Practical Magic

It wasn't everyone who sympathized with a movie character but I did. After watching X-Men for the third time, I totally empathized with the poor red headed telepath who had her head literally battered with the thoughts of others. After all, I knew exactly the burden she was under. It wasn't easy having other people's thoughts pounding in your head all day long.

There was no one else in mine right now. Far from going crazy, I didn't hear voices when I stood in my kitchen alone. If I concentrated hard enough though, I might get some vibes here and there but I'd learned early on not to press too hard. Like the proverbial Pandora's box, some thoughts were better left untapped and I'd learned the hard way that some things were better left alone. Taking up the half empty coffee cup I'd poured earlier to accompany my mini movie marathon, I crossed from the living room down the hallway to the kitchen.

Another point of similarity that I had with the telepath was the crazed wolverine that was after me. Something I'd better shove to the back of my mind if I wanted to maintain my sanity. It was already tough enough trying to keep other people's thoughts out without obsessing about a certain dark-haired bonafide hunk with an insane murderous side to him. Didn't I have any problems on my plate already?

Perhaps that was one of the reasons why I lived in solitude so far out of town. It couldn't technically be called a town since the small town boasted only 1000 citizens at last count. Hicksville, Nowheresville, Clayton had called it in frank derision. A zealously dedicated city boy, he didn't care much for small communities. But that was just the way I liked it. Unlike my last apartment in New York where I had at least a dozen other tenants on the same floor as me, my closest neighbour now lived more than a mile away. Close enough for a yell if I ever needed their help and yet far enough not to burden me with their incessant invading thoughts. Every once in a while in the spirit of neighbourliness, Mrs Johnson would come by with a freshly baked pie and I reciprocated by occasionally babysitting for their youngest, boisterous little Luke. It was no hardship caring for the youngster whose thoughts were as bright and innocent as the summer sunshine.

Spying from the kitchen windows, I could just see the top of the Johnsons' cottage as I washed the coffee mug. Such enforced solitude would drive practically anyone insane but it suited me far better than living in the midst of a crowded city. That was one early experiment in my youth that had turned out a disastrous failure. Granted though it had been years before I'd gained the mastery and experience I needed to handle my burgeoning powers. Since I'd gained some measure of control over my abilities, living in the city now certainly wouldn't have much effect on me but I figured caution should be the operative word here.

With my heritage, it hadn't come as a surprise that I'd develop some powers that would seem extraordinary to normal human beings. Compared to some of the more bizarre powers supernaturals could receive, having telepathy seemed like a pretty good deal. It certainly beat getting incinerating hands or green horns on the head. Coupled with the magic I'd inherited from my mother, they packed quite a lethal combination. There were no traces of psychic abilities in any of the branches of the family and yet I had them in spades, a genetic fluke born of two disparate yet similar races.

Sorcerers and witches. Quite literally especially when it pertained to my history; the Montagues and Capulets of the supernatural world. And following the routine of that well-known romance, I had been the product of the love between Romeo and Juliet. Not that my mother would ever see herself in the humiliating role of the tragic heroine. Once she'd foreseen the disastrous consequences of my remaining in the hands of my father's family, she'd made a disappearance worthy of Houdini himself. If they even had an inkling of her intentions, the Cabal certainly wouldn't have let a direct scion of one of their own escape without some form of retribution but my mother hide herself well - and my father helped her do so.

My mother's elder sister, Hester, a high-ranking member of the Coven, had elected to come with us into hiding and together, the two sisters had brought me up in relative obscurity of Black Falls. Ironically, the tragedy that would befall us came not as a result of their unholy tryst but of something else entirely.

It had been two months since my aunt had died and my mother left close to dead. Slaughtered was more like it. Slashed and torn to pieces by a creature born of legend yet one that I'd seen with my very own eyes. Hester Blackwell hadn't had much of a chance dealing with what she had. Protective crystals and spells to light candles at home didn't hold up well to the sharp claws of a werewolf. Anyone else would scorn the existence of such a creature of nightmare as the fodder for trashy tabloids but who was I to disbelieve? The son of a witch and a sorcerer.

Even now, I found it hard to believe the events that had rocked my well-ordered life just recently. Trying to escape the reach of the Cabals, my mother had brought us to a small town on the edge of nowhere, opened up a small bookstore and cafe to sustain our activities. Aunt Hester had gone into publishing the town's small paper with a small weekly column of her own on the various usage of herbs and spices. Hester's Pestle, she called it. Till about two months ago, we'd lived in relative obscurity, far away from the all-seeing eyes of the Cabal.

As I moved back to the living room, I noticed the small scrapbook I'd kept detailing the events after Aunt Hester's gruesome death. It didn't take long for the tabloids to catch hold of such titillating news. News of her sudden mysterious death scattered all over the front pages had brought my father knocking on my door with a cavalcade of his men. It seemed that he had kept close tabs on me since the day she'd walked out the door - and she'd sent letters for every month of the year about our progress. Together they'd made a pact that he would never contact or find us - and he'd kept his side of the bargain as faithfully as she had.

Against my will, almost kicking and screaming, he'd dragged us both home to New York. In that city, the powerbase of his Cabal, they were inassailable. The Sopranos, I called them... and my own father was the Godfather. Laughable though the term might be, it was all too chillingly true as I soon found out.

One would imagine that my brothers would not be pleased to welcome someone new to the family, someone who could possibly take away a generous chunk of their billion-dollar pie but I'd clearly underestimated the value of blood ties to these people. Encroaching bastard foundling I might have been but I was still blood. Not only had they welcomed me with open arms, they'd been all too eager to thrust me into a role that I had no intentions of claiming. Brought up by a mother who regularly championed various environmental causes close to her heart, planted her own organic vegetables and made scented candles for sale in her small store, it was small wonder that I balked at the idea of joining a wealthy, multinational corporation that thrived on materialism and exploitation. Of course that didn't mean that some of them hadn't enjoyed the task of persuading me to join the dark side as I called it.

Yet it was that very same wealth that had placed my mother in the care of the best hospitals and she was even now recuperating in one of their expensive facilities. I placed the scrapbook back down on the table and picked up the bookmark I'd recently used. My father's calling card. No, I wasn't being entirely fair to him. Father had been kind to me, although it soon became clear to me that he was as baffled by me as he probably had been by my mother. There was love there, still new to the both of us and it unsettled me more than it did him. For Antonio Morelli, I'd always been his son, no matter the length of time that had separated us making us almost strangers to one another.

I smiled to myself as I imagined my parents together right now. No doubt they were arguing as they had done the first day my father had come knocking on the door. Circumstances back then might have kept them apart but that certainly didn't mean there wasn't a palpable spark between the two. It was difficult trying to imagine my mother being in love again but my father's presence had certainly lightened some of the grief she'd felt at her sister's passing.

Another card slipped out from the pages of the scrapbook and as I leaned down to pick it up, I felt a slight shiver. This card was solid matte black with gold letterings etched across the plain border. Stylish and yet almost spartan in its simplicity. Clayton James never felt the need for fancy stylings when he already made a pretty good impression all by himself.

Despite my earlier misgivings, I had to admit that he had made an impression on my heart. The first of my father's envoys after my aunt's death, he'd remained unerringly attached to my side till a few days ago when I'd managed to give him the slip. Leaving him hadn't been that simple for me. I certainly hadn't been immune to his dangerous good looks and his masculine charm, a fatal error when it came to an ambitious man like Clayton. Staying there with him by my side started feeling like torture especially when I found myself falling helplessly in love with him. Better that I get some space between us to reorganize my thoughts.

There was an electric tingle at the base of my neck long before I heard him coming. Some would call it a hunch or a gut feeling. There was no way in hell I'd call it a psychic flashback or some such thing. That belonged on the colourful pages of a comic book and skintight spandex didn't do a thing for me. Although it's hard to explain exactly what I felt, it feels like a warning. Just imagine the feeling you get when you feel someone's watching and multiply that by a hundred. That would be close to what I was feeling now. But not only could I sense someone approaching my front foor, I could see his thoughts, his feelings, occasionally his intentions... and if I probed deep enough, I could even literally see through his eyes.

That wasn't what I needed today. Without a doubt, I knew who my unwelcome visitor was. Although his footsteps didn't make a sound on the rustling leaves and it sounded almost as if he was floating through the brush, yet my mind was already flooded with him.

Clayton James made an impression wherever he went. It was easy enough to bring his image to my mind. The flash of wily green eyes with deceptive secrets hidden deep inside. The handsome, too-gorgeous-to-believe matinee idol looks, a point of embarassment for him. The quick dimpled grin, with just a touch of wickedness mixed in to balance his boy-next-door looks. The tall, rangy, athletic build that had haunted my fantasies more times than I could possibly count. The faint hint of his cologne, the odd combination of musk and sandalwood. Was it any wonder that I had those scents permeating my home?

In the late nights at home, with his scent in my bedroom, it was easy enough to imagine those strong, powerful hands running down my naked torso. It wasn't hard trying to imagine that beautiful, powerful physique naked and covered wih sweat in my bed, all that pent-up passion and energy focused solely on pleasure as he forcefully thrust his way into... Obsessed was what I was... ever since Clayton James had come into my life. Now that was a man who could make spandex look good. The fact that I was the one keeping him at arm's length for various reasons - and that he was perfectly willing to become my sex toy as he once put it only made it that much worse for me.

In spite of my protests, my heart started beating a quick staccato as it always did whenever he came into the room. I hesitated for a moment, dropping his card back into the scrapbook. There was a sudden urge to flee but that would have been cowardly, something he would no doubt blame on my non-confrontational witch's blood and I wouldn't give him the satisfaction.

The quick, impatient raps on my door would inevitably turn worse if I didn't answer fast enough. After our last encounter, it wouldn't surprise me to have him tearing down my door with his bare hands. Tossing the scrapbook onto the couch, I hurried from the living room to the foyer. Whispering the words to an unlock spell, the doors flipped open smoothly. The last time I'd been here, I'd managed to oil the hinges to the door, killing the eerie squeak that had amused my mother each time she visited. She'd claimed it the perfect door for a witch's house.

"Certainly took you long enough!"

Unlike the first time he'd come knocking, the slick, cagey businessman in Brioni's wasn't standing at my door this time. Instead, he was dressed in scruffy jeans, boots and a heavy leather jacket that had seen far better days. His square, well-proportioned jaw was surprisingly unshaven, showing the rough bristles of a five-o-clock shadow. He looked mean, angry and irritated, his dark green eyes snapping at me under their heavy lids. Clayton the Thug, I called it, a guy you certainly wouldn't want to mess around with and if I hadn't known the man, I'd have thrown the door shut, bolted the door and run for hiding.

Even then, I had to fight the crazy urge to run my tongue across his stubborn jaw. Despite the fact that my mind threw up red flags around him, my traitorous body certainly knew what it wanted. Just like the proverbial Pavlovian reaction, the sight of him turned me on, sending the blood rushing down to my loins. Inevitably, the persistent hard-on that I had whenever he came within twenty feet of me surged to life. Damned good-looking bastard. Did he even know that the scruffy, unshaven look with the mean eyes suited him just as much as the clean-cut, stylish Armani-suited look? Then again, place him in a garbage bag and the man might make it look good even.

Left standing at my porch hadn't improved his mood any. He wasn't foaming at the mouth yet which I gathered to be a good sign but perversely, I couldn't resist needling him a little. "This is certainly not your usual look. Your butler got the day off?"

Irritated, Clayton made a sound at the back of his throat that sounded almost like a growl before he replied tersely, without a hint of humour in his voice. An obvious overload of testosterone had given him a low, sexy voice, a thrumming bass that still sent unbidden thrills down my spine for various reasons I didn't want to think about. "Bastard left a mark on my shirt with the iron so I killed and ate him. Was that very wrong of me?"

It was difficult to know whether he was really pulling my leg so I disregarded what he'd said. After all, I'd seen the man in a rage, he was capable of damned near everything. Following his example however, I dropped my voice an octave in reply. "Clayton."

"John." Temper was boiling at the edges and a muscle started twitching at the edge of his jaw. "I drove for four fucking hours. You gonna invite me in?"

"What are you doing here?" As he tried to take a step in with only a dismissive grunt for a reply, I moved to block the entrance which I later figured was a markedly futile move since he could easily toss me aside if he'd wanted to. From personal experience, I knew that the hard, sculpted muscles straining under his tight tee wasn't only for show. Add his natural God-given strength to the preternatural given by God-knows-who and he packed quite a literal punch.

"I'm here to enjoy the scenery."

Since it was obvious that there was nothing he loathed more, I tried again. "Clayton."

Far from showing any irresistible urge to knock me aside, he offered me a nasty little sneer instead. "That's the way you usually greet your visitors? What the hell happened to hospitality? How the hell you keep your business running is beyond me."

"Not a problem." Insensibly stung by his comment, I offered a tight smile. Just like my father, Clayton didn't approve of my shop as they called it. They certainly hadn't made it a secret that they would have much preferred I give up my little enterprise and returned to the eminently respectable family business of maiming and hacking other unruly demons. "Buy a fucking candle and I promise I'll play nice."

"Obviously staying out here in the boondocks didn't improve your mood any. Always said it's unnatural for a body to stay so far out in the woods, even the bloody drive puts me out of sorts." Seeing the obvious irritation mounting in my eyes, the sneer faded away replcaed by a slow, wicked smile. Watching me seethe, his smile only grew wider as his brilliantly green eyes glittered with unholy amusement. "Maybe this would help, honey."

A kiss wasn't exactly what I was expecting and I only had a brief glimpse of his amorous intentions before Clay was squashing me flat against the doorway. It was another thing that he did extremely well, and I could feel my knees buckling as his lips and tongue worked in tandem to slowly drive me insane. I tried to make a protest but his lips pressed fiercely agaist mine, robbing me of my breath. Struggling to cry out, I could only choke as his tongue tangled with mine. His warm breath burned against my cheek and when I placed my hands on his slim waist, his large hands held them tight and drew them up to his broad shoulders. Not content to remain where they were, my adventurous fingers worked their way up to the tangled black curls on his head and he let out a deep, throaty sigh that brought me back to reality.

Just in time, I wrestled myself off the doorway and shoved him off, almost toppling myself to the floor in the process. It was like pushing a brick wall away and he didn't even budge an inch.

"Damn, now that makes the drive totally worth it." The steely anger in his voice had melted away, replaced by sheer male satisfaction. Fanned to life by our brief interlude, the evident fiery lust in his eyes only made them all the more green, flashing wickedly in the fading light. As if enjoying the taste, he licked his lips ever so slowly. "Yummy. Chocolate chip cookies?"

I'd baked a batch earlier and taken a few. Obviously there was a trace on my lips. Or somewhere down the back of my throat. "Stuff it, Clayton."

"I knew you were a closet sweet tooth. Baked it yourself too, I bet. All you witches are the same." Pleased with his joke, he laughed, the earlier aggravation forgotten for a while. "Sexy homemaking honeys."

Mercurial disposition. That was Clayton to a T. Beating up street toughs one minute, laughing heedlessly the next.

Although, it was patently obvious that kissing managed to soothe the savage beast. Good to note if I were faced with an insane, rampaging Clayton again although I certainly wasn't going to try that cure anytime soon. No need to tempt myself more than necessary. All my very valid reasons for avoiding him melted away when faced with the sheer hard reality of the man himself. When his excellent lips were planted against mine, with that firm, muscular physique pressed urgently against mine, it was hard to think of him as the opportunistic, scheming bastard that he was. All I could think of was his chiseled torso, naked and glistening with cum and sweat, the smooth, glowing golden tan forming a splendid contrast against the plain white Egyptian cotton sheets on my bed.

Tilting his dark, handsome head to look at me, he stated quietly. "I missed you."

Just perfect. Disarming me just before I was tempted to cut into him for making that biased comment about witches and baking. How did he ever find the perfect words? It had to be the smarmy lawyer just hiding underneath that sexy, irresistible bad-boy veneer. "Don't allude to feelings you don't feel, Clayton."

"Bitchy lil witchy, aintcha." He just smiled as I growled at him. "No doubt you believe I'm some kinda idiot hick, you're trying to get me mad enough to leave but that won't work with me. I told you before that I was here to stay, didn't I?" Clayton watched me contemplatively, the look in his beautiful eyes stirring up memories I'd have preferred to forget.

He'd said those very words the first night at the hospital. After the attack, my mother had been rushed into emergency surgery and I stood for unbearable hours in the waiting room, silently watching the snowflakes drift by that cold November morning. In a matter of weeks, my life had been turned topsy-turvy, my aunt was dead, my mother close to that state and I'd gained a motley crew of sorcerous hoodlums for family. Not privy to my chaotic thoughts, my father had fallen asleep from exhaustion half an hour earlier. Yet Clayton had stood by my side all night long, content to remain silent beside me. There were no words to soothe me and he offered none, except for his company.

It was these treacherous thoughts that had me wanting to throw myself into his arms like the foolish witch that I was, when I should be avoiding him like the Spanish Inquisition.

"You don't have to speak like a country redneck, Harvard boy."

"Why not?" A wicked grin spread across his handsome face. "It irritates you like hell, doesn't it? You know what, maybe I should give you another kiss."

As he tried to tug me close, I whispered one of the arcane incantations I kept ever ready as part of my arsenal. Ever since the attacks, I'd come to the realization that it was better to be safe than sorry. The repel spell I'd learnt recently knocked him back barely two feet but it sufficed for my current needs.

Not a man to be so easily thwarted, there was a dangerous flash of his green eyes that promised retaliation but creditably, he managed to get it under control. "Now you're just trying to get me mad."

It would have been more prudent to have kicked him out but I wouldn't lay any dependence that he would have remained outside. Although he could easily slip into the suave, civilized role of the family lawyer, Clayton had shown that when it came to me, he went just a little crazy. I wouldn't put it beyond him to rip the door of the hinges and walk calmly in. "Just shut up and come in, Clayton. I'm getting cold standing here." Too late, it occurred to me that he'd already gotten a foot in despite my earlier misgivings. Just one of the benefits of being a good kisser.

As I stepped aside to let him in, he paused as he walked by and said softly. "I meant what I said earlier. I've missed you. I would have come earlier if your father hadn't stopped me."

Obviously hadn't managed to stop him for long since I'd come back just three days before. Just time enough to get some of my things in order and to clean up the mess I'd left behind the last time. A rampaging werewolf did more damage than I could imagine. And the shedding was hell on the carpets.

Clayton showed no inclination to shed on my carpets however. Instead, he hung up his leather jacket, battered beyond recognition, on the tidy row of pegs behind my door. Underneath the heavy jacket, he wore a plain black tee with the sleeves torn off. Obviously not every man could pull off that look but Clayton certainly could. My covetous gaze slid down his heavily muscled arms to his splendidly sculpted torso before I could help myself. The tight blue jeans he wore only served to highlight his best assets, curving appreciatively over the high, tight curves of his buttocks and down his long, well-muscled legs. Despite his obvious character flaws, no one could deny that he was one magnificent piece of work.

As he turned around, he caught my roving eye before I could turn away but thankfully, he didn't say anything. It was some time before I could maintain my composure and the flush had faded from my cheeks. It was one thing to have him think that I was lusting after him, and quite another to have him catch me checking out his ass.

Trying to control myself around him, I showed him the way into my living room. Lost in the admiration of his fine physique, I'd failed to notice the briefcase he'd carried in. It made an incongruous sight, the muscled thug in jeans and the neat, leather briefcase. "Come in and have a seat."

"So sweet, so polite." Twice I'd seen it to day and I had to admit the man had a sexy sneer, no doubt about it. A contemptuous curl of his full, sensuous lips and a brief glimpse of straight white teeth that made me want to chomp hard on them. "You gonna offer me some tea with crumpets?"

Most people associate sinister black cats and midnight blood rituals at dark eerie cemeteries with witches but that couldn't be farther from the truth for most of the witches that I knew. Morning herbal teas, civilized book discussions, Laura Ashley dresses, those were the hallmarks of the Coven that I knew. Sure, I hadn't leaned towards the flowery printed dresses but in my Oxfords and plain khaki Dockers, I looked as much a suburban witch as the rest of them. The Stepford Witches, Clayton called us.

It was an obvious jab at the witch side of my family and I promised myself that I wouldn't rise to the bait. "Would you rather I dropped some wolfsbane into your tea, Clayton?"

"That's more like you, John." It wasn't the first time he'd come into my home but he certainly hadn't had the time to look around that first time. Since I was getting strangled at that time, I didn't blame him for not taking the scenic route. Entering the living room, he looked around the surroundings, a quiet, almost gentle smile curling up his sensuous lips. "Although I have to admit, your place looks a little spartan. Quite unlike what I'd pictured for you."

A few chairs and fragile items had been broken during the fight and I'd tossed them out leaving the room oddly bare. The sense of loss was still new but it would certainly come to light after a while as I started cataloguing what I'd lost. "I cleaned up some stuff earlier so.."

His easy smile disappeared and a hard look came into his deep-set eyes. "Should have broken his damned neck earlier."

"The timing was fine by me." Since Allen had my life in his hands at that time and was planning to end it, Clayton's intervention had certainly been timely enough. "You won't hear any complaints from me."

With a short, harsh laugh, he shifted his probing gaze back to me. "You drive me insane, you know that? I'm not usually the psychotic maniac you always see but seeing and thinking of you just drives me crazy. Before I came, I actually promised myself that I'd try my best to restrain my temper. Actually tried to calm myself on the way here, counted to ten and all that shit. Guess it didn't work out all that well." Almost like a little boy, he aimed a rueful grin at me.

I must have snorted. Imagining Clayton James keeping his temper in check was a ludicrous idea. Incredibly, I had an image of Clayton crosslegged for an hour of meditation in an incense-filled room and had to swallow the urge to laugh. Not only would he scorn such prissy methods, he'd probably tear the place apart after an hour out of sheer boredom.

My disbelief was patently obvious and he was obliged to make a token protest. "Really, John. Hell, I'm a calm, collected kinda guy, the friendliest guy you'll ever know. Just ask anyone..."

"Yeah, that must be what all your good victims say before you bash their skulls in." Since he didn't seem to have any friends apart from the bunch of goons hired by my dad, I only had to smile. No doubt he'd be pleased to know that his faithful employees either held him in tremendous awe or were deathly terrified of him. A mere handful had incredibly vivid images of Clayton at work that left me stunned myself but I always managed to pull back before I could see more. Faced with such brutal imagery, I tried to explain it away as something absolutely necessary in his line of work but a pacifist myself, I still couldn't condone some of his more violent practices.

"Well, that's something else entirely." Always quick on the uptake, Clayton had evidently picked up on the underlying censure in my tone. Trying to make light of the situation, he tried for a teasing smile. "And what would you know about all that?"

"I've seen them."

His dark brows flew up for a moment in surprise before they settled down in a worried frown. Knowing first-hand the extent of my powers, he accepted my explanation without demur. "Now, why doesn't that surprise me? I only do what has to be done, John, and unlike some of my more bloodthirsty cohorts, I certainly don't derive any satisfaction from what I do." Beneath his heavy dark brows, his vivid green eyes were shuttered for once and his lips drew together into a tight line as he spoke. "If you think I enjoy torture, I can assure you that I.."

I stopped him before he could go on. That was another conversation we weren't going to have since I had no rights to question his methods. Who was I to even think of asking him to explain? And knowing his silver tongue, it would be simple enough for him to sweettalk me into agreeing that bashing a few heads together for the greater good was acceptable practice. "Don't. There is no need to offer me an explanation." If I thought he'd just quietly agree, I was mistaken.

"John." Catching hold of my arm, he held tight before I could walk away in retreat. "That's where you're wrong, and you know that."

"Clayton, you're my father's employee. That is all that's between us, although evidently you think..."

"Bullshit!" He spat out in outrage. The sudden fury had melted away the guarded look in his eyes, and the glare he shot at me was full of bright green fire. "And don't fucking lie to me. Since we first met, you and I have had this amazing chemistry, this spark between us..."

A spark would have been an understatement for what I'd felt when he'd come into my life. "Time out, Clayton. We're not going into that."

"That's what you said the last time." Reining in his temper with some difficulty, he stood back and watched me quietly, the internal war in his green eyes quite evident. A surprisingly vivid image of him throwing me down on the floor in a rage of lust came to me and I realized they weren't my thoughts, but his. Anyone with the right instinct would have been repelled but I felt a distinctive thrill shiver down my spine, straight to the groin. "I don't give up easily, John, you know that. After all, you should know better, you've read my mind before." There was hurt palpable in his voice, and more than a hint of accusation.

It was the one mistake I'd made early in our relationship. Reading minds were my forte and it had been that way since I was a teenager. With my curious heritage, the magic in my blood was a given and both my mentors delighted in them, teaching me the history, the ways and the magic of their craft. The fact that I could read minds as well turned out as an unwelcome surprise to my Aunt Hester, a sign of my sorcerer's bad blood as such an unlawful intrusion into a person's thoughts were an anathema to her, but my mother simply took it in stride. Although she tried her best to help me deal with my burgeoning abilities, it was ultimately my harrowing experience away from Black Falls that gave me the tools I needed to harness my powers.

Nothing could have prepared me for Clayton however. Up till now, his intentions were unclear to me, vague, blurry impressions were all I got from him. The man had a mind that was as slippery and mutable as he was in person, a fluid, almost tangible montage of feelings and thoughts that confused my persistent interrogations. The one time I'd managed to probe deep enough, it had been my one and possibly only time. There was a savage, almost primal lust, something marvellously wild and uninhibited, lurking just beneath the surface - beneath that cool, passionless exterior, the sleek Italian suit and the Bruno Maglis that I'd erroneously associated with him in the beginning. The unusual blend of primitive passions and dispassionate logic had confused me for some time till two weeks back when I'd received a significant eye-opener.

Power, position and money was what drove him. From the little I knew about him, what I'd inadvertently gleaned from some of his words and actions, I found that couldn't fault him for that. A troubled childhood roaming the streets in search of food and sustenance, a father who regularly shattered his bones and a mother who drank herself into a stupor. Harsh words and daily beatings certainly didn't help nurture a child's growth, and it only made him all the more determined to leave all that behind as he grew older. It was a miracle that he'd survived, and become the man that he was today.

What I didn't like was the fact that he didn't have any qualms about using me to get what he wanted. Since we'd met, he'd hinted more than once at a deeper relationship and each time, I'd managed to avoid his propositions. It was difficult to decide whether he was really in earnest or if it was another ploy to gain an upper hand in the Cabal. After all, he'd made no secret of the fact that it would have been quite a coup indeed to have gotten the favourite bastard son of the boss back into the fold. Apart from that, there was also the fact that I had considerable powers of my own, and I'd gained a certain reputation of my own in the supernatural world after my last debacle.

When I'd first learnt of his duplicity, I'd gone against my own tenets and impulsively violated his privacy. Although I'd only managed to brush across the surface of his mind, I'd gotten a brief glimpse of the man behind. What surprised me most was finding out that instead of being repulsed by what I'd seen, I'd been hopelessly intrigued. "Clayton, reading your mind doesn't leave me at all reassured about you, or your methods."

"Fair enough." Evidently it was the answer he wanted since he nodded and walked away. Walking over to the couch for a seat, his curious gaze swept over the DVDs and the scrapbook I'd dropped there. Whatever he was going to say about it he kept to himself. Instead he started digging around in his briefcase and pulled out a heavy envelope.

As I took the seat beside him, he flashed that charming smile that made my knees go weak, showing off a row of perfect white teeth. "Here. Take a look at this. Your father wanted you to have a look at this." All traces of his pseudo Southern twang faded away as his voice picked up a smooth businesslike cadence. Who was the real guy? The laid-back Southern cowboy? Or the slick business shark in Italian suits? Or was he the wild, crazy-eyed man who had come bursting into the dark cell-like cabin weeks ago to rescue me?

Weighing the envelope in my hands, I watched him with some suspicion. "These aren't some dirty pictures of my dad and his mistress or something, is it?"

"Trust you to think of that." He chuckled appreciatively before giving me a wicked wink in reply. "Just look and find out, honey."

"Very funny. And stop with the honey business." Instead of finding pictures of Clayton in several compromising positions, I found a brass plaque with my name on it with several photos inside. I didn't need him to tell me that they were the offices of the family firm back in New York. "That's my name."

"Yeah, it's for your space at the main office, just right next door to mine. You see.."

Slowly, I collected the pictures and placed them back inside. "Cosy." Another ploy to get me back in the business. A little weak but I guess it was the best my father could think of at such short notice. Nothing like dangling a golden carrot as a lure.

Getting into the spirit of things, he started to wax enthusiastically. "You'd better believe it is. It's the corner office with some of the most amazing views of the city. For you, we could have the best interior designers in and..."


A glimmer of a smile lit up his dark, handsome features. "Sure, that comes later. There's an interconnecting door between our offices, I specifically asked for that, and I have a very comfortable leather couch."

"Smooth operator, aren't you?" I said sarcastically. There was no need to tell him that Clayton James and a leather couch were certainly great incentives for me to return. The man knew that he looked good, and he definitely knew of my attraction to him which is why he used that shamelessly during our dealings.

"I have to be, especially when I'm dealing with a slippery customer like you." Boldly, he placed a hand on my thigh, and I felt the palpable heat of it jump straight to my groin.

"Me? I think you've got it all wrong."

"I'm not the one who scurried away from New York." He leaned towards me on the couch, running his right hand slowly on the top of the sofa. "What the hell happened? You suddenly left without telling me. I didn't like it."

There was a quick flash of his dark green eyes, a telltale sign of his temper. Rumours of a Raging Clayton had been evident the moment I'd stepped into the offices of Bad Demons Corp but I'd dismissed their thoughts as mere exaggeration since how could this smooth, charming angel-faced hunk be the devil they claimed? It wasn't long however before I found myself confirming their vastly unflattering description.

Clayton certainly kept his bubbling volcano of emotions under a very tight lid since that hair-trigger temper hadn't been evident the first time I met him. My first impression as he'd walked in had been a slick, charming shark of a lawyer and then as he caught my eye and smiled, my heart stopped. There was no trace of precognition in my abilities that I knew of and yet in that first moment, I'd gotten a sudden, spectacular jolt, like a bolt of electricity through my heart. A brief flash of what could be flitted through my brain, so fast that I could barely grasp the idea. In the nightmarish hell that my life had suddenly turned into, he walked into it looking like an angel, all those jet-black curls rioting around his handsome head, the innocently green eyes under the thick dark lashes, the sexy bad-boy physique slicked up in Italian suits. The crazy, spinning, topsy-turvy world I was in came to a sudden stop and righted itself the moment he came into it.

An angel who'd saved my life. But that was all before I'd seen the photo frame in his office. It was the one thing keeping me from tumbling him down on the couch as he'd imagined earlier. Pursuing married sexually-ambivalent men with a green-eyed boy wasn't in my agenda.

Cautiously, I nudged his hand away from my thigh. "I didn't think I needed to make a full report of my activities to you, Clayton."

"No, you're not my employee. You're the man that I ..."

I hastily stopped him before he could finish what he was about to say. Having him here knowing he was untouchable was enough without a full confession of his feelings for me. "What are you actually doing here? You couldn't have come all the way to hand me something you know full well I'm gonna say no to. There's no way I'm going to join Bad Demons Corporation and you know that."

My reply left him looking almost insulted. "Need you even ask? You think I only want you back for the good of the damned company? I've come for you. Come on, you can't mean to stay here forever, this lil speck in the dust." He gestured outwards and I could see in my mind's eye the sleek lil Italian sportscar he'd parked outside. A boy's toy and I'd told him as much before. If he could only have seen it, Clayton would certainly have derided the old, banged-up pick-up truck that I drove to work. Sooner be caught dead in it, he'd say.

"You're gonna get mud on that pretty little toy of yours," I warned him.

"It'll wash." Under the black T-shirt, his broad shoulders lifted in a small, dismissive shrug. "And anyway, I'm sure you could always wiggle your little nose to make it disappear."

The reference to the blond witch on a television series certainly didn't amuse me. Since we'd met, Clayton had come to realize that bringing up stereotype witches was an endless source of irritation for me. "Look, you didn't have to come all this way. Since she's getting better, my mother sent me home to get a few things. I certainly didn't scurry away as you so nicely put it. I've just got some work to do over here, check some inventories for the shop, handle some of the orders."

"You know that's not what I mean." Clayton protested. "You can't seriously mean to stay here after all that has happened."

If he'd asked me that a few weeks back, I'd have jumped at the opportunity to return to New York with him. "You know, I don't think another vicious werewolf's gonna stop by in Black Falls. Looks like we've already filled out our quota for the year."

"From what I hear, your mother's not likely to leave New York anytime soon. Even with the treatment she's getting, she's gonna need some physical therapy for a while and ..."

"I know all that but I have my work, my store is here. The doctors haven't exactly said for how long but I've thought of commuting back and forth, and..."

He stopped me in the midst of my long explanation which I was grateful for since I hadn't thought it through yet. "Look, I've spoken to your father about this. The Cabal would be willing to reimburse all your expenses. You enjoyed staying in the brownstone we have there, you can certainly have it. And from what I've heard, there are stores to be had in New York."

"My little enterprise competing with all the other stores in New York? Try your snake-oil charm elsewhere, Clayton. You aren't going to win me over that way."

Refusing to claim defeat, Clayton pouted those sexy lips. "I don't mean to go until.."

"You're gonna howl and bite me if I don't go?" The comment was a low blow but I was simply running out of ammunition. It would be so simple to leave everything and go with him but there was the matter of a small green-eyed boy in a photo frame and his misguided father. Having an affair with the misguided yet incredibly sexy father would be a terrible, unforgivable mistake and I had to repeat it to myself like a mantra.

Caught by my words, he flushed vividly crimson in anger and his hands curled into tight fists. General comments on his affliction always managed to strike a nerve and it would only take moments before those fists turned to claws. To everyone else in the firm, he was the Iceman and yet with me, I could prick him so very easily.

"That was wrong of me, I shouldn't have said that."

Surprised by my sudden unprecedented generosity, he watched me curiously. "That's very diplomatic of you, John."

It was getting dark even as we sat there talking and I realized that a drive back - even with that snazzy car of his - would have him reaching New York in the wee hours of the morning. Looking back, I realized that I'd cooked enough for two. Some form of precognition perhaps. "Clayton, since you are here, then you might as well stay for dinner."

"You just apologized and now you're asking me for dinner?" Leaning forward on his seat, he watched me curiously, his green eyes narrowed slits in his dark face. The sudden turnabout in the topic - and my unaccustomed good humour - had made him suspicious. "What? You trying to pull my leg here?"

"It's getting late, it's getting dark, and I've seen for myself the crazy way you drive. You're staying here tonight." I would certainly enjoy doing something other than pull his leg but I figured such inappropriate comments would only enflame his lusts. And he was only too willing to give in to that. "It's the least I could do for the man who saved my life. And my mother's."

That only succeeded in rousing his ire and his stern eyes narrowed. "Don't insult me. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you, you know that."

"I don't know that." He looked as if he was about to argue the point but I quickly cut him off. "We'll have that talk later. Go get some of your stuff in here first."

"Witches are all so strict. Guess I don't have to ask how you know that I have a travelling bag in my car." Rising from his seat, Clayton moved towards the front door. Then as if he recalled something he turned and looked at me, raising a dark inquiring brow. "Where.."

"You're not sleeping in my bed."

"Hey, I never said anything." Turning back from the door, he looked back with a pleased grin. "So what are we having for dinner?"

For all his wicked ways, Clayton had surprisingly simple needs. Sex and food satisfied him usually and a combination of both would have been irresistible. Of course all I was gonna offer him was food, no matter how lusciously sexy he might look in jeans and a tight T-shirt.

Although I might gripe a lot about the outdated stereotypes associated with witchcraft, there are some that I could only wish were true. For instance, it would have been great to be able to twitch my nose and have a sumptuous, four-course meal appear before me perfectly set on the table. That simply wasn't true however since I still had to peel, slice and dice the essentials all by myself. And cook them. Fortunately, although she had an unnatural obsession with greens and a healthy diet, my mother was a wonderful cook who managed to channel most of her love of cooking to me.

Unfortunately, witches' magic was mainly practical. Starting a blazing inferno was simply out of the question but I could light the candles through magic. And I could certainly raise the flames on a stove.

Judging by his enormous appetite, small salads and vegetarian lasagna weren't going to satisfy his tastebuds. With his carnivorous genes, Clayton leaned heavily towards protein - and lots of it. Of course with the ravenous metabolism his genes had given him, he could swallow a mountain of fried, fatty food and still remain as fit and slim as ever. Damn him.

What were my real intentions for inviting him to dinner? Bringing Clayton in was akin to opening the hen house to the wily fox and I'd been the fool of a chicken who'd swung the door wide open. Yet something had loosened my tongue enough to offer up an invitation. Maybe it was the fact that after his long drive, Clayton looked tired, frustrated - and for once, almost sweetly human despite his matinee idol looks.

Never one to tolerate waiting, the man himself stalked restlessly around the kitchen as I stood preparing our dinner. A quick shower while I was preparing dinner had taken the edge off somewhat - and he even managed to be reasonably civil while I cooked his dinner. There had been one crazy impulse to jump into the shower with him but I managed to suppress such ignoble thoughts but it didn't stop me from imagining Clayton soaping himself up in my bathroom. Turning myself into his lucky soap certainly wasn't in the scope of my powers but on that day, I wished I could. Trying to be of service, he'd offered to help earlier but seeing his ineptitude in the kitchen was painful to say the least and I quickly banished him to the role of eye candy which suited him far better.

Observing me from his safe perch by the kitchen window, Clayton smiled. "I didn't know you cooked."

"You don't know many things about me." Picking up the mittens, I reached down and pulled out the pie I'd prepared earlier. A sign of precognition knowing he'd arrive? Alone, I certainly wouldn't have been able to finish all this food by myself and yet, I'd prepared a veritable feast.

The small smile just curling up his sensuous lips grew wider. "I'm certainly learning a lot about you today, ornery bugger."

It was the longest time we'd spent together without interruption since we'd first met. Earlier, we'd had rampaging werewolves, crazed sorcerers - and what had to be the worst, relentless media hounds who knocked on my door day and night. There hadn't been the time to sit back and think over our murky relationship till I'd returned to Black Falls to pick up the threads of my old life.

Even then, his lies and deception couldn't face up to the fact that he had endangered his own life to save mine. And the fact that he had the most gorgeous green eyes I'd ever seen. In the light of the evidence I'd uncovered about his past, it was difficult to see how I could still feel this uncommonly strong attraction towards him. Some odd, indefinable force drew us together in spite of the various reasons I had for us being apart. So apart from avoiding Clayton as far as I could, it was obvious that I still hadn't made up my mind which way to go in regards to Mr Sizzling Hot Sorcerer.

All I knew was that my dinner would knock the man's socks off. The pie was settling beautifully and I now had to see to the lasagna I'd heated up from earlier. It would have been enough for an invading army but not for Clayton. For him, I had another whole chicken roasting in the oven. "I didn't travel for miles to get a no. I didn't come all the way here to Black Falls to see the man who's been saying no to me since the day we first met. Who's the ornery one now?"

Leaning back on his haunches, he smirked at me. "Hell and here I thought you'd be impressed by my tenacity. I hear it's a good trait to have in a boyfriend."

For the past hour, the earlier sly innuendoes had progressed to become blatant hints. Patience wasn't one of his good traits and he was this close to forcing a diamond ring on my finger - whether I fucking liked it or not. "Clayton."

"John?" He replied in the same minatory tone, giving me a wicked grin and a wink of his vividly green eyes.

Standing on her daily pulpit, Holy Aunt Hester always preached the fact that the sorcerers were the irreclaimable sinners and after the inquisition, the witches were supposed to repent and show them the right way. What did it say about my vaunted witches' morality now that I wanted to sin around with a married heterosexual sorcerer? No doubt if Miss Hester Blackwell somehow caught wind of this sordid affair, she'd be spinning around in her grave.

Taking a chance, he came off his perch and walked towards me, his canine nose sniffing. "Smells good."

"It's my mom's lasagna. Won the baking award in Black Falls three years in a row." Digging into the tray, I spooned out a bite to try. Oddly enough, the recipe had been in my family for generations despite the fact that there had been no Italian blood in my family - that I knew of anyway. The closest I'd gotten to Mediterranean heat was Clayton James.

"Sweet." Almost reverently, Clayton took a deep breath as his lips moved close to my neck. Barely inches apart, the man stood close enough that the sheer heat from his solid body was almost palpable. "But I'm not talking about the food."

Fatigue and frustration might have gotten him riled up earlier but he'd certainly gotten his silver tongue back. Clayton had moves and he made them now as those eager hands of his slipped smoothly around my waist to draw me close. "Move aside before I..." I started the words to a spell just as he hugged me tight from the back.

"But darling." Clayton whispered slyly to me. Before I could make a reply, he started planting soft kisses on the back of my neck, heading towards the edge of my jaw. "Your little spell won't work on me twice."

Given such a challenge, I tried to finish my chant only to have him spin me around and plant a kiss on me. Warnings about fire hazards flew out my head as he ran his wonderful lips across mine. One sizzling Clayton James kiss and I went from outrage to outrageous. Drawn in spite of myself, my free hand reached around his broad shoulders, drew down his powerful flanks to that perfect ass.

As I got one hand on what had been termed the hottest ass in Demon Inc, he let out a deep, appreciative chuckle. "Guess I don't have to say grab my ass, huh."

It was the perfect splash of cold reality but I didn't jump away as I should have. Slowly easing my way out of his embrace, I nudged him meaningfully on the hard curve of his pecs. Damn they were really hard. "Clay, you wouldn't want to pull that again. I'm cooking your dinner and you just don't know what I could accidentally put into the soup."

"Wolfsbane again?" Clayton stepped away at the last moment, leaving me intentionally breathless. "Poison in a witches' brew and here I thought you hated cliches."

From the counter, I aimed a glare over my shoulder at him and flicked my spoon at him. A hasty ramble of words came from him and the sliver of tomato sauce hung in mid air between us. For a man who hadn't been weaned on magic since birth, his speed and delivery was impressive to say the least but I certainly wasn't going to tell him so. Unfair as it might sound, magic seemed to come to him almost naturally.

Still the sight of the floating tomato sauce had me smiling. "Could have frozen Allen and saved us a hell of a lot of trouble."

"Doubt my teeny weeny spell would have worked on a 300 pound werewolf." He replied ruefully, unconsciously rubbing his newly clean-shaven jaw. "And I doubt I could keep myself from wanting a go at him. Seriously wanted to wreck that bastard's piss-ugly face especially after he suckerpunched me that one time."

That certainly explained the crazed bloodlust in his eyes when he'd burst into my house. According to the witches' Good Witch Glinda tenets taught to me by my aunt, I was supposed to eschew all maiming, stabbing and killing, to do my best to protect the innocents, but that one time in the woods of Black Falls, I'd slipped, allowing Clayton to do what he did best, and I'll be damned if I was going to be sorry for it.

"Hope your arm's feeling better."

Surprised at my mention of that harrowing day, he replied quietly. "Don't worry about that, we heal fast enough." Lifting his left arm, he flexed and allowed the golden-tanned, well-toned muscles to ripple tantalizingly for a moment. I had to tell myself that the thrill of desire running down my spine was simply admiration for a well-made machine and not pure insane, come-fuck-me lust.

I certainly didn't fool Clayton. The sudden flare of colour in his green eyes confirmed the fact that he did know what I was feeling and as he stepped nearer again, I hastily turned back to the stove.

"Oh, look, the chicken's done," I exclaimed as I flipped open the oven door. Turning around with the chicken in my hands, I found myself almost face to face with him.

"You're done. I'm not." Batting the sauce in the air away, he tugged at my sleeve gently, pulling me towards him. Red hot platters wouldn't hurt him in the least but I was still tempted to give him a sting. "Look, I know you witches love the non-confrontational, no-balls pacifist tactics but avoiding the issue isn't going to solve anything. You know we had something going ..."

With the chicken plate between us, I stepped up to him, my dark eyes daring him with a challenging look. "You want confrontational?"

"Yeah?" Totally unafraid, he grinned tauntingly.

"Blasted demon whoreson. Then take this damned chicken to the fucking dining table. Confrontational enough for you?" Smashing the tray of chicken on his face would be fun for me but it would make the time I'd spent preparing it a waste, and the unconventional bastard might just lick it off his face anyway.

"You are one crazy witch." A low, appreciative laugh came from him. Instead of harping again on the issue of our nonexistent relationship, he received the plate with a gentle half-smile. "You know what, I could actually get used to this."

So could I but I wasn't actually going to tell him that.

The issue of where he was going to sleep hung at the back of my mind. Sure, I had bedrooms to spare in the house but room and board wasn't the problem at hand. Rather than trying to avoid him, the problem was actually keeping me from walking over to his bed, like one of those stupid television virgins who insist on walking blindly to their doom. My own unwavering lust notwithstanding, I also had his unnatural animal lusts to contend with. The fact that his dirty little mind was replaying various little sex montages was oddly disturbing to say the least, and more than a little arousing. Perverted demon boy had obviously attributed an unparelled flexibility to my hapless spine in his sex soaked dreams since I seemed to submit to various back-breaking moves without complaint.

His large, powerful hands gripped the edge of my hips, forcing me down on the dark oak expanse of the table. The heat and the force of his erection drew theateningly across the tight cleft of my naked buttocks and I let out a soft, throaty moan - of pleasure or of distress I couldn't tell for sure. As I inevitably struggled for dominance, he let out a rough, almost guttural laugh before he leaned down on me again, his lips biting down hard on the edge of my ear before travelling downward along the edge of my jaw.

The vivid images planted in my head left me almost breathless, with a heavy ache in my groin, and this time, I turned to him, a touch of barely concealed irritation in my voice. "Not on the dining table, Clayton!"

Surprised at my sudden change of mind, he paused with the tray he was holding. Confusion reigned in his features. "Huh. What? You want to eat somewhere else?"

Realizing that I was referring to something else entirely, I backpedaled hastily. That's the problem with mind-reading, sometimes it's a little hard trying to dissociate the dangerously erotic porn movie going on in his imaginative head with what he was actually saying. How he could have such lusty debauchery playing in his mind while he went on calmly around in his work was an amazement to me. "It's nothing. The table's fine, I just meant.."

"Ah." His dark head swung back to me and he smiled almost roguishly. "Reading minds again? What can I say? You're pretty inspirational, babe, and the dining table looks like it could hold up under our weight."

"Just dinner. No table sex."

"No problem." Clayton acquiesced easily. "The bed would do fine for me."

"Pervert. And stop thinking in those terms."

The roguish grin on his handsome face widened. "I can't help it. You make me hard."

There seemed to be no decent reply for that since his words drew several uncomfortably arousing images and I maintained my silence instead. His deep, teasing laughter followed me all the way back to the kitchen as I made my hasty retreat. Content to remain on his own, Clayton didn't return to bug me and left me alone in the kitchen for some time, dreaming up devious ways of poisoning him. There was no way in hell I'd stoop myself to his level by playing his inane games but it was endless fun imagining him groaning and writhing in pain on the floor from purgatives.

When I finally returned to the dining room with the final dish, I realized that Clayton had obviously kept himself quite busy rummaging through the cupboards. There was an ancient buffet hutch by the dining table where my mother used to keep what we called her fancy dining stuff and it was obvious that Clayton had managed to find her treasure trove. Fortunately, the monumental disaster that was Hurricane Allen had swept by the living room and the study, demolishing almost everything in its wake but somehow managed to swerve past the dining room. Belgian lace tablecloth lined the massive oak table, lovely Delft porcelain ware lay neatly arranged for a cosy twosome at one end and he'd placed an iron wrought candelabra complete with long, tapering candles in the centre. I certainly couldn't accuse Clayton of not knowing how to set a scene. Obviously Demon Lawyers 'R' Us had classes dealing with table dining etiquette.

It was obvious that he was still looking for something else however and finally perplexed, he turned to me. "Where the hell do you keep your matches?"

"Never had any. Watch and learn." I smiled. A small, simple incantation had the candles around the room flaring up to lend a warm glow to the dining room. If it looked just a bit romantic, I kept that to myself hoping that Clayton wouldn't notice too.

Trying to hide the effect would teach me to underestimate Clayton. As he took his place at the table, there was a secret smile on his face. "The perfect ambience."

"Gotta make a guest feel at home," I ad-libbed quickly, taking my seat beside him. Scooting my chair to the other end of the table seemed like a safer alternative but Clayton would certainly have a choice comment ready for that cowardly act and I remained unhappily glued to my seat.

"Ah, the 2005 Martha Stewart Witch Guide."

I picked up my fork and waved it at him. "No jokes, you promised."

"A truce then." He laughed and then decided to start on his meal by tucking into a piece of lasagna. Nothing like distracting the man by waving food in front of him. Biting into his first piece, Clayton leaned back and let loose a rapturous sigh. "Damn but you're an amazing cook. Sweetheart, I'd marry you for that lasagna alone."

The flattering compliment on the food was welcome enough but not in the sly way he'd said it. Amazing how he actually managed to turn compliments on my cooking back to his single-minded, relentless mission to win me back. Trying to keep my tone as light and breezy as possible, I just shook my head in reply. "You're way too easy then."

There was no flippancy in his voice however when he paused to look me straight in the eye. A gleam came into his beautiful eyes as he gave me a half-crooked smile. "What can I say? I'm always easy when it comes to you, John."

Letting him know that such sudden sentimentality - no doubt mellowed by the food in his growling stomach - was turning my knees to water in seconds and indirectly wearing down my resolve wouldn't be a prudent move on my part. And yet when I gazed into those dark green depths, I felt like casting all my antiquated notions into the wind and fall into his strong, two-timing arms.

"You wanted to know more about me, didn't you? We never did talk about what you saw."

Clayton said it so matter-of-factly while he bit into a chunk of chicken that it took me a moment before I realized what he'd just told me. There was certainly no forgetting what had happened that night but despite my avid curiosity, I didn't want to bring it up before he was ready to tell me anything. Gorgeous amateur sorceror transforming into a hairy, sharp-fanged werewolf right in front of my eyes wasn't something I'd expected of him and the image of the skin and muscle literally tearing apart before my eyes had been etched into my memory for weeks after.

"I know what it was, Clayton, although I can't exactly claim to understand what happened."

Almost cautiously, he slowly laid down his spoon and watched me. A shadow of a smile crossed his handsome face as he started to speak. "Well, actually I believe you're the second person alive who's seen it." There was distinct flash of his green eyes, an almost imperceptible golden tint that I'd seen that night weeks ago.

"I venture to guess my father's the other one."

"Yes." He nodded.

"Was that a veiled threat?"

He looked almost hurt for a moment. "John."

"Okay, I have to admit that was a cheap shot. I take it back."

Pleased that he'd managed to get the better of me, he spooned up some soup and smiled beatifically at me. "You know what the bastards who call themselves my parents called me when I was a kid? They called me El Diable. The little fucking Devil."

"What?" I stared at him. There were times when provoked by one of my admittedly hair-brained ideas, Aunt Hester would start preaching about the Bible and the fate of the wicked, unrepentant sinners but even then she would never have categorized me as the Devil himself. And certainly not when I was a child. "Your parents called you that? Surely they didn't mean it."

"Much as I would love to pander to your all-American Norman Rockwell notion of family, they actually meant it." Clayton chuckled but there was a low, hollow ring to the sound.

The way he said it left me in no doubt of the truth of the matter and yet despite the cold, dispassionate tone he used, I realized that there was some hurt still left. The ugly wound might have been scabbed over but my bringing up the topic must have scraped the wound fresh again. "Clayton, you don't have to tell me anymore."

As I tried to pick up my fork again, he reached over and held my hand, clutching it tight enough to cause some discomfort. Sometimes he obviously still didn't know his own preternatural strength. "John, you wanted to know about me? If that's what it takes, I'm telling you everything."

"Look, Clayton, I don't have to know everything and..."

"Just listen," Clayton begged, watching me intently. As he started reciting the story, he released my hand. "Hell, Clayton isn't even really my name. At least I don't think so. I can't remember anything from my childhood, anything less than 7 years is a blur to me. I remember vague faces and colours but I don't remember who they are. I don't know who my real parents are, don't even know where the hell I came from. The Garcias found me. Why they took me in I'll never know but I once read a note from my real father. More a threat than anything else and obviously they bowed down to his wishes. They fed and clothed me but that didn't mean they loved me. I wasn't an angel, I'd admit it but they didn't help much. The slightest wrong had Raul's large fists flying at me and the alcohol binges made the fists come faster and harder. Maria, his wife wasn't much better, fearful of me and cursing my name to heaven. Made crosses at me each time she saw me, said I was tainted by the devil whatever that meant. It took some time before I got smart enough to keep him from using me as a punching bag and I left."

He told his story matter-of-factly as if he'd read it in a book some years ago. A horribly twisted fairy tale that he barely recalled. Passionless and clinical, and yet I could see the bleakness in the suddenly dimmed green eyes as he spoke. The earlier spark of fire had faded out of his eyes as he told me some of his experiences. There were times when I suspected that he watered down the story a little for my benefit, especially after seeing the growing horror in my face. No, his past still haunted him but he obviously didn't let it overrule his thoughts and actions.

As he came to the end of the story, Clayton released my hand, letting it go and I flexed my fingers to test the joints. It didn't surprise me now that Allen's head had snapped just as easily under those powerful hands. "Sorry for that. It actually took me a while before I got out from them. Who knows, I must have felt some sort of gratitude for the bastards but I just couldn't stand being knocked about anymore one day so I left. Just took the little that I had and ran. Barely in my teens still, a scrawny lil kid even then and didn't even know where the hell I was going. Changed the name my parents had give me, tried to be someone else. Thank God your father found me."

A rich, successful Cabal CEO based in New York just walking by the streets of Miami to find a wandering street kid by luck? Such a providential move certainly warranted suspicion. Knowing my father's foresight and calculated strategies, he'd probably been keeping an eye on the promising Clayton for several months before making his move. Keeping that thought to myself however, I only shook my head with sympathy. "Clayton, I can't imagine what you went through then."

"That's all in the past now." He smiled easier now, a more genuine smile now that he had unburdened himself. "Look, I don't want your pity. I just want you to know where I'm coming from. Perhaps you never wanted to hear this from me before but.."

Even without scanning his thoughts, I sensed he was moments away from declaring himself and I reached up my hand to stop him. "Don't, Clayton."

Quick as a snake, he reached out for my hand and brought it down to the table again, holding it tight in his hand. Although he relaxed his hold a little in deference to my weark, inferior self, it was turning out to be a habit. "Stopping me from saying it doesn't make it any less true. I'm telling you all this because I'm in love with you."

"You've known me barely two months or so," I said calmly even though my treacherous heart had given a quick leap at the meaningful words. Since he was the more volatile of the both of us - and there were already early signs of his temper appearing on the scene, it was left to me to keep a rational mind. Sure, kissing him would certainly soothe the wild beast and contain the problem but I didn't plan to start such a disturbing trend in our twisted relationship. Unless I had no choice of course. It seemed to be ironic that I'd spent years looking for that special someone and now that I had found a spectacularly gorgeous stud who loved me, I could only resort to kissing him as a last resort. As he showed no signs of blowing up yet, there didn't seem to be any need to do so.

"And half the time, I was trying to escape from vengeful werewolves in search of a main course and oily mafioso bothers who want me to join the dark side." Speaking of such incidences as if it was commonplace would be ludicrous just six months back and I realized how far my life had changed. Back then, I didn't have sexy sorcerers who turned into raging wild beasts once a week over for dinner no matter how luscious they might look in tight jeans. "And you were the perfect combination of both."

"Ouch." Lifting his hand in a quick salute to my jab, Clayton smiled ruefully. The vivid green was back in his eyes, gleaming and so green a shade to seem almost inhuman, as he'd shed his vulnerable, confiding side as easily as he'd left his humanity behind when he'd changed. "No, I'm not denying that less than two months is hardly time enough to make a lifetime commitment but well, I don't know how it is but I knew you were the one the moment I saw you walk out of the door."

"It was the adrenaline and the heat of the moment..." My heart stuttered from what he'd said and I found my tongue finally giving up. How the hell do you deal with such simple sincerity. He could have prettied it up with sweet words and poetry - I'd certainly seen him in action with that treacherous silver tongue at work - but he didn't try all those practised moves on me. I started to stand but he caught my hand in his. I would have known better than to have tried breaking free. With that strength, it would be a cinch for him to snap my wrist with just a squeeze.

"You can explain it all away but it doesn't change what I feel. Belittling my feelings for you hurts. It hurts, John."

Who knew those unnaturally green eyes could hold so much grief. Legend had it that wolves mated for life and I felt my heart stop for a moment. "Clayton."

"John, why are you fighting this?"

"It hurts even more that you're using all your charm to persuade me to stay so that you'll get a leg up in the Cabal." I'd never been at my best caught in a corner. It came sputtering out before I could stop myself. Many times before, I'd come close to revealing what I'd seen and heard and yet in respect and appreciation for what he'd done for me, I'd kept it silent till now.

"What th-" It was as if I'd turned and slapped him hard as he recoiled from my accusation. "That's what you think of me? You think I'm a fucking toad-eating asshole who'd stoop to such low tactics? I can do better than fucking the boss' son." The apparent grief melted away as his green eyes flashed an early warning.

Since I'd already gotten this far, I didn't see any reason to keep what I knew a secret. "Look, I saw you in the living room talking to my father. You don't have to carry on this charade any longer than you have to, my father thinks the world of you and..."

To prove his point, he practically leapt over the table as he loomed threateningly over me. Any other witch would have cowered under that stare but the foolhardy witch that I am, I retained my position, refusing to budge an inch. "I knew that, heard you coming in from a mile away. Such a clever little eavesdropper! Perhaps you should have stayed longer to hear the rest of it. Or perhaps you'd rather read my mind and find out for yourself." The hell-raising fury he was famous for was evident now, rising in palpable waves from his body. "What's wrong with wanting you to stay with the Cabal? I wanted you close to me and that's one of the few ways I could see to keep you near. The other was tying you up and tossing your stubborn ass into my car but that wouldn't have gone down so well with your father. You certainly wouldn't have stayed for me, you were so damned insistent on returning to Black Falls and your damned so-called life."

"I don't want.."

Clayton didn't allow me a chance to explain myself but cut me off with a rude grunt. "I'm not finished, John. You might have heard me promising your dad to find a way. What the hell's wrong with that? Your father saved me when I was lost. I'd do anything for him and having you back in the family was one of the few things he'd wanted for so long. Was it wrong for me to get that for him?"

I stared at him. His seething anger drew a spark of my own and I started getting angry in spite of my self.

"Answer me, John. Look at me. Why should I bother lying to you? Sure I had other motives for wanting you to stay but that doesn't mean I love you any less."

Finally it was time to show my trump card and goaded by his belligerence, I decided to confront him with it. "Clayton, look, I saw the picture of the boy in your office. Don't even try to deny that he's your son."

"I won't deny that."

And he didn't need to. When I'd looked into the photo, I knew I'd seen love. The little boy's face was unmistakeable, the perfect miniature of his father who held him close. Those wicked green eyes, the rough shag of glossy black curls, the impish smile. No one would looked at it could deny the fact.

He remained quiet for a moment and I stood up, slowly gathering the plates in silence.

As I came back from the kitchen with the tableloth, he was still sitting there watching the table in silent, rapt contemplation. Turning to go, he caught my hand and urged me to sit. "John, you've got it all wrong. Take a seat, please."

Anger would have raised my hackles but I was certainly no proof to the entreating look on his face. "Tell me."

"I was going to explain it to you earlier but... hell, how do I say this but yes, he is my son. Let me give you the short summary on this. I was married before. It was years ago, I'd tried... hell, I know I love men now but back then, I'd hoped that all those dirty thoughts and ideas would fade away if I just got married." Clayton laughed quietly, shaking his head in remembrance. "Had all these hot guys doing all sorts of dirty things in my head. Almost went crazy thinking that the Garcias were right and I was tainted by the Devil. Your father would have helped me then but I had to get away, be by myself for a while. In that time, I met a woman. Just a slip of a girl actually, her name was Luisa. We were happy together, she loved me... gave me a son. It didn't last for long since she died from... an accident two years after we'd met."

An accident? There was something more that he wasn't saying about his wife but I figured that he would tell me in time so I kept quiet. "You've given me a lot to think about."

"John. Before you came into my life, I'd already sworn that I'd try to keep you by your father's side, by force if you will but once I saw you, everything changed." He looked straight at me, almost daring me to look away. "They say wolves mate for life, John. I really tried my best to love Luisa, she was lovely and sweet and yet, I couldn't return her love in kind. I thought it was a flaw in me, a fucking deficiency planted by my upbringing. But when I saw you, I knew then why I couldn't love Luisa. I was waiting for you, my mate and she wasn't the one. I swear I wanted to tell you all this before but then you left in such a hurry."

Once he'd explained it all, it all made perfect sense and tied up all the loose ends about Clayton that I'd wondered about.A red flush of shame burned my cheeks as I wondered what had made me leap to those terrible conclusions in the beginning. There was still the werewolf mystery that bugged me but since it was still obviously a source of pain for him, I decided not to dredge it up yet. The combination of werewolf genes and sorcerous powers were unique, and he was certainly the first such supernatural I'd seen. Some secrets however were best left buried. "I'd made my own conclusions about you by then, Clayton, not all of them good. And I found myself still liking you despite all the evidence in front of me."

"Irresistible, eh." He couldn't quite hide the grin of satisfaction on his face.

"Conceited jerk." I chuckled. "It wasn't exactly running away. I just wanted some space, wanted to get some distance between us to think."

"I honestly wanted to tell you about Sam, my son, but I found that I couldn't. To just dump you with all the information about my life when we'd just met seemed a little too much. And you've got to admit that we didn't exactly have the time to hash things out."

I replied almost flippantly. "Well, a crazed werewolf was after me. Not exactly the time for tea and chit-chat."

"And we know how you witches love the herbal tea."

"Hey, don't knock it."

"And now? Where do we stand?" Clayton said softly.

It was a loaded question indeed. After what he'd just revealed, the insane, insensible urge to leap impulsively into his strong arms was there, stronger than ever, but so was the cautious witch side of myself that remained irrationally wary of him. "We'll see how it goes. Let's just say your chances are very good." Deciding to give my conscience a rest for the day, I took his hand in mine, giving it a gentle squeeze. Evidently, it was more than enough and he flashed a warm, grateful smile in return. "What if I still wanted to stay here in Black Falls?"

That was even better than he'd expected and he grinned with satisfaction. "Well, take a look here." Getting out of the chair to rummage in his bags in the living room, he searched for a minute or two as I watched him. Damn, he was one extremely fine looking man, all hard muscle and testosterone, masculine curves and planes that was showcased perfectly by the simple jeans and shirt that he wore.

Thoroughly aware of the greedy looks he was getting, Clayton glanced over with a devilish smile and winked his green eye at me. "Hot stuff!" As I maintained my dignified silence, he let out a low chuckle and continued his search. Returning to me with an envelope in hand, he handed it to me, urging me to open it.

"This can't be another join the Demon Mafia newsletter?" When he shook his dark head, his eyes dancing with wicked mischief, I finally relented and opened the envelope. It was the deed to the land behind my homestead. Slowly placing the documents down on the table, I lifted up my gaze to meet his. "You bought all this land?"

His explanation was simple enough and he shrugged as he gave me an answer. "Sweetheart, a wolf needs a place to run. Can't very well run in circles around your small house. That would make me look like a damned fool."

Simply put, it was momentous. Clayton James shifting to Black Falls was akin to Carrie Bradshaw moving to the deepest interiors of Utah to take up knitting. Almost incredulous, I stared at him wondering whether it was one of his hoaxes. "You're moving to Black Falls? You're not serious?"

"You're not the only stubborn bastard here. It took me damn near three days to acquire the land deeds but yeah, if that's what you want. Staying out here would be good for me. Beats the hell out of driving out of the city to change. Doesn't mean I like it - and I'll still try to talk you into staying in New York." He warned me with a persuasive grin.

"Clayton James ruralizing? Repairing fences and sheds? Driving a pickup truck to the neighbourhood store and the weekly crafts fairs?" It was difficult to imagine. Slick city kid spending a simple life in Black Falls? It had to be his little version of hell.

He winced. "Please. Don't remind me."

I laughed, gave in to my earlier impulse and kissed him.

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