The Money Pit

Barkside of the Moon Mysteries, Book 2

Renee George

Chapter 1

I have never been an impulsive person. I look both ways before crossing the street, I test the water with my toe before wading in, and I don’t buy dilapidated, two-story rural houses.

Oh, wait. Yes, I do. The decrepit home on twelve acres of wooded land outside Moonrise, Missouri, was mine-ish. I’d just signed an “as is” rent-to-own, fifteen-year contract with Merl Peterson, a property developer, and had given him a ten-grand down payment.

What have you done, Lily Mason?

“The place needs a lot of work,” Merl said. His bushy eyebrows were as thick and long as the hair on his head was thin and short. “It hasn’t had any work done on it in a long time. I was planning to fix it up myself for a cushy resale price, but Greer’s a hard man to say no to.”

“Greer’s a good man,” I said. “One of the best.”

Greer Knowles was a mechanic in Moonrise. He owned a small garage called The Rusty Wrench. He was the very first person I met when I came to town, thanks to my green and yellow mini-truck, aka the rust bucket. I’ve had the truck for over twenty years now, and Martha, even with her occasional problems, was still the most reliable thing in my life. At least, she’d been the most consistent. I looked over at her. Martha’s wheel well rust had gotten worse over the winter. Salted roads had a tendency to speed up oxidation. But lucky for me, Greer knew how to keep her in top running order.

Greer was also the father of my boss and friend, Parker.

My heart picked up the pace, the way it always did when I thought of Parker. I was currently living over his garage in a small studio apartment. As much as I wanted independence and a place of my own, another reason this house was so important to me was because I needed distance from Parker. It was hard working with a man I had feelings for when I knew nothing could ever come from them. Living right next to him made my heartache almost unbearable.

Merl pushed up his thick glasses and shook his head. “I have another place in town that’s cheaper if this doesn’t suit you.”

What Merl didn’t understand was that I liked the tall columns out on the porch and the ornate gables. There was something about this house, a certain charm, that I wanted to preserve. To make mine. Besides, my pit bull Smooshie needed room to run, to be free to stretch her thick legs. Frankly, I needed the same. As a werecougar living in a human town, I didn’t often have the privacy needed to shift.

Smooshie barked and yipped with manic energy. I looked over in time to see my eighty-pound brown and white pittie leaping around after an orange and black Monarch butterfly near a patch of milkweed. We’d had a warm end to winter, and spring was a couple of weeks away. Even so, seeing a butterfly this early in March was unusual. Smooshie leaped again, her whole body twisting in the air.

I smiled. I really loved that dog.

“I’ll be fine, Mr. Peterson. I have plans for the place.”

“I hope a bulldozer’s involved,” he muttered.

I didn’t say “what?” because I’d heard him loud and clear. My excellent hearing was the blessing and curse of being a cougar Shifter. I could also smell the remnants of his lunch—a burger with bacon, grilled onions, and bleu cheese. Buying a house on an empty stomach was no bueno. I turned to him and said, “Thank you, Mr. Peterson. I appreciate you taking a chance on me.”

“Greer says you’re okay, then you’re okay in my book.” The older man smiled, the lines around his eyes crinkling into small canyons. “Don’t mind the ghosts.” He grinned now.

Parker had tried to talk me out of the place. He’d said it was haunted. His expression had been so severe that I’d tried not to laugh. Not because I didn’t believe in ghosts, quite the contrary. It’s just that I grew up in a town with way scarier paranormal creatures than spirits. Besides, the ghost angle had allowed me to get the place at a steal. No one wanted to live in a house where people disappeared and were never seen from again. Except me.

“If it’s all right, I’d like to hang out for a while, just to get some ideas and stuff,” I told Merl.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll have Jock Simmons send you copies of the contract. We’ll get things finalized this week.”

“It’s okay that I get the trailer moved over and stuff now, right?”

“Of course. The place is yours. Just need to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but as far as I’m concerned, you are home.”

I smiled. “Sounds good.” When Merl left, I pulled out my phone and made a call. “Haze. I got the house,” I said when my BFF answered.

“Oh. Em. Gee!” She materialized and hugged me hard. “That’s amazing.”

Smooshie’s barking grew even more excited, almost verging on a frantic hysteria as she danced around Hazel, going up on two feet, but not quite jumping on her.

“Will you muzzle your beast?” a squeaky voice demanded. A red squirrel climbed Haze to get away from my pittie.

“She’s just saying hello, Tiz.” I scratched Smooshie behind the ear, and she leaned her thick body into me, her tail whacking the back of my thighs as she panted her pleasure.

Hazel Kinsey is a witch, and Tizzy, a squirrel, is her familiar. They were both my best and only friends when I was growing up. Being short and skinny in a Shifter community was the same as being weak and useless. I’d never wanted to stay in Paradise Falls, but the death of my parents had made that choice for me. I’d had to drop out of high school to support my little brother, and I stayed until he died. It still hurt to think of Danny. There was nothing left for me there once he was gone.

“Is this it?” Tizzy asked. She made a chittering sound of disgust. “What a dump.”

“Tiz!” Haze crossed her arms. “It just needs a little TLC. And maybe a little…” She wiggled her fingers.

“No magic,” I said.

“Not even a little?”

“She’s probably worried you’ll blow her house down.” Tizzy jumped to my shoulder. “Not that it would take much. Did you find this place in Deader Homes and Gardens?”

“Ha ha. Very funny.”

“I thought so.” Tizzy pulled an almond from somewhere on her furry person—I didn’t want to know from where—and began to chew. “I like all the trees. And oh, look! Squirrels.” Two gray squirrels ran up a mature maple. I rolled my eyes.

Haze, who was taller than me by six inches, put her arm around my shoulders. “You’ll make it a real home, Lily. I have every faith.”

“Thanks for lending me the down payment.”

She smiled. “I know you’re good for it.” She gave me a squeeze.

“I’m kind of scared, Haze.”

My BFF put her hands on my shoulders and stared down at me. “Why?”

“I’m not sure I can make it out here.” By “out here” I meant in an entirely human town. Well, mostly. I’d never had to hide before, and I wasn’t sure I could keep it up. “Aside from the fact that I’m a fish out of water—”

“More like a cat out of the litter box,” Tizzy snarked.

I ignored her. “I didn’t even finish high school. I don’t make enough working at the shelter to afford a mortgage and food.” Shifters burned through calories like fire burned through a month-old Christmas tree. And I needed a lot of protein in my diet, too. “Have you checked out the price of beef lately? It’s ridiculous. I could spend a paycheck on red meat alone.”

“Have you thought about getting your GED, maybe taking some classes at the local college?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re the smartest person I know, Lily Mason. It would be a shame to let all those brains go to waste.”

Hazel believed every word she said. I could smell the truth on her. It was a gift passed down from my great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side, who happened to be a witch, amazingly enough. I only found out in October that I wasn’t pure Shifter, and some dangerous magic back home had triggered my ability as a truth-sayer. Most people wanted to be truthful, anyhow, and my power allowed them to open up to me. It didn’t always work. If someone wanted to hide a secret bad enough, they could resist the compulsion to come clean.

I nodded to my friend. “I won’t give up.”

“Good, because you’ve been happy here, Lils. More happy than I’d ever seen you before.” She squeezed my shoulders. “Humans are good for you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” I could hear the roar of a dually truck engine less than a mile away. “My boss is coming. You better get out of here.”

“The boss?” She made the sound like thee. “The one who basically rescued you and swept you off your feet?”

“Stop,” I said. “Seriously. You need to go.”

Haze’s phone played Bear Necessities” from The Jungle Book. “Shoot, that’s Ford.” She looked at the screen. “It’s a 9-1-1. There’s been trouble since Halloween between the Shifters and the witches, and with spring right around the corner, it’s not getting any better.” She kissed my cheek. “Call me if you need me.”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her and gave her a quick hug.

“Bye, Lils!” Tizzy said as she circled her witch’s waist and climbed up her back. “Next time leave your beast at home.”

I knelt next to Smooshie, who happily wagged. “She is home.”

Tizzy stuck her tiny tongue out at me. Haze gave me a wistful smile. “Tell lover boy I said hello.”

“He’s not—” They disappeared before I could finish my protest. Parker’s big black truck was throwing dust up as it came down the gravel drive.

The truck ground to a halt about thirty feet away. Parker rubbed his hand over his dark hair before he opened the driver-side door and stepped out. He was average height, about five feet eleven inches, which was still eight inches taller than me. I’d always been a bit of a runt. He had a broad chest, muscular arms, and crystal-blue eyes that nearly undid me every time he looked my way.

His dog Elvis—half pit bull, half horse—jumped out of the truck after him. The large, silvery-blue beauty hugged his body against his master’s legs. As a PTSD dog, Elvis had been trained to pick up on Parker’s body language and put himself between Parker and stressors. Turns out I was one of those stressors. I didn’t want to make Parker’s life difficult. Just the opposite. It was the reason I needed my own place.

“Whatcha doing out here?” I asked, shielding my eyes from the sun as he approached. An easy breeze carried his scent to me, and I fought the urge to run into his arms. We were friends. Nothing more. No matter what my Shifter libido wanted.

“I have to run into Cape Girardeau for some supplies, and dad asked me to bring you out his toolbox, shovel, and plaster scraper.” He reached into the bed of the truck and lifted out a red bifold-topped metal box.

“It’s so I can bury the bodies.”

Parker froze for a moment. A crooked smile played on his lips. “You need help? I got a hacksaw back home.”

I laughed. “These will do.” I took the shovel and scraper from him. I followed him to the porch where he set the toolbox down.

“There you go,” Parker said. He rubbed his hands on his jeans and put them in the pockets of his windbreaker.

“Tell Greer I owe him some pie.” It was a joke between us. Parker’s dad and I shared a love of food in a pastry.

“I’ll let him know.” His low voice always made my stomach jittery.

Smooshie and Elvis sniffed each other, with Smooshie getting her full nose right up his butt. I didn’t want to begrudge her the formal dog greeting of an old friend, but automatically, I said, “Stop that.”

Smooshie cocked her head at me, gave Elvis one more nose goose then moved away. Thank heavens Elvis tolerated Smooshie. He outweighed her by at least thirty pounds.

“You sure you want to live out here?” Parker asked. “It’s going to take a lot of work to get this place livable.”

“Buzz is moving in with Nadine. He’s going to let me put his trailer out here to live in until I can get it all fixed up.”

Buzz was actually my uncle and was a good forty years older than me, but since we were both Shifters, we could pass for nearly the same age. Nadine was one of the few friends I’d made since I moved to Moonrise. She was a deputy sheriff for the county, and she was very much in love with my uncle. Unfortunately, she could never be Buzz’s mate. Oh, he loved Nadine. He probably loved her as much as she loved him, but Buzz was a werecougar.

A Shifter. The only other nonhuman in town besides me.

Shifters only mated with other Shifters, with only a few exceptions, and all of those exceptions were paranormal mates. There was a distinct aroma that developed between mates, and when a Shifter caught the scent, it was for life. That couldn’t happen in a Shifter-human relationship. It was genetically impossible. But since Buzz hadn’t ever found his true mate, he and Nadine could be happy for many years together. Sadly, it would eventually end. And that was another reason to not get involved with sexy humans like Parker Knowles.

I felt an aching pain in my heart. My kind lived a very long time. Hundreds of years sometimes. I’m not sure anyone is built to watch the people they love grow old and die. I know I’m not.

“So Buzz is taking the big step, huh?” Parker smiled, his blue eyes lighting up with mischief. “He seems more like the rambling kind than the settling-down kind.”

“Nadine has a way of getting what she wants.” She reminded me a lot of Hazel. Nadine was very straightforward, a lot of “what you see is what you get.” I admired her bluntness and her honesty.

I smiled at Parker; a melancholy feeling that I’d grown accustomed to experiencing washed over me. I knelt down, feeling the sudden need to hold on to something, in this case, my pittie. Smooshie put her wet nose to my ear and licked my cheek. I patted her.

“Theresa holding down the fort today?” I asked. She was Parker’s other paid employee. He could only afford to have us both on part time thanks to an anonymous donation that rolled in every month on the fifth. Theresa Simmons, who had started as a volunteer, had worked at the Pit Bull Rescue Center for over two years. Parker also had several volunteers who spent time socializing the rescue dogs to get them ready for rehousing.

“Keith, Jerry, and Emily are in today, so she has plenty of help.”

“Good, I hated leaving you short on a Saturday. I know that’s when you run your errands, but it was the only time Mr. Peterson had open to meet with me.”

“Life happens.” He glanced over at me, his blue eyes locking on my gaze. “They don’t get much better than Merl Peterson. He gave me my first job, did you know that?”

“No, you never told me.”

“Yeah, he likes to hire local teenagers for odd jobs. He’d hire me occasionally for things like deck building and roofing. Summer work. It was long hours but a decent paycheck.”

“My first job I clerked at a convenience store. I worked nights and some weekends.” I’d had to quit school to work full-time, and the Valhalla Gas & Go was the only place that would hire an eighteen-year-old dropout.

“I’m glad you’re putting down roots here.” He looked around, his upper lip curled a little in disgust. “Even if it’s this place.”

“The house has good bones,” I told him.

“That’s not a house.”

“It has doors and windows and rooms and—”

“Ghosts.”

“Parker.”

“Facts are facts, Lily.” He walked up the front steps as if drawn, his voice like that of a tour guide. “Randall Dilley, who built the place back in 1908, hung himself in the living room. Another owner, Lincoln Edwards, was killed in a combine accident in the 1940s, a whole family disappeared from here in the eighties, and there hasn’t been someone living there since Old Man Mills died in the upstairs bedroom two years ago.”

“Let me guess.” I mockingly gasped. “He was murdered.”

“Nah. Natural causes.” Parker paused. “Or so they say…” He let it hang there as if to imply there were more sinister reasons behind the old man’s death. What he didn’t realize is, because of my witch ancestor’s gift, I could smell bull-poop from a mile away.

Anyway. I knew a little about John “Old Man” Mills. The property had been held in escrow as the court tried to find a blood relative somewhere to inherit. No one came forward, so the property was sold to Merl—who’d sold it to me.

“You want to go on the supply run with me?” Parker asked.

“No thanks.” I smiled. “Another time. I want to get in and measure the rooms. I need to figure out where I want to start with this place. Besides, Buzz is bringing out the trailer today.”

“That’s fast.” His lips thinned. “Well, thought I’d ask.”

“And I appreciate it.” To lighten the mood, I asked, “Do you think the ghosts took him out?”

“Who?”

“Old Man Mills, of course.”

“I think he’s one of the ghosts now.” He moved in close, his tone ominous. “Some say when the moon is full, and the wind is right, you can smell his farts on the breeze.”

I giggled. “That’s terrible.”

I will not flirt with Parker. I will not flirt with Parker. It had become my mantra. A mantra that failed fifty percent of the time.

I knew Parker liked me. A lot. I could scent his attraction. For whatever reason, his desire for me smelled like honey and mint. Crisp, refreshing, and exciting. But he deserved to be with a woman he could grow old with, and I had a terrible feeling that if I allowed myself to love Parker Knowles, I wouldn’t be able to give him up when the time came for me to leave Moonrise. I could only stay for so long before people would start asking questions about why I didn’t age, and the first rule of integrating with humans was to never let them know you were different. Not unless you wanted to be hunted down like an animal.

Humans had two impulses when it came to things they didn’t understand. Kill it or dissect it. I didn’t want either of those things happening to me.

Chapter 2

After Parker left, I grabbed the toolbox, shovel, and scraper and took it into the house. The peeling blue ivy wallpaper in the living room gave the house the haunted feeling Parker had mentioned, but it was the most updated of all the rooms. It had drywall, not plaster, which meant, unless there was mold, I could save money by just stripping the wallpaper and painting in there.

Even with all its many failings, I already loved the place. I felt as if I’d finally found a home. A place to call my own.

I set the toolbox down. Getting started would be the tricky part, but I wasn’t afraid to work hard. I would need to hire a contractor to tell me which walls were support walls, and which ones were room dividers. The place could literally tumble down around my ears if I decided to get sledgehammer happy.

Smooshie’s ears perked. She stared at the door with expectation then began to bark the moment I heard the gravel spinning under the tires. I had great hearing, but Smooshie’s hearing was incredible. I went outside. I grinned as I saw Buzz’s blue pickup pulling his twelve-by-sixty-foot trailer onto my property. Behind him was a brown four-door car, its hazard lights blinking as they made slow progress up my drive.

When they got close, Buzz stopped, stuck his head out the window and shouted, “Where do you want it!”

I pointed to a piece of flat ground about twenty feet from the house. It was the side closest to the well and the power meter. I’d have to pay someone to come out and hook up the water, electric, and run a pipe to the septic tank, but I’d put money aside for that purpose already.

Five men—two in their forties or fifties, one that looked to be in his teens, and two who looked somewhere in between—got out of the brown car and began methodically getting down to the business of helping my uncle land the trailer.

They worked efficiently to get it blocked at the wheels, unhitched, and level.

Buzz got out of his truck and grinned. “It was a scary drive.”

“I bet.” The other men joined us. “Who’re your friends?”

“Lily, these are some of my lodge brothers. This is Nick Newton.” Buzz gestured to one of the older men. His hair was a dirty gray, which meant he’d probably been a light or dark blond before age changed the color. His hazel eyes were warm, and the deep leathery lines around his mouth and eyes marked him as someone who’d spent his life in the sun. “He owns Handy Contractors, and I’ve known him long enough to know he’ll only rip you off a little.” Buzz’s grin matched Nick’s.

Nick shook my hand. “As opposed to a lot,” he added. I could smell tobacco on him, but his fingers weren’t stained yellow, so I put him at under half a pack a day, maybe less. “This is Paul, Jeff, Mark, and my nephew, Addy.” He cuffed the younger man behind the ear. “Addy’s the Moonrise varsity quarterback. The kid has a great arm on him. Next year, if he can stay out of trouble, he’ll have his pick of colleges if he can get the team to state.” The older man beamed with pride at his nephew.

Addy was the youngest in the group. I’d seen him before at The Cat’s Meow. He was usually surrounded by a couple of buddies, including James Hanley, a real jerk of a kid, and fawning over teenage girls. I’d heard the name Addy at their table, but I’d always assumed it was one of the girls.

“Addison,” the teenager said, automatically answering my unasked question. His cheeks reddened. “It’s a family name. I’m used to Addy, though.”

I gave him a sympathetic smile. “It’s nice to meet you, Addison.”

The young man gave me a glance that was decidedly grown up, so I gave him one back that conveyed a when-hell-freezes-over message. He blushed again.

Paul was Paul Simmons. Late thirties, early forties, less gray than Nick and shorter, but well-built and handsome. He was a plumbing department manager at Hayes Home Improvement Center. I wondered if he was related to Jock Simmons, the lawyer Parker had used when he’d been suspected of murdering Katherine Kapersky. I hoped not. I didn’t have much use for Jock. I believed he beat his wife, Theresa, the other woman who worked for Parker at the shelter. In my book, any man who puts his hands on a woman is despicable, but a man who hits a woman he vows to love is not only despicable, he’s disgusting.

“I’ve heard nice things about you, Miss Mason,” Paul said.

I wondered from who. Buzz wouldn’t go out of his way to talk about me. He was a private person for obvious reasons.

I peered up at Paul. “It’s all true.”

They all chuckled at the small joke, and the introductions continued.

“Mark is the new guy,” Buzz said.

Mark Stephens was the fourth guy. Mark, it turned out, was an electrician by trade.

“I’ve been back here for two years, and I graduated from Moonrise with Jeff here.” Doesn’t that count for anything?” He laughed and shook his head. “When do I get to stop being the new guy?”

“When another new guy joins the lodge,” Nick teased.

“I was the old new guy,” Buzz added.

The last fellow, Jeff Callahan, was Parker’s age, it turned out. He and Mark had both graduated high school with Parker. Jeff had a beer gut that hung over his belt, which he sincerely needed since he had no butt to hold up his jeans. He was an accountant, which surprised me. I usually thought of pocket protectors and thick glasses when I thought of someone into numbers. This guy looked like a good ol’ boy and smelled heavily of marijuana. My brother used to smoke it, so I was intimately familiar with the scent.

I smiled, though, when I realized Buzz had brought me a contractor, a plumber, an electrician, and… Well, I wasn’t sure how Jeff’s accounting skills would come in handy, but it felt like Buzz had stacked the deck in my favor.

“I can’t thank you all enough for helping Buzz get the trailer parked and leveled. I wish I had a working kitchen, I’d invite you in for coffee or something.”

“Buzz is paying us with a free meal tonight.”

“It’s my turn to bring dinner for poker night.”

“Yep. No kids, no wives, no bosses,” Jeff said, nudging Buzz. He looked at me. “No offense, ma’am.” He raised his arms. I noticed he had a couple of rubber bands around his arm. It reminded me of my dad, who would take the rubber bands off the mail when he got it and put them around his wrists until he could move them into his desk drawer. Most of the time he forgot. My mom would snap him with them every time she passed him. I loved watching the two of them together.

“None taken. Now if I were your wife…” I raised my hands in a shrug. “Then I’d be sorry.”

“Now that’s the truth,” Nick said.

“Hey,” Jeff said defensively.

We all laughed. It was nice. It was a community. My community.

“Lily, Nick said he’d come out and inspect the house for you if you want. He can give you a good idea of what it’s going to need.”

“That’s great. I really need to know what walls are load-bearing. I want to expand some of the spaces. I guess I’ll have to deal with wire and plumbing as well.”

Paul piped in, “Come by Hayes when you’re ready. I’ll give you a good deal on plumbing supplies.”

“And maybe a little help installing?”

Paul grinned. “Maybe.”

“Thank you.” I beamed at Buzz. In the five months I’d lived in Moonrise, these humans had made me feel more welcome than I’d ever felt growing up in a town full of Shifters and witches.

“No problem. Hey,” Nick added. “Tell Parker I really hope he can make it to the celebration Saturday night.”

“There’s a celebration.”

“Coach Thompson,” Addy said. “My football coach. He’s retiring this year, and the school is having a banquet for him. They want the entire ‘09’ state champion team to present him with a lifetime achievement award. Lots of folks coming into town for it.”

The teenager didn’t seem very enthused at the prospect of losing his coach. “It must be hard losing him right before your senior year,” I said.

Addy looked up at me, his expression grim. Nick laughed though. “I’ve been that man’s right hand for fifteen years. He’s a great coach, but I have my own ideas of where to take the team next year.”

So Nick would be the new coach. The kid forced a smile at his uncle, but it was easy to see he wasn’t thrilled about having Nick as the new head coach.

“I’m sure it will be great,” I said diplomatically, then changed the subject. “I really do appreciate you all coming out here today and for the offer of help.”

When Buzz’s friends finally crawled back into their car and left, he put his arm around my shoulders and turned us around to look at the house. “Home sweet home,” he said. “I’m proud of you, Lily.”

My parents were long gone now, but when Buzz said that to me, I heard my father’s voice for the first time in eighteen years. It made my eyes water. “Thanks.”

“You okay?”

“Yes. I’m just really glad to have found you.”

“Me too.” Buzz stared at the thick trees off in the distance. “That’ll be a nice place to run,” he said.

He was talking about a four-legged run, cougar-style. The lovely, large plot of land and the isolation of being surrounded by trees and wide-open farmland had been a big selling point, ghosts or no ghosts.

“Did you know John Mills? The guy who died here?” I asked him.

“Yes,” Buzz answered. “I heard he got pretty senile there toward the end. Dementia took him hard.”

Poor guy. He’d had no family to help him. “Parker says the place is haunted.”

“Parker doesn’t want you to leave his garage apartment.” Buzz chuckled. “Ever.”

“Don’t you worry about what Parker wants.”

Smooshie barked her agreement right before a squirrel in a tree caught her eye. She ran break-neck speed to the base, her barks, high and excited.

“At least the dog is happy,” Buzz said.

“I’m happy, too.” I crossed my heart. “Promise.”

Buzz’s expression grew somber and pinched. “You know it’s not a sin for Shifters to have friends and lovers. You don’t have to be alone. You just have to be realistic about your expectations.”

“I’m not alone, and I’m not lonely,” I lied. The thought of dating someone other than Parker had crossed my mind. The problem was, I only wanted to date Parker. I didn’t want to bother with another man, human or Shifter.

Buzz had once been in love with my mother, it was before I was born, but she and my father had been true mates. It had been the reason Buzz had left our hometown and never returned. It’s why I didn’t doubt that he loved Nadine, but they would never have children. That only happened when a Shifter found his or her mate. Buzz and I had talked about how unfair it was to Nadine, but he assured me that she didn’t want kids anyhow. Once on a girls’ night out, she’d also told me she wasn’t interested in having a baby. I could understand her position. I’d never wanted children of my own either, but that had been when my brother Danny was alive.

Did I want them now? Did Parker? I’d never be able to give him a son to play ball with, or a daughter to…well, he could play ball with her too. I smiled a little.

“Earth to Lily,” Buzz said.

“I have plenty of friends around here, and I don’t need a lover.”

“Yeah. Right.” He gestured toward my home. “Can you use some help with the house? I’m happy to help with some of the demolition.”

I laughed. “Since I’m not dating, I’m going to use all my pent-up energy to give the walls a work over. I need to take the inside down to the bones and see what I’m working with.”

“Asbestos, mold, and lead paint, if I had to guess.”

I laughed again, and Buzz joined in. I loved the rich tone of his laughter. Again, he reminded me of Dad. “You’re awful.”

“Did you get the place inspected for mold and stuff?”

“Not yet. I plan to do it this week.” I shook my head. “But even if I have to strip it down to nothing but studs, I’m going to return the charm to this old place.”

“You really do like it, don’t you?”

“Why are you surprised?”

“I bet Nadine you bought the place just so you could run away from Parker.”

I looked around my isolated property. “I bought the place so I could run.” I grinned.

Buzz and I drove out to the state park a couple of times a month to placate our other halves, but my cat was itching to get out more. I had no idea how Buzz managed not to go stir crazy in town with all the watchful eyes of the community on him. I guess he had a lot of years of practice. I shuddered at how many times I’d let my eyes change or a claw slip. Out here, there were no homes for miles, and my house had a long driveway. Add that to the woods covering the back half of my twelve acres and my Shifter hearing to warn me of anyone arriving, and I was in werecougar heaven.

“And I plan to run a lot.”

“I get it,” he said.

“You want to stay for a while? We can get a quick rabbit hunt in.” And by hunt, I meant more of a chase and not catch. I preferred my food cooked on a stove to raw and possibly wormy.

“Tempting. But I have a thing tonight.”

“Oh yeah, poker with your lodge buddies. Thanks for getting your friends to help with the trailer move. I’ll call Nick tomorrow to have him come out and look at the place.”

“Then you’ll have to thank him. They volunteered when Merl and I told them what you were doing out here. I don’t know Jeff or Paul well, but Nick’s a good man.”

“Merl Peterson?”

“Yes, he’d been with the Moosehead Lodge for thirty years.”

“Do you all get naked and beat drums while you pass around a spirit stick?”

“Only on days that end in Y.” Buzz leaned down and kissed my forehead. “I best get going.”

After a brief goodbye, Buzz took off for town. I leaned up against my truck and watched the gray squirrel taunt Smooshie by leaping from branch to branch. She whined and clawed at the trunk. In a few minutes, she gave up and ran to me, her whole butt wagging as she pushed against my leg.

I reached down and petted her between the ears. “Okay, Smoosh, let’s really have a look at this property.” I took my clothes off—shoes and socks first, followed by shirt, pants, bra, and underwear. Smooshie cocked her head sideways, giving me a quizzical look. She always did that when I got undressed. It was as if she were asking, “How come your fur comes off and mine doesn’t?”

“Don’t worry, girl. The fur’s about to really happen now.” I dug her training clicker from my pants pocket and gave her the command to sit while I clicked it. Obediently, she sat, her tail swishing, creating a windshield wiper effect on the driveway gravel.

I knelt down in front of her, willing my cougar forward, exalting as fur rippled along my skin and every bone in my body transformed from human to giant cat. The entire process took seconds. I stared at Smooshie through my predator eyes. The first time I’d changed in front of her, she’d shied away, but she hadn’t tried to attack. Now that she’d seen me go from Lily to cougar and back to Lily many times, she just got excited. Cougar equaled a run, and Smooshie loved to run.

I gazed over at the tree line behind the house. I touched my forehead to Smooshie’s, the signal to go. She practically headbutted me as she jumped up on all fours. I laughed, but it came out as a throaty purring sound.

I detected the scent of decaying leaves where the ground had thawed, new grass, and a myriad of squirrels, raccoons, and deer scents. Smooshie ran like the devil chased her, hopping over fallen logs, ditches, and a small brook like she was a champion show pony. At one point, she face-planted with a yelp. I padded to where she’d fallen, but she was already up and running again.

There was a hole in the ground, a couple of feet deep. Something had dug up the dirt, but it was partially filled in, and grass was beginning to sprout along the upper edges. I leaned down and inhaled. Most likely a gopher had made the hole, but it was old enough now that I couldn’t scent any one type of animal.

After some more exploration, I found there were many depressions in the ground in my woods. They had varying degrees of depth and flora growth, indicating that whatever species had dug these areas, had been doing it for years.

A rustle of sticks stole my attention. Smooshie was digging next to a mossy boulder. I guess she didn’t like having holes on her land unless she’d created them herself.

I flushed with happiness. Smooshie could dig all she wanted out here and no one would get mad at her or me about it. Yay.

Chapter 3

Soft whimpers followed by labored pants woke me up. I peered out of one eye at the giant pink tongue hanging above my face. Smooshie needed a breath mint. A big one.

“What time is it?” I asked, without expecting an answer. I felt around my nightstand and found my phone. The screen was offensively bright. Five-seventeen a.m. Noooo. I had another hour and almost forty-five minutes before I had to get up for work.

I closed my eyes. “Dear, dear, Smoosh,” I said. “You need to get your bladder on my schedule.”

She put her front paws on my stomach.

Umph. “Fine. I’m awake.” As soon as I moved her aside, she jumped down from the bed and wagged at me impatiently. “I’m moving,” I told her and sat up.

I gazed around at the little apartment I’d called home for the past five months. This would be one of the last times I got out of this bed.

I stretched, and my back cracked like a bundle of firecrackers. I would not miss the fold-out couch bed. At all.

Smooshie barked to let me know I was going to be cleaning up a puddle if I didn’t put some urgency into my “moving.”

I wore a tank top and a pair of pajama pants to bed, so I just threw on a sweater and slipped on my galoshes. Parker’s fenced-in backyard had been a bit marshy this week. I didn’t bother brushing my teeth or combing my hair. Smooshie didn’t look as if she’d last much longer.

She bowed to me at the door, stretching her own back as I clipped her leash on. “Soon,” I told her, “I’ll be able to just open the door and let you out when you have to go. The whole place will be your personal potty paradise.”

I opened the door, and she dragged me down the steps to the gate between the garage and Parker’s house. I could hear Parker and Elvis out back and wondered if that’s why Smooshie had suddenly needed to pee at this unhealthy hour.

I tried to smooth down my frizzy bed hair, but I knew without a brush and some water, my actions were futile. When we rounded the corner, Parker tossed a ball toward the back fence, and Elvis took off after it. He saw Smooshie and me about the time Elvis returned with his prize.

Smooshie tugged hard toward them. She totally wanted in on the action. Parker grabbed another ball from his back porch. I unclipped my anxious pit bull, and she started running toward the back end of the property before Parker even lobbed the toy.

He laughed as he gave it a hard toss past her. “Morning. You’re up early.”

“True story,” I said. Self-consciously, I tried smoothing my hair again.

Parker smiled. “You look fine.”

“I know,” I said a tad defensive. “I’m still waking up is all.” I didn’t want him to think I cared what he thought about my appearance. Even though I did care. “You’re up early too.”

“Elvis was restless.” Parker threw Elvis’ ball again then retrieved the other from Smoosh and threw it for her. “I think Elvis knows Smooshie’s leaving.”

I raised a brow. “And that’s made him sad?”

“Well, he’s gotten used to having her around.” He shrugged. “Even if she’s a little disruptive.”

“Uh-huh.” I was pretty sure it wasn’t Elvis who felt restless.

“You want to come in for coffee? These two can stretch their legs for a few minutes without us.”

“Sure.” Oh, how I wished I’d have brushed my teeth!

Parker’s kitchen smelled like freshly made toast and rich Columbian coffee. A medium-dark roast, which I knew was his favorite. He poured me a cup and set it down on the small circular table that filled the floor space. I took a seat in front of it.

“I can put you some bread in the toaster if you’re hungry. Theresa brought some Irish butter over this week, and it’s really good.”

“Coffee’s perfect.” The Irish butter sounded tasty, but eating before I’d even had a chance to pee seemed somehow wrong. Parker sat across the table from me.

“I still can’t believe you’re moving out.” He tapped is fingers on the table. “I was just getting used to having you around.”

“You’ll see me almost every day. It’s not like I’m quitting my job here.” I sipped the hot brew. Parker didn’t respond, and the silence was deafening. I didn’t want our friendship to be awkward. I wanted us to be easy with each other, but it had become a tug-of-war between my conflicting emotions for him. It wasn’t Parker’s fault. Other than the one time we almost kissed, he hadn’t tried to put any pressure on me to be more than a friend, even though his scent and body language said he wanted more.

I filled the quiet between us with small talk. “You think we’ll get another frost before the end of March?”

“Usually do,” Parker said. “But it’s been warming up fast. The thunderstorms will be rolling in soon.”

“They get pretty bad around here?” It had rained a few times in February, but nothing terrible.

“Yeah, but not like the flatter areas of the state. We get the occasional tornado warning, but I’ve never seen anything come from it. The weatherman is calling for some severe storms this week.” He shook his head. “In school, they would put us through these drills where we had to sit against the wall in the hallway and put our heads between our knees. We used to joke it was so we could kiss our ass goodbye.”

I smiled. We had witches who urged harsh weather patterns to miss our town, so I’d never experienced what Parker was talking about. I wondered what my life would have been like growing up in a place like this, with its beautiful simplicity. “Speaking of school, I ran into a couple former classmates of yours, a Jeff Callahan and Mark Stephens.”

Parker’s expression changed to curious. “I played ball with Mark. I didn’t realize he was back in town.”

“He said he lived here in Moonrise. Two years now, apparently. Oh, and Nick Newton asked if you were going to be at some retirement party this weekend.”

“Coach Thompson, my high school football coach. I’m still thinking about whether to go or not.” His expression held a melancholy I hadn’t noted before but he shook it off. “Mark’s really back in town? Two years now? Wow. I had no idea. We lost touch after he moved. Jeff used to be a friend too. I haven’t really talked to him in years either. Where did you meet them at?”

“They all came out and helped Buzz bring the trailer out to the new property. Him and Nick Newton, Mark Stephens, Paul Simmons, and Nick’s nephew, Addison.” Jeff didn’t look athletic. At all. “Jeff played football?”

Parker grinned. “He rode the bench mostly, but he was part of the team. That’s all that mattered.” He shrugged. “Small town.”

I liked that in Moonrise, even geeks could be jocks. Still, it surprised me. All of Buzz’s lodge brothers had seemed like decent guys. I still wondered about Paul, though. “Is Paul Simmons related to Theresa’s husband?”

“He and Jock are cousins, I think. Why?”

“No reason. Curious is all.”

“I don’t know him well.” He sipped more from his cup, his blue eyes flashing on me briefly. “Jeff’s an accountant.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Apparently, he makes a killing during tax season.” Parker sighed. “It seems like all my high school teammates are doing well for themselves.”

Did Parker think because Jeff had a degree that it meant he was better somehow? I hoped not. Parker was the best man I knew. “If it makes you feel better, he’s a total pot head,” I blurted out.

Parker’s eyes widened, and he scootched forward. “Seriously?”

“Totally.” I grinned. “I could smell it when he stood by me.”

“You know he’s an instructor out at the college.”

“He works at the college too?”

“According to his bio.” Parker turned in his chair, opened a cabinet drawer, and pulled out a flyer and set it on the table.

“What’s that?”

“It came with the invitation. It’s the 2009 3A State Football Champions. The whole team is listed, along with their accomplishments.”

I skimmed down until I landed on Parker’s name. “Parker Knowles. After an honorable discharge from the Army, Parker settled back home in Moonrise, where he runs a rescue shelter for American Pit Bulls and Pit Bull Breeds. He is currently single.”

“That’s me in a nutshell,” Parker said.

I scanned the brochure and saw a few names a recognized, including Jeff’s and Mark’s. Bridgette Jones’ name was at the very end with two others, Michael Duffy and Travis Mount, on the “Deceased” list. My heart pinched. She’d been Parker’s high school sweetheart, but she’d been nuts.

“Why are there female names on here? Did you all have girls on the team?” It seemed very progressive for the area.

Parker laughed. “No. The cheerleaders were invited as special guests as well. They supported us all the way to state.”

“Go team,” I muttered as I stared down at Bridgette’s name. She had taken her own life after she’d tried to kill me and failed. I was surprised they’d included her. I figured the town of Moonrise would just as soon forget that they’d born a murderess into the world. Especially after it made the national news.

The press had made Parker out to be a local hero who took down a husband and wife murder team despite the incompetence of the county police. Yet another reason Sheriff Avery hated my guts. It hadn’t happened that way, exactly, but I was more than okay with not landing in the spotlight.

I read a few other biographies, a nurse, a human resources manager, a pharmacist, a safety engineer, physical therapist, and the list went on. Parker’s class only had thirty-nine students. I couldn’t believe how many of them had gone on to complete college degrees.

“Oh, look.” I pointed toward the end of the bio list. “Ryan’s in here. He played too?” I didn’t wait for Parker to answer. “Ryan Petry. Degree in Veterinarian Medicine from Missouri State University. Ryan has a successful practice in Moonrise, where he treats both domestic and farm animals. He teaches introduction to veterinarian medicine at Two Hills Community College. He is currently single.”

“He’s a catch,” Parker muttered. He and Ryan were friends, but he was jealous of my friendship with the handsome vet.

I’d had lunch and a couple of dinners with Ryan over the past several months, but our relationship was not a romantic one. I’d told Parker before that Ryan and I weren’t dating, but he didn’t seem to believe me. If Parker had been a Shifter like me, he’d be able to scent my lack of attraction to Ryan. Hell, he’d be able to smell, like I could, Ryan’s lack of attraction to me.

“Speaking of Two Hills Community College,” I said, moving the conversation away from Ryan. “I think I might check it out.”

“For classes? What are you planning to study?”

I wasn’t exactly ashamed to tell Parker that I hadn’t finished high school, or that I needed to take a GED class, but after seeing all the successful biographies of Parker’s classmates, I felt self-conscious. So, I skipped the middle step to my goals and went straight for, “I’ve always wanted to study medicine.”

“You want to be a nurse?”

I did not roll my eyes. I wanted to. But I didn’t. “That would be an honorable profession, but no, I want to be a doctor.” Or at least I had for the past twenty-seven years. Up until my eighth year, I’d wanted to be a pretty, pretty princess.

For the past couple of months, I’d been thinking about practicing a different kind of medicine, though. It was one of the many reasons I enjoyed Ryan’s company. He’d even offered to hire me part time to work in his office and assist him out in the field on occasion. I wasn’t sure how Parker would react, but I was seriously considering the job. Especially now that I had a home that needed a substantial investment for improvements.

Hazel had lent me the ten-thousand dollar down payment and enough scratch to get my utilities hooked up, but I would still have to come up with a five-hundred-dollar mortgage payment every month, pay back my BFF, and find spare money to buy items to fix up the place. Buzz giving me his trailer to stay in was a huge weight off my mind. It meant I could make repairs on my own timetable. Years of poverty had taught me to be an amateur plumber, electrician, and carpenter. I had basic skills, but I knew at some point, I’d have to hire professionals.

“That’s great, Lily,” he said. “You’d be a really good doctor.” He leaned forward and pushed his fingers across the table toward mine. Only inches separated us, and I could see a gentle longing in his expression. One I’m certain matched my own.

“I’m not sure if I’ll do it or not,” I told Parker. “I’ll check out their programs and settle on something, though.”

“Do you need some time off tomorrow to go out to Two Hills?”

“I’ll go on my lunch break.” I turned the handbill over. The back had candid shots of the 2009 Moonrise football teams, and their cheerleaders, of course. I recognized Parker in several group shots and one where he was standing next to a hulking guy who made him look like a dwarf.

“Who is that?”

Parker’s face lit up. “Adam Davis. He was the class clown. Real nice guy off the field, but on the field, watch out.” His eyes stared off into the distance. “Just another friend I lost touch with. You never think that’s going to happen when you’re in school. I really thought we’d all be hanging out forever. I left for basic two weeks after graduation.” He tapped a picture of him, Mark, Jeff, Adam, Ryan, and some guy I didn’t recognize. “When I got home two years ago, I felt like I was wearing the wrong skin. Sometimes I still feel that way.”

He was singing my tune. Only it had been the opposite for me. The whole time I’d been in my hometown, I’d felt like an alien trapped on a hostile planet. Moving to Moonrise changed that for me.

I caught Parker staring at the guy in the picture I didn’t know. “Who’s that?”

“Mike Duffy.”

I recognized his name from the deceased list. “He was a good friend?”

“The best. We’d been best friends since kindergarten. The six of us hung out all the time, but I was closest to Mike. I couldn’t believe it when my dad told me he died. I was still in service at the time.”

“What happened to him?”

“Some farm accident.” His eyes crinkled with a brief wince of pain. He moved the conversation to his other friends. “Adam and Jeff hung out a lot. They were an odd pair, but they had a lot in common. They both liked numbers, for one thing.” He smiled at the memory. “Adam had a good head on his shoulders. He got a concussion his first semester at college. It pretty much ended his football career. Really, he was the only one of us good enough to play at that level. He became an engineer instead.”

“And Ryan and Mark?”

“Yeah, those two palled around. They were inseparable in high school. We all hung out, though. In school, they called us the ‘Big Six.’” He smiled again. It made his face, which had seen too much death and war, appear young.

I looked down at his high school pictures again. I could see the boy in the photos when Parker smiled. The details for the weekend event were centered on the back. “The dinner honoring your coach and team is next Saturday. You need me to work extra here so you can go?”

Parker shrugged. “Maybe.” He shook his head. “A classmate, Naomi Wells, has been calling me for the past week. She wants me to go with her to the Saturday night dinner.” He looked at me as if gauging my reaction.

I pursed my lips, my mood souring. “Then it’s settled. I’ll stay here next Saturday night and hold down the fort while you enjoy reminiscing about the good old days with Naomi.”

“You don’t mind?” His voice was soft.

My throat tightened with emotion. “Of course not. Not at all.” I stood up and looked out the kitchen window.

“Shoot! Smooshie is digging her way out under the fence.”

“She’s tenacious,” Parker said, standing up and looking outside. Elvis, of course, was happily sitting and watching.

Impulsively, I grabbed the flyer and shoved it in my pocket when Parker stood up to look. “I’ll see you in a little bit,” I said and hurried out the door to stop my Hairy Houdini from making a grand escape.

~

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