Chapter 1 - Anna
“I’ll kill you, you witch!”
The bullet behind that statement impacts my shoulder, knocking me backward. My psychic shield is up before the bullet’s crack resounds off the pine trunks and forest trail ahead.
Blood streams down my arm as pain ripples through my body, bringing light specks to my vision.
Her next shot misses my shield by yards, kicking up grit from the path where the trail curves sharply to the right and disappears among the trees.
I follow its course, thankful for the twilit hour. Dodging between seedling pine and fern, I shape shift from my naked black-haired female form and morph into a male wolf-dog hybrid.
My transformation stanches the blood sliding across my shoulder, but shape-shifting won’t take the slug away. Epidermal wounds heal instantly, but the deeper damage remains. Over time, the nerves will deaden, but the grind of lead against bone won’t.
I run a few yards further through the darkness, but the crippling pain forces me to slow to a limping trot.
Behind me, her fury, high-pitched and indecipherable, fades behind the curtain of trees. She won’t follow, won’t wander beyond the safety of their property. At least, that’s what Frank told me before his memories started to flicker.
Two years had passed before she discovered our friendship, and only then because I walked him all the way home. Frank could find his way to the waterfall without fail but navigating the trail back was beyond him. His house was a moving target in his mind, never where he left it the last time.
In those two years, she should’ve developed concern about him wandering off, but then, maybe I’m partly to blame. I brought him home, never let him linger past twilight or late enough for her to worry.
Except this afternoon. This time she waited, handgun cocked.
Strange is the jealousy of a human female — illogical. His wife neglects him all day, then finds fault when someone else fills in.
As a canine, I should find her territorial behavior easy to comprehend, but I don’t. My Livran nature supersedes it. Life is simpler lived as a creature of the forest, but my mind is still of another world.
I stop in a culvert surrounded by hawthorn. Licking my shoulder offers no relief; I need to deal with the bullet.
Shifting back to human allows me to walk upright and rest my shoulder, but the damp of the Oregon coast gnaws into my naked flesh. With a shudder, I keep moving. There’s a safe place less than an hour from here.
It’s twilight, but the lights of Mason’s Service Station are on, telling me I’m heading in the right direction, and I continue toward it. An aging steel-gray station wagon rolls up to a gas pump as I reach the forest edge. Inside, two teenagers bob their heads to a rhythm. The driver’s door opens and the song’s volume rises.
The words are sharp and clear, and definitely not within the range of human ears. If you can hear this, come find me. Los Angeles, California. The message resonates against my chest, and I rub the tattoo on my breastbone where my crystal lies.
Curiosity piqued, I focus on the song, hoping to catch the rest of the lyrics. A quick glance around reveals no one in sight. I withdraw among pine saplings, drop to all fours and transform back to canine, ears twitching toward the music.
The soulful ballad continues. The message repeats, reverberating through my gem, a single instruction, words only a Livran can hear — a summons to my people.
I’m tired, hurt and tempted to escape this town and find the me from that message. But L.A. is miles from here, and who’d look out for Frank?
A familiar bark welcomes me as I approach Chance’s territory, a homestead owned by a couple called Johnson. Clearing the forest, I lope across a field of wild grasses, my limp more prominent.
The golden retriever bounds up and down the fence line, his coat gleaming in the harsh porch light. Gray hair has grown in around his muzzle, but Chance can rally plenty of energy with the right motivation.
My wolf-dog form holds true to his wolven heritage, making me yip in response to Chance’s barks. Meeting at the fence, we touch noses through the hog panel, then the golden jumps at the steel mesh, bark amplifying into an alert.
The back door of the ranch house creaks. “Chance, what’re you going on about, boy?” Don Johnson calls, squinting into the shadows.
The Johnsons seem pleased to provide the occasional meal, and if it weren’t for the notorious habit human’s have of collecting things — animals included — I’d come more often.
Chance continues barking, happy for an excuse to get excited. Don turns on the backyard floods.
I blink into the light, yip a few times and jump at the fence.
“Well, well, if it ain’t Mr. Opportunity come for a visit.” Don chuckles and calls over his shoulder to the open doorway. “Steve, come out here and meet Opportunity. Don’t see him often, but it’s always a pleasure when he graces us with his presence.”
Don opens the gate, and I trot inside, but before I can thank the human, Chance bounds over. We circle each other, our playful greeting making Don laugh.
“What are you hollering about, Dad?” Steve appears at the gap in the door. He’s tall like his father, broad-shouldered and muscular. He swaggers across the porch, solid chest sheathed in a snug T-shirt and jeans over tan work boots. His jaw drops. “Is that a wolf?”
“Nah, not full wolf, anyhow, he’s friendly.” Don rubs between my ears. “Come on, Opportunity, let’s get you some chow. Carol?”
I yip and weave between human legs to get inside.
“Carol?” Don pulls the door shut behind us.
“I heard you already, Don.” Carol grins when she sees me, wrinkles gathering around her eyes. She stoops to set a bowl of canned meat and kibble in front of me.
The food tastes bland, nothing like a fresh meal from the forest, but no effort required, and it fills the hole in my belly. I lap up the goods while my hosts talk over my head and Chance sniffs the scent of wilderness off my coat.
When I’m done, I trail Chance to his favorite spot on the carpet in front of the TV. Eating and rest eases the pain in my shoulder. I do my best to hide its tenderness as I sink beside the golden and lower my muzzle to the floor.
Steve squats and rubs my head. “You sure are a handsome fella.”
I glance into storm-cloud gray eyes, thinking I could say the same, and breathe in the scent of human hormones and cinnamint. When he’s done fawning, he drops onto the couch and grabs the TV remote.
Chance huffs out a breath, making me glance his way. Something’s off; I can smell it. Not a sickness, exactly, more the scent of staleness, like a room closed up too long.
Giving up on the puzzle, I tune out the TV and slip into a food-induced doze.
“Did you hear that?” Steve’s question jolts me awake.
“Hear what, honey?” Carol wanders in, dishcloth in hand.
Steve turns his upper body to face her, making the white cotton across his back stretch over muscle. “On the news. A shooting here in Florence.”
My ears prick, but the humans don’t notice.
Carol zeros in on the wide screen. “What’d they say?”
Steve hits mute. “Breaking news, so not much detail. Something to do with a robbery.”
I stretch out my sore shoulder and settle back into a half-sleep.
A vehicle pulls into the driveway, rousing me. Unaware of its arrival, the Johnsons remain focused on their TV, but Chance springs to his feet and starts barking.
Oh, right, the guard dog thing. I rise in a show of support, wagging my tail in time to his.
The doorbell rings.
Don rocks out of his recliner and orders Chance away from the door.
I shadow the golden, mimicking his enthusiasm.
A man with a crew cut in a police uniform sticks his head in the gap of the door. He shows an ID, apologizes for disturbing them and explains there’s been a shooting.
Steve’s voice rumbles over my head. “We heard on the news.”
The cop nods. “We’re looking for a Native American woman, medium build, early twenties…”
The desire to run expands in my chest. I breathe deeply, pushing down my fear. I’m a dog; I’m safe.
“Involved in a robbery,” the officer adds.
A robbery? If he’s talking about me, there was no robbery. Unless his wife accused me of stealing Frank, which is ridiculous. I’ve only ever returned him.
The officer clears his throat. “And she was last seen naked.”
I clench my jaw. Humans and their body shame.
Steve coughs a laugh. “Well, if I’d seen her, I’d sure know it.” He smirks. “You need any help looking?”
The officer’s expression suggests he’s been getting similar offers all night. “She was last seen in the forest a few miles south of here, so we’re informing residents.”
Don presses thumb and forefinger to his temples and nods. “We’ll keep our eyes open. She wasn’t armed was she?”
The officer shakes his head. “No, but she may have a bullet wound.”
Carol sucks in a breath. “Someone shot her?”
“Afraid I can’t say at this juncture, but we don’t believe the girl is dangerous.”
I don’t want to draw attention to myself, but even so, I push closer for a whiff of the man, hoping to catch other scents that will confirm he’s talking about me.
He smells of the forest around Frank’s place. He looks down at me. “Hey, that’s a good-looking dog you’ve got there. What is he?”
Don tucks his hands into his pants pockets. “Wolf mix. Part German shepherd, we reckon.”
The officer smiles. “He’s a handsome fella.”
Carol rubs my ears. “He sure is.”
I sense a protectiveness in her gesture and press into her jean-clad leg, triggering a stab of pain I have to bite back to keep from wincing.
“Well, thank you for your time.” The officer tips his head and jogs down the front steps as Don shuts the door.
“A naked girl, huh?” Steve chuckles.
Carol slaps his arm. “Behave yourself.” Her chastising makes his grin widen.
Chance flops to the floor, and I sink beside him, Frank’s safety heavy on my mind. His wife is clueless, and I can’t believe she told the police I’d robbed her. The accusation burns, but worse, it promises more trouble when I meet Frank tomorrow. Yet, I’ll have to do it, anyway.
I track the Johnsons’ movements as they head for bed. Chance trots after the couple while Steve sticks around to watch the end of a show on Netflix before calling it a night. Once the lights are out, I wait, listening to the tick of the kitchen clock, then rise and pad across carpet, onto tile and back to carpet.
Stopping outside each bedroom door, I listen for the slow breaths of the sleeping occupants. Satisfied, I head to the bathroom and nudge the door closed.
After news of my notoriety, I don’t relish turning human, but dogs lack opposable thumbs, so I do. Once I’ve covered the gap under the door with the bathmat, I switch on the light. Blinking, I face the bathroom mirror. The girl before me is both strange and familiar. Her face has changed since the last time I saw her, years ago. I’d barely been a teenager.
Her hair has grown, and her skin seems lighter than I remember. Shaking my head, I search drawers for supplies: scissors, tweezers and wipes. I wash the tools. A firm touch on the sealed-over wound shoots pain up my neck and into my jaw. Pinching lips, I press harder until I feel the bullet.
Staring into the mirror, I angle a scissor blade and press its sharp point through skin. Blood drips between my fingers as I dig. It’s all I can do to hold back the growl building in my throat. I press deeper, and the steel tip meets bone.
Sagging against the wall, breathing heavy, I watch the color drain from my face.
I slide the stained scissors into the sink and reach for the tweezers. Tears drench my cheeks and my throat strains with a scream I won’t let out. For all the agony and probing, I can’t find the slug.
The tweezers join the scissors. Weakly, I staunch the blood flow with one hand while cleaning up with the other. When the bathroom looks like I found it, I kill the light, adjust the bathmat and transform to canine as I cross the threshold.
The wound heals externally, but thanks to my digging, the pain is worse than before.
The door to Steve’s room is ajar. I nose the gap wide enough to see inside. The man sleeps on his side, his thick shoulders and muscled back silhouetted against the window light. His body is virile.
Desire echoes, an uncomfortable tension that stretches like a drawn bow string, arrow ready to fly. I could turn human, slip into his room and find out how serious he was about hunting for that naked girl. But he’d more likely think I was attacking him and try to kill me.
With a whispered huff, I retreat from the allure of his masculine scent.
Chapter 2 - Kate
Smoothing my blue cotton skirt, I cross the streets of downtown, quiet this early, and hurry through the wrought iron gates toward the center of the park where the freshly painted bandstand rises level with the tops of flowering cherry trees.
As I run up the steps, Allison smiles and unfolds her body from a bench seat.
I take in the purple yoga pants and matching sports bra. “Nice outfit.”
She harrumphs. “Easiest way to escape. Mom thinks I need more exercise, and there’s a yoga place up the street.”
“Do you like yoga?”
Allison’s nostrils flare. “Yeah, mainly because Mom hates it and won’t go.” She gazes across the trimmed grass into the shadows of the trees, gives me a sidelong glance and pinches a thumb and forefinger. “I’m this close to taking off.”
I nod. Fighting a perfectionist parent is a losing battle, and Allison has more scars than a sixteen-year-old deserves. She needs to give herself permission and the power to stand up to her mother.
I’ve helped a few others, but there’s always the risk something unexpected will shake loose when altering a person’s mind. This has to be Allison’s choice, and she needs to be certain.
“So, you really want to do this?”
“Yeah. It’s not like I don’t want to yell at her; I just can’t.” She huffs. “If you can get me past freezing up the second she and I get into it, that’d be a start.”
I sit beside her and squeeze my palms between my knees. “A start, sure, but once unfrozen, you’ll find you have the power to act. Can you handle that responsibility?”
Allison’s brow tightens. “Responsibility meaning what?”
“Can you promise to act with diplomacy? Winning a war isn’t about the size of your arsenal or your ability to launch it. What matters is how you use your weapons.” I shake my head. “Let’s call them tools, your greatest being your voice, your words. If you can speak with love and compassion, no matter what your mom says to you, then you can win the war.”
“Love and compassion?” She wrings her hands. “It’s hard to feel those things where she’s concerned.”
“Can you feel empathy for a stranger?”
Allison shrugs. “Like some kid or old man in the street? Yeah. Pastor Wilson is all over us with the ol’ good will toward neighbors.”
“So, when you talk to your mom, you must think of her like one of those neighbors. You’ll hold the power, and you must wield it wisely.”
“You mean don’t treat her like she treats me?” Her eyes grow hard.
“If you do,” I add, “the cycle will continue, only you’ll be doing the hurting instead of her, or maybe, both of you will do the hurting, putting you at a stalemate.”
The girl beside me nods sharply. “I can rise to that, be better than her.”
I smile. “Okay.” I offer both hands, palms up, and she settles hers over the top. Healing energy flows between us. “Tell me how you want to feel and what you want to do when your mom speaks harshly.”
“I want to stand up to her, feel strong and confident.”
“Close your eyes and imagine a confrontation with your mom. I want you to think about how the situation will play out, how good you’ll feel to speak your mind, then claim the confidence to do so.”
I sense her feelings through our physical connection, calm at first, like the ebb and flow of the tide. I pinpoint her conditioned thoughts: the fear, hurt, self-loathing. Isolating them is simple.
While Allison focuses on what she wants to think and feel, I gently wipe away the conditioned behaviors that make her freeze. Confidence and strength flow in, filling the cleared memory space.
She draws in a deep breath and opens her eyes. “I feel like I just woke from the most amazing nap.”
A smile overtakes me as I release her hands. “You kind of just did.”
Allison pulls back her shoulders and grins. “I think I’m ready to take on the world.”
Chapter 3 - Dominic
The rough burr of Uncle Hugh’s old truck and the creak of its handbrake pull my attention from my job flushing the tractor radiator.
I lean against the barn’s door frame, wiping my hands on a rag, as Kate slides from the driver’s seat, the morning sun glancing off her wheat-colored hair and making it shine like spun gold. “Where’d you head to so early?”
“Downtown.” She sets a tray with two coffee cups on the truck hood and approaches, lifting a hand to shield those big blue eyes of hers from the light. “Brought you a hazelnut iced.”
“Well, thank you, Blondie, but I missed seeing you when I arrived.” I wrap my arms around her and drop a kiss on the top of her head.
She hugs me back. “You don’t have codependency issues, do you?”
I laugh. “No siree, just jonesing for the prettiest girl in Lincoln County.”
Kate returns a smirk as she pulls away. “Sure sounds like a codependency issue to me.”
“Mm-hmm. And would that be your professional opinion, Miss Trent?”
“If I were a professional, Mr. Jameson, then it would be. Yes.”
My stomach growls, cutting off a smart-ass response, and I frown at the offending organ. “Seems I might have a breakfast issue as well.”
Kate looks at her watch. “Oh, shoot! How’d it get so late? Dad’ll be back from the co-op any minute.”
I hook her hands before she gets away. “I’ll run interference, but I need to talk to you…”
“Sure, but later. Dad’ll be sore if the food isn’t ready.”
“Yeah, okay.” I let her go. “Later works.” I don’t want to be rushed with what I have to say.
She thrusts a coffee cup into my hand and all but runs toward the farmhouse.
I delay Uncle Hugh with some maintenance questions concerning the combine harvester. The distraction buys Kate enough time, and we’re greeted by the smell of corned beef and fresh-baked biscuits as we walk through the kitchen door.
Hugh takes his place at the table head.
Kate sets a glass of apple juice in front of him, then dishes up his meal before serving mine.
I throw a glance at Hugh. My uncle is efficient with talk at the best of times, but expressing his appreciation falls short. Mom wouldn’t let him get away with wordlessly eating a meal she set in front of him, but Kate’s too humble.
Not for the first time, I want to speak up but let it slide. Kate wouldn’t thank me for stirring settled water but seeing her stepped on like a doormat rankles. All the more reason I should talk to her soon.
I catch her eye and wink as she delivers my plate. “Thanks, Blondie.” I’m rewarded with a secret smile, the one she reserves for me. Her mom took care of the cooking before God took that good woman away five years ago.
Kate and I were just out of high school. Not only did losing her mom crush Kate’s heart, it crushed her plan of going to college to study psychology. She gave up her dream without a single complaint, which makes Hugh’s lack of appreciation more frustrating.
Volunteering as a peer counselor at church satisfied some of her need to help others. She’s always been eager that way, even when she first arrived, a sprout of a kid no more than five, cuter than a basket of spring puppies. I thought she was the most beautiful thing on this earth, even back then.
Aunt Linda wanted a kid in a bad way, and when she couldn’t have one naturally, Hugh saw to it they adopted.
Kate sits at the table with a bowl of oatmeal drowned in fresh berries. That girl is sweet on sweet.
Hugh pushes his empty plate away and studies his phone. “Gloria says she’s stopping by with some pie.”
Another gal who knows the shortest route to a man’s heart, and I think she might be sweet on Uncle Hugh to boot, given the number of baked goods that’ve made it this way lately.
Kate nods. “If it’s apple crumble, she’s after you, Pa. If it’s pecan pie, she want Dom to do her a favor.” She lifts her chin and smiles. “And if it’s berry pie, she’ll be my best friend for life.”
I frown. “And here I was thinking I was your best friend for life.”
She looks at me sidelong. “How good’s your berry pie?”
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