Here is the first chapter of Cursed Claws.
**Note this has not gone through the final pass of proofreading, so please forgive all errors. Rest assured they will be fixed in the completed book! 🙂
Fall had arrived in Winterspell and as summer melted into autumn the seasons of my life were changing, too. Though not fully unwelcome, the shift was unexpected and sudden. But over the last week, it started to click, and as I bid the long summer days goodbye, I was eager to see what fall had in store.
“Are you going to stare out the window all night, or pick out a dress?”
I turned to look at one of the biggest changes in my life—a short-haired gray-blue cat sitting on the end of my bed. Her ethereal blue gaze fixed on me, then pointedly shifted toward my closet.
“Why are you in such a hurry to get rid of me?” I asked. “Got a hot date with that orange tabby that’s been coming around lately?”
Selene’s whiskers twitched as her eyes widened. I’d caught her off guard—quite a feat when dealing with an ancient, talking cat.
“Should I take that as a yes?” I asked, grinning to myself as I padded across the room to my reach-in closet.
Selene scoffed. “Just for that, I’m going to leave a hairball in one of your new sneakers as soon as you leave for your little date.”
She was never silent for long.
“As to your question,” she continued, “the only thing I am in a hurry for is the snapper filet you promised to cook me in exchange for staying home tonight and not tagging along to third wheel.”
“Aha.” I nodded. “I should have known.”
“You should have. I’m complex, not complicated,” the cat replied, lifting one paw to her mouth to give it a casual swipe of her pink tongue.
“What’s the big deal about tonight anyway?” she inquired as she continued casually grooming herself. “You’ve been edgy all day.”
I stood clad in a satin slip, preparing to dress for my dinner date at Clint’s new place. His invitation echoed through my mind: I have something to tell you.
Cryptic and weighty. Just the thing you don’t want to hear from your …well, I wasn’t really sure what to call Clint yet. Things had been going well between us, and he’d recently leased a home in Winterspell which boded well for our relationship—whatever one wanted to label it.
But still, my heart had made a weird thump at his foreboding statement on the phone earlier that afternoon.
“I’m not edgy,” I told Selene, shaking my head as I flipped through the assortment of hung garments.
“Mhm.” Selene swished her tail through the air as she eyed me. “Tell that to the delivery elf you reamed out a couple of hours ago.”
I frowned. “I didn’t ream anyone out. I was simply asking him to be more careful when dropping off packages. I had fragile things in that box, and he pitched it onto the porch all the way from the sidewalk!”
“I agree with you,” Selene said. “In fact, I was thinking we could set some kind of trap for him next time he stops by. I know a spell that conjures a colony of magic wasps. They leave itchy little red welts wherever they sting.”
My mouth dropped open as I turned to face the cat. “Selene!”
“I would ask why you even know a spell capable of such a thing, but I’m honestly afraid to find out.”
The cat flashed her dainty canines. “Are you sure? It’s a fun story, involving a drunken bard and a one-eyed ogre.”
“I’m good,” I told her as I turned my attention back to the contents of my closet. I wasn’t much of a girly girl, which made dressing up for dinner dates a little challenging.
“You should wear the blue dress,” Selene interjected.
I tugged at the hem of a navy blue skirt and pulled it out for inspection. “You think so?” I asked, considering the garment. It had small ruffles on the sleeves, a scooped but modest neck, and a peplum skirt. It was what I wore when I wanted to look nice but also wanted to blend in.
Dropping it, I ran my fingers over the dress beside it. “I was kind of thinking about wearing my red dress.”
“Aha, it’s that kind of night,” Selene teased, her eyes gleaming as she leaped onto the dresser beside the closet.
“Don’t start!” I warned the cat, pulling the dress out before I could change my mind.
The cat snickered to herself as I stepped into the bathroom to change. If Selene was a normal cat I wouldn’t worry about changing in front of her, but for some reason, her ability to speak changed the game and made me feel awkward about disrobing in her presence.
When I stepped back out of the en suite bathroom, I went to check all angles in the mirror before giving myself an approving nod. “I think this works. He’s seen me in it once before, actually. Back before we were dating.” I smiled a little at the memory.
“So, what’s up with you two, anyway?” Selene asked. “I’d ask if you were getting ready to meet his parents, but we’ve already met the old hag and decided she’s awful.”
“Selene,” I chided, though I couldn’t put too much scorn into my tone. Mostly because she had a good point. Clint’s mother was prickly and rude and snobby. But she was also dying, and while she and Clint didn’t have much of a relationship, she was still his mother and therefore important to him. It felt in poor taste to take a whack at her, all things considered.
“He hasn’t met your family,” the cat continued, undeterred. “Wouldn’t it be funny if you brought him to dinner and your mom invited Roger over like last time?”
I rolled my eyes and headed to my jewelry box. “Funny isn’t quite the word I would use,” I muttered.
Selene continued laughing to herself as she ping-ponged back to the bed. “Do you think Lilac will like him as much as she likes Roger?”
“I don’t know. We’re not—there yet.” I plucked pair of delicate hoop earrings from the box and put them in. My short chestnut hair was already done—one of the perks of having a pixie cut, styling was a breeze. I wore a bit of makeup, but not much more than a tinted moisturizer, some eyeshadow, and a swipe of mascara.
“Oh, come on,” Selene protested. “He literally moved to town just to be with you, but you don’t want to take him to family dinner?”
I sighed as I swept out of the room. I’d circle back around for a pair of heels before I left. There was no sense in wearing the small torture devices a moment longer than necessary. “Why are you so invested in this all of a sudden?” I asked the cat. “If I put on the TV will you stop the interrogation?”
“Sheesh. So touchy!” Selene replied, jetting past me as I stepped into the hallway and headed for the kitchen.
I skirted around her as I went to the fridge. Selene leaped onto the counter beside the sink while I retrieved the fresh fillet of snapper, still wrapped in paper from the fish market. I thought about scolding her, but decided against it. Keeping her off the dining room table, kitchen counters, and out of my sock drawer was proving to be a losing battle. Selene did what Selene wanted to do. I was quickly learning to save my energy for bigger issues.
“Clint moved to town to take care of his mother,” I reminded the cat as I took the snapper to the stove. “Things were getting a little … crowded, so he got his own place. It’s only a short-term rental, and I have no idea how long he’s planning on sticking around.”
“Crowded?” Selene scoffed. “His mother’s place looks like that mansion on The Bachelor! You could get lost just trying to find the bathroom in a house like that.”
She was right, the place was downright palatial. But with his mother’s withering personality, I imagined she could take up more space than physically possible.
Nodding, I grabbed a pan from the warming drawer under the oven and turned on a burner. “All I know is that Clint wanted some space.”
“You two going to christen the place tonight?” Selene teased.
I shot her a dark look. “Are you done yet?”
She tilted her head. “I blame you and the steady diet of reality dating shows you’ve had me on since my arrival.”
“You don’t have to watch, you know.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll just got into the other room and count the dust bunnies under the bed,” she muttered.
Ignoring her, I dropped the fillet into the pan and then tossed out the wrapper. “I’m going to finish getting ready,” I said as I set a timer on the microwave.
Selene stayed sentinel over her morsel of fish while I popped into the bathroom to put on lipstick. On my way back out of my room I grabbed my heels and purse. The timer chimed just as I stepped back into the main room of my small house. The home had been built prior to the open-concept craze, but sort of maintained the same feel as there was a wide archway separating the kitchen and cramped dining room from the living room and hallway.
I served up Selene’s fish and put the leftovers in the fridge. For all her talk at the fish market, we both knew her eyes were bigger than her stomach. The filet she’d picked out would last her three or four days.
The cat happily noshed on her food as I turned off the stove and washed my hands. Luckily the snapper didn’t have too pungent of smell, nothing my quick spritz of perfume couldn’t mask. I hoped, anyway.
“All right,” I said, patting my hands on a tea towel, “I’m heading out. Last chance for me to turn on the TV for you.”
“No need,” she said, momentarily lifting her face from the plate. “I’m going out tonight.”
I arched and eyebrow. “You’re going to stay out of trouble, right?”
Selene flashed her teeth. “Don’t I always?”
I crossed my arms. “You’re really not going to tell me where you’re going?”
“Nope.” She went back to eating her filet.
“All right, keep your secrets, but just remember—I don’t have bail money for your furry little butt. Okay?”
In the end, I didn’t have time to play mind games with Selene. She didn’t want to tell me where she was going, and while I had something of a stubborn streak, it was nothing compared to Selene’s. She was built for wars of attrition.
Clint’s new rental home was only a few neighborhoods away from my own, which made for a quick drive. Under other circumstances I would have walked or biked there, but considering the height of my heels and the hemline of my dress, neither option was appealing. I pulled into the driveway beside his black BMW and parked.
Considering both Clint’s income level and his mother’s miniature castle across town, the home was surprisingly modest. A two-story home with a double garage and landscaped yard, perched upon a slight rise overlooking the lake. Even still, it was three, if not four times as large as my own home.
I hadn’t even made it up the front porch steps when the front door opened and Clint appeared. He was dressed casually—well, casual by his standards, anyway—in a pair of slacks and a cable-knit sweater in a soft heather grey color. As he considered me, a smile stretched across his handsome, angular face and little fireflies took flight in my stomach. “Wow,” he breathed. “Cora. You look gorgeous.”
Heat flickered across my cheeks as I climbed the handful of steps. “Thank you.”
He gathered me into a warm embrace and his expensive aftershave swirled around us. “You’re making me feel underdressed,” he teased as we stepped apart and he took another wandering look.
“Well, if it makes you feel better, I’m planning on ditching these heels as soon as I get inside,” I replied with a giggle.
With a warm chuckle he gestured for me to go inside the house. “Don’t let me get in your way!”
Smiling, I crossed the threshold and stepped into the foyer, which was open to the second floor, giving the space a twenty-foot ceiling and room for a large window which would bathe the space in natural light if the sun were still out.
I hadn’t bothered with a coat, seeing as I’d only had to make a short drive and we weren’t planning on going out, so far as I knew. My heels clicked across the wood floors as I continued deeper into the house. I passed a door which likely concealed a powder room before entering a grand room which comprised of the kitchen, dining, and living room. A wall of windows lined the opposite side of the house, complete with a pair of French doors that looked out onto a covered patio, aglow with soft light from a series of hanging lanterns.
The home didn’t feel like he’d only just moved in. Art hung on the walls, the bookshelves flanking the fireplace were decorated with artfully arranged knick knacks. The hutch in the dining room was filled with china and a large vase of fresh flowers stood on the kitchen island.
“So, what do you think of the place?” Clint asked as he came to join me.
“It’s beautiful. How on Earth did you manage to unpack everything so quickly? You say you never use your magic, and yet …”
Clint laughed. “Oh, no. I’m afraid I can’t take any credit for any of this. The place came fully furnished. I essentially showed up with my toothbrush, clothes, and toiletries. I had some groceries and flowers delivered, and voilà!”
“Sounds pretty magical to me,” I teased. “I swear, I was still living out of a suitcase and mostly existing on takeout a solid month after I moved into my house.”
Clint smiled. “I’m the same way. Always too busy to properly settle in.”
We wandered into the kitchen where Clint had two bottles of wine and a pair of glasses set aside. He had me choose the wine and then poured it for us. “Dinner should be here shortly,” he said, leading the way to the living room. He paused to flick a switch beside the fire, and flames burst to life behind the grate. “I didn’t want to subject you to my cooking attempts tonight,” he teased as he came to join me on the sofa.
“I don’t know about that. You make a pretty mean omelet,” I replied before taking a sip from my glass.
Clint chuckled. “Why, thank you. However, that dress you’re wearing demands something a step or two above omelets, I think.”
I laughed and bobbed my head. “Fair enough.”
A quiver of anxiety coursed through my belly as I once again wondered where the night was leading. What is it he wanted to tell me? Despite my protests to Selene, I had been a little on edge today, wondering if maybe he were about to drop some kind of bomb. I didn’t think this was leading to a break-up, by any means, but what if he wanted to take things to the next level? Was he about to profess his feelings for me? And if so, was I in a place to reciprocate them?
I already knew the answer to that question.
“So,” he said after a sip of wine “have you and Selene made any progress on figuring out what the Golden Lotus is?”
I lowered my wine glass to my lap and shook my head. “Not much. According to our research, someone already uncovered the Lotus’s original hiding spot, which renders Obin’s clues useless, even if we had that section of the book.”
Ten days had passed since we found Obin Amorath’s famous treasure guide. However, the section about the mysterious Golden Lotus had been torn from the book, leaving us once again rudderless in our quest to find my Aunt Lavender.
“My mom has been trying to reach Aunt Lavender again with her divination magic, but so far she hasn’t been able to forge a connection,” I added. “It’s starting to feel hopeless.”
Clint reached over and placed a warm hand on my leg. “It’s not hopeless, Cora. We’re going to find her. For all we know, this has nothing to do with the Golden Lotus. Maybe that was just a distraction. What are the police saying?”
“They still don’t believe Aunt Lavender was taken,” I said with a heavy exhale. “Sheriff Templeton is chalking the whole thing up to our imagination, and is convinced she’ll come waltzing back into town, her hands full of treasures.”
Clint gave a disgusted toss of his head. “It’s unacceptable. Someone needs to tell the Warden what’s going on here in Winterspell.”
“We’ve written a letter to Warden Quinton but I’m not sure it’s done much of anything. Without any proof of her abduction, it’s a little hard to get anyone to take us seriously.”
Before Clint could reply, my phone rang. “Oops!” I jolted and scrambled up from the couch to go back to the kitchen. I’d left my purse hanging from the back of one of the bistro-style chairs at the island. “Sorry,” I told Clint as I turned off the ringer. “I thought I put it on silent earlier.”
“I don’t mind, if you need to take it.”
“It’s some unknown number. Probably a sales thing.” I shrugged. “If it’s important, they can leave a message.”
Clint smiled. “Even in the magic world we can’t get away from telemarketers, huh?”
“Apparently not.” I laughed as I sat back on the sofa and plucked my wine glass from the wooden coffee table. “I get them all the time. I should just let Selene deal with them. I can guarantee they’d never call back.”
Clint chuckled. “Remember when we were kids, and phones hung on the wall?”
“Yeah, and you could get away from them.” I sipped my wine and flashed him a grin. “And if you were looking for your friends, you rode around the neighborhood until you saw which driveway the bikes were piled up in.”
“The good old days, I suppose.” Clint grinned. “Although, I must say, I’m quite content with where I am right this moment.”
My cheeks flushed for the second time that evening. “Me, too.”
The doorbell signaled our meal’s arrival, and Clint hurried to go and collect it. I finished off the last swallow of my wine and slipped off my heels. Clint reappeared a moment later with a large white paper bag. “Indian. Got all of your favorites. I may have taken notes last time we went.”
I rubbed my hands together. “Sounds delicious. Thank you.”
Clint got us a couple of plates from the cupboard and set about dishing up the food. We took our meals to the dining table stationed in the center of the large, multi-purpose room, between the kitchen island and the back of the sofa.
“You’re officially my first dinner guest,” Clint said as he sat down.
I backtracked to the kitchen island and snagged the bottle of wine. “Dare I ask if your mom has been over to see the new place?”
Clint frowned as he lifted his fork. “She was here the day before yesterday. Just long enough to comment about the builder-grade finishes, cramped powder room, and cheap window treatments.”
“That sounds … fun.” I cringed as I poured each of us a refill.
Clint hitched one shoulder. “It’s just how she is. I’m used to it.”
I gave an understanding nod as I took my seat. Though, truth be told, Clint’s family dynamic couldn’t have been more different than my own. I was lucky enough to have a great relationship with my own mother, along with my brother, Evan, his wife, and their twin girls.
“Anyway,” Clint said, clearing his throat, “suffice to say, you make for far better company.”
I smiled and took a sip from my glass. “Well, thank you for the invitation, and for the food and wine. This all looks incredible.”
Our conversation shifted as we dug into the meal, and while everything felt light and casual, the tension coiled in my belly began winding tighter and tighter as my curiosity grew.
Toward the end of the meal, Clint sat back and swirled the remaining swallow of wine in the bottom of his glass. He studied it for a long moment before looking back up at me.
“Is everything all right?” I asked.
He smiled softly and set his glass back on the table. “More than all right,” he replied. “But there is something I wanted to talk about with you.”
My stomach cinched. “Right, you, uh, you mentioned something about that on the phone.”
“My mother and I, we shadow box around the fact that she’s sick, and that she won’t be around for much longer.” His brows came low over his brown eyes as e glanced out the windows at the glowing lanterns around his deck. After a moment, he cleared his throat and shifted his gaze back to me. “And I guess, well, it’s made me realize that life is not a zero sum game. The things I’ve spent most, if not all, of my life chasing aren’t the goalposts I should be aiming for.”
He took my hand and squeezed it. I squeezed back, allowing him the time and space to finish the thoughts clearly knocking around in his head.
“When I first agreed to stay and look after my mother, I thought I would miss the hustle and bustle of big city life, but I’m finding that the exact opposite is coming true.” He laughed softly, his eyes shining. “I like it here in Winterspell. With you. And the goals I set for myself aren’t the goals I want to pursue any longer. I don’t need to make tons of money, or close every single deal. I’ve realized that those things aren’t what make me happy anymore. Or maybe they never did. Maybe it was all hollow.”
He smiled at me, almost shyly. “What makes me happy now are the quiet nights in, the walks around the lake, home cooked meals and wine out on the front porch. Maybe I’m a little old to be realizing this now, but the way I grew up it was always about things and status before people and relationships, even with my own parents and their marriage—” He winced. “It’s not what I want, especially not now that I’ve found someone really special.”
My heart fluttered a little bit. “That makes me happy to hear you say that, Clint.”
“I know I’ve been a little bit … reserved. I’m not always the best at expressing how I feel, but I wanted to make it a point tonight, to tell you that I care about you, Cora. Very much.” He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it softly.
“I care about you a lot, too, Clint.”
We leaned in toward one another. His lips pressed into my own, gentle and slow.
He smiled when we broke apart and settled back into our respective seats. “On that note,” he said, “I’ve told the powers that be, I am not anticipating a return to the office in Chicago, and that I also am not looking to add to my client roster.”
My brows lifted. “Really?”
He hitched one shoulder. “A big part of netting clients is the wining and dining, the networking events, cocktail parties, etcetera. To continue growing my business, I would have to fly back and forth all the time, and I’ve decided I have better ways to spend my time than hanging out in airport lounges.”
I quirked my lips. “Are you sure? I mean, I’ve heard some of them have those massager chairs.”
Clint laughed. “Somehow, I’ll soldier on without them.”
We finished our meal, lingering over wine and some chocolate mousse Clint had chilling in the fridge, and talked about our plans for the following weekend.
I’m not a witch gifted with much in the way of prophecy, so I didn’t know exactly what the future held for us, but in that moment, I knew that somehow, whether by fate or a dash of sheer, dumb luck, I’d stumbled into something good. Something safe. A place where I could rest and reignite my battered heart.
And as far as I was concerned, that was a pretty good place to start.