In a town where every third person claims psychic powers, Caitlin Ross is a rarity: a genuine Witch. Though she hides her abilities from all but a few, Caitlin’s magic goes hand in hand with a compassionate heart, and she can seldom resist a plea for help. When a friend requests her aid banishing a Shadow Creature raised in an ill-advised spell, Caitlin promises to do whatever she can. And she means to keep her promise no matter the personal cost, even after her friend runs off, leaving Caitlin holding the bag.
Born in Scotland, Timber MacDuff grew up in America, where he apprenticed with a Native healer. Now ready to strike out on his own, he must complete a final test: locate a shaman on a dark path and remedy his horrific mistake. Timber’s quest leads him straight to Caitlin’s front door, and after a disastrous first meeting, they realize their goals are the same. Their best chance of success lies in working together.
With the Shadow Creature endangering innocents, neither Caitlin nor Timber has any intention of addressing their growing attraction. But Fate joined them for a reason. For a soul’s salvation, two stubborn spirits must surrender to love, changing their futures for eternity.
Boulder, Colorado, 1999
Crossing my fingers under the table, I turned the last card. A good one could still turn the reading around. I liked my client and wanted to give her a positive outcome, if at all possible. Plus, happy endings meant big tips. My cupboards, like Old Mother Hubbard’s, were looking mighty bare. I needed some income if I wanted to eat this week.
When I saw the image the card revealed, I exhaled in a gust. Not good, not good at all. I tried hard to put a positive spin on every card in a reading, but some I just couldn’t spin in the right direction. The prone figure stabbed in the back ten times with very large swords made this card one of them. Combined with the rest of the reading, it meant certain doom. Crap. Looked like I’d be living on bread and water for a while yet.
“What is it?” My client swept her dyed blonde hair from her smooth brow, her botoxed face creasing in worry.
No use putting it off. “It’s no good, Gina,” I told her. “This is a bad relationship. Steer clear.”
The new wrinkles on Gina Polizzi’s face deepened into furrows, turning her almost her natural age. “Are you sure? He seems so nice! Such a gentleman!”
I sighed and shook my head. I hated to break bad news and I hated more than anything to break it to Gina. She was one of my best clients, even if most of her readings dealt with the flavor of the week. Or of the month. Sure, sometimes I got tired of constant parade of men through her life. Sympathy came hard when I remembered lonely nights and waking up to a bed that seemed much too big and empty. But on the whole I liked Gina, so I reminded myself I’d chosen my single state and shoved my irritation under the rug.
Besides, even in the New Age Mecca of Boulder, Colorado, wealthy clients didn’t grow on trees.
“I’m sorry, Gina. He may be a gentleman, but only inasmuch as it gets him his own way.” I pointed to another card near the top of the spread, the Seven of Swords, which denoted a trickster or thief. “And he likes too much to be in control of others, though not of himself.” My hand wandered to the bottom corner of the spread, where the Chariot lay in opposition to the Seven of Swords. “At his core, he’s a miser, both with physical and emotional goods.” The Four of Pentacles, in the upper left corner. “He likes the hunt too much—that’s the Knight of Wands, here—and if you keep on with this you’ll end up stabbed in the back. The one Cup Card here—Cups are the suit of Love, you’ll remember—is the six, which indicates daydreams. You’re making him into something you want him to be, not what he is.”
“But what about…?” Her long, thin fingers hovered over the first card I had drawn: The Lovers. I sighed yet again, remembering how her dark eyes had lit at the sight of it. Admit it or not, everyone wants to see The Lovers in a reading and almost no one knows what it truly means.
“That’s what you want, Gina. It’s how you read the situation. Not what is. And I’m afraid the rest of the reading says what you want isn’t what you’re going to get this time.”
“You mean, I don’t get what I want again,” Gina sniffed. I wanted to roll my eyes but didn’t. Since I’d known Gina, I’d seen most of the things she wanted in life handed to her on a silver platter. In her love life, however, despite beauty and success, she didn’t seem to be able to reach her goals. I had some suspicions as to why that might be—bad choices stemming from her controlling father, for instance—but until she asked me about them, I couldn’t share my ideas and maintain any sense of personal ethics.
“Well, I’d better break off our date for tonight, then. It’s too bad. He’s been gone for a few weeks and I had hoped…” Gina got up from her chair, smoothing the wrinkles from her linen skirt. Hoped for hot reunion sex, I thought with an inward grimace for my own single state. But Gina’s ability to swallow and act on bad news was one thing I admired about her. Her face regained its usual smoothness as if by magic, although I knew it took incredible force of will, no doubt fueled by her mother’s constant warnings that dwelling on unpleasantness would mar her features forever. Reaching in her Prada bag, she handed me a hundred-dollar bill.
My stomach did a little dance of glee at the evidence that my dark prediction had not affected my fee. Still, I made a token protest.
“Gina, that’s too much. I didn’t spend an hour with you.”
“Consider it a hefty tip for saving me pain later.”
Absolved of the need to sacrifice income to ethics, I pocketed the bill. In theory, I charged fifty an hour for reading. But too many people took that to mean fifty dollars a session, and there were many with whom I spent much more than an hour, who flipped me a reluctant Grant at the end and walked away without acknowledging the extra work I had done. If Gina wanted to make it her personal mission to fill in the gaps in my income, I would try to accept her generosity with grace.
As she left the reading parlor, I closed the pocket doors separating it from the rest of the shop and waited a good five minutes before following her. Protocol, in case anyone happened to be perusing the shelves of Beljoxa’s Eye, my metaphysical shop in downtown Boulder. Some people liked to make a discreet exit, thus preserving the myth that they had not, in fact, been in the parlor but perhaps in another part of the store, looking at crystals or skimming through books on meditation techniques. I already knew no one else was present. My special senses had given no warning jangle. Besides, lacking the capital to hire a helper, I put a mild invisibility charm on the main entrance whenever I had to be in back with a client. What it cost me in customers, it more than paid out in peace of mind; I didn’t relish the idea of anyone being in my shop unsupervised, even if their intentions were the best.
I had purchased the wide Victorian that housed Beljoxa’s Eye mere moments before the Boulder housing boom of the mid-nineties, when my grandmother Ross had inexplicably willed me the bulk of her estate. A rash of low-paying jobs in my twenties had taught me I didn’t do well working for others, so I’d decided to try working for myself. A metaphysical store had seemed just the thing for someone of my unusual talents, and I’d had just enough left from buying the house for a remodel. I did okay, for the most part in the summer tourist season, selling metaphysical books and items to Edna from Laramie and her sisters in consciousness-raising, who didn’t have this kind of store back home. Except for a rush just before the Winter Solstice multi-holiday, the months from October until May tended to be much slower on the sales front. During the slack season I taught Tarot classes, and sometimes I supplemented my income giving public readings on the Pearl Street Mall a few blocks away. Since I lived in an apartment upstairs, I didn’t have to take temp work or don a barista’s apron to keep body and soul together. Not often, anyway.
Despite the occasional need to scrape by, I liked my life. The one sore spot was my lack of a partner. As an independent woman, I often chided myself for missing a man. I didn’t need one. And it hadn’t taken me long to learn that most men couldn’t keep up with either my intellect or my other abilities. In fact, I’d ditched the last couple before they’d had a chance to feel threatened and dump me. Still, sometimes I got lonely.
Enough feeling sorry for myself. The shop might be empty now, but customers could show up at any moment. I needed to be ready, not waste time wallowing. Switching on a CD of Celtic harp music by Sue Richards, I picked up a dust cloth from behind the counter and went to work on a display of quartz pyramids of various sizes and colors. Contrary to popular belief, they did not repel dust all by themselves. Elbow grease and a little Windex did the trick—although I’d never let my customers know about the latter.
I finished the quartz pyramids, rearranged the jewelry in the display case under the cash register and straightened the Tarot decks on their shelf, all without being interrupted. Just as I embarked on dusting the book room, however, my personal proximity sense began to tingle. About the same time, the bells strung over the front door gave a harsh jangle. I straightened up from the Kabala shelf, tucked the feather duster in the waistband of my jeans like some kind of weird ritual talisman, and took myself back into the main room, my customer-greeting smile plastered on my face. The smile melted when I saw who had entered. He was not a customer at all, but our local Lakota medicine man and teacher, John Stonefeather.
Not that I didn’t like John. I did, quite a bit, and respected him as well. In a town where anyone could claim to be a shaman after reading a book or three, John was the Real Deal. When on target, he conducted some of the best sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies I’d ever been privileged to attend. However, he suffered from what people euphemistically called “the Native American Disease.” In normal English, he drank. A lot. And just by looking at him, I could tell the disease had him in a tight grip this particular afternoon.
He didn’t see me at first, and as his clouded black eyes wandered around the shop, trying in vain to focus, I had ample time to study him. He hadn’t just been drinking. He also looked as though he hadn’t slept in days. His hawk-like features were puffy and indistinct, and the dark circles under his eyes made him look as if he’d been the loser in one bar fight too many. He hadn’t bathed, either. A powerful odor of alcohol and sweat leached off of him and wafted through the shop, making me want to open a window. Grime crusted the deep furrows on either side of his mouth, and his hands and knuckles were filthy.
I sighed. I’d seen John on many a bender, but never one this bad. I allowed myself one moment to wish he had gone to someone else for help in drying out, then stepped forward into his line of sight.
“Caitlin,” he croaked, fixing bleary eyes on me with an effort. “You’ve got to help me.”
At that precise instant the shop bells tinkled again. A pair of Goth chicks entered and made a beeline for the fiction section at the back of the store. I didn’t want to leave John to wait on customers who most likely wanted nothing more than to pose with the life-sized cutout of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer I kept back there, but I couldn’t give him my full attention while trying to keep an eye on them, either. In consequence, although John continued to mumble at me, I only caught about one in three of his words.
“Called up… I didn’t think… wrong… Journey… after me,” he concluded and looked up at me, a spark of hope lighting his eyes.
“Ummm,” I said, still watching the Goth girls, who had come out of the fiction room and were now hanging around the jewelry display.
“Caitlin, I need you. I think you’re the only person who can get me out of this mess.”
Oh, brother. He’d said the magic words: Need You. It no longer mattered that I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about, or that I had bad memories of the last time this had happened and didn’t want to get involved in drying John out again. Those two words sucked me right in.
The Goth girls left and I turned to face him. “You know I’ll do what I can,” I said and felt the pledge wind itself around me. Strange, I thought as a shiver ran down my spine. I hadn’t meant to speak a binding oath. But promises have a magic of their own. I should have taken that peculiarity of my life’s path into account before promising to get involved in John’s problem.
“Now tell me again what’s going on,” I began, and then my eyes fell on the malachite pyramid clock on the counter by the door. Five minutes to two. And I wanted to get this taken care of as fast as possible. “No, scratch that. I have a client coming in just a few minutes. Tell you what. Let’s go back to the kitchen. I’ll make you a cup of tea and you can relax for a while. Then we’ll get you cleaned up and you can tell me your troubles.”
John didn’t resist as I guided him back to the kitchen, and in a few minutes I had him settled at the table with a cup of Tension Tamer at his elbow. After a moment’s thought, I rummaged in the fridge for bread and cheese and put together a hasty sandwich. He looked as though he needed it.
The shop bells tinkled.
“Just a second,” I called, and turned back to John. “Now you wait right here. I won’t be an hour, and then we can get you sorted out.”
I returned to the main room of the shop, greeted my client and led her back to the parlor. The reading turned out to be another bad one. The cards told me what my client didn’t: her husband beat on her and she was afraid to leave. I gave her my best advice and the number of the local Safehouse. I hoped she’d contact them. The cards told me in all likelihood she wouldn’t until things got much worse.
When I got back to the kitchen, the sandwich and the tea were gone and John had disappeared. As I cleaned up his plate and cup I wondered what could have made him leave in such a hurry, when he’d seemed so desperate for my help. Then the store got busy and I forgot all about him. Only the lingering perfume of booze and sweat remained to remind me he’d ever been at Beljoxa’s Eye. And with all the comings and goings, even that dispersed soon enough.
The Universe did not allow me to forget John Stonefeather for long, however. The same night, when I met Sage Randall for dinner at a Mexican restaurant off the Mall, after the requisite hugs and ritual small talk about our respective businesses, almost the first words out of her mouth were:
“So, did Stonefeather come to see you?”
People are always surprised then they meet Sage for the first time. Her name conjures up visions of an emaciated, ultra-spiritual blonde, I suppose. So finding out she is in actuality a three-hundred pound Ebony goddess, who just about tops five feet in heels, comes as something of a shock. Half Cherokee and half Haitian, Sage conducts classes in Haitian dance with a grace that inevitably makes her students feel like lumbering oafs. If you ask the right questions, she might also agree to help you out with her own special brand of magic. If she does, you had better be prepared to find out the truth, whether you like it or not. I dipped a chip in salsa and nibbled it, buying time.
“Did you send him to me?”
One thing I appreciated about Sage: she never beat around the bush. “Of course I did. He came to me with some wild story about a dark being stalking him; what else was I supposed to do?”
“You could have helped him yourself.”
“Helped him what? Honey, babysitting an Indian with the DTs just isn’t my line.”
“Native American,” I corrected without thinking.
“I can say Indian all I want, just like I can say the N-word that upsets people so much. You white people have too many hang-ups.”
I didn’t want to mince terms with Sage; I knew I had no chance against her. “So babysitting John is supposed to be my job? Just how do you figure that?”
Sage toyed with a chip with a daintiness that put the lie to any stereotypes about her imposing figure. As always, the scarlet polish on her nails reminded me of fresh arterial blood.
“Oh, Baby, everyone knows you’re a sucker for hard luck cases. Stonefeather should be right up your alley.”
I grimaced. What she said was true, but I also knew Sage had taken on her own share of hard luck cases. “You just don’t like him.”
“I don’t like anyone who can’t control his impulses. Girls, smoke, drink—that man is always in some kind of trouble he wouldn’t be in if only he could stand up and say no once in a while.”
“So you pass him off to me. Great.”
Our food arrived then, and I tore into my chicken mole, wishing I could tear into Sage for putting me in the untenable position of being responsible for a man I scarcely knew. But as the thick cinnamon-scented sauce assuaged my first pangs of hunger, and with it my temper, I realized I couldn’t blame her. She was right. Try as I might to keep a low profile, I had a reputation in the magical community for taking in strays. Cats, dogs, teenagers whose Ouija boards had scared them senseless; it didn’t matter. When someone had a need, I had to respond.
“I don’t think it was DTs,” I said at last. “He hasn’t stopped drinking. At least, he reeked of stale booze when I saw him.”
“Then maybe the booze is making him paranoid. It can do that, you know.”
“What did he say to you?”
She shrugged. “Probably what he said to you.”
“Probably,” I agreed, “But at the time I had stuff going on, and I wasn’t in the listening mode.”
“Sugar! You not in the listening mode? Wait until that story gets around!”
“I’d prefer it didn’t, if it’s all the same to you.” I sipped my margarita. “So?”
Sage placed a morsel of burrito between her tiny white teeth and chewed it with slow relish, rapture plain on her dark face.
“Mmm-mmm. Sometimes I wish my mama were Mexican; then I wouldn’t have to go out for food like this. Well, he came in all sweat and panic, and told me he needed some heavy magical protection. I asked why, and he said he had something on his tail. That’s all, really.”
“What kind of something?”
“Well, that’s where his story got garbled. Sometimes it sounded like he’d stirred up some Otherworldly being better left alone. Sometimes it sounded like a human allied with the powers of darkness. Or maybe a kind of dark being in human shape. Anyway, it seemed like John’s been walking where he ought not to have walked.”
I took a thoughtful sip of my margarita.
“Doesn’t sound like him. Drunk or not, he’s too smart to go places better left alone. A neophyte, yes. But a full-fledged Lakota medicine man?” I shook my head. “Not in the cards.”
“And you’d know about cards,” Sage agreed. “That’s why I decided it was nothing but paranoia and sent him over to you. I thought you could help him dry out and talk him around. Maybe use your special gifts to convince him he had nothing real to worry about.”
“Well, I won’t get the chance. I had a client coming and he disappeared again before I finished.”
Sage snorted through her nose. “Took off to find another bottle of comfort, if you ask me. He’ll be back.”
I pondered what Sage had told me on my short walk home, chicken mole and caramel flan warring in my stomach. Did I want John Stonefeather to show up again? Immaterial; I had promised to help him and would be bound by the promise whether or not he did. But what could I do if he didn’t come back?
Well, Sage had mentioned my special gifts. And I had one gift it didn’t take much effort to employ. I could consult the cards about John. He didn’t even have to be present.
With this thought in mind, I turned off Pearl at Ninth Street, wondering what kind of question would give me the best insight into John Stonefeather’s situation. Tarot cards are touchy; the seeker needs to be precise to avoid any ambiguity in the response. I couldn’t, for example, ask if what John feared was real. To the cards and the Powers that ruled them, “real” could mean anything. I couldn’t ask straight out what I should do, because I had no idea of the nature of the problem: simply drink or something more.
I turned up my street, still going over the possibilities. Two of the streetlights near Beljoxa’s Eye were out, but this didn’t worry me. I had grown up in Detroit, murder capital of America, and lived in New York City; the dangers Boulder had to offer hardly had the power to make me turn a hair. Anyway, I could take care of myself.
Or so I thought until I saw a large shadow unfold itself from the porch of my shop and start towards me, just as I unlatched the gate to my white picket fence and started up the walk.
Despite my earlier musings, I did not at first assume that this shadow had anything to do with the dark being John feared. For one thing, Sage had half convinced me the so-called dark being was no more than a figment of Stonefeather’s alcohol-soaked imagination. For another…well, when a woman alone meets a dark shadow on a dark street, the supernatural is not the first thing that comes to mind.
I reached in my pocket for my keys and clutched them with the sharp points poking out between my fingers, as my Mundane self-defense teacher had recommended. In my head I ran through the possibilities. Street person looking for a handout, someone in trouble looking for an emergency reading…rapist. The first two posed no danger. The last…well, I’d fight. If I had to I’d whack him with a spell before things went too far. I didn’t like to call on magic to solve Mundane problems, but I would.
The shadow came nearer. At second glance it didn’t seem so big, but it still appeared big enough to make my stomach heave. Whoever—or whatever—it was stood at least six inches taller than my five foot eight and boasted a width in the shoulder area a linebacker would envy. If I had to fight, I had my work cut out for me.
“Caitlin Ross?” the shadow inquired in a soft baritone with the trace of an unidentifiable accent.
The fact that it knew my name did not comfort me. Sure, it could indicate someone who knew of me. A potential client come for a late reading, for example. It could also mean a serial killer who had been stalking me for months and had chosen this moment to strike. Or it could mean a supernatural enemy. I didn’t have many, but everyone in my line of work has one or two. I backed up toward the nearest light source, the neighbor’s porch light, making sure I had my back to the dim yellow glow. If my adversary came any closer, I’d be able to see it better than it could see me.
The shadow did not answer, but continued to advance. I slammed the gate and made for the neighbor’s front walk. The shadow vaulted my fence with easy, feline grace and came after me, still with a slow steady stride that should have reassured me but somehow did not. I banged on the neighbor’s door: no response. They were out, not unusual for a Friday night in summer in Boulder. The shadow kept coming; it stood in the walk now, cornering me on the porch. I considered screaming, and decided against it. I lived in an area full of college students prone to giving wild parties. If I screamed, chance was no one would think it unusual. They’d just shut the windows and return to whatever T.V. program had their undivided attention for the evening.
At that point, the shadowy being stepped into the light, and I could see it was human—or at least wore a human shape. At any other time I would have licked my lips, and not out of fear. Facing me was a male about six foot four, built like the hero from the cover of a Romance novel. A shaggy mane of dark hair framed a striking face with wide, high cheekbones, a broad brow, and a thin nose that seemed to have been broken at least once. The beauty of that face owed nothing to artifice. It was untamed, like that of an animal in its natural habitat.
A short, neat beard covered his cheeks and chin. It enhanced his resemblance to a wild creature, as did the watchful glint in his eyes, which were the exact color of the sky at twilight. His clothes—a flannel shirt, jeans and work boots—should have made him look like a lumberjack. Instead, they gave him the air of someone who spent a lot of time in the forest, communing with the little people.
My knees began to wobble.
He came forward until he stood at the base of the porch steps. No more than a foot remained between us. “Are you Caitlin Ross? If you are, I was told you could help me.”
“Help you?” My voice came out hoarse with both fright and, curse it, longing. I found myself wondering what it would feel like to have his big, strong arms wrapped around me. It had been too long since I’d experienced that sensation. “Help you what?”
“I’m looking for someone. A man named Stonefeather,” he said.
All at once my conversation with John and what Sage had told me in the restaurant came flooding back into my consciousness. He might be pretty to look at, but my first impulse on seeing this stranger had been fear.
So I did the only thing I could do. I raised my fist, still clenching my keys, and drove it straight towards his gorgeous, twilight blue eyes.