Root woman Donna Tucker made a mistake. A person died on her watch, no thanks to tainted roots and herbs that were meant to heal. Now she must trace her steps to where her stash came from and stop a modern-day plague from destroying a small town.
She’s not going alone.
Werecheetah Ronan McCleary would rather see her pay for killing his coalition’s matriarch than to accompany her anywhere. He believes she’s responsible and the only thing this trip is doing is delaying the inevitable. Her death.
But death is hunting them both.
The residents of Seclusion, North Carolina have an unseen force in their midst that has control over the town’s most influential people. There are those who’ll do anything–kill anyone–to keep the secret of the Davenport Foundation. A lowly root woman and her werecheetah companion are no match for them.
And they won’t be unless they can put their differences aside and work together to survive the night. Of course, that would mean having to survive each other as their hearts brave a Hazardous Environment.
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Donna Tucker’s bewilderment turned to rage. She fisted the thermometer, ready to sling it across the room, if it didn’t break in her grip first. Dammit, why isn’t anything working?
She tore away from Eloisa Grazer’s bedside and stormed back to the desk, where her herbs lay and jars collected. Ever since the fever had struck the werecheetah down, Donna had pretty much set up a vigil at her bedside. Donna had brought everything from her hovel in the woods to Eloisa’s small home on Tomlinson Drive in Charlotte, North Carolina. Nothing worked. Not a damn thing. Never had she felt so inadequate in all her life.
What was she missing? There had to be something. The root woman used everything from catnip to hyssop combined with licorice root and thyme. She even created a grape poultice for the blisters creeping across Eloisa’s skin. Infusing her remedies with a touch of earth’s spirit for an extra boost did nothing.
Donna slammed her fists on the wood surface. Lightning flashed across the windows from behind the closed curtains. Thunder rumbled so close by that she could’ve sworn it upturned the wheat fields down the road.
She couldn’t let Eloisa die. The old woman was one of the elders, a matriarch of the Charlotte Coalition. Many held her in the highest esteem, even those from the adversarial Triangle Coalition. Eloisa helped solidify peace between the two factions to ensure their futures, since werecheetahs were an extremely rare breed. With the amount of bad blood between the two clans, there was a lot riding on Donna…especially since she was affiliated with Triangle clan and on “loan”.
Loan my ass. I’m nobody’s property. Donna tried hard to concentrate on her patient and not cat-shifter politics. Unfortunately, it touched too close to her personal life. Her parents acted like she was property, trying to decide her future and all. Well, she sure showed them.
Showed them what a failure she was.
Things would have to change. Donna wasn’t a commodity to be traded. She certainly couldn’t afford to be at their beck and call either. As much as she liked the werecheetahs, they weren’t, and would never be, her only clients.
The bedroom door swung open, slamming against the wall. Another woman rushed in carrying a sack of herbs…and Donna’s last hope.
“Did you have trouble finding her home?” She snatched the cloth bag from Jodi, a friend of Eloisa’s daughter.
She shoved the drenched hood off her head and began peeling off the raincoat that hardly did any good at keeping the water at bay. “A little, but at least everything is there. I reached Rio, too. He’s on his way, but it might be a while because I-40 has three pileups on it between here and Raleigh.”
Another streak of lightning caught her attention. “Thanks. Now, get out.”
Jodi nodded once before closing the door behind and leaving the root woman to her duties.
Donna meant nothing by her rudeness, and thankfully, Jodi understood. The root woman worked better without an audience. Plus, she had arrived from her Uncle JoJo’s funeral in Lexington, Kentucky, that afternoon. Before that, she spent the past month running from one state to another, treating patients who lacked health care, didn’t trust health care, or couldn’t seek health care due to their preternatural affiliations. Her job was nonstop, and the tension riding on her nerves was proof. Now she was paying for it because she had exhausted all her knowledge to the point that she had to ask another root woman for advice. For a woman with her experience and natural talents, that was unheard of.
It had been three days since Eloisa broke her leg in the woods while on a nightly run. The combination of earth magic and roots should’ve drawn out the infection and made her fever subside by now. If anything, they were having the same effect as baby aspirin. If the fresh roots from her friend Moira didn’t work, nothing would. Moments like this made her wonder if going to medical school might have helped Eloisa.
Can’t think about that right now. Need to focus. Need to use what I’ve got.
Donna separated seeds from pods and ground dried leaves into a fine powder. She soaked things like Hypericum, calendula, and echinacea in alcohol and sprinkled them over a potion steaming on a hot plate. She knew the ingredients and the incantations by heart, so there was no need to look anything up in a book that would slow her down.
When she finished, she had something that looked more like a flattened version of Jesus’s thorn crown. In the center was a series of mixtures that would work together to help soothe Eloisa’s pain…she hoped. She wrapped the poultice with a rag she soaked in red wine and vinegar and placed it on the open wound. Had it not been for Rio, that bone would still be sticking through the skin.
Her hand lingered on top of the poultice. A gasp slipped from her mouth, choking off what should’ve been a prayer. Her throat tightened and a tremble worked into her bottom lip. Eloisa couldn’t die. Not on her watch. Not while the stench of sickness and antiseptic corroded her nostrils.
Donna hated sick people. In her ideal world, nobody would be sick, let alone on her deathbed. Especially Eloisa, when more than thirty people who loved her like a mother were waiting one room over to hear some news. News that she, their matriarch, would survive. Important or not, she meant something different to the root woman. This was her patient, who lived and breathed and had purpose beyond being a werecheetah.
A tear broke away, slipping down her cheek. She wiped it away. Not on her watch, dammit. Not on hers. Carefully, she tied the ends of the wrap together around her leg and rechecked the makeshift splint that held her fragile bones in place.
Donna slumped into a nearby chair and waited—again—hoping and praying it worked this time. Hoping that it would be enough. If only Gaia can wait a little longer. She knows me enough to know that I’d never break my promises.
A rough hand landed on Donna’s shoulder. She woke with such a start that she nearly choked on her own breaths. Her hand touched the back of Ronan’s . Though grateful it was him and not the thing haunting her nightmare, she pulled away and eased her shoulder from his soft grip.
She tried hard not to stare at his chiseled face with the dark, rugged shadow that dotted his chin and thinned out toward his cheeks. She wasn’t sure if he purposely shaved it like that or his genes were just that accurate. Either way, she liked it. But there was no way in hell she’d admit that. Donna never mixed business with pleasure because it led to nothing but problems. Her southeast chapter of root women, Women Gathered, had plenty of stories to share, including a few of her own. That was why they all adopted the stance of never dating their clientele, if they wished to remain members of group. For now, the Women Gathered were her only true family.
Ronan was one of the first faces she met when she arrived at Eloisa’s house. Donna got the feeling he was there to make sure she didn’t poison all the female werecheetahs who were more concerned over their beloved mediator than they were about politics. Nonetheless, he was always in the shadows with his piercing blue eyes, crossed toned arms, and slightly muscled chest. Donna hated that his light-brown, overgrown hair always fell in front of his handsome face.
And just like before, he wasn’t smiling. A scowl muted his attractiveness.
Something was wrong, though Donna gave it little thought beyond that. Her mind went somewhere else. She pushed away the blanket that someone had laid over her and stood, her attention landing on an empty bed. “Where’s Eloisa? Is she okay?”
Ronan retrieved it from the floor, his grip tightening to knuckle whiteness. “She’s dead.”
Donna’s knees wobbled. Her breath left her in heaves. Normally, she wouldn’t have taken a death this hard, but given where she was and whom she worked for, this was not a good spot to be in. But those thoughts only lasted a few seconds before her thoughts turned to Eloisa’s family and friends. If she were a real doctor, she might have saved her. Damn.
“Your physician’s assistant from your coalition thinks she died while you were asleep.”
Donna snapped back to her senses. Her fingertips gently touched the bed where the female cheetah was not that long ago. Her eyes blurred, but she blinked it away. She’d keep her emotions to herself, since that was the professional thing to do. “Have your people buried her yet?”
He nodded. “Yes. No thanks to you.”
God, that hurt. But she deserved it. They asked her to come and help, and she let them down. Dammit, Eloisa shouldn’t have died because of a broken leg. Granted it was a compound fracture, but her herbs should’ve stopped the infection. Not turned it into something hideous. Something else was going on.
Uneasiness crept across her shoulders. His pinpoint glare bothered her. If he had planned to throw some more accusations at her, why wasn’t he doing it?
Donna didn’t have time for games. She glanced at the digital clock that read six in the morning. “I should go, then. But I’d like to pay my respects to her first. And to her family.”
“You’re not going anywhere near her.”
“I know the story. Something’s wrong with your herbs or whatever mystic magic you’re using. Whatever. Jodi told us all about it.”
Knowing where this was going pissed her off. “I did not kill your matriarch. What good would her death do me? I have no cat in your fight. In fact, I thought the war was over.”
“Oh, trust me, witch. Not all of us are easy with this arrangement, but we do as we’re told by our leader. But make no mistake. A treaty won’t keep our two coalitions from going to war, if you give us reason enough.”
Oh, great. Now he treated her like she was a member of the Triangle Coalition. “In case you’ve forgotten, cat, I’m a root woman. Not a shapeshifter.”
“You came as a recommendation from them. We know nothing about you, and the first time you help us, you kill our own instead. What the hell am I supposed to think? You’re a fucking—”
“You’re going to want to check that temper.” Rio stepped into the room with Sloan, the leader of the Charlotte Coalition. He motioned for his friend Donna to come to him while keeping his glower on Ronan. “I checked her herbs. They’re sound. Though I don’t know what kind of magic she infuses them with, I know that killing anyone in her job is bad business.”
Ronan eyeballed him. “So is that it? Keeping someone alive is just business to you?”
Sloan shook his head as he stepped between both men. “I’m more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt because I know Dante enough that he wouldn’t risk war over something like this. He certainly wouldn’t serve up his only two sources of keeping his coalition healthy.”
“So that means I’m going to return the goodwill.”
“Off Eloisa’s back. Son of a bitch. I hope the women buried her face-down, because she should be turning over in the right direction by now.”
Sloan snatched up his subordinate so fast that Donna gasped and ducked behind Rio for extra cover. Her hand went to her throat just like her heart. She wanted out of this crazy place. People functioning on high emotions after an upheaval like the one they had just suffered was not a good place to be.
“Do not disrespect our dead.” Sloan jerked the man again. “Do I make myself clear?”
Ronan’s gaze went sideways, avoiding his leader’s glare. “Yeah. I got it.”
“Good.” He released the insolent werecheetah. Shoulders heaving, he turned his hot focus on Donna. “I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that this was not due to incompetence. But don’t mistake that for forgiveness.”
“I won’t.” She slipped by Rio and began collecting her things in the cardboard box she arrived with the previous afternoon. “I’ll take my leave and you’ll never see me again.”
Rio placed his hand on her box, getting her attention. “I’ve known Donna for a long time, and she’s not inept. She’s damn good at what she does, and she’ll prove it.”
“What for?” Ronan asked. “Eloisa’s dead. Whatever she does now won’t bring her back, and I doubt anyone will want to risk sores or lesions to find out.”
“Sores?” Donna pushed past Rio and stared between the two Charlotte Coalition members. “There are others with blisters?”
Sloan shot his subordinate a quick glance before addressing her. “Only Jodi. She noticed one similar to Eloisa’s this morning. But she’s fine.”
No, she isn’t. The lesions didn’t start on Eloisa until after she applied the initial herbs she had borrowed from her friend. They continued with the second batch, and now it sounded like they might have infected anyone who touched them. If Jodi touched the herbs, then her days could be numbered just like Eloisa’s. Damn.
Donna went back to the box and packed up her things. “I need to visit my friend Moira. She had given me all of the herbs I requested because I didn’t have time to run back to my hovel to get mine.”
Sloan shook his head in confusion. “Then how did Jodi—”
“She must have touched the herbs. Moira didn’t infuse the first batch because it’s better if people doing the healing use their powers. I had her infuse the second batch because I thought my powers weren’t working.”
“But what does that have to do with—”
“Don’t you see? It’s the herbs, not the power. Something’s wrong with them, and if Moira hasn’t realized it yet, she will. The hard way.”
“But you’re not sick.” Ronan looked her up and down, eyes creeping across her body like she was a coin-operated dancer in an adult toy store.
Annoyed, Donna shook her head. “Maybe it’s because of who or what I am—I don’t know. But I know Eloisa won’t be the only one who’s dead if I don’t get to Moira first.”
“Do it.” Rio went to the chair and pulled her tattered shawl off the back to hand to her. “I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Jodi.”
“Rio, no,” she said in a low voice. As much as she tried to keep her emotions out of it, there was no way she could hide the worry in her eyes.
They’d use him as collateral if she didn’t turn up something. Hell, they just might kill him out of retribution. Dammit, he had a family. A beautiful cub daughter and a half-cub son. Not to mention his amazing human wife.
Half-smiling, he placed his hands on her shoulders and met her gaze. “I’ll be fine. Besides, if what you say is true, then Jodi is going to need someone to watch over her.”
“And if you’re worried about going alone,” Sloan said, “then Ronan will go with you.”
Thanks. I’ve just gone from worried to terrified. Donna couldn’t think of a worse person to be paired with than the guy who’d offer her up as a sacrifice the first chance he got. After all, accidents have been known to happen.
“What?” Outrage flooded Ronan’s face with redness. “I’m not going anywhere with her.”
“Like the hell you’re not.” Sloan closed the distance between him and his coalition brother. “This is the least you can do instead of making light of Eloisa’s burial. And since you’re so hot for justice, this might be your only chance to make sure you’re pointing guilt at the right person.”
More like at the first person he saw. Donna didn’t like this blood-hunt arrangement. All that hotheaded jackass would do was make matters worse in a potentially tense situation. Not only that, but if he crossed Moira the wrong way, the Charlotte Coalition would be burying a second person.