Authors: Shelli Stevens
Thanks to my family, friends, editor Tera, and all those who helped make this book fabulous. Especially to Danielle and Christina who were my betas and gave me the thumbs up.
Karina re-fastened her ponytail and took off at a slow jogging pace on the trail.
She needed to clear her head from the one too many beers she’d had last night at the bar. Though her mouth felt like cotton and there was a subtle pounding in her head, she’d still hauled her butt out of bed for a steady run on a quiet trail in the woods.
It was her cure all for the typical Saturday morning hangover. Not to mention it kept her ass looking fabulous.
With music blaring from her iPod and Mother Nature for eye candy, happiness was hers for the taking. She could forget she was going through a divorce. Forget her husband was threatening to take her to court to get custody of their daughter.
Life out running was so simple. So mind-numbing.
Maybe it was the eerie cords of the song she was listening to, but the hairs on the back of her neck lifted as the usual lightness of her run took on a darker note.
The sense she was being stalked came quickly and sent a shiver of fear down her spine. She tugged the ear buds out and slowed to a stop.
With adrenaline keeping her heart racing, she swept her gaze around the woods.
She saw nothing out of the norm, only the same mix of shadows and light where the sun broke through the treetops.
But she wasn’t alone, and the sudden realization came in the flurry of leaves lifting and something dark racing toward her.
“What the fuck?” Karina stumbled back with a cry of shock, but it was too late. The creature was on her, teeth flashing before they buried into her neck. Ripping. Biting.
Pain was her world now, and it floated on a sea of red. Her cries for help brought no sound, only more blood.
The last thing she saw on the wolf was the glittering green of eyes that looked strangely human.
Must keep running.
Nathan Larson blinked the sweat from his eyes, but the few trees around him still morphed and stretched into orbs of green. His muscles trembled from exertion and sleep deprivation made him half delusional, but he refused to stop and rest. Hell, he couldn’t have stopped even if he’d wanted to.
He didn’t falter, just plunged on, tearing through the forest in the form of his wolf. His paws barely touched the dirt and rocks.
It was unfortunate, but his scent would linger in some places from early on in his journey. He’d tried to be careful by being resourceful. Using rivers, lakes and even the ocean at times to swim south in a blatant attempt to hide his path.
And then he’d hit the jackpot when stumbling across an empty hunting cabin outside Cannon Beach. After breaking inside, he’d ravaged any dried foods he could find to refuel his body. Though, more than the food, it was the bleach that had been his savior, offering him the possibility of masking his scent once he diluted it and washed his body.
There’d been no time for sleep or rest at the cabin—he’d known that would have to come later, but now, who knows how many days had passed since he’d been forced to run.
Exhaustion was going to take him down for the count if he didn’t find a place to rest for several hours.
He blinked the sweat from his eyes and tried to comprehend his surroundings again. Where the hell was he even? Southern Oregon? Northern California?
The spruce trees had faded into redwoods. The redwoods were beginning to fade into dry granite hills.
The hours, days, were all a blur. There were periods he couldn’t even remember. Maybe he’d passed out or just blacked out from exhaustion.
Where are you going?
The question had spun in his head continuously and he still didn’t have an answer. He just knew he had to keep running. Had to think of a way out of this.
. The image slammed into him and he stumbled over a protruding root. So much blood.
He shook his head and tried to rid the horrific image and focus on the trees in front of him. There was no clear-cut trail, but it was better that way. It would make him harder to track.
The sudden gray among rugged terrain had his glance whipping to the side. Solid rock ran parallel behind the trees, rising and falling in a jagged wall.
A cave. Maybe he could find a cave to crash in, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to make it much farther.
With a low snarl he tore off to the left and to the hope for shelter. It took several minutes of exploration, but luck, again, was on his side.
Nathan wedged himself into what was little more than a crevice deep into the mountain of rock. It wasn’t perfect, but it would hide him enough if anyone passed by.
Without intending to, his body shifted back to human. His muscles stretching and popping, trembling with exhaustion through the change. Naked, and fully human, he fell to his hands and knees.
The ragged breath he dragged into his lungs was warm and gritty from the dusty rocks around him.
He slid to the ground completely and rolled onto his back. There was the brief image of blue sky above him through the rocks, before his eyelids—feeling as if there were leaden weights on them—fell shut.
Behind closed lids there were no sunny skies, just a sea of red.
A hoarse cry of pain and frustration gathered in his chest, but he ground his teeth together and held it back.
The cry of a hawk sounded above him, but in his head it morphed into the screams for mercy that would forever haunt him.
He would rest for now, but he had to keep running. If he stopped, he was a dead man.
Before he passed out, he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe death was the easy way out.
“Do you want another coffee?”
Glancing up from her laptop, Sage gave a friendly smile and shook her head.
“Thanks, Eva, but one’ll do me this afternoon. If I have anymore caffeine I’ll be climbing the walls.”
“It’s a gorgeous day, Sage. Not too hot, low eighties. Almost sweater weather here.” The middle-aged waitress propped one hand on her hip and waved the coffee pot toward the window with the other one. “You should be outside, not lounging around in here.”
Eva looked as if she spent most of her free time outside. Tanned skin that appeared on the leathery side, lots of sunspots, and white-blonde hair that was probably mostly due to a box and a bit from sunlight.
Sometimes she envied people like Eva who could go out into the sun and not burn within minutes. Her own skin was so fair and freckled, all she had to do was walk from her car to her house on a hot day and her skin was pink.
Pulled further out of the story she was working on with every passing second, Sage didn’t get frustrated—because she’d already been before Eva had come over—and instead just offered another bright smile.
“You’re right, it
gorgeous, but I have work to do. Pay the bills and all.”
The woman glanced down at Sage’s laptop and frowned. “Writing those books again?”
“It’s what I do.” She reached for her coffee and finished the last sip before adding brightly, “And you know, I’m really rather lucky to be able to call this my job. I don’t have to sit at a desk all day, I can make my own hours—”
“Well then, ya see? You can go outside and work on your book later, right?”
Oy. Eva was as bad as her mother with the hounding. She grimaced and shook her head.
“I need to turn this book in by the end of the month, so I’m really pushing to keep up. I’ve made a deal with myself that when I hit my word count goal for the day I can go outside. Shouldn’t be long.”
“Hmmph. All right, I’ll leave you alone. You sure you don’t want any more coffee?”
“I’m sure. I’ll be fine. Thanks.”
Eva nodded and moved on to the back of the restaurant where the only other customer sat.
Sage watched her for a moment before letting her gaze fall on the old TV secured on the far wall.
The news was on. Though the volume was down, she could see the headline about a group of soldiers being accused of a murderous rampage in a small village in Afghanistan.
Her heart sunk a little. The news was nothing but depressing stories, and this war had been endless, and just as depressing.
She pulled her focus from the TV and glanced out the window and over the rugged, brown terrain. While some considered early fall around the Fresno area to be almost sweater weather, it was still entirely too hot for her. Which was why it was easier to write in the Sasquatch Diner than in her house that had broken air-conditioning.
She’d have to get that fixed. She would, she vowed again silently, watching the October heat shimmer on the mountainside. It would just have to wait until her next paycheck.
Which means you’d better get your butt in gear and finish this book.
Biting back an agitated laugh, she turned her attention back to the laptop in front of her and the cursor that blinked in almost gleeful torment.
Finish this book? Oh God, as if it were that easy. If it were as easy as it used to be, the book would’ve been done weeks ago. Months ago. Instead, she had a deadline in a matter of weeks, and she was on chapter two.
Chapter freaking two
“I’m so screwed,” she whispered and pushed her coffee mug aside to give her enough room to fold her arms on the table and lay her head on it.
She was blocked. She’d always sworn she didn’t believe in writer’s block and thought the muse was an excuse to justify lazy writers being unproductive, yet here she was, lucky to write a handful of words a day.
But the words wouldn’t come.
They would not come
. She’d tried, oh crud, it was ridiculous how she’d tried to make them flow, but they were stuck behind a twenty-mile creative logjam in her brain.
Because you write about everything you’re not, and it’s finally catching up with you.
The voice of self-doubt resonated the familiar worry in her head.
Yet she’d managed to fake it well enough to publish fifteen books—six which had hit major bestseller lists. She argued the point silently, and then turned her attention back to the open manuscript in front of her.
“I can do this,” she muttered and rested her hands on the keys. “I can do this.”
She typed a sentence. Two sentences. Hallelujah she was on three!
Sage sucked her bottom lip between her teeth, shook her head, and deleted what she’d just typed. Who was she kidding? Those sentences sucked. She couldn’t do this. Not now. Definitely not tonight when her focus was extra scattered.
Minimizing her document, she looked at the wallpaper on her laptop and let out a soft sigh.
Her lips curled slightly as she traced a finger over the image of a man playing an acoustic guitar. A lock of reddish-blond hair fell over his face, blocking one of his half-closed eyes.
Oh, he was so handsome and really, incredibly charming. Women seemed to love him…maybe even she did. A little.
In the photo his lips were parted and she could almost hear his throaty voice as he sang a song about destiny. Each time she heard him sing it, it never failed to make her heart flutter.
And that fluttering would be happening sooner than later. Just a few more hours from now, to be exact. He was scheduled to play at The Gold Mine tonight and she intended to be there.
“Maybe you’d like some iced coffee instead? Looks like you could use some cooling off.”
Flushing at the realization she’d been caught mooning at her desktop image, Sage closed the lid and shook her head.
“Thanks, Eva. Actually, I should head out for the day. I need to get ready for tonight.”
“Leaf Jacobs is in town for a concert again, hmm?” Sighing, the waitress shook her head. “I’ll get your check.”
Was she that obvious? Stupid question. Clearly she was. Half the town knew she had a crush on the indie musician by now. Even Leaf knew, and it wasn’t an altogether one-sided crush.
It wasn’t, she told herself again as she pulled out a ten from her wallet.
Tonight she might even be bold enough to put her plan into action.
She tossed the money onto the table and headed for the door.
Tonight she might try her hand at seduction.
Ten dollars. That was the last of the money.
Nathan crumpled the bill in his hand before stuffing it into the pocket of his jeans.
Actually, they weren’t his jeans. They belonged to the owner of the last house he’d broken into this morning.
The jeans were stolen along with the other clothes he wore. He’d also taken advantage of a shower, bleach, food and twenty dollars he’d found in a jewelry box.
All were getting him by—just barely—with his quest to stay hidden. To contemplate how the hell he was going to prove his innocence.
That is, if he were even innocent.
A wave of nausea and unease swept over him, but he shoved it firmly aside. He was innocent. If he didn’t know it in his gut, then he wouldn’t be running.