protector (the witches of cleopatra hill book 5)

Protector
A Witches of Cleopatra Hill Novel
Christine Pope

T
his is a work of fiction
. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

PROTECTOR

Copyright © 2015 by Christine Pope

Published by Dark Valentine Press

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Indie Author Services
.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems — except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews — without permission in writing from its publisher, Dark Valentine Press.

Please contact the author through the form on her website at
www.christinepope.com
if you experience any formatting or readability issues with this book.

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1

T
he headaches had started
the week after her fifteenth birthday. Caitlin McAllister remembered the day very clearly because she’d dozed off while watching TV, and then had a horrible nightmare about some tourist taking a turn too quickly off Main Street and ending up at the wrong end of Boyd Willis’s driveway, the car a wreck, and the garage door and the tourist not in much better shape. It wasn’t really that strange, after all, since it wasn’t the first time a tourist had taken a header into Boyd’s garage. Except…

…it hadn’t been a dream.

At first Caitlin had shrugged off the incident, telling herself that she’d probably overheard her mother talking about it on the phone with one of the other clan witches, and only thought she’d dreamed the whole thing, but that wasn’t what had really happened. She’d fallen asleep during a repeat of
Charmed
, which was on at four, and the accident occurred at four-fifteen. And the gossip about the accident hadn’t started making the rounds until at least a half hour after that. Caitlin had sat on the living room couch, staring blankly at the television, while her mother was on the phone with Rachel McAllister, the two of them were agreeing that
something
had to be done about the situation with Boyd’s property.

That “something” turned out to be Margot Emory casting the strongest spell of illusion she could on Boyd’s driveway, making it look as if a stone wall stretched across the opening. There weren’t any more incidents with wayward tourists after that.

But Caitlin knew something else was wrong, because her head was pounding after she woke up from that not-dream, and the headache didn’t go away until sometime the next day. And then, about a week later, she wasn’t even dreaming, but gazing moodily out the window during her geometry class, and she saw one of the oily rags Micah Landon had lying around his studio burst into flame, burning down half the room before the volunteer fire department swung into action and put it out. Everyone believed the fire was Micah’s fault, since he often walked around with his head in the clouds instead of attending to practical matters, such as making sure those turpentine-soaked rags had been stored properly. That might have been true, but the really scary thing about the incident was that Caitlin had witnessed the whole scene in her head approximately fifteen minutes or so before it happened.

That vision…or whatever it was…resulted in another headache.

She knew she should tell someone, but the mere notion of revealing that she’d begun to see things that came true scared her far more than the visions themselves. The McAllister clan had been without a seer for some time, and they needed one desperately, what with the threat of the Wilcox clan always hanging out there on the horizon, like the smoke of a far-off grass fire. It was Caitlin’s responsibility to let her parents and the elders know that the McAllisters finally had the seer they so desperately needed.

Except…a clan seer couldn’t call her — or his, although seers tended to be female — life her own. People always wanting to know what the future held, the elders always bringing her in for consultations…Caitlin knew she wanted none of it. Her power had revealed itself very late; most witches in her clan began to show signs of their latent abilities sometime around ten or eleven, but here she was, fifteen and being confronted by something she most decidedly did not want.

And so, even though she knew it was wrong, she hid what was going on, dosing the headaches with aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever happened to be in the house at the time, and by around a year or so later, they mostly disappeared. Not altogether; if something big was happening and she had a vision about it, her head would pound for a day or so afterward. When Great-Aunt Ruby died, Caitlin had stayed home sick from school for a day, the pain was so bad, and when Damon Wilcox kidnapped Angela McAllister, the new
prima
…well, that was the worst, Caitlin’s head aching so much she almost threw up. Or maybe the real cause of the nausea was simply guilt at her own cowardice. Maybe if she’d spoken up, she could have rallied the clan in time to stop the kidnapping. True, she hadn’t known exactly what was going to happen, only that it was something very bad. Again there had been that sensation of something oppressive looming over the tiny hillside town of Jerome, like a thunderstorm with such extreme low pressure that it felt as if it was sucking all the air out of your lungs, crushing down on your sternum. A feeling that something terrible was approaching, although she couldn’t tell what it might be. That was probably Damon’s own power at work, concealing his actions. He’d been so very powerful. Surely no one could have expected her own puny abilities to pierce the dark veil of magic he’d wrapped around himself.

Well, of course no one had expected her to do anything, since no one knew she was capable of seeing the future.

In the end, that had all worked out better than anyone could have imagined, so Caitlin tried to reassure herself that if she’d interfered, she could have kept Angela McAllister from being with Connor Wilcox, and that would have spelled trouble for both the clans. Even she was forced to admit that was a rather self-serving argument, but “all’s well that ends well” seemed a good enough excuse to Caitlin for keeping her mouth shut. Besides, now that the clans had been more or less mingling for the past two years, the McAllisters could always call on Marie Begonie, the Wilcox seer, for all their soothsaying needs.

The visions never went away, but they did seem to become somewhat less urgent…although that could simply have been because life had been remarkably placid up here on Cleopatra Hill for some time. Not to say that there weren’t squabbles in the clan, or marriages falling apart or bad business decisions or the sorts of things that seemed to affect everyone at some time or another, witch-born or no. However, there was nothing catastrophic, nothing to tax her abilities or bring on one of those sudden, piercing headaches.

Until now, some six years after the first vision had visited her, letting her know that her life would never be the same again.

The bad feeling was back, that sensation of something dark looming on the horizon, but even when Caitlin tried to will it into revealing itself, into giving her more detail, she saw nothing. Maybe the visions were something that couldn’t really be forced. She didn’t know, because she still hadn’t told anyone her secret, was still living the lie that she hadn’t inherited any special abilities, despite her mother being such a strong weather-worker that she’d been called to take over as elder for Margot Emory when the other witch wanted to step down so she could marry Lucas Wilcox.

And there was no reason for feeling as if the mountainside was about to crumble, or a plague of locusts was going to descend on Jerome. Everything had been sailing along just fine. It was a beautiful spring morning, and Caitlin was packing to go to Tucson for a few days with her friends Roslyn and Danica. Their own mini spring break, so to speak. All right, so Roslyn wasn’t even in college, since she’d gotten her AA a year ago and decided that was enough, that she’d rather hang out in Jerome and wait tables at Grapes in between singing gigs at a variety of local bars and clubs and wine-tasting rooms. Her mother was less than thrilled with her, but since Roslyn actually was earning a living, there wasn’t much else her mom could do.

Danica was a Wilcox, and she and Caitlin had become friendly when Roslyn’s brother Adam began dating Danica’s sister Mason. In fact, they’d become so close that last summer Danica and Caitlin had decided they were done with dorm life and had gotten an apartment off-campus.

Anyway, even if Roslyn might not deserve a spring break, strictly speaking, Caitlin knew that she and Danica had definitely earned one. It had been strange to transfer to Northern Pines, to be someplace where she wasn’t surrounded on all sides by people who’d known her all her life…but it was also liberating. No one knew anything about the secret she was hiding. And since most of Flagstaff was made up of civilians — non-witches — most of them probably wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the way she’d hidden her powers from her clan members. School was challenging, the coursework much more difficult than the classes she’d taken at the local community college, but she enjoyed it. She enjoyed feeling normal, even though she knew she wasn’t. Not really.

“Almost ready?” Danica called out, and Caitlin hopped on her suitcase to smash it closed tightly enough that the locks would engage. It weighed a ton, but she only had to get it down the apartment’s stairs and into Danica’s Land Rover. Danica’s parents had bought it for her used, but Caitlin still felt a twinge of jealousy every time she looked at her roommate’s SUV. She drove a hand-me-down Honda her mother had given her, and knew she should be glad she even had that much. No McAllister witch was poor, but neither were they conspicuously wealthy like the Wilcoxes.

Caitlin rolled out her suitcase, and carried the small weekender bag with her leftover odds and ends in her free hand. Traveling light was a skill she hadn’t quite mastered. “Ready!”

Danica was waiting in the living room, a leather jacket slung over the lightweight cotton top she wore underneath — a concession to the thirty-degree temperature difference between Tucson and Flagstaff. At her feet were her own suitcases, a lot newer and less shabby-looking than Caitlin’s own. “Roslyn just texted me. She’s all packed and ready, too, so we need to get moving.”

“No problem,” Caitlin said. It was not quite an hour drive to Jerome, and sort of out of their way, but they hadn’t wanted to take two cars down to the condo they were renting in Tucson. Or rather, the condo that Danica’s parents were renting for them.

“Oh, you girls just worry about your food and gas, and we’ll take care of the condo,” Danica’s mother had said, and although Caitlin had thought she should protest such over-generosity, she couldn’t really think of a good reason why, so she’d let it go. In a way, she supposed she should be glad Danica’s parents had relaxed enough about the whole McAllister/Wilcox thing that they hadn’t batted an eyelash about their daughter going off for a debauched four days in Tucson with a couple of McAllister girls. Funny how having your daughter married to someone from a different clan — Mason and Adam had gotten married last fall — could mellow a person.

They put their suitcases in the back of the Land Rover and headed down I-17, driving in companionable silence while Danica’s favorite retro metal played on the satellite radio. Caitlin tuned it out as best she could; if the worst that could be said about Danica was her terrible taste in music, then Caitlin figured she really didn’t have that much to complain about.

Not according to Roslyn, though. After they pulled up in front of the big Victorian house on Paradise Lane where she still lived with her parents, she tossed her luggage in the cargo compartment, got into the Land Rover, and wrinkled her nose. “Seriously? Am I going to have to listen to this noise all the way down to Tucson?”

“Yeah,” Danica replied. “Because I’m sure as hell not listening to that Taylor Swift crap you like for three straight hours.”

Roslyn shot a beseeching look in Caitlin’s direction, and she shrugged as she fastened her seatbelt. “Sorry, Ros. I think I’d rather listen to Black Sabbath than Taylor Swift, too.”

“You know, there’s good retro and bad retro,” Roslyn said darkly. But her expression was resigned. Danica’s car, Danica’s rules.

Caitlin smothered a smile as they headed down the hill and back toward the freeway. Even the impulse to smile faded soon enough, though, as that sensation began to creep over her once more, the way thunderheads would pile up above the Mogollon Rim to the east of the Verde Valley, presaging a wild summer storm.

Maybe she should have begged off and stayed up in Flagstaff, or come home to Jerome to spend a few days with her family, the way her mother had wanted her to. At the time, though, the trip to Tucson had seemed like a good idea. The plans had been made long before she began to get these vague feelings of unease. And, once those plans were made, she didn’t want to be the one to back out, since she was sort of the glue that held the other two together. Roslyn and Danica got along, but they were friends because they’d each been friends with Caitlin first.

“The little sister brigade,” Adam had called them once, and it was true. All three of them were the youngest child in their families. It was something else they had in common, something that helped them to bond. Roslyn probably had it worst, since she was the youngest of three, but even so, they all knew what it felt like to not be taken all that seriously half the time.

“Especially since Mason is such an overachiever,” Danica had complained once. “She can call fire out of the air and could make a river reverse its course if she wanted to, but of course that’s not enough — she has to get married and be working on her master’s degree at the same time. So I figure I’ll have to hang on and get a Ph.D. in physics or something before my parents take me seriously.”

At the time, Caitlin had just grinned at her friend’s exasperated expression, but she understood. Her own brother had always possessed an innate sense as to which flavors worked well together, a subtle magic, but one that had gotten him a chef position at one of the hottest new restaurants down in Cottonwood. He’d always known exactly what he wanted to do, whereas she….

Well, she’d been lying to everyone, including herself, for the past six years.

By the time they reached the outskirts of Phoenix, Danica relented and switched the station to one that played the sort of Top 40 pop Roslyn preferred. Caitlin wasn’t overly thrilled with the switch, since she preferred more alternative stuff, but she decided not to protest. They only had an hour to go, and if it really started to drive her crazy, she could dig the earbuds out of her purse and listen to Pandora on her phone.

The readout on the dash said it was eighty-one degrees outside. She shook her head, always surprised by the difference in the weather between Flagstaff and Phoenix, or even Jerome and Phoenix. This time of year, Jerome was still lucky to reach the mid-sixties, and sometimes you got hard frosts even into May. But Phoenix? It never seemed to cool down. Not really.

Their destination was even farther south, but because of its elevation, it tended to be a couple of degrees cooler than Phoenix.
Big deal,
Caitlin thought.
Like you can really tell the difference between seventy-nine and eighty-one degrees.

In contrast to the bright, sunny day outside, she felt cold all over. It could have merely been that Danica was blasting the air conditioning…or it could have been something else entirely. She reached over and shut the vent that was blowing on her. It helped, sort of.

Then they were at the condo, retrieving their keys from the resort office, unloading the Land Rover and getting everything situated. It was a full one-bedroom, not a studio, so there were two queen beds and a fold-out couch. They flipped for who would get the couch, and Roslyn lost.

“You swear you didn’t put a whammy on that quarter?” she asked, giving Danica the side-eye.

“Witch’s honor,” Danica replied, putting her fingers in an upside-down “V” near her nose.

“I think it’s supposed to go the other way,” Caitlin said, although she wasn’t completely sure. Her mother didn’t think reruns of
Bewitched
were a very good viewing choice, considering how the show’s portrayal of witches was completely unrealistic. But Caitlin hadn’t really watched it because of the way it portrayed witches, but because she was fascinated by the styles and the technology (or lack thereof), and the sense of it taking place so
very
long ago.

“Is it? I haven’t seen that show since I was a little kid. Talk about giving me a skewed sense of what it means to be a witch. I kept trying to wiggle my nose and have a unicorn show up in the backyard or something, but it never worked.”

They all laughed at that, then decided it was late enough that they could justify going out for margaritas. After doing some quick research on Yelp, they found a Mexican restaurant within walking distance that sounded decent and headed over.

“Ah, this is heaven,” Roslyn sighed as she took a long pull on her strawberry margarita, once they’d all settled themselves in a booth. “And it feels so good to be able to wander around in flip-flops. My toes have been yearning for freedom.”

“Well, they look pretty free now,” Caitlin said, after taking a quick look under the table and noting her friend’s bright turquoise polish, complete with sparkly flowers on her big toes. Although her own classic margarita on the rocks tasted great, Caitlin still was feeling prickly and on edge. Never mind that a brightly decorated Mexican restaurant in Tucson was probably one of the last places she’d expect to meet any kind of trouble.

“Mmm…look over there,” Danica murmured, giving the slightest jerk of her chin toward a table with three young men around their own age, maybe a few years older. “Tasty, huh?”

Caitlin shifted in her seat so she could get a better look without actually appearing as if she were staring in their direction. At the same time, she felt a tingle along the back of her neck, her witch sense telling her that the guys in question must be warlocks. “Do you think they’re de la Pazes?”

Taking another long sip of her margarita, Roslyn seemed to think it over. “Must be,” she said, then reached for a tortilla chip. “Tucson is still part of their territory, right?”

“Well, I think we’re about to find out,” Danica said in an undertone. “Because they’re getting up and coming over here.”

At once Roslyn abandoned her margarita and hastily rearranged her long honey-blonde hair so it draped gracefully over her shoulder. Caitlin forced herself not to react. Yes, from what she could tell in the dim bar, the guys were cute, but she wasn’t going to act like a complete moron just because they were headed in her direction.

As they approached, though, the wrongness she’d been feeling all day seemed to coil in the pit of her stomach, making even the few sips of margarita she’d had so far burn like acid. Not sure what she should do, she reached for her water and drank some of that, telling herself that she needed to calm down.

The trio of strange young men stopped a foot from their table. One of them stood slightly in front of the other two. He was extremely good-looking, with thick black hair and well-muscled arms. A tattoo of a snake wound itself around his throat.

“Hi,” he said. “We couldn’t help noticing — ”

“Neither could we,” Danica said in that casual yet take-charge way of hers. “We’re not trespassing on your territory or anything, though. Our families checked with Maya de la Paz, and she said it was fine — ”

“Whoa,” the stranger cut in. “We’re not here to check your credentials or anything. It’s just that we hadn’t seen you before. You from up north?”

“Yes,” Roslyn replied eagerly, toying with a lock of her hair. “Caitlin and I are from Jerome, and Danica’s from Flagstaff.”

Might as well have given them our phone numbers and addresses,
Caitlin thought sourly, but there wasn’t much she could do about it at this point. Roslyn never had possessed exactly the best judgment when it came to good-looking men.

“Two McAllisters and a Wilcox,” the strange young man said. “We don’t see too many of you down here in Tucson.” He smiled, and although he had very straight, shining white teeth, something about that smile made a shiver go down Caitlin’s back. She wished she could think of some excuse to get herself and her two friends out of there. “I’m Matías, and this is Jorge and Tomas.” The other young men smiled as well, but Caitlin didn’t feel very reassured.

“Hey,” Roslyn whispered to her, “scooch over so they can sit down with us.” Tilting her head to one side, she let her dimple show as she said more loudly, “Why don’t you join us?”

Caitlin had no intention of “scooching,” but that didn’t really matter, because Matías said, “Actually, we were wondering if you’d be interested in coming back to our place. We won’t water down the margaritas like they do here, and we were going to barbecue some carne asada.”

Alarm bells started going off in Caitlin’s head, and she opened her mouth to protest, to say that maybe it would be better if they just stayed here. But Danica and Roslyn were too quick for her, both of them saying that sounded like a lot of fun. What the hell? She could believe Roslyn going for such a scheme, but Danica? Usually she had way more common sense than that.

But Danica was smiling up at Matías, too, her dark eyes shining as if she’d just seen the promised land. This was not good.

And somehow they were gulping down their margaritas so they wouldn’t be wasted, then dropping a couple of twenties on the table so they could get out of there without waiting for the server to come back. Before she could really figure out what was happening, they’d emerged from the restaurant into the warm sunshine and were walking down the sidewalk, Matías in the middle, with Danica on one side and Roslyn on the other, and Caitlin sort of uncomfortably sandwiched between Jorge and Tomas.

Every nerve ending was screaming at her to get away, which on the surface sounded completely ridiculous. Wasn’t this what spring break was supposed to be about — getting out and having fun, meeting guys, maybe hooking up if everyone involved was amenable and knew there wouldn’t be any strings attached?

Never mind that the mere thought of kissing any of these guys, let alone going to bed with one of them, was enough to make her want to throw up.

They passed the condo complex where the girls were staying and kept walking. Well, that wasn’t so very strange; there were a lot of complexes like that in the area, and the odds of the guys staying in the same one where they were renting were pretty low.

“So,” Caitlin managed, even though she found it hard to get the words out past the tight knot of worry in her throat, “are you staying in a condo, too?”

The guy on her right — she couldn’t remember if he was Tomas or Jorge — shook his head, looking amused. “Oh, no. We live here in Tucson. Our house is just down the next block.”

House. For some reason, that sounded ominous. It seemed far more innocuous to be going back to a rented condo rather than a house they lived in. “Oh,” she said faintly. “So you guys are all roommates?”

“Yeah,” he said, his gaze moving from her face to the half-revealed curve of her breasts in the lightweight top she wore. “Tomas and I, we’re brothers, and Matías is our cousin.”

Caitlin forced down a breath. Maybe he really hadn’t been looking at her chest. Maybe she was just imagining things because she felt so crappy. “That’s cool,” she said, hoping she sounded casual and not as if she was about to gag. The sensation was pressing so heavily on her now that it felt as if she could barely pull in enough air to speak. “Roslyn and I, we’re cousins, too. Her dad is my mother’s older brother.”

“Yeah, we witches, we’re all related somehow,” Jorge said, and for some reason Tomas seemed to find that amusing, because he began to chuckle.

If only she had enough breath to ask him what was so funny. At the moment, she felt as if she were about to pass out at any second. And of course Roslyn and Danica weren’t paying any attention to her, were still staring up at Matías with that gaga expression on their faces, which didn’t make sense at all, because although he was good-looking, he wasn’t
that
good-looking. Not really.

They turned a corner into a residential tract with modest one-story homes, most of them built in the Southwest style with flat roofs, and all of them with gravelly front yards planted with cactus and other drought-tolerant species. It all appeared relatively normal, if somewhat exotic to her eyes. She was used to the Victorian architecture in Jerome, or the wood-framed houses common in Flagstaff. But nothing here seemed particularly strange, especially for Tucson.

It felt like it, though, worry running up and down her skin as if every ant within a square mile had started to march over her flesh. She knew she should be saying something, should be reaching out to her friends and grabbing them by the arms so she could pull them away from Matías, but for some reason she couldn’t give voice to her worry, couldn’t do anything except follow the group up the front walk to a stucco house painted a pale rosy tan color.

Inside it was very clean and neat, decorated in a simple, neutral style that had hints of the Southwest without being kitschy. The place certainly didn’t look like a house that had three twenty-something guys living in it. Caitlin had been to Roslyn’s brother Adam’s apartment once or twice before he got together with Mason and moved to Flagstaff, and it sure as hell hadn’t been anywhere near as tidy as this.

“Margaritas,” Matías announced.

Everyone headed into the kitchen, which also showed no sign of anyone actually using it. Well, except for a bowl of limes on the counter, and a bag of tortilla chips. Jorge got some salsa out of the refrigerator while Matías got to work with the blender, and Tomas wandered off into the next room. A few seconds later, some jaw-rattling hip-hop started to play, and Caitlin winced. She hated that crap.

And she knew Roslyn hated it, too, and Danica only sort of tolerated it, and yet both of them were grinning like Tomas had just put on their favorite song. What the hell was going on?

She stood off to one side as Roslyn chattered away about the house and how it must be so awesome to live in a part of the state where it was warm all the time, and the guys kept exchanging knowing grins that made the blood in Caitlin’s veins feel just about as frosty as the concoction inside the blender. But every time she took a breath and attempted to speak, the words got caught in her throat, choking her to the point where she began to cough.

“Hey, let me fix that,” Matías said, sounding a little too solicitous. He handed her a margarita, and she set her purse down on the floor so she could take it from him.

“Yeah, Cate, you okay?” Danica asked. The question seemed almost automatic, though; Caitlin couldn’t detect any real concern in her voice.

“Fine,” she managed to croak. The margarita glass sat in her hand, cold, inviting. She’d just watched him mix the drink, so there couldn’t be anything wrong with it. And she needed to drink something to get that lump out of her throat.

She lifted the margarita to her lips and swallowed, watching as Roslyn and Danica did the same. As soon as the frosty tang of it hit her stomach, though, Caitlin knew she shouldn’t have drunk it, that something was horribly wrong. Suddenly, it wasn’t cold at all, but burning, a strange, insidious heat that began to lick its way all through her, making her feel….

“That’s better,” Matías said. He nodded at Jorge and Tomas, and they moved toward Roslyn and Danica, Jorge with his arm around Danica’s waist, Tomas with Roslyn, both of them pulling the girls toward them and kissing them hard, hands roaming upward to fondle their breasts. And neither of them reacted, did anything except moan and push closer to the guys manhandling them, when Caitlin knew that even Roslyn would have kneed anyone else in the nuts for pulling something like that on such a short acquaintance.

And then Matías was coming closer to her, dark eyes glittering. “You sense something, don’t you?” he murmured. “It doesn’t matter. Soon, nothing much will matter at all.”

His mouth was on hers, lips hard and hot, and although she knew it was wrong, knew she should be pushing him away, the signals her mind was sending to her body didn’t seem to be getting there. She let him kiss her, let him lead her out of the kitchen to a room attached to the back of the house, an empty space that probably had been intended as a sun porch. There was nothing in the room now, though, except an intricate tracery in colored chalks on the cement floor, a pattern that not only looked wrong, but felt wrong, the patterns off somehow, the arrangement of colored candles around its circumference wrong as well, although she couldn’t say why.

Tomas and Jorge brought Roslyn and Danica in with them, both girls looking dreamy and flushed. Danica’s shirt was half unbuttoned, and Caitlin knew that was wrong as well, that Danica would never be standing there in front of a bunch of guys she didn’t even know with her bra showing and her breasts about to spill out.

Matías smiled. “The blonde one first.”

Tomas nodded and pulled Roslyn forward, positioning her at the edge of the circle. Silvery metal flashed in the bright light pouring into the room, and Caitlin realized then that he’d pulled a knife from somewhere, was pressing it against her friend’s exposed forearm.

“No!” she screamed, somehow forcing the syllable past the constriction in her throat, past the strange fuzziness that seemed to have settled on her brain. Roslyn blinked at her, as if puzzled why Caitlin would have a problem with Tomas slicing her open with a knife.

“Calm down,
chica
,” Matías murmured, his breath hot against Caitlin’s neck. “He’s not going to kill her. We just need something from her.”

“You can’t….” She made herself gasp in a breath, hoping the extra oxygen would make her brain begin to work properly. “It’s wrong. We don’t — we don’t do that kind of magic.”

“Maybe you don’t. But we do.” He nodded, and Tomas drew the blade across Roslyn’s arm, a quick, sharp cut, barely more than inch long. Deep crimson blood dripped from the wound onto the circle chalked on the ground.

Faint tendrils of pale gray smoke began to drift upward. At the same time, Caitlin could feel the wrongness of the thing they’d drawn twisting through her, cold, hungry…strong. It was more than chalk on the ground.

It was alive.

“Roslyn!” she screamed. “Run!”

But Roslyn only looked at her with foggy blue eyes, and Danica wasn’t watching at all, had her eyes shut as Jorge kissed her neck and stroked her bare arm. She didn’t seem to have heard Caitlin’s cry, or, worse, was ignoring it.

“I don’t think they mind,
chica
,” Matías said, chuckling into her ear. “And you won’t, either, when your time comes.”

Help. She had to get help. From where or from whom, she didn’t know, because she was in the heart of de la Paz territory, and here were three guys from that clan engaging in the sort of magic that had been forbidden for centuries. But she knew Roslyn and Danica were lost to her for the moment, and so the only thing she could think of to do was to run.

The next part didn’t require thought, only instinct…and the strength to overcome the fog of confusion which had come with that margarita she’d sipped. But she’d only had a little. Besides, damn it — she was a McAllister.

She twisted in Matías’ arms, bringing her knee up into his groin as hard as she could. He grunted, then cursed. Sharp pain flared in her side, and she saw he’d been holding a knife that whole time, had just plunged it into her. Because the angle was off, it barely penetrated more than an inch, but oh, Goddess, it hurt.

Crying out, she brought her elbow up into his chin, connecting squarely. He cursed again, but, more importantly, he let go of her.

That was all she needed. Mentally asking Roslyn and Danica for forgiveness, Caitlin bolted from the room, then ran through the house and out the front door. Without bothering to stop and close it behind her, she pounded down the walkway and back to the sidewalk, retracing her steps, knowing she had to get back out to the thoroughfare where the restaurant was located.

Not that she was sure she could make it that far. The restaurant was blocks from where they’d turned into this residential district, but between here and there, she’d noted there were other businesses, places where people had to be working. Normal people. Ordinary people. They’d see she’d been hurt and call an ambulance. Surely she’d be safe in the hospital, wouldn’t she?

Behind her, she heard running feet, but no shouting. No, that would probably draw too much attention. All she could do was run, glad that she hadn’t worn her flip-flops and instead had on a pair of ballet-style flats.

Don’t look back,
she told herself. The pain in her side was searing, but it seemed to clear her head, get rid of that horrible fuzziness. Or maybe it was just that she’d put enough distance between herself and Matías that whatever spell he’d cast — and it had to be a spell — wasn’t working as well anymore.

And there was the street, and cars whizzing back and forth. She let out a sobbing little breath, thinking she’d never been so glad to see anything in her life. Something wet was dripping on her jeans, and she glanced down and realized the blood from her wound had flowed from her side and had stained all the way to her thigh.

But she couldn’t think about that, think about how much it hurt. Now she had turned on to the sidewalk that paralleled the street, and it seemed harder and harder to keep running. She slowed to a walk, risked a look behind her. Matías stood on the corner, fists balled at his side, but he made no motion to come any closer. She guessed that he couldn’t, not with this many witnesses around. So his powers had some limits.

Just up ahead was a large building, a store of some kind. Her vision was becoming blurry, so she couldn’t see what its sign said. But there were cars in the parking lot, and people coming and going. And she couldn’t walk much farther. Surely someone here would help her.

She pressed her hand against her side, attempting to conceal as much as she could of the blood that stained her clothing. Limping now, she staggered past the parked cars and went into the cool, air-conditioned interior of the building. Around her, she could hear gasps as the shoppers in the store appeared to take in her condition, but she couldn’t focus on any of them. Not really. Just up ahead was a tall young man in a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He looked handsome and friendly, with kind dark eyes.

Summoning the last of her strength, Caitlin went to him, grasped his arm. Her hand left bloody prints on his white shirt. His eyes widened, even as he reached out to catch her.

“Please,” she whispered. “Please help me.”

The world went dark.

2

A
lex Trujillo shoved
the clipboard under his arm and went back to the stockroom. Just as he’d expected, the bags of rice Luis said he couldn’t find were stacked right where Alex had known they would be, on the rack on the west wall. He tried not to sigh. It probably would have been easier if Luis was actually that stupid. He wasn’t, though…just lazy. And because he was Alex’s cousin, Alex couldn’t exactly fire him.

Just another day at Mercado Trujillo.

For most of his life, Alex had known this was where he’d probably end up, but that didn’t mean he had to be happy about it. His one chance at escape had been that kiss with Angela McAllister. If he’d turned out be her consort, he would have been up in Jerome…doing what, he wasn’t sure…but at least it wouldn’t be managing the store that had been in his father’s family for three generations now.

But he hadn’t been Angela’s soul mate. No, that role had gone to Connor Wilcox, of all people. Lucky bastard. It wasn’t as if Alex had thought he was in love with Angela or anything. He barely knew her. What he’d seen, he’d liked, and at the time he’d thought they could have been good together, if fate or the Goddess or whomever had seen fit to smile on their pairing. She’d been destined for other things, however, and so Alex had let it go. Mostly.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if his brother Diego could have shouldered part of the burden here. He was the oldest son, after all, and so he really should have been the one to take over the store, or at least the larger part of managing it. But last year he’d finally gotten around to getting married, to a woman whose family owned a vineyard down in Bisbee, and he’d gone to work there instead, using the excuse that Letty was an only child and that he was needed to help shoulder some of the burden.

Burden
, Alex thought.
Yeah, it must be really rough to spend your whole day tasting wine.

Intellectually, he knew there was more to managing a vineyard than that. And Diego’s new wife was a civilian, which meant Diego had to be on guard all the time. Maria knew about the de la Paz clan, that her husband’s family wasn’t exactly typical, but her own family didn’t have a clue about the de la Pazes. And they needed to be kept in the dark, for obvious reasons.

“Besides,” Luz Trujillo had pointed out to her son, probably trying to be helpful but in fact just making things worse, “why did you get those degrees in marketing and communications, if not to be more valuable to the store? I’m sure you’ll have all sort of ideas!”

He’d had ideas once. Unfortunately, none of them really applied to running a neighborhood
mercado
, even if said
mercado
had a thriving side business that most of its regular customers didn’t know anything about. Through a side door that most civilians thought led to another stockroom or possibly an office, you went into a second store, smaller, but stocked with the sorts of items the witches and warlocks in the area might need: crystals and other stones of power, herbs and floral essences, candles and saints’ icons and all manner of arcane items. Luz Trujillo, whose gifts included a facility with minor illusions, had cast a spell on that doorway so the civilians never quite noticed the parade of people going in and out during the hours the
mercado
was open for business.

“Luis,” Alex said to his cousin, who was lurking in the dry goods aisle, attempting to look busy but really eyeing a pretty girl who was inspecting the spice display, “the rice is on the shelf to your right as you go in the stockroom.” He’d tried to sound mild, but he couldn’t help letting an edge creep into his voice as he added, “The same place it’s always been.”

The girl giggled, and Luis gave Alex the evil eye. At least he didn’t argue, though, but headed back where he was told, albeit with excruciating slowness.

And that’s the problem with hiring family,
Alex thought. Things would have been so much easier if he could have just gotten some regular help around the place.

Frowning, he emerged from the dry goods aisle and began walking toward the front of the store. His frown deepened, though, as he heard gasps and murmurs from up near the entrance. In the next moment, he saw the source of the disturbance: a young woman with long red hair was staggering toward him, eyes blank, glazed. For a second or two, he wondered if she might be drunk, or possibly high, and then he saw the stain of bright blood against her pale blue gauzy top, the way that blood had run all the way down her side and onto her jeans. And in that same instant he felt the slight tingle that told him he was in the presence of a witch, even as she reached out with a bloody hand to grasp him, her hoarse voice pleading for help right before she slumped into his arms.

He couldn’t stop to think. The better place to take her would be the hidden side of the store, the one where the witches shopped, but he wasn’t sure his mother’s spell could hold up, not with so many curious eyes on him. So he lifted the strange young woman, saying to the clerk, “Manuela, call 911!”

Since Manuela was another witch, she would know he didn’t really want her to call emergency services, but instead their local healer, who lived approximately ten minutes away. She nodded, picked up the phone, and made a show of dialing 911…but instead was putting the call through to the healer. Luckily, this wasn’t the first time the clan had had to indulge in this sort of subterfuge, so the healer would know to come right away, no matter what Manuela might be saying on the phone.

Without pausing, Alex went on into the stockroom and through it, to the small break room at the back of the building. He laid the wounded witch on the couch there, then hurried to get some towels from the supply closet. After wetting a washcloth, he went back to the sofa before gingerly tugging her shirt upward a few inches so he could wipe away the blood and see where she was hurt.

And there it was — a small but deep gash in her left side, piercing the smooth, pale skin.

A knife wound. Shit.

He’d never seen her before, but, judging by the warm red hair that flowed over the shabby pillow where her head currently rested, he guessed she must be a McAllister. Most of them tended to be much fairer than the members of the Wilcox clan.

“Who are you?” he wondered, belatedly realizing he’d spoken the words out loud.

Her eyelids fluttered, and she stared up at him, face white and taut with pain. Then she seemed to focus on his features, and a spasm of panic went over her. She pushed at his hand and tried to sit up, wriggling away from the washcloth he had pressed against her side.

“Hey,” Alex said, wondering what in the world had set her off. Yes, she’d been attacked, but even in her wounded state, she had to sense that he was a fellow witch and that he meant her no harm. “Stay still. You’ve already lost enough blood.”

“You — you’re one of
them
,” she whispered, her voice cracking with fear.

“One of who?” he asked. “I’m — my name is Alex Trujillo. I’m Maya de la Paz’s grandson.”

That declaration seemed to calm her a little, although he noticed that she remained wedged up against the other end of the couch, as far away from him as she could manage. “Maya?” she echoed.

“That’s right, Maya,” he said, attempting to keep his voice as calm, as soothing, as he could manage. “She’s helped your clan before. You’re a McAllister, right? What’s your name?”

“C-Caitlin.”

Her voice shook, and her entire frame was wracked with shivers. Going into shock, probably. There was a blanket folded up at the top of the storage cabinet here in the break room. He should get that and cover her up. The healer would be here soon, but —

“Do you want a blanket, Caitlin?”

She nodded, and seemed relieved when he moved away from her to the cabinet. When he came back, he was careful to avoid touching her as he spread the blanket over her. With shaking fingers, she pulled it up to her chin.

He knew he should really be holding that washcloth up to the wound in her side to slow the bleeding, but he also knew that whatever had happened to her, it was traumatic enough that she seemed to be having difficulty recognizing a friendly gesture. Instead, he moved a foot or so away, then told her, “The healer is on her way. She’ll have you fixed up in no time.”

The smallest of nods. Her eyes, a clear, mesmerizing blue-green, seemed to be fixed on the window in the wall opposite, and as he watched, he saw tears fall from them and slide down her pale cheeks. “I left them,” she whispered, her voice ragged.

“Left who?” Alex asked. Something was going on here, that was for sure, but he couldn’t begin to make any sense of it. Maybe once Valentina got here and had this Caitlin McAllister put back together, they could figure out just what the hell had happened.

Almost as if his thoughts had summoned her, Alex heard a soft knock at the door to the break room. He went to answer it, letting the healer in. She was a tall, slender woman a few years younger than his mother, serenely beautiful.

“Over there,” he murmured, inclining his head toward the sofa. “Her name is Caitlin.”

That serenity appeared a little shaken when the healer approached Caitlin and realized the wounded young woman in question was a witch, too. Still, Valentina gathered herself and said softly, “Caitlin, I am Valentina. I will need to lay my hand on your wound. Will you allow me to do that?”

Silently, Caitlin nodded. Tears still leaked from her eyes, but she didn’t pull away, didn’t move or flinch as Valentina touched her. And that took some doing, because Alex knew from experience that although Valentina’s healing magic was powerful and effective, it wasn’t pain-free…more like you had to experience all the healing a wound or injury required as she brought her powers to bear. It could be intense.

Caitlin’s small white teeth clamped down on her lower lip as Valentina continued to press her hands against the wound in her side. Gradually, though, the young witch became less tense, until at last she expelled a breath and nodded.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice still hoarse. She placed her hand against her side, against the flesh that had knitted itself together, and gave a small wince. The spot would probably be tender for a few more days. “That’s…amazing.”

“You clan doesn’t have a healer, I recall,” Valentina said, straightening so she could move a few paces away from her patient, her work done.

“No, we all have to get patched up at the Verde Valley Medical Center,” Caitlin replied. Her gaze moved from the healer and came to rest on Alex. “I’m sorry I reacted like that. You’re Alex — the Alex who tried to be our
prima
’s consort. I should have recognized your name.”

“It’s all right,” he said, vaguely wishing she’d heard of him some other way. Not that there was anything shameful in not being a consort, if it wasn’t your fate. But still…. He shook himself. That wasn’t important right now. “You’ve had a shock. Can you tell us what happened?”

Her entire body seemed to tense, and she winced again. That involuntary reaction had probably hurt a good deal. “I-I’m not completely sure. I mean, I know
what
happened, but I still can’t explain it.”

Alex flicked a glance at Valentina, and she gave the tiniest lift of her shoulders. She’d healed Caitlin’s wound, but that didn’t mean she had any more idea of who had inflicted it — and why — than he himself did. He offered Caitlin what he hoped was an encouraging smile, saying, “Well, just tell us as best you can, and we’ll go from there.”

She hesitated for a few seconds. “Can I — could I have some water first, please?”

“Of course,” Valentina replied. She went to the break room’s refrigerator, where they kept some bottled water for the store’s employees. After pulling out one of the bottles, she took it to Caitlin, who accepted it with a grateful nod.

She drank deeply, almost a quarter of the bottle. “That’s better. It’s getting the rest of that…whatever it was…out of my throat.”

Alex could feel his eyebrows lift at that remark. What exactly
had
happened to her?

Now looking a little more composed, Caitlin shifted slightly on the couch so she was sitting more upright. That must have hurt as well, but she gave no sign of being in any pain, save for a quick tightening of her fingers around the water bottle she held. “There were three of them,” she said at last. “I was here with my friends. Roslyn McAllister and Danica Wilcox.” She pronounced the names carefully, as if wanting to drive home that her companions had been fellow witches. “We went out for drinks. Spring break, you know?”

Alex nodded. Of course, he’d never been able to cut too loose during his own vacations, mostly because his getaways in the greater Phoenix area had been made under the watchful eye of his grandmother, and so news of any debauchery he’d indulged in would have reached her ears soon enough. Not that Alex had much taste for debauchery. That had been more Diego’s thing.

The McAllister witch continued, “There were these guys at the bar. They came up to us. Sort of flirting, you know?”

That didn’t seem terribly strange. Even pale and drawn as she was now, he could see that Caitlin was extremely pretty. And that head of gorgeous red hair was sure to attract attention pretty much anywhere she went. He opened his mouth to reply in the affirmative, but she kept talking.

“Only…I knew there was something wrong about them. I
knew
, and yet I let Danica and Roslyn go with them anyway.”

“‘Knew’?” Valentina repeated. “How is it that you knew?”

Caitlin’s face seemed to crumple as fresh tears sprang to her eyes. Her fingers clutched the blanket, knuckles showing white against her already fair skin. “I could tell they were warlocks, you know, the way we can always tell when we’re around witch-kind. But it wasn’t just that. They felt off. Bad. Wrong. Whichever word you want to choose.” Her gaze fastened on Alex, and there seemed to be something both pleading and ashamed in those blue-green eyes of hers, too bright now because of the tears that still shimmered in them. “And I’m sorry about the way I reacted to you. It’s just that they were about your age, and also — ” She broke off, staring down at her fingers where they were knotted in the blanket.