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Josie turned the ignition off and rested her head against the steering wheel, letting the calm darkness of the garage interior seep into her. She was home.
She loved her job as a third grade teacher, but sometimes she wanted to run away and join the circus for a little normalcy. Her students were still unsettled two months into the new school year, and Josie was determined to discover why. She'd modified a scrying spell generally used with a map to work with an aerial photograph and examined the school grounds, hoping to find a cause. Google Earth, tool for witches. Who knew?
She'd found more than she bargained for. Imps. The baboon-sized predators were vicious, and a pack of them was more than capable of attacking and killing a child. Right now, the fence surrounding the school playground would keep them out, but the nasty creatures had to be removed before they hurt someone.
She needed to change her clothes and get the new marshal. Great, I get to face my worst nightmare and a gorgeous guy at the same time. Then again, showing him the location of the imp nest would give her a fantastic reason to spend some time with him. Rumor around town said he was conscientious and pleasant, if a bit standoffish. Even if he turned out to be a jerk, the imps would be destroyed, and that was the most important thing.
Leaning back, she rolled her head on her shoulders, feeling her vertebrae crack. With a last self-indulgent sigh, she grabbed her purse, the canvas tote bag holding papers that needed to be graded, and the binder with her next weeks' lesson plans, and left the car.
"Thanks for getting me home, Mirabelle," Josie said, patting thepurple haze-colored Mini Cooper on its dark green ragtop. "You're a good car."
The car projected an aura of smug pink satisfaction.
Josie grinned, gave the Mini one last pat, and walked from the garage into the kitchen.
After dumping her things onto the table that separated the kitchen from the dining room, she trotted upstairs to her room, desperate to get out of her work clothes and into something comfortable. Blouse and slacks went into the hamper. Josie stood still for a moment, gauging the temperature, before pulling on a pair of faded knee-length gray sweatpants and a bright purple tank top with the words "Runs With Scissors" emblazoned on the front in canary yellow. Just the thing to wear on an imp-locating expedition. Imps hated bright color almost as much as she hated imps. And if the new marshal was turned off by seeing her in ultracasual clothes that was too damned bad. She was tired of men who always wanted women to look perfect.
Back downstairs, she went to the utility room and grabbed her gardening clogs. The dark green plastic clogs were the closest things she had to closed-toe shoes, and were worn mostly for outdoor chores like using the weed whacker.
After grabbing her purse, she stopped just inside the front door and concentrated. Was there anything else she needed? Nope. With a brisk nod, Josie jogged next door. What a difference. Sofa's house was a comfortable two-story painted butter yellow with white trim, black storm shutters, and a dark red front door. It shouted, "Hey, I belong to someone who's whimsical, proud, and fun." In contrast, the small slate gray ranch-style house Walker Morgan occupied muttered, "Rental."
Stop stalling, Josie, she scolded herself. Raising her hand, she rapped three times on the front door, counted to ten, then twenty, and rapped again.
She'd just raised her hand to knock again when the door opened and Walker Morgan scowled at her. He was seriously yummy. Long, long black hair that begged to be touched, nice body, handsome face, and the neatest aura she'd ever seen. They'd waved to each other over the fence on the rare occasions they were outside at the same time, but she hadn't had an opportunity to introduce herself yet.
As always, the first thing she noticed about him was his aura. Black and filled with glittering multicolored lights, it whipped and crackled around him like a thousand tiny serpents. It was all she could do to resist reaching forward to touch it.
Her vision snapped back to normal. "There's an imp nest close to the elementary school," she blurted.
Dark green eyes widened. "My car or yours?" His thick, waist-length black braid slithered across his chest, almost as if it were alive. "Mokey," he called, turning back toward the living room.
Josie tightened her hands into fists, the itch to unbind his hair and run her fingers through it almost a physical sensation. Now is not the time to get hot and bothered over pretty hair.
"Now, Mokey," Walker growled.
An apricot-colored standard poodle trotted out and down the front steps. Sitting on the walkway, he looked over his shoulder and then lifted his leg and proceeded to lick his butt. Deep blue, shot through with green, swirled lazily around the dog. Interesting. Josie was certain he was much more than an ordinary dog, though she had no idea what that might be.
"Josie Reynolds." She offered her hand. Walker gave it a brisk shake. His skin was warm and soft, his handshake firm without being overpowering. A shiver trembled through her at that brief touch. Her notoriously unreliable clairvoyance told her this contact was important to her future--though whether or not that was a good thing, she didn't know.
Shaking off the momentary brush of fate, she pulled her hand away. "Let's take my car," Josie said, stepping over the dog and walking toward the garage. Pulling her key ring from her purse, she pressed the garage door opener. As soon as Mirabelle was visible, she pressed the unlock button, ducked under the still-moving door, and climbed into the car.
Walker Morgan--arguably the most dangerous being in town--and his poodle waited patiently beside the driveway as she backed out. She had to bite her lip to keep from giggling at the oddness of that thought. The urge to laugh got away from her as Walker held the Mini's backseat forward so that Mokey could climb inside.
"Not how you were expecting to spend your evening?" the marshal said, grinning at her. He had a lovely smile. White, even teeth gleamed between thin, kissable lips.
"Nope," Josie said. "Let's hope this is the weirdest thing that happens tonight." A chill prickled the back of her neck. She looked around the neighborhood, searching for something that might explain the hint of unease she felt. Nothing. Well, except for the aspen tree in front of the Garcia place. Its energy was as brown and desiccated as its leaves. She made a mental note to remind Maria to give it a nice soaking and some fertilizer.
"Yeah." He ran his hand over the black and purple leather seat, almost caressing it. "Do you know how many imps? The exact location of the nest?"
"I'm not sure how many, and the nest is in the willows along the river. I can get you within a few feet of the exact location." Because she had no intention of getting close enough to pinpoint it further. She'd learned that lesson twenty-five years ago.
"Willows. Oh, joy." He pinched the bridge of his nose. The flickers of light in his aura turned the color of soured milk.
He doesn't like willows; curiouser and curiouser, she thought. No one in town, with the possible exception of the police chief, knew anything about Walker's background or species. It was beginning to look like he had a broad range of experience.
He pulled his braid over his shoulder and toyed with the rubber band binding it. "How'd you stumble across the nest?"
The end of the braid was as big around as his wrist. Josie licked her lips, imagining his hair falling around her like a dark curtain. Josie Reynolds, you are such a pervert. She gave herself a mental shake. "I did a divination spell this afternoon, and I recognized the auras imps give off." Surreptitiously, she rubbed goose bumps from her arms. She backed out onto the street, hoping he wouldn't ask further questions.
"You recognize imps' auras? That's a useful skill. Do you mind my asking how you learned it?"
"Yes," she bit the words out. "I do mind." The image of bloodstained pink sparkly shoelaces made her flinch.
"I apologize, Ms. Reynolds." His aura pulled in tightly around him as he spoke, the warm yellow sparkles cooling to icy blue-white.
Taking a deep, shaky breath, she forced herself to relax. "I'm sorry, Marshal--ugly memories. I don't talk about it. And it's Josie, please."
"Walker. And I should apologize for asking intrusive questions."
"No worries," she said. It struck her suddenly, how lost he must feel coming into a small town like Franklin's Bend. "It must be hard, being an outsider in a position of power and not understanding exactly why people are happy to see you or resent the hell out of you."
He glanced over at her. "It's been interesting. I know the town's had a pretty big shake-up in the past few months, but I don't know the details. The police chief told me some of it when he hired me, but I understand he's recently become the werewolf alpha and may have some biases."
"Oh, yeah, I'd guess he does." Chief Evans had defeated and killed the former alpha when it was learned that the creep had been sexually abusing young wolves. The town had been horrified to learn that someone they trusted had done something so revolting. Even worse, the abuse had gone on for several years without anyone noticing. Trevor Dawson had done an exceptional job of covering his tracks, and would likely still be alive had his mate not chased a rabbit into the wrong mine shaft and gotten a nose full of horror. She'd exposed her husband's crimes and fled the town the same day, taking their children with her. Luckily, Rex Evans had stepped up and taken over the traumatized werewolf pack.
Traditionally, the chief of police and the marshal were the same person, but Chief Evans had insisted that he would only take over as the new police chief if someone else was given the position of marshal. The town agreed with his assessment that the former police chief/marshal's crimes might have been discovered long ago if the victims had someone stronger than their alpha to turn to for help. They didn't want to make the same mistake again, and the fact that Rex Evans made the suggestion gained him the staunch support of most of the townsfolk.
Josie turned into the school's parking lot, pulling the Mini Cooper into a space close to the playground. Three children played on the swings, but otherwise the playground was unusually empty. Normally, there would be a dozen or so kids playing together after school on such a nice day. The sense of wrongness skittered up her spine. What is happening in this town?
Walker unhooked his seat belt and turned to face her. "Is there anything you think I should know? Things people know not to ask about? I'm getting a little tired of inadvertently stepping on toes."
Including mine. Ouch. "Don't ask about the old alpha." Dawson's betrayal of his pack and the townsfolk was still too raw a wound. "And whatever you do, don't walk on the courthouse lawn. It's got a two-days-of-bad-luck curse on it that no one's ever been able to break." Shrugging, she added, "If I think of anything else, I'll let you know. I was born and raised here, so I know things I don't think about knowing." A subtle scent teased her nostrils, a hint of musk and exotic spices. She snuck a glance at Walker, wondering if the intriguing fragrance was his.
Before she could do anything embarrassing, like lean over and sniff him, she put the car in park, turned it off, and got out.
"Thanks, I'd appreciate that." He left the car, holding the seat so Mokey could climb out as well. "Let's find those imps."