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Hearth Fires

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Lorel hummed along to the bluesy song that twined with the smells of dozens of sweet things filling the air.  Swinging her hips slightly from side to side, she counted out the day’s totals to figure out what to bake tomorrow.  The maple pecan cupcakes were sold out, as were the pear sticky buns. Maybe she’d switch it up for the weekend and make chai cupcakes and maple sticky buns.

As she tallied, she mentally designed an upcoming wedding cake order.  The couple wanted silver accents, which was in vogue and nearly to the point of tired and overdone.  Maybe arabesque flowers outlined in a royal blue and the silver? She could gild edges of sugar paste flowers.  Would it be too on the nose to mimic the flowers in the bride’s bouquet?

The door opened almost soundlessly.  One of the first things she’d done was rip the bell off; the jangling was hell on Changeling hearing.  Finishing up the note she was in the middle of, she turned around to greet the customer.

“Hi, how can I help you?”  The chirpy greeting died off as her nose caught up.

Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla had temporarily masked the threat that had snuck up on her.  A threat that smelled like moss and oak, and a dominant predatory Changeling male. Her blood turned to ice water.  The power of him filled the shop and had her animal in a crouch, waiting to see whether she should run or would have to fight.  She wiped her palms on her apron and plastered on a smile that probably more closely resembled a grimace.

The stranger scanned her with a coolly appraising eye from the top of her frizzy hair to her flour-dusted hands.  She froze in place and focused on his right shoulder to avoid eye contact while still watching him like a rabbit he’d decided was dinner.  Fear spiked in her scent, strong enough that even she could smell it over the mixture filling the place, and he could probably hear the thundering of her heart.  He turned, locked the door, and turned the sign to closed. Her cat was clawing at her to run far, climb high, but she was too busy doing her best impression of a deer in headlights to pay attention.

His presence, reinforced by his actions, could only mean he wanted one of two things: either he wanted her gone or he wanted her for himself.

“Ms. Cain, I’m Remi Denier, Alpha o’ the RainFire Pack.  Please, ‘ave a seat so we can talk.” The bayou dripped like Spanish moss from his words.  He pulled a chair from one of the bistro tables by the front window and gestured for her to take the other seat.   He’s laying the Southern gentleman routine on thick , she snorted inwardly.

“It’s Maddox now, and I’m comfortable right here.”  The strained pitch to her tone gave lie to the statement.  She shifted her weight in preparation to dash out the back door.

“Ya won’ get very far, Ms. Maddox,” he drawled mildly, his brilliant topaz eyes flashed gold.  The alpha, and he certainly looked the part at somewhere over six feet with line-backer shoulders, sat where he could watch both the front door and the one that led to the kitchen.  He stretched out long, jeans-clad legs; he was making himself at home. On her turf. “I ‘ave de alley covered.”

“What did I do to deserve such an honour, Mr. Denier?” she asked crisply and folded her arms.  While she wouldn’t stand a chance against a predatory Changeling Alpha determined to hurt her, that didn’t mean she would go down without a fight.  She just had to wait for her chance.

“You’re in my terr’tory.”  His eyes had gone leopard-gold.  Shit. Heart hammering, she felt her cat settle into a crouch in preparation for a pounce.  Adrenaline dumped into her bloodstream and she wanted to bare her teeth at the threat, but strangled the urge before her lips did more than twitch.

“No pack can control a mixed-race city, and your border ends at the Madison-Haywood line.”  She had made certain before she took over the bakery. Their boundary was the next county over.  The flash in his eyes and the low growl said without words that the cat didn’t care about semantics.

“RainFire does now.  Say, could I get a cup o’ coffee?”  His accent was so thick she could practically cut it with a knife.

“Sorry, I’m not in the habit of feeding strays.”  The acerbic retort popped out of her mouth before she knew what she was saying.  Swallowing, she dropped her hands to fist at her sides in preparation for a full shift and not just the talons that had sprouted from her fingertips.

Remi Denier didn’t attack, didn’t even growl.  To her utter surprise, he laughed. The sound was rich and filled the bakery like the tones of a brass bell.  Her cat cocked its head in confusion.

“We’re small and growin’, jus’ expanded our claim last month,” he explained, spreading large hands wide.  And she had purchased the shop five weeks ago, which was when she’d checked that no shifter groups had marked the area as theirs.

“I took over this place before that.  I won’t be run off my land.” Said land wasn’t even an acre in total, and it was technically just the home she shared with her aunt since the shop was on a lease, but it was hers.  Every survival instinct screamed at her to stop challenging him, even as her animal wanted to go for his throat.

“I never said not’ing ‘bout chasin’ you off.  Jus’ like knowin’ who’s in my terr’tory,” he shrugged and hooked an arm around the back of the seat.  The relaxed posture didn’t fool her one whit; one didn’t become an alpha without catlike reflexes.

“You already know that if you know my name.”  She folded her arms again and leaned back against the counter behind her.

“Lack o’ criminal record don’ mean much.”   Lord ain’t that the truth , she silently agreed.

“Not much to know,” Lorel said aloud.  “Raised by my human grandparents, some university, bounced around some, and then my aunt wanted to retire.  But you probably knew all that already.”

“You were born into the RedRock pack.”  Her stomach sank.

“I was just a kid, I don’t remember much.”  She leashed the need to snarl at the alpha. She couldn’t expose any potential weaknesses.  If he thought she was hiding something she’d never get rid of him until he uncovered it.  Damn cats.

“Never joined another pack.”  A statement, not a question. He already knew the answer, he just wanted to see if she would lie to him.

“Never saw the need.”  Rounded shoulders rose and fell jerkily instead of in the fluid way they should have moved in feline Changelings.  Remi filed that away the same as he had the talons that appeared when she’d thrown out the crack about strays. It wasn’t the first time he’d been called that, and no doubt it wouldn’t be the last.  Then there was the fear, more than was to be expected. His leopard didn’t like that; submissive Changelings should feel safe and protected with dominants, even strange ones who’d shown they intended no harm.

Well, no lasting harm, anyway.

“Never felt need for family?”

“I have family.”  Lorelei gestured around the bakery that had been her aunt’s.  While she couldn’t make eye contact, the hard ice in her voice hinted at a hidden backbone, a reminder that submissive was not synonymous with doormat.

“But do they understand you?”  That spine, which was already rigid, snapped so straight he worried it would crack under the strain.  Judging by the white lines of her mouth she probably wasn’t about to reply any time soon, but the lack of answer was an answer in itself.

If he was a better man, he’d feel bad about baiting a woman so far down the hierarchy she didn’t even risk a glance at his eyes for fear he’d see it as a challenge.  As it was, he only felt a twinge of guilt. The most extensive background check in the world couldn’t tell him how she would react under duress. Being cornered, no matter how temporarily, with a strange, dominant predatory Changeling alpha was an effective stress test for most people.

“Unless you’ve got a sweet tooth, I think you’ve wasted your time, Mr. Denier.”  Her folded arms shifted, pushing her breasts up even higher until they nearly spilled over the heart-shaped top of her apron.  Instead of plain black canvas, hers was an ice blue that brought out the colour of her eyes, with cupcakes decorating the full skirt and ruffles of the same fabric edging the bodice.

“Hmm…”  He gave her a slow once-over.  Damn if she didn’t look like a treat herself with generous curves and freckles sprinkled generously over her creamy skin.  “Not worth the cavities.” Her jaw dropped in affront at the deliberate provocation.

“I promise I’ll only stick to the woods in this county, and I’ll let you know if I have to cross through your territory,” she said firmly, recovering quickly from the barb.  “I just want to run my business and not cause any trouble.”

Her cat was no doubt pissed he’d invaded her territory, but her eyes never flashed gold.  Other than the tiny shift to claws briefly, her other half never surfaced; as an alpha, he could tell.  If he hadn’t known beyond a doubt (his nose never lied) what she was, he wouldn’t have guessed that she was a Changeling.  A few slips on her part were to be expected under the circumstances, which was a large part of the reason why he was there in the first place; he needed to see how she reacted.  But the sheer amount of control she had was bizarre for someone who had only lived among humans.

“How ‘bout you join RainFire?”

She gaped at him.

“No!” she cried once she realized he was serious.  Remi waited for her to elaborate upon her refusal.

“Why not?” he asked when it was obvious nothing else was forthcoming.  She continued to stare at him as if he were a few bricks shy of a load.

“Leopard,” she said slowly, pointing to him.  “Ocelot,” she pressed one hand over her heart.  Each word was carefully pronounced.

“DarkRiver has a jaguar and a lynx.  We have a tiger,” he shrugged. Lorelei seemed genuinely taken aback by that; she must have deliberately avoided any and all news touching upon Changelings.  “The old way of thinking was hurting more’n it was helping. No room for that in RainFire. Is it because of what happened at RedRock?” Women typically didn’t respond well to his bluntness unless he was seducing them, and by her full body flinch, Lorelei It’s-Maddox-Now-Thank-You-Very-Much was no exception to the rule.

“You want an honest answer?”  Thin ginger brows climbed up her freckled forehead.  When he nodded, she pushed off the counter with muttered “fine” and a deep sigh.

Remi scowled at that, but she continued before he could say anything.

“I just want to be left alone and nothing you can say will change my mind.”  She folded her arms again, her pink lips pursed into a bow that was probably poutier than she realized.

“You’ve managed pretty well on your own, sticking to mostly human areas.”  When he stood and stretched to his full height her breathing quickened, but otherwise she gave no sign of being intimidated.  “How well do you think you’ll do now without pack to protect you? On your own, you’re prey for Psy, non-predatory Changelings with a ‘tite more dominance on you, even cunning humans.”

“Is that a threat, Mr. Denier?”  Her face was a bloodless mask, but she held his gaze with a hard stare of her own.  The contact only lasted as long as it took a heart to beat, but he felt electricity shoot through his body.  It wasn’t entirely sexual, despite his reaction. There was something off about her he just couldn’t put his finger on.

“No, but this is.”  The scent of fear sweat filled his nose.  “You’ve got one month to either join RainFire or leave town.  Au revoir, Ms. Maddox.” With a shallow nod of his head, he strode out the door and into the warm autumn afternoon.