“You busy right now?”
Darrell Reid wiped some sweat from his face, trying to balance his phone between chin and shoulder as he stared at the patio he’d nearly finished resealing.
“Depends, boss. What’s wrong?”
There was only one reason Chris, a bear shifter and the local sheriff of Linden Creek, would call him out of the blue like this.
It wasn’t that Darrell didn’t like Chris, but they weren’t close friends. Darrell respected the man who’d built the small bear shifter community in Linden Creek, but he was perfectly happy to keep it professional. In any case, like so many of Darrell’s friends, Chris had a mate and cubs to take up his time, while Darrell was a happy loner.
Getting some real work done with his hands on one of the vacation homes that surrounded the lake was Darrell’s idea of a day well spent. Maybe one day he’d find a mate of his own. But right now, he was perfectly happy out here, working with wood until he was tired and entertaining his clan’s cubs every now and then in the evening.
“Cleo had a guest who was supposed to arrive yesterday. Her name’s Carrie Stewart. She never arrived.”
“Maybe she changed her mind?” Darrell said, reaching for a bottle of water. “You know those tourists. They realize there’s no WiFi and Starbucks in the forest, they turn right back.”
Chris chuckled. “Not all of them. She called Cleo yesterday to say she’d be here in an hour to pick up the keys to her cabin. Since then, nothing.”
Darrell drank deeply, then put the water down. “An hour from here? Nothing out there but hills and trees. If her car broke down, and her phone had no signal...”
“Exactly what I’m worried about,” Chris said. “Someone would’ve probably come across her car by now and given her a ride, but I’ve heard nothing, and she isn’t picking up her phone.”
“Which cabin was she headed for?” Darrell asked.
“The one you painted last month, north of the lake.”
“That’s a twenty minute run from here—as the bear goes.” Darrell chuckled. “Want me to shift and have a sniff around the forest?”
“Please,” Chris said. “She probably just ran out of gas or something, and I’ve told my men to keep a look out for her license plate—but I’d appreciate it if you’d have a look, too. Just see if there’s anything unusual your bear might pick up on.”
Darrell stretched as he ended the call. The he stripped, carefully folding his clothes and storing them away from the freshly resealed patio.
Naked, he stepped down the three stairs leading from the patio to the sun-warmed grass that spread out between the cabin and the shore of the lake.
To his left, rocks jutted forward into the water; to his right, the forest came right up to the lake shore. There were no boats out on the lake that he could see.
A second later, satisfied that there were no witnesses around, Darrell shifted into the form of his bear. A ripple of power spread through his body, warmth rushing from his heart into every limb. The transformation took no more time than a heartbeat.
His bear’s senses flooded his thoughts. All scents carried by the wind became more intense, the shifting of the weather and the trails of animals around him combining to form something almost like a map in his mind.
We’ve no use for Google Maps, have we? he said fondly to his bear.
What are you on about now? his bear replied gruffly. Come on. Let’s run! Let’s find some ripe berries and roll in the clover.
Not this time, Darrell replied, turning away from where his nose told him ripe blueberries could be found. Instead, he headed north while his bear grumbled in his mind.
Keep an eye out, Darrell said. Someone might be lost out here. A human woman.
His bear immediately grew serious. Danger? In our territory?
I don’t know. Maybe nothing happened. Or maybe she’s lost. Let’s just keep our eyes open for anything that seems off.
With new determination, his bear raced north.
Darrell knew exactly where the cabin the woman had rented was. He’d painted it himself, not long ago. He knew there was a tree nearby where bees and wild honey could be found, and an inlet where a patient bear was rewarded with the juiciest, freshest fish.
Darrell listened with his bear’s senses as he ran. The forest was quiet, apart from the sounds that were to be expected: the distant sounds of deer, and the noisy chatter of birds who’d been disturbed by their passing. Every now and then there was some rustling in the underbrush, but Darrell’s nose knew the source of all the sounds: a mouse, first, then a squirrel, and after that only rabbits.
There was nothing out of the ordinary here. And when he at last made it to the cabin, it was deserted
It still smelled faintly of fresh paint, and the scent of Darrell’s bear was now mingled with the scent of the family who’d rented it for the past two weeks. But they’d left three days ago. The scent was weak, and overlaid with the scent of the cleaner who’d been in to prepare everything for the new arrival.
The cabin smelled clean—and uninhabited. No one had been by since the cleaner left.
Carrie had never made it here.
With a frown, Darrell at last turned away from the small house. There was a narrow gravel driveway that led up to the cabin, and then a small, winding road that led through the forest for about half an hour until it reached a real road. There was never much traffic out here, even now, during the school holidays—but surely, if she’d run out of gas on the road, someone would have stopped for her.
On the other hand, if she’d taken a wrong turn here on the forest road, or trusted her GPS instead of the directions Cleo would have given her...
Let’s run along the road, his bear said.
He was unsettled now, too.
This forest had only recently become his bear shifter clan’s new home, but they’d all settled in quickly. This wood smelled like home to Darrell’s bear—and neither bear nor human liked the thought of someone in their territory being in danger.
They kept off the road as they ran, staying in the shadows beneath the trees, but in sight of the road. Darrell kept inhaling the breeze for any sign of a human having come by in the past day—but the forest smelled only of leaves and sunlight, and the occasional traces of one of his clan.
That was, until they’d made it to where the narrow road curved along the ridge of a hill, not far from where it joined a larger road that would eventually lead to the highway.
Darrell skidded to a stop.
There were marks on the road—marks left by tires. The air smelled faintly like gas and rubber—and above all, it smelled like human.
But there was more. Beneath the smell of human woman, there was something biting that made his bear growl and half rise up, scenting the air.
Faint, but nevertheless unmistakable, there was the scent of a wolf shifter in the air.
And there, when he turned towards the valley to the left of the road, there was the smell of another animal.
Small, fluffy fur... a cat?
Had Carrie traveled with a pet? Chris hadn’t mentioned that she’d brought a cat with her...
He couldn’t smell blood or death, which was reassuring at least. Nevertheless, he made his way down into the valley as quickly as he could. It was nearly impossible to see from the road, but once he’d descended a little, it immediately became obvious that something large had come down this way. Bushes had been torn from the ground. There were splinters of glass, and remnants of paint on trees that had been pushed out of the way by a heavy object.
On the ground, he could make out the deep impressions left by tires.
And then, deep in a thicket of bushes, he found her car.
It had come to a stop against a cluster of trees. The windows had burst, and the car was a complete wreck. One of the tires must have briefly caught on fire, but while the air still stank of burning rubber, it seemed that the wet soil down here in the hollow had quenched the flames.
Most reassuring of all was the fact that Darrell still couldn’t smell any blood. He couldn’t smell human either—except for the faint scent of her skin and her perfume. But it was faint. If the accident had happened last evening, then she must have left nearly immediately.
Had someone rescued her? But any hospital or doctor in the area would have immediately informed the police.
Careful not to destroy any tracks, Darrell circled the car. He sniffed at every disturbed leaf on the ground.
There were the tracks left by the tires when the car came down the steep incline. There, by a branch, his sensitive nose found a tuft of hair—it was coarse and gray, and immediately raised an alarm.
Wolf, his bear growled with anger.
This was bear shifter territory. There were no werewolves in the area. What had happened here?
Did a werewolf attack Carrie? But why?
Still scenting the air, Darrell completed his circle. Then he stopped, dumbfounded, as he finally realized what had been wrong all along.
There was no blood. And no scent of a human leaving the car.
Carrie had driven the car—but she hadn’t been in it when it came to a stop here.
And while the werewolf might have shifted and carried her away, there was neither the scent nor the tracks of another human to be found.
Deeply puzzled, Darrell began ambling up the steep incline to the road once more. This time, he didn’t pay attention to the tracks the car had left in the soft soil, instead searching for any trace of what might have happened to the woman.
The windows had burst. Perhaps, if she hadn’t worn a seatbelt, she’d been catapulted out of the car by the impact?
But then we’d have smelled blood, his bear pointed out.
Darrell couldn’t argue with that.
He needed to return to the cabin and call Chris. It was very obvious now that something had happened to Carrie. She might be hurt, or dead. And worse, there was a werewolf around who was all wrapped up in this.
But if Carrie was indeed hurt somewhere nearby in the bushes, it might be too late if he left to call for help.
What happened to her? And why can’t I find a trail of her scent?
Something’s not right, his bear growled. Something’s strange... I want to find that werewolf and—
His bear stopped dead in his tracks. Darrell drew in a deep breath as he stared at the evidence in front of them.
To their right, the tracks of the car led straight down into the hollow where it had finally come to a stop.
But to his left, where the ground was still damp from the recent rains, there was a perfect print of a single paw.
Only it wasn’t a werewolf’s paw.
It was a cat’s paw.
A little larger than the average cat, but still a normal, domestic cat—not a lion or mountain cat’s print.
And not far from it, more splinters from the burst window had come to rest on the ground. One of them smelled faintly of blood. Another had a single hair clinging to it.
And there—hidden behind a rock so that he’d almost missed it—was a shirt and a pair of jeans.
A woman’s shirt. The fabric smelled of wolf—the shifter must have found it before them.
But beneath that scent of wolf, there was the smell of what had to be Carrie. It was a warm scent—sweeter than honey, sweeter than clover blossoms.
The scent roused a sudden, fierce hunger in his bear—and an overwhelming protectiveness.
If that wolf has hurt her, I will hunt him down and kill him, his bear growled.
Darrell was silent. He didn’t know what to say. He’d never experienced anything like this—it was as if for a moment, everything around him had ceased to exist.
Her scent had hit him with such force that it felt as if someone had jabbed a knife into his heart.
Only it didn’t hurt.
The sensation was fierce and hot. It made his bear’s fur rise, and it made him want to roll around in joy.
Can it be...?
But there was no time to think about it now.
Carrie had left the car at this point, her scent and her clothes gave it away. But there was no human woman leaving from here. Only a cat. A domestic cat that didn’t smell of the forest. A cat that had no reason to be here.
And there was no carrier in the car. If Carrie’d brought her cat on this trip, the car would have smelled of cat. There’d been a cat in that car—but only for a short moment.
Because she shifted, his bear said slowly.
She did, Darrell agreed. She must have shifted and jumped out of the car—the window had burst, after all.
And when she shifted, her clothes remained here. The werewolf found them.
Yes, Darrell said. Now there’s a woman out there. A cat shifter. And for some reason, a werewolf is after her...
Darrell’s bear growled, and then he raced off into the direction the scared cat had taken.
There’s no time to lose. There’s a cabin in that direction, an hour’s run, Darrell said.
His bear only growled in response, his nose full of her scent as they hurtled past bushes and jumped a creek. The trail of the cat was distinct. It felt completely out of place, here in the heart of the forest.
Still, if she was a shifter, she would be safe here in the forest, at least until Darrell found her. There were no predators in these woods, now that the bear shifter clan had made its home here in Linden Creek.
But there’s a werewolf out here. There’s a wolf on the hunt for a cat.
His bear growled once more and splashed straight through another creek, picking up his pace even more as they made it out on the other side.
There was no time left to lose.