggs could know something about their deaths.”
He arched an eyebrow. “And I should care about this because?”
“She got mad.” Haven’s eyes widened further. “Like, really, really mad. I didn’t think she’d do anything. But she’s left the Otherworld.”
He didn’t doubt Haven’s assessment of Nexi’s emotions. She and Haven shared a soul-sister bond, a connection only given to a pair of witches by fate, allowing them to sense each other’s strong emotions, which bound them together in a way, he, as a guardian, could never understand. He also knew that Nexi had used their bond as an advantage to get her way with Haven for the last month. “She’s left again?”
Haven nodded. “Nexi’s so tricky and gets me to tell her things.” She hesitated, then added, “Like where Briggs lives.”
Amusement stole his irritation. “Are you suggesting that Nexi has gone to kill Briggs?”
She bit her lip. “I think so.”
“Go home, Haven.” He chuckled, patting her shoulder. “I’ll go get her.”
“Be super-fast. Who knows what she’ll do, or what Briggs will do to her.” With a resigned sigh, she scuttled away.
Finn pushed off from the wall and his lips parted. He shoved a hand through his sandy-blond hair, then he finally muttered, “Nope, I’m done with talking about Nexi running off and Haven’s mistakes.”
Without another word, he followed Haven.
Kyden shook his head, understanding Finn’s frustration. This had become a habit of Nexi’s. He strode forward, carried on through the hallway, and soon he entered the Council’s Foyer. White stone walls surrounded him, stretching into a vaulted ceiling. To his right, four windows with intricate stone carvings decorated the sides, and a warm breeze soared through the room, carrying scents from the gardens outside.
He stopped, glancing to the Council’s Hall arched doorway, considering telling the Otherworld’s leaders, the Council, what Nexi had done again. He decided against it. No doubt they would hear of it from Haven soon enough, and he’d rather get Nexi home before Briggs mauled her.
Settling in front of the portal’s large wooden door, he gripped the wrought iron handle, and stepped over the threshold. He focused on thoughts of Briggs’s home in Cache Valley, Utah, to teleport him into the Earthworld.
The bright light flickered before his closed eyes and the swirling wind from the vortex squeezed his body. Only a split second passed before his boots connected with hard ground, and the rapid wind was replaced by the sweet scent of evergreen trees.
He opened his eyes to a dark night, understanding why supernaturals chose to live in this realm. He even understood why some guardians refused to protect the Otherworld and join the Council’s Guard. Earth was beautiful. But home to him was the Otherworld—maybe because guardians weren’t born from this land; they had originated from the Otherworld. Regardless, he’d always experienced the call to the join the Guard, and he also knew he’d never set down roots in the Earthworld.
Besides, his reasons weren’t only personal: supernaturals in the last few centuries had flourished. During the eighteenth century, the Council had created new laws. Only the Council’s Guard or those in training to join the Guard—including their families—were allowed to stay in the Otherworld. The land simply wasn’t big enough to build enough homes and the castle couldn’t support the size of the rapidly expanding supernatural population.
Earth had the space, then some.
Taking in his surroundings, Kyden noticed no noise came from the cabin in front of him, but the light from the living room indicated Briggs was home. He strode forward and, once at the front door, he knocked.
A moment later, it opened to a frowning Briggs. “’Bout time you showed up.”
Kyden cupped his friend’s shoulder. “Where is she?”
Briggs opened the door wider and Kyden stepped into the cabin, discovering Nexi sitting on the couch near the woodstove. Her arms were folded, leg crossed over her knee, which she bounced with clear irritation, and a familiar scowl he’d seen for weeks now marred her face. “How’d that go for you?”
Her hazel eyes narrowed.
Briggs shut the door behind Kyden, then he pulled a small silver dagger with a bejeweled handle from his back pocket. “She had this with her.”
Kyden took the dagger. “Where’d you get the knife?”
“It’s Haven’s,” she retorted. “I borrowed it.”
He slid the dagger into his scabbard in front of his sword. “You shouldn’t have a weapon until you know how to use it.”
She flicked her long, dirty-blonde hair over her shoulder. “Well, if someone would teach me, then this wouldn’t be a problem, would it?”
While Kyden shared in his friend’s amusement over the smart-mouthed woman—and he rather enjoyed that smart mouth—she had become a real problem. Her present behavior was classic Nexi Jones. She might be new to the Otherworld, but her brisk confidence would make most believe she’d never left the magical realm.
Dropping onto the couch across from her, Kyden shifted the sword strapped to his back to rest upon the cushion, when Briggs asked, “Hungry?”
The warm, comforting scent of home cooking drifting through the air reminded Kyden he hadn’t eaten for hours. “Always.”
In the kitchenette behind Nexi’s couch, Briggs grabbed two wooden bowls out of the cupboard. He removed the lid from an old steel pot on the stove, and scooped out what smelled like beef stew.
With bowls in hand, Briggs returned and placed a bowl on the coffee table in front of Nexi and she glared at the dinner. Then Briggs handed Kyden a bowl before he sat next to her, looking at Kyden. “Would you like to tell me what’s going on?” He gestured toward the fuming woman. “And why this little darling wanted to remove my furry balls.”
Kyden chuckled. A threat. Indeed.
He scooped up some beef and potatoes with his spoon. “Nexi and her parents were attacked by a group of werewolves. One managed to get away from us at the scene, and we’ve been hunting him, but the trail is cold.” To Nexi, he firmed his voice. “The Council wanted me to have a civilized conversation with Briggs about it. Not deal with your sorry excuse for an assassination attempt.”
She snorted. “His balls would’ve been an added ingredient to that stew you’re drooling over.” She hesitated, her cheeks flushing. “That is, if I’d known werewolves had increased scenting abilities.”
“Exactly why you shouldn’t have come. You haven’t been taught the ins-and-outs of supernaturals and their talents,” he countered out of sheer frustration. “A werewolf could’ve scented you the minute you arrived. And if that was an enemy waiting to kill you, I’d be picking up the pieces of your body right now.”
Her eyes blazed. “He’s not an enemy, though, is he?”
His lips parted to tell her—again—how much danger she continued to put herself in, but Briggs interjected, “The only troubles recently have been within the Texas pack. Some of the members in Austin have left the pack’s protection.”
Kyden ate his spoonful of the stew before he asked Briggs, “Think these wolves could be connected?”
Briggs shrugged. “It’s possible. The wolves haven’t joined another pack.”
As Kyden swirled the contents of his bowl and added more beef to his spoon, Briggs said, “Darlin’, will you please eat. Not only can I smell how hungry you are, but you look like you need it.”
Nexi stared at the bowl on the table and her internal struggle showed in her pinched expression. However, Kyden disagreed with Briggs. Nexi might be tiny, only coming up to his chest, but her small frame held curves he did his best not to notice. Besides, she’d gained back most of the weight she’d lost during the first week after her parents’ death.
She had a long stare-down with the bowl until she finally grabbed it, settling it onto her lap. “There, happy?”
“I’ll be happier once you eat it.” Briggs smiled.
She rolled her eyes. “You’re a persistent fluff ball.”
Kyden examined her, noticing the dark circles under her eyes had faded, and the emptiness he’d spotted in her gaze had lifted. He had sympathized with her. That was, until she’d gotten into the habit of running away from the Otherworld and he ended up having to search for her.
The more he chased her, however, the more his curiosity about her formed. The only problem was, by all appearances, she’d rather stuff a dagger into his gut than hold a causal conversation with him.
Perhaps he’d been a little short with her in the beginning, since chasing her hadn’t been what he’d called enjoyable. But he had softened his edge lately, not that she had noticed. Or perhaps it was that she didn’t care.
Maybe he liked that about her, too.
She finally took a bite of her stew. “All right, I admit it’s obvious you didn’t kill my parents, but then why did the Council and Haven think you could help with this?”
Briggs mouth curved. “You are new, aren’t you?”
“Brand spanking new.” She rested her spoon on the bowl and firmed her expression. “Unless you want me to break out the whips and chains, dish.”
“Well now, we wouldn’t want that.” Briggs winked before the playfulness in his features vanished. “I’ll answer you as simply as I can.” He placed both arms against the back of the couch, and rested an ankle over his knee. “From what I’ve seen, you don’t know much about werewolves?”
She looked at him with startling hatred. “Other than knowing your kind killed my parents, no.”
“My kind?” Briggs’s eyes crinkled. “Let’s hope I can change your fine opinion of us.”
Kyden clenched his jaw and instead of chastising her for being disrespectful to a close friend who deserved nothing less than the highest regard, he shut up and ate his meal.
“Keeping it simple,” Briggs continued. “Each state in the U.S. has a werewolf pack. Each of those packs has their own alpha who leads them, but those alphas are ruled by the Patriarch.”
After she swallowed, she asked, “Like the alpha of all alphas?”
Briggs nodded. “That’s a good way to see it.” He gestured to her bowl, and waited until she took another bite before he added, “Valor is our Patriarch. I’m his beta. His second in command, so to speak.”
She regarded him with a slight tilt to her head. “What does a beta do, exactly?”
“He’s a secretary,” Kyden stated.
Briggs tossed a pillow at Kyden’s head, which he caught and tucked under his arm, as Briggs smiled and went on. “It’s more than taking phone calls and scheduling meetings, wanker.”
Turning to Nexi, Briggs softened his voice. “My main duty is to help solve disputes within the packs. If the matter cannot be resolved, the Patriarch gets involved. Valor is always aware when trouble arises within the packs, which means I know, too. Does that answer your question sufficiently?”
She gave him a quick nod. “As the second-in-command, of course, you’d know the happenings in the wolf world. Makes sense.” She swirled her spoon in the stew, and whispered, “If anything about werewolves makes sense.”
Kyden winced at the raw pain in her voice. Every so often, she showed her despair even if she didn’t realize it. Judging by Briggs’s intense stare, he noticed it, too. Kyden wanted to help her understand. “Werewolves are tightly bound to their pack, so when one leaves, it always draws suspicion.”
When she lifted her head, she hid the agony inside of her—something else she’d been good at—and her expression held only curiosity. “A wolf wouldn’t leave his pack just to leave?”
Briggs shook his head. “Not without permission. The Texas alpha contacted Valor two nights ago after their search for the missing wolves turned up nothing.”
Good news, Kyden thought. They needed this lead. He finished the last bite of the stew and placed the bowl on the coffee table in front of him, then he said to Briggs, “Keep us updated if anything develops in Texas.”
Briggs inclined his head. ”Of course.”
Nexi settled her half-eaten dinner next to Kyden’s on the table. To Briggs, she said, “Since you’ve got fur, you’d know better than anyone. Why do you think these wolves killed my family?”
“Don’t know, darlin’,” Briggs responded, his voice gentle. “But trust me on this, there’s a reason for it. Wolves rarely kill maliciously. It’s just not in our nature.”
Her eyebrows drew together and her lips pursed. Kyden had seen the troubled look many times over the past month. She wanted answers to settle the chaos in her life—find closure—and no doubt she sought revenge. But she was going about it in the wrong way, which included putting herself in danger, more than once.
Kyden empathized with Nexi’s need for vengeance and wanted to bring those responsible to justice. However, she needed to allow the Council’s Guard to solve this instead of taking the matter into her own hands. The Guard existed for this very reason, to stop any supernatural that broke the Otherworld’s one law: thou shall not take a mortal life. She didn’t need to do this on her own. She had the Council backing her desire to find those responsible, and Kyden hungered to kill them for their crime.
He cleared his throat, which drew her attention to him, and her look shifted to a death stare. He chuckled. “Let’s go home, Álainn.”
In a split second, she was on her feet and striding past the coffee table. Before she reached the door, he blocked her way. He glanced down into a face that was beautiful regardless of how she was burning with hells-fire at him.
He studied her soft, creamy skin with light freckles dusting her nose. As he’d seen every time she caught him looking at her and before she’d hide her reaction from him, her cheeks flushed and eyes dilated. He didn’t doubt she also sensed the chemistry between them, but she also appeared to be unable to take a single word of advice without wanting to castrate him.
He had tried to ignore the attraction to her for a week, until he finally gave up realizing he’d be a fool not to explore his draw to her. Now he watched a cold distance slide across her face and he missed the heat he’d spotted. “So, there is a bit of guardian in you after all. Going all half-cocked as if you stood a chance of fighting anyone.”
She hesitated, visibly gulped, then her eyes narrowed, shedding any of the softness. “Well, you all keep drilling it into my head that I am a guardian, so what do you expect?” She stepped back and looked at his chin. “Prepping for another lecture?”
“Don’t need to.” Kyden nodded a goodbye to Briggs before he glanced to the troublemaker. “You have it coming, believe me.”