“Oh my gawd, I’m so nervous,” Nita paced back and forth in one of pair of closed pavilions set up for the brides. They’d decided to have their wedding in the meadow furthest south on the reservation. There was a slight rise in the center that was popular for stargazing and for weddings. Although humans preferred days or evenings for weddings, shifters often had midnight ceremonies and while new moons were favorite stargazing nights, full moons were prime for shifter ceremonies. Nita’s was no exception.
“You look amazing, Nita. Nothing’s going to go wrong,” Rayen said as she stepped into the crowded space and hugged her sister tight. It was a good thing she’d come in just then as Nita’s whining was like sandpaper on a sunburn and I was about ready to snap.
She chuckled and swatted her sister’s shoulder. “Now you’ve gone and jinxed it.” She grinned anyway.
“They’re just about ready out there,” Haven said as he let the entrance flap drop. Haven was standing like a guard at the opening and I had chosen a seat in the far corner opposite him for the last couple hours, Nita’s movements like a wall between us.
A couple weeks ago, I’d given in and gone to the clinic to get tested for led poisoning. I’d just caught Dr. Batista at the end of his shift and he’d motioned me to follow him to his office. As he retrieved my medical file, he mentioned something about taking a preemptive shot, just in case. But he went silent after opening my file, something he read putting a crease between his brows.
“Well, I suppose we can’t do that, after all. Especially in your condition,” Dr. Batista said. “I’ll have a nurse take a blood sample and we’ll decide what to do if it comes back positive for lead poisoning.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I had a condition? Did I have cancer or something? It wasn’t common among shifters but it wasn’t unheard of. “What condition?”
“You weren’t informed? It was noted in your file from… Ah, here it is. January 6th.” He pulled a page from my file and handed it over. “Lemme see who the attending was – oh. Right. Well,” he looked up at me apologetically, “with your levels of hCG, either you’re pregnant or you have testicular cancer.”
“Does it have to be one of those?” I asked, too stunned to fully compute his words.
“Well, it’s unlikely to be the latter, but just in case we can set up an ultrasound for today.”
“Really? That’s fast.” I didn’t know if I preferred lead poisoning, cancer, or a baby. They all sounded like a bad idea at the moment. Lead poisoning could probably be counteracted when caught this soon, cancer was scary but most were beatable, but I knew I couldn’t bring myself to abort a baby. I just didn’t have it in me. Was it wrong to pray I had cancer? “Um, okay. When?”
“I’ll set it up while you get your blood drawn and we can do it right after.” I swallowed, my throat dry, as I followed him to an examination room. It didn’t take long for a chipper nurse to draw a few vials of blood and for another scrubbed individual to push a machine into the room. He introduced himself as Andre Lopez, the sonographer, and he had a very open and relaxing personality.
His eyebrows rose slightly and he smiled when Dr. Batista came into the room. “Hey, Martin, how was your vacation?”
“Oh, it was sunny,” Batista replied genially. “The retreat didn’t allow electronics, which was fine at first but I just couldn’t hold out. That’s when I heard about everything and booked a flight home.”
Andre chuckled. “Finally joined the modern era? Well, we’re thankful you did. This man’s a work-a-holic,” Andre said turning back to me. “Hasn’t taken a day off in years, but he’s the best.”
“I hardly think that’s true,” Batista replied. “Now why don’t we get started?”
As Andre hooked up the machine. I hand’t realized how comfortable I’d been in their presence until my mind wandered back to the matter at hand. It felt like I’d swallowed a jar of firebugs, the buzzing of their little bodies as they thunked against the container in frantic attempt to escape.
“I’ve got this doc, if you wanna head out. I know your shift is over.”
“That’s alright, Andre. I’m just gonna be here for moral support,” he added patting my hand. I smiled, grateful. Moral support sounded nice just then. Later, the blood tests proved I didn’t have lead poisoning or testicular cancer, but when I saw the bean that was my baby on a black and white screen, I knew I was lost.
“The march is starting,” Haven interrupted my thoughts. I could hear two wooden flutes echoing and countering each other in a slow rhythm with a faint leather drumbeat keeping time. I stood and took the first spot by the tent flap grateful Rayen was between me and Haven in the lineup. We walked slowly up the aisle and I stood furthest from the center where the brides would stand. There was one long aisle that broke in the center and most of those attending sat on the ground in human or animal form with the exception of the elderly or infirm sitting in folding chairs with cozy blankets. It was warm for the month, with no snow and sunny days, but it was still chilly. This didn’t affect most shifters as much as their human counterparts, some of whom scattered in the audience wore coats instead of jackets.
The brides approached from either end of the aisle and met in the center, friends and family spread around them. Lavinia wore a sleek white dress of silk with minor lace accents, her black hair down in waves accenting her pale skin. Nita wore a Native American styled dress with long leather fringe instead of sleeves and lining the bottom of the gown from around her knees. Blue and teal triangles accented the sides and under her bust. As they approached each other, Selene touched their silhouettes with silver drawing all eyes.
The shaman spoke of trials and love followed by the brides vows. At the end they each held onto a small wooden shaft with six long ribbons leading off it. Each bridesmaid and groomsman grabbed the end of a ribbon and we danced to a slightly livelier drumbeat weaving in, around and between them, the ribbons tying their hands together until we could weave no more and tied our strand in a knot with one of the other’s. You probably guessed this, but Haven and I tied a knot. For the rest of the night the two of them would be tied together.
The crowd burst into wolf whistles, cat calls, and cheers from those in human form and all manner of noises from the shifted crowd. There was movement everywhere; some people moved off to the buffet tables lining one edge of the clearing or to the sitting tables on either side. The band struck up a beat that had people dancing and some of the crowd swept the brides up in a wicker love seat and danced with them seated, giggling and making out alternately, in the air.
I moved out of the press to avoid any accidental elbow jabs, not at all because Haven was one of the bases for Nita and Lavinia’s love seat, and headed for the food. There was quite the assortment, mostly meat but vegetarianism was gaining traction these days, even in the shifter community. I avoided all fish, since my baby didn’t seem inclined to let me have any, and went for a steak and salad.
I picked a table with no people as I wasn’t feeling very sociable tonight and settled on a metal folding chair. Many of the guests had been part of the setup having each grabbed an item or two on their way up the trail this evening. It saved on trips and allowed us to have at least some tables and chairs. There was an area set up with a pen and several adult, or at least teenage, supervisors for the the little ones. Not that the temporary plastic fence would truly hold any of them but it made it easier and most of the kiddos liked to play together. I noticed Ryan and Sam playing whack-a-mole with a few of the toddlers who were sticking their hands through the holes, giggling every time their hands were lightly smacked.
“So, you’re the big one’s mate.” An omega one might describe as lolita slid into the chair next to me, his back to the festivities.
“We’re not married,” I said curtly. I didn’t want to talk to anyone and he seemed like a talker. I focused on my food, cutting it into smaller and smaller pieces. I didn’t feel like eating, either.
“Semantics,” he waved a hand airily at my comment. “You know, I think we’ve met before.”
“Oh?” I glanced back up at him. “I think I’d remember to avoid you.”
“Ouch, that stings.” He put a hand over his heart, his eyes wide in mock hurt. “And after all the help I gave you on New Years.”
I took in his cornrows, blindingly white smile and his pale brown eyes that seemed to match his skin. Then I replaced his current attire with a pale white robe. “Ah. I’d say thanks but,” I motioned toward my abdomen where a not-quite-yet visible baby bump was growing, “your meds didn’t work. I didn’t realize they put cheap brands in those pens.”
“Excuse me,” he said with an annoying grin, “but I only get the best brand. Doesn’t do to have weak shit in my line of work. You probably needed a stronger dose because both your parents were omegas.”
“And what is your line of work exactly?” My parentage wasn’t exactly a secret, nor was the science behind a male and female omega creating more potent omega offspring, but most people didn’t know about the former and usually forgot about the latter after high school. “Things’ve changed since I left but I don’t know of any omega who needs to keep more than one of those things on them for emergencies. If they can even afford them.”
“Oh, I’m just your standard bounty hunter. I believe you’ve seen Murrell recently.” His flippant attitude had my blood boiling, but his words froze had frost creeping up my spine. Maybe my hormones were assisting in the clash of temper and fear. Either he could read people very well or I wasn’t doing enough to guard my features. “Perfect. Could you tell me where he is?”
I hadn’t seen Murrell since he scared the shit out of me announcing Avery’s presence in Hidden Pines. He’d asked for my help which I hadn’t processed through the vice-like fear that had gripped me until after he’d disappeared. I still didn’t know why he needed my help or, for that matter, why he’d stuck around. Once I heard about how he’d been married to Karen Ellory, I figured her missing son was with him, the father. It wasn’t ideal, but he’d keep the boy safe. So, why had Murrell stayed? I hadn’t been able to find him and he hadn’t tried contacting me again since, so I had no idea.
“You may not have poisoned me on New Years, but that doesn’t mean I trust you. I don’t even know your name.”
“Oh, sorry,” he exaggeratedly face-palmed, “how silly of me. Really, sometimes I swear I earned the nickname, Goose. I’m Ch-”
“Chase!” An arm wrapped around Chase’s neck and a fist knuckled over the dreds on the top of his head.
“Fuck, Alex,” Chase said, voice just shy of snarling, “not the hair. You’re gonna make it frizz.”
Alex just laughed as he let him go and moved to sit down on my other side, dodging a swipe from Chase on his way by. I put a leg on the chair blocking it from him. “Uh-uh, you’re not gonna use me as a meat shield.”
“Oh, come on. You’re perfect. He won’t dare touch you.” I just stared at him until he moved to the next seat over. “Fine. Leave me without a hope in the world.”
I rolled my eyes setting my leg back down on the ground under the table, it had been uncomfortable, not to mention cold. The tables were set up with blankets draping to the ground reminiscent of a kotatsu to help stave off the chill. Most of the shifters here had higher natural body temperatures but it was still March in Michigan. That’s when I noticed a bird sitting near the trunk of a tree just inside the treeline, bobbing its head side to side, flashing moonlight off its beak. When it saw me the bobbing stopped and I realized who it was. This might be my only chance to get information.
“Here you go, honey.” Kiki walked up and put a plate in front of Alex. Fish. What was with the man. Still, it gave me the perfect reason for bailing on my current company as I felt my stomach begin churning at the scent.
“Sorry,” I covered my mouth making it seem worse than it was, “I have to go.”
I didn’t look back as I scurried to the edge of the field. I turned back just past the treeline to make sure I wasn’t being followed then headed further in until I saw Murrell’s silhouette through the leafless tree limbs gliding low over the treetops. I debated going back and telling Haven everything. Ever since I’d gotten the sonogram I’d been avoiding him. It wasn’t that I thought he’d be unhappy, or didn’t love me and I sure as hell loved him. It was that I knew he’d be even more driven to protect me, wrapping me in a wall of bubblewrap, and I needed answers.
Alex had given me a pained expression when I’d asked about the café and Peter had flat out told me to leave it alone or he wouldn’t bring me back on when the café was running again. Basil and Sean were practically glued to my side when Haven wasn’t around and it had been a struggle making excuses not to move in with him. He’d let it go, for now, only because with my brother he’d have eyes on me at all times. Aunt Peggy seemed to know more than she should as she’d been dropping by and forcing family to hang out when neither Basil nor Haven were around. I hadn’t been alone for a minute the last couple weeks to even hear my own thoughts. I knew why they were doing it. They thought Murrell was a serial killer who was somehow evading capture without leaving the reservation and had beef with me.
The only reason no one was with me right then was likely due to everyone thinking I was in the company of someone else. I really hoped this conversation with Murrell wouldn’t take long because I was going to be in big trouble. I hadn’t thought seriously about running away for a while now, but I was starting to feel claustrophobic and my fuse was looking a little frayed. Okay, a lot frayed. Fine, it was practically non-existant. I needed to know what Murrell knew, but turning him in would be a betrayal and I owed him my life. Plus I was sure by now that he wouldn’t kill me. A glance behind me and a long inhale through my nose told me that we were too far for anyone to be able to help. Maybe I was ninety percent sure he wouldn’t kill me.
He moved down through the trees until he landed on a low branch and I continued until I stood just outside a small, close-knit horseshoe shaped grove of oaks. He dropped from the branch, back-winging before he hit the ground and landed softly before shifting.
“You didn’t bring me here to kill me, now, did ya?” I half-joked with a short laugh as I tucked my hands into my pockets feeling for my usual brass-knuckles and knife. Hey, I may have felt suffocated with all the over-protective people in my life, but that didn’t mean I was reckless. Well, not completely reckless, I mean I was in the middle of nowhere with a wanted-criminal-plus-dangerous-shifter.
His features remained impassive, though it was hard to tell for sure in the shadows of the trees. “I have to show you something.” He stepped into the grove. I took a quick look around before following him as I slipped the knuckles on. Once inside, the smell hit me like a sledgehammer; decay, rot, death. A body lay curled against the trees on the far side of the grove, meaning it was only a couple feet away. The small man was naked and what smelled like old blood caked in trails away from his throat. How the hell had I not smelled this before?
“A witch’s spell is hiding this spot from shifter senses.” Murrell responded to a question I hadn’t thought I’d spoken aloud.
“Why?” I whispered, as if speaking would disturb the dead.
“Is dead,” I said firmly, immediately covering my mouth with my hands at the volume of my voice. Then I realized just how silent it was; there was no wind, no leaves rustling or twigs cracking, no branches scraping one another or any animal sounds whatsoever. It was like the outside world didn’t exist. Still, I continued in a lowered tone. “There’s nothing she can do now. It’s been a year and she’d been in prison for nearly a decade before that.”
“That doesn’t mean she didn’t have reach or that no one knew her plans.” He motioned at the body. “This one was killed months ago. My guess is January 13th.”
A chill ran down my spine. I tightened my fist, ready to crack him in the kidneys any moment. “How would you know?”
“It was a new moon.” He turned his head, eyes locking with mine. “There were two more after, correct? Each were also killed on a new moon.” He watched me, waiting for something, but I didn’t know what he was getting at.
“What does that have to…” my voice trailed off as I realized what it meant and it was not good. Not good at all. “Oh. They got earth and water, which should make him,” I indicated the body with a nod of my head, “the moon element. An owl or wolf maybe.”
I moved toward the body and crouched slowly, turning on the flashlight on my phone.
“That’s why you’re still here,” I said, realization dawning. “You think it’s her. Your mom.” I looked over my shoulder at where Murrell paused in the entrance, his face cast in shadow.
“I must go.”
“To get back to Levi?” I pressed a hand to my stomach, “I get it. I really do, but do you think he might be better off in a more stable home? I mean, after all this is over.” He stood for a moment, as though carved of marble, before simply disappearing between one second and the next. That barrier really was something else.
I turned back to the body shining my phone light over it as I turned the camera on to record. I’d find Haven and tell as soon as I left, but in case Avery was here and moved the body while I was gone I wanted some visual proof. The light hit the toes first which looked scraped as if he’d run some distance. His skin had minor abrasions particularly on the arms and legs but the torso bore them as well. And then there was the neck wound. I thought I could see inside his trachea and my stomach roiled, but it was the face that had me fleeing the grove to find a place to deposit my rebellious bile. He’d been so kind, seemed like someone I might’ve gone to for advice. But if he’d been dead since January, who was impersonating Dr. Batista?