I stopped going to school, I moved out of my apartment and I didn’t tell them anything.
I wrote them a note and had Roxy send it from Cortez the day they gathered my meager belongings and brought them to me, here in Durango. It said not to worry, I was fine. I just needed a break.
I’m sure they’re worried, and I’m not fine.
But what else could I tell them? The me I used to be was dead. My future, the silly future I’d been dreaming of was over.
I grew up in Bar Nunn, Wyoming, a village a stone’s throw from Casper—the city, not the friendly ghost.
Mom and dad are still there, that’s why I’m not.
I can’t face them.
A few months ago I was a college student, waiting tables for extra money. Now I’m a freaking werewolf hiding out in the home of my best friend, who—since I had no idea she was a shifter, a puma—I didn’t actually know so well.
It hadn’t been her fault that a pack of crazed werewolves—god, it sounds so insane—had gone after her, and had used me as bait and a human shield.
And then that… that man bit me.
It hurt so much. It was like being burned alive from the inside.
I didn’t even notice the battle erupting all around me.
I just remembered a man’s voice and his hand holding mine while I…
Well, I pretty much screamed and writhed on the ground until I passed out.
Roxy’s family and friends called him Benny, but his name was Benjamin Wallace.
I liked the name, Benjamin.
I also liked that his last name was Wallace, like William Wallace of the Scottish Wars of Independence. My name is Chelsea Moray. Andrew Moray joined forces with Wallace to defeat the English armies of King Edward.
At least for a while.
But if you watched Braveheart you know it didn’t end well for either of them.
I’m a history major… well, at least I was.
Now I don’t know what I am, or who—but I do have new and exciting paranoia and panic attacks.
I’d tried waitressing again with Roxy and her sister, Stormy at their family’s bar and grille, but I didn’t last ten minutes before those newly found panic attacks sent me running into the back, locking myself in a broom closet, and then begging for Benjamin to come take me back to the house.
And that’s how I thought of the Ironclouds’ house.
As a house, not my home.
It was warm and safe feeling, but even though they were all super nice to me, it was just a house
I also had another problem.
I’ve been a shifter for three months now, and I haven’t shifted.
They said I would probably change into my wolf shortly after I woke up: that didn’t happen.
Then they said I’d shift on the full moon two weeks later: nada.
Benjamin and Roxy both tried to help me into my change on each of the three full moons since I was bitten, and besides some gruesome pain and agony, I didn’t even grow extra body hair.
I hated it.
I hated myself.
I’d been pretty worthless as I was before getting bitten—did I really think I could find a job with a degree in English History? But now, with a crazed monster locked up inside me, clawing me to shreds to get out, I couldn’t see much of a future for myself.
That’s why I needed to leave.
I told Roxy and her family it was because I thought I could learn to control my animal and get better—my skin was slowly turning gray on me, a little bit more mottled every day.
But truthfully, I wanted to go because I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it.
No, I’m not talking about killing myself; though I have thought it oversome.
I’m saying that I don’t think my animal is like Roxy’s or Stormy’s or Benjamin’s. I think it was made defective.
The monster who bit me was defective, and I’ve always felt out of phase with… well, everything. So it makes a sort of sense that my wolf was defective too.
If she wasn’t screwed up I would have shifted by now.
No one had ever seen or heard of a shifter not having shifted.
Stormy’s mate hadn’t shifted in nine years because he’d lost all control and slaughtered the loupes that had murdered his parents. For a long time he’d lived in fear that if he let his bear free again he would lose himself, and become like the ravening monsters that had taken away his parents.
But he’d shifted into his bear a few times before that.
Stormy even tried using her medicine woman magic on me. She did cleansing rituals, had me attend a sweat, even had me fast and then lay in the middle of a medicine wheel her grandmother had built half a century ago.
But in the end, I just got dehydrated and spent the next day in bed with a big jug of orange Gatorade.
The problem had been I really had nowhere else to go.
I couldn’t face my parents—I was chicken—and even if I wasn’t, I couldn’t trust my wolf wouldn’t choose that moment to come out.
I had nightmares that I went to see them, and the moment they hugged me I started to change…
The dreams were bloody and horrifying, and I awoke gasping for breath and trembling.
I had to protect my family from that at all costs.
Then Maddox offered me the use of his grandmother’s house just outside a little town on the other side of the country called Grayslake. There was even an herb shop in town I could manage when I felt I could handle it.
The idea intrigued me, but if I couldn’t wait tables, how could I run a shop?
But going away, getting so far away—it was an answer to my prayers.
Whether I live or died, at least no one I cared about would have to see it or be hurt by it.
So I packed my bags, spent part of my life savings on a solid little 1997 Toyota Camry, and said my goodbyes.
Benjamin, to my distress, had disappeared in a puff of smoke when he heard I was leaving, so I didn’t get to tell him goodbye.
I would miss him most of all.
He was the rock that held me to the earth. Without him I would have perished, the fear and self-loathing would have been too much to bear.
The drive took nearly two weeks. I had to stop a few times and sleep, barricaded in cheap motels—it’s surprising how much movable furniture can be wedged against a motel room door.
But I did finally make it, passing the Welcome to Grayslake, population 5042 sign, and then once in town seeing the sign for Stone Herbs hanging in front of its storefront. I followed the hand-drawn map Maddox had made for me, driving out the twisting country roads until I was there.
House 430 on Rt. 37.
I parked in the gravel driveway and sat there for a little while, listening to the wind blow through the trees, scenting the air—that still freaked me out, how well I could smell and see and hear now. My glasses were a thing of the past. The bad thing was I could smell everything, but I didn’t know what I was smelling.
I got out of the car, grabbed one of my bags and walked up to the house.
It was stone, and tall, and made me think of an old English country house. Kind of Victorian, fashioned from weathered red brick, but the lines of the building were still crisp and severe. The wooden window settings and the front door were a glossy black, the glass leaded and imperfect. The cornices at the eves of the roof were painted the same black.
Maybe a witch lived here…
That thought skittered through my mind and I pushed it aside.
But I was a werewolf, and there were werebears and werepumas and weregorillas and werebison… Roxy’s sister was a medicine woman for her tribe.
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t asked Roxy about witches.
A chill ran up my back.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… tell me there weren’t really vampires.
I’d just gotten here and already I was freaking out about movie monsters.
Am I a movie monster now?
I gripped my bag harder and headed for that glossy black door, the key to it in my hand.
My shaking hand.
Count to ten.
Think about every number.
Think of nothing but those numbers.
Five haunted houses…
I shoved the key in the lock, turned the doorknob and pushed until the darn door sprung open with a low, metallic whine.
Dust motes danced through the sunbeams coming in through the various windows in the foyer, leading up the staircase to the second floor.
It smelled musty, and a little of blood.
Okay, I could smell blood. Gross…
I walked into the front room and saw more light and dust waltzing through the air.
The woodwork was dark, the ceilings impossibly high, and the walls were wallpapered in a gray and silver striped pattern that I saw echoed in the two sitting chairs that bookended the sitting area. The sofa was a splash of color, sky blue silk with white and blue throw pillows.
It was beautiful, and yet cluttered enough to look lived in.
That was if everything hadn’t been covered in a fine layer of dust.
I went to the kitchen and turned on the faucet. A few shuddering gasps later and murky brown water sputtered out, more gasps and jerks, and then the water started coming out steadier, and bit by bit clearer.
I left the tap on while I went out through the kitchen, opening the door to the pantry—it had a gorgeous cut glass doorknob—and then unlocked the back door.
I opened it and left it open.
I opened some of the windows too, to air the place out.
The kitchen window over the sink was tough, but my new shifter strength was really coming in handy.
I didn’t think I’d meet a jar I couldn’t open again.
I opened a window in the living room too.
In the dining room, there was one of those picture windows you can sit in. I unlocked it and pulled it up. It was the kind that had weights on ropes to help hold them open, and you could see the ropes. It opened so easily, and I stood there as the sweet afternoon breeze came through the window.
This might be my new favorite place.
I could just see myself reading one of my history texts here.
I envisioned a little dog curled up at my feet.
I’d always wanted a little dog.
Could I have a dog now that I was a werewolf?
Would the poor thing die of fright just at the sight of me?
I walked up the stairs and looked through the bedroom—didn’t know which one I’d stake claim to until I saw a gentle green light filtering out of a doorway at the end of the hall. The walls were painted a mint green that made me think of the rooms of a house in the Bahamas I saw once on TV.
This was it.
There was a full sized bed and a dresser, and a comfy looking chair by the window with a reading lamp standing just behind it.
Okay, bedroom check.
I scoped out the bathroom.
The toilet was a little old looking, and the step in shower was an unattractive glass box, but I squealed with joy when I saw a claw-footed tub. Cream colored porcelain on the inside, lacquered dark blue on the outside. And black lacquered clawed feet that matched the wood outside.
I flicked on the overhead light and it came to life.
Maddox had said he’d called to get all the utilities turned back on.
He’d said the water heater was electric, but to run the cold water for a while before trying the hot. After I’d seen the brown water, I understood.
I opened all the windows that would open upstairs: all but the bathroom window. The sucker wouldn’t budge. It was one of those foam bubble glassed numbers installed for privacy. It had dots of faded color all over it as if someone had tinted the bubbles by hand at some point.
I really liked the window, but you needed air in a bathroom.
I’d give it another try later.
I traipsed downstairs and out to the car, grabbing my other bag and one of the lighter boxes.
After about five trips I had all my belongings inside the house.
I took my second bag upstairs and pulled out the bed linens I’d bought. I’d gotten one set in full, one in queen and one in single size.
Single beds always made me feel crowded. Queen sized beds made me feel lonely.
So I was glad to find the bed I would sleep in was a full.
I shook my head as I looked at my newly made bed.
I sounded like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
I turned off the upstairs faucet, and then the downstairs, and then turned on the hot. After a minute the cloudy water turned hot. I let it run while I unpacked my clothes into the empty dresser.
The room smelled faintly of licorice and chamomile tea… I think.
I thought about starting on the cleaning—I’d brought a mop and pail, a broom and various dusting apparatuses.
But my stomach growled.
Before I was bitten I ate like a bird: a nibble here, a donut-hole there—and gummy bears.
But now I ate like…
A ravening wolf?
I closed my eyes on that thought and shuddered.
I really liked meat. And carbs. I couldn’t get enough of those.
And yet I’d lost ten pounds.
I think part of it was I felt self-conscious about eating so much.
And part of it was I felt like… like an animal.
Every time I sank my teeth into meat I felt a deep, visceral thrill.
I’d never felt that before about anything.
I hated it.
I turned off the water, grabbed my purse and my car keys and got back in my car.I backed out of my new driveway and head back into town.
Time to meet some of the townsfolk.
Hope they wouldn’t realize I was a wolf in geek-girl clothing.
I was a long, long way from home: five states and fifteen hundred miles… give or take.
Gram died three weeks ago, and I hit the road the next day, after standing at her grave through the night until the sun rose again. My old Chevy truck ate up the highway, taking me farther away by the second.
I missed her desperately. I could still hear her voice, the warmth of her hand on mine, how she always smelled of cloves and honey.
I missed my family too: mom, my brother Bly and my sister Roxy.
But Gram was gone, and I needed some time to myself.
She would’ve understood. She always told us tales of spirit quests and the journeys of ourNative American ancestors.
She would have called my story Runaway Were-Puma Looking for…
What the hell was I looking for?
I wiped my dry eyes with my forearm.
I’d run out of tears by Oklahoma City. Now I was—
Where was I?
Oh, I saw a sign in the distance.
Grayslake, Alabama. Five miles.
I hadn’t stayed more than a day anywhere so far. I just kept driving south-east—because that’s the way my truck seemed to want to go—stopping long enough to eat and sleep and shower, and then driving south-east again.
Day, after day, after day.
Not really the most scenic way to tour America.
Not the best way to forget your troubles and get happy again either.
All I did was drive and think. Think about Gram, about mama and Roxy and Bly.
And why the hell I hadn’t been there when Gram’s heart had failed her.
Why I hadn’t been there to pound on the old woman’s chest, and to blow life back into her lungs.
She’d practically raised us three while Mama was working double shifts at the family bar and grill.
Daddy had been committed—well, obsessed with making a baby werewolf with my mother. So we had him for five years. But once Bly was born, and smelled of wolf instead of puma, the call of the rodeo took him away. He sent postcards, sometimes. But they were years apart.
I hit the brakes and stopped, clenching my teeth so hard my jaw cracked.
The only sounds were of the Chevy’s engine running—a slight miss in the timing, something Bly would have had fixed the instant he’d heard it—and my own pathetic, near hysterical breathing.
I opened my eyes and blew out all the air in my lungs.
I needed to eat and sleep again.
You need to quit blaming yourself, I heard my Gram say.
I looked up into the sky, at the pink and orange sunset that had only an hour ago been as blue as a cornflower. It was summer, so there was still time before it got dark. There were some fluffy white clouds… and one very determined dark gray one that looked to be headed right toward me.
I bit my lip, took my foot off the brake and hit the gas, making my old blue Chevy roar gamely as it rolled down the road toward Grayslake.
About two minutes later I saw two things at the same time. One was a sign that read, “Welcome to Grayslake, population 5042”
The other was a thin older woman with a spine of steel, gunmetal gray hair that was pulled up into a neat as a pin bun, and a lethal stare.
She also had her hand up.
Not a wave, but a command to stop.
She didn’t look like Gram, but she certainly had the same You damn well better stop for me glower.
I stopped, pulling up alongside where she stood.
“How are you today?” I asked. I may have been raised with fangs and claws, but I’d been raised with manners too.
“I’m just fine, thank you.” She gave my old blue Chevy a long look over. “Could I bother you for a lift? My grandson works a short ways into town.” She smiled. It was dazzling.
“Sure,” I said right off and started to get out of the truck. I didn’t think she had a gun in her purse. I hopped out of the Chevy and ran around to open the door for her. She was a spry old gal, grabbing hold of the door and stepping up into the cab of my Chevy with an ease far more youthful than her appearance.
Maybe she did yoga?
She smelled strongly of chamomile tea and black licorice.
Maybe she liked Galliano in her tea?
Once she was seated and had pulled the seat belt about her, laughing lightly as it clicked, I slammed the door shut—it’s an old truck, and you have to slam the door to get them shut right—and jogged back over to the driver’s seat.
As I rolled down the road she hummed a sweet, familiar tune. But I couldn’t put my finger on the title. Just that I’d heard it before.
“I’m Stormy, by the way,” I said crossing over a small, narrow bridge.
“My name is Ester, but my grandson calls me Nonna.”
Oh, yes, the grandson she was going to visit.
“My grandson’s single, by the way,” she said, opening her purse and pulling out a small foil wrapped piece of candy. She offered the candy to me.
I didn’t want to be rude—I d been taught to be polite, and to accept things offered to me. But I shook my head when I caught a whiff of it. That was the source of the chamomile/black licorice smell.
“That’s nice,” I said noncommittally.
“He’s a good looking young man, my Maddox. A real catch.”
Good lord, she was trying to set me, a perfect stranger, up with her grandson.
I rolled my eyes to the heavens and bit the inside of my mouth. The spirits were having fun with me today.
“A Lone Bear, like his daddy and his brothers—makes for a lonely road until they finally find their mate.”
Jesus Christ Superstar! She’d just outed her grandson to a total stranger.
I gave her another sniff. Under the Chamomile and black licorice… she smelled of bear. A little stale smelling, but…
I bit my lip, suddenly very nervous.
It wasn’t everyday you gave a lift to an apex predator.
But I still couldn’t get over her telling me about her grandson.
Maybe she just didn’t realize that being a shifter was a dangerous thing in this day and age. Even if shifters were out of the closet, you didn’t go around telling everyone about it.
The old woman looked at me, her gray eyes sparkling, reflecting a little of the blue of the afternoon sky. “I think a nice girl like you would be wonderful for him. You’re a cat, right? A panther?”
“Puma,” I said miserably.
How in blazes did she know all this? Sure, she could smell as well as I could, but to be able to narrow it down to panther—which is just another name for puma.
“Are you a witch?”
How on earth had I let a witch into my truck?
Witches came in many variations, but the most common one was the black witch, and they were a terrible, menacing thing, gaining their power from the pain and suffering—and deaths—of others.
“Yes, dear… I am.”
Fudge, sugar… argh!
“Black?” I ground out. This little ride had just gone colossally sideways.
“Do I smell like a black witch to you?” she asked with a little placating grin and a touch of her withered finger to her nose.
I sighed. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve never met a witch before.”
“I’m no black witch. They reek of death and rot. I’m a white witch with a bit of the sight, that’s all. Drives people crazy sometimes, but that was back when I was alive.”
“What?” I about hit the brakes. Did she say when I was alive?
She blinked at me innocently. “What?” she asked back.
“What did you say?”
She pursed her lips. “Just now? Well, I said I have a touch of the sight, and it drives people crazy sometimes.”
“And after that?” I didn’t know whether I was scared or getting pissed at the old woman.
“Oh, I said especially when I lived in the city.”
Is that what she’d said?
“Folks are fine with a seer if she lives out in the middle of nowhere. But put one right beside you and you start getting paranoid.”
“That sounds reasonable enough.”
But I still didn’t think that was what she’d said.
We were in town now, and going down the main street.
“There it is on the right… the one with the Stone Herbs Shop sign.”
I saw it. And low and behold, there was a nice wide parking space right up front.
I pulled into the spot but didn’t turn off the engine. I just sat there.
Was I that scared of the little old woman sitting in the passenger seat?
The little old lady that was a werebear and a witch?
A little old lady that could explode into an apex predator…
Or the little old lady able to kill me with a thought…
Yeah, I admit it. She scared the crap right out of me.
“I’m not going to harm you,” she said, teasing in her crinkled, singsong voice. “I need you.”
I turned and looked at her, her eyes met mine and I felt this little jolt—there was more to this old girl than being a shifter and a witch. I could feel it.
It had something to do with her smell too. That staleness…
“Need me for what?” I asked.
“I need someone magically inclined, little medicine woman.” She turned and tried to open the door to the truck, but it was sticking.
It did that sometimes.
I shook my head, reluctantly switched off the ignition, and then jumped out of the truck. A few steps and I was at the passenger side door, opening it for her.
“Thank you, dear. This truck of yours isn’t as old as me, but it has just as many stiff parts.”
I smiled. “Funny.”
She hopped down out of the truck with agility. Not so impressive now that I knew she was a shifter.
I closed the door and stared at her.
“You’ve got the wrong girl, lady. My Gram is…” I closed my eyes and pushed through the pain that still flooded me whenever I thought of her… and remembered she was dead. “She was the medicine woman of our tribe. But she’s gone now.”
She nodded and started toward the open door to the shop. It was propped open so the wonderful fresh air could waft into the enclosed space. She disappeared into the darkened doorway.
“I’m not sure who will take her place,” I said, following after her into the store. “She once told me it was passed down, but I’m not sure how.”
It was darker in the store. They must be trying to save on the electric bill. But moments later my shifter eyes adjusted just fine.
And that’s when I realized I was standing in the little shop all by myself.
I blinked and looked around.
The most gorgeous man I’d ever seen—or imagined (thick amber colored hair, a beautiful face with a lush, kissable mouth, and a strong, broad-shouldered body—walked out from a backroom and gave me a smile. It didn’t make it to his eyes, so I knew it was just for show, but he did have lovely straight white teeth.
Was this her grandson… the lone bear… and apex predator?
My puma shivered inside me. She was usually fearless, but something about this man was making her want to run.
Stupidly I didn’t.
Instead, I stood there and tried to return the smile. I’m sure it was as fake as his was.
His fake smile slid from his face as if it had never been there. “Can I help you?”
I saw his nostrils flare as he took in my scent.
His eyes got really big, then.
He surely couldn’t be afraid of a little old puma.
“You smell like…” He just stood there and stared at me, his chest rising and falling with the quickening of his breathing.
“I’m a puma, garden variety, so that’s… what… you’re… smelling.”
He took two big strides forward and was suddenly standing not a foot away from me.
Double crap, that was fast…
“You smell like Nonna.” His voice had hardened and was intensified with a deep, vibrating growl.
I took a step back. This wasn’t good.
“Yeah, I gave your… your Nonna a ride into town.”
He stepped closer to me, his eyes darkening.
I started rambling. “She wanted me to help her with something—chatty little thing. A little too chatty.”
His eyes blazed gold. “What kind of sick joke is this?”
I tried to back away again but hit the wall.
I put my hands up in surrender. But my eyes were trying to steer me back toward that open front door.
“Her scent’s all over you!” he shouted, his voice booming like thunder in the small enclosed space. “Do you have something of hers on you?”
I shook my head and licked my very dry lips. “As I said, I gave her a ride into town. She was out by the city limits, by that ‘Welcome to Grayslake sign’.”
When he opened his mouth I saw his teeth were elongated. Fur had started to sprout on his face and down his arms, and his fingernails had turned to black claws.
He was going to shift right here and now.
And just like that the most horrifying thing I’d ever seen happened.
This man stopped his change.
Literally just stopped it right then and there. I saw the moment he stopped himself from losing control. The fur melted back into his flesh and his eyes turned back to their normal deep dark brown—but there were cracks in his irises where the gold of his bear was seeping through.
I watched just long enough to see his teeth sink back into his gums—that was when I turned and ran for the door.
Once outside I scrambled around my old Chevy and fumbled with my keys, dropping them on the street, and crouched down to grab them.
The werebear wasn’t following me, but I still jerked myself into the cab of my truck and hit the gas the instant the engine caught.
Luckily, no one was driving by just then, or I would’ve crashed right into them.
I kept looking in my rearview mirror, relieved to see the werebear wasn’t coming after me.
That’s what the old woman had called him.
Sweet spirits in the sky, that was horrifying. I’d never seen anyone stop themselves from changing, not once they’d actually started.
And the way the bear was still leaking through, those cracks in the irises of his eyes. What in the world did that mean?
I shook that question out of my head.
First things first… I needed to get the heck out of this town.
I looked at my truck’s gas gauge. It was teetering on empty.
Who knew when I’d hit another town? This was pretty far out in the middle of nowhere.
I started scanning the city blocks as I careened down the street.
There, on the left: Jerry’s Gas Station.
I pulled into a pump and looked around, checking to make sure that werebear wasn’t coming after me.
But would he really do that in the light of day?
I shivered. I didn’t want to know.
The credit card slot on the gas pump was taped-over. A post-it said to pay the cashier inside.
Rock, hard place.
I jogged across the parking lot and pulled open the door to the station, making the bell taped to the top of the door clamor.
A tall, thin man stood behind the counter, and he smiled at me. “Hi, can I help you?”
I took a deep lungful of air and smelled human. Good, that was good.
Plus his smile was real. Just a happy guy.
I looked at his name tag: Jerry.
Must be the owner.
“I need to fill up.”
He nodded. “Cash or credit?”
“Credit.” I glanced nervously out the window. Still no sign of Mr. Werebear.
He took my card and slid it through his cash register. “Sorry about that. I’ve got a guy coming to fix the credit card readers this afternoon.”
“No problem,” I said, and then my stomach growled.
Loud enough that Jerry gave me a look.
“There’s a good place to eat down the street. Carly’s Burgers. Get The Contender. You won’t be hungry for days.”
He handed me my card back. “Your receipt will print when you finish filling.”
“Thanks,” I said and turned to leave.
I filled up my truck, snagged my receipt, and got back in my truck.
Still no sign of Maddox the werebear.
I slid out into traffic and immediately saw Carly’s Burgers.
My stomach roared this time.
Okay, a quick bite and I’d get my ass back on the road. If anything I’d sleep in my truck when I absolutely had to sleep.