Pit Perfect

Barkside of the Moon Mysteries, Book 1

Renee George

Chapter 1

When I was eighteen years old, I came home from a sleepover and found my mom and dad with their throats cut, and their hearts ripped from their chests.

My little brother Danny was in a broom closet in the kitchen, his arms wrapped around his knees, and his face pale and ghostly. Until that day, I’d planned to go to college and study medicine after graduation, but instead, I ended up staying home and taking care of my seven-year-old brother.

Seventeen years later, my brother was murdered. At the time, Danny’s death looked like it would go unsolved, much like my parents’ had.

Without Haze Kinsey, my best friend since we were five, the killers would have gotten away with it. She was a special agent for the FBI for almost a decade, and when I called her about Danny’s death, she dropped everything to come help me get him justice. The evil group of witches and Shifters responsible for the decimation of my family paid with their lives.

Yes. I said witches and Shifters. Did I forget to mention I’m a werecougar? Oh, and my friend Hazel is a witch. Recently, I discovered witches in my own family tree on my mother’s side. Shifters, in general, only mated with Shifters, but witches were the exception. As a matter of fact, my friend Haze is mated to a bear Shifter.

I wouldn’t have known about the witch in my genealogy, though, if a rogue witch coven hadn’t done some funky hoodoo witchery to me. Apparently, the spell activated a latent talent that had been dormant in my hybrid genes.

My ancestor’s magic acted like truth serum to anyone who came near her. No one could lie in her presence. Lucky me, my ability was a much lesser form of hers. People didn’t have to tell me the truth, but whenever they were around me, they had the compulsion to overshare all sorts of private matters about themselves. This can get seriously uncomfortable for all parties involved. Like, the fact that I didn’t need to know that Janet Strickland had been wearing the same pair of underwear for an entire week, or that Mike Dandridge had sexual fantasies about clowns.

My newfound talent made me unpopular and unwelcome in a town full of paranormal creatures who thrived on little deceptions. So, when Haze discovered the whereabouts of my dad’s brother, a guy I hadn’t known even existed, I sold all my belongings, let the bank have my parents’ house, jumped in my truck, and headed south.

After two days and 700 miles of nonstop gray, snowy weather, I pulled my screeching green and yellow mini-truck into an auto repair shop called The Rusty Wrench. Much like my beloved pickup, I’d needed a new start, and moving to a small town occupied by humans seemed the best shot. I’d barely made it to Moonrise, Missouri before my truck began its death throes. The vehicle protested the last 127 miles by sputtering to a halt as I rolled her into the closest spot.

The shop was a small white-brick building with a one-car garage off to the right side. A black SUV and a white compact car occupied two of the six parking spots.

A sign on the office door said: No Credit Cards. Cash Only. Some Local Checks Accepted (Except from Earl—You Know Why, Earl! You check-bouncing bastard).

A man in stained coveralls, wiping a greasy tool with a rag, came out the side door of the garage. He had a full head of wavy gray hair, bushy eyebrows over light blue, almost colorless eyes, and a minimally lined face that made me wonder about his age. I got out of the truck to greet him.

“Can I help you, miss?” His voice was soft and raspy with a strong accent that was not quite Deep South.

“Yes, please.” I adjusted my puffy winter coat. “The heater stopped working first. Then the truck started jerking for the last fifty miles or so.”

He scratched his stubbly chin. “You could have thrown a rod, sheared the distributor, or you have a bad ignition module. That’s pretty common on these trucks.”

I blinked at him. I could name every muscle in the human body and twelve different kinds of viruses, but I didn’t know a spark plug from a radiator cap. “And that all means…”

“If you threw a rod, the engine is toast. You’ll need a new vehicle.”

“Crap.” I grimaced. “What if it’s the other thingies?”

The scruffy mechanic shrugged. “A sheared distributor is an easy fix, but I have to order in the part, which means it won’t get fixed for a couple of days. Best-case scenario, it’s the ignition module. I have a few on hand. Could get you going in a couple of hours, but…” he looked over my shoulder at the truck and shook his head, “…I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”

I must’ve looked really forlorn because the guy said, “It might not need any parts. Let me take a look at it first. You can grab a cup of coffee across the street at Langdon’s One-Stop.”

He pointed to the gas station across the road. It didn’t look like much. The pale-blue paint on the front of the building looked in need of a new coat, and the weather-beaten sign with the store’s name on it had seen better days. There was a car at the gas pumps and a couple more in the parking lot, but not enough to call it busy.

I’d had enough of one-stops, though, thank you. The bathrooms had been horrible enough to make a wereraccoon yark, and it took a lot to make those garbage eaters sick. Besides, I wasn’t just passing through Moonrise, Missouri.

“Have you ever heard of The Cat’s Meow Café?” Saying the name out loud made me smile the way it had when Hazel had first said it to me. I’d followed my GPS into town, so I knew I wasn’t too far away from the place.

“Just up the street about two blocks, take a right on Sterling Street. You can’t miss it. I should have some news in about an hour or so, but take your time.”

“Thank you, Mister…”

“Greer.” He shoved the tool in his pocket. “Greer Knowles.”

“I’m Lily Mason.”

“Nice to meet ya,” said Greer. “The place gets hoppin’ around noon. That’s when church lets out.”

I looked at my phone. It was a little before noon now. “Good. I could go for something to eat. How are the burgers?”

“Best in town,” he quipped.

I laughed. “Good enough.”

Even in the sub-freezing temperature, my hands were sweating in my mittens. I wasn’t sure what had me more nervous, leaving the town I grew up in for the first time in my life or meeting an uncle I’d never known existed.

I crossed a four-way intersection. One of the signs was missing, and I saw the four-by-four post had snapped off at its base. I hadn’t noticed it on my way in. Crap. Had I run a stop sign? I walked the two blocks to Sterling. The diner was just where Greer had said. A blue truck, a green mini-coup, and a sheriff’s SUV were parked out front.

An alarm dinged as the glass door opened to The Cat’s Meow. Inside, there was a row of six booths along the wall, four tables that seated four out in the open floor, and counter seating with about eight cushioned black stools. The interior décor was rustic country with orange tabby kitsch everywhere. A man in blue jeans and a button-down shirt with a string tie sat in the nearest booth. A female police officer sat at a counter chair sipping coffee and eating a cinnamon roll. Two elderly women, one with snowball-white hair, the other a dyed strawberry-blonde, sat in a back booth.

The white poof-headed lady said, “This egg is not over-medium.”

“Well, call the mayor,” said Redhead. “You’re unhappy with your eggs. Again.”

“See this?” She pointed at the offending egg. “Slime, right here. Egg snot. You want to eat it?”

“If it’ll make you shut up about breakfast food, I’ll eat it and lick the plate.”

A man with copper-colored hair and a thick beard, tall and well-muscled, stepped out of the kitchen. He wore a white apron around his waist, and he had on a black T-shirt and blue jeans. He held a plate with a single fried egg shining in the middle.

The old woman with the snowy hair blushed, her thin skin pinking up as he crossed the room to their table. “Here you go, Opal. Sorry ’bout the mix-up on your egg.” He slid the plate in front of her. “This one is pure perfection.” He grinned, his broad smile shining. “Just like you.” He winked.

Opal giggled.

The redhead rolled her eyes. “You’re as easy as the eggs.”

“Oh, Pearl. You’re just mad he didn’t flirt with you.”

As the women bickered over the definition of flirting, the cook glanced at me. He seemed startled to see me there. “You can sit anywhere,” he said. “Just pick an open spot.”

“I’m actually looking for someone,” I told him.

“Who?”

“Daniel Mason.” Saying his name gave me a hollow ache. My parents had named my brother Daniel, which told me my dad had loved his brother, even if he didn’t speak about him.

The man’s brows rose. “And why are you looking for him?”

I immediately knew he was a werecougar like me. The scent was the first clue, and his eyes glowing, just for a second, was another. “You’re Daniel Mason, aren’t you?”

He moved in closer to me and whispered barely audibly, but with my Shifter senses, I heard him loud and clear. “I go by Buzz these days.”

“Who’s your new friend, Buzz?” the policewoman asked. Now that she was looking up from her newspaper, I could see she was young.

He flashed a charming smile her way. “Never you mind, Nadine.” He gestured to a waitress, a middle-aged woman with sandy-colored hair, wearing a black T-shirt and a blue jean skirt. “Top off her coffee, Freda. Get Nadine’s mind on something other than me.”

“That’ll be a tough ’un, Buzz.” Freda laughed. “I don’t think Deputy Booth comes here for the cooking.”

“More like the cook,” the elderly lady with the light strawberry-blonde hair said. She and her friend cackled.

The policewoman’s cheeks turned a shade of crimson that flattered her chestnut-brown hair and pale complexion. “Y’all mind your P's and Q's.”

Buzz chuckled and shook his head. He turned his attention back to me. “Why is a pretty young thing like you interested in plain ol’ me?”

I detected a slight apprehension in his voice.

“If you’re Buzz Mason, I’m Lily Mason, and you’re my uncle.”

The man narrowed his dark-emerald gaze at me. “I think we’d better talk in private.”

Chapter 2

Buzz’s office was a small room at the back of the kitchen. He gestured for me to sit in a wooden chair in front of his desk then crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. “What are you doing here, Lily?”

“So you know who I am?”

“If Jack sent you after me, you can tell him I’m not coming home. How’d he even find me?”

“My dad is dead.” I instantly regretted being so blunt. Buzz dropped his arms to his sides, his face ashen with shock. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been so long for me now, I didn’t think.”

“How long?”

“Seventeen years ago.”

“And Constance? How is she holding up?”

I shook my head. “She’s dead too.”

He moved behind his desk and sat down, his hands shaking as he scratched his beard. “The last time I heard from Jack, you’d just been born. I told him I never wanted to hear from him again.” His voice was choked with grief. He looked up at me. His liquid gaze held me. “How?”

“They were murdered. Some stupid druid ritual.”

“Druids? They don’t usually mix with our kind.”

“It was actually a witch and some Shifters who were practicing druidic magic. Their power fed on the pain of their victims.”

Buzz’s face reddened, and I could smell a faint whiff of acrid anger. “Christ Almighty.”

“You really have integrated,” I observed. In the paranormal world, most followed the teachings of the Goddess. It was rare to find a Christian amongst Shifters or witches, so to hear my uncle invoke the name of the Christian God’s son fascinated me.

“How did you find me?”

“My best friend used to work for the FBI.”

“Another integrator?”

“Sort of. Hazel is a witch, but she lived and worked with humans before moving back to Paradise Falls.”

“Land sakes, I never thought I’d hear that name again.” His eyes softened with nostalgia, and for a painful second, he reminded me of my dad.

“Sooo, do I call you Uncle Buzz?”

“Uh, no.” He held up his hands. “I might be forty years older than you, but these humans will see us as much closer in age. We’ll say we’re cousins.”

“I’ve never really hung around with humans.”

“Then this ought to be a real treat.” He rubbed his hand over his hair. “For as long as it lasts. You can’t stay, Lily.”

“You’ve managed to hide from these people. If you can do it, so can I.”

“I’ve had forty years of experience fooling humans, girl. I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. I’ve only been in Moonrise for a handful of years, and if things go well, I can stay here for another fifteen or twenty before folks start wondering why I’m not looking a lot older.”

The soft dip at the apex of his upper lip revealed longstanding grief.

“You look a lot like him,” I said.

“Who?”

“My dad.”

“Fine.” Buzz sighed. “You can stay for a little while, but I have a one-bedroom trailer and no place to keep you.”

“I’ll find a place to stay.” Surely they had a B&B or a local motel. I didn’t have much money, but it would be enough to get me by for a few weeks.

“Buzz,” Freda yelled back. “You got customers. Church crowd’s coming in.”

“Busiest time of the week,” Buzz said. He ushered me out of the chair and toward the door. “Go get some lunch.” With a wink, he added, “On me.”

* * * *

I sat on one of the counter stools. The vinyl covering was a bit rough on its pipe-seam edges and snagged on my chocolate-brown leggings. Luckily, it didn’t tear a hole. I placed my coat on the seat next to me.

“Hey, there. I’m Freda.” The waitress stood across the counter from me and pointed to her name tag. “Can I get you started with some coffee?”

“Yes, please.” The heat in the diner made me realize just how cold I’d been. “That would be great.”

She slid a laminated menu across to me. “Be right up, sugar.”

“No sugar,” I said.

She looked at me funny.

“I like my coffee just straight black.”

“Oh.” She smiled. “I got ya.” She winked. “I’ll leave off bringing the cream and sugar around.”

“Thanks, Freda. I’m Lily, by the way.”

She smiled again. “Nice to meet you, Lily.”

A few moments later, she came back with a piping-hot cup of black coffee.

“You know what you want to eat yet?”

“I’ll take the triple-decker bacon burger with double cheese, double bacon. All the fixings and a side of fries.”

Freda raised a brow, her lip curling on one side into an amused smirk. “Where you going to put all that food, honey? You’re just a tiny little thang.”

“I have hollow legs,” I said seriously.

“Just like your cousin. He’s a helluva good cook, and the way he eats, it’s no wonder.” She laughed. It was a nice sound. “Buzz,” she hollered as she traversed to the kitchen window and hung the check. “Order in.”

The coffee was good and hot. Freshly brewed. I liked that the diner didn’t let a pot sit around all day after breakfast. Fifteen minutes later, my food arrived. The three beef patties were thick and juicy, four slices of bacon, and lots of gooey cheese made my mouth water. I inhaled the delicious fire-grilled aroma. On the side, there was a large tomato slice, onions, and hamburger pickle chips. The bun was buttered and toasted to perfection. And the fries… Oh my goodness, the fries. They were thick cut, crispy on the outside… I took a bite. Tender on the inside. Salted just right. Sheer nirvana.

“Are you okay?” Freda asked. “You look like you’re having a religious experience.”

I giggled as I ate another fry. “I think I am.” Uncle Buzz made an awesome burger. I took another big bite and resisted the urge to hum.

The booths had filled up with families in a wide variety of ages and dressed in their finest clothes. A woman with hair the color of margarine walked in and dusted her feet on the welcome mat. She wore an expensive wool and cashmere double-breasted coat. The collar was high on her neck, and the hem hit her mid-thigh. The narrow shoulders fit her slim figure and made her appear classically regal. By the way she scanned the room, I was certain it was the appearance she wanted to affect.

I’d seen her kind before and suffered the slings and arrows of their sharp tongues. I hunched my shoulders and then forced myself to relax. I had nothing to fear from a human.

She cast a gaze at the man sitting nearest the door, the one who wore the string tie.

“I didn’t see you in church this morning, Edward.”

He barely looked up from his coffee. “It’s not against the law, Katie. Otherwise, you’d have sent the sheriff.”

She hushed her voice, but with my cougar ears, I could easily hear her words. “How does is look to have my own brother miss Rex’s service?”

Edward didn’t bother trying to match her lower tone. “You married a preacher. Not me.” Several of the patrons shifted uncomfortably as the mood of the diner sobered.

“He’s a reverend, Edward. Not a two-bit preacher.”

“I’m sure God could care less about titles.”

The woman he called Katie stood up straight and looked as if she would say more, but a man walked in behind her. “Let’s get a seat, Katherine,” he said. He looked at the man seated in the booth. “Afternoon, Ed.”

Edward nodded. “Rex.”

Ah, the reverend husband. It felt odd listening in on their conversation from across the room, but I grew up in a town where privacy only happened at home and sometimes not even then. There are no secret conversations in a room full of Shifters.

“Heya, Reverend Kapersky. Mrs. Kapersky,” Freda said to the couple with less enthusiasm than when she’d greeted me. “Y’all have a seat, and I’ll come ’round with some coffee.”

Whispers began as they sat at the last open table. “I hate her,” I heard someone say. “Shhh,” said another. “Old bat is going to take it too far one day.”

My uncle came out of the back. “Afternoon, Rev.” He smirked and winked at Katherine Kapersky. “Aren’t you looking like a ripe peach on a hot summer day?”

“Uh-huh,” she replied. “The next council meeting, you won’t be such a wise-cracker.”

“You know you don’t want a food chain coming in and killing local business.”

“Well, you ain’t exactly local, are you, Buzz?”

The cop Nadine slid from her seat just a few places down from me. “Buzz has been here long enough for us to count him as hometown, Mrs. Kapersky.”

Freda positioned herself between Buzz and the vile woman. “That’s the truth,” she added.

Katherine eyed the waitress and the young female officer with disdain. “You shut it, Nadine Booth. If you ever want to be sheriff, you’ll keep in mind who you disrespect.”

“Like you’d ever throw your hat in for me,” Nadine mumbled.

“Let it go,” my uncle said. He smiled again at the unlikeable woman. “The usual for y’all? Wedge salad for the missus and a BLT for you, Rev?”

In reply, Katherine Kapersky took off her jacket and handed it to Freda to hang up before she sat down.

“Thank you, Buzz. That’d be nice,” Reverend Kapersky said.

I wished I could say I’d never met anyone as miserable as the Kapersky woman, but unfortunately, people like her were always around.

Freda took a tray with a BLT on toasted sourdough, and a wedge of lettuce with bacon crumbles, finely diced tomatoes, chopped chives, crisply tart Granny Smith apple slices, and finished off with a creamy bleu cheese dressing (according to the menu) to the reverend and his sourpuss wife.

“Enjoy,” Freda said, and somehow managed to make the nicety imply that they could, “choke on it.” Katherine Kapersky didn’t even acknowledge Freda. I hated to pass judgment on someone I didn’t know, but this Katie woman made it easy. She was terrible with a heaping side of bitter.

“Ow!” she shouted and spit a mouthful of salad onto her plate. She picked up a small piece of bacon, examined it and put it back down, her expression sour.

“Are you all right, dear?” Reverend Rex asked benignly.

Buzz came out of the kitchen. “What happened?”

She glared at him. “Other than your bacon being hard as a rock, everything is just peachy.” To her husband, she said, “I think I chipped a crown.”

“I’m sorry, Katie. You want something else from the kitchen? I have cherry pie.” He smiled.

I saw the woman soften for a microsecond before her expression once again matched her unpleasant personality. “So I can choke on a pit? No, thank you.”

I heard someone mutter how they’d like to choke her.

Katherine Kapersky pushed her plate aside and hissed to her husband, “Hurry up.”

With great tolerance, the reverend pushed his plate forward and stood up to get his coat on.

Buzz shook his head but held his tongue. “Have a nice day, folks.” He wiggled his brows as he passed me on the way back to the kitchen. “Welcome to Moonrise, Lily.”

Chapter 3

An hour later, I waited at the intersection by the garage, the one with the broken sign. Traffic was light, but I still had to wait for a few cars and trucks. A young man in a full-size gray pickup gestured to me to cross. I gave him a wave of thanks and headed to the other side.

A blaring horn startled me. “Look out!” I heard someone shout.

Behind me, a black sedan zoomed past the broken sign and raced toward me.

My first impulse was to use my cougar strength to leap away from harm, but something slammed into me from behind, and I landed several feet from the street. I rolled to my back and blinked up at the heavy beast that had just saved my life.

A dog. A great big dog, white and rusty-brown in color, stood over me with its tongue lolling to one side as its ears twitched left and right. Its wide mouth split its adorable face in a smile. Its breath was something to behold—somewhere between sweaty socks and spoiled lima beans. Poor baby needed a mint!

I sat up. It sniffed at me. I sniffed back. I could tell by the lack of über-charged testosterone in the dog’s scent she was female.

“Good girl,” I said, running my hand over her chest and front quarter. She thanked me by licking the side of my face.

I laughed.

All this sounds like it took minutes, but really it was seconds. A man grabbed the dog by the collar and pulled her back as I got up from the asphalt.

“Are you okay?” the guy asked.

“I’m fine.” And for the first time since I’d left Paradise Falls, I really felt okay. I stood up, dusting the snow and street from my puffy winter coat as we got out of the road. I noticed with more than a little disgust that my leggings had a hole in the right knee. Still, it was better than being road kill. “Your dog saved me.” I smiled at the pittie and scratched under her chin. “She’s a real beauty.”

“Hold up, girl.” He gently tugged the dog. “Wow, I’ve never seen her this excited.”

“She’s a hero,” I told him. I took off my gloves and knelt down to rub her cheeks, enjoying the warmth on my hands. “Aren’t you?” I devolved into baby talk. “Yes, you are. Such a good-good girl. A sweet baby. Yes, you are.”

The dog yanked free of the dude and leaned her body into mine, her wiggly butt gyrating as her giant tail whacked me. The only other time I remember getting tail-whacked like that was when my brother and I played together in our cougar forms. He used to think it was hilarious to tail-smack me. The bittersweet memory made me sigh.

The dog, as if sensing my melancholy, wedged herself under my arm as if she were trying to hug me. I can’t explain what happened next because I’d never felt anything like it before. A wave of utter adoration washed over me.

I fell in love with this furry bundle of energy.

“She really likes you.” He said it as if she didn’t like everyone. A baby as sweet as she was, I found it hard to believe she wasn’t the most popular pet in town.

“Aww, come here,” I said, looping my arms around her and scratching down her back. I let my gaze go to the man who’d tried to rescue me from my rescuer—and froze.

He was tall and broadly built, though it was hard to tell how much was him and how much was his winter coat. He had dark-brown hair and ocean-blue eyes. I caught the scent of honey and mint on him. Most likely a cologne or body spray. It smelled really nice.

His square jaw worked back and forth as he considered me. “Are you new in town?”

“I’m not from here, if that’s what you mean.” The dog licked my hands. I brushed my palms over her ears. “Aren’t you so smooshie? Such a sweet smooshie girl. What’s her name?”

He smiled, and my stomach dipped. “Smooshie sounds like a great name.”

“Doesn’t she already have a name?”

“I’ve been calling her ‘girl’ mostly.”

I noticed then the scars around the dog’s cheeks, but she looked healthy otherwise.

As if he could read my mind, he said, “I own a pit bull rescue. She was in a foster home for a couple of months with some friends of mine, but they just couldn’t take care of her anymore, and we’ve been having trouble finding someone to adopt her.” He crossed his arms. “You wouldn’t be interested in adopting Smooshie, would you?”

My stomach squeezed, and my chest filled with heartache for the dog. I knew him saying the dog’s name, calling her Smooshie, was a ploy to play on my sympathy, but this sweet girl had me at first lick.

“I think she’s adopted me,” I finally said. “So I guess I have to let her take care of me.” Smooshie licked my hand, her long tongue getting into every crevice between my fingers. I’m sure the hamburger I’d scarfed played a huge role in her attentive kisses.

“Good.” He clicked a leash onto her collar. “I think you two are a perfect fit. You really seem to know your way around a dog. You ever own one?”

“No,” I said. But I am a Shifter, I didn’t believe in owning animals. Despite the whole cat-versus-dog stereotypes, werecats, in general, didn’t mind werewolves. Or dogs. Especially this one. “We’ll be friends,” I told Smooshie. The dog wiggled happily.

The man’s blue eyes sparkled as his gaze met mine. “I’m Parker, by the way.”

I had a moment of clarity meeting Smooshie and Parker. It reminded me of the time when I was five years old, and I was forced (and I mean physically) to attend Paradise Falls Elementary School. My mother and father had walked me to PFE on a mild August morning, kissed me on the forehead (after ten minutes of prying my claws—yes, I’d partially shifted into my Were form—from their legs), and ushered me to the long line of students waiting outside the front doors.

I’d always been a solitary soul. I’d easily entertained myself for hours during the day, which made me a great child for my parents, but scored me zero points on the social interaction scale. So, it petrified me, as a loner, to be situated amongst a hundred other children who were all, much to my horror, taller than me.

A lanky brunette wearing black leggings and a skull-adorned pink tunic stood in front of me, clutching her backpack to her chest and talking to herself, or so I assumed. I’d cast a glare of betrayal back at my parents, who both waved and smiled encouragingly. At that moment, I hated them for their treachery. I’d been happy at home in my own little Lily bubble, and the fact that they were making me go out in the world to face other people felt royally unfair.

“Stop that,” I heard the girl in front of me say. “No, you have to stay inside.”

I personally thought she was nutty as a walnut tree.

She glanced over her shoulder at me and said, “Your hair matches Tizzy’s.”

I thought she was insulting me until a tiny head popped out of the backpack, and the small red squirrel said, “Letmesee, Haze!”

And in those few seconds of meeting my soon-to-be future BFF and her exuberant flying-squirrel familiar, I no longer felt abandoned and stranded.

So when Parker offered me his hand to shake, I took it. “Nice to meet you. I’m Lily.”

“Are you all right, Miss Mason?” asked the mechanic Greer Knowles. He strolled quickly toward Parker and me. For an older gentleman, he moved with ease.

“Yes.” I put my mittens back on because between the cold wind and Smooshie’s saliva, a patch of ice was forming on my palms. “Thanks.”

“That damn four-way is going to get someone killed.”

“Morning, Dad,” Parker said. Apparently, the nice-smelling dog rescuer was the mechanic’s son. “You know the council is never going to approve the money for a stop sign.”

“They will when someone dies.” Greer shook his head and turned his attention to me. “Good news. You sheared the distributor. Bad news, the part I need to fix your car is in Oklahoma. It will be Tuesday before it gets here.”

“How much?”

“Forty-eight for the part, plus twenty-five labor.”

It was a fair price. More than fair, but I couldn’t help but think about the chunk it would eat out of my savings, especially since I didn’t have a job. Every cent I had would need to last me.

“Thanks,” I said. Smooshie contented herself to stay next to me, and I admit, having her close made me feel more calm and centered. She was better than a mood stone.

“I’ve rarely seen a dog so taken with someone right from the get-go,” Parker said. “You want to come down to the rescue and fill out the paperwork?”

“Sure,” I said. I had nowhere to live. Which meant, the dog was going to be just as homeless as I was right now. Jeez, I hadn’t thought this through.

“Uhm, Parker.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m just visiting family for a couple of days. I don’t even have a place to stay yet. I doubt if a B&B will let me keep Smooshie. Can you keep her for a couple more days?”

Parker smiled. “I have a studio apartment over my garage. It’s just a bed, a bathroom, and a kitchenette, but you’re welcome to it as long as you need it.”

“It’ll only be two or three days at the most.”

He waved me off. “However long.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“You’re kind, Lily. I can tell in the way you are with Smooshie. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all I need to know.”

“Parker!” a woman shouted. “Parker Knowles!” I looked up to see Katherine Kapersky sprinting toward us. She looked ready to spit nails. For such a put-together woman, she had an attitude worse than a skunk Shifter’s. And they were as crotchety as shapeshifters come.

Parker groaned. “Not now,” he said out the side of his mouth.

“That woman needs a muzzle more than your dogs,” Greer said. “You better get, son.”

“Come on,” Parker said to me. “My place is just three streets down.” He didn’t bother waiting for me to answer as he headed in the opposite direction of my uncle’s café. Smooshie and I were right on his tail.

So was Mrs. Kapersky.

“Parker!” The woman used his name like a demand. “I know you can hear me.”

I looked back over my shoulder. Her blonde hair had enough hair spray that it barely moved, even with her brisk pace. She flapped her pocketbook in our direction.

“I think she’s going to follow you all the way to the shelter.”

“Probably,” Parker said. He stopped and turned. “Mrs. Kapersky. So nice to see you.” Even though his words had been meant as a polite kindness, I could taste the lie like a green persimmon’s bitterness on my tongue, an unfortunate side effect of my witch inheritance.

“I saw that dog of yours running around the streets.” Her finger shook as she pointed it at him. “Between your beasts and the crazy drivers, this town is turning dangerous for folks to even walk around in.”

Had she seen my near miss with the car, or had she had a close encounter of her own?

The creases between Parker’s eyes deepened. “My dogs have never hurt anyone, and you know it.”

“The board meets this week, and I promise you, we will be voting on whether to ban the shelter from the city limits.”

“Mrs. Kapersky.” Parker’s body went rigid, his hands flexing as if self-control was something he had to practice. “This is Lily Mason. She’s adopting the dog right now. You won’t have to worry about her anymore.”

“Too little too late,” the woman snapped.

Parker’s dad was right behind her. “If you want a real cause, Katie, you’d get this sign fixed. Miss Mason here almost got ran over.”

The woman turned her laser beam eyes to the mechanic. “You stay out of this, Greer.” And with that, she turned on her heel and stormed off.

Parker shook his head.

His dad said, “That woman was born in a briar patch and never got all the thorns out of her sorry hide.”

“That’s no lie,” Parker agreed.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Miss Mason,” Greer said.

I nodded at him. “Thanks.”

“All right.” He gestured toward his son, who was already heading off again. “Parker’s a good kid. He’ll take care of you. I’ll give him a call when the truck is ready.” The scowl on his face returned as he stared down the street at the Kapersky woman. “Have a nice day, Miss Mason.”

It took a minute to catch up with Parker. Smooshie, who’d been silent during Mrs. Kapersky’s tirade, whined. Her sad gaze made me want to go werecougar on the horrid woman. I know it had only been five minutes, but Smooshie was under my protection now. Anyone foolish enough to be mean to her would find my claws in their behind.

“What was that all about?” I asked.

Parker scratched behind her ear. “It’s nothing for you to worry about,” he said. “She’s an old witch.”

Alarm rang through me. A witch was responsible for the deaths of my parents and my brother. While I knew they weren’t all bad, my best friend Haze, for example, I also knew that a rogue witch could cause a lot of damage and chaos. “A witch? How old?” The older ones tended to be more powerful, and as wrinkly as she looked, she had to be a thousand years or more.

“I’m pretty sure the crone celebrated her sixtieth birthday last year.”

“Only sixty?” I tucked my chin. She couldn’t have strong magic. I was still getting used to my own witch DNA, and I didn’t really have a hold on my own power yet. The blonde hair marked Mrs. Kapersky as a creator. “Do you have many…witches living in Moonrise?”

“We have our share, just like anywhere else.”

Really? It surprised me that he would know about witches. I was certain this was a human-only town, with the exception of my uncle. Hazel, now the chief of police in my hometown of Paradise Falls, had lived in the human world for nearly two decades, and no one had been the wiser. She said it was pretty easy to hide. But she’d been a witch, not a Shifter, and I wondered if it was easier to hide magic than shifting.

“Does she have a coven?” I asked.

Parker raised his brow at me. “A what?”

“Mrs. Kapersky. I just wondered if she had a coven because I don’t sense her magic.”

“If by magic, you mean pure meanness, then yeah. That woman is a demon.”

Was she a witch or a demon? I was lost. Surely, Uncle Buzz would have mentioned if paranormal beings lived here.

He studied me. “I don’t mean she’s a real witch. She likes to complain about everything all the time and stir up trouble.”

Oh. I blushed. He wasn’t talking about real witches. Duh. “I think the word you’re looking for starts with a B. I’ve known a few of those, too. Ironic she’s married to the preacher.”

“No doubt.”

The rescue shelter smelled nicer than I thought it would. I mean, it definitely smelled like dog, but when you housed a bunch of dogs, that couldn’t be helped.

“How many do you have?”

“Right now I have enough room to take care of twenty dogs, but only enough volunteers for about eight. I’m trying to save enough to buy some property outside of town. I want to build a large shelter on at least ten acres to house at least two hundred dogs.” He shook his head. “I hate having to turn away a pit bull that needs care and attention. Some of them come to me in pretty bad shape.”

I hated to think of what Smooshie must have gone through before her rescue. “Do you take care of them by yourself?”

“I have two employees and some volunteers. Good folks who will come and hang out with the dogs in care, re-socialize them to people. When they are ready, we have foster homes who keep them until we can get them adopted. Like with children, it takes a village. We get donations in from all over the state, money, food, and such. The local vet office, Petry’s Pet Clinic, vaccinates the dogs for free, and neuters and spays them for me.”

“That’s really nice of the vet.”

“Ryan Petry is an old buddy. I usually ask for a small adoption fee from prospective owners. What I get, I give to Ryan. It covers his costs for the medicines.”

“How do you keep it going? I mean, if you give away the adoption fees?”

He chuckled. “The rest of this place is paid for with donations from animal lovers all over the state. We have regular monthly and one-time donors. It’s not a lot, but it keeps the lights on.” He smiled. “We have a website people can access.”

His love for the breed moved me. “That’s really wonderful. These dogs are lucky to have you in their corner.”

“I’d do anything to keep them safe.”

I hadn’t had much help when I was raising my brother. Maybe if I had, he wouldn’t have died so young. “It’s a noble endeavor.”

He smiled. “The dogs help me as much as I help them.”

He didn’t elaborate, so I didn’t pry.

“Thanks for putting me up,” I said, trying real hard not to move in closer for a better whiff of his delicious scent. “I won’t be a bother. I don’t plan to stay in town long.”

Parker’s blue eyes softened. “That’s too bad.”

~

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