Copyright © STACEY KENNEDY, 2012All Rights Reserved, Entangled Publishing.Chapter OneFur. Guts. Blood.I scrunched my nose as my spaghetti dinner threatened to make an appearance at the sight of the slaughtered black cat on the forest floor. The kitty’s stomach gaped open and its intestines spilled out along the ground, as well as other grossness I’d rather avoid.Not how I intended to spend my night, or any night for that matter. I turned to my fellow witch, Peyton. “Of all the hobbies to take up, taxidermy isn’t something I’d peg you as interested in.”Flicking her blond bouncy curls over her shoulders, her baby-blue eyes narrowed on me. “This isn’t a time for jokes, Libby.”Not as if her wrath had the desired effect; an angry Peyton looked as deadly as a growling puppy. She placed her hands on her tiny waist, pursing her lips. Too bad, I only paid attention to her cute knee-length black baby-doll dress, a tad jealous I didn’t own it. “Look at the poor kitty. Its guts are hanging out.”“Yes, I see that.” Even if I wanted to pretend I didn’t. In fact, I would have preferred to enjoy the dark night surrounded by the rich earthy scents of the large trees hugging the trail. Sadly, that wasn’t an option. Once again, I glanced down at the disgustingness at my feet.From all viewpoints, this appeared to be an open-and- shut case. “Looks like a wild animal wanted a snack.” Evil warlocks, I’m there. A dead cat was not a priority. “You better have a good reason for bringing me here.”“An animal didn’t do this. There’s magic present.” She fiddled with the hem of her incredibly cute dress. “Besides, it’s the fourth gutted cat in three days.”I paused at that bit of weirdness. I had dealt with at least a hundred cases in the five years I’d worked for Charleston’s coven, and out of all of those cases, none had ever involved animal murders. Four cats in three days was staggering.I sighed, beginning to understand my presence there. “Four, really?”Worry darkened Peyton’s eyes. “Each death the coven has sent me to, there has been this weird magical presence.” She rubbed her arms, shaking her head at the dead cat. “It’s peculiar.”The leaves beneath the cat’s body were soaked in enough blood that I assumed it had been killed at this location. To my disappointment, even with that knowledge no answers materialized, and actually more questions were raised. “If this is the fourth cat, why is this only coming up now?”“At first, it didn’t seem malicious and no human deaths resulted from the dead cats.” She shrugged. “Now, with this many felines dead, it could be an animal ritual.”“Possibly,” I agreed. Charleston’s last case of a warlock tapping into dark magic happened only a week ago, but it got cleaned up quickly enough and the warlock received his death sentence. Compared to that, a few dead cats wouldn’t concern the coven, but then why did it now?Furthermore, why hadn’t the coven contacted me? Peyton held the ability to sense magic’s presence. I am an Enchantress, a witch gifted to work spells. We both held an important role in the coven, as did every witch and warlock who worked for them. Peyton located the scenes tainted with magic, I found the offenders, other witches assisted with different gifts, and warlocks killed the guilty.If the coven had been as concerned as Peyton seemed now, I would’ve been brought into this a lot sooner. They would’ve requested I take on the case to search around and see if I discovered a reason behind it. That I knew with total certainty. The coven didn’t take chances on these things. The longer we waited to act on someone who harbored evil, the higher the chance they would succeed.“The coven clearly wasn’t worried about the past deaths, so what’s happened to change their opinion?”Peyton nibbled her lip. “They didn’t think much of it before because the level of magic isn’t dangerous. Strong, yes, but not dark.” She continued to rub her arms, shifting uneasily on her feet. “I’ve been watching over the matter to see if things worsened, but the only change has been more deaths.” She tilted her head. “One cat can be shoved aside as maybe someone who practiced their magic. This many deaths can’t be overlooked.”The coven obviously requested that she see if the levels of magic had increased. Yet, why did Peyton call me and not the coven? An order had never come to me in this manner before and it made me curious. “Who told you to ask me to come here?”“Glenda.” Peyton grimaced at Fluffy. “There’s a reason behind this. The Goddess is warning me.”I refused to look at the mangy beast and attempted not to inhale the odor of decomposed flesh beneath me. Instead, I scanned the area. Within the dark night the old trees around me created shadows. The stars above twinkled in the sky and the damp grass below my boots glistened with dew. A typical night for me—I hadn’t seen a sunny day in the five years I’d been employed by the coven.Danger happened during the witching hours of midnight to three in the morning because magic held the most strength then, so the coven stuck to the night shift. I’d become so accustomed to it I never missed the days I had lounged in the sun anymore.On a sigh, I continued to ponder the fluff ball at my feet. If magic were present, clearly someone had either spilled its blood as an offering to dark magic, or simply practiced a spell to kill. Either one sucked, at best. Resolved I’d get nowhere in discovering the truth right now, I moved along. “What does the coven expect me to do about this?”Peyton rolled her eyes, giving her customary flippant look. “Find who’s responsible.”I snorted. “What am I, a pet detective?”“Yes, Lib, that’s exactly what you are.” She frowned. “Must you be a smart-ass all the time?”I grinned. “I must.”She ignored my dig—as usual—and carried on in a hurried tone. “Stop stalling, conjure a spell, and fix it.”“You know I can’t—it’s dead.” I glanced at the cat and groaned. Yes, still very dead. “The coven would wring my neck if I brought it back to life.”The role as Enchantress with the coven came with one rule—never step out of white magic boundaries. Resurrecting a dead cat hit the no-no list. My job within the coven: stop those who went against the coven rules to protect human lives, since the last thing we needed was the human population going out on a witch hunt. The coven existed to keep witches in Charleston safe. That one law ruled my life.Peyton’s shoulders slumped and her eyes saddened. “Okay, okay. I know we can’t, but it’s so sad, the poor little kitty.”My best friend at her finest: her soft heart in this cold magical world had never changed over the years. Yet Peyton’s innocence had once been damaged by loss and pain over the death of her mother, and ever since she’d been emotionally fragile. Three years ago, I’d seen her go into a deep depression at the death of a teenager, and it took her a good month to recover. I would give my life to ensure she stayed away from anything that could damage her again.Especially now, seeing the vulnerability in her eyes, confirming that any death still rattled her. “Who’d do this?”“Someone after a higher power.”At the low velvety voice, I glanced over my shoulder, scowling at the approaching warlock. The coven’s muscle came after I found the offenders. I preferred no help, so his presence at my scene awakened my inner bitch.Not to say I didn’t realize their worth to the coven. I might be brave, but I couldn’t kill, and warlocks held that desire in spades. However, his presence this early in an investigation meant this matter leaned to the serious side. The coven wouldn’t have called him in if something wasn’t up. More to the point, called in a warlock I’d never seen before. Two strikes against my coven on the “what the hell are they doing” meter.“Go away.” I pushed the bitch to the forefront of my voice and snapped, “I’ll call the coven when I’m done.”“I’m looking for Libby Jenkins.” The warlock stopped a foot away by a fallen tree, ignoring my demand, and in the same low voice with a slight Southern accent said, “Would that be you?”I grunted, not at all impressed with the confidence he exuded, either in his voice or his powerful posture. Doubly annoyed, in fact. “I’m Libby. You are?”As he took a step into the moonlight, the shadows of the night left his face. He appeared relaxed, shoulders back in his black T-shirt, chest out, and chin lifted. Typical I am a fine specimen of man.His eyes were a shadowy gray and his face was defined by hard angles, from his high cheekbones and sculpted jaw to lips that seemed carved out for a serious smooch. His chocolate- brown hair reached the bottom of his ears, all scruffy and sexy-like, and he filled out his pair of faded blue jeans well enough.Not like that impressed me either. Warlocks tended to be pretty. Maybe to some I’d be easy on the eyes with my small frame, longish light-brown hair with honey and auburn highlights, and my dark-blue eyes. But it came from the magic, not a natural gift. Besides, witches aged the same as the humans we lived among. We just tended to do it a little more gracefully, and typically lived to be over a hundred.The warlock’s focus swept over Peyton as if he took a measure of her before his firm gaze returned to me. “I’m Kale Griffin. The coven requested I join you on this case.”Great. What serious danger had I landed myself in? “They what?”Sure, Kale looked nice, but I didn’t want—or need—his help. The idea of being teamed up with a warlock interested me about as much as if someone pulled out my hair strand by strand. Besides, never in all the years I had worked for the coven did they team me up with a warlock, which only made me wonder why they’d done it. I thought back over the past cases I’d worked. Perhaps some cases took longer to solve than others, but why in the hell had they sent me a babysitter now?With more confidence than I felt, I returned his look of challenge, and had the urge to take my clenched fist and send it into his flat stomach. “Go tell the coven I refuse your help.”His eyebrow arched, an emotion close to amusement crossing his face. “The choice isn’t yours. I’ve been instructed to take over this investigation.”My already hot blood took a nosedive. I might abide by the coven’s orders, even if I had no idea what they were up to now, but it didn’t mean I had to like it. This brute needed to get one thing straight. “We are taking over the investigation.”He smirked. “Is that so?”Damn the warlock for making the smile look sexy and damn me for noticing it. “Yes, that’s so.” Warlocks could kick some serious ass, and the coven needed them, but they were so haughty and always the ones to grab the glory.Of course, I might be—scratch that, was—the only witch in Charleston to dislike warlocks, since most swooned over them. Well, the witches did. Non-magical folk lusted after their hot butts, never knowing what they were up against.After the Salem incident, we magical folk kept our powers to ourselves and hid from the humans for good reason; a repeat in history wasn’t on anyone’s to-do list. Especially not mine.Inhaling to shed my frustrations, I fought my gag reflex as I drew in the cat’s putrid scent. “Know this, if you get in my way I’ll hex you.” I poked his chest and met taut muscle.With indifference, Kale watched my finger hit his hard, delicious pectorals. Seeing that my action unsettled me more than him, I withdrew my finger and shoved my hands into the pockets of my skinny jeans. His head slowly lifted, and when his eyes settled on me, they had darkened. “Warning noted.”The weight of his smooth voice melted across me like a warm bath. I bit my lip and refocused my thoughts to my angry position. “Good.” My voice sounded harsh, pleasing me since on the inside I’d become gooey. “As long as we understand each other we won’t have a problem.”Peyton stifled a laugh by coughing. No doubt she’d taken notice of Kale’s attributes too. “I guess I should be…uh… going home to Jace. Call me…ah…” Her eyes twinkled as she fought her smile and turned. “Just call me later, Lib.”I snorted softly, only imagining what she’d go home and tell her boyfriend, Jace, about this moment. I could do without him having the knowledge that I tried to dominate a warlock and failed miserably, even if Jace was the only warlock in existence I tolerated. “Let me know if the coven contacts you again,” I called after her.“Will do.” She waved a good-bye, striding down the trail, and her laughter followed her out of the forest.I watched Peyton until she faded into the shadows before I finally looked at Kale. He regarded me with such a probing look it became all the more irritating. “Before we start, I need to give the cat a proper burial. Which I’m sure you won’t understand since you’re a big ol’ bad warlock.”His gray eyes sharpened, voice equally so. “You appear to have misconceived notions about warlocks.”“Sure I do,” I muttered, grabbing the cat by the tail and ignoring the guts flapping in the wind. Without a glance back, I headed out of the forest.The trees passed by in a blur as I hightailed it out of there. The sooner I got to my SUV, the sooner I could stop pretending I wasn’t holding a dead cat. Thoughts of Kale’s arrival worried me and I didn’t like it. Had the coven hired a new warlock without my hearing of it? While that wouldn’t surprise me, since I tended to stay away from the coven unless I had to be there, it did shock me they didn’t throw a welcoming party for him. Moreover, why would they send a new warlock to me, and not one experienced in Charleston?If the matter were serious, which I suspected it was if he was there, then why were they taking chances? It didn’t add up. This, I’d get to the bottom of. For now, I focused on getting rid of the stinky cat.Kale followed behind me for only a moment before he easily caught up with his lengthy strides. When he settled in next to me, he slowed down since my five-foot-five frame couldn’t match his six-foot-three, and he stayed silent.Fine by me.At the edge of the forest, I spotted my black Benz parked on the grass near the entrance. My SUV wasn’t anything sporty like I’d prefer, but my M-Class sport utility vehicle made sense. The SUV was safe, big, and powerful. All good things to have in my line of work. Besides, it also had a big-ass hatchback to put things like dead cats in.I grabbed the keys from my pocket and clicked the button to open the back. Scanning the area, a missing object grated my last nerve. I glanced sideways at Kale. “You didn’t drive here?”He shook his head.Terrific! The bitch of it, he had to come with me. “How’d you get here, then?”“Walked.”The silence continued.Once at my SUV, I reached into the side compartment of my hatchback and drew out a garbage bag.“I’ve got that.” Kale stepped next to me and took the bag, holding it open while I dumped the cat in. The kitty plopped into the bag and Kale tied the red string to close it, then he threw the bag into the back. It landed with a heavy thud.I glared at him, even if his helping me came as a shock since no warlock had ever offered to help me before. “Couldn’t you have been a bit gentler?”“It’s dead.” His eyebrow lifted. “I doubt it noticed.”A sassy retort hung on my tongue, but I ignored my impulse to rise to the bait. “Warlocks.”I left said warlock behind, making my way over to the driver’s side of my SUV while Kale got into the passenger seat. Careful not to touch anything with my dirty hands, I settled into my leather seat and grabbed my hand sanitizer from the cup holder, drenching my hands with it.I could only imagine what I would have seen on the cat’s tail if I had looked hard enough, but I shoved the images of maggots from my mind to settle my woozy stomach. I dropped the sanitizer in the holder, then I started the SUV and headed off in a hurry.On the outskirts of town, leading back into Charleston, the streets were relatively quiet. For the most part, if any people were out and about they would be downtown to enjoy Charleston’s nightlife. Most around here, including warlocks and witches, lived a relatively normal life. Sadly, I wasn’t among them, and my “normal” involved a hunt for evil before it became danger.In my hopes of keeping conversation to a minimum, I cranked the radio station, drumming my fingers on my thigh to the alternative song blasting through the speakers.Kale didn’t appear to have the same wish. “Do you plan to tell me where we’re going?” I turned the music down and he continued, “With a gutted cat, no less.”Glancing out of the corner of my eye, I noticed how his body filled my seat quite nicely. Too bad warlocks were men I avoided—I found getting with a warlock always led to disaster—because this warlock would be one to have some fun with.While his looks might tempt me, the decision came years ago when I’d had enough of their egos, their need to be the tough guy, and their tendency to have their own agenda. My last attempt to respect warlocks ended at the age of twenty when one broke my heart. Since then, the only warlock I could stand was Peyton’s boyfriend, and even he walked a fine line of always needing to prove himself to me.Lately, I’d stuck to the non-magical man, but those relationships hadn’t led to anything serious, nor did they belong on my fantastic memories list. Where warlocks had too much stuff, non-magical folk didn’t have enough. Needless to say, it’d been months since I heard the word date and my regions south had declared death a while ago.I cleared my mind of unimportant things and set to answering him. “We’re going to Magnolia Cemetery.”“I see.” He turned in his seat and set his hard stare onto me. “You’re an Enchantress?”The rich nature of his voice made funny things awaken in my dead regions. Perhaps my libido wanted to be reincarnated. I quashed the thought with a fierce no. “Mm-hmm.” Two could play at the game he presented—if he wanted to assign labels, so could I. “You’re a Ward?”“Correct.”Not like I needed the confirmation. Any warlock who worked for the coven received the title. “What’s your talent?”“Runes.”I jerked my head to look at him and the car swerved before I straightened the wheel. “You draw runes?”A hint of a smile turned up the corners of his mouth. “You look surprised.”“I am,” I admitted with no shame. “I haven’t met a Ward who holds the talent of rune magic.” Glancing back at the road to avoid a crash, I shrugged to downplay my awe. “At least, not any from Charleston.”“We are few and far between,” he replied, cool and collected.My breath seemed lost in the state between shock and bewilderment. He appeared to hold back on the interesting talent. Intriguing, considering most warlocks I’d met would gush at the opportunity to prove their abilities over mine. My curiosity about the warlock next to me rose, especially since I needed to discover the reason he’d been assigned to the case. “How long have you lived in Charleston?”“Not long.”Oh, this made no sense at all. We had our own Wards, who were talented in their own right, so we didn’t need Kale. I waited two breaths for him to answer, but he didn’t oblige me. “Where are you from?”“Down south.”I blinked at his indifferent voice, keeping the wheel tight in my hands to ensure the SUV went straight, but looked at him. “Do you plan on telling me anything about you?”“I just did.” He gave a halfhearted shrug. “I’m a Ward, who draws runes, and I live down south.”I snorted loud enough to ensure he heard it. Elusive might be an understatement when it came to Kale Griffin. I almost laughed at the situation; I wanted warlocks to shut the hell up, and now one did and I’d rather he talked.Figures!I had to wonder if he did it to get a rise out of me, since warlocks tended to do that, too, which is why I bit back the rest of my questions. He might want to play that game, but by the Goddess I wouldn’t feed into it. I slammed the accelerator down, ignoring the sexy warlock next to me.We had bigger problems.The dead cat stinkin’ up my SUV reminded me of that.
Stacey Kennedy’s novels are lighthearted fantasy with heart-squeezing, thigh-clenching romance, and even give a good chuckle every now and again. But within the stories you’ll also find fast-paced action, life-threatening moments, and a big bad villain who needs to be destroyed. She lives in Southwestern Ontario with her husband and two children. If she’s not plugging away at a new story—which is rare because her muse is annoying—you’ll find her camping, curling up with the latest flick, or obsessing over Sons of Anarchy, Supernatural and Dexter.