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Jewel Smith slipped from her dark rental house and padded across the dewy lawn. Dawn crept across the velvet sky, tinting the night with subtle trailers of rose and amethyst. Soon, the awakening sun would blaze over the horizon, shooting flashes of light off the unruffled surface of the lake.
Tranquil. Quiet. A perfect time for a new beginning. If she could manage to slow her heart rate and still the fine tremors that shook her.
Even though she'd escaped, even though she had her freedom, she was still trapped. Trapped inside a body being torn apart, a body where one half warred with the other.
Though her new life had begun the moment she'd fled, she wouldn't consider herself truly living until she could once again change. Her other self, residing inside her always, howled restlessly, insistently, for release. The wolf needed out. Shifting from human to wolf was such an integral part of her that she'd die if she couldn't do it ever again.
She could no more stop trying than she could stop breathing.
Slipping through the trees, avoiding an intricate spiderweb glistening with morning dew, she came to the edge of the still water. Out on the main body of the lake, the bass boats were already gathering, the fishermen intent on their lines. None had entered her sheltered cove. Perhaps the fishing was bad in the water near her cabin.
To make certain she would have privacy, she'd spent the past two mornings out here, hiding in the trees, observing, watching for intruders. Paranoid, because Leo had made her that way. Alone, because she'd be dead if she trusted anyone from her old town. And damaged, knowing she had to get up the nerve to try toshift, to become her other self, the sleek and deadly ivory-coated wolf.
Fingering her long silver wolf necklace, she trembled, remembering. The last several times she'd attempted to change, the war raging within her body had become worse, as had the pain. So far, she'd survived, though the raging urges that shook her could find no release. She wasn't sure how much longer this would hold true. Changing was absolutely vital to her continued survival.
Somehow, though she wasn't sure what he'd done to her, or how, she knew Leo, her ex-husband, was responsible. Hadn't he told her often enough he wished her dead?
But he'd taken such pleasure in her suffering; she'd known he'd keep her around until she went stark raving mad. And beyond.
At least now, she didn't have to endure the violent rapes when she was too weak to defend herself.
Or the beatings. Or the...
She shuddered, stopping her thoughts. She was free now, finally clear of a man she recognized as inherently evil.
But his evil still tainted her, lingering on her skin, in her blood. She was a shifter who could not shift, a broken woman who refused to give up. Truthfully, she had no choice.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. The air's heavy humidity promised the day would be a scorcher. Dipping her toe in the tepid lake water, Jewel squared her shoulders and lifted her face, letting the breeze caress her skin. She smelled nothing but lake water and fish, humidity and freshly mowed grass.
Now. Heart pounding, she took a deep, calming breath. Then, slipping back into the concealing thicket of the trees, she stepped out of her sundress, dropped to the ground on all fours and uttered a quick prayer.
Now, she would change. She began the process tentatively, hoping for the best.
Instead of the stretch and pull of her bones lengthening, sharp pain lanced through her. Awful hurt, killing damage, as though her entire body had been caught in a rusty bear trap. No!
Gasping, she attempted to stand, to reverse what she'd begun, but couldn't make her own body obey. Desperate, she fought herself, jackknifing as agony knifed through her stomach. Where claws should have sprung from her fingers, bright red blood oozed instead.
Inside, she felt her body tearing, something deep within ripping her apart. The pain was a slow and vicious torture. She could only hope her death would be swift and soon.
She made a small cry, knowing no one could hear her. One last shuddering breath was all she managed before the edges of her vision grayed and blackness claimed her.
The quiet moments before dawn were Colton Reynolds's favorite time of the day. The full heat of a July afternoon was still hours away, and in the faux cool, the hungry sand bass would be schooling, breaking the surface of the water in search of food. Ripe for the right lure, cast by an experienced fisherman.
A Thermos of hot coffee next to him, he eased his Skeeter bass boat from the slip of his boat dock, heading for his favorite cove at the north end of the lake.
Three days had passed since he'd been able to get out on the water; three long, miserable days spent down in Austin reporting on the latest political session.
But now, finally he was home again in Anniversary, and this was the perfect morning to catch a big, fat bass before heading off to work.
Fishing brought him the only peace he was able to find these days.
Rounding the turn to the secluded cove, he searched for the white whooping crane that had made the muddy shore its private fishing grounds. He found the bird on the other side of the bank, serene and motionless as the boat chugged toward it.
The scents and smells of the water teased his nose. He lifted his face to the breeze and took in a lungful of early morning air.
The point looked different. As he drew closer he realized the unkempt weeds and grass leading down to the lake had been freshly mowed the day before.
Something else was different, too--the old Pryor place. The run-down cabin had apparently been rented.A beat-up car, maybe an old Buick or Pontiac, was parked crookedly in the gravel driveway.
The car matched the house. Colton shook his head. He hoped whoever was living there would fix up the structure. The cabin had looked on the verge of collapse for years. He wondered how it was even livable.
Whistling softly, he cut his motor and dropped anchor. The rope played out to about fifteen feet--not bad for sand bass. He chose a brightly colored spinner lure, attached it to his line and cast, admiring the flash of orange as the lure arched across the water and dropped with a soft plop.
Contentment--or as close to that particular state of mind as he got these days--kept him still, motionless and waiting. Any moment, the sun would burst over the horizon, welcoming the day in a blaze of scarlet.
A group of ducks swam past in a loose V-formation, quacking cheerfully. He watched them while he reeled slowly, feeling the resistance the lure made as it spun a few feet below the water. The ducks went ashore in the trees near the Pryor cabin, some settling in the mud at the edge of the water, others heading into the woods to forage.
As he pulled his lure out of the water and prepared to cast again, the wild ducks erupted in a flurry of noise, taking to the water as though a saber-toothed tiger pursued them. Colton grinned, straining to see if he could catch a glimpse of what had caused such alarm. Most likely it was some half-starved cat on the prowl.
There, at the edge of the trees. Instead of an animal, he could have sworn he saw a glimpse of pale human skin shining through the unruly underbrush.
Puzzled, he set his rod and reel on the deck and pulled anchor. Starting his motor, he eased the boat closer to the shore, running aground in the soft mud. Jumping out, he tied the anchor rope around a sturdy tree and went to investigate.
Definitely a person.
Blanching, he swallowed. Took a deep draft of air, trying not to gag. Though it wasn't the same, couldn't be the same, he couldn't help but remember Angela, his daughter. He'd found her, dead and facedown in the dirt, and the image of her crumpled body would forever be burned in his mind.
This. Was. Not. The. Same. Hell, no.
He blinked, dragging his shaking hand across his unshaven chin. Not Angela. He hoped like hell he wasn't about to stumble over the bloated body of some hapless drowning victim, just now washed up on shore. If he did, he wasn't sure his sanity would survive it.
Get a grip. He took another deep, shuddering breath. If this was a human body, he'd have to find a way to deal with it. He hadn't heard of any recent drownings or boating accidents. And as a reporter for the Anniversary Beacon, he should know. But what he'd seen had definitely looked like a body. What else could it be?
Pushing through the underbrush, he saw in a moment. Facedown in the dried and dead leaves, long blond hair spread around her in a tangled mess of twigs and dirt, lay a woman.
Young. Shapely. And stark naked.
He staggered. Nausea again filled his throat. Straightening, he cast his gaze skyward, not praying, not exactly. He could do this, he could.
He had to--no way could he leave this woman lying here, alone and unprotected. Especially after what had happened to Angela.