Set in the same world as Faith Hunter's bestselling Jane Yellowrock novels, the fourth Soulwood novel stars Nell Ingram, who channels her power from the earth.
Nell can draw magic from the land around her, and lately she's been using it to help the Psy-Law Enforcement Division, which solves paranormal crimes. Joining the team at PsyLED has allowed her to learn more about her powers and the world she always shunned--and to find true friends.
Head agent Rick LaFleur shifts into a panther when the moon calls him, but this time, something has gone wrong. Rick calls Nell from a riverbank--he's naked, with no memory of how he came to be there, and there's a dead black cat, sacrificed in a witch circle and killed by black magic, lying next to him.
Then more animals turn up dead, and team rushes to investigate. A blood-witch is out to kill. But when it seems as if their leader is involved in the crime, the bonds that hold the team together could shatter at any moment.
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The night sky was a wash of cerulean blue over the trees and the roofline, with a trace of scarlet and plum on the western horizon. A silver wedge of moon would rise soon, no longer full, an important consideration when eating a picnic with a were-creature. Other than the stars, our only light came from an oil lantern propped on a flat-topped rock, casting shadows over the blanket and used paper plates and the half-empty bottle of Sister Erasmus' muscadine wine, and even that would get snuffed as soon as the meteor shower began.
I was safe on Soulwood land, even in the full dark, and had no need to worry about my surroundings. I was primarily concentrating on the danged wereleopard lounging in human form on the picnic blanket beside me, looking amused, and maybe just a bit smug. Dang cat. "Take. Off. Your. Shirt," I demanded again.
"Why, Nell, sugar, if you were so desirin' of seeing me in my naked glory, all you had to do was ask."
I blushed, which didn't show, not with my new coloration, but I knew Occam could smell my reaction and hear my suddenly galloping heart. But we had been over this conversational ground on two separate evenings. Two official dates. This was our third and I wasn't taking no for an answer. I inhaled a steadying breath and leaned in until my face was an inch from his, wiping out the horizon. He had no choice but to focus on me. Quietly, almost a whisper, I said, "This ain't my first rodeo, cat-man. I been fighting recalcitrant males for mosta my life. You died. You're still scarred and mostly hairless and moving slow. Now. Take off the shirt. Lemme see the scars so I'll know what to do to help heal them."
"My face is bad enou-"
"No arguments. You been putting this off for days. Lemme see so I can help you."
Occam eased away from me, his body dropping back from the elbow that held his weight, his western-booted ankles uncrossing and recrossing as he sat up. His face lost the laughter and teasing and took on a wary expression. His Texan accent grew stronger. "You brought me back from the dead, sugar. You did the best you could. There ain't no point in this. I'll heal eventually from shifting."
"Yeah? You ain't getting better fast enough, not even when you shift here on Soulwood under the full moon." I shoved my head forward the way the werecats did when they were irritated. Bumped his nose. "You ashamed a your'n body, Occam, sugar?" I asked in my strongest church accent, using it as a weapon to get my way. But it didn't work.
"No." He bumped me back. "You ashamed of yours? I'll take off my shirt if you take off yours."
Shock and excitement and fear and laughter shot through me like lightning. I settled on laughter, a sputtering, staccato sound that echoed back from the house and the massive trees that ringed the acreage and flowed down the hill toward the lights of Knoxville in the far distance. I said, "I ain't ashamed a nothin', kitty cat."
Occam laughed at that, a purring sound that rumbled through his chest and the earth beneath us. It was well after the three days of the full moon-part of the reason I'd picked tonight for our picnic-at a time when were-creatures could shift if they wanted to, but weren't forced under control of their creatures. Occam's cat was reckless at all times, however, and he reached for the hem of his T-shirt with his damaged left hand, the scars on the two ruined fingers bright white in the darkness.
Our cells dinged with incoming texts at almost the same moment. Of course. "Dagnabbit," I cursed. Occam's laughter deepened, a catty purr. His good hand found my neck in the dark, his palm heated and smooth, his fingers long and bony and firm. Determined. He pulled me to him. His lips found mine and his body rolled me over, his elbows holding him above me. Not prisoning me. Not aware that I wanted him to lay his weight over me and throw caution and worry to the wind and-
He kissed me. Hard and hot. That very improper kiss he had promised me long months ago. His scruffy, scarred face scrubbed against mine. I kissed him back. Dragged him closer. He shoved his body higher, over mine, his jean-clad legs tangling in my long skirt. The scent of his sweat was manly and healthy . . . not like John's scent at all. My body simultaneously loosened, boneless, and clenched.
"Ohhh," I murmured into his mouth as his tongue claimed mine. Twisted and thrust. Occam's need and desire pressed against my abdomen. My heart thundered and warmth rushed all through me, a strange and wonderful electric heat that settled low in my belly. Desire. This is what desire feels like.
The cells dinged again, reminding us. Occam cursed and I made a sound that was close to a moan as I eased away. I dropped my head back to the blanket I had spread on the too-long summer grass for our picnic. I breathed out a laugh, the sound only a little frustrated. That was what I told myself. Only a little. Stars were visible around the edges of Occam's head, his thin hair looking brittle even in the pale light.
"Look!" I said, pointing. A shooting star raced overhead and blinked out. "First one. Make a wish!"
"I'm pert' near certain that my wish has already been ruined by that text, Nell, sugar," he said. "You go ahead. Maybe you'll have better luck."
I said my quick wish and turned my head to him, knowing he could see better in the dark than I could. I wasn't human, but my kind of paranormal didn't have any superpowers like better night vision. My wish was carnal and sinful and full of hope. And also ruined by the text.
Occam rolled off me and we reached for our cells, answering them to see identical texts from PsyLED. Get to HQ ASAP. Trouble, it read. The text was from JoJo, second in command of Unit Eighteen.
"No court in the land would convict me if I killed her," Occam growled.
I laughed again, remembering the feel of his weight over me, pressing into me. Remembering the shot of excitement that flashed through me like lightning before settling deep inside. Excitement. Not fear. Desire. The physical need I'd read about and-
The cells dinged again, this time from JoJo's personal cell. It read, If your cells were any closer they'd be making cell-babies. I hate to say stop, because I really hope you two are getting busy, loud and long and satisfying, but I need you at HQ. Both of you. Days off canceled.
Occam pulled me to my feet, still cat-strong, though not so flexible as before the fire. That part of his were-taint abilities hadn't been affected by the instinctive and peculiar healing I had managed the night he was burned and had died, and my up-line boss nearly so-the night I'd hauled them back from the claws of death. Occam might look a mess yet, he might move slower than before, but he was getting better, bit by bit, every time he shifted into his spotted leopard. That was a natural part of the were-taint gift. I helped where I could, when he shifted on my land, drawing on the power of Soulwood, feeding him the way I did the land when it was injured. If I could see his scarring, see what he needed, maybe I could help more or better. But Occam was stubborn about me seeing the scars on his body. Which was why my secret wish on the shooting star had not yet been fulfilled. Dang cat.
"Gear up," he said. "I'll drive."
"And that means I'll have no form of transportation back here in the morning."
" 'At sounds about right."
I hid a smile in the darkness and let him lead me to my own front porch. And wondered if sounding about right meant he intended to pick up where we left off.
We walked into HQ together, Occam at my six, protecting me or heading me like a cat after prey. I didnÕt know. DidnÕt rightly care. IÕd learned at Spook School that the most experienced fighter/shooter always came last. If an enemy was waiting and attacked the first person in line, then the man at six was able to take the bad guy out. If the most experienced is at point and is ambushed, then the bad guy will likely get the second person in line too. Perfect logic.
Second in command of PsyLED Unit Eighteen, Special Agent Josephine Anna Jones-JoJo-met us at the top of the stairs. She was supposed to be writing the final summation report on a possible sighting of a devil dog in the hills east of Knoxville, but from her expression, this call-out was more than that. She said, "Where's Mud?"
It was a strange question. "She's spending the night with Esther and Jedidiah."
"Jedidiah Whisnut, right? She safe with him?"
Safe was important. The men of God's Cloud of Glory Church, a polygamous cult from which I had escaped, weren't known to protect women. My sister Mud was twelve. That was close enough to make her prey to some of them. "She's good."
"Better be. You two are making a run. Rick sent a text and needs . . . hell, I don't know. Backup? Help in some nonlethal situation? Kent's gathering Rick's four-day bag, backup weapon, extra key fob, and extra cell. I'll text you the coordinates."
T. Laine was visible at the end of the hallway, loaded down with gear.
JoJo, scarlet skirts swaying, whirled and rushed back along the hallway, part of the full moon and leopard tattoo on her neck catching the overhead lights, her turban glistening. There were gold and silver threads woven through the fabric. JoJo did not dress by PsyLED dress codes, and so far no one had told her she had to comply.
"Rick's in trouble?" Occam asked as we weaponed up.
JoJo shouted back, "He didn't send a nine-nine-nine, so I'm assuming he's ruined his clothes and gear. Went for a swim. Something. But he texted from an old, outdated cell number, and now I can't get through to it. So wear your vests. Just in case."
Code-999 was for officer down, urgent help needed. No 999 meant things weren't dire. Request for his gobag and gear? Yeah, that sounded like he fell in the river.
"Specifics?" Occam asked, seeming irritated that he was having to ask for details.
JoJo read from her screen, shouting down the hallway. " 'Need pickup. Weapon. Gobag. Cell. Car fob. ASAP. Send Occam and Nell.' "
T. Laine said, "Rick's bag, packed with backup weapon, extra official cell, charger, car fob, shoes, and a change of clothing, as ordered." She tossed Rick's gobag at Occam and he caught the bag with catty reflexes, though still not as fast as once before. "Move it, CC."
CC stood for Crispy Critter, which was the term emergency crews and law enforcement used for burned bodies in a very hot fire. It was not a nice thing to say. It was also the exact thing Occam needed to hear-a reminder that his team knew he was disfigured, ugly, as far as social standards went, but still considered capable. Still part of the team. "Jo and I've got comms," the resident witch added. "I was heading out, but I'll stay over until we know what's happened. I'll update you on the way."
Occam and I left the gear we didn't need and headed back down the stairs to his sporty car, putting on comms systems as we went, our own one-day gobags over our shoulders. Occam used only one earbud, because the ear cartilage on the damaged side of his face hadn't regrown. Yet.
"You copy?" Lainie asked over the earbuds.
"Receiving loud and clear," Occam said as he started his car.
"Receiving," I said. "I just plugged in the coordinates and Rick is on the bank of the Tennessee River in the middle of the night?"
"Nothing about the request or the destination makes sense," T. Laine said. "And the request for backup came in over a nonsecured number, that old flip phone he keeps in a gobag in the glovebox of his car."
"No other details?" Occam asked. "Grindys?"
"Not a one. No info on the grindys. I'm still trying to get back through. No luck."
Grindylows were cute, neon green, kitten-sized were-creature killers. They appeared when a were-creature was in danger of transmitting the were-taint and killed the offending were-creature with extreme prejudice, no recourse, no appeal.
As the newest official special agent in PsyLED Unit Eighteen, and the one who had spent six months as part of a forest, on the injured and disabled list, I seldom was allowed to leave the office, my job these days being predominantly database searches and intel correlation. Excitement skittered along my nerve endings like ants in an electric current.
We made good time, most of the streets and pikes being fairly deserted at this hour, but finding a lone man outside of Knoxville proper, on the banks of a river that twisted and turned like the track of a snake, was difficult. RickÕs GPS coordinates were on a tongue of land between the confluence of the French Broad and the Holston rivers, where they merged to become the Tennessee River. We drove slowly along Riverside Drive, poorly lit, totally deserted, watching for Rick. Not knowing what weÕd find. I normally would love a drive along tree-lined country roads, under a night sky, watching the stars and a metor shower, but I didnÕt like this one. The things we were told to bring along suggested that Rick had a problem, and anytime a wereleopard had a problem it was dangerous.
"Dial his old cell number," Occam said.
Rick had acquired a new cell number while I was a tree. Something about a problem in New Orleans, involving Jane Yellowrock, one of his exes. No one seemed to know what had happened between them, but Rick had kept the old number and the old cell. A way for Jane to reach him if she ever wanted. Rick's love life was as broken and emotionally maimed as his psyche.
A lot had happened while I was out of commission. I had been back at work only three weeks and I was still getting accustomed to the changes. Rick answered, sounding out of breath and wary at the same time. "I see your lights. Pull over to the right," he said. Satellite maps showed that the right side of the road was pasture or field, and beyond that was the Tennessee River. Occam braked onto the grassy verge.